Total Hereditary Depravity and Ezekiel 18:20

by Bryan Sharp

"The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (Ezekiel 18:20).

Guilt is never transferred from one person to another.

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the creed of the Westminster Presbyterian Church. In speaking of Adam and Eve it reads:

They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin (eating the forbidden fruit) was imputed and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby, we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions (Chapter 6, Paragraphs 3-4).

While the Bible states that guilt is not transferred from one person to another, this confessional teaches that all humans are not just guilty, but are evil and incapable of doing good, because of our ancestors' sins. This is the doctrine of Inherited Depravity, sometimes referred to as Total Hereditary Depravity. This teaching contradicts the Bible, denies man's free will and personal responsibility, and is the basis for many other false doctrines. Yet nearly all denominations, and even some in the Church, teach some version of it. So in this lesson we will study Inherited Depravity as it relates to free will and personal responsibility. In doing so, we should learn three things:

  • God does not judge us guilty because of Adam's sin.
  • We do not have a fallen nature because of Adam's sin.
  • While we may suffer physically because of another's sin, we will never be punished spiritually for another's sin.

First, Adam's sin does not make us guilty. Not only is this the plain teaching of our text, but it is common sense. For example, if my father were a drunk, I would not be jailed for public intoxication. I would not be guilty. If my father ever got too drunk to walk home, he would be the one to spend the night in jail. In like manner, we are not held accountable for Adam's sin. The only sins for which I am ever responsible are the ones I commit myself.

Second, we do not have a corrupted nature because of Adam's sin. What is meant by "corrupted nature?" The Westminster Confession of Faith defines corrupted as "utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil." Consider that man is composed of three things: body, soul, and spirit (I Thessalonians 5:23). Therefore, whatever man's nature is, it must be part of his body, soul, and spirit. Not only is there no Bible passage which teaches any of these three parts becomes "utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil", but even if Adam's nature did become corrupt, there is no passage which states this fallen nature would be passed on to his offspring.

Furthermore, even if it could be shown that Adam did pass on a corrupted nature to his offspring, there is no reason to think it would affect everyone. After all, how could righteous parents, who are sanctified in body, soul, and spirit (I Thessalonians 5:23) pass on corruption to their children? Or, if we can inherit corruption from Adam, why not righteousness from Noah?

Rather than teaching inherited depravity, the Bible teaches man may always choose good over evil. The Bible teaches free will (I Corinthians 10:13).

How then does Adam's sin affect us? Adam and Eve's sins affect us physically (Genesis 3:16-19). Consider again an illustration. If my father were a drunk, I would not be guilty of drunkenness and I would not have to be a drunk myself, but I would still suffer. I might live in poverty because he would not be able to hold a job and what little money he did have would be spent on alcohol. I would suffer the humiliation that accompanies such a situation. I would suffer socially because I would not have an appropriate role model. But even though I would hurt because of his sin, I would never be guilty because of his sin and I would never have to be a drunk myself. We may suffer physically because of what others do, but we never bear their guilt and we never lose our free will. Compare Numbers 14:18, 33.

Rather than blaming others for our shortcomings, we should be thankful we have a just and righteous God and determine to serve Him faithfully.