Doctrine Ch.13 - Original Sin

Augustine taught that babies inherit Adam’s guilt even before they sin—but this was based on a faulty Latin translation of Romans 5:12. So does that mean we aren’t born sinful?

I love the playful rhyming in Tom Lehrer’s Vatican Rag: “Take your place in the processional / Step into that small confessional / There, the guy who’s got religion’ll / Tell you if your sin’s original.” Catholic priests really have heard it all before because sin is boringly repetitive and unoriginal! But why is that? Is sin in our genes? Are all our sins rooted in an original sin committed by Adam?

       The doctrine of original sin was promulgated by Augustine (AD 354-430), who taught that we inherit guilt from Adam via our parents. He didn’t just say that we were born with a sinful urge (which everyone agrees with), but that we are already sinners when we are born, before we have had a chance to sin by ourselves, because we inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin. It is easy to confuse the doctrine of original sin with that of original sinfulness—that is, the teaching that all humans are born with the inclination and natural propensity to sin, so that all humans are sinners because they all sin. Therefore, in order to save confusion, I’m going to refer to Augustine’s doctrine as the doctrine of “original guilt.”1

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Adam’s sin

Part of Augustine’s reasoning depended on the rather laughable idea that Adam’s sin is transferred during sexual intercourse! This was the only way he could explain why Jesus didn’t inherit Adam’s guilt. Augustine regarded sex as inherently sinful, perhaps because of his rather misspent youth—a time during which he uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”2 However, the five million babies conceived by in vitro fertilization during the last three decades have proved him wrong in that detail. They sin just like those conceived in the traditional way! So was Augustine also wrong about the rest of the doctrine of original guilt?

       He developed this doctrine in order to combat a heresy.3 Pelagius, a theologian whom Augustine was combatting, believed that humans could be sinless because Jesus referred to Abel as “righteous” (Matt 23:35), which implied he’d been killed before committing any sin. Augustine countered that Abel might not have sinned personally, but he was still guilty, because even newborn babies have guilt. To prove this he quoted Romans 5:12 from his Latin translation of the New Testament: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, in whom all sinned.” Augustine interpreted the rather odd phrase “in whom all sinned” to mean “in Adam all sinned,” so that literally, when Adam sinned, every human born from him shared that guilt.4

       But Augustine’s proof was based on a faulty translation from the original Greek into Latin. The Greek verse has eph hō (“because,” Latin quia), but if this was changed just a little to en hō it could be understood as “in whom” (Latin in quo). No Greek manuscripts say en hō, so it looks as if the Latin translator read it wrongly. The meaning of this verse (as found in all translations made from the Greek) is actually “death came to all people, because all sinned.” That is, humans don’t inherit guilt from Adam, but all humans personally sin, and thereby become guilty.

       Before we glibly discard Augustine’s doctrine of original guilt, though, we’d better consider what we would be losing. We may need some concept of original guilt in order to explain Jesus’ uniqueness and why he had to die for all. After all, if we are born without any inherited guilt, it might be remotely possible for some people to get through life without sinning—which would mean Jesus didn’t need to die for them. However, I can’t see that this is possible. Having brought up two children, I know how soon the propensity to sin reveals itself, and I can’t believe that anyone would get even to toddler stage without having done something wrong.

       On the other hand, the advantage in rejecting the doctrine is that we don’t have to worry that innocent babies go to hell. If people aren’t born guilty, God will judge us for our actual sins and not merely for being born human. We must not underestimate the seriousness of sin. Sin is refusing to do what God wants. The actions themselves may have huge consequences for other people, but perhaps the greatest consequence comes from the fact that we have disobeyed God.

       Animals exhibit similar tendencies to the human traits of greed, lust, cruelty, and deceit, and we can often see those faults even in our pets! Animal studies have found tribal warfare among chimps, along with rape, killing, and even eating of enemies. Sadly, one study of motherhood among dolphins came to an abrupt halt when an aunt stole a baby dolphin and thwarted all attempts to reunite it with its true mother. But the fact that these behaviors are similar to human sins does not mean that they are sins.

Could do better

As James 4:17 puts it, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” These acts by animals aren’t sins because they have no knowledge of what they should or shouldn’t do. Our animal instincts became sins when God called Adam to a higher lifestyle. God gave us a conscience, which increasingly guides us as we mature, so that even without God’s written law humans have a knowledge of right and wrong. This law tells us to live differently from animals: we should not mate with whoever happens to be available; we should not snatch food or other things that belong to others; and we should not kill those who challenge us.

       So when we do sin, it is a personal effrontery to God, who has asked us not to follow these animal instincts. Psalm 51 shows that David realized he had offended God when he slept with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Sam 11:2-14). These crimes had victims, from whom David needed to ask forgiveness, but David knew he also needed to ask God to forgive him. God had treated David as special—he had given him the Holy Spirit to help him resist temptation (Ps 51:11). David knew that without the Holy Spirit he would follow the evil inclinations he’d felt from birth (v. 5), so he asked God to cleanse him again and create a new heart in him (vv. 7-10).

       In the New Testament, David’s special treatment became normal for all Christians. The Holy Spirit creates a new heart in everyone who repents, and Paul said that the Spirit gives Christians the ability to conquer sin (Rom 8:3-6). Yet most of us are gross underachievers in this regard.

       Perhaps the doctrine of original guilt removes some of our motivation to conquer sin, because being born with guilt makes us feel it isn’t worth trying to overcome it. We regard ourselves as hopeless sinners, so there’s little point in trying to be different. We feel that God is displeased with us anyway, and because his judgment is dealt with by his Son, we don’t worry too much.

       Perhaps we would respond differently if, instead of concentrating on God’s judgment, we concentrate instead on his love for us. This may make us more aware of his disappointment when we fail to live up to the wonderful new human nature he has given us in Jesus. Perhaps we would be heartbroken (as God is) when we fall back into our old nature and be motivated to try harder. Personally, I’m coming to the conclusion that the doctrine of original guilt has perverted our view of God, and removing it may make a huge difference to the way we live!

1^ For more details see Jesse Couenhoven, “St. Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin,” Augustinian Studies 36 (2005)., at
2^ Augustine, Confessions 8.7.17 (
3^ Augustine, On Nature and Grace 11 (
4^ Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 4.7 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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