Original guilt and original sin are two distinct concepts. Although theologians might define the terms differently, I would define them as, respectively, (1) the inheritance of Adam’s guilt and (2) the inheritance of Adam’s sinful nature.

The Background of Original Guilt

Original guilt is one of the reasons many Christian traditions have baptized infants. Augustine taught that infants who were baptized had their original guilt washed away and would be saved if they died in infancy (put otherwise, their infant baptism proved their election). Many traditions, though, have not held to original guilt as a biblical idea.

Augustine popularized the doctrine and solidified it in Western theology. Unfortunately, he is well-known for his poor knowledge of Greek. He relied heavily for the doctrine of original guilt on the Latin of Rom 5:12, which translates the Greek  ἐφ᾽ ᾧ as in quo, “in whom.” Thus, the death that comes to all men comes because all sinned “in Adam” (the Latin relative quo referring to Adam). All were present in Adam and receive the guilt he received because we all existed in him corporately.

The Importance of Knowing Greek

The glaring problem here, though, is that the Greek ἐφ᾽ ᾧ most likely does not mean “in whom,” referring to Adam. As John Harvey’s new guide to the Greek of Romans states, most commentators view ἐφ᾽ ᾧ as short for ἐπί τούτω ὅτι. The phrase could therefore then be giving the cause, grounds, or reason for death coming to all. He agrees with Schreiner that the antecedent of ᾧ is not Adam, but is conceptually the first part of the verse. Thus, the verse reads, “just as sin came into the world because of one man, and death came through sin, thus also death came to all men, because all sinned.”

Interpretive Options

There are a few different ways to interpret Rom 5:12, so it’s still not evident what Paul is saying. A comparison is made between (1) the way sin came into the world through Adam’s sin and (2) the way death comes to all men because they have sinned. The main question is, when did all sin? First, Paul might mean we all sinned in Adam, which would be the idea of original guilt. Second, Paul could mean death comes to all because all have sinned individually, incurring the “wages of sin,” which is death (Rom 6:23). Third, Paul might not have a specific time in mind and might not be trying to make a logical connection between peoples’ sins and their deaths.

I think the third option unlikely, given Paul’s logical language (Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ … καὶ οὕτως). Now we must admit that the first two are both possible. But we should get out of the way a logical fallacy often used to support the original guilt reading. Many commentators have argued that the aorist of “sinned” (ἥμαρτον) refers to a single occurrence, a one-time action. That is not how the aorist works. The aorist simply represents an event in summary fashion, focusing on the event as a whole, rather than on any internal time period of the event. The aorist cannot be pressed to show that all sinned at one point in time, namely, in Adam’s sin.

Bringing in the Rest of Romans 5

What about the rest of Rom 5? Verse 15 says “many died through one man’s trespass.” Verse 17 says “death reigned through” Adam because of his trespass. Verse 18 says “one trespass led to [no Greek verb supplied] condemnation for all men.” Finally, v. 19 says that by Adam’s disobedience many were made sinners. Does any of this language clearly state we are born condemned because of Adam’s sin, that we inherit his guilt? No, not clearly. It actually doesn’t state anything clearly in this regard.

There are two options for relating Adam’s guilt and our guilt: (1) Adam’s sin was only the cause of our guilt, or (2) Adam’s sin was the means by which we became guilty. Let me give three reasons why I believe the former is a legitimate option, and I’ll leave the rest open for discussion.

  1. Rom 5 says clearly that Adam’s sin ensured that we would be sinners. “Many died through” Adam’s trespass because his sin led to his death, which ensured his progeny’s death as well. His trespass “led to” condemnation for all, not “condemned all.” (Actually the verb “led to” is absent in Greek. English versions must supply a verb such as “resulted in” (NASB; NIV), “came on/to” (GNV; NAB; NET), “brings” (NLT), or “led to” (ESV).) And v. 19 is clearest that his disobedience made many to be sinners. This language is all causal, that is, Adam’s sin is the cause of the sin that arises in each individual’s life. At this point, Adam’s sin is definitely the cause of our condemnation, but not necessarily the means of our condemnation.
  2. The parallels between the Adam and Christ suggest Adam’s sin suggest we did not inherit Adam’s guilt. Verse 19 is particularly instructive: “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.” (See the similar parallel in v. 15). If we inherited Adam’s disobedience because of his sin, apart from any instrumental means arising from the individual, then we would all inherit Christ’s righteousness because of his salvific work apart from any instrumental means arising from the individual. But this would ignore the role of faith, by which Christ’s righteousness comes to the few. Since salvation comes because of Christ’s act of obedience and by means of our faith, the parallel suggests there would be an instrumental act of the individual by which he or she inherits Adam’s guilt. That instrument would be the opposite of faith, namely, sin. Under this reading, Adam’s sin makes us sinners because we inherit his fallen nature in which the image of God is marred, but we do not inherit his guilt until, like him, we commit a sinful act ourselves.
  3. Many Fathers did not hold to original guilt. Before wondering whether I’ve gone off the deep end, consider this: Fathers such as Irenaeus, John of Damascus, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret of Cyrus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Maximus the Confessor do not seem to have held to original guilt. Augustine’s influence looms large in the West, but we have seen that his means of deriving original guilt from the text resulted from his lack of Greek knowledge and his reliance on the (likely incorrect) translation of the Latin.

Is the Issue Settled?

Μὴ γένοιτο! The Western tradition is strong, and Rom 5 is admittedly not entirely clear either way. One might disagree with making faith and sin equivalent parallels that act as the means to salvation and condemnation, respectively. Other able scholars such as Douglas Moo have argued for reading v. 12 in conjunction with vv. 18-19, together getting us to inherited guilt through Adam as our federal head. Other theological systems relying on federalism also use original guilt as a major pillar, and we should not lightly discount such systems. In this case, though, we have seen the importance of knowing the languages for evaluating doctrines, even those perpetuated for over 1500 years.

I will add one pastoral implication of this view. In Augustine’s work on predestination, he comments that infants that die are proven to be elect if they have been baptized, because their baptism washed away their original guilt. This doctrine is pastorally difficult because we would have to admit that all non-baptized infants who die are reprobate.

By contrast, if we only accept original sin, then infants who die have not yet committed a willful act of sin and therefore have not inherited Adam’s guilt. Those who have not heard the gospel are “without excuse” because they have perceived God through creation (Rom 1:20). Infants do not have this cognitive capacity (although I have found some who believe they do!). Thus, they are “with excuse,” until they are able to willingly and knowingly rebel against the creator whom they perceive through the creation. And of course, we all know that every human being is capable of committing such sin at the exact age of 4 years, 254 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes, and 12 seconds. (Kidding of course – I’ll let someone else solve this problem!)

What about you? What other reasons do you see for or against original guilt? Comment below and argue like angry Reformers. Also be sure to check out John Harvey’s Romans guide. If your Greek isn’t up to par, it’s a required resource for studying Romans!

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