At the recent Charlotte Regional Conference, I spoke on Rom 5:12-21. I suggested that original sin as it is normally understood is not taught by this passage or by any other. After my session a man asked me to explain further. This is what I told him.
Calvinists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many others within Christianity explain original sin as Adam’s sin being directly imputed to all humans other than Jesus (because He had no human biological father). When Adam sinned, the entire human race sinned with him. He was our representative. Whatever he did, we did. In this way of looking at it, if a human being could live a sinless life, he would still be a sinner and he would be eternally condemned unless he came to faith in Christ.
Until recently, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believed and taught that infant baptism was necessary to eliminate original sin. Thus it was held that if an unbaptized baby died, there could be no salvation. They taught that unbaptized babies would go to some sort of limbo, neither heaven nor hell. (Today Catholics hold out hope that unbaptized babies “may be saved and brought into eternal happiness.” See here and here.)
On the one hand, Paul is definitely saying that Adam’s sin causes us to become sinners. Indeed, he goes further and says that it leads us to be slaves of sin (Rom 5:16, 18 where katakrima means slavery to sin, not condemnation).
On the other hand, Paul does not say or imply that Adam’s sin was imputed to us. The idea of federal headship is not found here or anywhere in the Bible.
So how did Adam’s sin cause us to become sinners?
It did so by Adam passing on a sin nature to his offspring. All children of Adam with an earthly father have a sin nature. Hence, as Paul says, “death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).
Zane Hodges makes this insightful comment on the words “because all sinned” in Rom 5:12: “This statement is plain and direct. Yet in one of the strangest turns in the exegesis of Romans, this straightforward statement has been made to teach that all mankind sinned in Adam as its seminal head. But no such idea is found here or anywhere in the Bible” (Romans, p. 146).
Of course, in a practical sense it really does not matter whether Adam’s sin is imputed to us. No one who accepts the teaching of the Bible denies that all humans actually sin themselves. So the idea that anyone in a mortal body, other than the God-Man Who had no human father, could live a sinless life is nonsense.
However, the Lord’s answer, “Do this [keep the two greatest commandments] and you shall live” (Luke 10:28), in answer to the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 10:25), would be a lie if the normal understanding of original sin were true. And the Lord Jesus does not lie. Clearly the questioner was asking about spending eternity in the kingdom. If the man was condemned due to Adam’s sin being imputed to him, then even if he kept each and every command perfectly, he would not have eternal life.
I mentioned in my message that there have been a number of journal articles in the past twenty years which have challenged the traditional understanding of Rom 5:12-21. Here is one such article by Mark Rapinchuk, which was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and then later published in our journal by permission. I encourage you to read his article if you want more details.