Why Romans 5:12-21 Does NOT Say We Are Born Guilty
Yes, I’m returning to this topic. Last time, I ended up receiving a well thought-out response that I much appreciated from a reader. For those unfamiliar, I reject the idea that humanity is born guilty before God because of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Some have said that we inherit a “sin nature” because of the Fall. I suppose this comes down to what you mean by “sin nature.” If by “sin nature” you mean that we are ipso facto guilty by our very nature, I reject that wholesale. If you simply mean that we are prone to sin, I couldn’t agree more, I just reject the terminology sin nature. It’s unnecessarily confusing. It connotes the idea of guilt in my estimation and I am perfectly content to just say human nature. Human nature entails imperfection (we are not God) and freewill (we are free to make our own choices). This equation (imperfection + freewill + temptation) is all I see to be necessary for the conclusion that we will all inevitably sin of our own choosing. It is by this freewill decision to rebel against our Creator that lands us all justifiably under God’s wrath. But no, not for a second do I believe that we are born guilty, or guilty by our very nature, and I have shown why I don’t believe this in the article already cited.
Many have rightly pointed me to the Romans 5:12-21 passage that seems to defend the idea that Adam’s sin and guilt is imputed to us by our very nature of being human. I recommend going and reading that passage for yourself and making your own decision. I am only going to highlight some verses from that passage, but like I said, please go read it for yourself. Let’s take a look at some of the key verses from this passage.
Verse 12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”
The verse is clear that the curse of Adam was death. Death entered the world through Adam. Adam was the first person to whom God said, “You shall surely die.” And Adam did die. Some have speculated that this death was a “spiritual death,” but frankly, I don’t see an honest exegetical way of validating this interpretation. I’m not saying that those who interpret a “spiritual death” here are intentionally dishonest. On the contrary, I assume the best motives on their part. I believe they truly want to rightly discern the Word of God. I just disagree with their interpretation, chiefly because this “spiritual death” is not described in the Fall narrative whatsoever. There’s no mention of it. Nor does any other Old Testament prophet describe the curse of the Fall as a spiritual death. However, Adam does clearly physically die and I feel no compulsion to go any further than that. So I think verse 12 is simply stating what happened in the Fall: physical death entered the world and everyone after Adam, who also freely chose to sin, died as well.
There’s some other verses in there along the same lines, but rather than repeat myself I’ll just simply say that they seem to me to be describing the same effect: one man (Adam) chose to rebel against God, the result was death entering the world, and every person following Adam chose to sin against God and they died as well. I do this not because I don’t take the verses seriously, but for the sake of brevity and I want to get to what I see as the heart of the matter. If you don’t trust me, I don’t blame you and encourage you, once again, to read for yourself.
Verses 18-19: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
This really is the “steel-man” argument for the type of sin nature that would entail us all being by nature guilty. I readily admit that on the surface these verses would seem to buttress this interpretation. The wording is much more convincing than the previous verse. Whereas, in verse 12 “death” entered through Adam and spread to all; these verses state that “condemnation” and the “making of sinners” was transmitted to all through Adam. The wording does seem to be in favor of the born guilty narrative. However, it is these very verses that forbids me from agreeing with the born guilty interpretation.
The two verses are quite repetitive, they seem to be saying the same thing, or making the same point. They each begin by saying this happened because of Adam, and this happens because of Jesus. Let me contrast them each to make it a little clearer.
18a: Adam’s sin led to the condemnation of all men.
19a: Adam’s disobedience caused the many to be made sinners.
There is undoubtedly a relationship between what Adam did and the present state of our own reality. If all we had was part a of each verse, I would probably agree with the born guilty interpreters and be stuck with the ugly conclusions that I’ve highlighted elsewhere. Fortunately, each verse has a part b that prevents me from making such a conclusion.
18b: Jesus’ act of righteousness leads to the justification of all men.
19b: Jesus’ obedience made the many righteous.
The important thing to note (and this really is the main point!) is that the relationship between part a and part b of both verses are univocal, symmetric. In case I’m using those words incorrectly: what’s true of part a must be true of part b in both verses. So, if you think that verse 18 says that all are guilty by nature because of Adam’s sin, without exception, you must admit the same to part b of verse 18 and say that all without exception have been justified by Jesus’ act of righteousness. The same is true of verse 19. This cannot be avoided. I don’t believe that anyone who promotes the born guilty interpretation would hold to a universal justification because the testimony of the Gospels, and New Testament in total, is clear that one must confess with the tongue and believe with the heart to be saved (Romans 10:13). Not everyone will be saved (Matthew 7:21). Only those who repent and trust in Christ will be saved. This means that Jesus’ justification is clearly not universal in its application. If that is true, then Adam’s guilt CANNOT be applied universally either. The text won’t allow for such an interpretation. Trying to say that Jesus’ atoning death is not universal, but Adam’s guilt is, is a fallacy. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, folks. I’m sorry, but it won’t work.
The text that many have ushered me to read is the very text that prevents me from agreeing with them. I’m committed to letting my theology be informed by the text and not the other way around. I’m sure even those who assent to a born guilty interpretation are committed to the same. I’m not saying you don’t love the Bible. I’m saying perhaps we ought rethink this issue by examining the text we both cherish so greatly.
In the end, I think Adam’s sin clearly had an effect on not only us, but all of creation. I just don’t think that effect amounts to all of us being guilty before God by our very nature. I think we each possess a human nature which is imperfect and free to choose as we wish. Again, this is all that I need to say that we will all without distinction choose to sin of our own accord and be guilty before God because of our own individual sin. Because of this we are all in desperate need of God’s grace and forgiveness which he so perfectly provided in the sacrifice of His Son. That, I think we can all agree on.