Born Guilty

Did you know that everybody enters the world guilty of a sin committed thousands of years ago? To understand this and how it relates to us, we must go back to the beginning. Adam was the first human being the God created. God then created Eve, Adam's wife, out of his side and placed them in the Garden of Eden, where they lived in fellowship with God. God also placed in this Garden a certain tree, called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in order to test them. They were told not to eat of the tree, and that death would follow upon their disobedience. By implication, continuance in life would follow upon their obedience. The bad news is that Adam failed the test. He sinned and disobeyed God. But are you ready for the really bad news? You, and all human beings, are also considered by God to have sinned at that moment. Therefore all humans, as a result of Adam's disobedience, are born guilty of sin.[1]

This very important doctrine, called imputed sin, is an important teaching of the Bible and a historic Christian doctrine. This truth has a very forceful way of impacting us with the true state that the world is in and thereby making us look upon the salvation won by Christ with even greater admiration and thankfulness.

What is imputed sin?
To impute means "to lay to someone's account such that they are fully and justly responsible for it." In theological usage, it specifically means to give a person the credit or blame for something that he did not personally do. So when we say that Adam's sin is imputed to us, it means that even though we are not the ones who personally violated God's command in the Garden of Eden, we are given the blame for it. This doesn't mean that Adam stops being guilty for his sin and we are guilty instead. It means that we share in his guilt. His sin and its guilt is transferred to every member of the human race such that we are counted guilty for it as well. To put this all into a single sentence, we may say that imputed sin is the doctrine that when Adam first sinned, that sin (and its blame) was rightly regarded by God to be our sin as well.

What's the difference between imputed sin and original sin?
Do not confuse imputed sin with original sin. They are both true of all people and they are both a result of Adam's sin, but they refer to different things. Original sin is the sinful nature with which all humans are born. It is the evil tendencies, desires, and dispositions in our hearts that are against God. Thus, original sin is inherent in us--it is a morally ruined character. We are all born totally imprisoned in original sin--there is no island of goodness left in us.

Imputed sin, on the other hand, is not the moral ruin of our character. It is not the sin that is inherent in us as a result of Adam's fall, but the blame of Adam's sin that is credited to us. It is the ruin of our standing before God, not the ruin of our character. And as we will see more clearly later, it is very important to recognize that we are not imputed with Adam's sin because of the original sin that we are born with or because of actual sins we do in our lives, but because Adam was acting as our representative when he sinned. In other words, because Adam was acting as the representative of all humans, we are all imputed with his sin and his sin's guilt simply because we are human--not because of the sinful nature inherent in us or the sinful acts we personally commit in life.

So the distinction is that imputed sin concerns our legal standing before God. It is something external to our hearts--the blame for what another has done that is rightly credited to our account. Original sin, on the other hand, concerns our moral condition. It is internal to our hearts. The original sin that we are all born with manifests itself throughout our lives in actual sins--the actions, thoughts, and feelings we have that violate God's moral commands. So our sinful hearts (original sin) cause us to make sinful choices, think sinful thoughts, and feel sinful feelings (actual sins). Original sin, like imputed sin, makes us worthy of condemnation. Actual sins, in turn, add even more guilt upon the guilt of original sin and imputed sin. I have dealt with original sin in an article entitled "Born Sinful." In this article, we will investigate imputed sin and where it is taught in the Bible. The main passage we will look at is Romans 5:12-21.

Evidence for the imputation of Adam's sin
In Romans 5:12 we read that all humans are considered to have sinned when Adam sinned: "Therefore just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." The context indicates that when Paul says "death spread to all men because all sinned" he is not referring to the actual sins we commit, but to the sin of Adam. For example, in verse 15 he says "by the transgression of the one the many died" (see also verses 16-19). Further, the verb Paul uses (aorist indicative) indicates that he is speaking of a "completed past action. Here Paul is saying that something happened and was completed in the past, namely, that `all men sinned.' But it is not true that all men had actually committed sinful actions at the time that Paul was writing, because some had not even been born yet, and many others had died in infancy before committing any conscious acts of sin. So Paul must be meaning that when Adam sinned, God considered it true that all men sinned in Adam."[2] Thus, in verse 12 the "all sinned" is considered to be the same as the sin of Adam. In other words, when Adam sinned, we sinned. Since we did not yet exist when Adam sinned, this must mean that we are imputed with the sin of Adam. We are given blame for what Adam did and therefore his sin was our sin as well.

The Pelagian view. It seems clear that verse 12 is teaching imputed sin. But this will become even more apparent to us when we consider the failure of what is called the "Palegian" interpretation. This view claims that the "all sinned" in this verse doesn't refer to us being imputed with Adam's sin, but refers to our own actual sins in daily life. On this view, Adam is just the symbol of what all humans do on their own. Thus, we are not (on this view) imputed with the sin of Adam.

There are at least four decisive reasons against this view. First, this view is disproved by history. It is not true that all people die because they themselves actually and willingly sin. Infants die, and they have never sinned voluntarily. So they must be regarded as guilty for what someone else has done--namely, Adam. Otherwise, why do they die when Paul says in this verse that death is the result of sin? Paul also says in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death." Death is the result of sin. If you were not guilty of sin, you would not die (the example of Christ does not disprove this because he willingly laid down his life for our salvation, whereas the rest of us ultimately have no choice about the fact that we will die; Christ died in order to conquer death, which we were under).[3] Therefore, the fact that infants die before they have personally and knowingly sinned proves that they come into the world already guilty of sin--that is, they are born imputed with Adam's sin.

Second, in verses 13 and 14 Paul states the direct opposite of the Pelagian view. Paul is clear that Adam is not merely a figure of speech used to mean "each individual for himself" because he speaks of those who did not sin in the way that Adam did: "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." The fact that this verse says that death reigned over those who "did not sin after the likeness of Adam" indicates that Adam's sin was unique. Thus, Paul is not using Adam symbolically to mean the sins that we personally commit. As Grudem has said, "[Paul is pointing out] that from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, people did not have God's written laws. Though their sins were `not counted' (as infractions of the law), they still died. The fact that they died is very good proof that God counted people guilty on the basis of Adam's sin."[4]

Third, at least five times in the following verses Paul says that death comes upon all humans because of the one sin of Adam (vv. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19). Paul's use of the terms "one sin" and "transgression of the one" indicates very clearly that it is not our own individual sins that he is talking about, but the sin Adam committed.

Fourth, the Pelagiane view destroys Paul's constant analogy, in verses 15-19, between Adam and Christ. As Paul's doctrine of justification teaches, we attain to life by what another has done (Christ), and thus, through the contrast between Adam and Christ, Paul is saying that we are guilty of sin by what another has done. Just as we are not justified on the basis of our own action, so also we are not declared sinners on the basis of our own action. "So then as through one transgression [Adam's] there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness [Christ's] there resulted justification of life to all men" (v. 18). As John Murray says, "If [Pelagianism was] Paul's teaching here the parallel that would be necessary on the other side would be justification by works, that each individual would be justified by his own actions and attain to life on that basis. But we know that this is the reverse of Paul's teaching."[5]

Original sin or imputed sin in Romans 5:12? These reasons sufficiently disprove the Pelagian view. Another view is that verse 12 is not referring to imputed sin, but to original sin. There are at least three reasons against this view. First, as we saw earlier, the verb tense Paul uses indicates unmistakably that he is referring to a completed, past action in history when he says "all sinned." Thus, the "all sinned" is something that happened once and in the past. This is only consistent with imputed sin, which states that the sin which Adam committed long ago is considered to be our sin as well. Original sin, on the other hand, is something that is a continual state and in the present. Put another way, if Paul is teaching original sin in this passage, then Paul would not have said "all sinned" in verse 12, but would have said "all are sinners." But the verb tense unmistakenly refers to an action, not a state. The verse is saying that "all did something" (thus teaching imputed sin), not that "all are something" (which would be original sin).

Second, original sin is not the one sin of Adam, but the continuous depravity we have as a result of Adam's sin. Imputed sin, on the other hand, is the one sin of Adam, reckoned to our account. Paul's repeated references to the one sin of Adam in verses 15-19 therefore indicate that he is speaking of imputed sin, not original sin.

Third, the view that verse 12 and the following context is referring to original sin is inconsistent with the parallel Paul draws between Adam and Christ. Paul compares the results of Adam's sin with the results of Christ's obedience. Christ's obedience results in our justification. Justification does not mean that we are internally changed into righteous people, but that we are imputed with Christ's righteousness and declared righteous because of it. Therefore, due to the parallel with Adam, Paul is not saying here that Adam's sin causes us to be inherently sinful. That would destroy the contrast he is making with justification. As Murray says, "if we are condemned and suffer death because we are depraved and inherently sinful the only analogy or parallel to this would be that we are justified because we become inherently holy. And that is plainly not Paul's doctrine. We are justified and attain to life by the obedience of the one, namely, Jesus Christ."[6]

The traditional Protestant view. Our critique of the Pelagian view and the original sin view of this passage has shown these views to be untenable, and also given good evidence for the traditional Christian view that Adam's sin is imputed to us. There are many other reasons in the context of Romans 5:12-19 and elsewhere which indicate that the Bible teaches the imputation of Adam's sin to all humans (except Christ).

First, according to verses 15 and 17, all people are punished by death because of Adam's sin: "By the transgression of the one the many died" (v. 15); "By the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one" (v. 17). Since death came upon all because of Adam's sin, this requires that this sin had been imputed to all--for death is the punishment of sin.[7]

Second, according to verses 16 and 18, all people are under condemnation because of the one sin of Adam: "The judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation" (v 16). "Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men" (v. 18). Again, we would not be condemned unless we were guilty of sin. Since condemnation comes upon "all men" as a result of Adam's sin, then the guilt of Adam's sin must have been charged to all, thus making us deserving of condemnation.

Third, according to verse 19, all people are looked upon by God as sinners because of Adam's sin: "Through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners" (v. 19). This is a direct statement of imputation. We cannot take "made sinners" here to be referring to original sin because it is paralleled with "made righteous." The phrase "made righteous" in this context is referring to the great truth of justification. Justification does not concern a change in our characters, the infusion of something inherent in us. Rather, it involves a change in our standing before God. In justification, God declares us righteous because He imputes to us the righteousness of Christ--not because He makes us internally righteous. Thus, when Paul says "made righteous" here, he means "imputed with righteousness" not "infused with righteousness." Since "made sinners" is paralleled with "made righteous," it must also be referring to imputation. Thus, Paul is saying that we are all imputed with Adam's sin such that we are considered guilty before God.

The verses we have seen so far show that because of the one sin of Adam, death came upon the whole human race (vv. 12, 15, 17) condemnation came upon all humans (vv. 16, 18) and all humans are regarded as sinners (v. 19). Thus, Adam's sin is imputed to all humans, which has the devastating effects of death and condemnation.

Fourth, Paul is very clear on this issue of imputation in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: "For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." The statement "In Adam all die" equals "in Adam all sinned" because death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). Since we did not yet exist when Adam sinned, Paul must be meaning that the sin of Adam is imputed to all humans, and therefore all die because of him.

Is Paul teaching that all will be saved when he says " Christ all shall be made alive"? This cannot be, because Paul clearly denies in his writings the belief that all people will be saved and affirms that only Christians will be saved (Romans 2:5-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:8-9). The all who are made alive in this passage is equivalent to all who belong to Christ, not all people without exception. This is because "In Christ all will be made alive" (v. 22) qualifies the expression "each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to Him" (v. 23). This expression clearly defines who the "all" is that Paul is talking about--all "who belong to Christ." When we look further at the context, we also see that verses 1:18; 5:13; 6:9 are clear that everyone does not belong to Christ. Thus, Paul is describing the manner through which death and life came--death through Adam and life through Christ. He is saying that all who die, die in Adam. All who live, live in Christ. Since everyone is under the curse of death, everyone is imputed with the sin of Adam. Since only, and all, Christians are delivered from this curse and saved, everyone who believes in Christ is made alive in Christ.

Mediate or Immediate Imputation?
At this point it is important to understand the distinction between immediate imputation and mediate imputation. Mediate imputation is the view that we are imputed with Adam's sin because we posses original sin (if you don't remember what original sin is, it will be helpful to look back to page one). God looks upon us as people born with a sinful nature, and because of that he imputes to us Adam's sin. "In a word [this] position was that the imputation to posterity of Adam's first sin was mediated through the inheritance from him of a corrupt nature."[8] Immediate imputation is the view that Adam's sin is directly charged to our account not because we have original sin, but simply because of the union God had established between Adam and his descendants (which we will see more on later). Both views acknowledge the truth of original sin. But mediate (or, indirect) imputation makes original sin the reason for imputed sin, whereas immediate (or, direct) does not. The Scriptures seem to teach the truth of immediate imputation.

First, Romans 5:12 says that death entered the world through Adam's sin ("sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin..."), and that Adam's sin was also our sin ("...and so death spread to all men, because all sinned"). So it is clear that when Paul says that "one sinned" and then says that "all sinned" he is referring to the same thing. Thus, when we are born into the world we posses the blame for Adam's sin not because we have original sin, but because the sin of Adam several thousand years ago was also "our sin." There is a direct link between Adam's sin and our sin because Adam's sin is our sin.

Second, verse 15 declares death to be the direct result of Adam's sin and nothing else: "by the transgression of the one the many died." Many died because of Adam's transgression--period. There is no room for the mediating link of original sin for the sake of connecting us to imputed sin. To say that Adam's sin is imputed us because of our possession of original sin is to destroy this verse.

Third, verse 18 considers condemnation to be the direct result of Adam's sin: "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men." We see the same thing in verses 16, 17, and 19. In the chapter of Romans 5, Paul is teaching that death reigns over all because of Adam's sin (vv. 12, 14, 15, 17), condemnation reigns over all because of Adam's sin (vv. 16, 18), judgement comes upon all because of Adam's sin (v. 16), and that all are constituted sinners because of Adam's sin (v. 19). In other words, everybody is imputed with Adam's sin, which brings about death, judgement and condemnation to all. There is no room here for any mediating link.

Fourth, the analogy Paul brings out between Adam and Christ supports immediate imputation. For believers are not imputed with Christ's righteousness on the basis of good that God infuses into us, but simply by virtue of Christ's act of righteousness for us (Romans 4:5-6). Therefore, we are not imputed with guilt on the basis of bad that inheres in us, but by Adam's act of disobedience.

Immediate imputation seems to be the teaching of the Scriptures. This brings us to another important distinction between original and imputed sin. Original sin is transmitted from generation to generation by virtue of natural birth. It comes to us directly from our parents, and only mediately from Adam. But imputed sin comes to us directly from Adam. Adam's sin is not charged to his children, and then his children passed it on to their children, and so on down to you. Rather, Adam's sin was directly charged to his children, and directly charged to their children, and directly charged to you.

The Ground of the Imputation: Realism or Federalism?
Having seen the clear teaching of the Scriptures that we are born guilty of Adam's sin, there is perhaps one very important question in your mind: How is imputation just? How can God hold us accountable for something that we didn't personally do? To answer this question we must ask, "Why are we imputed with Adam's sin?"

There are two main views on this point. The first is the Realist view. This states that we all existed when Adam sinned, and were literally in him when he sinned. Thus, we are guilty for his sin because we were personally there. To be more precise, this view holds that humanity, not consciously but in its unindividualized unity, existed entirely in Adam, so that when he sinned the common nature also sinned. And therefore, since each person is an "individualized portion" of this unity, we are all justly punishable for it. To illustrate this, imagine a lump of clay to represent human nature. The whole "clay" was in Adam. Each human to be born is simply a "piece" of this clay, and thus is guilty for what Adam did. So the basis of the imputation is that we were really there, though not consciously there.

This differs from what is called the Federalist view. On this view, we were all destined to exist from all eternity, but didn't yet actually exist in any way when Adam sinned. Rather, God established things such that Adam was the federal head, or representative, of the human race. Therefore, we had a union with Adam not in the sense that we were really existing "in" him, but in the sense that he was representing us as well as himself when he sinned. On this ground--that Adam acted in our place as our representative--we are imputed with Adam's sin. Thus, it cannot be claimed that the imputation was a "legal fiction" because there was a real unity between Adam and the human race--he was our representative. God did not arbitrarily impute us with Adam's sin, but did so because Adam was our representative. Therefore, it is just for God to impute us with Adam's sin because we were in a representative union with him.

Another way of stating the Federalist view is that God established a union between Adam and his descendants such that God looked upon us all as being one with him--not by virtue of us being actually one with him, but by virtue of us being legally represented by him. So this does not mean that God looked at Adam as the same person as me, but that Adam acted in my place.

It is important to understand that it is not Adam's sin and our sin in the same way. It is Adam's sin in a way that it is not our sin--since we did not personally do it--yet it is brought to bear upon us in a way that makes us deserving of its guilty. So our involvement in Adam's sin was not actual, voluntary participation as individuals, but yet the involvement was sin and we are guilty of it. The sin of Adam, though his sin in a way that isn't ours, is brought to bear upon us in such a way that makes us deserving of its guilt as if we had done it ourselves.

An analogy of the Federalist view would be congress. Your congressman acts as your representative. The decisions he makes, represent you. On a larger scale, the president is the representative of each in individual in the nation in many ways. For example, if the president declares war on a country, each individual in the United States is considered to be at war with that country--even though we didn't personally make the declaration of war upon that country. We are considered at war simply by virtue of being a citizen of this country, and thereby having been represented by the president.

Be careful not to misunderstand the two views, however. The Federalists do not deny that we were "in" Adam in the sense that our physical genes originated in him. They just deny that we were "in" him in the sense of actually being there, in the sense that all of human nature already existed in Adam, as the Realist claims. Second, the Federalist does not deny that human nature itself was corrupted by Adam's sin. But just as the imputation is not a result of us really being there, so also human nature wasn't corrupted in Adam in the sense that it all existed literally in Adam. Rather, we are born sinners because Adam and Eve produced offspring after their kind--sinners.

There seem to be good reasons for accepting Federalism and rejecting Realism. First, Realism cannot account for why it was only one of Adam's sins that was imputed to us, and not all of them--since we would have been just as "really" in Adam for each sin he committed throughout his life. But those sins are not imputed to us. Therefore, there must be something else that established the union such that it was only that first sin that was imputed to us, not the rest of his sins. As we will see, that something else is representation.

Second, Romans 5:12-19 seems to militate against Realism and teach Federalism. For example, the acts of Christ and Adam are paralleled. Just as Adam's sin brought death, so also Christ's obedience brings life. Now, Christ's obedience isn't imputed to us because we were actually existing in Him. Rather, Christ acted in our place (as our representative) and on that basis his obedience is imputed to us. Therefore, the only way to be consistent with the parallelism is to acknowledge that Adam acted as our representative.

Thus, the Realist view seems to be contradicted by the evidence and the Federalist view is supported--because of the close connection Paul draws between Adam and Christ, we must conclude that since Christ was our representative, Adam must have been.

Imputed sin is not a dry, dusty, irrelevant, academic truth. It is a very sobering, humbling, and relevant truth. We often tend to think that the world is not that bad. We think that sin has had a terrible affect on the human race, but fail to recognize the total grip sin has upon the world. Imputed sin corrects this notion. It makes known to us, in a striking way, that sin has a total and universal affect on the world. There is no escape from the grip of sin--all people are guilty of it from the moment they come into the world. Your next door neighbor who doesn't believe in Christ has the terrible sin of Adam sitting upon his head. And he doesn't even know it! What great danger the world is in! This truth has given me a greater feel of the lostness that our world is in and the darkness that surrounds us. Because of this, I see more clearly the need for Christ. Imputed sin makes me see that the world is worse off than I had thought. This then makes me see that Christ is greater than I had thought.

Paul's reasons for contrasting Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-19 were not merely for the sake of teaching us this truth. Paul also wanted to show the greatness and extravagant goodness of what Christ has done for us, which is made very evident to us as Paul sets Christ's great saving work against the backdrop of Adam's great condemning work. Adam is not the only federal head. Christ is also the federal head of his people. God looks at all people as ultimately belonging to one "team" or the other. Adam represented every human, and thus every human is under the condemnation for his sin from birth. Christ represented all believers, and thus everyone who trusts him escapes not only the condemnation they are under for their own personal sins, but also the condemnation they were under for Adam's sin. The contrast between Adam and Christ is wonderful. Adam failed--and all humans in him. Christ succeeded--and He gives this success to all believers. Praise Christ! He did what Adam had failed to do--obey God. In doing so, He undid what Adam's transgression had brought upon us. No one else could have done this. Praise Christ for his excellency and obedience to God!

In conclusion, imputed sin is not only important for grasping the depth of sin and the danger the world is in. It is also necessary to understand so that we can have a fuller appreciation of the work of our Savior.


A major resource for this has been the excellent and concise book by John Murray, called The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1959).

1. Some may wonder why I say that we are born guilty because of Adam's sin, when Eve sinned as well. While it is true that they both sinned, we will see later that God had established things such that Adam was the one representing the human race. Thus, our guilt is a result of his disobedience.

2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (IV Press and Zondervan Publishing, 1994), p. 494.

3. Some may question whether the "death spread to all men because all sinned" means physical death or spiritual death. The context seems to indicate that both types of death are meant. This is because in verse 14 Paul seems to use the fact of physical death to support his argument. Then in verse 16 Paul speaks of Adam's sin as resulting in judgement and condemnation, which would involve spiritual, eternal death as the result of Adam's sin. These two kinds of death are in no way contradictory. Physical death is the shadow of spiritual death. That is, physical death points beyond itself to the much greater and worse reality of eternal, spiritual death. Thus, Adam's sin resulted in both spiritual and physical death to all humans. In fact, it wouldn't make much sense if Adam's sin resulted in spiritual death without also resulting in physical death (and vice versa).

4. Grudem, p. 494.

5. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, in two volumes (Eerdmans Publishing Company, original edition 1968, paperback edition 1997), p. 184.

6. Murray, p. 185.

7. Some may wonder why Paul says sin verse 15 that "by the transgression of the one the many died" (see also verse 19). Is he denying that all humans are imputed with the guilt of Adam's sin? This cannot be, because in verse 18 Paul states "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men." Further, in verse 12 Paul had said that "all sinned." So "the scope of the `many' must be the same as the `all men' of verses 12 and 18" (Murray, Epistle to the Romans, p. 193). Why, then, does Paul use "the many" in verse 15? As John Murray argues, it is for the sake of making a more effective contrast between Adam's sin itself and the results of that sin. Paul wants to use the most forceful means possible to show that the single sin of Adam had manifold and terrible results. Adam's sin didn't just have one consequence, but many consequences--it brought death to all people. One person sinned, but many people died as a result. The point Paul is making is this: "Sin is so serious that this one sin resulted in terrible things to many people." As Murray says, "If he had simply said `all,' the thought would not have been so forcefully expressed, even though in the same context the thought demands express reference to the fact that `all' died" (p. 193).

One may then ask about verse 18: "through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men." Does this mean that all people are saved by Christ? It cannot mean that because Paul explicitly denies this in many places (see, for example, Romans 9:22). Thus "it is consistent with sound canons of interpretation to assume a restrictive implication....What the apostle is interested in showing is not the numerical extent of those who are justified as identical with the numerical extent of those condemned but the parallel that obtains between the way of condemnation and the way of justification" (p. 203).

8. John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin, p. 43.


Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.

For study on the doctrine of original sin, see my article Born Sinful.

Go back to Contend for the Faith.

This page hosted by Get your own Free Home Page

Hosted by