The Conventional View of Sin
I would venture to say that most Bible-believing Christians know how to define sin. In fact, when asked, I suspect that most of them would rightly tell you that sin is the breaking of God’s commandments, or as 1 John 3:4 says, the transgression of God’s law. Sometimes the Bible uses other words when referring to sin. These words include: trespass [ma‛al H4604], iniquity [‛âvôn H5771] and transgression [pesha‛ H6588]. Though some theologians have argued that there are significant differences between these words 1 , it is absolutely clear that they all refer to the same idea and are thus effectively synonymous. Accordingly, we see the truth of this claim demonstrated in the Scriptures. One example that comes to mind is Psalm 32:1-2 where we read:
…Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity…
Psalm 32:1-2 employs a biblical literary device called parallelism. The goal of a parallelism is to have “identical or equivalent syntactic constructions [appear] in corresponding clauses or phrases.”2 E.W. Bullinger’s Figures Of Speech Used in the Bible designates the specific kind of parallelism employed in Psalm 32:1-2 as a Synonymous Parallelism because the clauses “are parallel in thought, and in the use of synonymous words.” This means that as “forgiven“, “covered“, and “imputeth not” are all meant to be synonymous, so also are “transgression“, “sin” and “iniquity.” In another example from the same chapter, Psalm 32:5 says:
I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin…
Once again, we see here in Psalm 32:5 that the same way that the words “acknowledged“, “not hid” and “confess” all correspond to each other, so also do the words “sin“, “iniquity” and “transgressions.” In fact, the main reason why they all appear in the exact same verse is simply to provide emphasis. Some other verses which demonstrate that these words are synonymous include Exodus 34:7, Ezekiel 21:24, and Daniel 9:24. But, if it is true that these three words all mean the same thing then what does the last phrase of Psalm 32:5—”the iniquity of my sin”—mean? How can iniquity belong to sin if they both mean the same thing? Perhaps the answer lies in an understanding of the word sin that has been deficient thus far. Perhaps the semantic scope of sin is much broader than we have been led to believe.
Bible students know from the overwhelming majority of Scripture that the verb sin [châṭâ’ H2398] clearly means to violate God’s law. One example which illustrates the verbal form of sin is Leviticus 5:17 where we read:
And if a soul sins, and commits any of these things which are forbidden to be done by the commandments of the LORD; though he knew it not, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity.
Bible students also know that the noun sin [chaṭṭâ’âh H2403] points to any action which qualifies as a violation of God’s law (e.g. murder, adultery, lying, etc.). One example which illustrates the noun form of sin is 1 Samuel 15:23 where we read:
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.
Thus far, we have limited our discussion of sin to a particular type called imputed sin. According to Scripture, to impute [châshab H2803] is to credit someone with something, to associate the ownership of something to someone. Therefore, to impute sin is to ascribe the ownership and guilt of sin to a person, with the purpose to punish him or her for it.
However, from a dozen or so Bible verses which are quite decisive, it is also clear that, unlike anything we have commonly heard, there is another type of sin which is also of the noun form. It is an active and innate force; an inherited entity that abides in our bodies of flesh and seeks to participate in every decision we make. That the Scriptures present us with multiple understandings of the word sin draws to our attention the fact that sin is polysemous. A polyseme or a polysemous word is a word with multiple meanings. In the Bible, the Hebrew word for sin (i.e. chattah) refers to disobedient acts, to the evil, indwelling force that resides within all humans and to certain sacrificial offerings (e.g. a sin offering).
Hereafter, I will capitalize Sin when referring to the indwelling entity primarily because that is its proper and biblical name (Genesis 4:7), but also to distinguish it from the other type of sin which is not inherited, but is an act which is committed and then imputed. The biggest difference between these two senses of sin is that inherited Sin is an actor whereas imputed sin is an act or an action.
Genesis 3 tells us that the first sin ever committed by man occurred when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to partake of a certain fruit in the Garden of Eden. Yet, in Romans 5:12 when Paul asserts that “Sin entered into the world” through Adam, based upon the implications of his conclusion that “[all die because] all have sinned,” one gets the impression that he is talking about the entrance of something a lot more dreadful than mere disobedience. After all, up until the time of Moses and the Law, Romans 5: 13 states that God did not impute sin to any of Adam’s descendants for their acts of disobedience and yet they all still died. How is it that they along with Adam also died if God did not impute sin to them as He did to Adam and Eve when they broke His law in Genesis 2:17? The answer lies in their bodies. From Adam and Eve’s body, they all inherited bodies with indwelling Sin. As Adam’s indwelling Sin produced death (James 1:15) so also did theirs, hence it wasn’t necessary for God to impute them with sin for their own disobedience—the Sin living in their bodies guaranteed their mortality. Later on, because of man’s increasing wickedness, God would formally introduce the concept of sanctioned untimely death through Capital Punishment. Therefore, when Paul says that “Sin entered the world” he is evidently referring to inherited, indwelling Sin.
Although indwelling Sin indeed entered into this world through Adam’s disobedience, it was actually first found within Satan (Ezekiel 28:15). Moreover, the Bible seems to indicate that not only was Sin first found in Satan, but that Satan was also its originator. This conclusion is not only inferred from Christ’s assertion (in John 8:44) that Satan is the “father of” certain sins (e.g. lying, murder) but also from John’s assertion (in 1 John 3:8) that all unsaved sinners are of the devil because Sin is the “[work] of the devil.”
Though the following amounts to speculation, it seems apparent that through his pride (Ezekiel 28:17, Isaiah 14:13-14) this powerful angel animated the inanimate concept that was sin; he materialized a word which was previously exclusive to the realm of abstractions. If the image of God is a rational mind with the power of volition, then those created in that image must have always had the potential to commit sin. And though the instantiation of abstract sin must have always been a possibility, there was no reason why indwelling Sin’s presence ever needed to be realized. In fact, there is coming a time when Sin’s presence will be banned. There is coming a kingdom where “there shall in no way enter into it anything that defiles, neither whatsoever works abomination, or makes a lie” (Revelation 21:27). Still, God allowed Satan, the proprietor of indwelling Sin, to enter into Adam’s world.
This is why we must acknowledge that before indwelling Sin entered the world through Adam, it priorly entered Adam and Eve through Satan, the lying serpent. Satan successfully imported indwelling Sin by peddling it to Eve under the pretense that by disobeying God she would become god-like. Though succumbing to this deception was Eve’s downfall, it is not exactly clear what compelled Adam to disobey the Genesis 2:17 commandment since Paul denies that Adam was also deceived (1 Tim 2:14). Perhaps Adam was so enamored by Eve’s beauty that he could not imagine living without her. Whatever the case was, Adam deliberately disobeyed God and put His words to the test. The consequences of Adam’s decision have been disastrous for all of his descendants, particularly the consequence of inheriting a body in which Sin resides and thrives.
Jesus in John 8:44 said that the Devil was a “murderer from the beginning.” This statement might not mean much until one first realizes that Satan was apparently created or endowed with certain powers, one of them being the power of death. For in Hebrews 2:14, we read:
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, [Christ] also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
That Satan truly had this power is confirmed by the implications of Job 2:6 and by the delegation of death to the devil in Job 1:12 & 1 Corinthians 5:5. In light of this power, perhaps Satan was called a “murderer from the beginning” because he executed a premeditated wish to subject Adam and Eve to death by infecting them with Sin. Perhaps, Satan wanted people to die in order to exercise the power of death which he had been endowed with. It is interesting to see that when Satan is finally cast into in the Lake of Fire, Death is subsequently cast in as well (Revelation 20:10, 14).
The first biblical depiction of Sin as an innate, bodily, malevolent force occurs in Genesis 4:7 KJV where God tells an angry Cain:
“If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, Sin [chaṭṭâ’âh H2403] lieth [râbats H7257] at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire [teshûqâh H8669], and thou shalt rule over him.”
Incidentally, this is also the first time that the word sin is ever mentioned in the Bible which makes this verse all the more significant since the meaning of any word is ultimately tied up with its first use. Theologians have often referred to this significance as the Law of First Mention. The reasoning behind this law is that the Bible’s first mention of a word or concept is bound to be its simplest and clearest presentation. Hence, if one wants to understand the meaning of any word within a text, they should start by examining its first usage. Yet, it is tempting for one to think of Genesis 4:7 as a verse which merely personifies inanimate imputed sin. After all, according to the Strongs Hebrew lexicon, râbats, the Hebrew term translated as “lieth” also means to crouch. Adding to this idea, the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew lexicon informs that teshûqâh’s translation of “desire” may be used of a beast’s desire to devour. Since all anyone ever speaks of is imputed sin, it is natural to think that perhaps, Genesis 4:7’s intent is to simply personify imputed sin as a lurking evil foe seeking to obtain entrance into the door of Cain’s heart or as a crouching slave awaiting the bidding of his master. Nevertheless and whichever the case may be, no one, it seems, has rushed to suggest that Sin is an actual entity who resides in our body and is capable of having and executing a desired goal as is implied by a more literal apprehension of Genesis 4:7. However, when one encounters Paul’s unmistakable description of an animate Sin in Roman 7, Genesis 4:7 becomes a strong ally for the notion that Sin is an animated and indwelling entity. In other words, apart from merely defining sin as the transgression of God’s will, it is clear that the Bible also sees Sin as a bodily being who is capable of exerting influence. Several verses exist which touch upon Sin as an innate bodily force (e.g. Psalm 40:12, Psalm 51:5 Psalm 119:133, John 8:34, Galatians 5:17); however, the seventh chapter of Romans stands as the greatest treatment in Scripture on the topic of Sin as an indwelling force. From this chapter alone, we learn that Sin:
- lives in our flesh (Romans 7:5,18, 20, 23, 24-25)
- is strengthened through law-breaking (Romans 7:9, cf. Genesis 4:7, 1 Cor 15:56)
- produces lust (Romans 7:7-8, cf. Galatians 5:16, James 1:14-15)
- deceives – promising pleasure but instead delivering death (Romans 7:11, cf. 1 Tim 2:14)
- kills by working to produce death in us through the Law. Having ensured through Adam’s disobedience that all men will eventually die, Sin now seeks to bring about our untimely death (Romans 7:5,11,13, cf. Ezekiel 18:4, 1 John 5:16-17)
- repurposed the Law which was originally designed to sustain and enhance life by making it to instead administer death (Romans 7:10, cf. 2 Cor 3:6-9)
- seeks to be exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13)
- does not consult with us before carrying out its desires (an implication of Romans 7:20)
- defiles the flesh (Romans 7:8, 24 cf. Ezekiel 28:18)
- does undesirably evil things on our behalf (Romans 7:19-20, cf. Gal 5:17)
- deters our godly impulses (Romans 7:18, cf. Galatians 5:16-17)
- participates in our decision-making (Romans 7:21)
- fights against us (Romans 7:23, cf. Galatians 5:17, 1 Peter 2:11)
- seeks to reign and put us in bondage (Romans 7:23, cf. Romans 5:21, Romans 6:12-14)
- is untamable (Romans 7:25, cf. James 3:6-8)
In the greater context of Romans, we learn that Sin is a law-like force (Romans 7:23) which entered into the world because of Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12); that it lives inside every fiber of our flesh and that it operates on its own terms. It does not consult with us before carrying out its desires. It peppers our thoughts with all manner of evil ideas. It prevents us from doing the good things that we would like and causes us to do evil things that we do not want to do. Romans 7:11 tells us that Sin deceives and kills. Revelation 12:9 says that Satan deceived the whole world, an action which would seem impossible to achieve without the ubiquitous help of indwelling Sin. Promising us pleasure, Sin instead delivers death (Proverbs 7:10-27, Proverbs 9:17-18). Not only is Sin responsible for our limited lifespan as is implied by the phrase “death [entered] by sin, and so death passed upon all men” (Romans 5:12 ), it also seeks to bring about our untimely death by enticing us to commit special types of aggravated sin (i.e. abomination) which call for immediate capital punishment (Ezekiel 18:4, 1 John 5:16-17, 2 Samuel 12:13). God gave us the law that through it men would attain peace and prosper (Romans 7:12) but instead Sin took advantage of that same law by re-purposing it to make imputed sin abound (Romans 5:20) and to administer death (Romans 7:10, 13, 2 Corinthians 3:6-9). Sin prevents us from submitting ourselves unto God’s law. In our flesh which is drenched in and defiled by Sin dwells no good thing.
A central theme in Romans 6 & 7 is the untamability of Sin. The apostle Paul is under no illusion that the Sin problem will be completely resolved while on this side of the grave. Although, Romans 6:22 tell us that we have been “made free from Sin and become servants to God,” the Christian will not fully realize this freedom until after he relinquishes his body of death (Romans 7:24). This is why Paul ends the 7th chapter of Romans with a balanced admission: “with the mind I [will] serve the law of God; but with the flesh [I will serve] the law of sin.” Despite Paul’s sober acknowledgement that Sin owns the body, his words are not those of a defeatist; but actually of a conquering realist. He concedes to Sin’s dominion over his flesh but he also acknowledges that Sin’s authority will cease at death (Romans 6:7). Sadly, the fact that Sin is the master of our bodies is something that Scripture is quite clear about. The phrase “sold under sin” in Romans 7:14 means that we are enslaved to Sin. This is why Jesus, in John 8:34 tells us that “whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin.” Other verses discussing our bondage to sin include: Romans 6:6, Romans 6:12, Romans 6:16-17, Romans 6:19-20, Titus 3:3, etc. In fact, many Christians are shocked to discover that our bodies, being under the influence of Sin, are subject to involuntary acts of wickedness. James 3:6-8 says that the tongue (in which Sin resides) is a “world of iniquity” which “no man can tame.” Sin even causes us to sin when we are unaware of it doing so. For example, several people have at one time or another reported experiencing wet dreams, less-vulgarly termed, nocturnal emissions. It is thought that while asleep, various imaginations of a sexually charged nature infiltrate the dreamer’s mind which undoubtedly contribute to the discharge. Yet, the revered thinker, Augustine of Hippo, disavowed the idea that such dreams were always the result of impure or filthy thoughts and apparently allowed for times when these nocturnal emissions were totally reflexive. Basing his rationale upon a presumption that is as unverifiable as it is indefensible, Augustine did not deem nocturnal emissions a sinful act 4. Nevertheless, whether theses discharges are thought-driven or reflexive and whether these wet dreams are lucid or not, it is certain that the perpetrators of such acts, at the very least, have Sin to blame for producing the kind of impetus necessary to spur these emissions. Furthermore, that such dreams (or at least their result) are a “wicked thing” may be implicated in Deuteronomy 23:9-13. The acts which are meant by Deuteronomy 23:9’s “a wicked thing” are later defined in verses 10-13 to include any involuntarily achieved uncleanness of the body. Within Deuteronomy 23:10 is found the Hebrew word qârehH7137 which is a “noun [denoting] an occurrence beyond human control, the nocturnal emission polluting a man whether it is seminal or diarrheic” 5. Despite the ambiguity in qâreh concerning which kind of emission (i.e. seminal or diarrheic) is meant, because both types are expressly designated as uncleanness elsewhere in the Scriptures (Leviticus 15:16, Deuteronomy 23:13-14), there is sufficient warrant for concluding that the activity of Deuteronomy 23:10, though occurring involuntarily, is sinful. Exhibiting the disorder to commit sin without even trying makes us wretched men indeed (Romans 7:24). Therefore, because the body can sin (i.e. pursue immoral thoughts, involuntarily become unclean) independent of its owner will, it also follows that Sin cannot be tamed.
Matthew 15:17-18 says:
Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
In light of Matthew 15:17-18, it is probably no coincidence that Sin permanently resides in a body from which all sorts of uncleanness emerge. After all, as iniquity is said to defile that which is sacred (Ezekiel 28:18) so also is uncleanness said to defile the body (Leviticus 5:3, 13:46). In fact, a central theme in the Mosaic Law was the one to one relationship between uncleanness and sin (Leviticus 15:31, Numbers 19:13, 20, Ezekiel 36:17 etc.). Therefore, the fact that the Law of Moses considered unclean practically everything that proceeded forth from the human body, lends weight to the idea that indwelling Sin is the ultimate defiler. Even the act of childbirth rendered the newborn’s mother unclean for a period of no less than 7 days for males and twice that for females (Leviticus 12:2-6). If uncleanness is indeed a sin as the Bible clearly indicates, then the fact that humans cannot help being unclean (at least in certain circumstances) points to Sin’s autonomy. Perhaps this is part of what Paul means by the Romans 7:18 declaration that “in [our] flesh dwells no good thing.”
All of this exposition on the behavior of indwelling Sin is what is meant by Romans 7:23’s phrase, “the law of Sin which is [living] in [our] members.” Sin lives in the body; iniquity resides in the flesh. Yet, because the resurrected Christ conquered death, there is the hope that when we die we will relinquish these Sin-laden bodies and no longer operate under the Law of Sin (Romans 6:7, 1 Peter 4:1). Until then, we are told several times in the Bible to conduct our lives as if we had died with Christ when He was crucified and are now resurrected with Him and no longer under the dominion of Sin (Romans 6:4,11, Col 2:20, 3:1-3, Gal 2:20, 1 Peter 2:24).
For that which I do, I [understand] not: for what I would [like to do], that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not [want], I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
In Romans 7:15-17, Paul observes that the things he wants to do are not the things that he ends up doing; yet, the things that he ends up doing are the things which he hates. In Romans 7:15 the KJV translates ginōskōG1097 as allow which results in the phrase “for that which I do I allow not.” Although this phrase ends up agreeing with the rest of the verse, the Greek term ginōskō is better translated as understand or know 3. Paul is saying that he does not understand what he is doing because what he intends to do is not realized but instead what he intends not to do. Next, he draws two conclusions from this observation:
- The law is good.
Paul is not an antinomian (someone who disavows that the law is still relevant). Albeit an enabler (Romans 7:7), contrary to the language of so many preachers, the law is not the ultimate perpetrator of our bondage, Sin is. Evidently, Paul’s Christian impulses that he ends up not being able to do coincide with God’s law (Romans 7:15,22). On the other hand, Paul understands that the law condemns what he hates doing, and that what he hates doing must therefore be evil. This, according to Paul, shows that he affirms the law’s goodness. Later on in verse 25, Paul reassures the reader of his commitment to serve the law of God. Incidentally and to the dismay of hyper-grace preachers, this end ups being a resounding confirmation of the law’s ongoing relevance.
- I didn’t do it, Sin did.
The involuntary nature of man’s actions show that it is the Sin living in his body who is the actual culprit for his sinful behavior. Romans 7:7 informs us that the galvanizing agent which Sin employs to accomplish this feat is called lust. This obviously does not mean that we are incapable of transgressing God’s laws without Sin present. But it does mean that Adam was not made with the propensity to sin (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
In light of the above, the entire chapter of Romans 7 gives Paul the basis for inferring an important principle about the reality of the flesh that we live in. In Romans 7:21, Paul derives a law that is really the culmination of the many evils which Paul has attributed to Sin. In Paul’s law, all good intentions of the heart are intentions that will be countered by evil intentions (Romans 7:21). These counteracting evil thoughts proceed from an evil entity which resides in the body and which Paul again identifies as Sin.
As a point of reference, it is not uncommon to hear various theologians say that we have all inherited a sin-nature from our forefather Adam. Though the phrase sin-nature is not found in the Bible, some Bible translations such as the NIV have placed it in there anyway as an alternate translation for the Greek word sarx which really means flesh. The word nature as defined by the Princeton University WordNet Dictionary is said to be “the complex of emotional and intellectual attributes that determine a person’s characteristic actions and reactions.” Despite this definition, I must admit that the specifics of the term sin-nature remain elusive. For instance, from this definition alone, it is unclear exactly where this sin-nature resides. Is it in the body, in the soul or in both parts of the man? According to the implications of Romans 7:25, indwelling Sin is confined to the body, but relying upon the dictionary’s meaning of nature gives one the impression that it also pervades the incorporeal mind where our “intellectual attributes” must originate. The word “nature” [phusis G5449] also occurs in the Scriptures but there it is ambiguous: it either refers to “birth or physical origin,” as in Galatians 2:15, Romans 2:27;11:21,24 or to the “innate properties or powers which belong to persons in view of their origin” as in 2 Peter 1:4 . If one relies on the second definition of phusis then perhaps what this essay calls indwelling Sin is also what these theologians mean by the term sin-nature. Nevertheless, not much space is given in contemporary theology to the personality of indwelling Sin nor is this sin-nature that is commonly evoked by contemporary theologians adequately endowed with the attributes Paul reveals in Romans 7. Moreover, the Bible is very specific about where Sin lives. Several times, the Bible indicates that Sin’s Romans 7 attributes are perpetrated by a body of Sin, not a sin-nature. For example, Romans 6:6 admonishes us to consider ourselves dead with Christ so “that the body of Sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve Sin.” Similar examples are also found in Romans 8:3 and Colossians 2:11. Sometimes the Bible does use the word flesh [sarx G4561] as a synonym for the “body of sin.” One such example is Galatians 5:16-17 where Paul says:
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
The flesh that produces lust in Galatians 5:16 is the same body of Sin in Romans 7:8 that “wrought…all manner of concupiscence” so we thereby know that these two terms are sometimes interchangeable. Some other examples where the term “flesh” is a synonym for the “body of Sin” include: Romans 13:14, Ephesians 2:3, and 2 Peter 2:10-11. The important thing to understand is that the terms “body of sin” and “flesh” both serve as identifiers for indwelling Sin.
Another term which theologians use when referring to the state or plight of Adam’s descendants is “original sin.” According to McClintock’s Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature:
This expression is frequently used in a twofold sense, to denote the imputation of Adam’s first sin to his posterity, and also that native depravity which we have derived by inheritance from our first parents.
Unfortunately, there are several reasons why care must also be taken when using the term “original sin.” For one, neither sense of this term as described above is actually scriptural. The doctrine which espouses the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind is antithetical to Ezekiel 18:20 among its other problems (which we shall shortly discuss) while the “native depravity” which was purportedly inherited by Adam’s progeny is so broad a term that it ends up making sense and being embraced by members of opposing theological camps. For instance, this native depravity is taken by Calvinists to mean that man is totally depraved and unable to ask God for help unless God involuntarily takes over his will. Meanwhile, to modern-day Arminians, native depravity is confined to the meaning that man, to one extent or another, has a “sin nature” which impedes his reclamation, but does so in a way that is surmountable. Hence unless the source of this depravity is explicitly explained to us from the Bible, the term remains vague and susceptible to misuse. This is yet another reason why the reader is implored to stick with the biblical phrase “body of sin.” The biblical basis for a “body of sin” is most evident in Psalm 51:5 where, in the second half of two synonymous clauses, we find King David reminding us that through his mother he was born into a body of Sin. Accordingly, the first half of this parallelism describes his inherited body as one that is “shapen in iniquity.” There can therefore be no doubt that indwelling Sin permeates every fiber of our natural bodies. On the other hand, the Scriptures never refer to Sin living within the part of man that is immaterial, that is, within the breath God has giving us (commonly called the heart, mind, soul, or spirit). This is why Paul in Romans 7:25 is able to confine the “law of [indwelling] sin” to the flesh.
We have seen thus far that Sin is indeed an indwelling and innate entity. Personally, I have found that being aware of Sin as a bodily phenomenon helps me to grasp the true meaning of a few Bible verses which otherwise seem to mystify. One such example is Romans 5:12-14 where we read:
v.12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: v.13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. v.14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come…
In Romans 5:12-14 Paul wants the reader to understand that the reason why people die is because they are sinners. In fact, when you think about it, the realization that infants subjected to abortions are actually mortal is an undeniable testament to the reality that they are also sinners, otherwise they would be impervious to death as Adam was before the Fall (Genesis 2:17). However, regarding the last part of verse 12 which claims that “all have sinned,” I have found that it is the norm for contemporary theologians to explain this phrase as meaning that all have sinned in Adam. In other words, when Adam sinned by breaking the Genesis 2:17 commandment, since he was the federal head of the human race, then all those who comprise the human race are said to have also taken part in his act of disobedience and are thus co-recipients of the sin that was imputed to him. This view which advocates God’s universal imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind is sometimes called the Federal Headship View and in the past, I was one of those who subscribed to this way of thinking without seeing any problems with it. However, it has recently dawned on me that this view may have some unresolvable problems.
For instance, the idea that God makes the children bear (i.e. assume ownership of) the sin of their parents as is required by universal imputation seems to disagree with Ezekiel 18:20 which states:
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.
Secondly, upon reading Romans 4:24 which states that righteousness “… shall be imputed [to us], if [and only if] we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead,” we find that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner is a conditional transaction which is based upon the sinner’s desire and decision to believe. Yet, the Federal Headship advocates tell us that the “original sin” of Adam was imputed to all his posterity and that it was so done without their consent. Hence, it seems rather inconsistent of God to make the imputation of Adam’s sin to all mankind an involuntary transaction which occurs against mankind’s will while insisting that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to concerned sinners be something that requires assent. In other words, if the imputation that brings evil occurs automatically and without consent while the imputation that could reverse the evil requires consent and adherence to the gospel, then one could wrongly perceive God to be the instigator of the sinner’s condition instead of the One who remediates the sinner’s self-inflicted plight.
Thirdly, Romans 5:14 clearly indicates that the earth’s inhabitants living during the period of Adam to Moses were still considered sinners though they sinned differently from Adam (i.e. they “had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression”). Therefore, if everyone who lived between Adam and Moses sinned in a different manner than Adam, then it is highly unlikely that the “all have sinned” in verse 12 is referring to our culpability in Adam’s Edenic transgression. This conclusion becomes more evident after reading verse 13 which seems to indicate that, for those who lived between the time of Adam and Moses (i.e. “when there [was] no law”), though they were still considered sinners (i.e. “sin was in the world…death reigned”), they were not guilty of the kind of sin which results from law-breaking (i.e. because “sin in not imputed when there is no law”). The intriguing thing here is that they were already deemed sinners even though there was no law yet given to break. Incidentally, that it is possible to sin without the law is also confirmed by Romans 2:12 which reminds us that those who have “sinned without law shall also perish without law.” All of this exposition is provided in order to convince the reader that though these folks (i.e. who lived between Adam to Moses ) had sin, it was not of the imputed kind. The no law = no sin principle behind the realization that Romans 5:12-14 is unconcerned with imputed sin is also confirmed by verses like Romans 4:15 which declare: “where no law is, there is no transgression” and by John 15:22 where Jesus says “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin, but now they have no cloke for their sin.”
So then, the riddle which emerges from verses 13 & 14 is: how was Sin in the world during the period between Adam and Moses and how was death reigning during that same period if the absence of divine law precludes imputed sin? Why did God consider those who lived between Adam and Moses sinners if they had no imputed sin? Now, if you reply (as Federal Headship proponents do) by saying that they all sinned when Adam sinned, then you end up saying that they sinned by breaking the law which contradicts verses 13 and 14 which say otherwise. Hence, the dilemma for the Federal Headship advocates is that if Adam’s sin was imputed to all because “Adam’s act of sin was considered by God to be the act of all people”  then why do verses 13 and 14 instead point to sinners who are without imputed sin?
Yet, Federal Headship supporters agree that when verse 12 employs the verb sin in the past tense (i.e. all have sinned), this requires the reader to realize that all persons who have ever lived (including aborted babies) are also persons who have already sinned. But how can it be said that an aborted fetus has sinned when the child was not yet afforded the opportunity to live outside of the womb? What sin could a fetus commit inside of the womb? If a fetus cannot sin, then how can Paul in Romans 5:12 say that all have sinned? Isaiah 48:8 suggests that God’s foreknowledge of a person’s inevitable sinfulness is one possible reason why an unborn fetus could rightly be “called a transgressor from the womb.” Yet, another possibility which seems the most likely is that “all have sinned” in Romans 5:12 solely because of the Sin that we bear in our bodies which was inherited from our first parents Adam and Eve. But if so, then how from the Bible does one derive the principle that indwelling Sin was inherited by all of Adam’s progeny? Is this a proposition that is expressly set forth in Scripture? Yes, it is! In fact, one example is found right here in Romans 5:12. For if “death passed upon all men” and Sin is the prerequisite of death, then it follows by good and necessary consequence that Sin also passed upon all men, and even prior to death doing so! This then means that every person who was ever conceived is a recipient of inherited Sin. Yes, the aborted fetus, as well as the oldest centenarian, are among the number of those who have inherited Sin.
In fact, the only person who was ever excluded from inheriting Sin is the Last Adam. In 1 Corinthians 15:44-49, Christ is described as the Last Adam because, like the first Adam, He is also the progenitor of a distinct race of men. However, in contrast to the first race who are the products of natural birth, those in Christ’s race are the offspring of a spiritual birth (John 1:12). It is also noted that as Adam chose to partake of his sinful bride’s dire fate, so also did Christ voluntarily aim to partake of His own bride’s dire fate. Yet, perhaps another reason why Christ is also called Adam is because, like the first Adam was before the Fall, He too was without sin (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15, 7:26; Isaiah 53:9; John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). But, if Christ was born of a Sin-bearing woman as was Mary (Luke 1:47) then how could He have a body void of indwelling Sin? After all, Hebrew 2:14 says that as we are partakers of flesh and blood, so also was Christ. Do the Scriptures give hints that Christ’s body was somewhat different from ours? Yes, and in several places. For instance, Romans 8:3 informs us that Christ was sent NOT in sinful flesh but only in the “likeness of sinful flesh” for there we read:
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
Furthermore, in John 14:30, Jesus, undoubtedly speaking of Satan and his power to exert influence through indwelling Sin, said: “the prince of this world…hath nothing in me.” These verses and many others affirm that Christ’s body, like Adam’s before the Fall, was not indwelt with Sin. Therefore, since 1 John 3:5 also tells us that “in [Christ] was no sin” and Hebrews 7:26 describes Christ as “undefiled [and] separate from sinners” then in what way was Christ’s body similar to that of “sinful flesh”? We know that Christ’s body experienced hunger (Matthew 21:18), thirst (John 19:28), weariness (John 4:6), sleep (Mark 4:38), sorrow (John 11:35), pain (Isaiah 53:5,10), etc. but there are at least two other, more pertinent answers that come to mind. The Bible indicates that God prepared for Christ a body (Hebrews 10:5) which was subservient to death (Philippians 2:8) and temptation (Hebrew 4:15). The great mystery behind how all of this could be, fades into insignificance once we remember that it was actually God and not some mere created being Who was wrapped in this human flesh. So according to Romans 5:12 which is the very verse in question, we see that since all men die, then all men must also inherit a body of Sin prior to inheriting death. We also see that the exception to this rule, Christ the God-man, was not inhabited by Sin.
Incidentally, the inheritability of indwelling Sin is also seen in the O.T. For instance, when King David in Psalm 51:5 says “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me,” he is plainly revealing that he was conceived into a body of Sin. Being “shapen in iniquity” must therefore mean that one is fashioned with a body of Sin right in the womb. Confirming this idea, Psalms 58:3 enlightens us with the notion of a fetus who is “estranged from the [time he entered the] womb.” The word estranged comes from the Hebrew word zûr which (among other things) means to turn aside or to be profane.
The point of all that has been said is that there is more than one way to be deemed a sinner. Though the traditional and prevalent understanding of sin is that one must be party to a violation of God’s law in order to be a sinner; the Scriptures are plentiful and clear that having Sin alive in one’s body also makes one a sinner. An aborted fetus has therefore sinned because he or she is conceived with indwelling Sin. Since no one can have Sin living inside his or her flesh without being deemed a sinner, then when Paul says that “all have sinned” he must be referring to the fact that all persons no matter how undeveloped their fleshly bodies, are persons who have inherited Sin living within them.
Another example of a verse demystified by the concept of indwelling Sin is Romans 7:8-9 where we read:
…For without the law sin was dead [to me]. For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came sin revived and I died.
Like Romans 5:12, I used to think that this verse was referring to Paul being “alive without the law once” in Adam. Meaning, I thought Paul was vicariously recounting Adam’s pre-Fall, pre-Sin existence and his subsequent violation of the Genesis 2:17 commandment which allowed Sin to enter into the world. Yet, the one thing that I couldn’t figure out was how it could be said that Sin had “revived” in Adam’s body which was not yet subjected to the law of sin (Romans 7:23). However, contrary to my former understanding, it turns out that Romans 7:8-9 is actually all about Paul’s discovery of indwelling Sin. Without a comprehensive understanding of how the Bible uses the word sin, it is easy to miss Paul’s point regarding inherited Sin’s ability to do things which would not be possible for an inanimate entity. Like Paul in Romans 7:7, many of us do not think of Sin as a supernatural bodily force capable of manufacturing a desire for things forbidden (Romans 7:8). For instance, in Romans 7:7, when Paul says that he “had not known Sin, but by the law,” one must wonder whether he is referring to not knowing that sin as a violation of God’s law or not knowing that Sin as an indwelling entity. Yet, because of our conscience and the work of God’s law which comes prepackaged within our mind (Romans 2:14-15), it seems unlikely that Paul did not know that sin was a violation of God’s Law. In fact, in the same verse, when Paul offers up “Thou shalt not covet” as an example of what he means by “the law,” he also offers up “lust” as an example of what he means by “sin.” This shows us that it was really lust with whom Paul was unacquainted. It was when God said “Thou shalt not covet” that Paul first realized that lust was operating in his body. According to Romans 7:8 (i.e. “Sin … wrought in me all manner of concupiscence”), lust is really just the offspring of iniquity, the outworking of indwelling Sin. In Sin’s desire to be exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:11) it first creates within us lust, which in turn entices us to sin, which in turn produces death (James 1:14-15). Hence, in Romans 7:8-9, the words “dead”, “alive” and “revived” are all employed in a figurative sense. This means that the phrase “I was alive without the law once” has nothing to do with Paul’s physical life, just as the phrase “I died” has nothing to do with his physical death. Much less are these phrases concerned with the idea of spiritual death, since such a notion is devoid of Scriptural support. But if “alive” symbolizes discovery, then all Paul is saying is that, at one time, he did not know who indwelling Sin was or that it was even alive in his flesh; “but when the commandment came,” because of “the motions of Sin which were by the law” (Romans 7:5), Paul began to discover that Sin (i.e. lust) was real and living within. Once Paul discovered who Sin was, he then realized that the person whom he thought he was, no longer existed. Therefore, the phrase “I was alive without the law once” simply means that at one time Paul did not know about the presence of indwelling Sin, while the phrase “sin revived” describes the discovery of inward lust; and finally, the phrase “I died” means that Paul’s conception of himself as a person who was not indwelt with Sin had vanished away.
Earlier on in this essay, I raised a question about the ending of Psalm 32:5. If the words “sin“, “iniquity” and “transgressions” all mean the same thing then what does the phrase “the iniquity of my sin” mean? How can sin have iniquity if they both refer to the same thing? Well, since we have now seen that Romans 7 describes Sin as a supernatural, indwelling entity whose aim is to become exceedingly sinful, “the iniquity of my sin” may very well refer to the iniquity that is perpetrated by this body of inherited Sin.
The Bible tells us of certain people who got the chance to stand in the awesome presence of the thrice-holy God (Isa 6:3) and the feelings of devastation that they were met with. In fact, after reading Isaiah 6:5, one gets the impression that Isaiah almost lost it when he declared “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” Isaiah was made to stand in the presence of God all the while possessing indwelling Sin and he hence understood that he was in deep trouble. Fortunately for him, one of the seraphims hovering over God’s throne was instructed to purge the indwelling Sin in Isaiah’s body by placing a piece of coal from the heavenly alter directly upon his mouth (Isaiah 6:6-7). In a somewhat similar occurrence, Zechariah 3 explains that when the high priest Joshua stood before God, his indwelling sin— symbolized by the filthy garments which he wore in God’s presence—gave Satan occasion to accuse him. Yet, God in His loving-kindness, removed Joshua’s indwelling iniquity, an act of mercy that was symbolized by a change of attire. Even Job who by God’s accounting was blameless, upright, and God-fearing ended up declaring himself vile (Job 40:4) and abhorring himself as he repented in dust and ashes because of his encounter with God’s presence (Job 42:5-6). Likewise, Peter the apostle abhorred himself after realizing who Christ was and immediately implored the Son of Man to depart from his sinful presence (Luke 5:8-9).
These men are not alone. In fact, the impetus for this essay was a struggle that I was having with the idea of standing before a Holy God as a blood-bought Christian with impure and inopportune thoughts racing through my mind. Thoughts that are sometimes as wicked and as filthy as can be imagined. One would think that these highly impure thoughts would have relented since becoming a Christian or that they would have dissipated as one matured in the faith but neither kind of relief from my indwelling Sin has been realized. One night, I prayed to God assuring Him that there was nothing more that I would love to do than meet Him, to give my Savior an embrace for His unconditional love displayed on my behalf by dying on the cross for my sins. But I petitioned against the chance to personally meet my Maker for fear of what sinful thought might race through my mind. Lord, I will be overjoyed to be in heaven but just don’t beckon for me to stand in your presence for I will surely think something that will disappoint. Sinful lust is so predictable, the more you try to suppress impure thoughts, the more they become center-stage in your mind forcing you to stand there and embrace your inability to quell the emanating filth. No place is off-limits when it comes to drifting away into carnal musings. Neither are the walls of a church an exception. If I can stand in the most sacred place here on earth and think evil then why not also in God’s presence? Men are sometimes fooled with a pious grin and a firm handshake but not God. The inability to control my thoughts and the implications of my inability to do so as a Christian frightened me to no end. I am a slave to my body and whatever lusts it seeks to stir up me with. In Romans 4:5-9 Paul reminds us that in regards to those who believe the Gospel, Psalms 32:2 states:
Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.
We know that because of Christ’s finished work on the cross, the LORD will indeed not impute any iniquity to those who believe, but it is the second half of Psalms 32:2 that has kept me disquieted. Will there be guile in my spirit when I stand before Christ? I’ll get a new glorified body during the resurrection but I had no understanding that my inner Sin would go away because I did not know that Sin lived in the body. It goes back to that whole problem with the term “sin nature.” Is indwelling-sin a part of me (i.e. my eternal spirit) or is it simply a part of my physical body (which I must shortly put off—2 Peter 1:14)? As Christians we are rightly told that we are only justified because of Christ’s righteousness which indirectly becomes our own (Romans 3:25, 2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore, if there is never a time when our own righteousness will suffice and if indwelling-sin is always a part of our nature, then it sounds like we are forever flawed. Anyone who has prayed the sinner’s prayer understands that even after you become saved, though you are a new creature (at least progressively and or positionally), you do not suddenly lose the sinful thoughts that were in your mind prior to being saved.
Regarding all of these concerns, I believe that God answered my prayer by recently forcing me to do a comprehensive Bible study on the topic of sin. He knew that if I did my due diligence, I would come to understand that He created us with upright souls but that man has instead sought out many sinful inventions (Ecclesiastes 7:29) and has done so because the indwelling-sin residing in our body desires to own us (Genesis 4:7). God knew that by reading Romans 7, I would understand that God did not create us with a sinful heart in our mother’s womb, but instead with the sinful flesh of our progenitor Adam (Psalm 51:5). Furthermore, 1 Peter 4:1 says:
Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh [being put to death], arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;
Therefore, if death causes the cessation of Sin, then indwelling Sin has an end, and that end is in sight. Moreover, the Bible is crystal clear in Romans 6:7 & Romans 8:21 that when we relinquish these sin-laden bodies, we also relinquish indwelling sin. This means that indwelling Sin will not be allowed in our new, glorified bodies (Philippians 3:21).
In the garden of Eden, God allowed Satan (who disguised himself as a serpent) to enter Adam’s world bringing indwelling Sin with him. Eve was deceived by the serpent while Adam was not. Yet, both disobeyed their Maker’s command and were, as a result, immediate recipients of indwelling-sin and thus inevitable death. When Adam had children, they inherited his genetic material as well as the indwelling Sin that was part of his flesh. This explains why all have sinned. However, in the new heaven and earth that God will create, nothing that defiles, nor commits abominations, nor anything that causes lying will be allowed inside (Revelation 21:27). This means that no indwelling Sin will not be allowed into the new heaven and earth.
Thus the ultimate solution to indwelling Sin is the relinquishing of these Sin-laden bodies and the realization of a new body, “a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). These new bodies will not have indwelling Sin, so our innate urge to commit sin will no longer be present. Neither will indwelling Sin be allowed to enter the world to come. But in the meantime, Proverbs 16:6 tells us that “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged: and by the fear of the LORD men depart from evil.” The purging of iniquity by mercy and truth refers to the merciful non-imputation of sin, past, present and future spoken of in 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Romans 4:7 to all who obey the truth. But it also refers to the condemnation of “sin in the flesh” (i.e. indwelling Sin) that was carried out by Christ on the cross (Romans 8:3). It is through His sacrifice on the cross as the ultimate sin offering (i.e. upon Whom sin was placed – 1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21) that we who believe the love of the truth are considered holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27). Thus Christ sacrifice addresses both concepts of sin.
What are two problems with the idea that Romans 5:12-14 is referring to the “Federal Headship” view?
In what ways were Christ’s body the same as ours?
In what ways were Christ’s body different from ours?
Name one problem that results from the idea that Christ had indwelling Sin in his flesh?
What does Paul mean when he says: “I was alive without the law once but when the commandment came, Sin revived in me and I died?”
How does Paul’s inability to do the things that he wants to do but his ability to do the things that he does not want to do demonstrate the Law’s goodness?
How can Paul in Romans 5:12 say that all have sinned, if some humans (e.g. aborted babies) do not even get a chance to live outside the womb?
What are two components in the solution to indwelling Sin?
- Exodus 34:7, John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible
- Parallelism, Merriam Webster Dictionary
- G1097, Dictionaries of Hebrew and Greek Words taken from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance by James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., 1890.
- Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Volume 3. On the Holy Trinity; Doctrinal Treatises; Moral Treatises, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf103.v.ii.xxiv.html
- 2068, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
- Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.), 1983, 1985.
- G5449, The vocabulary of the Greek Testament illustrated from the papyri and other non-literary sources by Moulton, James Hope, 1863-1917; Milligan, George, 1860-1934