Let’s Go to Theology Class: Did We Inherit Adam’s Guilt?

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of a master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

We are presented with a critical theological question: Have we inherited Adam’s sin nature and his guilt?

MY PERSONAL BELIEF IS we are all held accountable for our own sins and called to work out our own salvation daily (Phil. 2:12). Paul says we are to do whatever God puts before us without complaining or questioning, adding, “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13-14, RSV). Ezekiel covers this issue succinctly in chapter eighteen. He writes about a “word from God” in which the LORD said Israel was to no longer refer to the proverb that “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2).God clarifies in 18:4 that it is the soul who sins that shall die. This passage of Scripture clearly indicates that a father must “model” good and righteous behavior for his son.

Through what psychology calls social learning theory (to borrow from my undergraduate studies), children tend to mimic the behavior of their primary care givers or role models. This dovetails nicely with Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” If an upright father begets a son prone to evil and violence, that son shall lose his life. In fact, “his blood shall be upon himself” (18:13). Moreover, if a father who has done evil begets a son who chooses a righteous path rather than repeating the sins of the father, “he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live” (18:17, italics mine). God said, “The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (18:20).

I would be remiss, however, if I did not address Exodus 20:5b, which says, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” I’ve heard this passage explained from a sociological (albeit Judeo-Christian) perspective. The Zondervan Bible Commentary indicates that “the third and fourth generation reflects the greatest probable extent of the range of members of any one family actually living together in one household.” In other words, God wanted the Israelites to see the “lasting” impact their choices would likely have because of the nature of extended families at that time. This seems to indicate the “social learning theory” of children and grandchildren observing and imitating sinful or disobedient behavior. Isaiah 14:1-23 suggests it is Israel’s cause that will be pleaded in the quarrel with Babylon prophesied in Revelation 18.

There is much symbolism afoot regarding the oracles on God’s word to the nations (Isa. 13:1-23:18). I see this as a corporate issue rather than one of individual “guilt” or condemnation. Paul addresses the concept of guilt under the New Covenant. He says, “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:12-14, 17).

If we look at the question of inherited guilt versus inherited sin from a position of covenant, we can better understand that there was no remedy for our sin nature under the Old Covenant. Consider the Abrahamic (or Land) Covenant. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and of many descendants, and that He would give the entire Land of Canaan to Abraham’s heirs. Unfortunately, many Jews had begun to mumble and complain, and to doubt God. They were fearful of the “giants” occupying the land promised to them by God. Because of disobedience and fear (indeed, the lack of faith, which is sinfu), the Israelites living at the time of the Land Covenant were barred from entering. God was angered, but His response was very specific: “Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land which I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephun’neh; he shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land upon which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the LORD” (Deut. 1:36, italics mine).

Wayne Grudem, in Systematic Theology, is adamant that we inherited Adam’s guilt. The biblical authority for his position is Romans 5:12: “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.” He also cites Romans 5:18, “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.” In context, however, the apostle Paul seems to be talking about justification and reconciliation, juxtaposing it with condemnation and trespass. Paul writes, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19). There is a comparison here of law, sin, and offense to grace and righteousness. The Revised Standard Version does not use the word “guilt” in any of these passages. Neither does the KJV, NASB, or the NIV. Instead, there are numerous references to sin and trespass. The word trespass in Greek and Hebrew indicates an action or offense. It seems to point to an “event” wherein man chose to defy God and commit a forbidden act. For me, we inherit Adam’s nature to sin and disobey, but we are not held accountable for his personal act of disobedience. If this were so, would the Word of God not explicitly state that we are condemned because of Adam’s disobedience; that we must be sentenced to eternal damnation to excuse Adam’s offense?

In addition to the above exegetical reasons, I do not think God expects us to carry our own guilt, let alone the guilt of previous generations. Paul wrote these words, which I believe will clarify how we are viewed by God, and how we should see ourselves, under the New Covenant: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 7:24-8:2). Grudem says, “The most persuasive answer to the objection [that we inherited Adam’s guilt] is to point out that if we think it is unfair for us to be represented by Adam, then we should also think it is unfair for us to be represented by Christ and to have his righteousness imputed to us by God” (p. 495). I agree with Grudem in part, but I don’t see it as indicating we are “guilty” of someone else’s sin or offense. Paul says sin came into the world by one man (Rom. 5:12), and, accordingly, the judgment following man’s original offense brought condemnation (Rom. 5:16). Agreed. Man is condemned to sin because we inherited Adam’s sin nature. Paul does not say, however, that we are being held accountable (adjudicated as guilty) for Adam’s original offense.

In fact, looking into Romans 5 using the Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament, I see reference to sin entering the world through one man, which verse fourteen calls “transgression” and “offense.” Because of this original offense, “many died.” Analysis of verse seventeen indicates death reigned because of original sin, but it has been countered by grace through the “second” man, that is Christ. According to the Zondervan Bible Commentary, Romans 5 serves to contrast the hopelessness of man (through Adam) with the gift of righteousness (through faith in Christ). Adam is said to be “a pattern, foreshadowing his future Counterpart: both are heads and inclusive representatives of the human creation, Adam of the old and Christ of the new.” This makes perfect exegetical sense to me. This “foreshadowing” includes all of  mankind, as Adam’s disobedience carried with it the consequence of both physical and spiritual death. Because of Adam, man was forcibly removed from the Garden; this served to cut him off from “direct access” to the tree of life and communion with God.

A “veil” as it were was put between man and God. The Zondervan Bible Commentary includes a quote from F. J. Leenhardt: “Since the entry of sin each man who is born into the world… finds a compromised situation confronting him…each generation and each individual act in such a way that the inner strength of rising individuals and generations is enfeebled, deflected and at times destroyed.” It seems clear to me that we are not held accountable for Adam’s original sin, therefore we are not guilty of that offense. However, we are under the control of sin because of Adam’s initial transgression. All have sinned since the time that our first parents disobeyed God. Our inherent sin nature takes away our freedom to choose righteousness and goodness. But through the obedience of the “second” man, there is therefore no condemnation. We are not held accountable for our own sins after accepting Christ. How could we be held to answer for what Adam did?

My thoughts on this matter are rooted in Augustine and Arminius. It was Augustine’s opinion that because man is a totally depraved sinner, lacking the ability to choose righteousness or good, it was necessary for God to initiate the process of salvation. Augustine believed that all individuals existed in Adam’s nature, so Adam’s sin was actually our sin. He said we inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin and its ultimate penalty: death. Of course, man was banished from the Garden, and, therefore, access to the Tree of Life (archetypal Jesus?). It seems the Reformed belief is that Adam was our “corporate” representative, and that when he sinned it was counted as sin for everyone. God’s grace is required in order to preordain man to choose properly, and it must precede any response to salvation. Augustine held that this so-called prevenient grace was given only to the elect.

This is quite similar to what Calvinists call special or electing grace. Arminius believed that man is depraved in every area of his being and, therefore, devoid of any righteousness or goodness. He did not believe we suffer any penalty for Adam’s original sin. In fact, Arminius said, ” It may admit of discussion, whether God could be angry on account of original sin which was born with us, since it seemed to be inflicted on us by God as a punishment of the actual sin which had been committed by Adam and by us in Him…. I did not deny that it was sin, but it was not actual sin…. We must distinguish between actual sin, and that which was the cause of other sins, and which, on this very account might be denominated “sin” (emphasis mine).

Wesley is well-known for believing nothing is sin, strictly speaking, except one’s individual transgression of a known Law of God. Based on Romans 5:15-19, Wesley believed that the death of Christ completely absolved Adam’s posterity of the eternal guilt of his original sin. In any event, I believe two things regarding God’s preordained plan for redemption: (1) that it was intended to provide the ultimate blood sacrifice for all of man’s sins, regardless of who committed them or how intentional or “accidental” those offenses were; and (2) that the death of Christ severed the “chain” of sin at the time Adam sinned (as God and all His intentions are not subject to time restrictions), and continues to this day to have interrupted the chain of guilt. We still have to consider Scripture, some of which you quoted in your reply to my initial post. Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (RSV). Ephesians 2:3 tells us we are “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

Matthew Henry indicates that Ephesians 2:1-10 addresses the nature of sin, man’s tendency toward sin, man’s state of “being naturally children of disobedience” and “children of wrath.” He adds, “Being born of God: he lives, being delivered from the guilt of sin, by pardoning and justifying grace.” 3 According to Dake, Ephesians 2:3 is specific to our being sinners by nature, born into sin. Romans 5:12 says, ” Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam” (emphasis mine). What does this mean to you? If we are held accountable for sins “not like” those of Adam, does Paul indicate here we are not adjudicated “guilty” for Adam’s individual sin, but are burdened with our own transgressions after the nature of disobedience exemplified by Adam? Please understand that I believe we inherited our sin nature from Adam; I am not convinced we are considered “guilty” in God’s eyes for Adam’s personal offense, i.e., his disobedience.

Universalism would say all babies go to Heaven because they believe everyone (eventually) will be saved. Universalism is not based on biblical doctrine. Because the Bible reveals that we are born tainted by original sin, we cannot claim that infants are born in a state of innocence. This question requires careful and faithful biblical exegesis and theological reflection. From a sentimental vantage, many will assure the parents of those whose child died very young that their child is in Heaven, but we must never base doctrine on what we hope may be true. We must determine what the Bible reveals to be true. It is also important to note that merely basing our answer on election actually avoids answering the question. Let’s remember that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation. He provides salvation to us despite the fact that we do not deserve it and can do nothing to earn it. It is all of grace. Accordingly, I believe Jesus graciously and freely receives those who die in infancy, but this is not based on their innocence or worthiness. It is based solely on His grace, and made possible by atonement He purchased on the cross. Any response beyond this would require an exegetical study.


Bruce, F.F., editor, Zondervan Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2008.

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.), 1997.

Marshall, A., editor. The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1958.


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