Original Sin

By James M. Rochford

The Bible states unequivocally that all people sin, and there is no question about that.

“We all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2)

“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

“There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46).

“There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Eccl. 7:20).

“If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3)

“In Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2).

“Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9)

We don’t even need the Bible to see the universal reality of sin. G.K. Chesterton once wrote,

The ancient masters of religion… began with the fact of sin—a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or [not] man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders… have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.[1]

But how is it that all people happen to sin? Is it just a pure coincidence that all people have freely decided to sin? Do we sin because of our culture? The answer to these questions is, “Yes, we sin because of our freewill and because of social influences. However, there is another more fundamental explanation—namely original sin.

The doctrine of original sin states that humans inherit a sin nature due to the historical Fall (Gen. 3). While there is debate over how humans inherit a sin nature, Christians widely agree that we all inherit a sin nature. Romans 5 is the “key passage for constructing a biblical and contemporary model of original sin,”[2] though other passages support this doctrine as well.

(Rom. 5:12) “Just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

Some interpreters have argued that we did not receive a sin nature from Adam. Instead, they develop a sin nature and die “because all sinned.” That is, each individual person chooses sin, and this is why all people have a sin nature. However, this is a gross misreading of this text:

Paul is referring to inheriting a sin nature from Adam. While it is true that all people make the individual decision to sin (Rom. 3:23), that is not Paul’s point here. Paul makes himself clear that “death reigned… even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam” (Rom. 5:14). Erickson comments, “It is not imitation or repetition of Adam’s sin, but participation in it, that counts.”[3]

Moreover, Paul states that we died because of Adam’s sin: “by the transgression of the one the many died” (Rom. 5:15). Paul’s point is that humans are born into death—even if they didn’t sin the way that Adam sinned. Moreover, in verse 19, he writes that “the many were made sinners.” This doesn’t say that we made ourselves sinners. Instead, we were made sinners by Adam’s sin. The term “made sinners” (katestathēsan) is an aorist indicative verb that indicates a past and completed action—not a continual action.

“Because all sinned” (hēmarton) is an aorist indicative verb, which refers to “a single past action.”[4] If Paul meant that humans continue to sin like Adam, then he would’ve used the present or imperfect tenses to communicate a continual action (hamartanousin).[5]

(Eph. 2:3) “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”

“Children of wrath” (tekna orgēs) surely refers to God’s wrath (Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:5-6). This doesn’t necessarily refer to literal children or babies, because Paul uses the term “sons” and “children” to refer to adults. This is a “Semitism to denote those who deserve God’s punishment.”[6] However, the previous term “by nature” states that humans inherited a sinful nature from birth.

“By nature” (physei) is often used of our heredity (Rom. 2:27; 11:21, 24; Gal. 2:15) or our created state (Rom. 2:14-15). Some interpreters claim that our “nature” (physin) could refer to the natural order of life, citing 1 Corinthians 11:14. This, however, is a faulty interpretation.

First, in Ephesians 2:3, Paul uses the dative (by nature”), rather than the nominative (“nature”), as in 1 Corinthians 11:14.

Second, the term “nature” typically refers to heredity. For example, Gentiles are “physically” (physeōs) born with their ethnicity (Rom. 2:27). Jewish people are born ethnically Jewish and are called the “natural” branches (Rom. 11:21, 24). Peter was born Jewish “by nature” (Gal. 2:15).

Third, the Pharisees believed that the Jewish people were ethnically born to be God’s chosen people, and therefore, if anyone was exempt from judgment, it would be them. By contrast, Paul is saying that Jews are just as much “children of wrath” as Gentiles, and this is due to their “nature” or heredity. Bruce writes that Paul and his fellow Jews were “worthy to receive divine judgment,” even “as much as the Gentiles were.”[7] This interpretation fits best with the range of the word, as well as the context.

Of course, by saying that humans have a sin nature, this “should not of course be taken to mean that sinfulness is of the essence of human nature.”[8] In Paul’s thinking, sin “is always abnormal, a disorder, but in a fallen world the natural condition of human beings involves experience of that abnormality and disorder.”[9]

(Ps. 51:5) “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”

Some interpreters claim that this refers to David’s mother being in sexual sin (“in sin my mother conceived me”). Therefore this doesn’t refer to David’s original sin, but to his mother’s previous sin. However, this doesn’t do justice to the text.

First, nothing in Scripture mentions David’s mother being sexually immoral when she became pregnant.

Second, nothing in Scripture says that giving birth is immoral.

Third, the context refers to David’s sin—not his mother.[10] Notice the repeated references to “my transgressions” (v.1), “my iniquity” (v.2), “my sin” (v.2), “my transgression” (v.3), “my sin” (v.3), and “I have sinned” (v.4). As David reflects on his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, he realizes that this originated from his very birth. Derek Kidner writes, “This crime, David now sees, was no freak event: it was in character; an extreme expression of the warped creature he had always been, and of the faulty stock he sprang from.”[11]

Fourth, Hebrew parallelism shows that being “brought forth” and “conceived” are synonymous. He was sinful from conception to birth.

Fifth, elsewhere, David writes, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth” (Ps. 58:3).


Regardless of the extent of our sinful nature, Grudem is right when he states that “evangelicals of all persuasions do agree that we receive a sinful disposition or a tendency to sin as an inheritance from Adam.”[12]

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 24.

[2] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), p.652.

[3] Emphasis mine. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), p.653.

[4] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), p.653.

[5] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), p.653.

[6] Wood, A. S. (1981). Ephesians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, pp. 34–35). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[7] Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (p. 284). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[8] Lincoln, A. T. (1990). Ephesians (Vol. 42, p. 99). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[9] Lincoln, A. T. (1990). Ephesians (Vol. 42, p. 99). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[10] Tate, M. E. (1998). Psalms 51–100 (Vol. 20, p. 19). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[11] Kidner, D. (1973). Psalms 1–72: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 15, p. 208). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 496).