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.

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31 thoughts on “Why Romans 5:12-21 Does NOT Say We Are Born Guilty

  1. Honestly, I see both ends of the argument. If we were to fully understand what the scriptures meant then more people would be saved, but this is a lifetime process. We never stop learning.

    Personally, I believe adam died physically and spiritually separated from God. Now am I saying Adam is in hell? I don’t know. I was there to ask. I chalk that up with the location of the arc of the covenant and what Jesus wrote in the sand.

    Great discussion!

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  2. I think the overall idea of that narrative is that we, as beings, were once something different by nature and since the fall of Adam and exile from the garden, we began a path of bad choices. With the occasional glimmer of hope from some of the more worthy characters in the Bible, heroes if you will, we can learn how to defeat sin and walk upright. Enoch walked with God and that was after Adam, so if there was sin by birth wouldn’t that have affected him as well, in turn not allowing him to walk with God? (This is merely my surface level observation not having looked into the literal Hebrew text, which might share more insight on the concept of original sin)

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  3. Probably the easiest,most honest and scientifically accurate way to deal with this is simply accept the fact there was no ”Adam” as per the biblical tale.

    Now reconsider the issue and you suddenly realise there actually isn’t one

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    1. I like your solution it seems very simple, but probably not so easy.

      Here’s why I don’t agree with your approach:
      Even if you believe Adam wasn’t real, the issue of sin still exists (in this instance I mean right and wrong), maybe not being guilty by birth but the issue does still present itself in history and science alike. Regardless if you believe the narrative or not, the message is real.

      That would be like saying to accept the fact that Kuntakente, a main character in the mini series Roots, a televised program about slavery in the United States, isn’t fact. These characters can be scientifically disproven and historically traced back to never having existed. Ok, I accept that. Does that make its message and underlying ideology any less potent or real? No, it doesn’t. The issue it presents is still real, and the story it tells is universal.

      You shouldn’t just pretend something didn’t happen especially with no proof otherwise, just because science hypothesizes so. A hypothesis is a guess after all. (I love science by the way and especially respect the scientific method)

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      1. Even if you believe Adam wasn’t real,

        He wasn’t: The Human Genome Project has established this.

        Other than those who punt the nonsense of ”Sin’, ( described as an offense against the Christian god) who besides Christians ( in context) are pretending anything?

        (I love science by the way and especially respect the scientific method)

        Excellent! This is good to hear. Can you , therefore, please explain, using the scientific method, how a 3 day old corpse, supposedly buried in a sealed tomb, can come back to life?

        Best regards.

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      2. What study or proof can you offer me other than the blanket statement about the human genome project? I’m not very familiar with it and would appreciate a link or more info to look over to be able to understand where you’re coming from? It doesn’t seem to be relevant in this case.

        I believe that Christian theology has been a bit misguided, but I don’t think they are pretending anything. The Bible sets a clear precedence for what’s right and wrong morally and politically in the eyes of the creator, and Christians try their best to follow this. If sin is nonsense, and you presumably being an atheist, how do you (personally) know what is right and wrong morally? What do you base it on?

        As far as the resurrection goes, which I believe is about the New Testament messiah and not Adam, I don’t think one could formulate a scientific procedure that could prove the resurrection true or false. We don’t have access to all the material or circumstances that occurred then. The closest one can get, if one was going to attempt to prove anything, is archaeological evidence and historical accounts, but to formulate a hypothesis and to attempt to prove it scientifically at this point in time using the scientific method would not be rational, practical, or scientific.

        Overall I think the main point is this, you don’t like the term sin, or people who believe sin is a thing. Or people who believe The creator of the universe doesn’t want people to commit these sins.

        But I believe the original topic is about original sin and how the New Testament proves that human kind is no longer born sinful under the New Testament covenant of Yeshua the messiah. Anything to say about that issue? Whether you believe in it or not, from an objective stance, any opinions? It is quite a fascinating topic if you actually read the book, kinda fun to debate as well.

        I personally like the Old Testament and the Hebraic understanding of scripture as opposed to the Hellenistic views and theologies of the New Testament. You should look more into it you would probably enjoy it

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      3. If you are really interested in the HGP I am sure Google will help you in this regard – in case I recommend a site that you may feel shows undue bias.
        Although I am sure you are probably aware that Francis Collins is an Evangelical Christian.

        to understand where you’re coming from?

        I am an atheist. What more do you need to know with regard the context of this post?

        Sin or Original sin: Each one is a theological term, and thus, in context is simply meaningless.

        New Testament proves that human kind is no longer born sinful under the New Testament covenant of Yeshua the messiah.

        The NT proves nothing of the sort. It is, at best a story – simply historical fiction.
        I have read the bible – which is a collection of books, and I
        still read bits and pieces on occasion.

        I have no desire to become a full time biblical scholar thus have no real need or urge to study it further.
        Its primary themes are fiction and/or geopolitical myth and no amount of nuanced interpretation will effectively change this.

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      4. Im interested in the HGP only as it relates to this topic of sin because I don’t see how it does. If it’s a scientific study, it shouldn’t be bias at all, regardless of which site it’s on. I want to see what YOU read so we can have the same source to go off of. Did you read the study itself? Or a site of someone’s bias opinion on the study? And I am not particularly familiar with who Francis Collins is, or evangelical Christianity and where any of that fits into this.

        The theological terms, sin and original sin, actually are meaningful in this context because we are literally discussing theology and interpreting biblical meaning.

        The argument presented by the author of the post suggests we are not born guilty and claims it is proven in the book of Romans. They’re not my words, but the authors idea. And how or why would you even suggest it doesn’t prove anything if you don’t believe or even read it. I gave my thoughts on how I could see that as being a true statement from a Perspective of Torah (specifically Genesis).

        I believe the issue is this: you haven’t read it. Maybe you googled a term or a verse, but if you truly read it you would understand and be able to give insight other than just “its fiction”. Back it up with the text, verses or books in the compilation that prove your stance on how we are born guilty as opposed to not being born into guilt. You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to effectively argue your point, you just need facts backed up by research that you can actually provide. When I ask for the research don’t say I can find it myself, show it to me. This shows you don’t truly care about the truth, but rather, just arguing that the Bible is wrong and we’re all dumb to believe it.

        I’m open minded and would love to change my mind if you had research or facts you could present. You just keep saying HGP, that means nothing.

        Please don’t take offense but in your next response provide evidence so we don’t keep going back and forth.

        I believe the author is onto something, I agree because in The Old Testament it suggests a man Enoch (gen.5:21-24) as walking with God. He was born after the fall of man (genesis 3: where original sin and the idea of being born into sin originated) and yet he still was able to walk with God. This suggests that there are people who can be born and carry no sin or commit no sins in their lives.

        I’m going to predict your response: “ The HGP! sin is silly! The Bible is fake news! blanket statement, blanket statement!” (I admit I’m being a bit facetious, hoping you’ll defend your position with actual sources)

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      5. Ah!
        My apologies.
        Yes, I did read the post. ( And the bible, for what it’s worth! 🙂 )
        There is no genuine argument when the content is simply based on a what is primarily a work of fiction.
        This is why I chose not to engage the points raised.
        From an atheist’s perspective the theological concepts/arguments are simply nonsense.

        And this is why the HGP is important.
        And you would understand this if you cared to read about it..
        I would stress at this point that one doesn’t need to be a geneticist or even have an in- depth scientific background to appreciate the findings and the ramifications for the Abrahamic religions.

        But you seem averse to making even a casual investigation, or perhaps I have misunderstood?
        I am, in fact , surprised that you are unaware of who Francis Collins is.
        So for the sake of broadening your understanding a little, and with Hayden’s leave? here is an article by Jerry Coyne that outlines the position.

        https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/06/02/adam-and-eve-the-ultimate-standoff-between-science-and-faith-and-a-contest/

        Regards.

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      6. It seems as though the author has terminated our dialogue or is holding comments in moderation.

        Feel free to visit my blog and post your comment there and we can continue.

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    2. The human genome project is a fascinating project. I would never say it substantiates the young earth western narrative of biblical history (as the majority of this narrative is beyond ludicrous) though, its research does tend to support the idea that all men existing on the earth trace back to one origin source known as Y chromosome Adam, as well, they claim that we can trace back all living people to a source known as mitochondrial Eve. Though certainly, there are disputes even within this research, it certainly is provocative. I’ve studied this subject extensively thus, I’ll leave a quote from a favorite book regarding this subject:

      “What the mitochondrial gene tree did was to introduce an objective time-depth measurement into the equation for the first time. It showed quite clearly that the common mitochondrial ancestor of all modern humans lived only about 150,000 years ago.” — Bryan Sykes, The seven daughters of Eve: The Science that Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry 

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      1. known as Y chromosome Adam
        Yes … Using this name is a quite unfortunate turn of phrase, don’t you think?

        However, all that is relevant is that the biblical narrative – and all the silliness about ”sin” is simply nonsense.

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  4. Think of Jesus’ “justification and life for all people” as sort of universal distribution of Monopoly-style “get out of jail free cards”. Remember: If your token is in jail and you have one of those cards on you, don’t get out automatically, you have to actually redeem the card first–an additional action (faith and repentance) is necessary.

    For what are you repenting?

    I think you have your answer. It’s not as complicated as all that. Beware: “seek and you will find” goes both ways…

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  5. Very enlightening..

    Whilst i do see the very excellent point your making..(which i’d never seen this way before).

    It’s still correct to say that though every man born is not born guilty, yet every man born (into flesh) IS AUTOMATICALLY BOUND TO SIN (via the flesh nature’s default tendencies as you rightly pointed out)..

    Ergo: every man who becomes born again (through faith in Christ) is automatically bound to life.

    Grace..

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  6. Interesting thoughts. I don’t recall having spent too much time thinking on them before. It seemed to me a splitting of hairs to a degree. Original sin being, either you’re born with sin and guilty automatically, or you quickly acquire sin because it surrounds everyone here and one becomes a sinner and guilty eventually. A difference, sure, but a bit moot. I would agree that we’re not born straight from the womb guilty as sinners. How can we be, what have we yet done or said at that point? But eventually, all do sin. In order to be a sinner one must first sin. Either way, each and every one needs Jesus. As to whether Adam (and Eve) were spiritually separated from God when they were cast out of Eden, no doubt about it they lost their intimate personal walking contact with God, but to suppose they lived out their lives in destitute spiritual darkness I think is too much to say. Aa for spiritual death, as I know it, is the second death and hell. Did Adam go to hell? We would have to ask God. Consider does God save any of the people who died before Jesus was crucified and risen to his throne? Isaac, Jacob, Abraham, etc? Somehow, and he hasn’t explained it to us, I think, yes, he’s figured all that and has made a way for them through Jesus. He alone knows and sifts men’s souls and judges.
    But back to Adam/eve, they knew better, thus the eating of the forbidden fruit they were nolonger ignorant of good and evil. Surely they died, but also consider, how long Adam lives! A very long time, it is recorded. Indeed they fell from grace and sinned, though God blessed them with descendants and long life. Later in scripture, God says those who walk by His ways, do so so that you might have long life. Someone who’s spiritually dead and unrepentant, God tends to cut them and their descendants off. Nowhere do we read that Adam just shrugged God off after Eden and became a lawbreaker in every way. Instead he was very sorrowful, and probably went on telling his descendants, Don’t do what I did and disobey God. Consider having to carry that guilt around. The guy who brought sin and death into the world and banished from paradise in God’s immediate company. Does God make a way for those who died before Jesus ascended to His thrown to be redeemed also through Christ? He must, or what of the patriarchs and prophets souls? But we aren’t told the particulars of that. Or are we and I just don’t know?

    Consider Cain and Abel. Abel knew what pleased God, and he made the right choice in sacrifices offered. Cain did not, and was jealous and killed Abel. God sent Cain away after murdering his brother, but forbids anyone to hurt him. There’s mercy and love. So, God’s instruction/knowledge carried on in the people, or at least per the closer Adam/Eve family line, and it didn’t get shut up at the banishment from Eden. Later, Abraham did what was right in the eyes of God. He knew God’s will, and was considered by God a righteous man. How did he know God’s will to begin with? Through the succession of oral sharing of God’s will and knowledge, or by angelic messenger or prophet or directly speaking.

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  7. Hey Haden, I enjoyed reading your post. Loved the biting sarcasm in reference to cake, and wanted to give you–yet again–a friendly heads up with my own critique, which should drop sometime by tomorrow morning, if not later today. Feel free to lean in where you deem necessary. Today’s post (dropped a few moments ago) kind of serves as a preface to what follows in the next one.
    In Christ,
    Kris Miller

    ps. You should have called me out last time for misspelling your name. No excuse on my end, I apologize.

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  8. Hi, Thank you for raising an important topic. I offer a few things for consideration.
    1. Romans 5:13-14 indicates that Adam’s sin was unique. He sinned in a way no one else could, and yet the effect of his sin was passed on to every human being who is born in the ordinary way (Christ’s virgin birth while overshadowed by the Holy Spirit being the only exception). Adam acted as our representative. All are in Adam by nature birth, so all fell (became sinful by nature) because of Adam. If they broke no explicit law, how is it that they were regarded as sinners, and received the penalty for sin. Sin is lawlessness. Sin is law breaking. Paul’s argument seems to be this: that, until Moses, everyone died because of Adam’s sin. Everyone was acting badly before Moses, but there was no ‘Law’ then. Adam broke the only explicit law that God gave until Moses arrived on the scene. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses. This is the context for ‘by one man all became sinners’ as well as for the fact of the second Adam, Christ. Anyone who is in Christ by faith (which is the free gift of God) is regarded as righteous.
    2. If you do not believe that Adam’s sin made us guilty by imputation, how does the righteousness of Christ come to sinners like us without imputation (the Adam/Christ parallel). We remain sinners until the day we die, and yet (in Christ) we are regarded as sinless because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and we receive the benefits of it. Or, how can you believe that Christ could die (a righteous man) unless he was really regarded as a sinner by imputation? ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ Christ could not have died unless the sins of his people were imputed to him and he was regarded as guilty because of them.
    3. Consider the case of David and Jacob and Esau. King David said, in Psalm 51, ‘In sin my mother conceived me.’ He was not saying that his mother committed adultery to conceive him, he was confessing his own sinful nature as a child of Adam. Before he did anything in his own person that was sinful, he was a sinner in Adam. Again, in Romans 9:11-13, we have God’s commentary on Jacob and Esau. Before that did anything right or wrong, they were both on the wrong side of the sin divide. God was pleased to show mercy to Jacob, he did not show the same saving mercy to Esau. Both grew up to do sinful things, but one of the found grace from God. All the best.

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  9. In effect, then … those who claim that man is inherently and irretrievably sinful are claiming that Adam’s act of disobedience was more powerful and longer lasting than Jesus’s sacrifice.

    I’m going to have to think about that. As it happens, I agree with what you have written here. I reject the premise that we are supposed to make ourselves miserable for no reason. I also firmly believe that sin and guilt are commodities for organized religions, a means to bring in revenue and to keep the faithful in line. Most of the so-called “God’s laws” that fundamentalists quote chapter and verse are in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and represent the nit-picking legal code of the ancient Jewish society.

    As for me, I follow Christ Jesus and the Ten Commandments. When it comes to the laws instituted by the priests of the Temple, I heed the lesson of Acts 10: 10-15. “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

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