Inherited Sinful Nature:
A View Permissible as both Biblical and Baptist
The doctrinal formulation known as inherited guilt, or imputed guilt, holds a prominent position within the history of Christianity as well as among Baptists. The claim of this paper is that inherited guilt, the view that every person inherits more than a sinful nature or inclination but also the actual guilt of the first Adam, faces the challenge of maintaining internally-consistent theological assertions when formulating a doctrine of infant salvation. In other words, there may be a better way of understanding what the Bible teaches about our inheritance from Adam and subsequent sin and death which has been answered by God in the gift of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This view, inherited sinful nature, is presented in a basic way through seven biblical statements on the spiritual condition of infants. The paper supports this view by engaging key texts (such as 2 Samuel 12; Psalm 51:5; and Romans 5:12), major theologians (such as Augustine, Calvin, Wayne Grudem and John MacArthur), and our convention’s common doctrinal statement, the BFM 2000.
This paper is offered as a resource to benefit Southern Baptist pastors. While the professors teach students about doctrinal issues such as the nature of our inheritance from Adam or how to formulate a theologically-consistent doctrine of infant salvation, it is pastors who do the hardest work. It is pastors who prepare and deliver funeral sermons for those previous infants and minister to those hurting families in subsequent years. Reared in SBC churches across the country (moved by the military every few years), I heard a wide variety of Southern Baptist pastors and Bible study teachers advocate a view which was sometimes referred to as an age or stage of accountability. This view resonated with many people as faithful to the teachings of Scripture. But there seemed to be little-to-nothing in print which articulated a biblical-theological defense for such a view. This paper is offered as a small contribution to begin filling that theological void. It is my intuition that this view of inherited guilt will be gladly received because it is already widely affirmed throughout the SBC.
The content of this paper was drawn from the work in my 2007 PhD dissertation in Theology completed at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The dissertation was revised and published in 2011 with pastors in mind. Unless a person wants to comb through 400+ footnotes from more than 200+ sources, I recommend simply reading this paper. On a personal note, it is humbling to know that God may desire to encourage and sharpen certain pastors in their high calling through this proposal. If it blesses even one pastor and aids in his ministry, then I will thank the Lord, because it was prepared as an offering to the Him and now I am honored to offer it for consideration to the pastors who serve in His churches throughout the SBC.
There are few things more painful or perplexing than the death of an infant. Because the fog of grief can cloud your thinking, the best time to set into place a biblical view about tragedy and suffering is before it strikes. Although several books have been written on the subject of infant salvation, the current proposal is unique because it attempts to address the spiritual condition of infants who are physically alive. Why focus on the spiritual condition of living infants? Before we consider the issue of the salvation of infants, we need to be clear about what the Bible does and does not affirm about their current spiritual condition.
In one paper, I must exclude more information than I can include. The content, nevertheless, is organized as follows: first, a presentation of the dilemma concerning infants; second, a proposal of seven biblical statements on their spiritual condition; third, some comments of pastoral application.
The Bible presents a dilemma concerning infants. On the one hand, Genesis 3 and Romans 5 describe humanity’s fall into sin and the horrible legacy for subsequent generations. We all have a relationship with the first Adam, and that relationship results in our being sinners. Even before we understand the difference between right and wrong, we are sin-stained people. The Bible also informs us that every person will spend the rest of eternity somewhere—either with God in heaven or apart from God in hell. The good news is that God did not abandon his broken creation. At the very moment we were hopeless and helpless in our sin, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). Jesus, who was and is fully God and fully man, lived and died and was raised to provide the forgiveness of sin and to make peace between God and man (1 Cor 15:1–4; 1 Tim 2:5–6).
But the sad part of the good news is that not everyone will be forgiven of their sin. Jesus spoke of a broad gate and road, which lead to destruction, and the many who would go that way (Matt 7:13). Jesus warned about the danger of being thrown into hell (Luke 12:5). Thankfully, some people will go to heaven. And those people who go to heaven will at some point in their lives hear the saving message of the Gospel—that Christ died for our sins. And the people who hear that message will have repented of their sin and turned to Christ for the forgiveness of their sin.
The dilemma comes when we consider infants. I’ll define an infant as a person who is one year old or younger (including the pre-born). Infants are part of sinful humanity. Even if they don’t yet know they are sinners, they inherit from the first Adam a sinful nature. And later in life, they will inevitably and certainly act out of that sinful nature and knowingly commit sinful acts. But infants who die never had a chance to hear, understand, and respond to the Gospel. It’s not just that they do not hear and respond; infants cannot hear and respond to the Gospel.
It seems wrong to think that the loving God of the Bible would allow those infants to spend eternity in hell. But it seems equally wrong to think that the holy God of the Bible would welcome guilty people—no matter how young—into heaven. Thus, the dilemma: How does God welcome some, or any sinful infants into heaven? The Bible doesn’t explicitly answer this question. When Anabaptist leader Balthtasar Hubmaier (1480–1528) was asked about the eternal destiny of unbaptized infants, he wrote, “I confess here publicly my ignorance. I am not ashamed not to know what God did not want to reveal to us with a clear and plain word.”
The Bible does not explicitly answer that question. There is no chapter and verse in the Bible that answers that particular question in that particular way. We can, however, based on Scripture’s clear teaching regarding sin and God’s judgment, attempt to build from Scripture an argument for how we think God deals with people who die in infancy. We can also rule out some wrong answers.
These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered:
Are infants guilty of sin or not? If you believe that people need to hear and respond to the Gospel to be saved, and you say that infants are guilty of sin, then the consistent conclusion is that all infants who die without hearing and responding to the Gospel will be separated from God. But almost no theologian says that. Nearly all theologians hold out hope that some (or all) of those infants will go to heaven. But most of those same theologians also say that infants are guilty of sin. If you begin with infant guilt, then you’re left with a doctrinal system in which some sinful, guilty people (infants) are welcomed into heaven. That system is internally inconsistent.
Let me illustrate for you the inconsistencies. Ronald Nash was a well-respected theologian and philosopher who taught at Christian colleges and seminaries for 40 years and wrote more than 30 books. He attempted to reconcile infant guilt and the hope of heaven in his 1999 book entitled When a Baby Dies. Nash insists that infants are guilty because of their sinful nature. So, infants are guilty. However, “divine judgment is administered on the basis of sins committed in the body.” He cites 1 Cor 6:9–10, which includes sexual sins and says this excludes infants. So, infants are not guilty. But, Nash writes, infants are guilty due to their sinful nature. So, infants are guilty. However, infants don’t know the difference between good and evil, so they are incapable of personal sin. Nash cites Romans 1, which is “clearly dealing with responsible adults.” So, infants are not guilty. Typically, Ronald Nash is consistent and clear. But in this case, he insists that infants are guilty before God and at the very same time not guilty. How can that be?
That’s the dilemma. What is their spiritual condition? What can we know from Scripture? To address this dilemma, I will present and defend seven biblical statements on the spiritual condition of infants and close with suggestions for pastoral application.
(1) Infants are people. Sometimes we think and speak about infants, especially in the womb, as not-yet-people. Infants are a fetus or a potential person, but not yet a person. That is not the view of Scripture. In Psalm 139, David explains how God formed him in his mother’s womb. David was “made” and “woven” together. Even when David was “unformed substance,” God saw him and David’s future days were written in God’s book. In Jeremiah 1, God tells Jeremiah that He “knew” Jeremiah before He formed him in the womb. And God “consecrated” Jeremiah before he was born. From these passages, we see that infants are people, which means they are the special creation of God and (Gen 1:27) made in God’s very image. Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did not distinguish grammatically between pre-born or born-alive infants. He used the same Greek word (brephos) to refer to John the Baptist as a baby inside the womb (Luke 1:41) and to Jesus as a baby outside of the womb (Luke 2:12). The womb is the place where God creates people. In the words of the widely-read twentieth century theologian, Dr. Seuss, who repeatedly made this statement in Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Infants are people.
(2) Infants are impacted by sin. One of the questions people ask before they read my book is this: “If infants are not guilty of sin, then why do some infants die? Isn’t death a result, or wage, of sin?” That is a great question. Death is a result or wage of sin. And some infants die. But it does not follow that their deaths are a result of either personal or inherited guilt. Instead, death is the result of God’s universal judgment against sin. Even infants can be caught up in the horrible effects of living in a fallen world.
Consider one example of the death of an infant in Scripture: David’s first son. Second Samuel 11 details the awful events of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. David’s cover-up ended in the death of her husband, Uriah. In chapter 12, the prophet Nathan confronted the king with a story that ended with the accusation, “You are the man!” Struck by that truth, David admitted his sin. God forgave David but announced that there would be severe consequences for his actions. One of those consequences was that the child in Bathsheba’s womb would die (12:14). Scripture tells us that the child was born and became sick. David fasted and begged God to spare his son’s life. But the infant died. Question: What sinful action did the infant commit in order to earn the punishment of death? The answer (of course): Nothing. The infant had done nothing wrong. The child didn’t die because of Adam’s sin. The text is clear that the child didn’t die because of his own sin. The child died as a direct result of David’s sin. Our sins can have horrible consequences for other people, including infants.
Consider also Pharoah’s infanticide in the day of Moses and King Herod’s infanticide in the day of Jesus. Those babies did nothing wrong. I don’t cite these examples to say that the death of infants can always be blamed on the sinful actions of other people. The story of Job and the teachings of Jesus (John 9) tell us that is not the case. Instead, what we have seen is that infants can suffer death without personally committing any acts of sin. Infants are impacted by sin.
(3) Infants are not sinless. We reject Pelagianism. Pelagius taught that infants are sinless and Adam was only a bad example that we choose to follow. That’s wrong. Only Jesus was born without sin. All other people, including infants, inherit a sinful nature from Adam. People may look at babies and speak of their innocence and purity. If by those words, they mean that infants have not yet knowingly committed sinful actions, then yes, they are innocent and pure. But if they mean that infants are without sin exactly like Adam and Eve before the fall or like Jesus, then no.
David wrote this: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). Old Testament scholars who comment on this passage explain this as David’s reference to his sinfulness from the first moment of his life. But this is not a comment on infant guilt. Systematic theologians sometimes cite this verse to support a claim of infant guilt. That is not what David said. OT scholars who provide the explanation for Psalm 51:5 I am advocating include: Franz Delitzsch, Edward Dalglish, Mitchell Dahood, Michael Goulder, Hans-Joachim Kraus, and others. These Old Testament scholars say David is not referring to guilt but sinfulness.
Scripture clearly connects us to Adam. Sin entered the world through one man (Rom 5:12). So, all orthodox Christians agree that infants are not sinless. What they disagree on is guilt. There are two different views of this. That brings us to our next position.
(4) Infants inherit from Adam death, not guilt. Augustine taught, and John Calvin later affirmed, that all infants inherit from Adam not only a sinful nature, but also his guilt. Augustine argued that all of humanity was physically (seminally) present when Adam sinned in the Garden. So, we were physically present in Adam. Calvin, though, argued that Adam acted as our representative, or our federal head. He acted as our representative. When Adam sinned, he acted on our behalf and because he is our representative, when he was judged guilty we were judged guilty. In either case, this tradition of Augustinian-Calvinism teaches that all people inherit from Adam both a sinful nature and Adam’s guilt. So, the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition affirms that all people, even as infants, have inherited guilt. In explaining this view, theologian Wayne Grudem wrote that “even before birth, children have a guilty standing before God and a sinful nature that not only gives them a tendency to sin but also causes God to view them as ‘sinners.’” Calvinists point to Rom 5:12-21, in which Paul parallels the work of Adam and the work of Christ. But despite the teachings of Augustine and Calvin, Paul was not arguing for our guilt in Adam. Rom 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Paul connects sin to death and states that all have sinned.
Some people read Augustinian-Calvinism into Romans 5, insisting that every person will die because “all sinned,” adding these words that are not in the text: “in Adam.” They say Romans 5 means we’re all guilty because of Adam’s sin. But the text only states that “death spread to all men, because all sinned.” We need to be careful not to read a theological system into the text of Scripture.
Several New Testament scholars who comment on Romans 5 are careful not to read inherited guilt into the passage. C. E. B. Cranfield, in his International Critical Commentary on Romans, allows for a distinction between Adam’s sin being passed to infants and the guilt they later incur after they commit sinful actions. He writes, “But those who die in infancy are a special and exceptional case, and Paul must surely be assumed to be thinking in terms of adults.” In Cranfield’s estimation, Paul was dealing with adults in Romans 5 not infants.
Millard Erickson raises the problem of reading an exact correspondence into Romans 5. If all people were present and guilty because of Adam’s disobedience (universal condemnation), then an exact correspondence would mean that all people were made right with God through Christ’s obedience (universal justification). But that is not the case. We reject Universalism. Rather, we say that one must personally ratify the work of Christ in our life by responding in repentance and faith to be saved. In a similar way, we must personally ratify the work of Adam in our life. We do so the first time we commit an act of sin after we know the difference between right and wrong. We must become guilty. (The picture on the next page attempts to illustrate Erickson’s view of conditional imputation.)
The Scriptures teach substitutionary atonement (Christ died in our place) not substitutionary guilt. You are not held responsible for the sins of another person but for your own transgressions. You are not held guilty for the sins of your father, your grandfather, or your great-grandfather. Can their sins have consequences on you? Yes. Are you held guilty for the adultery of your great-great-grandfather or the lies of your great-great-great grandmother? No. Neither are you held guilty for the sins of the first Adam. We are connected to Adam, but we answer to God for our own sin and guilt. We inherit from Adam death, not guilt.
(5) Inherited guilt requires inconsistent claims regarding our inheritance from Adam and its effect upon infants when formulating a doctrine of infant salvation. If you begin by assuming infant guilt, then an infant’s only hope for heaven is found in one of four ways, all of which appear to be doctrinally inconsistent.
If you begin with infant guilt, then the infant might have a hope of heaven due to baptismal regeneration (baptism for salvation). This was Augustine’s solution. He thought baptism would cleanse the infant of the stain of “Adamic sin.” But if an infant died before being baptized then, he wrote, the infant would suffer a “milder condemnation” in hell because the infant still retains the guilt of Adam’s sin. But we reject baptismal regeneration–both for infants and for adults. People aren’t made right with God by the act of water baptism–whether by sprinkling or immersion. Guilty people are made right with God by repenting of their sin and placing their faith in Christ. But if you begin with infant guilt, the road to infant salvation may pass through baptismal regeneration.
If you begin with infant guilt, then the road to infant salvation may travel the road of parental faith. Covenant theology holds out the promise that infants who die with believing parents may go to heaven due to the covenant nature of salvation. They point to 1 Cor 7:14 sanctification and the nature of covenant promises being “to your children.” This is the example of John Calvin and Wayne Grudem. Infants of believers can have this hope but not infants with unbelieving parents. So, the difference between heaven and hell for an infant now lies in whether or not parents are Christians?! We reject that view.
If we begin with infant guilt, then hope for heaven can also be found in forgiveness apart from repentance at death. Infants who die remain guilty but enter heaven apart from repenting of that sin/guilt and apart from confessing faith in Christ. When would infants repent of their guilt? John Piper speculated in a footnote of an otherwise excellent book that infants who die will mature after death and confess Christ. Was it a commitment to infant guilt that led Piper to speculate about post-mortem confessions of Christ? That is not a good solution.
If we begin with infant guilt, then their hope for heaven can be based on forgiveness apart from the commission of sin. If we begin with inherited guilt, then you are left with an infant who is guilty of sin before committing any act of sin. Infants are considered guilty, then, on what basis? On the basis of Adam’s actions in the Garden. Those options fall short because they begin with an assumption that is foreign to Scripture: infant guilt.
(6) Infants are free from condemnation but will later become guilty for sins committed after they develop moral knowledge.
Free from condemnation? Moral knowledge? What is the basis of such a statement? Is there one example from Scripture of infants being declared free from God’s judgment simply because of their lack of moral knowledge? Yes.
Recall the story of the 12 spies. Ten said, “We can’t take the land because of the giants.” Two said, “God has promised us the land, so we can take it.” Do you remember why Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years? Because they voted with the ten spies, who failed to trust God. Deuteronomy 1 and Numbers 14 records God’s judgment against them. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the older generation (defined in Scripture as twenty years and older) would not enter the Promised Land. Instead, they would wander around and die off in the desert. After the last of that generation died, the younger generation of Israelites would enter the land. What was the single reason the younger generation was spared God’s judgment? Their age. I am not suggesting that 20 is the age of accountability, but according to Deut 1:39, that younger generation had “no knowledge of good or evil.” They lacked moral knowledge and were spared from God’s judgment.
Even some Calvinists affirm this reading of this story. Pastor and author John MacArthur holds a similar interpretation of Deut 1:39 and links that with the spiritual condition of infants today. In his book Safe In the Arms of God, he writes, “The Israelite children of sinful parents were allowed to enter fully into the blessing God had for His people. They were in no way held accountable, responsible, or punishable for the sins of their parents. Why? Because they had no knowledge of good and evil, right or wrong.” Then, he quotes Ezek 18:20, which reads (ESV), “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
MacArthur continues, “The same is true today. A child may be conceived out of wedlock. A fetus may be aborted by an ungodly mother. A child may be beaten to death by an ungodly father. But before God, that child does not bear culpability for the sins of the parents. The children were considered ‘innocent’ of sin. They had not rebelled; they had no ‘say’ regarding the Israelite’s rebellion and unbelief. In a profound way, God blessed their innocence.”
If the Bible teaches that sin and death (not guilt) comes from Adam, then when does a person become guilty? Although there is no “age of accountability” in the Bible, there are conditions for accountability:
1. You know the difference between right and wrong.
2. You knowingly commit your first sinful act.
Only after those two conditions are fulfilled is a person guilty before God and under condemnation.
This basic view was the consensus among theologians prior to Augustine. It has been affirmed by various Christian thinkers throughout church history. In my estimation, the proposed view is more consistent with both the doctrinal statement of the SBC and more clearly reflects the claims of Scripture. Of the two views (inherited guilt or inherited sinful nature), only one of them (inherited sinful nature) is affirmed explicitly in Article 3 of the BFM 2000, “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.” It is permissible, however, to affirm inherited guilt, because such a view claims more not less than the BFM 2000.
Infants, according to the BFM 2000, are not transgressors; infants are free from condemnation. Why? Because they have not yet become capable of moral action. This describes the conditions we noted above for an age of or condition for accountability. This failure to affirm inherited guilt is advocated in Article 3 of the BFM 2000 and runs contrary to most systematic theology textbooks in print. Inherited guilt is a dominant but weaker view. It needs to be refuted because it is unnecessary for a robust doctrine of sin. But whether you affirm inherited guilt or sinful nature, it’s clear that all infants are descendants of the first Adam and have inherited (at least) a sinful nature.
(7) In the Bible, God judges sinful actions, not our nature.
Consider the following statements from Scripture about God judging sin: 2 Cor 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” What is the basis of God’s judgment in this verse? Our nature or our actions?
Consider the argument that Paul builds in his letter to the Romans. In chapter 1, God’s wrath is revealed against the following actions: the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (v. 18), fail to honor or thank God (v. 21), claim wisdom (v. 22) but choose idolatry (vv. 23–25), and practice homosexuality (vv. 26-27). What is the basis of God’s judgment in this passage? Our nature or our actions? The same things can be seen in the rest of Romans 1.
Romans 3:10 is a classic statement of man’s unrighteousness, “There is no one righteous, no not one.” What follows in vv. 11–18 is not a summary of man’s sinful nature but his sinful actions. We fail to understand or seek God (v. 11), turn aside and fail to do good (v. 12), speak sinful words (vv. 13–14), kill, destroy, fail to live peaceably, and fail to fear God (vv. 15–18). What is the basis of God’s judgment in this passage? Our nature or our actions?
Reflecting on Romans 1-3, New Testament scholar Harold Hoehner writes, “Paul makes it very clear in Romans that it is their willful acts of transgression and disobedience that bring this wrath.”
The significance? Augustinian-Calvinists argue for our guilt and the judgment of God based upon our sinful nature but Paul argues for our guilt and the judgment of God based upon our sinful actions, which excludes infants.
In this paper, I have argued:
1. Infants are people.
2. Infants are impacted by sin.
3. Infants are not sinless.
4. Infants inherit from Adam death, not guilt.
5. Inherited guilt requires inconsistent claims when formulating a doctrine of infant salvation.
6. Infants are free from condemnation but will later become guilty for sins committed after they develop moral knowledge.
7. In the Bible, God judges sinful actions, not our nature.
I’ll close with a few words regarding pastoral application.
God has things to say to parents who have lost an infant due to miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth, or some other tragedy. These Scriptures are meant to bring hope and encouragement and can be affirmed regardless of one’s position on our inheritance from Adam.
Under God’s good providence, the theological conclusion regarding infant salvation has been shared by Baptists for more than 400 years. This was true whether one self-identified as a General or Particular Baptist, Sandy Creek or Charleston Baptist. The same is true today. The two streams of Baptist tradition still differ on the nature of our inheritance from Adam. But we stand united on the reason pastors can make such a claim. Pastors can comfort any family grieving the loss of a precious infant because of the boundless love God demonstrates at the Cross of Christ, for “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
 Because this manuscript was not intended for academic peer-review, few quotations are cited. For bibliographic information or a more comprehensive treatment of this topic, see Adam Harwood, The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011).
 John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear The Gospel to be Saved? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 77 n. 6. Surprisingly, Piper cites in support of his claim Ronald Nash, When a Baby Dies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), who argues in chapter 3 against precisely the view to which Piper is open, salvation via post-mortem faith.
 For an example of this agreement, see R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and Daniel L. Akin, “The Salvation of the ‘Little Ones’: Do Infants who Die Go to Heaven?” at http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/07/16/the-salvation-of-the-little-ones-do-infants-who-die-go-to-heaven/, accessed June 14, 2012
 For a chapel presentation by Dr. Harwood in which he explains the Baptist Faith and Message 2000’s affirmation of inheriting a sinful nature but rejection of imputed guilt, see http://www.truett.edu/chapel/fall-2011-chapel/fall-2011-chapel-video-player.html