Scripture teaches we are all sinners, but many ask why this is true. This section of Romans begins a contrast of the effects of Adam’s sin with the results of Christ’s sacrifice. Paul uses the occasion of sin’s entrance into the human race through Adam and Eve’s disobedience to prove we are all sinners.
This section has created unrest for many as they wonder why God holds them responsible for a bad decision our first parents made. So we must examine whether Paul is teaching we are actually responsible for their sin or whether he is showing how we are guilty by virtue of being their descendants.
Few argue the presence of sin. It is evident in people’s actions and attitudes. Those who doubt their sinfulness only need examine their actions by the clear teachings of God’s Word to conclude they do miss the mark God has established for acceptance with him. Paul has already established all have sinned (3:23). Now he will examine how sin is transmitted.
The Truth About Sin (v. 12)
Paul connects Adam’s sin to the entire human race. Now we might ask, “Well, what about Eve?” After all, wasn’t she the one who succumbed to Satan’s temptation? While this is true, Adam was considered the federal or natural head of the human race in God’s eyes. Adam also entered into sin with wide open eyes while Eve was deceived by the serpent. The result, however, was the same.
Before we examine how the transmission occurs, some truths about sin and its results are in order. Though Adam and Eve committed the first sin of the human race, sin began in heaven when Lucifer—an angel—decided to rebel against God’s rule and take other angels with him. His desire then materialized into spreading this infectious disease within the human race. He was successful as we read in the story of Eve’s yielding to temptation and leading her husband to follow.
Sin is a spirit of independence from God. This was true with Lucifer and is evident in all people who want to live apart from God’s control over their lives. It is exhibited in the idea that “life is all about us” and we don’t need anyone telling us how to live. Sin is rebellion against God and an affront to his holy nature. It blinds us to God’s purpose leading us to believe we know best and that we will not really experience the consequences God says come with unconfessed sin. Sin separates us from God since he cannot have any part of it.
Sin permeates our mind, which becomes Satan’s playground since all temptation begins there. We think, feel, and act. Eve thought about what the serpent was telling her before feelings of becoming like God arose in her mind. Then she acted on her desire. With sin come feelings of fear and shame as well as the possibility of having our consciences seared if we continually ignore the voice of God as Pharaoh of old did. He hardened his heart against God’s message and God allowed the stubbornness to continue.
Sin enslaves us just as surely as the chains did the African villagers who were carted from their homeland and transported to America. It is a dreadful habit we cannot break in our own power. Not only does it separate us from God, but it separates us from others as well. If not dealt with, it will eventually lead to experiencing the full wrath of God’s fury.
The Death Trap of Sin (v. 12)
Theologians disagree over whether Adam and Eve would have died had they not sinned. The question is really about whether physical death was a consequence of sin or whether humans would have died anyway even if they had not disobeyed God. Regardless of our conclusion, sin brought spiritual death—and physical death arrived eventually. It was not immediate, for they lived a number of years after their disobedience and had many children.
If physical death was a consequence, we can possibly conclude their bodies began to age immediately. Spiritual death was an immediate disconnection between them and God. The relationship as it had been was severed, and with spiritual death came present and eternal consequences.
The Universal Consequences of Sin (v. 12)
Not only did Adam and Eve’s naughtiness bring death to them, but that same spiritual (and physical) death spread to all their posterity. Then Paul makes a statement that might confuse or bother us: “for everyone sinned.” How could the entire human race, which had not been born, sin because our first parents did? We might propose the unfairness of this death sentence.
As we attempt in our human way to get back into God’s mind before the creation, it appears we must conclude, based on what Paul teaches, that the entire human race was bound up or considered in Adam. He was the federal or natural head. God looked at Adam and saw everyone who would be born. This does not imply God charges us with and punishes us for Adam’s sin, but everyone born since him has borne out his sinful heritage. We are sinners by nature and choice. The sinful nature our first parents inherited has been transferred to their posterity so we are not sinners because we sin (although we are that too) but rather we sin because we are sinners. Hypothetically, we could choose to avoid sin—although no one ever will.
Getting caught up in the discussion of fairness is easy, but what we should seek is God’s mercy for this is the only way we can receive forgiveness and thereby regain the right standing humanity had before the Fall. As we consider the matter of human nature, we should not be surprised by these circumstances. Children inherit their nature from their parents, not only through the genes but also in learned behavior. So while not personally guilty of Adam’s sin, we repeat his sin because we have his nature.
How our sinful nature is transmitted from generation to generation has also been discussed by theologians. Some maintain it’s inherent in the procreation process while others suppose we receive it after committing our first sinful act, thereby validating our heritage. While the account of Adam and Eve’s sin shows the entrance of sin into the human race, it behooves us to ask why and how that makes everyone a sinner.
Consider again the following statements: “I am a sinner because I sin” or “I sin because I am a sinner.” The first leaves open the possibility of living without sinning. If this is possible, the sacrifice of Christ was unnecessary. The second statement proposes the reality that all will sin and have no choice in the matter, yet at the same time are not robots.
The Bible is clear that no one will ever enter heaven on their own merit. We are not born good and then corrupted by our environment. If the environment was the sole culprit, it would again leave open the possibility of someone living a life free of sin. It is difficult to look at a newborn baby or consider a small child and think they have a sinful nature, yet they do, and time will bear out this conclusion. We are born bad, and our propensity toward sin becomes evident as we move toward the age when we can make choices between right and wrong.
From the various suggestions concerning how the sinful nature is transferred from one generation to the next, it seems best to conclude it comes through the biological process. If God actually creates the soul of each person (creationist view), then he would be the creator of evil if indeed the child is sinful at birth. Eliminating this predicament would mean believing people do not come into this world sinful but in a state of innocence. A better conclusion is that the soul is mixed with the person and is transferred just as human nature is. Just as we receive traits and genes from our parents through the genetic process, so we receive our soul the same way.
However, we must be careful not to remove God from the process of the soul’s creation, thereby making its creation random. The conclusion is not that God has nothing to do with the forming of new life in the womb, for he does. Without his intervention, life would never form. This supposition also seems to align with why it was necessary for Jesus to be born of a virgin and not through the normal process of intercourse between a man and woman. He was like us in all ways except a sinful nature. At the same time, this does not mean he could not have sinned had he chosen to.
Adam was the natural head of humanity who failed to live up to God’s requirements. The objection that God holds us accountable for something Adam did loses steam at this point. We are not answerable for his sin but our own, which will unpleasantly make itself known in due time.
An analogy would be a mother who chooses to smoke, drink, and use drugs during her pregnancy. When the child is born, there is a higher probability the child will suffer repercussions from her behavior and may be a cocaine baby. While the child is not accountable for his mother’s sins, he has to pay for them through physical difficulties—some that may last a lifetime. He may even have to die for the mother’s sins.
If we are sinners from birth rather than sinners because we sin, where does this leave us with matters like the “age of accountability,” mentally deficient individuals, and those who die in infancy? While responsible to God from birth for our sin, it would appear in keeping with God’s nature that he doesn’t hold us accountable until we reach a point where we willfully sin against him with full knowledge of the consequences. And I think we can conclude that God’s grace covers those who die in infancy as well as those who are mentally deficient.
Our first parent’s sin resulted in ours. While not guilty of their particular sin, we have inherited a sinful nature and are therefore responsible to God. How marvelous that by his grace and our faith in his Son’s sacrifice we can find forgiveness and be restored to a right relationship with him.