The Second Result: Moral Corruption
The second result of the fall into sin is moral corruption. All Christians agree that every human being is corrupted by sin, and we can see this even in the first chapters of Genesis. Every thought of man had become only evil all the time, and God was grieved that he had made man (Genesis 6:5–6). Modern translations of the Bible use the term sinful nature to refer to our corrupted human nature.1 It is incorrect to think that this corruption only occurred in our bodies. As Paul teaches, corruption extends to all parts of our mind, spirit, soul and body (Romans 8:7–8; Ephesians 2:3). Our reason has become futile and . . . darkened and our moral conscience depraved (Romans 1:21,28). God gave us up to our immoral desires and perversions (Romans 1:24–27).
Because of moral corruption, men and women cannot come back to God on their own. Both Jesus and Paul taught that we have become slaves to sin (John 8:34; Romans 7:14). Paul wrote that a man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them (1 Corinthians 2:14). Jesus explained that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws him2 (John 6:44). But we do not have to live according to the sinful nature (Romans 8:3–4), for God wants to give us a new self, created to be like God in true HOLINESS (Ephesians 4:24).
Is our corrupted, sinful nature the result of our own sins, or is it inherited from Adam and Eve? Most Christians believe that all of human nature was corrupted at the beginning of history, when Adam and Eve sinned. Paul said that Adam’s disobedience made many sinners (Romans 5:19). Therefore, most Christians believe in the reality of “Original Sin,” the teaching that Adam and Eve’s sinful nature was inherited by all of us, even newborn babies. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5; compare 58:3). Original Sin means more than the fact that Adam and Eve committed the first sin. Original Sin means that their sinful nature has been transmitted to all of us, and it usually means that we also share in their guilt and condemnation. However, some Christians do not accept the idea of Original Sin. They agree that every human being has been corrupted, but only after each has committed his or her own sin. According to this view, all of us experience our own personal “falls” into sin (see panel: Was the Fall in Genesis 3 an historical event?).
Human nature is not the only thing to have been corrupted by sin. According to Genesis, the physical world around us has been corrupted also (Genesis 3:17–19). Paul pointed out that the whole creation became subject to frustration and decay, and is still waiting for liberation, which has been promised (Romans 8:20–21). Most Christians believe that the corruption they see in the created world supports their concept of Original Sin.
The Third Result: a Question of Guilt
There is not much controversy over death inherited as a punishment for sin, nor over the moral corruption of all human beings, whether or not that corruption is inherited. But there is great controversy over the question of guilt. Both the Old and New Testaments are clear that all of us become guilty because of our own sins (Jeremiah 31:30; Romans 3:23). But are we also guilty because of Original Sin? Has Adam and Eve’s guilt been transmitted to us?
Many of the early Christians answered “No” to this question, and some Christians today agree with them. They believe that guilt inherited from parents—that is, to call a newborn guilty before he or she has committed personal sins—is an unfair or unjust concept. They point to Ezekiel 18:19–20, which says that we are condemned only for our own sins, not for the sins of others. Most of these Christians agree that all humans have inherited death and a weakened, corrupt nature from Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12,19). But they teach that our corruption is more like an inherited disease or serious wound than a legal punishment or spiritual condition. For them, Original Sin is less severe than many other Christians think. According to this view, guilt is not transmitted to us from Adam and Eve. All our guilt is “earned guilt” because of our own personal sins.
The majority of Christians, however, give the answer “Yes” to the question of whether Adam’s sin makes us all guilty. They believe the Bible teaches that we inherit death as a punishment. If we are not guilty in some way, then inheriting this punishment would indeed be unfair. These Christians point to Paul’s teaching in Romans about those who lived before God’s LAW was given to MosEs. Those early humans were not condemned to die because they broke a specific command of the Law (Romans 5:12–14), but because of Adam’s sin (5:15–17). Paul clearly said that the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men (5:18), and that through Adam’s disobedience they were made sinners (5:19). Christians who answer “Yes” to the question of transmitted guilt from Adam and Eve have suggested three different ways to explain how we can be involved in their guilt.
Three Explanations for Transmitted Guilt
The first explanation is that we all sinned in Adam. Adam was the physical father of us all. We all came from the seed of Adam. This explanation teaches that all of us were actually present inside Adam when he sinned, just as Levi was in the body of his ancestor, ABRAHAM (Hebrews 7:9–10). In Adam all die, Paul said (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is called a Realist view, because it says that we all were “really” inside Adam and sinned along with him, even if we were not aware of doing it. “I am guilty because I sinned inside Adam.” Some of those who believe this first explanation translate Romans 5:12 as “in whom all sinned” rather than because all sinned.3But this explanation does not depend on the translation of one verse. According to these Christians, Paul’s following paragraphs require a Realist explanation to make sense (especially Romans 5:17–19). Just as our being in Christ is real (Romans 8:1; 12:1; Ephesians 2:10–13), so our being in Adam was real. There is a moral argument as well: for the punishment to be just or fair, our guilt must be real, and therefore we really did commit the sin along with Adam. According to the Realist explanation, our guilt is shared guilt, since each of us actually shared in Adam’s original sin.
Others teach a second explanation, the Representative view. They believe that Adam sinned for us. Adam, as head of the human race, was our representative. When he sinned, we all became responsible for his sin. We inherit his guilt without committing his sin. Adam’s sin is counted to each of us as if we had actually committed the sin. Yes, Ezekiel 18:19–20 teaches that guilt for actual sins committed by our fathers is not inherited. But those holding this explanation assert that the guilt for Adam’s first sin was an exception, because Adam was the head of the human race. “I am guilty because I am a member of Adam’s family.” This may seem unfair, but we should remember that in a similar way Jesus is our new head or representative. We are happy to be declared RIGHTEOUS through Him, even though we are not righteous ourselves (Romans 4:5; 5:16–17). According to this second explanation, as members of the human race we all have inherited guilt from Adam. But this is not shared guilt, since we did not commit the first sin along with Adam.
Still other Christians give a third explanation, the Rebel-will view. They point out that all men are sinners in their nature even before they commit any outward sins. They focus on our inherited rebel-will, and deny both the actual sinning in Adam (first explanation), and also the inheriting of Adam’s guilt without personal guilt (second explanation). The “will” is the part of our mind that has the power to choose and make decisions. These Christians teach that sin (singular) is a state or condition inside us, and is different from the sins (plural) that we outwardly commit. Because we are slaves to sin and are unable to submit to God, our minds and wills are truly hostile to God (Romans 8:7). We are enemies of God inside our hearts before we commit specific sins outwardly (Colossians 1:21–22). Our rebel-will was even hostile to God when we were still babies (Psalms 51:5; 58:3). I am guilty because my rebel-will was sinful even before I sinned in my behavior. We do not inherit the guilt itself from Adam and Eve, but we inherit a rebel-will. And we have “personal guilt,” because that rebel-will truly is sinful and truly is our own.
We can picture the Rebel-will explanation in this way. Adam and Eve were created with a mind that was directed straight upright toward God. Their will was not directed toward sinful behaviors or prideful thoughts. But when they fell into sin, their will was bent down away from God toward their own selfish desires and lusts (Psalm 53:3; Isaiah 53:6). This bent will or rebellious will was inherited by all of their offspring. We are all born with a bent rebel-will, hostile to God. Therefore, we are guilty of the same sin (inward rebellion) that Adam and Eve were guilty of, even before we commit specific sins ourselves. Those who accept the third explanation believe that Original Sin is this kind of sin—a rebel-will hostile to God. Since we are personally guilty of rebellion, death as the punishment for such sin is not unfair.
These three explanations are all different, but there are some similarities among them. Like the first Realist explanation, the third Rebel-will explanation includes the concept of our corrupted nature inherited from Adam, but does not claim that we sinned inside Adam. And like the second Representative explanation, the third Rebel-will explanation includes the concept of Adam’s sin being representative for us, because his sin changed all of human nature. But those accepting the third explanation assert that guilt is not just inherited, nor is it shared. It is our own personal guilt, because our inherited rebel-will is truly rebelling against God.
Both Old and New Testaments are clear that we are all involved in some way with Adam and Eve’s first sin. It is clear that we have inherited at least their punishment—death. All men, women and children are mortal. We can die at any age. While some Christians do not fully agree, most believe in Original Sin—that we inherit a corrupted, immoral nature from Adam and Eve, and that their guilt has somehow been transmitted to us. If their guilt is transmitted to us, it may be because, according to the Realist explanation, we sinned along with Adam when he sinned (shared guilt). Or it may be because Adam sinned for us as the Representative head of the human race (inherited guilt). Or we may have the same kind of guilt as Adam because we inherited a Rebel-will truly in rebellion against God (personal guilt). Ultimately, God’s gracious plan of free SALVATION through Jesus Christ takes away any unfairness we may feel from being tainted by Adam’s sin (Romans 5:17).
Many today ask the question, “Is human nature basically good or basically bad?” The story of the fall into sin allows us to answer that question both “good” and “bad.” In the beginning, human nature was created basically good, but our first parents fell into sin. So now the image of God in all of us is corrupted and our nature is full of sin. However, we have been given God’s promise that our sinful nature will become holy and perfect again. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds . . . But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation (Colossians 1:21–22).
1 Older translations used the word “flesh” to translate a Greek word that sometimes meant the physical body (with no evil meaning) and sometimes meant our whole corrupted nature (including our sinful body). Both Paul and Jesus made it clear that the main source of our sin is not our body, but our mind and heart (Matthew 15:17–20; Romans 8:7–8).
2 For further discussion about the ability or inability of our reason and conscience to bring us to God, see General Articles: In the Image of God (this volume), and Salvation—God’s Choice or Man’s Choice? in The Applied New Testament Commentary.
3 The Greek words can be either masculine gender (“in whom,” meaning “in Adam”), or neuter gender (“in that,” meaning “because”).