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Who is guilty of Adam’s sin?

 

I was in preschool when Dr. Vines and other SBC pastors led the Conservative Resurgence. By God’s grace and through their efforts, my generation--and subsequent generations--have grown up in Southern Baptist churches with this firm commitment: The Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. On behalf of those generations who are beneficiaries of God’s grace to His churches through your efforts, I thank God for you.

And I’m grateful for the invitation to address this doctrinal question: Who is guilty of Adam’s sin? In this presentation, I plan to do five things:

1. Identify Two Christian Views on the Guilt of Adam’s Sin

2. Examine Key Portions of Romans 5:12-21

3. Present Biblical, Theological, Historical Support for One of the Two Views

4. Answer a Theological Objection

5. Consider the Implications for the SBC

 

Two Christian Views on the Guilt of Adam’s Sin

Christians agree that all people have a sinful nature. But Christians hold two different views regarding the guilt of Adam’s sin.

 

The first view is called inherited sinful nature. This view distinguishes between a sinful nature (which every person bears from the first moment of life) and guilt (which occurs as soon as people become morally accountable and commit their first sin). To the question “Who is guilty of Adam’s sin?” this view answers: Only Adam is guilty of Adam’s sin. The reason? According to the Bible, God judges people for their own sin.

Does that wrongly allow the possibility of sinless people? No. As Article 3 of the BFM states: All people “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and under condemnation.”

According to the BFM, we don’t inherit Adam’s guilt. Rather, every person is born into a fallen environment. And we have an inescapable inclination toward sin. From the first moment of life, we are soaked in sin. As David cried, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5 NIV). According to Rom 5:12-21, sin entered the world through Adam’s sin, followed by death and condemnation. But only Adam is guilty of Adam’s sin. God judges individuals who have attained the knowledge of good and evil (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15-16) for their own sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

Other names for this view include inherited inclination and original death.[1] Again, we’re not guilty of Adam’s sin. Rather, we begin life with “a nature and an environment inclined toward sin” (BFM). In the inherited sinful nature view, we become transgressors who are guilty and under condemnation for our own sin upon attaining moral capability and knowingly committing a sin.

 

The second view is called inherited guilt. Who is guilty of Adam’s sin? This view answers: Adam and his descendants. (Jesus, of course, is exempted.) Every person is guilty of Adam’s sin. The reason? God judges people for their own sin and for the guilt of Adam’s sin. Notice that both views say God judges people for their own sin. The second view includes the guilt of Adam’s sin.

Augustine taught this in the 5th Century. It’s sometimes called natural headship. In his later writings, Augustine said all people are guilty of Adam’s sin because they were present with him in the Garden physically, or seminally. In the 16th Century, John Calvin called Adam our representative head who acted on our behalf in the Garden. This is called federal headship. Covenant Theologians call this view imputed guilt. They point to a covenant of works between Adam and God, which Adam transgressed for humanity when he sinned. Wayne Grudem explains: “As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam.”[2] In addition to a sinful nature, all people inherit from Adam the guilt of his sin. And, as I’ll demonstrate in the final section of this presentation, inherited guilt is the published position of one of our Seminaries.

 

The inherited sinful nature view says all people inherit from Adam sin and mortality; the inherited guilt view affirms those but includes Adam’s guilt. Both are Christian positions. Nevertheless, I’ll argue that the inherited sinful nature view finds stronger support biblically, theologically, and--for Southern Baptists--historically.

Some will nuance or qualify their position. Even so, I can’t imagine another category. When the question is: Who is guilty of Adam’s sin? The answers are either: only Adam or Everyone.

So, there are two possible Christian views and both appeal to the Bible. Next, we’ll consider what is perhaps the most important biblical text regarding Adam’s sin.

 

Romans 5:12-21

The Context

Before reading the text, a proper hermeneutical method requires us to consider its context. What were Paul’s earlier points in this watershed letter?

After greeting the saints in Rome, Paul announces his thesis. Rom 1:16-17, the righteousness of God comes by faith in Jesus Christ. In 1:18-3:20, Paul argues that God justly judges all sinners. Creation and conscience declare the existence of the creator and law-giver. But Jew and Gentile have defied God by worshipping created things. Both Jew and Gentile have God’s law, whether it’s inscribed on stone or inscribed on their hearts. Because both Jew and Gentile have known of God’s existence and God’s law yet defied Him by their actions, they are all under sin (3:9). Works of the law won’t bring justification. Instead, the law brings the knowledge of sin (3:20).

Romans 3:21 begins a presentation of the Good News. The Old Testament law and prophets testify: Righteousness comes apart from the law through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. God is God of both Jews and Gentiles (3:29). In chapter 4, God justifies people, both Jew and Gentile, like He justified Abraham: by faith. Those who believe in Jesus, who died for our sins and was raised for our justification, will be counted as righteous before God (4:24-25).

In 5:1-2, we’ve been justified by faith and have peace with God through Christ. And we access this grace through Christ by faith. Those given the Holy Spirit can hope in their suffering because of God’s work in them (vv. 3-5). Christ died for the weak and ungodly, people who were "still sinners" (vv. 6-8). In verse 1, we were justified by faith; in verse 9, we’re justified by His blood. In verses 9-11, we’ll be saved from wrath and reconciled to God through Jesus.

Or, as N. T. Wright outlines it:

The problem of sin and death (1:18-3:20)

The solution of justification and life (3:21-5:11)[3]

 

Now, the Text (I’m reading from the ESV)

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

 

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

 

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.[4]

 

What Resulted from Adam’s sin?

Exegeting every word of Rom 5:12-21 would exceed our available time. And there is agreement on most of the text. So I'll focus on the interpretive differences.

According to the text, Adam’s disobedience in the Garden ushered into the world: hamartia, thanatos, and katakrima, or sin, death, and condemnation.

 

Verse 12: “Therefore, just as sin (hamartia) came into the world through one man, and death (thanantos) through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—.”

 

Sin Entered the World

Notice in verse 12 that something came into the world. Something not present in the beginning later came into the world. What does the text say? Sin. Sin came into God’s world. It was an intruder in God’s good creation. Did a sinful nature or sinful actions enter the world? The text says sin entered the world through Adam’s one “trespass” (v. 18) or “disobedience” (v. 19). One commentator calls sin “the personified malevolent force...hostile to God and alienating human beings from him.”[5] How did sin come into the world? Verse 12 says “through one man.” When he fell (Genesis 3), Adam became the portal for this intruder called sin.

 

Death Spread to All Men

Returning to verse 12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—.” Death entered the world through sin. It wasn’t a creation of God but a result of Adam’s sin. Death “reigned” through Adam (v. 17). But the Good News is that before establishing His world, God planned for the entrance of sin, death, and condemnation. God provided the atoning sacrifice for our sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. On the next point, Christians differ.

 

Because All Sinned

 

Romans 5:12
Augustine’s view of
Inherited Guilt
Calvin & Covenant Theology’s view of Inherited Guilt

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin and so death spread to all men...

 

 

because all sinned.

in whom all sinned.

because all sinned (in Adam).

 

Notice that the text says neither “in whom all sinned” (Augustine’s view of inherited guilt) nor “because all sinned in Adam” (Calvin’s and Covenant Theology’s view of inherited guilt). The text simply says: “death spread to all men because all sinned.” The phrase eph ho pantes hemarton is rendered “because all sinned” in these Bible translations: ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NET, and others. Did Paul mean that we are guilty of Adam’s sin? The United Bible Societies’ A Translator's Handbook on Paul's Letter to the Romans comments on Rom 5:12:

 

Paul indicates that Adam sinned, and as a result of his sin death came into the human race. However, it is important to realize that Paul does not make men guilty of Adam's sin or indicate that all men die because of the sin of Adam. Paul says rather that death spread to the whole human race, because all men sinned.[6]

 

It’s widely agreed that Augustine misread Rom 5:12. He either relied on Old Latin and Vulgate translations[7] or was influenced by other western theologians. In either case, Augustine’s misreading of Rom 5:12 shaped the Christian tradition. Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer explains that the doctrine of original sin (the view that all people inherit both the sin and guilt of Adam) is not an explicit teaching of Paul. Rather, the doctrine was developed from Augustine’s later writings and solidified through the 16th Council of Carthage, the 2nd Council of Orange, and the Tridentine Council. But, Fitzmyer explains, Paul did not teach the doctrine of original sin.[8]

The Covenant Theology view is affirmed by theologians such as John Murray, Wayne Grudem, and Michael Horton. In 1959, Murray published The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, a biblical-historical examination of Rom 5:12–21. Murray argues that death came to all people because all sinned in Adam. In this way, God counts all people guilty because of Adam’s sin. But there are three critical weaknesses in this Covenant interpretation. First, the Bible never states “all sinned in Adam.” Covenant Theologians insist on a view not required by the text. Second, against Murray: physical death is not always a sign of one’s guilt; physical death can occur prior to personal transgression of the law; consider David’s infant son, who died as a result of David’s sin. Third, the Covenant interpretation depends on two theological constructs not explicitly stated in the Bible: the covenant of redemption (which depends upon the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election and a pact among the persons of the Trinity) and the covenant of works (between God and Adam).[9] A summary of this third point is simple: these covenants are not in the Bible.

Jack MacGorman taught for half a century at Southwestern Seminary and is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament. MacGorman makes this point about the covenant of works: “It has influenced greatly the churches of the Reformed tradition. However, there is not one shred of evidence in the Bible that God ever entered into such a covenant with Adam. The theory was born in Europe, not Eden.”[10]

 

In Romans 5, Paul parallels Adam and Christ. What is Paul’s point?

Covenant Theologians say there are two heads of humanity. Adam imputes guilt to all people; Christ imputes righteousness to the elect. But Romans 5 does not say Adam’s guilt and condemnation are imputed to all people. Rather, we see in verse 12 that sin enters the world, death enters through sin, and death spreads because all sinned. In this way: “...one trespass led to condemnation for all men...” (v. 18) and “...the many were made sinners...” (v. 19). In other words, verses 18 and 19 should be read in light of verse 12.

Paul’s point in Rom 1:18-3:20 is that all people are individually accountable to God and condemned when they deny the existence of God and transgress His law. People become condemned because of their actions.

The inherited guilt view presses the Adam-Christ parallel too far then rejects the implications of the view. If guilt and condemnation are imputed to all people through Adam, then justification and life are imputed to all people through Christ (v. 19). But all Southern Baptists deny that Paul teaches Universalism (the view that everyone is saved). There are other orthodox interpretations of the passage. Millard Erickson, for example, affirms “conditional imputation.”[11] Just as we must ratify the work of Christ in our life by personally repenting of sin and believing in Christ, so we must personally ratify the work of Adam in our life by knowingly committing a sinful act. In this way, neither Universalism nor imputed guilt are necessary conclusions for Rom 5:12-21.

 

We don’t want to build a theological system on a single text. Also, we want to avoid eisegesis (reading our theological pre-commitments into the text). So, we’ll broaden the investigation by examining the inherited sinful nature view through the lenses of biblical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology.

 

Biblical Theology: For what does God hold people accountable and under condemnation, their own sin or the sin of Adam?

Let’s affirm what the Bible affirms and resist any theological system--even our own--which demands we affirm more than the Bible clearly reveals. Throughout the Bible, people give an account to God. He judges their sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions--with no mention of Adam’s guilt.

 

In Genesis 3, God judges the serpent, Adam and Eve for their own sins. Because of Adam’s sin, the ground is cursed and our bodies return to dust (vv. 17-19). But there is no mention that futuregenerations would be judged guilty or personally held accountable for Adam's sin.

In Genesis 4, God judges Cain for killing Abel--no mention of Adam’s guilt.

In Genesis 6, God judges humanity minus one family. Why? “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5)--no mention of Adam’s guilt.

In Genesis 11, God judges tower-builders.

In Genesis 19, God judges Sodom and Gomorrah because of sexual sin.

In Genesis 19, God judges Lot’s wife for looking back.

In Exodus 12, God judges the firstborn to deliver His people.

In Exodus 32, God judges the Israelites for their idolatry at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

In Leviticus 10, God judges Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” (v. 1 KJV).

In Numbers 14, God judges the older generation of Israelites for believing the ten spies rather than God--but no mention of Adam’s guilt.

 

In Joshua 7, God judges Achan and his family because he stole from God and thought God couldn’t see through dirt.

In 1 Samuel 3, God judges Eli’s sons for dishonoring the Temple.

In 1 Samuel 13, God judges Saul--ending his kingdom--because he didn’t keep God’s command (v. 13).

In 2 Samuel 12, God judges David’s adultery and murder. His baby son dies and his family declines--but there is no mention of Adam’s guilt.

The Psalmist says the Lord “will render to a man according to his work” (62:12).

In Proverbs 24:12, we hear: Will the Lord “not repay man according to his work?

In Ezekiel 18:20, neither righteousness nor wickedness is shared from father to son. God judges the one who sins.

Hosea is the only prophet to mention Adam. In 6:7, he writes of Israel and Judah: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant.”

All of the prophets, major and minor, address the sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions of individuals or nations. Typically, God’s people have broken covenant with the Lord by their idolatry, injustice, or empty religion. None of the prophets mention Adam’s guilt.

 

In Matthew 12, Jesus says: “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (vv. 36b-37).[12]

In Mark 7, Jesus explains: “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (vv. 20-23). Jesus failed to mention Adam’s guilt. Instead, each person is defiled by his own sinful thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

In Romans 1, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (v. 18). When Paul indicts humanity for sin, he could have declared universal guilt because of Adam’s sin. But he doesn’t. Instead, Paul lists ungodly and unrighteous actions, such as: suppressing the truth (v. 18), failing to honor God (v. 21), claiming to be wise (v. 22), and worshipping created things rather than the creator (vv. 23 and 25). The result? God gave them up to their passions (v. 26).

In Romans 2, people will be judged for their deeds (v. 6).

Peter says we call on a “Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds” (1 Peter 1:17).

James notes the progression of personal responsibility. One “is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Then desire conceives and “gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:14-15).

And in John’s vision of judgment at the great white throne, “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev 20:12b).

 

The inherited sinful nature view better accounts for the Bible’s teachings on the nature of God’s judgment. I cited as evidence dozens of biblical passages from Genesis to Revelation. Did I isolate and eisegete these texts? Employ the grammatical-historical method. Employ a plain reading of Scripture. Be like the Bereans and search the Bible. This is what you’ll find: God’s judgment and wrath falls on people for their own sin, not the sin of Adam.

Please don’t reply to these biblical texts by quoting from a systematic theology. Will my Calvinistic brothers appeal to the writings of Calvin, Bavinck, Berkhof, Hodge, Frame, Grudem, and Horton? Or will they embrace the Reformers’ cry of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)and look instead to the words of these men I cited: Moses, David, Solomon, the prophets, Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jesus?[13]

 

Systematic Theology: For what, according to the doctrine of General Revelation, will God hold people accountable?

God reveals His existence and His law through creation and conscience (Rom 1:19-20; 2:15). And God will hold people accountable for this knowledge. Systematic theologians refer to this as General Revelation. Romans 1:20 declares that people are “without excuse.” Some people may claim God doesn’t exist, but they know He exists. They try to suppress that truth and fail to worship Him (vv. 18 and 21), but the Creator reveals His existence through creation. Also, the law-giver reveals His law through the human conscience. Paul argues in Romans 2 that Jews and Gentiles are sinners. Then, he anticipates an objection: Can the Gentiles be considered innocent of law-breaking since they were not given the law of Moses? No, because their conscience demonstrates that God’s law is written on their hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Knowing an action violates God’s law doesn’t prevent one from committing the action. But knowing this and doing it anyway brings God’s wrath. That is the bad news which makes the gospel such good news.

The result? Every person who recognizes the existence of a creator and law-giver is accountable to that creator and law-giver, which excludes infants and the mentally incompetent. To make my case for this interpretation of Romans 1-2, I appeal to the most popular Calvinist of our day, John Piper. When asked: “What happens to infants who die?” Piper doesn’t answer with Adam’s guilt; he answers with Romans 1 and 2. Again, Piper is asked: “What happens to infants who die?” Watch:

(VIDEO CLIP)

I think they're all saved. In other words, I don't buy the principle that says that children born into "covenant families" are secure, and children born into "non-covenant families" aren't. I don't go there.

 

My reason for thinking they're all saved is because of the principle in Romans 1 where Paul argues that all people know God, and they are "without excuse" because they do not honor him or glorify him as God.

 

His argument is that they are without excuse because they know things, as though accountability in the presence of God at the Last Judgment will be based, at least partly, on whether they had access to necessary knowledge.

 

And God says they've all got access to knowledge, because they can look at the things he has made and see his power and deity. But they suppress that knowledge instead of submitting to it, therefore they're all condemned.

 

So I ask the question: OK, is the principle being raised there that, if you don't have access to the knowledge that causes you to be held accountable, therefore you will not be accountable? And I think that's the case.

 

I think babies and imbeciles—that is, those with profound mental disabilities—don't have access to the knowledge that they will be called to account for. Therefore, somehow in some way, God, through Christ, covers these people.

 

So that, in a nutshell, is why I think all children who die in infancy are elect and will be, through Jesus Christ, saved in ways that I may not know how, as God honors this principle of accountability.[14]

 

I’m not suggesting John Piper affirms the inherited sinful nature view. He teaches TULIP; and the “T” includes inherited guilt. My point is this: When asked about the eternal destiny of infants, Piper appeals to Romans 1-2 and explains that infants and the mentally incompetent are not accountable to God. Precisely! If that’s the case, then in what way are they ever guilty of Adam's sin?

Piper appeals to the atoning work of Christ to cover those who die in this unaccountable state. So do I. The difference is this: I don’t insist they are guilty of Adam’s sin. Such an affirmation creates a problem. Why?

The Bible is clear: Guilty people must repent of their sin and believe in Jesus in order to be saved. Because I don’t add the guilt of Adam’s sin, I don’t insist that infants and the mentally incompetent are guilty. They are sin-stained, not guilty. This condition can be covered by a passive application of the atonement. But when one insists that they are guilty, then the Bible requires them to repent and believe. Piper acknowledges this in a footnote of his recent book titled Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? How does Piper think the work of Christ is received by these unaccountable people? He speculates that infants who die will mature after death and confess Christ.[15]

Why does Piper offer extra-biblical speculations regarding post-mortem confessions of Christ? Perhaps this results from his commitment to inherited guilt. When Piper allows Romans 1 and 2 to guide his thinking, he regarded infants to be not yet accountable to God. But when he inserts the extra-biblical notion called inherited guilt, his view of infant salvation morphs into post-mortem confessions of Christ. Inherited guilt is problematic because it requires one to say more than the Bible plainly reveals about the time of accountability and guilt.

When arguing that Jews and Gentiles are guilty before God (Romans 1-2), Paul doesn’t point to Adam’s sin. Instead, he points to their willful rejection of their Creator and their willful transgression of the God’s law. Paul makes no mention of Adam’s guilt.

 

Historical Theology:

Have Christian theologians denied inherited guilt?

In A Theology for the Church, Stan Norman writes: “First, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin has exerted profound influence upon the theology of the church. Since his time, theologians have affirmed, rejected, or modified the Augustinian position.” Norman adds: “Second, no consensus exists within Christianity on the effects of sin upon humanity.”[16] Many theologians have denied inherited guilt.

 

Eastern Tradition

John Chrysostom (374–407), known as “Golden Mouth” for his oratorical skill, is regarded as one of the most significant preachers in the first thousand years of Christian history. He wrote: “We do baptize infants, although they are not guilty of any sins.”[17]

Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–394) was a leading participant at the Council of Constantinople (381). In On Infants’ Early Deaths, he addresses the spiritual condition of infants. Gregory considers them to be neither good nor bad; infants who died would be with God because their souls had never been corrupted by their own sinful actions.[18]

 

Western Tradition

Eastern theologians were not alone in rejecting--at least failing to appeal to--inherited guilt. Tertullian (ca. 145–ca. 220) mentions that infant souls are unclean in Adam (consistent with inherited sinful nature view). And he questions why there was a rush to baptize them. Consider: those who taught inherited guilt insisted on infant baptism, wrongly assuming that water baptism cleaned the infants of Adam’s guilt. Tertullian referred to the souls of infants as “innocent” and he differentiated between infants and children based upon their capability to commit sin.[19] Eric Osborne concludes, “While Tertullian displays the origins of the idea, one cannot attribute the later doctrine of original sin to him.”[20]

 

Reformers

Inherited guilt was rejected by one of the Magisterial Reformers, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). Zwingli affirmed Adam’s unity with humanity and sin’s devastating effects. But he calls original sin a “sin that they never had.” Luther attacked Zwingli’s position as Pelagian. Zwingli defended his view of original sin by asking: “For what could be said more briefly and plainly than that original sin is not sin but disease, and that the children of Christians are not condemned to eternal punishment on account of that disease?”

Also, Zwingli distinguished between disease and sin. Disease refers to the “original contamination of man,” “defect of humanity,” or “the defect of a corrupted nature.” Adam’s fault brought this to every person (Rom 5:14). The word sin, however, “implies guilt, and guilt comes from a transgression or a trespass on the part of one who designedly perpetrates a deed.” Zwingli was unwilling to state that the inheritance from Adam should even be called “sin” because Zwingli denied that the inheritance from Adam involves “guilt,” which would imply a sinful deed.[21]

Pilgram Marpeck (1495–1556) was an Anabaptist Reformer who, like Zwingli, also had to refute the charge of Pelagianism. Marpeck wrote:

 

Our witness is that for children neither inherited nor actual sin counts before God because a child remains in ignorance and in created simplicity until it grows up into understanding and the inheritance is realized in and through it. Before that, sin has no damning effect; neither inherited nor actual sin is counted against a child before God. . . . When children come to a knowledge of good and evil, that is, when they reach understanding, then the inheritance which leads to damnation becomes effective in them. Then inherited sin becomes inheritable.[22]

 

Affirmations of inherited sinful nature (or denials of inherited guilt) haven’t been universal in Christian history but they have been frequent. This was demonstrated by theologians of both the Eastern and Western traditions and the Magisterial and Anabaptist Reformers. The view has been affirmed frequently among Baptists. Consider as examples: a 400-year old confession of a Baptist “founder,” 100 years of theology at Southwestern Seminary, statements from all three SBC Presidents who presided over BFM Study Committees, and a recent doctrinal statement affirmed by a variety of Southern Baptist statesmen.

 

A Baptist “Founder”

From Article 5 of “A Short Confession of Faith in Twenty Articles” by John Smyth (1570-1612): “That there is no original sin (lit., no sin of origin or descent), but all sin is actual and voluntary, viz., a word, a deed, or a design against the law of God; and therefore, infants are without sin.”[23]John Smyth, an early Baptist "founder," clearly denies inherited guilt.

 

100 Years of Theology at Southwestern Seminary

James Leo Garrett, Jr., in personal correspondence quoted with his permission, provides the following historical perspective: “Southern Seminary has had a wide divergence of views on your topic; for example, between Boyce and Dale Moody and between Dale Moody and Al Mohler. Southwestern Seminary, on the other hand, has consistently been on one side, i. e., we are not guilty of Adam's sin. Walter T. Conner repeatedly took this stance.” After citing examples to support this claim,[24] Garrett explains: “Conner was the theology department at SWBTS from 1910 to 1949. I have known, I believe, every person who has taught theology as a full faculty member since 1949, and I cannot identify any one of these who taught that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam (and Eve), with one possible exception.”[25] It is the testimony of Dr. Garrett that for over 100 years the theology faculty at SWBTS has affirmed: we are not guilty of Adam’s sin.

 

SBC Presidents Who Presided Over BFM Study Committees

E. Y. Mullins (1860-1928) served as President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1899-1928). He was also President of the SBC when the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted as its first statement of faith in 1925. Mullins rejected the doctrine of inherited guilt. Rather, man “is guilty when he does wrong.” Mullins explains, “Men are not condemned therefore for hereditary or original sin. They are condemned only for their own sins.”[26]

Herschel Hobbs (1907-95) presided over the BFM 1963 Study Committee. In a 1979 article in which he describes the changes between the 1925 and 1963 editions of the BFM, Hobbs comments specifically on Article 3:

 

Thus the result of the fall is that men inherit, not “a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin” (1925), but a “nature and an environment inclined toward sin” (1963). In the latter “condemnation” comes upon individuals following transgression “as soon as they are capable of moral action.” This, of course, agrees with the position generally held by Baptists concerning God’s grace in cases of those under the age of accountability and the mentally incompetent.[27]

 

Hobbs is clear: people do not inherit “a nature corrupt and in bondage to sin” (per 1925) but a nature “inclined toward sin.” Also, condemnation follows transgression, which comes as soon as people are capable of moral action. Although it was possible to read inherited guilt into the BFM 1925, the 1963 revisions made such a move nearly impossible. This was the view of the President of the SBC who convened the Study Committee which revised the BFM in 1963.

In 2000, Paige Patterson (b. 1942) served as President of the SBC when the BFM Study Committee recommended its most recent revision. It was unnecessary to scour Patterson’s writings to ascertain his view of inherited guilt because he supervised my PhD dissertation, which argues against it. After describing the method and goal in the foreword of my book, Patterson writes: “Harwood’s conclusion that an infant is born with a sin nature, which makes the commission of rebellious acts inevitable, though the infant as yet carries no guilt, is not unusual or novel.” Patterson finds nothing “unusual or novel” about rejecting Adam’s guilt and affirming a sinful nature.

In 2012, Patterson affirmed a doctrinal statement which denies inherited guilt. More on that statement in a moment.

           

Every SBC President who presided over a BFM study committee denied inherited guilt.

 

The Traditional Statement

In 2012, after interacting with several Southern Baptist professors and pastors, Eric Hankins penned “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” One line states: “We deny that Adam’s sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person’s free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned.”[28] That’s a clear denial of inherited guilt. Prior to its release, a host of Southern Baptist statesmen affirmed it by publicly attaching their name and reputation, including: former SBC Presidents, current SBC Seminary Presidents, members of the BFM 2000 study committee, state executive-directors, and a variety of SBC pastors and professors. Technically, the affirmation of the Traditional Statement by these leaders is not an argument for or against its content. But their affirmation supports the claim that many Southern Baptists hold this view: we’re not guilty of Adam’s sin.

 

The list of theologians from Christian and Baptist history who are comfortable ignoring or denying inherited guilt is impressive. If the accusation of Pelagianism is once again wrongly leveled against the view (as it was against Zwingli and Marpeck), then I’ll be in good company.

 

Objection: What about the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?

Calvinistic brothers in the SBC sometimes object: Isn’t the imputation of Christ’s righteousness a response to the imputation of Adam’s guilt? My reply: No. What does the Bible teach us about the righteousness of God? Romans 3:21-22 states: “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Consider 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness...”

Abraham believed God was able to do what He promised. Consider Rom 4:22-25: “That is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness. But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Paul’s point in Romans 3 and 4 is that others are made righteous in the same way as Abraham, by faith.

In the Bible, being counted by God as righteous doesn’t require an imputation of Adam’s guilt--it requires believing in Jesus.

 

Why This Matters for Southern Baptists

Some of you still don’t see a problem. You say, “Southern Baptists have always differed on Calvinism.” True. But in recent years, those differences have turned into division. I’ll give you two examples of this division. Both examples center on one of our institutions, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

           

We’ve already established that some Christians teach that Adam alone is guilty of Adam’s sin. Others teach that the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on everyone. Consider the differences between Article 3 of the Baptist Faith and Message and a document entitled “An Exposition from the Faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on The Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”[29] (These are provided in your handouts and on the screens.)

 

From Article 3 of the BFM
From SBTS Interpretation of Article 3

Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and under condemnation.

In accordance with the biblical perspective of the entire human race as united in descent from Adam, the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on all, and estrangement from God in whose image we are made extends to all.

 

What do we inherit from Adam? According to the BFM, all people (Adam’s “posterity”) “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin.” When are people under condemnation? “As soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and under condemnation.”

But the SBTS Faculty Exposition of the BFM affirms a different view--one not found in the BFM. The Faculty Exposition makes no mention of: a nature inclined toward sin, becoming capable of moral action, or becoming transgressors. Instead, the SBTS Faculty Exposition of the BFM inserts a view not found in the BFM: “...the guilt of Adam’s sin falls on all...”

I don’t mean to imply that the SBTS Faculty don’t affirm the BFM. They do so as part of the hiring process. Rightly so. But the Faculty Exposition omits concepts found in the BFM and replaces them with a theological viewpoint not found in the BFM, namely that people all people are guilty of Adam’s sin.

Southern Baptists who affirm different views on Adam’s guilt can and should cooperate in the work of the Great Commission. I am addressing this issue publicly to foster greater understanding within the SBC and to suggest these are orthodox but differing views. Both views of guilt are permissible within evangelical theology. But if an SBC Seminary publishes an interpretation of the BFM, this is interpretation should accurately reflect the BFM.

A primary--but not universal--commitment among Calvinistic brothers is that all people begin life guilty and condemned, accountable to God due to the sin and guilt of Adam. Historically, Calvinists become unsettled when inherited guilt is denied. I have no desire to unsettle my brothers in Christ. But, inherited guilt is not affirmed in the BFM. I regard inherited guilt to be both unnecessary and unhelpful for interpreting the Bible. Even so, I have said repeatedly the view is orthodox. Yet I have been accused of wanting to “push” people out of the SBC and my view has been labeled by some as dangerous and heretical. That brings us to our second example of a difference resulting in division.

 

I need to preface my closing remarks. Monday night, Dr. Al Mohler’s father stepped into eternity. Dr. Mohler is a brother in Christ and co-laborer in Great Commission ministry. I join the SBC family in grieving with the Mohler family. Even so, this convention-wide doctrinal discussion requires a comment regarding his input. My differences with Dr. Mohler are family differences. Family members sometimes disagree but they love and support one another--even in troubling times.

On June 6, 2012, Dr. Mohler penned an article titled, “Southern Baptists and Salvation: It’s Time to Talk.”[30] In the article, Dr. Mohler wrote this about the Traditional Statement described earlier in this presentation: “Some portions of the statement actually go beyond Arminianism and appear to affirm semi-Pelagian understandings of sin, human nature, and the human will — understandings that virtually all Southern Baptists have denied.

Dr. Mohler’s use of the semi-Pelagian label was unsupported, inaccurate, and divisive. First, he assigned a theological label but failed to support his claim. Until he points out a specific line in the Traditional Statement which affirms semi-Pelagianism, then his claim remains unsupported.

Second, Mohler’s charge is inaccurate. Consider this chart, prepared for a forthcoming book. In the chart, you can read the definitions of semi-Pelagianism drawn from standard theological reference works. Contrast these definitions against the words of the Traditional Statement. Clearly, the charge of semi-Pelagianism is inaccurate.

Third, the charge is divisive. Providing no evidence to support his claim, Mohler incorrectly labeled the Traditional Statement as semi-Pelagian. He did so after the Statement had been affirmed by former SBC Presidents Morris Chapman, Jimmy Draper, Paige Patterson, Bailey Smith, Jerry Vines, and Bobby Welch. The Statement had also been affirmed by current SBC Seminary Presidents, members of the BFM 2000 Study Committee, SBC state executive-directors, and a band of SBC pastors and Seminary professors.

 

Definitions of Semi-Pelagianism

It “maintained that the first steps towards the Christian life were ordinarily taken by the human will and that grace supervened only later.” - The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

It “affirmed that the unaided will performed the initial act of faith” and “the priority of the human will over the grace of God in the initial work of salvation.” - Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

“The semi-Pelagians claimed that sinners make the first move toward salvation by choosing to repent and believe.” Also, “The semi-Pelagian scheme of salvation thus may be described by the statement ‘I started to come, and God helped me.’” - Integrative Theology

“A term which has been used to describe several theories which were thought to imply that the first movement towards God is made by human efforts unaided by grace.” - The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology

Semi-Pelagianism Contradicted by the Traditional Statement

“While no one is even remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, no sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit’s drawing through the Gospel.” - Article 2

“We affirm that grace is God's generous decision to provide salvation for any person by taking all of the initiative in providing atonement.” - Article 4

“God’s gracious call to salvation” is made “by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel.” - Article 8

 

“Why is Harwood making such a fuss about inherited guilt? Either we’re guilty of our own sin or Adam’s sin. In either case, we’re all sinners in need of a savior. Why does this matter?” This is why it matters:

1. Romans 5:12-21 does not say we’re guilty of Adam’s sin. No Bible verse states that other people are guilty of Adam’s sin.

2. Sound theology doesn’t require an affirmation of inherited guilt.

3. There is no consensus on inherited guilt in church history.

4. Inherited guilt is not found in the BFM. Even more, inherited guilt seems to contradict Article 3 of the BFM.

 

Yet Southern Seminary--which receives Cooperative Program dollars and trains pastors for all Southern Baptists--publishes an interpretation of the BFM which advocates for the view. And when a collection of Southern Baptist statesmen affirmed a document which denied inherited guilt, their position was labeled by Southern Seminary’s President as semi-Pelagian. This situation is problematic and needs to be resolved.

 

In closing, unity in the SBC may depend on the answer to two questions:

1. Will Southern Seminary revise its Faculty Exposition of the BFM so that it more accurately reflects the BFM?

2. Will Dr. Mohler retract his charge of semi-Pelagianism?

 



[1]For the use of “inclined toward sin,” see Article 3 of the BFM; for “original death” rather than

“original sin,” see James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 in WBC, vol. 38A (Dallas: Word, 1988), 273, and Douglas Moo, Romans in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 322-323.

[2]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 494-95. The subsection describing his view is entitled “Inherited Guilt: We Are Counted Guilty Because of Adam’s Sin.”

[3]N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 523.

[4]Unless otherwise noted, the English Standard Version will be used.

[5]Jospeh Fitzmyer, Romans in The Anchor Bible, vol. 33 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1993), 411.

[6]Barclay M. Newman and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator's Handbook on Paul's Letter to the Romans (New York: United Bible Societies, 1973). Electronic edition via Translator’s Workplace 4.0.

[7]For more on Augustine’s use of a poor translation of eph’ ho in Rom 5:12, see David Weaver, “From Paul to Augustine: Romans 5:12 in Early Christian Exegesis,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 27 (1983): 187–206; and Frank J. Matera, Romans in PCNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 126.

[8]Fitzmyer, Romans, 408-09.

[9]See Peter J. Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 59-62; Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenantal Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 77-110; and John Murray, “Covenant Theology” in Collected Works, vol. 4 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1982), 216-40.

[10]J. W. MacGorman, Romans: Everyman’s Gospel (Nashville: Convention Press, 1976), 79. Thanks to Peter Lumpkins for bringing this reference to my attention.

[11]Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 656. Erickson’s view is typically dismissed by Calvinistic brothers; understandably so, because Erickson writes that “the biblical evidence favors the position that conversion is prior to regeneration” (945).

[12]Emphasis added.

[13]If my Calvinistic brothers insist that they also affirm that God holds the non-elect accountable for their sins, then I would remind them of their self-contradictory view. In their system, the non-elect are judged for thoughts, attitudes, and actions which they committed, but they had no choice to act otherwise.

[15]John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 77 n. 6. Surprisingly, Piper cites in support of his claim Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), who argues in chapter 3 against precisely the view to which Piper is open, salvation via post-mortem faith.

[16]Stan Norman, “Human Sinfulness,” in A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 449.

[17]John Chrysostom, On Infants, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson, in The Later Christian Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 69.

[18]Gregory of Nyssa, On Infants’ Early Deaths, in NPNF2 5: 372-381.

[19]See Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul 39–41, 56, in ANF 3:219–21, 232; and On Baptism 18 in ANF 3:678.

[20]Eric Osborn, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 167.

[21]Ulrich Zwingli, On Original Sin, in On Providence and Other Essays, trans. Samuel Jackson (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1983), 3-10.

[22]Pilgram Marpeck, Response to Caspar Schwenckfeld’s Judgment, in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, ed. and trans. Walter Klaassen and William Klaassen, in CRR, vol. 2 (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 89.

[24]See W. T. Conner, The Faith of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1940), 286-289; A System of Christian Doctrine (1924); and the revision of its second half, The Gospel of Redemption (1945).

[25]James Leo Garrett, Jr., in correspondence to the author dated January 22, 2013. Emphasis mine.

[26]E. Y. Mullins, The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1917; reprinted 1974), 302.

[27]Herschel H. Hobbs, “Southern Baptists and Confessionalism: A Comparison of the Origins and Contents of the 1925 and 1963 Confessions,” Review and Expositor 76.1 (1979): 63. I am indebted to Peter Lumpkins, who drew my attention to this journal article.