More on Romans 5:12 (Part 3)

Posted By on June 23, 2009

Well, time to get back to Romans 5:12 and the “imputation” or “transmission” of Adam’s guilt to the human race. If you missed the previous post, I deny that Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam’s guilt was what was transmitted to humanity as a result of his sin. But, on the other hand, I affirm that no one can get to heaven by any human merit, that all humans need a Savior (who is Jesus), that there is no other way of salvation, and that humans “cannot not sin.” So how does this work?

Let’s start with the traditional view by way of summary.

The traditional view teaches that Adam sinned, became guilty before God, and his GUILT was transmitted to all humans thereafter. This is the “representative” view (Adam represented all humanity and his guilt is transferred to all humans). It is also known as the “federal headship” view. The big problem with this, of course, is that Jesus was a son of Adam, and fully human – so how does he get off the hook without denying his full humanity? As the previous post noted, theologians invent answers to this that are blissfully free of the bondage of Scripture. In short, the answers have no scriptural merit – they are reasoned out because of the NEED to get Jesus off the hook.

Augustine saw this problem very clearly. In response, he came up with a different view, which theologians call “seminal headship.” This was the idea that all humans were actually present in Adam “in Adam’s loins” so to speak, and so we all “sinned in Adam” when he sinned. We participated in his sin in a real sense (an act of our will) and became guilty before we were born. This view has three enemies: (1) logic (it makes little sense), (2) it requires that persons pre-exist before they are born – an idea that is not reincarnation but which is a component of a reincarnation worldview, and (3) science (it is simply not true that PERSONS are resident in one’s ancestors). Persons are not genetic traits. On this I would recommend a terrific little book that argues for personhood (and hence pro-life) purely on the basis of science and philosophical logic: Embryo. The authors lay out the science of what happens from the moment of fertilization (and even before). The idea that all of humanity as persons were present in Adam is absolutely false, and so Augustine’s view gets us nowhere, though he astutely saw the problem with the federal view.

Now let’s take a look at the verse. I ask you: are you going to base your theology on what the text actually says, or what you’ve been told to see in it? What does the Scripture say?

“therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man”

  • Adam’s was the first sin

“and death through sin”

  • What did Adam’s sin bring? Death.

“and so death spread to all men”

  • Does the text say “so that ADAM’S GUILT” passed upon all humankind? NO, it does not. The ONLY thing that the text says passed on to all humankind was DEATH. It’s quite clear and explicit. To say “guilt” is to import the idea into the text. This is eisegesis.

“because / so that all sinned”

  • Here’s an important element. The English conjunction here is actually a translation of a Greek preposition (epi) + a relative pronoun. That combination can denote cause (“because”) or result (“so that”), as well as meanings like “upon which” (where/location) and “on behalf of”.
  • If we take “because” then what we have is that the verse tells us that the REASON all humans dies is because all sinned. This is the Augustinian view, but that is contrary to reality. All humans were not “in” Adam. We share genetic characteristics, but genetic traits are not PEOPLE or PERSONS. For the Augustinian view to work, you must have PERSONS in Adam, since it is PERSONS, who incur guilt, not traits! (There are no genetic traits in hell; genetic traits weren’t atoned for by Christ – PEOPLE are and were).
  • If we take “so that”, then the verse sounds a bit odd: “everyone sins because death spread to all men.” That’s actually not weird when you look at it this way: “everyone sins because THEY ARE MORTAL.” This is also part of my view below, so take your pick of translation here!

Here’s my take.

1. I believe Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam sinned, and HE became guilty before God. His guilt was his own, not ours. It wasn’t his guilt that was transferred to all humans. It was something else. I believe Scripture is clear that Adam sinned, and that something happened to the rest of humanity born from that point on, but that something is NOT the transmission of guilt before God. If it was, then Jesus was guilty before God since he is fully human and in Adam’s line.

2. That something *produced* the conditions by which all humans will become guilty before God *on their own* and in need of Savior.

3. What passed to all of humanity as a result of Adam’s sin was mortality / death. That is what the text says. This means that humanity lost immortality. It also means, going back to the Genesis story, that humans were driven from the presence of God in an ideal “heaven meets earth” environment. They were on their own. Left to their own, as non-divine mortals, the result is that all humans, born from that point on, were born into those conditions. If they are allowed to live a normal life span, this means that all humans will sin and incur guilt before God. No human “cannot not sin.” Sin would be universal and inevitable for all humans who get to live some measure of a lifespan where they can choose to rebel against God (i.e., sin).

4. In other words, mortality = the universal propensity and inevitability of sin. All humans need Christ and his work for salvation.

5. This in turn is the answer to the Jesus dilemma. YES, Jesus inherited Adam’s fall – because all that means is that he inherited MORTALITY. And of course Jesus was mortal in the incarnation. He COULD and obviously DID die – like any other human, barring divine intervention (like Elijah and Enoch). Jesus didn’t inherit guilt from Adam because that isn’t the point of Romans 5:12. There is no dilemma.

But if Jesus was mortal in the incarnation, and mortality = the unavoidable propensity to sin and inevitability of sin, did Jesus ever sin?

Well, Jesus was completely mortal. 100 %. But that wasn’t all he was. He was also 100% God, and so he never sinned. The divine nature overruled the weakness of human mortality. His temptations were certainly real, though, and he felt them like we do. But he was God and never incurred moral guilt before the Father. He was sinless – but still a full son of Adam.

All this has some important ramifications. It means there are humans who never sin and who never become guilty before God, though mortal. Who am I talking about with the plural? Aborted babies, still born babies, spontaneously aborted humans after conception, the severely retarded, etc. They never incur guilt before God. One needs to actually sin, and sin involves the will (it is different than OT profanation of sacred space, defilement by another, and the need for RITUAL cleanness in the wake of unintentional defilement). We tend to wrap all those things into one because we don’t live in a ritual culture, or practice religious cult, with its notion of sacred space and holiness of inanimate objects (etc.) like Israelites did. It’s foreign to us. There’s a difference between violation of ritual space, like in the OT, and moral guilt — deliberate violation of divinely-given morality / rules of conduct, and even theology. (And this last element (theology) has more to do with worshipping another deity and rejection of the nature and character of the true God than getting every doctrinal principle right). Both are “sin” (i.e., transgression), but they are characterized differently. As Paul noted, Eve was deceived, but Adam sinned willfully — and so it is HIS violation that triggers the advent of death upon all humanity. For our purposes, then, people go to hell because they (1) incur moral guilty before God and (2) that moral guilt is never removed through the work of Christ. If you are never guilty before God, you don’t have that problem – but you still don’t have what it takes for heaven. The basis for eternal life is still (and can only be) Christ and his work. (More on that next time – see the last paragraph below).

Pastorally, this is quite significant for dealing with death of infants. If infants do not incur guilt before God, we don’t have to wish them into heaven on the basis of a contrived doctrine of election (linked to baptism of all unscriptural things). And on that note, if baptism and circumcision are counterparts (and I’ve never seen a reformed theology or a catholic theology or pedobaptist theology that denied that), then what one says about baptism must also be said about circumcision. Did circumcision guarantee salvation? I think the fact that most of the circumcised nation was punished with exile answers that one. (I can’t wait to get to infant baptism on the blog).

If you aren’t reformed, you’ve no doubt heard other ways that have been invented to get babies into heaven. There’s the emotional argument (God’s love), there’s the exception argument (they’re just there because God makes an exception for them – meaning of course heaven is filled with people whose Adamic guilt was never wiped away by faith in the gospel or anything since babies can’t believe; oh well). There’s the especially cruel “even if they’re in hell, God will wipe away all tears and you won’t think of them any more” view. How comforting. All this nonsense derives from a flawed view of Romans 5:12.

So WHY are babies (and others in the above “no guilt before God” category)?

I’ll unpack that next time – and it’s pretty cool. I want everyone to realize that you really CAN look a grieving parent in the eye and not theologically BS them about their tragedy. The aborted, the stillborn, the infant – anyone who CANNOT believe – will be in glory, not because of their earthly fate, or even their non-guilt. The answer is in Romans 5, and it’s Jesus. They are their because of Christ. Period. Stay tuned.

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19 Responses to “More on Romans 5:12 (Part 3)”

  1. Jonnathan Molina says:

    So you’re saying Romans 5:12 teaches we don’t inherit sin itself or the guilt of others’ sin; we only inherit the propensity to sin within a mortal body which, without exception, given enough time always produces sin–uniquely ours–along with its guilt (death). That is sound. I want to point out that we aren’t free of the consequences of others guilt, however, and I think that this is where many people get confused.
    E.g., generational curses–genetic and spiritual–which, as taught in scriptures like 1 Samuel 3:13 or Exodus 20:5, appear to be the direct result of someone else’s sin. But note, it doesn’t equal the actual sin. Just like an apple seed does not equal the apple. Our mortality makes us susceptible to the repercussions of living within the fallout of others failures and, thus, we inherit not their sin or guilt but the consequences thereof; we may pay for what others did but it doesn’t mean we did it. Which kind of puts a nail in the original sin coffin since, in your view, transmission of death is not transmission of sin.

    Now a bone to pick. Regarding Augustine’s seminal headship view, Dr. Heiser, you contend that Persons cannot literally exist pre-birth within their ancestors as it defies logic, philosophy and natural science. All well and good, but what to make of Hebrews 7:8-10? Here the author seems to be revealing under inspiration that Levi indeed existed in the loins of his ancestor Abraham and thus gave a tithe to Melchizedek (while in Abraham) thus proving that Melchizekek’s priesthood is of a higher order than the Levitical one. Is this just figurative? (And if it is, I don’t see how this could then be used as a strong argument by the author to render that priesthood obsolete and thus exalt Christ’s.)

    Could Augustine’s view be upheld in light of this scripture? (I’ve also seen this same scripture be used to defend the Federal Headship view that Abraham stood as the father of the Hebrew line so Levi was represented. What do you make of these verses?

  2. MSH says:

    @Jonnathan Molina: Good job; this passage is always the one used to defend the Augustinian view. Stay tuned.

  3. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Mike,

    There are two problems that I see with your view thus far:

    1) First, you are saying that babies are born innocent…this is explicitly against Scripture. There is NONE righteous…not even the infant. And you simply cannot escape the Pelagian results of this unless you have not pondered this very hard by reading some of those divines that have gone before you and thought on this harder than you.

    2) Number one above is answered by Romans 5:14 itself–who are those who do not sin after the manner of Adam? Of course, it is infants who do not sin willfully like Adam–there sin and guilt before God is inherited. Paul says that death still reigns over them because they are still sinners and need Christ. The conclusion to my first critique is this…death does not spread to humans who are not sinful–it is impossible to inherit death without also being sinful. You know that humanity was never immortal and so it is stupid to say that we inherit mortality…even before the Fall we were mortal. The difference between Adam pre-fall and Adam post-fall is the PRESENCE OF GOD…..which made mortal Adam contingently immortal by having access to the tree of life. So even if Adam did not fall, we would have still have inherited his mortality! So how did we inherit death? We inherit death because we inherit Adam’s ALIENATION from God and separation from him….this is why we die–without God our mortality is sure to break down and perish–it is God’s judgment. Now if you can see that inheriting death IS NOT inheriting mortality, but inheriting SEPARATION from God, then it is obvious that anything born separated from God is not only unholy and surely not innocent, but in need of a Savior. I am fine if you do not want to believe in the traditional “guilt” transmission, but believing that babies are born innocent is nothing less than unorthodoxy and devalues the need FOR ALL MEN–even infants–to be covered by the blood of Jesus.

    3)This second critique is concerning Jesus. You say that “mortality = the universal propensity and inevitability of sin.” Your spin for vindicating Jesus is to take out inevitability out of your definition because of his divine nature. This is a lame solution…why? because it makes your solution no different from the ones that you despise in the traditional view. In addition it is unscholarly to change your definitions. The Bible says that Jesus was obedient when he died. Jesus did not inherit mortality…he was contingently immortal (just like Adam in the garden)…and could have AT ANY MOMENT had God’s angels rescue him from the cross…he came in the form of man in order to be OBEDIENT to the point of death, even death on the cross. What does this mean for you? It means that you do not have to change your definitions to give a pseudo-answer. Jesus inherited nothing from Adam except his likeness or form of flesh…Jesus was the second Adam….the Holy Spirit breathed life into his flesh just as Adam #1…Jesus was innocent from birth, just as Adam #1…Jesus was contingently immortal just as Adam #1….Jesus was obedient throughout his life even to the point of death UNLIKE Adam #1. Jesus fulfilled the very covenant that Adam did not. Do you see how thinking of Jesus’ conception in view of Genesis 1-2 fixes all of your problems? Was ADAM 100% MAN and innocent when he made him…YES. So was Jesus 100% man and innocent when he made him (even though he used an unholy vessel to incubate him?)…YES. Because the “dust of the ground” was sanctified for the use of forming Adam, why do you think I am bone-headed to think that God sancitified the ‘dust of the ground’ that was Mary’s egg when he made Jesus’ flesh?

    I think you are so anti-tradition because you do not spend any time conversant with those men who have thought on these doctrines much harder than you. You need to read some of the older divines to temper your zeal for the new and innovative.

    I hope this find you well,


  4. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: You’ve jumped the gun here, Chris. On #1 – I am not saying that babies are righteous. I said they had not incurred moral guilt via Adam. There is no one righteous, who has the merit to have salvation — which is the point of Romans 3. Paul is setting up the argument that ALL need a Savior and no one has the righteousness God requires. Babies need a Savior and have no merit of their own for heaven.

    On #2 – most of your reply shows you aren’t following my argument; you’re merely reacting to it.

    You don’t seem to understand what the phrase “contingent immortality” means (look up “contingent” – I used it deliberately since it’s important). No human is immortal on their own — YOU won’t be immortal on your own even when glorified. Immortality is always contingent on God. You have no scriptural basis for the idea that ALL humans must sin to inherit death. How does the fertilized egg that is aborted by the morning after pill sin? You are simply reading the traditional view into the passage and then arguing from that imposed reading. All humans inherit death because of Adam’s sin, but they do not have to sin to inherit death. They inherit death because of Adam. Your wording above directly contradicts Paul’s phrase that “death passed to all humanity” (but I don’t think you’re really denying that – your wording is the problem).

    Your third comment is incoherent because you have me saying things I don’t say. You do this too often. I never said Jesus “inherited” immortality. In fact, some of what you say in this paragraph aligns with my view.

    I’m going to wait for further response. I’ll collect phrases of “accusation” and queries from replies and then devote a post to them.

  5. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Mike,

    To be pointed so not to cram too much into one comment:

    You still have not answered my response in regard to Rom. 5:14, which I believe states that those who have not sinned after the likeness of Adam (i.e. willfully) must be infants. If this is true, then your assertion that “You have no scriptural basis for the idea that ALL humans must sin to inherit death” does not stand. Because Paul says that they sin, just not in the likeness of Adam (i.e. willfully). How do they sin then? I believe he answers this with his federal headship view propounded in vv. 15-19.

    Here is one truth (I will cite more later) that SEEM to be violent against your view:

    1. Paul says by ONE MAN’S DISOBEDIENCE many were made SINNERS (vs. 19).
    How can Adam’s sin make other people sinners? So you say, “You have no scriptural basis for the idea that ALL humans must sin to inherit death.” I say that the connecting words tell it all in verse 12..I will elaborate on this when I get home and I can look at my Greek text.

    Grace be with you,

  6. cwmyers007 says:

    A second note…I do know what contingent means…I reread my paragraph and I did a horrible job of explaining what I was critiquing, sorry. Simply I was saying that you cannot say that we inherit mortality as the result of Adam’s sin…he would have given that to us even if he did not sin and as long as we stayed in the presence of God our mortality would be immortal (contingent on his presence). Therefore I was critiquing the fact that you must be more precise and say that from Adam we inherit separation from God. Is that more clear? I again apologize for my un-clarity before.

  7. cwmyers007 says:

    I am pondering, what is the difference between innocence and righteousness. You claim that babies are born innocent, but you deny that they are righteous? What is an unrighteous innocence? Was Adam righteously innocent or unrighteously innocent? I guess it has to wait for the next post! Sounds fun!

  8. cwmyers007 says:

    Pondering what it means to have a sin nature…..

    Do you believe that these innocent babies are born with a sin nature? If yes, then how can you have a sin nature without being a sinner? Do you have to breathe, taste, smell, touch, hear, or see to be human? If not, then do you have to sin to be a sinner? Or do you merely have to BE sin? This is my point. If we take Romans 3:23 as a definition of a sinner–someone who falls short of the glory of God–then you do not have to sin to be a sinner–you merely have to miss the mark of God’s glory. If this is true, then you can be born with a sin nature and be a sinner without acting out sins–your very nature demands the status of sinner even without considering works. What are your thoughts?

  9. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: “still have not answered”? I wrote that I would be returning to this. I’m busy — and you need to read what I reply. Come on.

  10. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: no problem; I’m working on replying to your reply, and that of Jonathan.

  11. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: this is a good question, and important. See my next post (should get it up tonight).

  12. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: ditto on the “next post” thing.

  13. kevbayer says:

    Thanks, Dr. Heiser, for a very interesting and thought provoking commentary.
    Really gets us laymen thinking!

    I’m really enjoying how you dig into the text and explain exactly what it’s telling us, and what it’s not.

  14. MSH says:

    @kevbayer: thanks!

  15. Eric says:

    If Jesus was mortal, how could his death have been a sacrifice? If he was mortal, he would have died eventually without laying down his life on the cross. I understand that Jesus was fully man but how does that make him mortal?

    • MSH says:

      Because he surrendered his life. He could be killed. I’m not sure what the dilemma is. The incarnation meant vulnerability to death (humans die).

  16. Josh says:

    Hey Mike,

    I realize I’m really late to the party hear but I wanted to chime in. When you talk about the “traditional” view of imputed guilt from Adam’s sin, i would argue that this is only one tradition and specifically it is the ‘reformed’ version of the Augustinian view. I add the reformed version qualifier because Calvin took a lot of ideas from Augustine (as well as Aquinas) but he and those who came after him interpreted those ideas in their own framework which often resulted in very different understandings than what Augustine actually originally meant.

    Without getting into a discussion on Augustine, my main point is that the view you lay out is actually a very traditional view and it is, in fact, the primary view of the eastern Church (the Orthodox). This view is also largely accepted within the Catholic Church.

    The idea is that there is no personal guilt imputed from Adam but rather mortality. In the Catholic view, the “stain” of original sin is essentially separation from God that is understood as spiritual death. This means that the person, while not having incurred personal guilt until they themselves sin, are born in a state cut off from the grace and goodness of God.

    Without that spiritual connection to the grace and goodness, in short the Life of God, it is impossible for us to avoid sin. But even beyond that, the state of being separated from God could be argued to be a kind of sin because it is outside of what God intended for humanity.

    The Eastern view would go so far as to say that we are not born with what Protestants often refer to as “sin nature” or a nature that is unavoidably bent towards sin. They understand our state of Mortality to be simply death and nothing more.

    The western Catholic view as I understand it would tend more to argue that the state of Mortality logically co notates a nature that is bent towards sin.

  17. Josh says:

    Regarding baptism,

    It is a complete misrepresentation of the Catholic view to suggest that Baptism guarantees salvation. Baptism, if done with faith, washes away sins and restores a person from the state of mortality to a state of spiritual life (spiritual regeneration).

    If a person is baptized (assuming the proper faith is involved) and then goes on to live in sin and apostasy they will not be saved simply by virtue of their baptism.

    This issue, the question of the death of an unbaptized infant, does actually demonstrate, however, that the Catholic view of original sin does not include real imputed personal guilt.

    The entire idea and teaching of Limbo was invented to try and account for what happens to infants who die without baptism because they don’t have personal imputed guilt, but they were also not spiritually regenerated in baptism.

    Of course the idea of limbo has been widely (and rightly) abandoned in favor of the fact that God can save whom he wills. Baptism may be the normal means of regeneration but it is not a limit on God.


    • MSH says:

      I noted that there are other sacraments involved for Catholicism with respect to their view of salvation. I guess you missed that.

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