How did Adam’s sin affect the human family? Historically, three positions have been given to answer this question; they are: total depravity, Pelagianism, and semi-Pelagianism. The view one takes with regard to how Adam’s sin affects his posterity has radical consequences with respect to the doctrines of salvation. This is really where the dividing line is drawn between liberal and conservative theology; and with respect to conservative theology, it is the dividing line between Calvinism, in its varying forms, and Arminianism.
(Rom. 5:12-21; 8:5-8; Col. 1:21)
Adam’s sin resulted in the fall of his entire person—body, soul, and spirit. When Adam sinned his nature became such that he no longer possessed the capacity for righteousness, and thus he lost the capacity to exercise faith unto salvation. How could a person who is “hostile” to God (Rom. 8:5-9) submitted himself, or herself, to God for salvation? This poses quite a dilemma; for if faith is required for salvation, and if man has lost his capacity to exercise such faith, how is he or she to be saved? The answer is that God imparts faith as a gift (Eph. 2:8-9).
Total depravity does not mean that unregenerate people are as bad as they could possibly be, and it does not mean that unregenerate men cannot do comparatively good works out of altruistic motives; it simply means that the natural (unregenerate) man is incapable of saving faith and righteousness. An unsaved soldier might sacrifice his or her life for the cause, or for a fellow soldier; nevertheless, such deeds while noble from the human point of view, are not righteous because righteousness is motivated by intentional obedience to the will of God. As Paul said, the natural man is in a state of hostility against God and cannot yield himself to God (Rom 8:7; Col. 1:21). Actually, total depravity explains a great deal of human history. Man may become more prosperous, more educated, and even more “moral,” but the basic propensity toward sin is unchanged. Even regenerate men and women find that holiness involves a constant struggle against the propensity of that part of our nature that has not yet been made holy (i.e., the mind and body). As we will see further along, an understanding and acceptance of the truth of total depravity is crucial to understanding how men and women come to be saved.
Two other views on the effect of Adam’s sin on the human race need to be considered.
Pelagianism (5th Century A.D.)
Pelagianism is the belief that man is not fallen, and that Adam’s sin merely set a bad example for his descendants whereas Jesus’ life set a good example. Modern liberal Christianity is largely based on this view. Pelagianists deny the fall of the race and the transmission of sin and a sin nature from Adam to his descendants; and as such, stands in clear contradiction of the teaching of the Bible (cf. Rom. 5:10-21, esp. vv. 18‑19).
According to Pelagianism all men have a free will and are free to choose righteousness or sin. However, Christians are assisted in performing righteousness by divine grace. A man’s free choices thus determine his standing before God. Generally Pelagianists see no need for sacrifice, and they reject substitutionary atonement. In practice, Pelagianism is often expressed as a system of works in which good works should outweigh sin. Salvation, if it can be called that, comes by works of righteousness. Early forms of Pelagianism tended to be strictly moralistic (and legalistic) and often ascetic. Modern forms of Pelagianism tend to dismiss most sins as psychological dysfunction rather than moral acts incurring divine judgment. Pelagianism was deemed unbiblical by the early church at the Councils of Carthage (A.D. 412, 416, and 418), and that position was ratified at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431).
As a theology, Pelagianism has serious defects; it denies total depravity (Rom. 5:10-21; 8:5-8 cf. Psa. 51:5; Eph. 1-3), as well as the Old and New Testament doctrine of atonement. Also, it does not explain the universal propensity toward evil among members of the human family. Pelagianism is an example of an early deviation in which rationalization was substituted for divine revelation in the development of theology. Throughout church history this basic procedural defect has resulted in great theological error.
Semi-Pelagianism (5th Century A.D.)
Semi-Pelagianists believed that Adam’s descendants were affected by the fall, but through “prevenient grace” given to all it is possible for men and women to exercise free will and thus saving faith. Just as semi-Pelagianism was a fifth century reaction to Augustinianism, “Arminianism,” a revival of semi-Pelagianism in the early post-reformation period (16th Century) was a reaction to sixteenth century Calvinism. Semi-Pelagianists believe that saving faith originates within man’s free will. The difficulty with semi-Pelagianism is the same as with Pelagianism—it is inconsistent with the biblical teaching of total depravity, and it does not explain man’s universal propensity to evil.
Both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism hold that all men are able to exercise free will; whereas total depravity holds that when Adam sinned he fell into bondage to sin and lost the capacity to freely choose to love and obey God, hence to exercise saving faith. Since these positions are contradictory, only one at best could be true. For those who accept the full verbal inspiration of scripture it is a fairly straightforward process to eliminate Pelagianism as being inconsistent with the general teaching of the Bible (Rom. 5:20-21, esp. vv.18-19). Also, semi-Pelagianism lacks biblical support, and is contradicted by the New Testament teaching concerning total depravity and unconditional election (Rom. 9). While some people are decidedly Calvinistic, accepting total depravity, and others are clearly Arminian, accepting that through prevenient grace men can exercise faith unto salvation, much of contemporary Christianity is eclectic, or a fusion of these incompatible doctrines. Often this is seen in the acceptance of eternal security (which is consistent only with total depravity and sovereign grace) along with a conditional view of election (which is based on free will). Regrettably, it appears that many Christians are unaware that such doctrines are logically, and theologically, incompatible. While Calvinism and Arminianism are each coherent systems, the combination of these is not.
The Transmission of Sin
In the preceding discussion we examined the three views of how Adam’s sin has affected the human family. We now need to address a related question: How can Adam’s descendants be held liable for Adam’s sin as total depravity insists? Before we deal with the various views as to how Adam’s sin is transmitted to his descendants, we must first discuss a related topic: the origin of the soul. There are two major views on how man obtains his soul. One view is called “creationism” (not related to cosmological creationism), and the other is called “traducianism.”
The Origin of the Soul
Soul creationists believe either that God created all human souls at sometime in the distant past, or alternatively that for each newly conceived child he creates a new soul that will eventually be joined to the physical nature propagated by the parents. Proponents of the various forms of this view are not agreed as to when the soul is joined to the physical nature. Some believe the union of soul and body occurs at conception, others that it occurs later, perhaps at birth. There are a number of problems associated with soul creationism. First, it requires that the sin nature be transmitted through the physical nature, since that is all that man passes down. Such a view seems contrary to the New Testament, which teaches that the source of man’s sin resides in his inner (immaterial) nature (cf. Mark 7:21-23). As early as the late first century Christianity began a shift toward an anti-cosmic worldview (mainly in the form of Gnosticism). This was due to the influence of Platonism (and neo-Platonism), which was prevalent in the Roman world. Platonism exerted a profound influence on the development of Christian theology from the early second century forward, with the material world being viewed as inferior, if not evil (in comparison to the spiritual). This anti-cosmic influence on Christian theology was expressed in such doctrines as “realized eschatology” (or amillennialism, the belief that the kingdom of God is a present spiritual reality rather than a physical reality to come), the doctrine of soul creation, and the notion that the resurrection is a spiritual rather than physical event. An additional problem with creationism is that it seems contrary to God’s moral nature to condemn a sinless soul to inevitable corruption by joining it to a sinful material nature. Such has been said to be the moral equivalent of chaining an innocent victim to a sinking ship.
Traducianism (the word “traduce,” from the Latin, means “to carry over”) is the position that the human soul is passed from parent to child, though the means for accomplishing this is uncertain. Traducianism is a helpful theory for several reasons: 1) It avoids the problems inherent in soul creationism. 2) It helps us to understand how the entire human race fell when Adam sinned. If the soul is passed from parent to child, then working backwards we can see that at one time all the soul of the human family was in Adam (in unindividuated form). Consequently, in Adam the entire human family fell. While this line of reasoning might seem strange from a modern perspective, we have to remember that it must be viewed from the biblical perspective. According to traducianism we have in us a portion of the same soul that was in Adam. As such, we have inherited a fallen soul with a sin nature. So, we are what Adam became: sinful. While this may be difficult to accept, there is a strong biblical basis for this view. In Hebrews 7:4-10 the writer makes the point that when Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, Levi, a descendant of Abraham who would not be born for several generations, was still within Abraham; thus, when Abraham paid a tithe to Melchizedek, Levi, as yet unborn, paid a tithe to Melchizedek. It is all the more interesting that this is presented in the form of a formal theological argument. This is a highly significant case because the writer of Hebrews argues that this action on the part of an ancestor was substantively attributable to one not yet born. Again, the challenge is to see things from a biblical perspective.
Traducianism explains not only how we can be responsible for Adam’s sin, but also why we sin—because we have a fallen, sinful soul from the very beginning of our individual existence (cf. Ps. 51:5). The traducian view also may help to explain the reason for the virgin conception of Christ. If the sin nature is passed through the male (hypothetically), the avoidance of natural conception could have been the means through which God supernaturally brought his Son into the world without sin, though the Bible nowhere explicitly makes such a connection.
Theories on the Imputation of Sin
This is a complex area of theology; one of the reasons is confusion over whether the imputation of sin to the race occurred immediately when Adam sinned, or over time as the race was propagated, or through some combination of these. If one takes the view that sin was imputed to the entire race immediately, then they would hold to either the federal view, in which Adam by divine covenant represented the entire race in his choice, or that Adam was the natural head of the race and thus all of humanity (being substantively in Adam when he sinned) actually participated in his sin. Alternatively, some have taken the position that sin (or the sin nature) is passed down generationally (mediately) from parent to child.
In the headship view, Adam is seen as making a representative choice on behalf of the entire human race (still within him). This could be due to either natural headship (as the father of the race), or to his appointment by God (federal headship). The federal view presumes the existence of a covenant between God and man establishing Adam’s federal (representative) headship; since no such covenant is explicit in scripture, this view requires such a covenant to be inferred; this is the position of covenant theology. The other alternative is based on some type of substantive or seminal connection. The substantive view is that all humanity was within Adam when he sinned and therefore the entire race participated in Adam’s sin and fell immediately. The seminal view is an alternate view that sin (or the sin nature) is passed down as the race is propagated generationally. (The headship view can be compatible with either creationism or traducianism; however, soul creationists must hold to some form of headship, since the non-headship views are only compatible with traducianism.) Note how Paul expresses the imputation of sin in Romans 5:12-21.
12Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—13for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. 18So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. 20The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (NASB)
Paul said that through one man sin entered the world, and death entered through that sin (v.12, tēs hamartias, “the sin”). Eve’s sin resulted in her own fall and death, but Adam’s sin resulted both in his death and in the death of his descendants—including even those who lived prior to the giving of the Law, who in the absence of law could not have committed any personal sin (vv.13-14). In fact, Paul declared that the spreading of death to all men derived from the fact that in Adam’s act all men sinned (v.12). [If we were to suppose that Paul meant that all men die, eventually, because all men sin, eventually, then we would be left with no explanation as to why those who lived prior to the Law died; for Paul states that they did not sin after the likeness of Adam (v.13-14), who committed a personal transgression by disobeying a divine command. Thus it seems that Paul’s teaching requires us to understand that Adam’s sin and condemnation was attributed to the entire race.]
The doctrine of original sin raises a serious christological question: If Adam’s sin was imputed to the entire race, how is it that Christ could be sinless? A possible answer could be the fact that because Christ is “the second Adam” and thus the head of a new race, he was not reckoned a sinner along with Adam’s race. A better possibility is that the virgin conception, or some other unspecified miracle prevented sin from being passed to him. In summary, the following points should be considered.
- When Adam sinned, the entire human race became sinful and died. Christ is the only exception, though we do not know precisely how that was accomplished. Romans 5:12-21 is clear that Adam’s sin is reckoned to be the sin of every one of his natural descendants.
- Every one of Adam’s natural descendants begins life with a fallen nature, which has been passed down from one generation to the next (cf. Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Psa. 51:5; Eccl. 9:3; Jer. 17:9; Mk. 7:21-23; Jn. 3:19; Rom. 3:9-12, 23; 8:7,8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:17-19; 5:8; Tit. 1:15).
- As a result, all of Adam’s natural descendants are born under condemnation. Man enters the world lost (Jn. 3:16), condemned (Jn. 3:19; Rom. 6:16ff.; 8:1), spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), and hostile to God (Rom. 5:10, 8:7; Col. 1:21).
- There seem to be both immediate and mediate aspects to the imputation of sin. When Adam sinned the act was attributable to the entire race; however, the corrupt nature is passed from one generation to the next.