Inherited Guilt and the Analogy of Faith

Original sin is the belief that we have been negatively impacted by Adam’s sin in Genesis 3. The key biblical passage for the doctrine of original sin is Romans 5:12-19. Based largely on this passage, theologians have understood original sin in different ways. Some have committed themselves to a view called federalism in which Adam is understood as our representative before God. On this view, when Adam sinned, we were negatively impacted because he was our representative. Others have followed Augustine of Hippo and affirmed seminalism. Seminalism is the belief that since Adam was the first human being, we were all present in Adam in seminal form. Thus, we were involved in Adam’s sin and are thus impacted by Adam’s sin.

Whether one ascribes to federalism or seminalism, we can all agree that Adam’s sin has at least two possible effects. First, all orthodox Christians believe that we inherit a sin nature from Adam. On our own, human beings are totally depraved and are incapable of doing good. This is because of the effect that Adam has on us. We are born with an unrestrainable propensity to sin. Second, some Christians believe that we inherit the guilt from Adam’s sin. Inherited guilt is the reason that some Christian groups practice infant baptism. In Catholic theology, for example, the priest baptizes a newborn to wash away the guilt of Adam’s sin. This second ramification of original sin is less popular for many reasons. I believe that we should reject the idea that original sin also conveys inherited guilt based on the combination of the parallel in Romans 5:12-19 and the analogy of faith.

First, the analogy of faith is a long-standing tradition of biblical interpretation. Essentially, the analogy of faith holds that we should interpret the unclear sections of scripture by the clear sections of scripture. For example, Psalm 91:4 says that God “will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.”[1] In spite of this verse, Christians don’t believe that God has feathers or wings. Indeed, Christians hold that God is nonphysical. The reason for this is that the biblical support for divine omnipresence is much stronger than the biblical support for God being confined in a body that has wings and feathers. God’s having a physical body probably precludes him from being omnipresent. Furthermore, Psalm 91:4 is poetic. In poetry, we use metaphors. In contrast, Jesus, in John 4:24, says that “God is spirit.”[2] In John, Jesus is teaching about what God is like instead of painting a word picture. Given the context, it seems that we should interpret Jesus’s statement literally. Thus, since the Bible clearly teaches that God is omnipresent and nonphysical, we can interpret Psalm 91:4 metaphorically. In short, we interpret unclear passages in light of clear passages.

Second, in Romans 5:12-19, Paul is comparing and contrasting Adam and Christ. According to Paul, Adam and Christ both represent all of humanity and both acted in ways that fundamentally changed the way that we relate to God. Though they have similarities, they aren’t exact parallels. Following Adam, all of humanity was negatively affected in that we became God’s enemies. Following Christ, our relationship with God has experienced another drastic change. Christ’s change is different, however, because the change is for the better. We don’t have to be God’s enemies any longer thanks to Christ’s work.

From many scriptures, we know that we are not automatically made righteous by Christ. Instead, we must ratify Christ’s work on our behalf by placing our faith in Christ. Different theological systems understand this process in different ways. However, for the most, we all agree that the Bible teaches that we must respond to Christ’s work in some way in order to receive salvation.

The idea that we inherit guilt from Adam is not as clear. On the one hand, we could marshal verses that seem to teach that infants are born guilty of Adam’s sin. In Psalm 51, for example, David says that he “was sinful at birth.”[3] Perhaps the sin that David had in mind was Adam’s sin. However, we could also marshal verses that would oppose the imputation of guilt. One such verse would be Ezekiel 18:20 which say that “the one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent.”[4] Additionally, Jesus seemed to have had a positive view of the spiritual state of children. The point here is that we could point to different verses to argue for or against inherited guilt. The result of this discussion is obfuscation: it’s not clear-cut whether or not we inherit guilt from Adam. Further, even if a person thinks it is clear cut, that person would have to admit that the Bible’s teaching about Jesus is much clearer than the Bible’s teaching about Adam.

At this point, the analogy of faith becomes significant. Remember that in Romans 5:12-19, Paul said that our relationship with Christ is a parallel to our relationship to Adam. If Christ’s work must be ratified by the individual to be applied and if Christ’s work is a rough parallel to Adam’s work, shouldn’t we expect to ratify Adam’s work as well? In other words, the only way that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to my account is if I place my faith in Christ. Given the parallel, we should believe that the only way that Adam’s sin is imputed to my account is if I ratify Adam’s sin through my own personal decision.

Notes & Sources

[1] Psalm 91:4, all scripture quotations are from the NIV.

[2] John 4:24.

[3] Psalm 51:5.

[4] Ezekiel 18:20.

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