Original Sin: Merely predisposed to sin or guilty as well?

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Puritan Board Junior
Brothers and sisters,
I find myself engaged in a discussion in our local congregation regarding Original Sin. In particular, the question has come up in more than one way: 'Did Adam merely pass on a 'disposition to sin' or the guilt of that sin as well?' or 'Are we guilty of Adam's sin or just inclined to sin at birth?'. I'm going back this weekend, time permitting, to Charles Hodge's 'Systematic Theology' to see how he weighs in. I've not heard the argument framed this way, and find myself inarticulate in this matter. To help me deal with this issue in faithfulness to God's word (I have no formal training), I've attached an excerpt of the ongoing conversation....

The main question I asked in my original email is "Is humankind charged with the guilt of Adam's sin?" A secondary question, for those who would answer "yes" to the main question is "How do you reconcile us being charged with the guilt of Adam's sin with the teaching in Ezek. 18 and other places, that each person is accountable to God for "his own sins" and not those of others?"

I want to emphasize here that I'm not asking whether Adam's sin "corrupted" the human race. I think it is abundantly clear in Scripture that Adam, as it were, ruined it for us all. His sin caused all his progeny to be born with a sinful nature. Namely, a nature that is radically corrupt and hence, it is inevitable that we will sin. It's just a matter of time.

The question is whether Adam's sin cause us to be "corrupt at birth" or whether it cause us to be "condemned at birth". And now that I said "at birth" I probably ought to list the three competing positions as I see them. One view (Realists) holds that when Adam sinned we sinned because we were "in some sense" there with him when he sinned. This view has us being charged with the guilt of Adam's sin due to our "participation" in it and we were found guilty before we were even born. The second view (Federalism) holds that Adam was our representative (federal head) and as such, his sin was charged to our account. This view has us being charged with the guilt of Adam's sin due to "imputation" and we are guilty at birth (actually at conception). A third view is that we are charged with guilt, not before birth or at birth, but when we first sin and we are charged with guilt due to "our own" sins.

This third view is the one I'm leaning toward. I'm not sure if this is the one that is closest to the truth, but let me tell you why I'm leaning in this direction and then you can tell me why I should be leaning the other way :)

First, it seems to me that the Scripture teaches that we are responsible (=held accountable) for our own sins and not those of others. For instance, Romans 14:12 tells us we will each give account of "ourselves" to God. And in Ezekiel 18 we are told that a son who does not follow in the wicked ways of his father will NOT die for the father's sins (18:17). In vss 19 and following, in response to the question "Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?" God answers "The soul who sins is the one who will die." (18:20) One might object here by pointing out that due to our sinful nature, it is inescapable that we will sin and hence, this text in Ezek 18 actually inculpates us all! Or as Victor said in his below email "it confirms our guilt". I agree that we are all blameworthy and I agree that we are all guilty, but notice the point at which we are charged with guilty, the point at which our soul dies - it is the point at which our soul sins. This is consistent with the third view above.

Second, when Ezek says "the soul that sins is the one who will die", I take that to mean spiritual death, that is to say, separation from God. Isa 59:2 tells us that our sins separate us from God. There we read "But your iniquities have separated you from your God ...". And in Eph 2, Paul first tells the Ephesians that they were "dead in their transgressions and sins" (vs. 1) and later goes on to remind them (2:12) that "at that time" i.e. when they were dead in their sins, "at that time" they were separate from Christ ... So being dead in our sins is equivalent to being separated from God. Now consider Rom 5:12 in light of what I'm saying about death and separation. Romans 5:12 says "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned -". If we interpret "death" here to mean "separation from God", then this verse tells us that separation from God came to all men because all sinned (this is consistent with Isa 59:2 and Eph 2). And since separation from God = condemnation, it follows that condemnation came to all men because all sinned. Notice that we are dead = separated from God = condemned because of our own sins (... because all sinned, vs 12). Again, the point in time at which we are condemned (=charged with guilt) is the point at which we are separated from God, which is the point at which we sin.

One might raise the following objection to what I'm saying here: What about Rom 5:18 which says "... just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men." This verse tells us that the result of "one trespass" (=Adam's) was condemnation for all men. It doesn't say the result of "each person's trespasses" is condemnation. My response to this objection would be that we all have to put on our lawyer hats and read every word of every verse carefully so we don't put meaning in that isn't there. The verse says only that the result of Adam's sin was condemnation for all. It does not say that all were condemned, by participation in or imputation of, Adam's sin. It says nothing of the "how". It speaks only of the "result". In fact, I would argue that "the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men" in the sense that Adam's trespass resulted in the radical corruption of our nature, which in turn makes it inevitable that we will sin, which in turn makes it absolutely certain that God's just judgment and our deserved condemnation will follow. Hence, Adam's trespass will result in our condemnation but this is not the same thing as us being charged with the guilt of Adam's trespass. (A similar argument holds for Rom 5:16 where we read "... The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation ...")

And here's a passing note with respect to Romans 5:18. If we interpret the first half of this verse as teaching that condemnation (=guilt) was charged to all immediately after (and due to) Adam's one trespass, then it seems that we must interpret the second half of the verse likewise, which would mean that justification was credited to all immediately after (and due to) Christ's one act of righteousness. And thus we have arrived at universalism, which is not a good place to be. If, however, we interpret the first half of 5:18 to teach that we are condemned (=charged with guilt) when we sin and because of our individual sins, then the second half of the verse would mean that we are justified (=credited with righteousness) when we individually believe in Christ's one act of righteousness. The latter interpretation makes more sense to me.

I will close with a final thought. Earlier I said we need to put on our "lawyer hats". I know it is very easy to read meaning into a verse unbeknownst to ourselves or to say a verse says something that it doesn't really say. And hence we must all endeavor to not say more than the verse says and to not pour meaning into (eisogesis) but rather, draw the meaning out of (exegesis) the text. For example, just today I was reading in the Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary and the author said "Paul does not comment on this issue ... but later states that all sinned in the first man." (Rom 5:19). What? All sinned in the first man? That would mean that I sinned in Adam. That would mean that when Adam sinned, I really did sin (so the Realists win!). Wait a minute. What exactly does Romans 5:19 say? It says "For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also ..." Clearly, it says "in Adam were were made sinners", which is NOT the same as "in Adam we sinned". The first speaks to our nature being corrupted and the second speaks to us being condemned. By the way, I like the NIV Bible Commentary, but even with authors I like, I find that I must always be asking "Is that really what the Bible says?", "Is that what it means?", and "Is that consistent with my understanding of God's Word?"


Staff member

The confessions are helpful in explaining the construction of original sin.

1689 LBC 6.3
They being the root, and by God's appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of sin, the subjects of death, and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free.
WCF 6.3
They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
Romans 5:16-18 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. 18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

The guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to all men even though we did not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Romans 5 compares that to Christ's righteousness being imputed to those who believe even though they did not die on the cross. However, the guilt of our sin is as though we ate of the tree and our righteousness is as though we committed the "one act of righteousness." Of course we could never achieve what Christ did on the cross, but we receive all the benefits of his righteous act through faith.


Puritan Board Junior
Just as those who have Christ's righteousness imputed to them are found righteous before the Father, so all who born in Adam (which is everyone with the exception of the Lord Jesus Christ) have been imputed with Adam's sin and are guilty of it. If one doesn't want the guilt of Adam's sin then one shouldn't think he may have the merit of Christ's righteousness.

Thanks, Josh....I agree wholeheartedly. As well, I'm interested to know how the 'heavy hitters' in church history articulated the idea.....hmmmm....I need more books.....


Puritan Board Doctor
Read Robert Dabney on Original Sin if you want greater detail.

His Systematic Theology is online.

He held that both Adam's guilt and corruption were inherited from him at the moment of conception.

He didn't hold to mediate or intermediate imputation which he believed was an artificial construction.

He found the doctrine of original sin somewhat mysterious, and didn't pretend to plumb the depths of the just basis for it.

Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
Thomas Watson:
Body of Divinity
Contained in
Sermons upon the Assembly's Catechism
by the
Rev. Thomas Watson

Chapter 20.
Original Sin

Question: Did all mankind fall in Adam's first transgression?

Answer: The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him, by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in his first transgression.

'By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin' (Rom. 5:12).

Adam being a representative person, while he stood, we stood; when he fell, we fell. We sinned in Adam; so it is in the text, 'In whom all have sinned.'

Adam was the head of mankind, and being guilty, we are guilty, as the children of a traitor have their blood stained. Omnes unus ille Adam fuerunt. 'All of us,' says Augustine, 'sinned in Adam, because we were part of Adam.'

If when Adam fell, all mankind fell with him; why, when one angel fell, did not all fall?

The case is not the same. The angels had no relation to one another. They are called morning-stars; the stars have no dependence one upon another; but it was otherwise with us, we were in Adam's loins; as a child is a branch of the parent, we were part of Adam; therefore when he sinned, we sinned.

How is Adam's sin made ours?

(1) By imputation. The Pelagians of old held, that Adam's transgression is hurtful to posterity by imitation only, not by imputation. But the text, 'In whom all have sinned,' confutes that.

(2) Adam's sin is ours by propagation. Not only is the guilt of Adam's sin imputed to us, but the depravity and corruption of his nature is transmitted to us, as poison is carried from the fountain to the cistern. This is that which we call original sin. 'In sin did my mother conceive me' (Ps. 51:5). Adam's leprosy cleaves to us, as Naaman's leprosy did to Gehazi (2 Kings 5:27). This original concupiscence is called,

[1] The 'old man' (Eph. 4:22). It is said to be the old man, not that it is weak, as old men are, but for its long standing, and for its deformity. In old age the fair blossoms of beauty fall; so original sin is the old man, because it has withered our beauty, and made us deformed in God's eye.

[2] Original concupiscence is called the law of sin (Rom. 7:25). Original sin has vim coactivam, the power of a law which binds the subject to allegiance. Men must needs do what sin will have them, when they have both the love of sin to draw them, and the law of sin to force them.

1. In original sin there is something privative, and something positive.

[1] Something privative. Carentia Justitae debitae, [The lack of that righteousness which should be ours]. We have lost that excellent quintessential frame of soul which once we had. Sin has cut the lock of original purity, where our strength lay.

[2] Something positive. Original sin has contaminated and defiled our virgin nature. It was death among the Romans to poison the springs. Original sin has poisoned the spring of our nature, it has turned beauty into leprosy; it has turned the azure brightness of our souls into midnight darkness.

Original sin has become co-natural to us. A man by nature cannot but sin; though there were no devil to tempt, no bad examples to imitate, yet there is such an innate principle in him that he cannot forbear sinning (2 Peter 2:14). A peccato cessare nesciunt, who cannot cease to sin, as a horse that is lame cannot go without halting. In original sin there is,

(1) An aversion from good. Man has a desire to be happy, yet opposes that which should promote his happiness. He has a disgust of holiness, he hates to be reformed. Since we fell from God, we have no mind to return to him.

(2) A prospensity to evil. If, as the Pelagians say, there is so much goodness in us since the fall, why is there not as much natural proneness to good as there is to evil? Our experience tells us, that the natural bias of the soul is to that which is bad. The very heathens by the light of nature saw this. Hierocles the philosopher said, 'it is grafted in us by nature to sin.' Men roll sin as honey under their tongue. 'They drink iniquity as water' (Job 15:16). Like a hydropsical person, that thirsts for drink, and is not satisfied; they have a kind of drought on them, they thirst for sin. Though they are tired out in committing sin, yet they sin (Eph. 4:19). 'They weary themselves to commit iniquity'; as a man that follows his game while he is weary, yet delights in it, and cannot leave it off (Jer. 9:5). Though God has set so many flaming swords in the way to stop men in their sin, yet they go on in it; which all shows what a strong appetite they have to the forbidden fruit.

2. That we may further see the nature of original sin, consider,

[1] The universality of it. It has, as poison, diffused itself into all the parts and powers of the soul. 'The whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint' (Is. 1:5). Like a sick patient, that has no part sound, his liver is swelled, his feet are gangrened, his lungs are perished; such infected, gangrened souls have we, till Christ, who has made a medicine of his blood, cures us.

(1) Original sin has depraved the intellectual part. As in the creation 'darkness was upon the face of the deep' (Gen. 1:2), so it is with the understanding; darkness is upon the face of this deep. As there is salt in every drop of the sea, bitterness in every branch of wormwood, so there is sin in every faculty. The mind is darkened, we know little of God. Ever since Adam did eat of the tree of knowledge, and his eyes were opened, we lost our eye-sight. Besides ignorance in the mind, there is error and mistake; we do not judge rightly of things, we put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is. 5:20). Besides this, there is much pride, superciliousness and prejudice, and many fleshly reasonings. 'How long shall thy vain thoughts lodge within thee' (Jer. 4:14).

(2) Original sin has defiled the heart. The heart is deadly wicked (Jer. 17:9). It is a lesser hell. In the heart are legions of lusts, obdurateness, infidelity, hypocrisy, sinful estuations; it boils as the sea with passion and revenge. 'Madness is in their heart while they live' (Eccl. 9:3). The heart is, Officina diabolic 'the devil's shop or workhouse,' where all mischief is framed.

(3) The will. Contumacy is the seat of rebellion. The sinner crosses God's will, to fulfil his own. 'We will burn incense to the queen of heaven' (Jer. 44:17). There is a rooted enmity in the will against holiness; it is like an iron sinew, it refuses to bend to God. Where is then the freedom of the will, when it is so full not only of indisposition, but opposition to what is spiritual?

(4) The affections. These, as the strings of a viol, are out of tune. They are the lesser wheels, which are strongly carried by the will, the master wheel. Our affections are set on wrong objects. Our love is set on sin, our joy on the creature. Our affections are naturally as a sick man's appetite, who desires things which are noxious and hurtful to him; he calls for wine in a fever. So we have impure lustings instead of holy longings.

[2] The adhesion of original sin. It cleaves to us, as blackness to the skin of the Ethiopian, so that we cannot get rid of it. Paul shook off the viper on his hand, but we cannot shake off this inbred corruption. It may be compared to a wild fig-tree growing on a wall, the roots of which are pulled up, and yet there are some fibres of it in the joints of the stonework, which will not be eradicated, but will sprout forth till the wall be pulled in pieces. Original concupiscence comes not, as a lodger, for a night, but as an indweller. 'Sin which dwelleth in me' (Rom. 7:17).

It is a malus genius, 'an evil spirit' that haunts us wheresoever we go. 'The Canaanite would dwell in that land' (Josh. 17:12).

[3] Original sin retards and hinders us in the exercise of God's worship. Whence is all that dulness and deadness in religion? It is the fruit of original sin. This it is that rocks us asleep in duty. 'The good that I would, I do not' (Rom. 7:19). Sin is compared to a weight (Heb. 12:1). A man that has weights tied to his legs cannot run fast. It is like that fish Pliny speaks of, a sea lamprey, that cleaves to the keel of the ship, and hinders its progress when it is under sail.

[4] Original sin, though latent in the soul, and as a spring which runs under ground, often breaks forth unexpectedly. Christian, thou canst not believe that evil which is in thy heart, and which will break forth suddenly, if God should leave thee. 'Is thy servant a dog that he should do this great thing' (2 Kings 8:13). Hazael could not believe he had such a root of bitterness in his heart, that he should rip up the women with child. Is thy servant a dog? Yes, and worse than a dog, when that original corruption within is stirred up. If one had come to Peter and said, Peter, within a few hours thou wilt deny Christ, he would have said, 'Is thy servant a dog?' But alas! Peter did not know his own heart, nor how far that corruption within would prevail upon him. The sea may be calm, and look clear; but when the wind blows how it rages and foams! so though now thy heart seems good, yet, when temptation blows, how may original sin discover itself, making thee foam with lust and passion. Who would have thought to have found adultery in David, and drunkenness in Noah, and cursing in Job? If God leave a man to himself, how suddenly and scandalously may original sin break forth in the holiest men on the earth!

[5] Original sin mixes and incorporates itself with our duties and graces. (1) With our duties. As the hand which is paralytic or palsied cannot move without shaking, as wanting some inward strength; so we cannot do any holy action without sinning, as wanting a principle of original righteousness. As whatever the leper touched became unclean; such a leprosy is original sin; it defiles our prayers and tears. We cannot write without blotting. Though I do not say that the holy duties and good works of the regenerate are sins, for that were to reproach the Spirit of Christ, by which they are wrought; yet this I say, that the best works of the godly have sin cleaving to them. Christ's blood alone makes atonement for our holy things.

(2) With our graces. There is some unbelief mixed with faith, lukewarmness with zeal, pride with humility. As bad lungs cause an asthma or shortness of breath, so original corruption has infected our hearts, so that our graces breathe very faintly.

[6] Original sin is a vigorous active principle within us. It does not be still, but is ever exciting and stirring us up to evil; it is an inmate very unquiet. 'What I hate, that do I' (Rom. 7:15). How came Paul to do so? Original sin irritated and stirred him up to it. Original sin is like quicksilver, always in motion. When we are asleep, sin is awake in the fancy. Original sin sets the head plotting evil, and the hands working it. It has in it principium motus, not quietis [a principle of restlessness, not of tranquility]; it is like the pulse, ever beating.

[7] Original sin is the cause of all actual sin. It is fomes peccati [the kindling wood of sin], it is the womb in which all actual sins are conceived. Hence come murders, adulteries, rapines. Though actual sins may be more scandalous, yet original sin is more heinous; the cause is more than the effect.

[8] It is not perfectly cured in this life. Though grace does subdue sin, yet it does not wholly remove it. Though we are like Christ, having the first fruits of the Spirit, yet we are unlike him, having the remainders of the flesh. There are two nations in the womb. Original sin is like that tree, in Daniel 4:23, though the branches of it were hewn down, and the main body of it, yet the stumps and root of the tree were left. Though the Spirit be still weakening and hewing down sin in the godly, yet the stump of original sin is left. It is a sea that will not, in this life, be dried up.

But why does God leave original corruption in us after regeneration? He could free us from it if he pleased.

(1) He does it to show the power of his grace in the weakest believer. Grace shall prevail against a torrent of corruption. Whence is this? The corruption is ours, but the grace is God's.

(2) God leaves original corruption to make us long after heaven, where there shall be no sin to defile, no devil to tempt. When Elias was taken up to heaven his mantle dropped off; so, when the angels shall carry us up to heaven, this mantle of sin shall drop off. We shall never more complain of an aching head, or an unbelieving heart.

Use one: If original sin be propagated to us, and will be inherent in us while we live here, it confutes the Libertines and Quakers, who say they are without sin. They hold perfection; they show much pride and ignorance; but we see the seeds of original sin remain in the best. 'There is not a just man lives and sins not' (Eccl. 7:20). And Paul complained of a 'body of death' (Rom. 7:24). Though grace purifies nature, it does not perfect it.

But does not the apostle say of believers, that their 'old man is crucified' (Rom. 6:6); and they are 'dead to sin' (Rom. 6:11)?

They are dead. (1) Spiritually. They are dead as to the reatus, the guilt of it; and as to the regnum, the power of it; the love of sin is crucified.

(2) They are dead to sin legally. As a man that is sentenced to death is dead in law, so they are legally dead to sin. There is a sentence of death gone out against sin. It shall die, and drop into the grave; but at the present, sin has its life lengthened out. Nothing but the death of the body can quite free us from the body of this death.

Use two: Let us lay to heart original sin, and be deeply humbled for it. It cleaves to us as a disease, it is an active principle in us, stirring us up to evil. Original sin is worse than all actual sin; the fountain is more than the stream. Some think, as long as they are civil, they are well enough; ay, but the nature is poisoned. A river may have fair streams, but vermin at the bottom. Thou carriest a hell about thee, thou canst do nothing but thou defilest it; thy heart, like muddy ground, defiles the purest water that runs through it. Nay, though thou art regenerate, there is much of the old man in the new man. Oh how should original sin humble us! This is one reason God has left original sin in us, because he would have it as a thorn in our side to humble us. As the bishop of Alexandria, after the people had embraced Christianity, destroyed all their idols but one, that the sight of that idol might make them loathe themselves for their former idolatry; so God leaves original sin to pull down the plumes of pride. Under our silver wings of grace are black feet.

Use three: Let the sense of this make us daily look up to heaven for help. Beg Christ's blood to wash away the guilt of sin, and his Spirit to mortify the power of it; beg further degrees of grace; gratiam Christi eo obnoxiam ambiamus. Though grace cannot make sin not to be, yet it makes it not to reign; though grace cannot expel sin, it can repel it. And for our Comfort, where grace makes a combat with sin, death shall make a conquest.

Use four: Let original sin make us walk with continual jealousy and watchfulness over our hearts. The sin of our nature is like a sleeping lion, the least thing that awakens it makes it rage. Though the sin of our nature seems quiet, and lies as fire hid under the embers, yet if it be a little stirred and blown up by a temptation, how quickly may it flame forth into scandalous evils! Therefore we need always to walk watchfully. 'I say to you all, Watch' (Mark 13:37). A wandering heart needs a watchful eye.


Puritan Board Junior
Bill- Thank you for the quote from the Confessions...that helps!
Joshua- I agree, the Confessional era was the compilation of some of the greatest minds in our rich history! I'm dealing with folks at church who are non-confessionalists, mostly lay Dispensationalists, and, because their thinking is so different, I'm having a most difficult time communicating with them and I don't know why. Too much skim milk, maybe.......
Richard- I have heard Dabney referenced here several times now...I should just get some of his work. Thanks!
Rich- I was working on my response to the discussion I quoted above when I saw your post of Watson and read it. I put my thumb in my mouth and started sucking...I felt like a toddler in comparison.....the insights of the Puritans are quite frightening.......
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