Thursday, November 22, 2012

Misreading Romans 5:12

What's Wrong with Teaching We're Guilty of Adam's Sin?

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned... (Romans 5:12 NIV84)
The lion's share of the Evangelical theologians I've read have--in my humble opinion--gotten this verse terribly wrong. They follow Augustine who seems to be the first church father to teach that this verse means that we're all guilty of Adam's sin. Augustine got that idea from the Latin translation he read which says "in whom all sinned" instead of "because all sinned." Today's teachers know better than that, but they look at the tense of the verbs and say that "all sinned" at exactly the same time as "sin entered the world" and, they conclude, the only interpretation that could possibly make any sense is that God holds us all guilty of Adam's sin. The trouble is that they're making an inference. The verse itself does not plainly state that.

Robert H. Mounce in "The New American Commentary: Romans" tells us that the natural reading of this verse is that Adam's sin caused us all to have a sin nature and the result of that is that we have all sinned, which is consistent with rest of the book of Romans, Paul's other epistles, and--I would argue--the entirety of Holy Scripture.

The humble person lets scripture answer scripture. No other part of scripture suggests that any person is guilty of any other person's sins.
The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die (Ezekiel 18:1–4 NIV84).”
Even if a church father asserted that Romans 5:12 tells us that we're all guilty of Adam's sin, it is pure hubris to build such an important doctrine on such flimsy evidence. Ezekiel 18 is very plain and appeals to our God-given sense of right and wrong. Romans chapter three is painfully clear that we each have a sinful nature and--as a result--have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3 NIV84).
What's wrong with the idea that we're all guilty of Adam's sin?
  • It is unnecessary. We all have plenty of failures of our own to drive us to the cross.
  • It is distracting. It suggests that our sins don't matter because, even if we had not failed ourselves, we'd still be guilty before God.
  • It is confusing. It keeps us from hearing what God is actually telling us in this section of scripture.
The point of Romans 5:12-21 is to compare and contrast Adam's act of disobedience with Christ's act of obedience so that we can firmly grasp the benefits of the atonement. We haven't just been forgiven. Just as Adam's act of disobedience changed our natures, so also Christ's act of obedience overflows to us so that we can be made righteous, not just legally, but in such a way that our natures are fundamentally changed and we--though we still have a sinful nature to contend with--can live a victorious life in Him.

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