The Imputation of Adam’s Sin – Part 1

Text: Romans 5:12-21

Introduction:  In two successive issues of Books and Culture (January/February 2001, March/April 2001, Vol. 7, Nos. 1 and 2), Robert Gundry, scholar-in-residence at Westmont College, argued that “the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned” (I, 9). “That doctrine of imputation is not even biblical.  Still less is it `essential’ to the Gospel” (I, 9). “The notion is passé, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical text” (I, 9). Gundry, a highly respected evangelical scholar has come to the opinion that this once cherished truth needs to be discarded. “I join the growing number of biblical theologians, evangelical and non-evangelical alike, who deny Paul or any other New Testament author speaks of a righteousness of Christ (whatever it might include or exclude) that is imputed to believing sinners, and find instead a doctrine of God’s righteousness as his salvific activity in a covenantal framework, not in terms of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness in a bookkeeping framework. (II, 15).” More recently, he has gone on record rejecting the equally important doctrine of the Imputation of Adam’s sin, contending along with Pelagius, that the expression all have sinned “means that under the influence of sin all have sinned for themselves, not that they sinned in the original sin of Adam.”[i]

Is Gundry correct?  Do we need to abandon this?  One of the great theological words is the word imputation. It means to think (cf. Rom. 2:3), to count(4:3), and to reckon (6:11), or perhaps we should say, more accurately, that the verb to impute means those things. The Greek verb logidsomai and the Hebrew verb chashab, which underlie the English words in the English translations, mean essentially the same thing (cf. Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3, 6). There are three great acts of imputation in the Bible.  They are these:  (1) First, the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity, or to the whole race of men (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-22). (2) Second, there is the imputation of the sin of the elect to Jesus Christ, who bore that sin’s penalty in His death upon the cross (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13).  (3) Third, the imputation of the righteousness of God to the elect (cf. Rom. 3:24-26; 4:1-8). It is to the first of these imputations that the passage in Romans 5:12 refers. In it Paul offers an important interpretation of the sin of Adam, one that is fundamental for all theology.  Man does evil, Paul would say, because he is evil, and the root cause of the problem is what happened centuries ago in that beautiful garden planted by God.  That is the subject of the text that we study in this message.

I.          The Origin of Human Sin and Death:

A.        The Source (Rom. 5:12a):  The apostle opens the discussion by the statement, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin…” And the first question the reader should have is, “What is the connection between verses twelve through twenty-one and verses one through eleven? Paul’s connecting phrase, dia touto (AV, “wherefore”), is causal and is to be rendered by for this cause. We shall by-pass the discussion of the meaning of the phrase and simply state the conclusion from my own study of the matter.  Paul appears to me to be saying:  For there exists this likeness between Christ and Adam, as the world was introduced to sin and death by the first Adam, so it has been introduced to righteousness and life by the Last Adam.  Sin, condemnation, and death are by our spiritual progenitor, Adam. “The master-thought of the whole passage,” Gifford believes, “is that unity of the many in the one, which forms the point of comparison between Adam and Christ.”[ii]  So, if one should ask, “How by the well-doing of one, Jesus Christ, are the many saved?” it may be said, in reply, “How by the disobedience of one, Adam, were the many condemned?” The picture is not that of solidarity, then, but of contrastive solidarity. The apostle writes that the origination of human sin is to be traced to “one man.” Paul alludes, of course, to the fall in the Garden of Eden. There, after the creation of Adam and Eve, God placed them and gave the terms of the probation to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). The tree was not the symbol of the sex act, as some have contended, nor was it symbolic of wine.  It was a test of man’s creature-hood, for the condition hinged upon man’s belief in the Word of God.  And, of course, it was not provocation on God’s part, for the maximum of freedom was permitted man and the minimum was forbidden.   Nevertheless, sin came and man fell.  Adam became the instrumental cause by which sin entered the world.

B.        The Fact (Gen. 5:12a):  The apostle writes, “sin entered.” The sin of Adam in one sense was an irrational act, for no explanation of sin can be given that makes it reasonable.  In this instance it arose in the heart of Adam as an inclination to take the fruit from the hand of his wife. At the moment that the inclination began, Adam sinned. The action that followed is the completion of the inclination. Adam, it is to be noted, wanted the one thing that was forbidden him. Like a little child, who has all the toys but one, and yet tries to get that one from his playmate, so Adam, the big child, acted childishly and evilly by desiring the fruit from the tree in the midst of the garden. The apostle’s use of the word, “entered,” should be noted, too. The word, which looks at the fall by its tense, suggests that sin was in existence in the universe before the fall (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14). Paul gives us no details of that fact, although there are some hints in other parts of the Scripture that seem to say that sin began in heaven with the sin of Lucifer (cf. John 8:44; Ezek. 28:11-19; Isa. 14:12-17). At any rate, Adam’s sin was the original human sin, so far as the devastating results for the human race are concerned.

C.        The Result (Gen. 5:12a):  The catastrophic result of the first human sin is stated in the words, “and death by sin.” The fact that sin is said to be the basis of universal death strongly implies that Adam’s sin has produced universal sin.  The clause, “and death by sin,” clearly teaches that death is a penal evil and, as Hodge points out, “not a consequence of the original constitution of man.”[iii]   That which was implied in 1 Cor. 15:21-22 is here stated plainly.  While Chrysostom, Augustine, and Meyer regarded the death here as physical, the greater number of commentators regard it as both physical (cf. 5:14; Gen. 3:9) and spiritual (cf. 5:18; 21; 6:23: here the death is contrasted with the spiritual life, for Paul writes, “eternal life”).

Conclusion:  To sum up, when Adam sinned, he died spiritually immediately. In Adam’s case, he was brought to faith and thus escaped the eternal effects of spiritual death.  He did not, however, escape the effects of physical death, and he eventually died physically. When the unbelieving man dies, he dies physically, for he was already dead spiritually.  Thus, spiritual death leads to physical death and, if salvation does not come, then that spiritual death, which leads to physical death, is prolonged to eternal death.  The three aspects of death, then, are spiritual, physical, and eternal. The remedies of death are set forth in the Word of God also. The remedy for spiritual death is eternal life, the gift of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the suffering and crucified Savior.[iv]



[i] R. Gundry, “The Nonimputation of Christ’s Righteousness” in What’s at Stake in the Current Debates eds.  M. Husbands and D. J. Treier (IVP, 2004), p. 28.


[ii] E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. James Family, 1977) p. 75.


[iii] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (rpt. The Banner of Truth, 1972) p. 145.


[iv] I am again indebted to the late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, my former prof. of Theology for the substance of this analysis.  His article:   “Romans 5:12 – An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology” in R. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney eds. New Dimensions in New Testament Study was described by D. A. Carson as the finest exegetical study he had ever read. Surprisingly Gundry shows no awareness of Johnson’s article. This is somewhat amazing since Johnson and Gundry did post-graduate studies together in Europe.

Fear of God

by Arnold L. Frank

In 1961, A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy that the way some Christians think about God is sinful. Dr. Arnold Frank, in The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine confirms that the 21st century church, in the pew as well as the pulpit, continues to regard God as impotent and irrelevantin other words, without godly fear. As such, Dr. Frank, with a theologian’s skill and a pastor’s heart, walks us through the Scriptures, letting the Word of God speak about the fear of God.

In addition to clear, biblical exposition, Dr. Frank also weaves in the wise and timeless counsel of the Puritans to help us see how the fear of God is a most needed and practical doctrine.

Do you approach God with a godly fear? The Fear of God: A Forgotten Doctrine will be a skillful and gracious reminder of how we should regard the holy, sovereign Creator.


“The biblical concept of the fear of God is too often marginalized or ignored by the Christian church and its preachers today. The result is shallow views of sin, easy belief, and antinomianism. With the aid of Puritan preachers, Arnold Frank sounds a clarion call for a biblical and sure approach to the fear of God.” Joel Beeke (President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary)

Paperback; 265 pages

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