The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms: “[Adam and Eve] being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation…. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions” (6:3-4).1
A Biblical Response:
There is no question that all humans have been adversely affected by sin (Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 5:12), but the guilt of sin is not hereditary. Otherwise Jesus Christ, a biological descendent of Adam (Luke 3:23-38), would have inherited the guilt of Adam’s sin through his mother; but Jesus was without sin (1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). “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” (Ezek. 18:20; cf. 28:15). Accountable persons become sinners when they succumb to temptation and violate the divine will (Jas. 1:14-15; 1 John 3:4).2
Often used as a proof-text by those with a Calvinistic perspective is Eph. 2:1-3, wherein the pre-Christian state is described as, “by nature children of wrath” (v. 3). However, the context shows that being spiritually dead is the consequence of “trespasses and sins, in which you once walked” [not inherited]. Accordingly, the Greek term phusis, rendered “nature” here, is not necessarily indicative of something innate but rather “a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature” (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon 660). Prior to their conversion to Christ, the Ephesians were deserving of God’s wrath because of their habitual practice of sin.
Psalm 51:5 is rendered in the NIV: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” But other standard English versions do not convey this Calvinistic slant: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me” (ESV, N/ASV, N/KJV, RSV, etc.). As with all poetic literature, dramatic language should not be literalized or stretched beyond its original intent. Whether this statement depicts the sinful environment in which David was born (cf. 14:1-4; 17:9-12; 73:12-14; etc.)3 or employs hyperbolic imagery (cf. 22:9-10; 58:3; 71:5-6; Job 31:18) as an expression of deep remorse for his overwhelming sinfulness, at least one thing is certain. Throughout Psalm 51 David consistently takes personal responsibility for his own transgressions (vv. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 14). See also 38:18; 58:3; Isa. 53:6; etc.
Since “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:10-12, 23; 5:12), would this not include infants and young children? The consistent focus of Romans is not a universal evaluation and indictment of each individual person, regardless of age, mental capacity, and culpability. The “all” (guilty of sin) is contextually qualified, and at the very least we know that Jesus is not included (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). The overarching theme of Romans is that Jews and Gentiles stand before God on the same footing. Gentiles sin and are thus condemned (1:18-32), but they are not the only ones; Jews are also guilty before God (2:1-5). Whether Jew or Gentile, the obedient receive divine favor and the disobedient face God’s wrath (2:6-16); there is no partiality with God (2:11). All have sinned (3:10-12, 23; 5:12) = both Jews and Gentiles (3:9, 19), not just the one to the exclusion of the other. Moreover, “all” (both Jews and Gentiles) have equal access to God through Christ and are accepted by him on the same terms (3:29-30; 4:16, 24; 5:18; etc.).
Death is the consequence of sin (Rom. 5:12), and seeing that infants are subject to death, does this not prove they are guilty of sin? It is important to note the fundamental difference between physical death, to which all mortals are amenable (1 Cor. 15:21-22; Heb. 9:27; Jas. 2:26), and spiritual death, which is the consequence of personal sin (Isa. 59:1-2; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 20:14). This distinction is crucial to understanding the otherwise perplexing words of Jesus in John 11:25-26 and of Paul in Romans 5:12-21. We all die physically because of Adam’s sin, but each accountable person is responsible for the sins he/she commits (cf. Rom. 14:12; 1 John 3:4) – leading to spiritual death – and is therefore in need of the spiritual life that only Jesus can provide (cf. Eph. 2:1-10).
Infants and young children are not evil (Deut. 1:39; Matt. 18:1-5; 19:13-14; Luke 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 14:20). In Mark 9:33-37 Jesus teaches his disciples an important lesson about meekness and humility by taking a small child in his arms and saying, “Whoever receives one of these children in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, not only receives me but the one having sent me.” Then in Mark 10:13-16 the Lord seizes another opportunity to impart a similar object lesson. Upset by the disciples having rebuked certain ones for bringing young children to be blessed by him, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child, by no means will enter into it.” The Lord obviously considers children to be the epitome of humility, eagerness to learn, receptivity, trust, innocence, and spiritual purity.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 The Confession of Faith: the Larger and Shorter Catechisms (London: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1962): 39-40. The Westminster Confession of Faith was approved by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1646 and ratified by Parliament in 1649 and 1690. The ideas of original sin, total depravity, and predestination can be traced as far back as Augustine of Hippo (354-430), revived and popularized by John Calvin (1509-1564) and others during the early Protestant Reformation Movement. Today a number of Protestant denominations advocate a form of this view as a tenet of Reformed Theology.
2 Age of accountability? See Deut. 1:39; Num. 8:2-3; 10:28; 14:29-31; Isa. 7:15-16; John 9:21, 23; cf. Ezek. 18:20; 28:15; Eccl. 7:29; 1 John 3:4; 1 Cor. 13:11; Luke 2:40-52.
3 When foreign Jews on the Day of Pentecost made reference to “our own language in which we were born” (Acts 2:8), their cultural environment is clearly in view, and surely no one would interpret this as articulate babies!
Addendum: What about Job 14:4, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one”? In this section of the book, in his extreme misery, Job speaks of the way things appear to him, comparable to the observations of his friends Eliphaz (15:14) and Bildad (25:4). Note how very negative and despondent Job is throughout this section; his hazy perception even sees a tree as better off than a human (vv. 7-10)! But Job’s perspective is comparatively limited in contrast to how God views things (38:1–41:34). If Job’s observation in v. 4 were a divine affirmation of inherent sin, then Jesus, who was also “born of woman,” would necessarily be included. But Jesus was without sin (1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). The “no one” of v. 4 is simply Job’s reference to his fellow human beings, but God can certainly bring what is clean from the unclean (31:15). Job recognized that his view of the world was incomplete, while God’s view is perfect (25:14; 28:12-13, 20-28; 42:1-6), and Job later confessed, “I have uttered what I did not understand” (42:3a).
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