The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 7b. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, and 8.
The Christian Post received numerous testimonies from those who were raised in largely conservative churches but eventually left Christianity. All of their experiences and questions were considered as we put this series together, and particularly for part 7, which features eight common questions and concerns in objection to Christianity.
We reached out to various theologians and experts to respond.
Just by being born, why do I inherit Adam’s sin?
William Lane Craig: Why think that you do? The doctrine that we somehow inherit Adam’s sin is not taught in the story of the Fall in Genesis 3:14-19 (just read it).
The only place in the Bible that suggests such a doctrine is Romans 5:12-21.
But there has been enormous theological controversy about how to understand such expressions as “many died through one man’s trespass” (verse 15), “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (verse 16), “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (verse 17), “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men” (verse 18) and “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (verse 19).
Some interpreters take Paul to mean that in virtue of Adam’s representative status or our corporate solidarity with Adam or some such notion, Adam’s sin in the Garden is imputed to each of us his descendants. That is to say, we are guilty before God in virtue of Adam’s wrongdoing and so under the condemnation of death. How can we make sense of this?
Two things suffice: (1) As the federal head of the human race, Adam stands before God as our representative and so acts on our behalf. His misdeed was our misdeed because he acted as our proxy before God. (2) Lest anyone complain that Adam was a bad representative, we can say that God, being omniscient, knew that had we been in Adam’s place, we would have done the same thing. So Adam does not fail to represent us accurately before God and so serves as an apt representative on our behalf.
Other interpreters disagree, however, maintaining that Adam was merely the floodgate through which sin entered into the world and then spread, much like a contagious disease, to all people. The question hinges on how to relate Romans 5:12 — “as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” — to Romans 5:18 — “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men.”
Paul says that just as Adam’s sin was followed by death, so “death spread to all men because all men sinned.” Most commentators construe the Greek words “eph hō” as a causal conjunction “because” and take “all men sinned” to refer to people’s own individual acts of sin.
When Paul affirms that “by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners,” that “one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men,” that “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man,” and that “many died through one man’s trespass,” he may be understood to trace all sinning and, hence, condemnation and death back to Adam’s initial transgression, through which sin entered the world.
But on this view, we “inherit” Adam’s sin only by imitation, not by imputation.
William Lane Craig is a renowned Christian apologist and philosopher who has authored and edited over 30 books. He is a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University.
Doug Potter: There are many things we cannot choose related to our birth. We do not choose when we are born (time), where we are born (location) and to whom we are born (parents). And there are many choices made for us by other people before and during our life that affect our lives.
For example, we had no choice in how our country was founded and what kind of government would be in place. Most of us have no choice or direct involvement in how our leaders’ decisions are made that govern what we can and cannot do. Likewise, the Bible and experience tell us we are not given a choice about our human nature.
The kind of nature all humans possess is the result of the first humans, who were created perfect and in a perfect environment but failed to obey the command of God. The effects of Adam and Eve’s sin resulted in spiritual death or separation from God, the moment they sinned. Hence, because all humanity shares in the same nature being generated through them, we receive the consequences of their actions and fallen human nature.
Those consequences include spiritual separation from God that culminates in physical death (Genesis 2:16-17) and eternal separation from God (Revelation 20:14-15). Adam, the first man, is the federal (or representative) head of the human race and everyone in some sense was present in Adam and the effects have been passed onto all descendants, except Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul explains:
“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.” (Romans 5:12 ESV).
“Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being;’ the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. … The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from Heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of Heaven, so also are those who are of Heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:45-49 ESV).
Hence, no one can escape receiving a sinful nature. Theologically the effects of Adam’s sin are understood to be transmitted in two ways. First, it is imputed to us from Adam directly to every person. Second, it is inherited or transmitted indirectly to everyone from our parents and through their parents back to Adam and Eve. How the sinful nature is transmitted is debated, but there is no debate that the Bible teaches the universal transmission of a sin nature.
The Bible also teaches that sin affects the image of God in humans but not to the extent that it is erased or removed (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9-10). Sin is pervasive and extends to every dimension of human beings including body, soul, and will. But no aspect of humanity is completely destroyed by it.
Taken too far, depravity is incorrectly understood to remove one’s ability to know and choose good over evil. The effects of sin on the mind are spiritual darkness or blindness (Romans 1:28; 2 Corinthians 4:4) of humanity and that, will show that we, through our free choice, cannot seek God (Romans 3:11), initiate (John 1:13) or attain (Romans 9:16) salvation.
However, the good news is that we are free to receive God’s salvation (John 1:12). The act of faith is prompted or added by divine grace, but it is performed or chosen by us. Salvation from imputed sin can be found solely in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Inherited sin can only be removed by redemption and the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit. Personal sins — sins that believers do in this life — are not transmitted to others but result in our guilt, shame and the loss of fellowship with others (Genesis 3:7, Romans 5) and God (Romans 3:23).
Although the penalty (Romans 4-5) of all our sins was paid for by Christ’s death on the cross, our present growth in sanctification requires the confession and repentance for personal sins (1 John 1:9, Romans 6-7) to restore broken fellowship. The final removal of the sin nature — the completion of redemption and the ceasing of all sinning — takes place at glorification when we see God face to face (Revelation 22:4, Romans 8) and we freely will know God forevermore.
Doug Potter is a writer, teacher, and speaker on Christian theology and apologetics. He serves as an assistant professor and director of the doctor of ministry program at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.