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Imputed Sin (Part 1) [Podcast]

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Michael Patton (MP): Welcome to Theology Unplugged. This is Michael Patton, and we are coming to you from the Credo House in Edmond, Oklahoma. We’re in studio here with JJ and Sam, as usual. Tim is not with us here today, but we will enjoy him not being here because we can let loose a little bit; he’s a little bit stiff.

Sam Storms (SS): Yeah, we were left behind.

MP: Yeah, there you go; with Tim you’re always left behind.

So, guys, we’re starting a series on sin. What’s the formal name for this in theology—sin? Is it harmartiology? [sic]

SS: Hamartiology.

MP: Ha-martiology; I always put the “r” in the wrong place, you notice that? Have I said that before?

SS: Michael, you have coined so many new words during our time together. I’m writing a dictionary.

JJ Seid (JS): All great men are original, right?

MP: Hamartia—sin.

SS: That’s right.

MP: And it’s a very important…I mean, not only is this an important subject in theology to cover, where theology textbooks will deal with sin, but it’s a very challenged notion.

JS: Yeah, it’s fallen on hard times, right? Not a very popular concept these days.

MP: Yeah. I was looking at a book earlier, Whatever Became of Sin?, and I think every generation has their challenges to the notion of sin, and the understanding of sin. And we’re going to talk about the aspects of sin during this series, the different theological ways in which we talk about sin, and often we’ll use fancy terms that I think we need to explain and we need to understand the challenges of each. But we’ve got concepts such as imputed sin, inherited sin, personal sin, and each one of these has a broad range of, not only challenges, but just difficulties when it comes to it. I’ve got some difficulties that I’m going to bring up and get real unplugged with you guys, and see what you guys can do about it because I need some answers about some of this stuff. JJ…

JS: That’s why we’re here. We’re here to help clear things up for you, Michael.

MP: Well, I know, because you’re an expert on sin.

JS: Yeah, experiential.

SS: Had a lot of personal experience; been there, done that.

JS: Experience—the best teacher.

MP: Well, let’s start by talking about imputed sin; or maybe Sam, if you could, just give us a brief overview of what each one of these means, and maybe, if I’m not covering the broad range of what we should be talking about, let me know on that.

SS: Well, the problem with imputed sin is just the very language itself, because it sounds intrinsically unjust. How do you impute sin? Isn’t sin always my personal responsibility, my moral obligation? So, how can something that is an act of my will, for which I’m going to be held accountable—possibly punished—be imputed to me? Immediately, we run into what is, perhaps, the biggest problem.

MP: Well, what does “imputed” mean?

SS: Well, it’s “reckoned to”, “accounted to”, so the way it’s used in theology is the notion that Adam’s transgression was imputed to, or reckoned to, or regarded, as the sin of all those who came from his loins.

So the question is: can sin be imputed? And many people say, “No, it can’t. Sin can only be personally committed by each individual, but I can’t be reckoned guilty for JJ’s transgression. I can’t be accounted at fault for something that you did yesterday. So why, or how, can it be just or fair that the whole of the human race would be accounted as guilty, and under the judgment of God, for what one man, Adam, did in the garden?” I’m stating the problem in its most blatant form of expression.

JS: So, Sam, it sounds like you’re saying that from the moment I’m born, before I’ve even had a chance to do anything good or bad, I’ve already got sin.

SS: Well, let’s use a Biblical text; David, in Psalm 51—everybody knows it: “In sin my mother conceived me, I was brought forth in iniquity.” What does it mean to be conceived in sin? David seems to be saying, “Look, my…” you know, because he’s talking obviously about his adultery with Bathsheba and his complicity in Uriah’s death, and he’s saying, “Y’all need to understand something: my acts of sin didn’t start with themselves; there was something deeper and antecedent to it; namely, when I was conceived in my mother’s womb, I was even then regarded as a sinful person. My nature was fallen and corrupt and the acts of sin that I committed in time, in this case adultery with Bathsheba, was simply an expression of my nature. The disposition, the inclination of my heart, from the moment I was conceived, was at odds with the will and the laws of God.”

JS: Not only can I justly be called a thief because I’ve stolen, but in another sense, I steal because I was always a thief.

SS: Yeah, always inclined and predisposed toward taking what…

MP: But aren’t you guys mixing up, right now, imputed sin with inherited sin? And correct me if I’m wrong.

SS: Well, I did it…no, we’re not confusing it. JJ asked the question, you know?

JS: I’m the one who’s confused, Michael.

SS: You created the problem, you sinned.

MP: Well, when we talk about imputed sin, we’re talking about sin that is directly inherited from Adam, so we’re…the gavel is struck. If you could think about it in bank account terms: when you are born, you are born with the debt of Adam, so you’re born with a negative account from your very birth, and that comes directly from Adam; and then inherited sin has to do with the inclination that we inherit from our parents, or human nature.

SS: Is there a relationship between those two? Let’s look at one…

MP: Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, just a second; and personal sin is the last one we’re going to deal with, and those are the actual acts that we commit on a daily basis from our inherited sin. So that’s kind of the way in which I’ve structured it myself in my own mind for many years, and not sure if that’s the way you guys have, but we’ll move forward and discuss that more. Go ahead, Sam.

SS: Well, let’s just start with the passage in Romans 5, verse 18: “Therefore as one trespass,” so he’s talking about the fall of Adam, “led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness,” referring to Christ’s obedient act in dying for us, “leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience,” again Adam, “the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” So, we’re asking the question: how is it that “by one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners”? That’s obviously a reference to imputed sin, at least I think it is, that he’s saying that there was reckoned to us, by virtue of some relationship we sustain to Adam, the guilt of his transgression.

MP: Well, and it’s the word condemnation, the idea that right when we become human, right when we are conceived, there is a condemnation that is reckoned to us. It’s…we wake up with this debt, and so, and here’s the problem where you get really unplugged, is you say, “How is that fair?”

And you talk to people on the outside world—maybe we grow up hearing this and it becomes part of our teaching, and our philosophy, and our understanding, and we submit to the authority of the Bible—but in a world that is so Biblically distant and have not heard these things before, and you come up to them and you tell them, “Did you know that you are a sinner because, not because you have sinned, but because you were born a sinner? You are condemned from the very beginning; you have the imputed sin of Adam, and so, even as a baby, you have to have the righteousness of Christ imputed to you to counteract the imputation of Adam’s sin before you ever even commit a sin; before you’ve ever done anything good or bad you are already condemned; the gavel has been struck by God.”

SS: Yeah, and let me give you one, I won’t mention his name, but one very well-known evangelical theologian, in his attempt to deal with that problem, says this: he says, “No individual is regarded as sinful until he or she ratifies what Adam did in the garden by their own choice of rebellion.” So, let’s take…an infant would be regarded as innocent in this man’s thinking until such time as that child reaches an age where they can cognitively understand the revelation of God; they can know what the law of God requires, and they can make a reasonable, informed decision to ratify Adam’s rebellion against God by rebelling against Him themselves. Now, the problem I have with that is this: why is it that, as far as we can tell, every single human being who has ever lived ratifies Adam’s choice? If we’re actually born innocent, or neutral, or in some sort of state of moral equilibrium, we’re not inclined toward evil or good, why is it that not one single person, save Jesus Himself, has ever done anything other than choose to sin, choose to rebel…?

MP: But aren’t you again mixing up the inherited sin with the imputed sin?

SS: Well, no. The whole point that he’s trying to make is that there is no imputed sin until personal affirmation, or ratification, of what Adam did in the garden. But my counterpoint is precisely what you’re saying: if there’s no inherited corruption, if there’s no inborn predisposition to disobey God and disbelieve God, why is it that every single human being has done it?

The point being: a universal effect requires a universal cause. You can’t have every single person who’s ever lived rebelling in unbelief against God, and failing to live up to His moral law, unless there’s some sufficient cause to account for it. And I would argue that that cause is inherent sin, the kind that David had in mind, “conceived in sin, brought forth in iniquity, my heart…”

You know the Old Testament says, “They go forth from the womb speaking lies.” So from the moment that we exist we’re already predisposed toward wickedness, and so this idea that somehow that we are not in any way connected to Adam in a cause and effect relationship until we ratify, personally, his choice in the garden. In other words, each individual stands his or her own probation in Eden; we are all our own Adam, as it were. But that doesn’t account for the universality of sin; why is it universally present?

MP: Yeah, yeah.

JS: So help me, and help our listeners, understand the connection between those two. In other words: because I’m born with this inclination, is that, in a sense, what invites the penalty? Or because the penalty has already come down, therefore it’s allowed the inclination to come in? How do the two relate; how are they connected?

SS: That is a…that’s a huge question, because it’s hard to understand why the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s transgression to all of his posterity would result in their inherent sin.

Maybe we ought to go back to the garden itself. So, when Adam and Eve sinned, they died spiritually. They didn’t die physically immediately, but they died spiritually; they were alienated from God. There was instantly in their hearts and minds a corruption that is fundamentally opposed to everything that God requires; and then by natural propagation, their posterity inherit this predisposition toward sinfulness, and unbelief, and rebellion, and a desire for the very things that God prohibits. So there is a physiological transmission, in some sense, of the disposition toward sin that began with Adam and Eve.

JS: Almost like spiritual DNA.

SS: Yeah.

MP: It was part of the condemnation, but even before we sin, even before we commit a conscious act, we are held guilty as babies, I mean, from the mother’s womb we are held guilty. And Blaise Pascal, listen to this, what he says about imputed sin: he says, “Without a doubt, nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of our first man has implicated in its guilt men so far from the original sin that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us but, indeed, unjust. What could be more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than the eternal condemnation of a child, incapable of will, for an act in which he seems to have so little part in it that it actually took place six thousand years before he existed? Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine.”

SS: So, Blaise Pascal is a young-Earth creationist.

MP: That’s what you got from that?

SS: Yeah, that’s what I got from the quote, the six thousand years ago, all right.

MP: But, Blaise Pascal, you know…I mean, when we talk about this, we’ve got Protestants and Roman Catholics all believe in some sort of imputed guilt, from say…Well, how do you answer that from Blaise Pascal? And he believed in imputed sin.

SS: Right, the two ways in which theologians have attempted to explain this are, to kind of use the theological language, Covenant Representation or Federalism—that’s one of them. The idea that when God created Adam and put him in the garden, He appointed him to serve as the covenant head for all of his posterity; so Adam was our representative. It’s an inadequate analogy, but you and I, all of us in this room, have a representative in Washington: he stands in our place; he represents our voice (or at least we hope he does), and votes what would be, we hope, our conscience. So the idea is that Adam was constituted the federal head of the entire human race, such that his act is reckoned to be our act. Had he obeyed, had he remained in obedience and not partaken of the forbidden fruit, that act of righteousness would have been imputed to his covenant posterity. But the fact is, he fell, and therefore, the act itself was reckoned to have been our act, and we were imputed as guilty as a result.

MP: So we are held guilty for the sin of another?

SS: That would be the view of Covenant Representation. Now, there’s another view called Realism. And Realism says the reason why Adam’s transgression…

MP: Isn’t this Augustine?

SS: Yes. The reason why Adam’s transgression is regarded as yours is because you were really there. You were physiologically present in the loins of the first man, because all of humanity has descended from him and from Eve; and therefore, when he sinned, you really sinned. As the old saying was, “You was there, Charlie.”

MP: I love the term loins.

SS: Yeah, that’s the way the theologians referred to it. But, the bottom line is this: “You say I was really there, then why do I have absolutely no personal awareness or consciousness of having been present? Did I, individually, make a choice simultaneous with Adam’s?” And that seems so unreasonable; that just doesn’t seem…now, granted, I do believe in Realism in the sense that I believe the whole of the human race—here it goes, Michael—was present in the loins of Adam. I believe that he was the first human, and from him all mankind has descended; so Realism, in that sense, is true. But the question is, “Is that a sufficient, adequate grounds for his sin to be regarded as ours, or to be transmitted to us?”

MP: Oh, and isn’t the biggest problem in Romans chapter 5, too, the comparison between Adam and Christ, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, and the imputation of Adam’s sin to us?

SS: Right, we weren’t in the loins of Jesus when He died.

MP: Yeah, we would have to say we were really there committing acts of righteousness with Christ, and therefore we deserved this.

SS: He was our substitute in His act of righteousness. So the question is: was Adam our substitute in his act of unrighteousness?

JS: Well, and what’s funny is it sort of catches us out a little bit because, why are we so bothered by the first imputation and so accepting and entitled about the second imputation? You know, it’s almost like the refs are doing a great job until they make a call against our team. All of a sudden the first imputation, we’re pressing on it, and we’re wondering if we feel that it’s just, or if it makes sense, or if it’s intelligible, and it’s like, “Well, dadgum. Someone explain the second imputation; how on earth that makes sense, that I’m standing there, guilty as charged in the dock, and someone else takes my punishment; I’m credited with His good performance and I walk.” That’s honestly far more scandalous than the first imputation.

MP: Well, from the Eastern Orthodox point of view, of the few things that they really hold us reprehensible for, this is one of them. This is one of the things that the Eastern Orthodox church does not hold to. They do hold to inherited sin, that there is a corruption that has been set in from our parents; but not imputed sin, to where we are held guilty from birth. And they say that’s reprehensible, that is abominable, it is something that is…that we have taken up, that the Roman Catholic church has taken up and…you know they don’t hold to Western theology so much in St. Augustine, so they don’t grab a hold of what Augustine had to say about it, even the Realism. But explain it much like you would say, to where we have this corruption that is set in, and once we act on it then we have the guilt that is ours.

JS: Well, not to get to the punchline too early, but if you don’t like the first imputation, you lose the second one, right? So, if people are clamoring for justice, they know not what they ask for, right? You know, because if you hate the first imputation, you lose the second one, but the second one is your only hope to be rescued.

SS: You know, my…where I ultimately end up on this one is in a place that is not altogether satisfying to people because, quite honestly, I don’t know that any theologian in the history of the church has resolved all of the questions and the problems that this issue poses; the idea of what we call an alien sin, a sin not my own imputed to me. And, you know, Augustine attempted to address this; nobody talked about it better and more extensively than Jonathan Edwards. I wrote my Ph.D dissertation on Edward’s view of original sin, and in the final analysis I had to draw the very unhappy conclusion that he was not successful; that he ultimately tried to resolve it in a way that became inherently self-contradictory.

So, here’s where I land: I believe that when I read Romans 5:12-20, which I would encourage everybody to read very prayerfully, it sounds to me as if Paul is saying this: the infinitely wise God of the universe constituted a relationship between Adam and his posterity that must, in and of itself, be righteous and just because God is righteous and just.

Now, can I explain to you how it is just for the sin of one man to be imputed to, and transmitted to, the whole of his posterity? No, I can’t; I cannot account for that, but I believe that’s what the Biblical text is telling me, and so I simply have to say, “Shall not the God of heaven and earth do that which is right?”, to quote an Old Testament passage. The answer is, “Yes!” I believe God constituted Adam as our federal head—his transgression, the guilt of it being imputed to his posterity—and he set in motion a transmission by natural propagation of a disposition, or an orientation, toward wickedness. David said it: “I was conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity,” and I think that’s true of all humanity. It is ultimately a mystery, and I just simply have to fall back in faith and say, “I embrace it because the Word of God says it, and I believe that God cannot do something that is unjust.”

MP: Well, we may not be able to get to some of this until the next episode, but Pelagius, his biggest problems with it had to do with some of the Old Testament passages and the inherent contradiction that he saw when we have a connection or the guilt that is held from the sin of another. And in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah chapter 31, verse 29, God is really upset about a phrase that had been going on in those days about why it is that we are suffering; why it is that we have problems; why it is that Israel is going through so much pain.

And the phrase was—and this is said both in Jeremiah and in Ezekiel—it says, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on the edge.”

And God says, “In those days they will no longer say that; I’m sick of that saying; it’s getting old.” And the idea is: the fathers, they did something that caused their children to suffer for; they ate sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are now deteriorating and having problems.

“So, our fathers did something wrong and we’re suffering for it,” and He says, after this, God says, “But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth will be set on the edge.”
And, again, the idea is that God does not punish people for the sins of another; and coming to this issue, Pelagius would say, “How in the world can we see that in the Old Testament, such a clear declaration of God’s anger at such a doctrine, and then we hold to the same doctrine when it comes to Adam and his posterity?” Again, we’ll have to pick this up next time, but I’m just introducing the problem a little bit further.

DISCLAIMER: All quotations are transcribed as spoken by the participants. They have not been checked for accuracy or citation.

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