I Never Ate the Apple
A Defense of Inherited Sinful Nature Without Inherited Guilt
I must confess at the outset I have always been rather sympathetic toward Adam, for although he is not the only man in history to do whatever a naked woman told him, he does have the distinction of being the first. I do not presume for a moment that if it had been me in the garden things would have turned out any differently. I am a sinner who is guilty of my own sin–and no one else’s. To my shame, my sins have brought plenty of guilt upon myself without borrowing any of the guilt Adam’s sins brought upon him.
In a previous article, I dealt extensively with the subject of inherited guilt, responding to a fellow Southern Baptist who rejects the current confessional position of The Baptist Faith and Message on this issue. My treatment was limited to arguments rooted in the various versions of our confession, along with a discussion of the positions espoused by certain theologians and other religious groups. A few of the reactions to my response indicated a desire for a more thorough biblical and theological treatment, which is the purpose for this article, no longer shackled by the chains of a polemical response to the aforementioned brother, but now able to provide a more freestanding exegetical essay.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
Let me disclaim any suggestion that my view on the effects of the fall diminishes the existence of original sin. Because of the fall, we all inherit from Adam a sin nature and the inclination to transgress. Fallen, we will all sin. The issue I am addressing is not sinful transgression, but guilty condemnation. Adam’s sin spread to me and inclined me to transgress, but I am only guilty of sin “because all sinned,” including, of course, me.
The argument appears to hinge upon the translation in this verse of the phrase eph’ ho pantes hemarton. If one takes this to mean “in whom all sinned” then it is reasonable to conclude that each of us actually committed our own sin “in Adam.” Such a view argues in favor of inherited guilt. However, if one takes what James D. G. Dunn described as the “dominant consensus” view, we must render the phrase “because all sinned” and the normal interpretation then favors the inherited sinful nature without inherited guilt perspective. (Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle, 95)
While, then, we are responsible for our own sins and not guilty because Adam sinned, yet we do not just copy Adam in his sin but are predisposed to sin because he brought sin into the world. (Ernest Best, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 60)
But the inherited sinful nature view should not be called a Pelagian view because it affirms the full sinfulness of humanity from the time of conception, which Pelagianism denies. (Adam Harwood, The Spiritual Condition of Infants, 34)
In other words, our guilt and condemnation come about because we each personally sin and not because Adam sinned while we were somehow present in him in a way that made us responsible for the sin that he committed. It bears repeating that this in no way denies the transmission from Adam to us of our sinful nature and inclination.
So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is life-giving justification for everyone. For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
Proponents of inherited sinful nature without inherited guilt interpret these verses as broadly applying to the very effects of the fall we inherited in our sinful nature. Indeed, this sinful nature leads to our own transgression resulting in our own condemnation and in the death which comes from our own sin. In contrast, through the obedience of Christ, we are able to be made righteous as a result of His perfect sacrifice for our sins upon the cross when we appropriate His grace through repentance and faith.
In other words, the effects of the fall (sinful nature, actual sin and condemnation) still come upon mankind regardless of which view one holds. The difference is that, in the case of the one who rejects inherited guilt, the condemnation comes only after one’s own personal act of sin, which itself resulted from the sinful nature inherited from Adam.
Fathers are not to be put to death for their children or children for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
This verse stands for a variety of Old Testament passages (Ezekiel 18:19-20, Jeremiah 31:29-34, Psalm 79:8 and others) which argue against the transmission of guilt from one generation to another. The weight of Scripture supports this personal responsibility, but the contrary position is found as well (Exodus 34:7, Numbers 14:18, Deuteronomy 5:9 and others) although most interpret the iniquity being visited in these verses as the natural consequences of sin with which families must contend. Although not directly speaking to the special case of our common ancestor Adam, these verses nonetheless lend support to the view that we become guilty only after we have personally sinned.
We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (Ephesians 2:3)
The concept of being “by nature children under wrath” is only problematic for one who denies inherited guilt if one assumes that no personal sins have yet been committed. However, the context of the verse itself disabuses us of such a notion. The sinners in this passage are said to be already living among them “in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts…” By this point, their sinful natures were already under severe condemnation for much more than the sin of Adam in the garden.
It should at least be noted once again that the placement of the word “condemnation” in The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 indeed follows that point in time when men who are capable of moral action become actual transgressors:
Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. (BFM 2000, emphasis added)
Clearly, the inherited sinful nature without inherited guilt perspective is the current confessional view of Southern Baptists. One of the most articulate expressions of this view, cited by Harwood, is the following quote by Timothy Dwight, one of the early presidents of Yale College:
When I assert, that in consequence of the Apostasy of Adam all men have sinned; I do not intend, that the posterity of Adam is guilty of his transgression. Moral actions are not, so far as I can see, transferable from one being to another. The personal act of any agent is, in its very nature, the act of that agent solely; and incapable of being participated by any other agent. Of course, the guilt of such a personal act is equally incapable of being transferred, or participated. (Dwight, Theology Explained and Defended, 478)
In conclusion, although my purpose in this essay has been to complement exegetically my earlier polemical approach, I must return briefly to the unfortunate insinuations of possible heresy which made these two articles necessary. While I can understand that some Southern Baptists might personally oppose a specific theological view espoused in our denomination’s confessional statement, the idea that they, possessing the contrary view, would actually accuse as heterodox the view of those who faithfully adhere to our confession, is in my opinion, a pill exceedingly difficult to swallow, creating a lump in my throat just above the only Adam’s Apple for which I am responsible at all.