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The Nature of Sin: A Discussion

How has Adam’s fall into sin affected the rest of humanity?

How often in an evangelistic conversation do we hear a plea to repent because of Adam’s sin? But yet, the story of the fall of Adam is prominently positioned in scripture from Genesis 3 to 1 Corinthians 15:22. Therefore, the question must be asked, how has Adam’s fall into sin affected the rest of humanity? In this article we will discover how Adam’s fall altered the nature of humanity by introducing sin’s corruption and guilt into the whole person, body and soul, thus conveying a sinful nature to all his descendants. To support this, we will examine historical views on the extent and nature of the effects of the fall on humanity between major positions on this topic.

Original Sin

When we speak of the fall of Adam, we speak of original sin. These two go hand in hand in our discussion. The fall is generally defined as the point where Adam broke his covenantal relationship with God in the garden by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil[1]. This action was prohibited in Genesis 2:15-17. This fall and its effect are also commonly known as original sin. This is the first sin that brought condemnation upon Adam. However, defining original sin’s effect is at the heart of the conversation needed to answer our question. This conversation has taken many different angles throughout church history. We will now turn to look more fully at some of these.

The Pelagian Answer

Pelagian theology teaches that man can and should take the first steps towards his own salvation.[2] In short, Pelagianism held that through the freedom of the will, sin could be evaded and therefore a Christian could satisfy the demands of the law; living a righteous life.[3] There is much that could be examined in this view, but for us, its interpretation of the fall of Adam is significant. Pelagius (360-418), a fifth century British monk, developed a theology around the fall of Adam that concluded God had endowed His creation with the ability to perform all the duties of righteousness commanded in the Bible.[4] The core of his doctrine of original sin included the following maxims: (1) Adam was created mortal and would have died even if he had not sinned. (2) The sins of Adam only damaged himself and not all of humanity. (3) Infants at the time of birth stand in the same relationship with God as did Adam before he sinned. (4) The whole race of mankind does not die because of Adam in the same way the whole race of mankind does not raise again to glorification because of the resurrection of Christ. (5) The Law can lead people to the kingdom of heaven in the same way as the Gospel. (6) Some men lived without sin even before Christ came.[5]

Pelagius, or more precisely his student Rufinus the Syrian, would deny the account of original sin resulted in a change of nature or ascribing guilt.[6] Biblical text such as Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin”[7] would create tension with the idea that God’s justice could allow an entire human race to be predisposed to sin because of the actions of one man. Furthermore, biblical texts like Matthew 5:48 that says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, does not make much sense as a command if a person has no ability to fulfill it. These struggles with the biblical text led Pelagius and his followers to answer our question, “how has Adam’s fall into sin affected the rest of humanity?” by stating Adam’s fall has no real effectual consequence on mankind’s nature other than being a poor example.

The Classical Arminian Answer

In our examination to answer our question, we now turn to another viewpoint that is typically associated with the theology articulated by Arminius (1560-1609), and later developed by his proponents. Contrary to Pelagianism, Arminianism holds the view that the fall of Adam has real and lasting effects on humanity.[8] When Adam disobeyed God’s command and ate of the fruit (Gen 3:5), he suffered the liability of eternal death and bore the penalty of his sin in multiple miseries.[9]  Among these miseries was his removal from the Garden of Eden and all the blessings that were associated with it; including his perfect relationship with God. Because Adam is the father of all mankind, his actions implicated us all to suffer similarly.

Because Adam was the stock and root of the whole human race, he therefore involved and implicated not only himself, but also all his posterity (as if they were contained in his loins and went forth from him by natural generation) in the same death and misery with himself, so that all men without any discrimination, only our Lord Jesus Christ excepted, are by this one sin of Adam deprived of that primeval happiness, and destitute of true righteousness necessary for achieving eternal life, and consequently are now born subject to that eternal death of which we spoke, and manifold miseries.[10]

This effect of Adam’s sin on humanity is further explained by John Wesley (1703-1791) in his sermon Original Sin where he says,

They were wholly ignorant of the entire depravation of the whole human nature, of every man born into the world, in every faculty of his soul, not so much by those particular vices which reign in particular persons, as by the general flood of Atheism and idolatry, of pride, self-will, and love of the world.[11]

There is however a distinction in classical Arminianism as to the nature of this original sin. Not held by all in the Arminian camp, the early proponents articulated this original sin to be the original evil only, and not the guilt of Adam.[12] Therefore, in answer of our original question, “how has Adam’s fall into sin affected the rest of humanity?” the classical Arminian position would be that Adam’s fall into sin left mankind without original righteousness, and with a totally depraved nature which is unable to attain eternal life by any means outside of grace. However, the guilt of Adam’s sin is not imputed to mankind, but was born by Adam alone. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we are guiltless, but rather the guilt we bear is of our own active sins extending from our sinful nature.

The Augustinian & Reformed Answer

I have combined here the views of the Augustine (354-430) and the Reformed thought because of the similarities he had with, and the foundation Augustine brought to, the Reformers. In answering our question, Augustine formulated his view in the context of defending it against the Pelagian perspective discussed earlier. In his defense against this, Augustine articulates what becomes a three part definition of the effects borne by Adam’s sin. Augustine writes,

For we were all in that one man, since we were all that one man who lapsed into sin through that woman who was made from him, previous to transgression…All men at that time sinned in Adam, since in his nature all men were as yet that one man.[13]

In a related fashion to the Arminian view, Augustine conveys that Adam’s fall into transgression has an instantaneous effect on humanity. Stated here is also the idea that Adam brought a corrupted nature to mankind because of the relationship of Adam and his descendants. In essence, all of humanity sinned in Adam when Adam first sinned. Adam’s sin creates an imputed guilt, a lack of original righteousness, and sinful nature in all of humanity.[14] Augustine’s views were recovered and re-articulated during the reformation as illustrated in many of the confessions of the time period, such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 which states,

…after Adam’s fall, all men begotten after the common course of nature are born with sin; that is, without the fear of God, without trust in him, and with fleshly appetite; and that this disease, or original fault, is truly sin, condemning and bringing eternal death now also upon all that are not born again by baptism and the Holy Spirit.[15]

This re-articulation brings a slightly different view from that of Augustine. Now, rather than just viewing mankind has having sinned in Adam, the interpretation that Adam is a federal representative takes form.[16]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian, covered our question in his work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin attributes the fall of Adam to a complete and total corruption of the soul of man. This corruption of nature carries with it the guilt of Adam’s transgression. Here we see Calvin in his own words state,

…the hereditary corruption to which early Christian writers gave the name of Original Sin, meaning by the term the depravation of a nature formerly good and pure. The subject gave rise to much discussion, there being nothing more remote from common apprehension, than that the fault of one should render all guilty, and so become a common sin[17]

and continuing he says,

Original sin, then, may be defined a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh[18]

Therefore, the Reformed thought considers our question in a similar fashion as the Arminian tradition, but with a few differences. These differences nevertheless take on great significance when discussing the nature of salvation and grace.

The Nature of Adam’s Fall

We have discussed three different and distinct historical views of the role of Adam’s fall regarding the condition of mankind; the Pelagian, Arminian, and Reformed views. Each has a different explanation of the extent and effect continuing from Adam’s transgression. Now we will begin to examine each more fully using biblical support to substantiate our original thesis, and present our view.

Putting it All Together

Let us now turn back to the beginning of this story of Adam’s fall to study the fractured pieces of this relationship, between God and His creation, in order to more fully understand the answer to our query. There we will see a delightful place called Eden, as its name may suggest;[19] where a beautiful garden rises out of the midst in its eastward parts. (Gen 2:68) Here we will find Adam, the first man, with his helpmate tending to trees covered in pleasant fruit. (Gen 2:9) Everything is good. Adam tends to his work as a gardener of paradise, Eve stands at his side, and his Creator walks with them in the cool of the day. (Gen 3:8) There is only one law in this utopia; do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil or you shall surely die. (Gen 2:17) But the unthinkable happens.

Adam is persuaded by the Serpent through his wife[20] to eat of the forbidden tree; in this temptation Adam commits to violate the covenant he has with his Creator. (Gen 3:6Hos 6:7) Until this point in time, Adam was perfect. God had created all things good; this included His creation of man. (Gen 1:31) But when Adam ate of the fruit, his state of innocence was lost. This is why Paul says in Romans 5:12, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin…” It is important to note here the order of the words that Paul uses in this verse, “that sin preceded, and that from sin death followed.”[21] Into the world, the Scriptures tell us, this sin has spread, and the evidence that Adam’s sin has extended beyond its garden dwelling deviants is sadly relayed in the following chapter; when Cain kills Abel. (Gen 4:8) Cain and Able had not eaten of the fruit. They did not transgress the law in the same manner as Adam. Yet, we find Able is dead, and Cain under condemnation. Something has happened to the world Adam lives in.

Yes, something did change, and that was Adam. God had given His creation a freedom of the will, and with this freedom Adam could continue in righteousness or unrighteousness.

“For the first freedom of choice, which was given to man when he was created upright, gave the ability not to sin, but also the ability to sin.” -Augustine[22]

 This is a distinct difference between God and His creation. God cannot change; “for He is not a man that He should change His mind”[23] (1 Sam 15:26)

Changeableness is the very law or radical characteristic of the creature, to distinguish it from the Creator. God alone is without variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17).[24]

But once this choice had been executed, the whole person of Adam had left his previous righteousness forever. It could not be re-attained by any effort. Once the fruit falls from the tree it cannot be re-attached. Adam’s actions severed his relationship with God, (Gen 3:23-24), cursed the work he was ordained to do, (Gen 3:17), and his immortality removed. (Gen 3:19) Each of these results of his sin now becomes a shared experience with his posterity. (1 Cor 15:22) The penalty of this sin is handed down through Adam’s line; the whole of mankind.

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not…Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? (Job 14:1–2, 4)

We can see this shared experience with a simple stroll through a cemetery. This sin of Adam has infected more than mankind’s labors, lifespan, and the living world. It plagues the very nature of mankind.

Surely corruption is ingrained in our hearts, interwoven with our very natures, has sunk deep into our souls, and will never be cured but by a miracle of grace[25]

Adam’s transgression has given us a corrupted nature dispositioned to sin by virtue of heredity. We are as the scripture says, “by nature children of wrath.” (Eph 2:3) This nature produces sin; sin produces death.

“…death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12)

There is also a personal guilt born by all men because of their transgression of the law. (Rom 3:23) As such all men will stand and be judge by God because of this disobedience. (Heb 9:27) There is guilt upon man because of active sins committed from a nature bound under the power of sin. (John 8:37) But is that all? Could as Pelagius suggested, be men who have not committed active sins and be free of this guilt?[26] Could they be righteous? No, because the scripture says, “all men have sinned” (Rom 3:23), “it is appointed for man to die once” (Heb 9:27), and that death is one of the result of sin. (Rom 5:12)

So we stand guilty before God because of active sins.[27] We also have a nature that is from Adam hereditarily corrupted affecting our whole person.[28] We have also seen that our environment is also corrupted by sin.[29] All of these extend from Adam’s transgression. But then, are we also guilty of Adam’s sin?

There was a special relationship between God and Adam. Adam received blessing through his continued obedience.[30] While he continued in that obedience his generations to come would receive the same. Conversely, his disobedience would remove them from the garden forever. (Gen 3:24) God created Adam from the earth (Gen 2:7), set him as the caretaker of the garden (Gen 2:15), created his helpmate from him (Gen 2:21), was the recipient of instruction on the covenantal terms (Gen 2:17), was addressed first during God’s inquiry (Gen 3:9), and was the finale of the cure. (Gen 3:17-19) In every way, Adam was the focal point of the relationship and the object of the curse for his disobedience. So in like manner, just as Adam’s punishment is imputed to all of mankind (all of mankind takes part in the curse as we have shown), also is his guilt.

Adam was not only the progenitor but the root of the human race, all his descendants are born with a corrupt nature; and that both the guilt of Adam’s sin and their own inborn corruption are imputed to them as sin.[31]

Our original question, “how has Adam’s fall into sin affected the rest of humanity?” can now answer be answered this way: Adam’s transgression in the garden brought an immediate change to Adam’s standing in his relations with God, his relationship with others, and his relationship with creation. His sin changed his nature from one of righteousness to one that was depraved. In every way Adam was affected by his fall, so has the rest of humanity. In addition to these effects, Adam’s guilt before God has also been imputed to us.

Objections to the Nature of Sin

Objection: By saying that Adam’s action corrupted our whole person in nature, doesn’t this excuse sin and set God as unjust?

Response: The corruption of our nature speaks to our character. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”  David said that he was sinful even before his birth. (Psalm 51:5) In Jeremiah 13:23 the Scripture says,

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”

 Our depraved character works in us to bring forth actual sins.[32] However, those sins are by choice. When we steal we do it with the full knowledge that it is wrong. When we lie it is not from ignorance. Our conscience bears witness to our actions, leaving us guilty before God.[33] (Rom 2:15) While we did receive a nature corrupted, we choose to do evil. For justice to be exercised rightly, it demands evil to be punished. Having a disposition toward hunger is a temptation; stealing food to satisfy it is a crime. We have committed the crime and are held accountable to it. Being born into a family of criminals does not serve as an excuse for our own actions nor does it impugn the judge for holding these actions accountable.

Objection: How can Adam serve as our federal head? Doesn’t the scripture say that, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin”? (Deut 24:16)

Answer: As we shown above, Adam enjoyed a relationship with God differently than ours. He was given certain terms for that relationship; for obedience and disobedience.[34] The blessing and curse for these terms were demonstrated not only towards Adam, but also the entire creation and his family: (Gen 2:22), the blessing of the garden and life, the cure of death and of the earth. Before when we discussed the corruption of the nature of man we spoke of our character. Now when we speak of Adam’s federal headship we are discussing relationship; our relationship with God. This relationship changed under Adam and its new broken condition extends to all humanity. Acting as a representative, his action affected all our destinies.[35]

The idea of one representative acting on the behalf of others is not new. This can be seen in scripture in the example below. Here Levi is represented in Abraham as having given tithes.[36] This is a biblical concept where the father represents future generations.

In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Heb 7:8–10)

Even today we can see form for such a relationship in representative government where many people vote through one man; and live under the result of his decisions. Adam acted in this way for all of humanity yet unborn in a legal covenantal relationship with God. The passage in Deuteronomy cited in opposition to this relationship presents an apparent unjust disagreement with what we have just said. However, in the context of this passage there is a situation where a person is wrongly held accountable for another’s actions when it is a non-representative relationship.[37] If a federal relationship of Adam towards us sounds unfair, then God’s treatment of our representative in Christ, the second Adam, would be as well. Since, through one man, the Christ, we have received a right standing with God though it was lost in Adam. (1 Cor 15:22) It is this representative relationship that brought us death in the Garden, but now brings us life in the cross.


We have walked through the history of the church, went over biblical texts, and Q&A of objections in order to get at our thesis. In the end, we have shown that Adam’s fall altered the nature of humanity by introducing sin’s corruption and guilt into the whole person, body and soul, thus conveying a sinful nature to all his descendants. The biblical story moves through this Adam to Christ narrative. In the beginning we asked why Adam’s fall is often left out of the gospel presentation. Why? We can only speculate. But the material presented here hopefully will demonstrate the importance it has in explaining our fallen nature, our inability to rectify it, and our need for our Savior, Jesus Christ.

[1]Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988, 765.

[2]F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1257.

[3]Major Contributors and Editors, “Pelagianism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).

[4]Benjamin B. Warfield, “Introductory Essay on Augustin and the Pelagian Controversy,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), xiv.

[5]Saint Augustine, Collinge, William J., and Mourant, John A., “Four Anti-Pelagian Writings,” The Fathers of the Church, vol. 86 (CUA Press, 2010).

[6]F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1257.

[7] All biblical references in are from the The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001) unless noted otherwise.

[8] Philip Pugh, Arminianism v. Hyper-Calvinism (Coushell: Arthur Tompkinson, 1860), 104.

[9]Mark A. Ellis, ed., The Arminian Confession of 1621: Translation, trans. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 64.

[10]Mark A. Ellis, ed., The Arminian Confession of 1621: Translation, trans. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 65.

[11]Kenneth J. Collins, and Jason E. Vickers, eds., The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey. (Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 2013), Sermon 44.

[12]William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 181.

[13]William G. T. Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, vol. 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 77.

[14]Donald Macleod, “Original Sin in Reformed Theology,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 139.

[15]Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, vol. 3 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 8.

[16]John Miley, Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1892), 493.

[17]John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 288.

[18]John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 292.

[19] John S. Kselman, “Eden,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 221.

[20]James Petigru Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), v.

[21]John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 200.

[22] James Stevenson and B. J. Kidd, eds., Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461 (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 232.

[23] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.

[24] Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in the Scriptures: Man’s Total Depravity (Logos Bible Software, 2005), 21.

[25]Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Puritans, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013).

[26] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 597.

[27] Walter A. Elwell and Douglas Buckwalter, Topical Analysis of the Bible: With the New International Version, vol. 5, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996).

[28] John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 292.

[29] David S. Dockery, Trent C. Butler, et al., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 830.

[30] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 272.

[31] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 238.

[32] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 251.

[33] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 500.

[34] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 51.

[35] Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology: Rewritten and Enlarged (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1878), 365.

[36] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 163.

[37] Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 323.