Original Sin: How Original Is It? Romans 5:12

by Simon Turpin on July 25, 2016

The doctrine of original sin,1 the belief that “we are guilty as sinners in Adam,”2 has always been controversial and had its critics. This may be due to mankind’s optimistic view of human nature, which is based on the idea that humanity is not inherently sinful but inherently good.3 However, there are other reasons suggested by scholars for not accepting this doctrine.

Original Sin?

Karl Giberson, who once professed belief but is now a liberal critic,4 rejects the doctrine of original sin as a consequence of his belief in evolution.5 In his book Saving the Original Sinner, he argues that Christians should also reject this doctrine:

Christianity emerged in a different time and must be prepared to evolve like everything else. . . . . In the Christian tradition, humanity’s problem is referred to as sin, blamed on Adam . . . such a viewpoint is no longer tenable, and we must learn to get along without it. There is no original sin and there was no original sinner.6

Because of his evolutionary view of humanity, Giberson has to redefine the meaning of sin. Rather than being disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4), he sees it as nothing more than wrongdoing.7 Sin, however, cannot simply be reduced to wrongdoing because the biblical understanding of sin is profoundly deep in its teaching on the condition of humanity (Genesis 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:34–35; Ephesians 2:1–3).

Nevertheless, Giberson also rejects the doctrine of original sin as not being original to the text of Romans 5:12. He and others see original sin as an invention of the pre-enlightenment, and more specifically an invention of the church Father Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) who is said to have greatly influenced the Western church with this belief. Giberson states:

Shaped forcefully by Augustine in the fourth century, this notion—original sin—would become the dominant view in the Christian West. . . . Prior to Augustine, however, no such consensus existed and many Christians viewed Adam simply as Everyman, the first of our species, like us in many ways, tempted by Satan as we are. Adam, however, was weak and gave in to temptation, but his failure was his, and his alone. We can do better.8

Although the term original sin may have been employed by Augustine to refer to our collective human guilt and corruption, this does not mean that it was invented by him. There is an outline of the teaching of original sin in the Patristic theology of Irenaeus (AD 130–202), Basil (AD 329–379) and Ambrose (AD 340–397).9 Moreover, the Jewish people of the second temple period (530 BC–70 AD) “shared the view that human sin [was] derived from Adam (IV Ezra 3.7; Sifre Deut. 3:23).”10 Possibly the clearest text that refers to original sin resulting from Adam is found in 2 Esdras 3:21–22, 26.11

The question we have to ask is this: does Romans 5:12 teach that we are guilty sinners in Adam and that physical death came about through him?

Romans 5:12–21

The controversy over the doctrine of original sin is found in the Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.12

In Romans 5:1–11, Paul describes the reconciling work of God’s love in Jesus on behalf of sinners. This leads Paul to contrast (διὰ τοῦτο, dia touto, “therefore”) the work of Adam and Jesus. Paul opens up his discussion in verse 12 by stating that “through one man sin entered the world,” which of course is an allusion to Adam’s disobedience in Genesis 3. However, Paul does not stop there, as he adds that the entrance of sin brought death into the world. The punishment that God promised in Genesis 2:17 was fulfilled, and death came into the world.13 This leads to Paul’s focus in Romans 5:12–21: the reign of death. The power of death came through Adam’s sin, and that power affects all people: “thus death spread to all men.” This, as Paul states, is “because all sinned.” It must be recognized that these words “because all sinned” (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον, eph’ ho pantes hemarton) are “fiercely contested and difficult to understand.”14 This does not mean, however, they are impossible to understand. If we will allow Paul’s theology to stand as a whole, we will see how they function in his argument in this passage.

Like Giberson,15 theistic evolutionist Dr. Denis Alexander believes Romans 5:12 does not speak of sin as being inherited from Adam but rather coming through our own individual acts of sin. He argues:

The error arose from a mistranslation of the Greek construction eph’ ho (i) (ἐφ᾽ ᾧ) as ‘in whom’ rather than its correct meaning in this context of ‘because.’ So Augustine read the last phrase to mean that sin was transmitted from Adam to ‘all men,’ whereas Paul’s meaning is quite different, as NIV has it. . . . So Paul is saying here that spiritual death spread to all people on account of their own sinning. Once Romans 5:12 is correctly translated it does then bring its teaching into line with the rest of Scripture, which is insistent that each person is responsible for his or her own sin. It is not guilt that is inherited from Adam but a propensity to sin, so that as a matter of fact everyone does in a sense repeat the sin of Adam.16

As Alexander argues, the translation of Romans 5:12 as “because all sinned” seems to indicate that individuals are subject to death because of their own personal sin. Whereas, the translation “in whom all sinned” would mean that people are subject to death not because of their individual sin but because of Adam’s. While Augustine may have been in error over the translation of the Greek in Romans 5:12, the theological point he brought out is correct, as the text goes on to explain.

Yet it is not necessary to view Romans 5:12 as either teaching that our sin is the result of Adam’s disobedience or that it is because of our own individual sin. It should be recognized that the text indicates that there is a primary and a secondary cause, as Schreiner acknowledges:

Paul does not deny in this text that the sin of individuals lead[s] to death. What he affirms . . . is that individuals come into the world condemned and spiritually dead because of Adam’s sin. The latter part of 5:12 must not be separated from the first part of the verse. Sin and death entered into the world through Adam, and hence people sin and die both because of Adam’s sin and their own sin, though the sin of Adam is fundamental and foundational.17

Therefore, the primary cause would be Adam’s disobedience, when death entered the world, and the secondary cause is the sin of individuals who through their own disobedience bring death upon themselves.18

Throughout Romans 5:12–21 Paul contrasts the sin of the one (Adam) and the righteousness of the one (Jesus). The whole argument of Romans 5:12–21 is the unity of all sinners in Adam and the unity of the redeemed in Christ. All through Romans 5:12–21 Paul speaks of the sin of one man (verses 15–19) and not individuals as the cause of the problem. It can be understood from Paul’s comments in Romans 5:19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” that Adam’s disobedience (sin) made19 all of his descendants guilty by virtue of his first sin. Therefore “Paul is insisting that people were really ‘made’ sinners through Adam’s act of disobedience.”20 In context the “many” of verse 19 are the “all men” of verse 12. It is because of Adam’s disobedience we are considered sinners. This is not to deny human responsibility for sin as we “are not guilty for Adam’s sin; we are guilty sinners in Adam.”21

It is because of Adam’s sin that mankind is described as “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), which is describing the nature of our being. The Fall brought about a fundamental change in our human nature.

Furthermore, Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12–21 is fatally undermined if Adam means mankind in general, a metaphor for everybody.22 If it was not by one man that sin, condemnation, and judgment came upon all, then how can it be by one man, Jesus Christ, that salvation comes? The parallel is broken and the analogy does not work if Adam is a metaphor for mankind.

Paul, as an apostle in the New Testament, gives us inspired, theological insights and explains the significance and meaning of Adam. The Old Testament gives the information that speaks of the Fall of the human race due to Adam’s disobedience. Paul looks back with theological reflections in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, teaching an inseparable tie between the historical reality of Christ’s work of redemption and the historical reality of the fall in Genesis 2–3. In the New Testament, Paul is giving a theological justification for the consequences of Adam’s Fall in Genesis 3.

What Does It Mean To Be “In Adam”?

The expression “in Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:22) means “to be part of the group which finds in Adam its representative and leader, which finds its identity and destiny in Adam and what he has brought about for his people.”23 This idea of being “in Adam” brings up a common objection to the teaching of original sin, which Giberson raises: “What justice permits you and me to be punished for something with which we had nothing to do?”24

Of course, the view that we are guilty sinners in Adam is repulsive to our self-serving individualistic Western world. However, this overlooks the corporate dimension to human life and the biblical concept of federal headship (one individual representing an entire group—see Joshua 7:10–26).25 Adam is our federal head. In the Garden of Eden Adam was not simply acting for himself but for all those he represents. God appointed Adam to act not only for himself but also for his descendants. Never have we been more perfectly represented than when we were represented through Adam. Yet, the real reason many reject the idea of inherited sin from Adam is stated by the late James Montgomery Boice:

I am convinced that the major reason why the liberal scholars want to regard the opening chapters of Genesis as mythology is that they do not want to face the reality of the fall of the race in Adam or the guilt that flows from it.26

As fallen human beings there is a vigorous protest within our hearts against the belief in the imputation of guilt from one person to another.

What is more, for the Christian who does not like this teaching, then consistently you would have to reject any representation of you by Christ. There is a deliberate break in Paul’s comparison of Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12 in order to clarify what is meant by “because all sinned.” John Piper argues that if we read, “Through Adam sin and death entered the world, and death spread to everybody because all sinned individually,” then the comparison with the work of Jesus . . . would probably be, “So also, through Jesus Christ, righteousness and life entered the world, and life spread to all because all individually did acts of righteousness.27

Our justification then would not come through the imputed righteousness of Christ’s righteousness to us but through our doing individual acts of righteousness with Christ’s help.28 We would not want to find ourselves in this situation because Scripture makes it abundantly clear we cannot save ourselves apart from divine grace (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Jesus, the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), came to succeed where the first Adam had failed in keeping the law of God (Matthew 3:15; John 8:29, 55; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22). Jesus had to do what Adam failed to do in order to fulfill the required sinless life of perfection. Jesus did this so that His righteousness could be transferred to those who put their faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins (2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9).

Evolution and Romans 5:12

Theistic evolutionists recognize that the doctrine of original sin is incompatible with evolution.29 This is because the Bible teaches that death came into the world through one man, Adam, whereas evolution demands that physical death has always been in the world. Theistic evolutionists then have to reinterpret death in Romans 5:12 as being spiritual (see Alexander above). Yet, it is clear that Paul had both physical (v. 14) and spiritual death (verses 16, 18, 21) in mind, which might be called “total death.”30 Paul’s theology links the entry of the physical death of humanity to Adam (1 Corinthians 15:21–22), understanding it to be an enemy, an unnatural part of the creation (1 Corinthians 15:26). In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, Paul’s emphasis is on Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead, with spiritual consequences. However, if the consequences of Adam’s disobedience were only spiritual death, then the question would be why did Christ have to die a physical death? The question for theistic evolutionists is, if physical death has always been present in the world, then given Paul’s argument that physical death came into the world because of Adam’s sin, what difference did one more death (i.e. Jesus) accomplish?

Moreover, those who reject a historical Fall are left with a serious theodicy31 problem. Madueme rightly points out:

Sin’s origin in the world must be traceable to an earlier free choice of one of God’s creatures. Otherwise, good and evil are eternal co-principles (dualism), or God is both good and evil (monism)—that is, God is the author of sin.32

Without the explanation of Adam as falling, as the Bible describes, this would mean that God is responsible for the suffering and evil we see in the world. Too many theistic evolutionists are either unaware of this problem or unfortunately simply do not care.


The first man, Adam, is vital to many areas of theology, yet there is one doctrine that he is essential to: the doctrine of original sin. However, because many have synthesized evolutionary thinking with the Bible, this doctrine is being eroded. Theistic evolution doesn’t just undermine the doctrine of original sin, but it also undermines the doctrine of salvation and our only hope of being rescued from our sinful condition: the gospel of our Lord Jesus (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, 21–22, 45).


  1. Original sin is also referred to as inherited sin.
  2. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 426.
  3. This idea of human goodness is of course contrary to the teaching of Scripture (cf. Romans 3:9–19).
  4. Giberson describes himself as being outside evangelicalism: “Leading fundamentalist gatekeeper Al Mohler was right to describe me as ‘far outside of the evangelical mainstream.’ I don’t think I am even in the stream any longer” (Karl Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World [Boston: Beacon Press, 2015], 170–171).
  5. As far as Giberson is concerned, we are “evolved creatures, shaped by natural selection” (ibid., 178).
  6. Ibid., 176.
  7. Ibid., 176–177.
  8. Ibid., 29. Other theistic evolutionists also accuse Augustine of this: See Denis Lamoureux, “No Historical Adam; Evolutionary Creation View,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 58.
  9. See Peter Sanlon, “Original Sin in Patristic Theology,” in Adam, The Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 85–107.
  10. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 579.
  11. “For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the hearts of the people along with the evil root; but what was good departed, and the evil remained . . . in everything doing just as Adam and all his descendants had done, for they also had the evil heart.” (2 Esdras 3:21–22, 26 NRSV).
  12. Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι᾽ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν, ἐφ᾽ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον” (Romans 5:12, Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Revised Edition).
  13. In the context of Genesis 3, this is both spiritual (verse 8, i.e., separation and estrangement from God) and physical death (verse 19).
  14. Thomas Schreiner, “Original Sin and Original Death: Romans 5:12–19,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (eds. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves; Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2014), 273.
  15. Giberson states, “Augustine notes that Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all, in whom all have sinned.‘ Original sin made sense of this passage. Most scholars agree with Augustine’s fourth –century critics, however, that this passage should have been translated, as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) does today: ‘Death spread to all because all have sinned.’ Much turns on this difference” (Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner, 60).
  16. Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (2d ed. revised, Monarch Books: Oxford, UK, 2014), 343–344.
  17. Schreiner, Original Sin and Original Death, 280. For an exegesis and defense for Romans 5:12–19 teaching the doctrine of original sin, see Thomas Schreiner’s chapter “Original Sin and Original Death: Romans 5:12–19,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (eds. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2014).
  18. This is also recognised by Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter To The Romans: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (W. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012), 240–242.
  19. The Greek verb translated as “made” (καθίστημι, kathistemi) in the New Testament does not mean to change the character of something but to “bring, conduct” (Acts 17:15), “appoint” (Titus 1:5), or “make” or “constitute” (James 3:6; 4:4; 2 Peter 1:8) someone in a particular way.
  20. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans: NICNT (W. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996), 345.
  21. Horton, The Christian Faith, 426.
  22. This is Giberson’s view of Adam: “The story of Adam is thus the story of Everyman” (Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner, 170; see also pages 30 and 50).
  23. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter To The Corinthians: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (W. B. Eerdmans, Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2010), 763.
  24. Giberson, Saving the Original Sinner, 25.
  25. The idea of federal headship is seen throughout the Old Testament, for example, when David fights Goliath; both men represent each nation (1 Samuel 17).
  26. James M. Boice, Romans, vol. 2. The Reign of Grace. (Romans 5–8) (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1992), 583.
  27. John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (InterVarsity Press: Leicester, England), 92.
  28. See Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, 93.
  29. Denis Alexander recognizes that the doctrine of “original sin” is incompatible with evolution. In an article in an English newspaper, The Guardian, concerning the doctrine of “original sin” he states: “There is clear incompatibility with evolution, in which anatomically modern humans first start appearing in Africa about 200,000 years ago through a process involving countless deaths over thousands of generations.” Alexander also states in the article that “nowhere does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam.” Denis Alexander, “Evolution, Christmas and the Atonement: We are not descended from Adam and Eve—but still, Jesus was born to save us,” The Guardian, December 23, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/dec/23/evolution-christmas-and-the-atonement.
  30. New Testament scholar Douglas Moo rightly recognizes that “Paul frequently uses ‘death’ and related words to designate a ‘physical-spiritual entity’—‘total death,’ the penalty incurred for sin.” Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 320. See also: Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 242–244.
  31. The Greek word theodicy is made up of the two words theos (God) and dike (justice), and has to do with the justification of God’s goodness in the face of evil.
  32. Hans Madueme, “The Most Vulnerable Part of the Whole Christian Account: Original Sin and Modern Science,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin (eds. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014), 232.


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