Is Sin Inherited from Adam?
A common teaching found among denominations is the idea that people are born with the guilt of sin, which we inherited from Adam. The inheritance of sin is used to explain the prevalence of sin in the world. Everyone sins. There is no exception (Romans 3:23). The conclusion is that sin must be built into us.
The first person that I know who taught this idea was a man named Augustine in the fourth century A.D. However, it was John Calvin, who lived in the early sixteenth century, who popularized the idea. Calvin lived during the period of history when many people rebelled against the Catholic Church and began founding new groups that would reform the church. Calvin's teachings influenced many of these groups.
For example, in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith that is used by many Presbyterian churches, there is a statement that because of inherited sin, "we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite of all good, and wholly inclined to do evil . . . This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and, although Christ pardoned and mortified, yet both itself and the first motions thereof are truly and properly sin."
You may not think of it immediately, but there is a problem with the idea of sin being inherited. If sin is inherited, then how can the Bible claim that Jesus, being born in this world, was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). The Catholic's solution to this problem is to claim that Jesus' mother, Mary, was miraculously conceived. In that conception, the chain of sin was broken and she was born without sin. Since she was without sin, then she was able to give birth to Jesus and not pass on the sin. Unfortunately for the Catholics, there is absolutely no evidence in the Bible for the belief. It also leaves the question that if Mary could be born without sin from sinful parents, then why not Jesus directly? The Protestants take a different approach. They argue that sin is only passed through the fathers. Since Jesus did not have an earthly father, he did not inherit Adam's sin. Once again, the difficulty in this position is that the Bible does not say that sin is only inherited through the father.
We understand from our previous lesson that Adam and Eve sinned and that the result of their sin had a huge impact on the world. Some of the consequences of their sins have been passed on to their children, such as women having pain in childbirth and men having to work hard for an existence. The question is whether the actual sin itself has been passed down through the generations. As usual, we will turn to the Bible for the answers.
In an upcoming lesson, we are going to learn about Adam and Eve's first two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain did not follow God as he should have and in Genesis 4:4-7, God warned Cain to change his ways. If Cain would turn to righteousness, he would do well, and God would accept him. However, if he continued down his current path, God said that sin was lying at his door. Thus, God warned Cain that he was about to sin, but Calvinism teaches that Cain was already in sin because he inherited his father's sin.
Later, in Genesis 5:21-24, we read about a righteous man named Enoch. Enoch is described as a man who walked with God. He was so righteous that he never died. God took him before his physical death. There is only one other man who had this privilege and that was the prophet Elijah (II Kings 2:11). Enoch poses a problem for Calvinism because God does not have dealings with those in sin (see I John 1:5). A person's sins separate him from God (Isaiah 59:1-2) and yet God took Enoch.
These examples force us to conclude that sin is not inherited from parents. Instead, we are each responsible for our own actions. If sin was inherited, can you imagine what would happen with each generation? Cain would have inherited Adam's sins, but Cain himself sinned, so his sons would inherit Adam and Cain's sins. The amount of sin would build up with each successive generation. Would we ever be in trouble!
Instead, we read in Colossians 3:25 that God is just. We are only punished for the wrong that we have done. I cannot be held accountable for Adam's sin because I did not commit that sin. However, notice that I still suffer from the consequences of Adam's sin. It is just the same as what happens when a drunk driver kills a family in an automobile accident. The family did not commit the sin of drunkenness, yet they still suffer the consequences of another person's sin. And it is not just the family who was killed, but all their relatives and friends also suffer from someone else's sin.
The strongest argument that sin is not inherited is found in Ezekiel 18. There was a proverb in Israel that said when a father ate sour grapes, his children's teeth were set on edge. By this proverb, the people meant that children inherited the sins of their fathers. Notice God's response: "As I live, you will no longer use this proverb in Israel." God said it was totally false. God then goes on to prove his point. Suppose a man lives righteously, then God will reward him for his righteousness. If that righteous man has a wicked son, the sins of the son will not affect the reward of the righteous man. Similarly, the righteousness of the wicked man's father will not benefit him. No matter how righteous your father is, his righteousness will not save you from your own sins.
Continuing, suppose the wicked man has a righteous son. The same rules apply. The son is not held accountable for the wickedness of his father. Similarly, the wicked father cannot derive any benefit from his righteous son. Ezekiel 18:20 summarizes the rule: "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."
People who believe in sins being inherited do turn to some passages to prove their point. I would like to go over the main ones with you.
The first passage is Psalms 51:5. Psalms 51 is a poem that David wrote after he realized that he sinned by having sex with a woman named Bathsheba (see II Samuel 12:1-7). David agonized over his sin and said "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." Some Bible translations make it sound as if he inherited his mother's sins, but this would contradict what we learned in Ezekiel 18. Notice in Psalms 51:1-4 that the sin David is agonizing over is his own sin; not his mother's sins or Adam's sin. Contrast David's statement in Psalms 51:5 with another one he made in Psalms 22:9-10. In Psalms 22, David was in a much better mood and he talks about his worshiping God from his birth. Which statement is correct? What David is saying in Psalms 51 is that his sin has affected his whole life. He started life in a sinful world and that world has influenced his life.
Another passage that is often used is Romans 3:23. Paul says all have sinned. However, read this again. Paul did not say all are sinners. He said all have sinned. The words "have" indicates an activity on every individual's part. Every one of us have broken God's law. This does not imply that those sins were inherited. Remember our discussion of James 1:14-15, every man is tempted, being drawn away by his own lusts. Notice that it says "every man" and the lusts are "his own" not his father's or Adam's lusts. Paul and James are teaching the same thing. Every person is faced with a choice between doing right and wrong. Every man has made the wrong choice at various times in his life.
The last passage we will look at is Romans 5:12. I have noticed that when people believe in inherited sin, they will often quote the first part of the verse. They almost always leave off the last phrase. Adam introduced sin into the world. As a direct result he spiritually died (Romans 6:23; Genesis 2:16-17). Among the punishments God gave as a result of Adam's sin was physical death (Genesis 3:19). In addition, men were denied access to the tree of life because of their knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:22). Spiritual death continues to spread to all men because we all eventually sin. Physical death remains in this world because the problem of sin remains, so the curse has not been lifted (Revelation 22:3). There is no mention of sin being inherited but each individual perpetuating the problem started by Adam. Once again, the teaching in Romans 5:12 is the same as in James 1:14-15.
The idea that children are born sinful is a myth. A child begins life in this world in purity and innocence. When children are small, they have no knowledge of good or evil (Deuteronomy 1:39). A child must grow up in order to know to refuse evil and choose good (Isaiah 7:15-16). This is why Jesus said the kingdom of heaven (another description of the church) is composed of people who are similar to little children (Mark 10:14). We have to become like children to enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:3). To enter the church, we must be cleansed of our sins, just as little children are without sin.
People are punished for their own sins (Colossians 3:25). God does not choose who is punished for sin or rewarded for righteous by the individual. Rather, the actions of each individual during his life determines whether he will be punished or rewarded. God set the standards. Our actions are measured against that standard. The decision to follow the standard or not is on man's part. God remains an impartial judge.