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“In Adam’s Fall We…?” Inclusion or Imperialism in Romans 5

I’m reading through Romans right now, on target for finishing my through-the-NIV-Bible-in-a-year goal. This morning I arrived again at that head-scratching passage at the end of Romans 5. So much ink has been spilled over this passage that a few more bytes shouldn’t hurt. So here I go again, thinking aloud over this passage. (See a previous post here.) Please test my thoughts and respond below if you wish.

Here’s my initial dilemma: I’m not satisfied with the typical Reformed approach to this passage. For one thing, it often imports foreign language about a “sinful nature.” (See that previous post.) Whether the idea of a sinful nature is accurate or not, I’d rather attempt to understand this passage with the language and imagery that it actually uses.

For another, I’m not quite convinced by the interpretation that says that we sinned in Adam and that we are guilty (eternally damned) because of that act of sin. For example, here are some typical Reformed statements that leave me dissatisfied:

First, from Warren W. Wiersbe:

“For that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12) means “all have sinned in Adam’s sin.” – Be Right (Romans), pg. 64

Romans: The Niv Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life Buy on Amazon Second, from Douglas Moo. “At the risk of a gross simplification,” he summarizes the interpretive options about “the relationship between the first or original sin of Adam and the sin and death of all other people” into three categories. The first two, imitation and infection, he rejects as not fully explaining the evidence of Romans 5.1 The third, inclusion, is his preference:

The relationship between the sin of Adam and the sin of all people is closer [than merely infection]. How can Paul say in the same passage that all die because all sin (v. 12) and all die because Adam sinned (v. 18)? Because Adam’s sin is, at the same time, the sin of everyone else as well. I think Paul does infer this idea of inclusion here in Romans 5:12-21. I lean this way for three basic reasons: (a) the repeated emphasis on the determinative significance of the “one” act of the “one” man Adam (vv. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19); (b) the corporate background of Paul’s thinking as sketched above; and (c) the more natural parallel it creates between Christ and Adam. – Romans (NIV Application Commentary), pg. 190

Third, this understanding is most concisely expressed in an ABC poem from an old New England Primer:

In Adam’s fall
We sinned all.

NewEnglandPrimerAtoMThis passage is hugely complex and I don’t have time to discuss all the evidence in favor of the Reformed position. I respect Moo’s scholarship deeply and he deserves much more than the following few lines. But let me proceed by responding briefly to Moo’s three reasons for leaning toward the inclusion interpretation:

  1. I think the emphasis on the “one” act of the “one” man Adam fits just as well with the idea that Adam’s sin opened the floodgates, admitting sin into the world, so that humans subsequently were born under the “reign” of sin and death (see Rom. 5:14, 17, 21; 6:12). (We could call this view the imperialism view, to continue Moo’s tidy alliteration.) The “one man” language points to the singularity of the cause, not the precise manner of the cause.
  2. The idea of corporate solidarity is powerful. Some version of it is undeniably biblical. As Moo notes, it is expressed clearly in the story of Achan, where the Lord says, “Israel has sinned” (Josh. 7:11, emphasis added). I don’t have a ready response to this point, except to note that this Romans passage does not explicitly mention this idea.2 If it is present, it is assumed, not stated. The language of sin and death “reigning,” in contrast, is explicitly and repeatedly emphasized.
  3. The inclusion view certainly does create a natural parallel between Christ and Adam. The language of being “in Christ” permeates Paul’s thinking, and he uses similar language about being “in Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” This verse clearly is similar to Romans 5; both speak of death coming through Adam and life coming through Christ. However, there are also differences.  Romans 6 does speak of our being “in Christ” (see Rom. 6:3, 11, 23; cf. Rom. 8:1, 39). But Romans 5 itself never uses this language.3 And nowhere in Romans does Paul use the language of being “in Adam.” (In fact, 1 Corinthians 15 is the only place where that exact language is used in all of Scripture.) Additionally, I think the imperialism view, explicit in this passage, creates an equally natural parallel between Christ and Adam: Just as Adam introduced the kingdom of sin and death into the world, so Christ introduced the kingdom of God into the world.

It is this concept of a parallel between Christ and Adam that first triggered this meandering post today. The comparison and contrast between Christ and Adam is central to Paul’s thought in this passage. But how, exactly, are the two alike? And how are they different? Paul is concerned both to compare and to contrast the two. Errors will abound if we think they are similar on a point where they are actually different, or if we think they are different on a point where they are actually similar.

Let me present another dilemma: If we deny that our experience of sin and death comes through our participation in Adam’s trespass (inclusion view), then how can we claim that our experience of righteousness and life comes through our participation in Christ’s act of righteousness ? After all, consider Romans 5:18:

Therefore, as one trespass [or perhaps “the trespass of one”] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness [or perhaps “the act of righteousness of one”] leads to justification and life for all men.

Doesn’t a denial of the inclusion view undermine our inclusion in Christ? How can we be sure of our salvation in Christ if we deny that we were damned because of our participation in Adam’s sin? (I’m sure I’ve seen this presented as an argument in favor of the Reformed inclusion view, although I can’t think at the moment where I’ve read it.) I’d like to suggest several responses.

First, it is important to note that our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is an undisputable fact. It is taught repeatedly and abundantly throughout the New Testament. This teaching will stand undisturbed even if we do not find it taught in Romans 5.

Second, it is possible to be “in Adam” in some sense without saying that we were “in Adam” as participants in his sin. There are various ways we could be said to be “in Adam.” As I noted, the only place this language is explicitly used is in 1 Corinthians 15:22. What does Paul mean by this phrase in that chapter? Whom is he describing with this phrase? I suggest that Paul is using this phrase to refer to all human beings who have lived after Adam. Notice that the described effect of being “in Adam” is physical death: “in Adam all die.” This death is experienced by all, believer and unbeliever alike. In this sense, all alike are “in Adam,” but some are also “in Christ.” Notice also the scarcity of “sin” language in 1 Corinthians 15. The focus of the whole chapter is on physical death and its reversal in the coming resurrection, not on achieving victory from sin. Romans 5, in contrast, focuses on sin as much as on death.  But in neither passage is “in Adam” language used to describe our participation in Adam’s sin.

Third–and this has been my usual answer to my question above–perhaps Paul is not drawing comparisons between the way in which Adam and Christ affect us, but only between the extent and certainty of their effect upon us. In other words, the exact manner or “mechanism” by which Adam’s sin leads to our sin and death might be different from the manner in which Christ’s death and resurrection leads to our salvation. Reformed authors seem to get hung up on the mechanism; if we are not linked to Christ in exactly the same manner in which we were linked to Adam, then, they say, we cannot be certain of obtaining Christ’s benefits. But Paul does not assume identical mechanisms in this passage. Yes, he says both death and life come through “one man.” Yet, just as he contrasts the effects of Adam and Christ, so he also notes some differences in the mechanisms of their actions: one was a trespass, the other an act of righteousness; and one occurred as the first trespass, the other following many trespasses (5:18, 16). So Paul is emphasizing that the effect of Christ’s obedience is even greater than the effect of Adam’s sin. But I’m not sure he is saying that the effects are achieved in the same way.

In fact, a little reflection shows that we are not linked to Christ in the same way we were linked to Adam. We are linked to Christ, Paul insists, by a faith that produces a new birth. But no faith or new birth are needed to live under the effects of Adam’s sin.

Fourth–and finally I’m getting to the point that triggered my thoughts this morning–I think a mistaken, punctiliar model of salvation leads some people to assume a similar, punctiliar model of how Adam’s sin affects us. (Punctiliar means “of or relating to a point of time.“) A punctiliar model of salvation says that we are saved all at once, at one point in time. This is the stereotypical Baptist model, where a saint begins her testimony by saying, “Back on June 6, 1983, at 9:45 p.m., when I got saved…” A parallel view of Adam’s sin says that at the moment that Adam ate of the fruit, then I, too, sinned and died. Both events happen in an instant–instantaneous death, or instantaneous life.

But what if salvation is not punctiliar? Again, this is a big subject. But let’s stick to the immediate context of Romans 5. In this context, salvation is clearly not punctiliar. Paul has already shown in chapters 3 and 4 how a person can be justified. At the beginning of chapter 5 he says that “we have been justified by faith”–it is a completed act.4 But then Paul writes, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom. 5:9-10). Therefore, in the context of Romans 5, salvation is an ongoing and future event. This process nature of salvation is the reason why Romans 5-8 was written: to ensure believers that God intends to complete the work he has begun, and to teach them how to cooperate with God in that work, producing the fruit of righteousness that will lead to the gift of eternal life.

If salvation is not a punctiliar event in Romans 5, then what about damnation? Was that punctiliar? Or is the outworking of Adam’s sin a process, just as the outworking of Christ’s obedience is? I suggest that, just as the results of Christ’s work involve both punctiliar and ongoing elements, so do the results of Adam’s sin. The curse started unfolding immediately. Sin and death entered the world immediately and began to reign. Thorns began to grow. Adam and Eve were immediately expelled from the Garden and the sweetness of God’s presence. But thorns take time to grow. Eve didn’t experience the added pain in childbirth until at least 9 months later. And Adam didn’t die physically until he had lived 930 years. During those years, Adam had many opportunities to choose spiritual life or death. I hope to meet him in glory when Christ returns.

Similarly, the effects of Adam’s sin upon us include both immediate and unfolding elements. The reign of sin and death is felt by each of us from our earliest days–or at least as soon as we experience the trauma of birth. From before we are born we are “damned” to die physically. We are also “damned” to be born into a world where sin reigns, dominating us until–apart from God’s intervention–we will certainly sin. But, as I understand the doctrines of predestination and election, humans are not all damned to eternal death before we are ever born. Rather, those who respond to Christ’s offer are called to make a choice: Will we offer ourselves as slaves to sin, or as servants of righteousness? “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Our actions, our choice of masters, Paul indicates, effects the outcome: salvation or damnation.

So, when did we die? It depends. We were doomed from the moment of Adam’s sin to be born into a world ruled by sin and death. We began to die physically the moment we are born. We progressively died spiritually as our hearts grew harder through our childhood and youth, prior to our regeneration. We will die physically sometime soon. And, apart from Christ, all will die eternally.

Is it right to say that, because of Adam’s sin, humans are morally evil by nature? Were you evil from the moment of conception? Were you under eternal damnation from that moment? Or did the damnation come later? I am not arguing that we should look around us and conclude that the humans we see are morally good by nature. Everyone I see, if I look long enough (usually not long at all), shows signs of sin within. And these signs of moral badness begin at a very early age. But why are we bad? Is it because of something inner, a spiritual “genetic deficiency”? Or are we corrupted from without, with sin dominating us and increasingly taking up residence within us? I don’t have answers for all my questions, and I’m not satisfied with all the answers I hear.

Why does any of this matter? More specifically, what difference does it make what we believe about how Adam’s sin affects us? Let me answer by quoting Moo once again, this time at length.

First, here is his summary of the inclusive view against which I have been arguing:

While theologians who hold the inclusive view argue about just what our relationship to Adam might be, they all insist that it is a genuine relationship and that, in a way we cannot understand, we really did sin when Adam did. We do not die for a sin someone else commits; we die for a sin we committed. – Ibid., pg. 190.

Now, what difference does this make? Here is an answer from Moo:

The inclusive interpretation has potentially great importance for one of the most difficult of all theological and pastoral issues: the fate of infants and other people without the mental capacity ever to commit a sin or to respond to the gospel. While there is a lot of debate over the details, theologians who think that Adam has infected us all with sin but that we each ultimately die only when we sin personally usually teach that deceased infants go to heaven. After all, they have never committed a personal act of sin. [My understanding would be similar with the imperialism view I suggested above.]

But if one holds the inclusive view, the situation is quite different. Since all people have sinned in Adam, all people, including children of any age, have already been condemned. Does this mean that any child who is not old enough to understand and respond to the gospel is automatically lost? No. Theologians who hold the inclusive view take three different positions. Some think that God, in an act of grace, accepts into heaven all those who never had a chance to commit a sin in their own persons. Others think that the children of believing parents will be saved. Still others think that God’s election will determine the matter: Infants chosen by God for salvation from eternity past will be saved, while those [who have] not been chosen will not be.

I have personally wrestled with this emotive question especially since my niece was born with such severe handicaps that she is not expected to live long. What am I to say to her parents when she dies? What do I respond when they ask me, the “family theologian,” where their daughter will spend eternity? All that is within me wants to be able to assure them that their daughter is in heaven. But I am not yet convinced Scripture gives me the right to do so. And I don’t want to be a purveyor of “cheap comfort,” giving hope based on my emotions rather than on Scripture.

I do not yet have an answer I am comfortable with. But two things I can say. (a) God is just and loving; we can leave such questions in his hands. (b) Whatever position we take will be decisively influenced by our theology of sin and salvation. This, after all, is the ultimate purpose of theology. We put together what God says on issues to come to a conclusion about truths that we can use to comfort, rebuke, and exhort ourselves and others. All theology is finally pastoral theology. – Ibid., pgs. 190-91.

I can say “Amen” to much of what Moo wrote here. I certainly agree that our theological conclusions on such matters must be guided by Scripture and not merely based on our own emotions. And I certainly agree that we can ultimately rest such things in the just and loving hands of God. But I also agree, with Moo, that such questions are worth wrestling with. The answers we find will enable us to comfort and instruct each other better in real-life situations.

And so… I want to ponder this more. I have more thoughts, but this post is long enough. For now, I’m suggesting that Romans 5 portrays an imperialism model of the influence of Adam’s sin more than any of the other common models: imitation, infection, or inclusion.

What do you think? I invite you to respond below.

  1. Imitation says Adam set a bad example. This, Moo says, was Pelagius’s view. Infection is basically the sinful nature view. “Adam’s sin introduced a stain… on human nature that inevitably leads people to turn away from God.” Moo says this is a “basic truth” taught throughout Scripture, but “it is not explicitly taught in Romans 5:12-21.” (Romans, NIV Application Commentary, pg. 189)
  2. Notice that Moo excludes the infection view for this same reason. See footnote 1.
  3. The most similar language it uses is “through Christ”; see 5:1, 2, 11, 17, 21. But this portrays a different relationship than “in Christ.”
  4. In other biblical contexts justification is described as something that is yet to be completed. But that is another topic!

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What’s this bit about “sinful nature”?

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Two questions:

  • Does a Christian still have a sinful nature?
  • Did Adam’s sin cause everyone to be born with a sinful nature?

A definition: I’m understanding sinful nature to mean: an inner identity that naturally tends toward sin.

To supplement my original questions:

  • Is it correct to consider Adam our federal head–that he is our representative and, since he as our representative died, we also died “in” him? (Similar to how we say Christ is our representative and that we participated in his death and resurrection.)
  • If so, are we being punished for Adam’s sin? Or are we only judged for our own sins (into which we have been led, thanks to Adam’s influence)?
  • Would it be more accurate to say (with Rom. 5) that Adam’s trespass brought sin into the world (rather than that it gave us a sinful nature) and that sin overpowers us and reigns over us? If so, then when we die with Christ in conversion, what dies is not so much a sinful nature that by its very nature was guilty, but a powerless self that was ruled by sin. This seems to better fit the vocabulary of Romans (sin reigning over the Spirit-less man and taking up residence in our flesh, contaminating it–but no mention of a sinful nature) and also seems to make better sense of the idea of children not being accountable for their sins.


Sinful nature is, arguably, not a biblical term. The phrase is never found in the KJV, nor in two of my favorite modern translations, the NASB and the ESV. Even the latest version of the NIV now only contains that phrase twice (both in Romans 7, where the actual word is sarx–“flesh”). So if we want to affirm the concept of a sinful nature, we will need to deduce it from other terms, much as we deduce the concept of the Trinity from various texts that describe the unity and divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the closest Paul comes to directly mentioning a sinful nature is when he says that we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). But in the same context he describes our sinfulness as a combination of outward realities and of the flesh–no mention of a sinful nature. He says we are “dead” Ephesians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) Buy on Amazon (“alienation from the one who gives life,” a relational problem), “under the control of the age of this world” and “under the control of the ruler of the realm of the air”1 So our outward sin problem is that we are separated from God and under the control of the world and the devil. The inner aspect of sin Paul locates in our flesh, not in some sinful nature: “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body [literally, flesh] and of the mind.” We were “children of wrath” when the world, our flesh, and the devil met apart from Christ’s saving presence. In this context, sin ruled us, leaving us “dead” under God’s wrath. Notice also that this passage speaks only in the past tense: Paul does not say that Christians are still “by nature children of wrath,” let alone that they still have a sinful nature.

It seems to me that sinful nature tends to blend together what Paul carefully separates when he says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20). Sinful nature, though usually phrased as something we have, is sometimes treated as an identity, as if sinful nature = I. But Paul says sin = an it inside of I.

Another way of getting at my central question here is to ask these questions:

* Do we sin because we are sinners?
* Or are we sinners because we sin?

Perhaps neither, ultimately? Perhaps we sin because, apart from God’s Spirit, we are powerless in this post-Adamic world where sin and death reign. Then secondarily, because we sin, we are sinners.

Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) Buy on Amazon Another factor that got me thinking along these lines was reading a brief essay summarizing what the Bible says about the Book of Life. Perhaps all initially are written in Book of Life and only removed later by God when they have filled up the measure of their sins. From that essay:

“Everyone starts out in the Book of Life. It is a book of the living, and all who are born originally appear in it…. All who come into the world have the potential for eternal life… but most ignore, reject, disdain, put off, or otherwise forfeit that potential—and so their names are eventually blotted out of the Book of Life…. Their rejection of [God] eventually earns them rejection from being listed among the living.” Note: “One could argue that the time of blotting out would be when they died, once they no longer had any opportunity to retain their names in the Book by trusting Christ for their eternal life, but the Bible does not speak to the question of when blotting out occurs” (Douglas Stuart, “Excursus: The Book of Life,” Exodus, pg. 688).

Mennonite Confession of Faith Buy on Amazon The 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith tries to get around the problem of guilty-because-we-have-a-sinful-nature by saying:

“Although men are sinners by nature because of Adam’s fall, they are not guilty of his sin. Those who perish eternally do so only because of their own sin…. We believe that children are born with a nature which will manifest itself as sinful as they mature. When they come to know themselves to be responsible to God, they must repent and believe in Christ in order to be saved.”

I think that is essentially accurate, depending on how you understand nature. Perhaps it would be more clear and accurate (and more helpful for understanding the biblical perspective that children are not accountable for their sins) to say:

“Because of Adam’s sin, children are born into a world ruled by sin. They are powerless against sin and fall under its rule. As they mature they become aware of good and evil (see Is. 7:16). They also become aware of God’s Law (Rom. 5:13, “sin is not counted where there is no law”; Rom. 7:9 “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died”; etc.). As this awareness grows, they become accountable for their sins. If they refuse to repent and trust in Jesus throughout their lives, eventually God in his own time will remove them from his Book of Life.”

In summary: I wonder if it might be more biblical to say we are ruled by sin (as an external force that takes up residency in our flesh) rather than saying we are born with a sinful nature.

The above way of thinking about sin reigning (a powerless old man instead of a sinful nature) and the accountability of children would also have repercussions for evangelism of older children. The “sinful nature paradigm” I have grown up with suggests that children go from saved to damned to born again. The “sin reigning paradigm” would allow for this progression: saved to awareness of danger of losing that security but not yet damned to born again. Thus in coaching children to trust in Christ we would not be so much waiting until they gain consciousness of sin and then telling them “You are sinners who are currently worthy of hell” but rather, when that consciousness of sin begins to arise, we might say: “Do you know why you sin? Sin is a powerful force within you that drives you to do what you don’t want to do. If you place your trust in Jesus and turn away from sin, your old powerless self will die and you will be born again with the powerful Spirit of God inside of you, giving you victory over sin. That way you never need fear the wrath of God. However, if you refuse to trust in Christ, God will eventually–we don’t know when–judge you worthy of eternal death.” Explaining all that (beginning with the basic awareness of why they sin, gradually explaining the hope of the gospel) would be more of a process than a single child-evangelism event. And, if the child responds in faith throughout, it might be right to say they never were “lost.”

Hmm… That’s called thinking aloud.

  1. Definitions and translations by Clinton Arnold, in Ephesians (Zondervan, 2010, pages 129-30).

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