I have explained and confessed my belief in the doctrine of imputed sin, which is not a popular doctrine these days. It is one of the many doctrines that are being “rethought” by even the most conservative Christians. Why? Because it seems to fly in the face of everything we feel is just and suggests a characteristic in God that we would rather not be present.
Here is the situation that was concluded from the last post: We are born with a propensity, bent, or inclination to sin. Because of this bent, we sin: It is our nature. When we do act according to our nature and sin, we are held guilty by God and ultimately condemned to eternal punishment. Not only this, but we are already condemned for the sin of another—namely Adam—before we commit any personal sins of our own. This is imputed sin as it is “imputed” or credited to our spiritual bank account before we have a chance to sin. We are held guilty for something someone else did. I can understand why so many are saying “check please” to this doctrine. I did not vote for this. I did not ask to either have this sin nature, or whether or not I approved of what Adam did. I never had a chance. I am sorry, again, this just seems unjust.
It is not hard to see why unbelievers scoff at such a foreign and seemingly cruel proposal. Similarly, it is not difficult to see why believers would decide to either remain agnostic concerning these issues, or change their theology to look more Pelagian. Seriously, this is not an easy subject. We must understand how absolutely shocking this doctrine brings to the table. As Pascal put it, the flow of guilt seems unjust.
So, how do I dodge the obvious stumbling block? How do I explain the seemingly unjust conclusion that we are held guilty for the sin of another? Or do I just bite my tongue, hold my nose, and swallow it? Certainly, no one would complain about the fairness of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but the idea that condemnation is first imputed to all people with no distinction is difficult to grasp.
Before I propose a resolution, I would like to state something important. You and I do not have a vote in truth. Whether or not something is palatable does not determine whether or not it is true. We did not create God in our image. God could have been an evil God and He would still be God. He has never asked for a raise of hands on anything. He did not create a democracy which determines His attributes or actions. If He were to create each person and send them directly to Hell just for fun, then the truth of such circumstances, while grotesque, would still be true. In short, there is nothing you or I can do to change anything. It would seem that our postmodern culture, while bringing some good critique and questions, has begun to settle itself into a position in which God is created with first regards to the level of emotional acceptability. This, while nice, is not a luxury that is justifiable nor possessing integrity.
Having said this, I am thankful that God is not such a God. I am thankful that without my vote, He is a loving, gracious, and merciful Father. And I say this all the while being a believer in the doctrine of imputed sin.
Now, I would like to propose a possible resolution to our current subject of imputed sin by using St. Thomas Aquinas’ hierarchy of angels as an illustration. Hang with me. This is just an illustration, not necessarily meant to be a parallel truth.
Aquinas developed a system of angels in which every angel is created with a distinct nature. According to Aquinas, there is no distinct species named “angels.” Those beings we refer to collectively as angels are all actually individual distinct creations of God. Because they do not reproduce of themselves, they have no spiritual or physical relation to one another. This is why Aquinas believed that there is no redemption for angels (Heb 2:16). According to Aquinas, if Christ were to redeem the angels, He would have to identify with the angels in every way. Seeing as how each angel is a distinct species, He could not become one single species called “angels” in order to redeem the entire group. If they were to be redeemed, in theory, He would have to become each individual angel, and die for them one at a time. Why? Because there is no solidarity found in angels for there to be a representation.
Whether or not Aquinas’ proposal about angels has any truth to it makes no difference for our present discussion; again, it is simply being used as a illustration. What is important is that Christ could become the species “man.” Since mankind is linked with Adam in both physicality and spirituality, Christ could represent the entire human race all at once. Only because we are vitally linked to the first Adam, we can be vitally linked to the “second Adam,” Jesus Christ. If Adam’s sin were not imputed to us, this would break any chance of solidarity in the human race and we would be like the angels, without hope of redemptions. Therefore, the imputation of Adam’s sin (the spiritual foundation for our unity as a species) was a gracious act of God who was looking forward to the redemption that the second Adam, Jesus Christ, could bring.
At this point some may say that it is unfair because the proportions are different in those related to Adam and those related to Christ. While all men are related to the condemnation of Adam, not all men are related to the justification in Christ.
While this may be true, it might still be understood as a gracious act of God that we were all linked together with the first Adam. I propose that it was not a necessary act of God to link us with the first Adam. Nor do I believe that it was the natural outcome for Adam’s posterity to be linked with him in death, sin, or condemnation. God, in theory, could have let each individual person have the same chance as he did with Adam. He could have caused each person to be born without any connection to Adam whatsoever. Each individual would be its own species. Each would have been an individual creation who, if and when they sinned, would not be connected to anyone before or after. In this manner, the fall would come on an individual basis, not corporate. Each person would be linked to only one person, himself or herself. Each person’s condemnation would be his or her own. There would be no linkage to the rest of humanity. Each person would be spiritually and physically autonomous. But if this were the case (my argument is) Christ could not represent “mankind” because there would be no man kind. There would be no solidarity to make any representation functional. We would be like the angels of Aquinas’ hierarchy without a redeemer.
I believe that God that if given the chance, each individual would follow Adam and make the exact same choice he did. Therefore, God imputed Adam’s sin to his posterity, and declared all people guilty of Adam’s sin, thereby creating a solidarity. This solidarity made humanity redeemable by a single representative. Christ could only redeem mankind all at once because mankind fell in Adam all at once. Therefore, God allowed all men to sin “in and with” Adam (the federal headship view). By an act of grace, knowing that all would choose the same as Adam, God imputed Adam’s sin to humanity. The link was graciously made first in Adam so that it might be made the second time in Christ.
If this is the case, we see that there was a unique solidarity that is found in Adam that cannot be parallel to any other. It is true, as the Bible says, that the son will not suffer for the sins of his father:
Ezekiel 18:20 20 “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
Yet, this passage has no application to our present issues, since it is dealing with individual sins, not corporate sins from a representative of the entire human race. Adam was humanity. Humanity fell. Humanity was condemned for this sin. Humanity was punished with spiritual and physical death. Humanity inherited the sinful inclination and humanity is held guilty for the fall. This is why the sins of another cannot be imputed to us the same way. But this is why Christ, being fully God and fully man, could represent the new race of humanity. This is why Christ is called the “second Adam.”
1 Corinthians 15:45 So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
I believe very strongly that we are born with a sinful nature within a condemned race. We are guilty along with Adam (humanity) and God had every right to turn His back on Adam (humanity), because in Adam, humanity turned its back on God. Because of this sin, humanity stands condemned in a state of spiritual and physical death. Yet God, in mercy and grace, intervened and sent a Second representative who imputes righteousness instead of condemnation, hope instead of dread, life instead of death.
I believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin because I believe that Romans 5 demands such a believe. Yet I rejoice in the imputation of Adam’s sin because in it I see a representation of the grace of God that is completely consistent with his loving and just character.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]