Original sin – does it matter?

Posted: November 25, 2011 by J in Theology

Does it matter whether we subscribe to the Reformed doctrine of original sin? In particular, does it make a difference if we accept the idea of Adam’s sin imputed to us, or not?

We’ve seen that this idea is not exactly jumping off the page in Romans 5. And I’m not sure there’s any other place where it gets expounded in Scripture. If the idea is not clearly taught in Scripture, it’s worth asking, ‘Does it matter that much?’

The alternatives are:

1. inherited corruption leading to actual sin and guilt

2. inherited guilt and inherited corruption (Reformed doctrine)

3. no inherited corruption or guilt – only actual sin and guilt (Pelagian)

View 3 acknowledges universal guilt (all have sinned), but doesn’t do justice to the ‘reign’ of sin – sin as a power that dominates mankind. Mankind is theoretically free to not sin.

View 1 ‘Inherited corruption’ is a way of acknowledging this power of sin. Mankind is universally enslaved and as a result guilty.

View 2 structures it differently from 1: mankind is universally guilty and also enslaved. But the actual state of mankind is pretty much identical in 1 and 2

So can adherents of 2 get on happily with view 1? And vice-versa? I can’t see why not. There doesn’t seem to be anything much at stake between these two.

I know some people will say the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is at stake here. However:

– I’m not a huge fan of that doctrine.

– even if I were, I wouldn’t buy that. Imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t depend on a corresponding imputation of Adam’s sin. Adam is ‘a type of the one to come (v.14) but that doesn’t mean the parallel can be pushed to just any length. It means there are ways in which Adam is like Jesus. It doesn’t mean Jesus’ achievements are a formal mirror-image of Adam’s failures. Indeed v.15-17 highlight ways in which Jesus’ work does not formally match Adam’s: ‘But the gift is not like the trespass…’.

When people say ‘unless Adam’s sin is imputed to us, Jesus’ righteousness is not imputed either’, they are pushing the analogy too far. I’m not that sure about Reformed ‘imputation of righteousness’, but I wouldn’t try to argue against it using Adam.

So I think we can get a pretty robust doctrine of sin without needing to go beyond what Scripture clearly teaches. In the absence of a knockdown prooftext for imputation of Adam’s guilt, view 1 seems to me pretty much coherent with the rest of Reformed doctrine. And it has strong Scriptural backing. View 2 seems to claim too much unnecessarily. My feeling is we can afford to let the imputation aspect of ‘original sin’ go.

  1. Matt says:

    “So I think we can get a pretty robust doctrine of sin without needing to go beyond what Scripture clearly teaches.”

    Right on.

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