The Imputation of Adam’s Sin – Part 2

Text: Romans 12-21

Introduction:  I received another flyer in the mail announcing the opening of a “new and exciting” church in the east valley. Like so many, this one follows the seeker-sensitive approach, highlighting its up-beat style of contemporary “worship,” and its “relevant” messages geared around “the practical” (with the aid of comedy and drama skits as “live” illustrations). As is the custom of these kinds of churches, this one made fun of “traditional” churches that are described as “boring” and “lifeless” whereas they are “fun” and “passionate.” What caught my attention is that they boldly claim to be “Bible-based” and “Evangelical”—but in their brief doctrinal statement they took this decidedly non-evangelical tack on sin: “Although every person has tremendous potential for good, we are marred by an attitude that separates people from God and causes many problems in life.” Sin simply consists of having a bad “attitude?” Even Pelagius would protest at so weak an understanding of sin!

This, sadly, is very typical of many professing evangelicals. Fox News recently did a profile on Joel Osteen, the pastor of the largest church in America, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Osteen takes his cue from Robert Schuller, which is not surprising given the fact that Osteen, along with other mega-church pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are part of Schuller’s Institute for Successful Church Growth.[i] Osteen preaches to a congregation of over 30,000 people (carried on the TBN television network)—and sin is never mentioned. Osteen said his goal is to “give people a boost for the week.” “I think for years there’s been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you’re doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you’re not going to make it,” Osteen said. “We believe in focusing on the goodness of God.” Critics say mega-churches’ party-like atmosphere takes the spirituality out of Sunday services. “It tends to be a guilt-free, sin-free environment,” said Ken Woodward of Newsweek. “These places are a bit too bubbly. …It’s very chummy with God.” Richard Wise, a 20-year member of the small, traditional Wesley United Methodist Church in Union City, Ind., said he finds this type of service perplexing. “Sin is in life and sin is everywhere, we are all sinners,” he said. “If you just leave church feeling good you are missing the whole point. The point is you need a purpose in life.” Wise’s church draws about 150 people for Sunday service and he said the size pays off with close-knit relationships and a feeling of community. The seriousness of traditional churches scared many parishioners away, Osteen said, but the warm hug delivered by mega-churches like his is bringing them back. “I think it’s a place of life and victory,” he said. “They want to be encouraged and uplifted.” But Woodward said this approach to religion isn’t helping parishioners. “If I’m already a pretty good guy, why do I have to go to church to hear that?” he asked. “Sin really has disappeared from the pulpit. It’s too much of a downer, I’m afraid.” Wise also doesn’t agree with the idea of cloaking religion in church in order to boost numbers. “I guess I kind of thought that was what church was about,” he said. “I don’t see how you could put God first in your life if all you’re going to do is go to church and feel good about being there.”[ii]

“The biblical doctrine of sin,” observes J. I. Packer, “has been secularized in modern times. People today still talk of sin, but no longer think of it theologically. The word has ceased to convey the thought of an offence against God, and now signifies only a breach of accepted standards of decency, particularly in sexual matters. But when the Bible speaks of sin, it means precisely an offence against God. Though sin is committed by man, and often against society, it cannot properly be defined in terms of either man or society. We shall never know what sin really is till we learn to think of it in terms of our relationship with God.”[iii] There is, perhaps, no single doctrine in the fabric of the Christian faith more despised and mocked than that of original sin. Regrettably, large numbers of professing Evangelicals have grown increasingly silent about the subject as well. PECCATUM ORIGINALIS, the famous theological Latin expression, refers to the hereditary guilt which is imputed to all mankind because of the sin and guilt of Adam, and to hereditary corruption which, because of the guilt and corruption of Adam (and Eve), is transmitted to all their descendants by generation. “Original sin,” wrote Bavinck, “includes original pollution. All men are conceived in sin and born in unrighteousness (Psalm 51:7), and are evil from youth on up (Genesis 6:5 and Psalm 25:7), for no one can bring a clean thing from an unclean one (Job 14:4 and John 3:6). This taint of pollution not only spreads itself out over all men, but it also saturates the whole of the individual being. It attacks the heart, which is deceitful above all things, sick unto death, and never to be fathomed in its guile (Jeremiah 17:9), and which as the source of the issues of life (Proverbs 4:23) is the source also of all unrighteousness (Mark 7:21-22). Proceeding from the heart as center, this pollution darkens the understanding (Romans 1:21), inclines the will to evil and makes it powerless to do the truly good (John 8:34 and Romans 8:7), taints or defiles the conscience (Titus 1:15), and makes of the body with all of its members, its eyes and ears, its hands and feet, its mouth and tongue, a weapon of unrighteousness (Romans 3:13-17; 6:13). This sin is such that everybody, not by his own ‘sins of commission’ first of all, but from the time of his conception is subject to death and corruption (Romans 5:14).”[iv]

I.          The Imputation of Sin and Death:  The apostle moves from the entrance of sin in one man to its penetration to all. He writes, “and so death passed upon all men.” The death referred to is probably physical in its emphasis, but it appears to me that in this context, it is inseparable from spiritual death. The most interesting words are, “passed upon all men.” The Greek word (DIERCHOMAI) is one that means literally passed through. It contains the force of distribution that “made its way to each individual member of the race.”[v] With it the apostle refers to the diffusion of sin and death and, since he adds “upon all men,” it is clear he thinks of the diffusion of sin as universal in its scope. One is reminded of the psalmist’s, “The wicked are estranged from the womb, they go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies”(58:3), and of Moses’ “And the Lord smelled a sweet savor; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; FOR THE IMAGINATION OF MAN’S HEART IS EVIL FROM HIS YOUTH; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21). Throughout the Bible, the principle of collective judgment because of sin is taught. In the Ten Commandments we read: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God (jealous for them to have the best) visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations…”(Ex. 20:5, 6). Cf. Ezek. 18:2.

II.         The Foundation of the Imputation:  The final clause of the verse has been one of the major battlegrounds of the systems of theology. In what sense may we say that all sinned? That is the question. Now, there are a number of interpretations that have been offered, and it is impossible within the limits of this set of notes to speak of them all.[vi] What I shall attempt to do is to refer to the most important of them, and then to suggest one for consideration as the most likely view of Paul.

A.        First: There are many, who, like Pelagius, but including such distinguished scholars as James Denny, [vii]C. K. Barrett,[viii] Emil Brunner,[ix] and most recently Robert Gundry,[x] who refer the last clause to the actual personal sins of individual men (cf. 3:23). This interpretation would be more likely, if the present tense had been used, “for all are sinning.” Further, the repeated claim is made in vv. 15-19 that only one sin is the cause of the death of all. Five times Paul makes that point. Finally, verse fourteen is opposed to this view, for there it is stated that certain persons, part of the all and ones who suffer death as the penalty of sin, did not commit sins resembling Adam’s—that is, individual conscious transgressions.

B.        Second: There are many who have seen in the clause a reference to a realistic union between Adam and his descendants. The most capable representative of this position was the 19th century Presbyterian giant W. G. T. Shedd.[xi] This view, like the final two to be discussed, is based on a common understanding of the relation of the final clause to the main clause. It is admitted that the death of all is grounded in the sin of all (v. 12), and that the death of all is grounded also in the sin of one, Adam (vv. 15-19). In some way and for some reason, Paul is able to say that one sinned and that all sinned—and in both statements refer to the same fact. This solidarity and universality, or this union, must be a part of any explanation of Romans 5:12. Shedd contended that the union between Adam and his posterity was genealogical and biological and must be regarded as natural or seminal (cf. Heb. 7:9-10). Thus, men were co-sinners with Adam participated in his humanity, which was a specific and numerically one entity, and, thus, in his act of sin. They were in him really when he sinned. The interpretation does full justice to the past tense in “sinned,” but there are insurmountable objections to the view. Since at the time Adam sinned, his posterity as individuals and persons did not exist, how was it possible for them to act in Adam? Can we act in a real sense, before we are? Second, Romans five over and over relates our sin and guilt to the act of one man, but never once to the act of all men, which one would expect, if realism were true. Further, the analogy drawn in the passage between Adam and Christ is broken, for our justification is not related to the fact that we were in Christ seminally when He died for our sins. Finally, the last clause of verse fourteen overthrows realism, for it suggests that there is a different modus in sinning for some people. Realism, however, cannot admit any, for by its very definition every man is supposed to have been in Adam when he sinned.

C.        Third: Two final views involve the principle of imputation and the truth of representative union. One is called mediate imputation, and the other immediate imputation. Those holding the theory of mediate imputation contended that, instead of making Adam’s first sin the ground of human condemnation and the corrupt nature a consequence, the corrupt nature inherited from Adam is the ground of condemnation. The guilt of the first sin becomes, then, dependent upon participation in the corrupt nature. This view originated with Josua Placaeus, a distinguished professor at the French theological school at Saumur, the school for Moise Amyraut, the foremost proponent of hypothetical universalism in the doctrine of the atonement, or popularly, “four point Calvinism.” Aside from the fact that the word, “sinned,” cannot mean became corrupt as those who held this view contended it is insistent with the parallelism drawn between Adam and Christ in the passage. Just as we are not justified by inherent righteousness, so we are not condemned by inherent corruption. And also, if inherent depravity is a punishment—and it is hardly possible to argue otherwise—then guilt must have preceded it. What, then, could the guilt be other than the guilt of Adam’s first sin?

D.        Fourth: We come, then, to the theory of immediate imputation.[xii] According to it, men are understood to have stood their probation in Adam, their natural, or seminal, and representative head. Thus, his act was deemed their act; his sin was their sin. As the Scriptures say, they sinned in Adam (cf. 5:12, 18-19; I Cor. 15:22). This is immediate imputation. There is much in the Bible that supports this view. First of all, Adam was a Covenantal head, for the promises of dominion given to him were also given to the race, as the unfolding of the Word of God indicates. The threats given to Adam were threats for the race, and the consequences of his sin fully indicated that. The penal evils have affected the whole race. Further, it is implied in the fact that men are born spiritually dead, under a curse (cf. Eph. 2:1-5). Third, it is most suitable to the illustrative analogy between Adam and Christ drawn by Paul in the section. He says all die because all have sinned (cf. v. 12). Then in vv. 13-19, he says that all die because one sinned. He is hardly dealing with two different things. The one fact may be expressed in terms of both plurality and singularity. The sin of all is the sin of one. The solidarity must be that of federal, or covenantal, representation. Fourth, it enables us to see why only the first sin of Adam and not his subsequent sins, nor the sin of Eve, is imputed to men. Fifth, it is the only interpretation that satisfies the requirements of the relation of vv. 13-14 to v. 12. The “for” indicates that vv. 13-14 are designed to substantiate the statement of verse twelve. If, however, verse twelve means that all men are sinners (cf. Pelagius), or that all have become corrupt (mediate imputation), or eve that all actually sinned in Adam (realism), the verses do not substantiate the assertion of verse twelve. If, however, verse twelve asserts that all have sinned in their representative, then everything is clear.[xiii]

Conclusion:  Sociologist Alan Wolfe’s recently released book The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press) is a stinging indictment of modern day evangelicalism, which he refers to as “toothless evangelicalism” because it has ignored its theological heritage, turned the Bible into a self-help manual for psychological well-being, redefined morality and adopted a privatized spirituality that lacks substance and courage. We have, as a society, been thoroughly “psychologized.” Take for example the wide spread use of the term “addiction.” Addiction is a proliferous term that is used to describe practically everything—drug users, alcoholics, gamblers, eating disorders, sports fans, and on and on this list goes. In fact, given our cultural tendency to describe ourselves psychologically, this kind of language has become the lingua franca in America today.[xiv]

Marshall Shelley, editor of the evangelical journal Leadership, laments how this has impacted evangelicalism: “You simply can’t be a part of a church these days without having learned a new language about addictions, abuse, dependencies, co-dependencies, dysfunctional families, enablers, family of origin, re-parenting, unconditional acceptance, [and] adult children.”[xv] G. A. Pritchard, in documenting the quagmire of psychology that so much of popular evangelicalism has fallen into, writes, “The penetration of this psychological worldview has shaped evangelicalism profoundly. There are now recovery Bibles, twelve-step evangelical programs, psycho-evangelical best sellers, and burgeoning evangelical mental health industry. In short, the modern psychological worldview is molding evangelicalism in significant ways: Many evangelicals are thinking with its categories and priorities. …What is most curious about the influence of the psychological worldview is that few evangelicals are alarmed by it or even aware of it.”[xvi]

Another noted cultural observer, Philip Rieff, in his landmark study argues that the modern commitment to “the gospel of self-fulfillment” represents a profound break with, rather than reformulation of, historic faiths, specifically Judaism and Christianity. “All attempts at connecting the doctrines of psychotherapy with the old faiths,” warns Rieff, “are patently misconceived.”[xvii] K. H. Sargeant perceptively points out, “One reason for the success of seeker churches is that they have tapped into many American’s resonance’s with both traditional religious language and therapeutic understandings. Although some might argue that traditional religious language and therapeutic rationales involve very different, even contradictory, forms of moral discourse, what matters to most people is not so much whether their beliefs are somehow logically consistent but whether they are coherent in a personally meaningful way.”[xviii]

What does this have to do with our text? Quite a bit actually. If we read the Bible through the lenses of our cultural addiction to therapeutic understanding of self, we will end up with a completely different understanding of the self, we will end up with a completely different understanding of justification (and sanctification as well), than that which the Apostle intended. This is particularly true when it comes to the doctrine of sin. Without a real knowledge of the true nature and character of sin, there can be no true understanding of Biblical evangelism. Until we know what sin really is, we will not be greatly concerned about it in our lives. And in order to understand the biblical picture of sin we cannot ignore the doctrine of original sin. The historicity of Adam is taken for granted by Paul and is essential to his whole argument in Romans 5:12-21. This is an embarrassment to those who jettison the Genesis account of the creation of human beings in favour of an evolutionary theory. According to the biblical record, Adam stands at the head of the human race in two senses. He is, in the first place, the natural head of the race. We are all descended from him. All the races of the world are ultimately of one stock as Paul reminds the Athenians (Acts 17:26). Adam also stands in a representative position as head of humanity. This is the point that Paul stresses in Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:21-22. The whole of humanity is bound up with the sin of Adam. All sinned “in Adam”. Adam was appointed by God as our federal, or representative head, so that his original sin is placed to our account. All of us sinned in and with him, so that when he fell, we fell.  We all stand guilty and condemned “in Adam.” This solidarity between Adam and the whole human race in sin and death is something which many find unacceptable today. Having a Western individualistic mentality we have difficulties with the idea of a corporate relationship to a person of the past.

Furthermore, to suggest that we today are guilty and condemned for an act at the beginning of history by one man is regarded as grossly unfair, fatalistic, and a failure to treat people as morally responsible for their own actions. It is not fatalistic, however, nor does it treat people as morally irresponsible. The fact that we are born with a corrupt and sinful nature does not mean that we are not responsible for our actions (Mark 7:21). We constantly commit sin from our earliest days by not doing what we ought to do and by doing what we ought not to do. For these personal transgressions and failures we are responsible before God. It is because of our present privatistic view of life that our solidarity with Adam is regarded as unfair. To human reason it may be thought offensive, but is such a reaction so surprising, given our natural dislike of the Bible’s general estimate of our sinful condition? Have we such a high opinion of ourselves to think that if we were in Adam’s position we would have handled the situation differently? Unless we appreciate our position by nature in Adam, we shall not see the significance of the representative nature of Christ and His activity for all those who belong to Him. Lose the truth concerning the historical Adam and our solidarity in his sin and condemnation, and a further hole is made in the gospel of justification.[xix]



[i] Robert Schuller, the well-known television personality and author of the book Self-Esteem: The New Reformation, (Word, 1982) contends that only by starting at the highest level (“Healthy persons who will really feel good about themselves”—p. 39) can we really follow the example of Jesus. Schuller writes: “Luther and Calvin, we know, looked to the Book of Romans in the Bible for their primary inspiration. Were they, unknowingly, possessed more by the spirit of St. Paul than by the Spirit of Jesus Christ? Are we not on safer grounds if we look to our Lord’s work to launch our reformation?” (Ibid.). Schuller is guilty of selective reading of Jesus’ teaching (and St. Paul, since he later in the book cites the Apostle to prove a point, cf. p. 69). Schuller has long contended that sin is not rebellion against God, but rather sin is simply “a lack of self-esteem.” More recently one of the leading church-growth advocates has argued that, due to low self-esteem that currently afflicts most people, doctrinal sermons which underscore human sinfulness and God’s holiness would be inappropriate today (p. 98). Earlier in the book, Schuller matter-of-factly stated, “It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’” (p. 64)


[ii] Cf. Fox News (Feb. 2, 2004) Amy C. Sims.


[iii] J. I. Packer, God’s Words: Studies of Key Bible Themes (IVP, 1981), p. 72.


[iv] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith: A survey of Christian Doctrine (Baker, 1956), p. 243.


[v] F. Rienecker and C. Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 1982), p. 360.


[vi] N. T. Wright, for example, does not fall into any of the categories listed below. He completely ignores the subject of imputation altogether! Cf. his commentary on Romans in The New Interpreter’s Bible X (Abington, 2002).


[vii] James Denny, “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans” The Expositor’s Greek Testament (rpt. Eerdmans, 1970).


[viii] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Harper & Row, 1957).


[ix] E. Brunner, Dogmatics: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Lutterworth Press, 1952), where he writes, that Augustine got it wrong when he understood the phrase IN QUO OMNES PECCAVERUNT to Adam’s sin, rather Brunner contends “each of us becomes a sinner by his own act.” (p. 99) Brunner, like Karl Barth, denied the historicity of Adam. The Fall, he declared is a “non-event,” but this he says does really affect the doctrine of sin! cf. his Dogmatics: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Lutterworth Press, 1952), p. 90.


[x] R. Gundry, in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates? (IVP, 2004), p. 28.


[xi] W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology Third Edition, ed. A. W. Gomes (P&R, 2004), pp. 550-602.


[xii] This position is represented by the majority of Reformed Theologians like Fransic Turrettin, Charles Hodge, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray.


[xiii] This position is represented by the majority of Reformed Theologians like Fransic Turrettin, Charles Hodge, R. L. Dabney, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray.


[xiv] Martin B. Copenhaver, Anthony B. Robinson, and William H. Willimon (all of whom do not come from traditions that are generally recognized as being evangelical) express the same concern: “We, who have become so adept at describing our lives psychologically, economically, sociology, must now work to describe ourselves theologically. It’s like we have lost a language for having anything more interesting happen to us than a personal crisis. We have been so thoroughly schooled in atheistic descriptions of ourselves that, when God in Christ intrudes among us, we have no means to name revelation when we get it. Having lost a language of faith, we lack the resources and the imagination to think of life as anything more than chance, meaningless urges and counter-urges, one thing after another.” (Good News in Exile: Three Pastors Offer a Hopefully Vision for the Church (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 115.)


[xv] As cited in G. A. Pritchard’s Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church (Baker, 1996), p. 225.


[xvi] Ibid.


[xvii] As cited in K. H. Sargeant, Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2000), p. 103.


[xviii] Sargeant, p. 45.


[xix] Philip Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by Faith Alone in the Light of Recent Thought (Day One Publications, 1996), p. 187.


365 Days With Calvin

Selected and edited by Dr. Joel R. Beeke

John Calvin exercised a profound ministry in Europe, and is probably one of the most seminal thinkers ever to have lived. A godly pastor, theologian and preacher, he led his flock by example and worked hard to establish consistent godliness in his city. A prolific writer, his sermons, letters, and, of course, his Christian Institutes have been published again and again. His writingsonce described as flowing proseare characterized by clarity, simplicity, and yet profoundness, too. In these heart-warming pieces, drawn from his commentaries and sermons, Calvin brings us to Christ, the glorious Savior of all his people.

Author/Compiler Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written or edited fifty books, and contributed hundreds of articles to Reformed books, journals, periodicals, and encyclopedias. His Ph.D. is in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is frequently called upon to lecture at seminaries and to speak at Reformed conferences around the world. He and his wife, Mary, have been blessed with three children: Calvin, Esther, and Lydia.


“Daily devotionalsspiritual aids to help us be accountable for a life of disciplined reading of Scripture and prayerhave been around for centuries and need a certain caliber of excellence and insight if they are to prove of lasting value through 365 days! Of those Id like to spend a year with as my spiritual guide and mentor, John Calvin is most certainly one of them. Joel Beeke guides us through the Reformers writings to help us discover the help and insight that every Christian needs to live a God-honoring life for Jesus Christ.” Derek W. H. Thomas, John E. Richards Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Minister of Teaching, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, Editorial Director, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

Hardback; 416 pages

Continue Reading on