Defending the doctrine of original sin

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Puritan Board Freshman
Hey all,

I have been wrestling with the doctrine of original sin/federal headship for a little today from Romans 5:12-21 in light of some comments made by a believer I know denying original sin (typical “hyper-Arminian” that you will see nowadays who denies the doctrines of grace, original sin, imputed righteousness, etc.; might be a proponent of sinless perfectionism, too), and I wanted some help in defending the “fairness/justice” of the doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s actual guilt. This would also be helpful just for my own understanding of how federal headship works. Forgive me if my following statements are not well-articulated or well-organized.

The objection seems to be that it is not fair for God to impute that sin to us which we have not really committed. To this I would respond that you cannot have it both ways — you cannot reject the imputation of the guilt of the first Adam while also accepting the blessings of the imputation of righteousness of the second Adam. For Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14). Ezek. 18:20 is also frequently cited against original sin, but anyone looking at the context of that chapter for more than half a second will see that this is erroneous and pure eisegesis, and so I will not give that any attention.

I think my problem is that, while it is absolutely what Scripture teaches (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:22), something within me still cringes when I think of guilt being imputed to me which I myself have not committed. (To preface, also, I struggle with OCD-like symptoms, and I can have a lot of intrusive thoughts which can make it hard to think about things like this clearly sometimes.) My understanding is that original sin is actual sin, in that we have really, by nature of being in the first Adam, have sinned with him (Rom. 5:12), but beyond that, I lack enough understanding on this to properly figure out how to properly defend the doctrine either to myself or to others. I take the Scriptures at face value as the divinely inspired and infallible Word of the living God, and I accept that there are some things taught in Scripture which are either too high for me to attain (Ps. 139:6) or are above my current level of maturity — but I would just like some help, especially since recently I have found the words “the Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6) to be all the more sweet to me.
My understanding is that original sin is actual sin, in that we have really, by nature of being in the first Adam, have sinned with him (Rom. 5:12), but beyond that, I lack enough understanding on this to properly figure out how to properly defend the doctrine either to myself or to others.
Original sin is not necessarily pointing to the first actual sin, namely, the sin of Adam, but rather describing our sin nature, that we are born with.

We are indeed guilty in our first father, Adam. God knew better than we, and selected him specifically to be our representative in the garden.

Maybe I am taking the cheap way out, but I spend less time trying to convince people that they are guilty of Adam's sin, and more time elaborating on the fact that we are born dead in trespasses and sins, because of the fall.

Edit: Beware of people who deny original sin. What I find inevitably is that they negate completely the need for the gospel altogether, if they are consistent.
A "hyper-Arminian" is pretty much the same thing as a "Pelagian."

You are in the right place when you see that one cannot accept the "unfairness" of Christ's righteousness put to my account (in place of all my works), and yet reject the "unfairness" of Adam's guilt set against all his offspring (of whom he is the natural head, and they the body) born by natural generation. If one is cringy and the other not, then attention is not being paid to the principle in play, but to the perceived likeability of one outcome and not the other.

Let's take a view of the doctrine of original sin, clearly and concisely stated as in WSC 18 (I will parse the text and add numerals to show parts):
Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in​
1a) the guilt of Adam’s first sin,​
1b) the want of original righteousness, and​
1c) the corruption of his whole nature,​
which (1) is commonly called original sin;​
together with (2) all actual transgressions which proceed from it.​

1a is certainly actual as we "had a hand in" it by virtue of a real connection to Adam. However, actual is not identical to physical or any kind of self-conscious engagement of my will in concert with Adam's, making us partners in the crime (as it were) if only separated by a spatio-temporal accident. I'm not an accessory after the fact merely by virtue of birth. 1a is actual primarily due to its forensic quality; and the forensic connection I have to Adam is real and substantive, not theoretical and virtual.

Think with me a minute about your national-identity. Secular government functions in place of kings of old, but retains a relation toward the citizens not fundamentally different from ancient concepts of solidarity between body (politic) and its head. If a country goes to war, based on some act of its head; then all the people of that nation are carried along with the decision. The individual man is AT WAR because he is a member of the body, even if he had no vote to cast; or if he did, and he's a member of the House of Representatives who voted against the war! If he continues a member of the body politic, and furthermore a member of Congress, he is a participant in the state of things wrought by the whole, even as his dissent is swallowed up in the approval.

So there are no doubt some people who would prefer to reject as meaningful their covenant-connection to Adam. They have no choice, being a part of the human race; but supposing they willed to repudiate their union with Adam in order to escape condemnation with him as head of the body of which they are part? Successful repudiation and separation would leave them without a head. Perhaps someone else could take the headship? Perhaps each man could be his own head? Humanity doesn't actually work that way, and we cannot in pure individualism separate ourselves unto ourselves; we did not bring ourselves into the world, and we have a cellular inheritance to thank for our existence.

Original sin declares, according to Scripture: this is just how it is, objectively, guilty in Adam. But even if one argued in the Last Judgment, "I refuse that guilty verdict; it is unfair;" other than rejecting an essential aspect of his humanity--this defendant lacks 1b and has 1c, leading inexorably to 2. I'm saying that even if he evaded the fact he is guilty in Adam, yet he has not the original righteousness in his native constitution; and if he asserted that he did (to begin with, contrary to universal experience) he has corruption in his whole nature from whatever the source, and cannot solve that issue for himself. Should he deny the obvious flaws in his own character, he must still account for his prodigious production of sins that have no chance of being off-laden on some other responsible agency.

Of course, like many defendants in a court of secular law, a man may protest his innocence against all the evidence adduced against him, against the laws that purport to stand against him, and against the verdict of the court; but before God he has no chance of avoiding a righteous judgment according to the truth, objectively and finally, irrespective of his lies, ignorance, delusions, and wrath.

Original sin is the doctrine that explains why things are as they are. We are not isolated individuals (as important as individualism is), but have a collective existence as well. We are both naturally connected to Adam and legally connected; we are natively bound in the original connection under God in the covenant of works. Born thus, we lack the prestige of the original constitutional conditions and do not have original righteousness; and there never was a condition we might call "original neutrality"--that's not a thing, ever. And we are conceived and born in sin and guilt, Ps.51:5; we are not born absent a disposition to sin and dying already. It is corruption that marks us from day 1.

Our doctrine teaches us that on day 1, we were justly under divine condemnation, even without any sins performed by the mind/body concert; hence babies die (Rom.5:14) theologically because they are legally under the curse, and not because strictly speaking they have the potential and propensity to act by the will against their conscience. They do, but they are not determined "guilty" for that reason, but because they sinned in their father, and they are bound to him.

How can anyone be free of this connection? It is beyond any man's power to free himself from the connection, even if he willed it; and if he could, yet he persists in criminality. Only by being transferred--a passive statement--from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, only by a new covenant-connection (in the covenant of grace) made possible and effectual by the will of God (i.e. on his terms) by which he offers pardon, is there any hope of being freed from the ruin of original sin into the freedom of the sons of light, into acceptance before God by the provision of his one Mediator.
I highly recommend this thread. I won't repeat my posts in that thread here except to emphasize my recommendation of George Hutchinson's The Problem of Original Sin in American Presbyterianism. I cannot stress how valuable that book is in demonstrating that there is more than one model which attempts to account for the very questions regarding original sin with which you are struggling.
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