On the Doctrine of Inherited Guilt

I came across the concept of inherited guilt as we were reading Wayne Grudem's book, Systematic Theology, as part of a study group. Section C.1 of Chapter 24 interprets Romans 5:12-21 to mean that all people inherited guilt from Adam, meaning that we are counted guilty by God because Adam (as our representative) sinned.

Grudem describes this as a distinct phenomenon from inherited corruption (we inherit a corrupt nature that inclines us to sin) and as distinct from the fact that each of us has our own personal sins. I don't have complaints about his presentation of inherited corruption, but I can't reconcile his view on inherited guilt with my understanding of God being inerrant (always right) and just.

I present below an alternative interpretation of this section of Romans that doesn't include inherited guilt. I then present two arguments for why this alternative interpretation is preferred, each based on scripture. Following is a conclusion and then appendices on related topics that came up during my investigations.

An interpretation of Romans without inherited guilt

Lets start with the text that Grudem cites for his claim that "God thought of us all as having sinned when Adam disobeyed". I provide an interpretation of this section that does not include inherited guilt separate from inherited corruption, showing that we don't have to believe inherited guilt to believe what Paul is writing here. First, the text in question (Romans 5:12-21, from the New International Version):

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned — 13 for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how many more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Chris, overflow to the many! 16 Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin. The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one many the many will be made righteous. 20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

My reading of this text does not require inherited guilt, though it does require actual sin and inherited corruption. I'll take each section separately and indicate for each how the text is consistent with a reading that does not require guilt to be inherited separately from corruption and actual sins on the part of Adam's descendants:

I had a series of discussions with a friend of mine, Jim Sloat, who did his dissertation on Romans and Paul's interpretation of justice, and he pointed out to me that any interpretation also has to square with Romans 1:18-32 and 2:5-16; 3:1-20. So here goes (again from the New International Version):

Romans 1:18-32: 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

This description of the state of man is completely consistent with an inherited corruption from Adam causing them to ignore God's nature and to seek other gods. Verses 24 and 26 directly describe this as the standard behavior driven by a corrupt nature in the absence of God's protection.

Romans 2:5-16: 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God "will give to each person according to what he has done." 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism. 12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

Verse 5 again highlights the sinful nature. Verse 6 describes a state opposite to that of inherited guilt -- each person receives according to what he has done (not according to what their ancestor has done). Verses 12-15 describe what happens to people after the law has been given -- they are subject to the law whether they have heard about the law or not. This section provides a case against inherited guilt, rather than for it.

Romans 3:1-20: 1 What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God. 3 What if some did not have faith? Will their lack of faith nullify God's faithfulness? 4 Not at all! Let God be true, and every man a liar. As it is written: "So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge." 5 But if our unrighteousness brings out God's righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) 6 Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? 7 Someone might argue, "If my falsehood enhances God's truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?" 8 Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved. 9 What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. 10 As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." 13 "Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit." "The poison of vipers is on their lips." 14 "Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness." 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know." 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes." 19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

Verses 1-8 do not seem to bear on the question at hand. Verses 9-18 describe a state of man where everyone has committed their own sins. Verses 19-20 describe the consequences of this, that everyone is declared guilty because of their own sins. Again, this section is completely consistent with inherited corruption rather than inherited guilt; the condemnation for each person is that person's own sin and sinful nature.

My argument A: Existence of a blameless offspring

There exists a person that scripture tells us is a descendant of Adam who scripture also tells us was Holy, just, righteous and without sin: Jesus. Paul was aware of this scripture and believed it to be true. Therefore, it cannot be that Paul meant to say that all descendants of Adam are counted guilty because of Adam's sin; Jesus was not (until he accepted the blame for the rest of us).

There is a potential weaknesses to this argument: if the transmission of blame comes only through the father's lineage, then in that sense Jesus was not a son of Adam (being fathered by the Holy Spirit).

My argument B: God is both Inerrant and Just

The second argument is a bit more involved. I'll make it in the context of responding to two arguments that Grudem presents against those who do not believe in inherited guilt.

Response to Grudem's Arguments 1 and 2

Grudem's first response to those who claim that blaming Adam's offspring for his sin is unfair (which I assume Grudem as a synonym for unjust), is that all of those who would be held liable have also committed their own sins; his second response is that they would have done as Adam did given the chance. Both of these rely on a complete overlap between the set of people who are blamed for their own sins (or their own propensity to sin) and those who also inherit guilt from Adam.

It is this same complete overlap of these groups (in all instances except for Christ) that I use below to argue that Paul may not have meant to imply inherited guilt at all; you simply cannot tell the difference between the two sets of people without going to a hypothetical case. But for now I present the hypothetical case to respond to these arguments. I present it in several stages to make each step of the argument clear.

Unfallen Man: The first step is to consider the hypothetical case where Adam and Eve responded to the Serpent's temptation by refusing to give in. In this case, Adam and Eve did not sin, and proved that they would not sin given the chance to do so. Therefore they are neither corrupted nor guilty, and they could continue in their original nature of oneness and fellowship with God.

In this case, Adam is not guilty of sin, and thus there is no guilt to pass on to his offspring.

Separate Lineage: The second step is to hypothesize the existence of another man and woman besides Adam and Eve; lets call them Abe and Ellen. They were made at the same time Adam and Eve were, but were independent and never met Adam and Eve. They were placed in another garden just like Eden, and faced the same temptation that Adam and Eve did. But Abe and Ellen didn't fall; rather, they were a separate lineage of unfallen man. Here we have two parallel lineages, one fallen (descended from Adam) and one unfallen (descended from Abe).

In this case, Abe is equivalent to the unfallen man Adam, and thus there is no guilt to pass on to his offspring.

Forked Lineage: In this final step, we construct the hypothetical case that splits the two groups (those who inherit corruption and those who would inherit only guilt) so that we can discuss whether inheriting guilt separately from corruption is just. In this case, Abe and Ellen are the first two children of Adam and Eve, but they are conceived before the temptation and before the fall. Like the separate lineage versions, they are made of the same pre-fallen stuff as Adam and Eve, and they have not yet been tested by the temptation. They are taken by God after birth and placed in a second garden, where they grow up and never know their parents. Once they grow up, they are tempted in the same way as their separate lineage versions, and they also resist the temptation and continue in their original nature of oneness and fellowship with God. They and their offspring are not guilty of Abe's sin (he did not sin), nor were their natures corrupted by having a parent who had fallen (Adam and Eve had not yet fallen when Abe and Ellen were born). But Adam and Eve did sin, and all of their later offspring inherited their corruption, and they also had their own sins.

In this case, Abe's behavior and substance is equivalent to that of his separate lineage version (and thus equivalent to the unfallen man Adam) but he is descended from an Adam who at a later time fell and so would inherit guilt under Grudem's interpretation where all children of Adam inherit his guilt.

The argument: We have reached the hypothetical situation we aimed for; we have one set of descendants of Adam who do not inherit corruption, who resisted temptation and who did not sin (Abe and Ellen and their children), and we have another set who did (the rest of us). The question is whether the forked lineage Abe and Ellen (and their children) inherit Adam's guilt. They are offspring of Adam and Eve, and so by Grudem's interpretation of Romans they would. My counter-argument runs as follows:

  1. Axiom 1: This section of Romans is accurately describing both the situation and God's response to it (the Biblical report is true).
  2. Axiom 2: God is inerrant (does not make mistakes).
  3. Axiom 3: God is always just (does not do anything that is unjust).
  4. Counting the forked lineage Abe and Ellen (and their descendants) guilty for Adam's sin would be unjust because they are equivalent in substance and behavior to an unfallen Adam and Eve. They have not sinned, and they did not fall to temptation when given the chance.
  5. Therefore, if God imputed Adam's guilt to Abe and Ellen, then he would be either in error or unjust.
  6. Therefore (by Axioms 2 and 3) God would not impute Adam and Eve's guilt to Abe and Ellen.
  7. Therefore, if there were a descendant of Adam who was without sin and did not have a corrupt nature, then God would not impute Adam's guilt to that person.
  8. Therefore (by Axiom 1) this section of Romans does not say that God imputed Adam's guilt to all of his descendants independent of their nature and actions.


I have presented an interpretation of the relevant sections of Romans that does not require inherited guilt. I have presented two arguments indicating why this is the preferred interpretation, of which the second is the more compelling.

Appendix A: An interpretation of "Inherited Guilt" that makes sense to me

The view of inherited guilt expressed by my friend Jim Sloat during a series of discussions on this topic is somewhat different than the one I have presented above: "God looks upon a corrupt individual and declares them guilty." The guilt is because of the corruption, but is a separate thing from it. The guilt could not occur separate from the corruption, so would not apply to Abe and Ellen. I agree with this interpretation, but I do not believe it is consistent with Grudem's interpretation.

Appendix B: Response to Grudem's Argument 3

In a third argument against those who reject his definition of inherited guilt, Grudem states that "The most persuasive answer to the objection is to point out that if we think it is unfair for us to be represented by Adam, then we should also think it is unfair for us to be represented by Christ and to have his righteousness imputed to us by God."

This is the essence of the Gospel! We do not get what we deserve but rather we get what Christ deserved, and that Christ did not get what he deserved, but rather got what we deserved. This is also described in Romans (5:9-10): "Now that we have been justified by this blood, how much more will we be saved from wrath through him! For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life!"

We can look at this at two scales: the local scale that includes only Christ or us, or the global scale that includes both Christ and us.

The local scale. If we look at only the portion of the transaction that Christ received, as remarked by the criminal being crucified along with Christ, He most certainly did not get what he deserved; he got much worse than he deserved. If we look only at any individual Christian (or the sum of all Christians), again there is imbalance: they got much better than they deserved.

At the local scale, it is clear that justice was not done. At this scale, I do think that it was unfair for me to be represented by Christ (just as Grudem predicts) but I cannot see how he can claim that it was fair. This only makes sense if justice itself has been redefined to include mercy (which Jim argued to be the case in his Ph.D. dissertation).

The global scale. If we look at the scale that includes both Christ and us, we see that the net result is that the total punishment provided was enough to cover the total punishment deserved, so the demands of justice were satisfied. Jesus' mercy provided for this transaction. From each Christian's point of view, the transaction is more than fair. Each of us has the right to demand justice instead of accepting mercy, and if we do so then we are condemned, and justice is still satisfied.

The only question remaining is whether it was fair for Jesus to take on our guilt. Jesus chose to pay extra, from his own surplus, to cover our need. His mercy made it possible for us to be represented by him. Jesus accepted this transaction, and so God was able to complete it justly. (I have a feeling that if Jesus had said, "no, I will not take on their guilt," then to place it on him would have been unjust and unfair, but this is not an argument based on scripture and is probably something that we cannot know this side of heaven.)

Appendix C: What is Justice, and who am I to judge God?

One dangerous approach: It is often problematic to argue in the following manner: God is said to have trait X (God is all good). God is said to have trait Y (God is all powerful). X and Y imply not Z. (It is obvious that a good and all powerful being would not allow unborn children to die.) Z occurs (unborn children die). Therefore, either not X or not Y (Therefore God is either not all good or not all powerful.)

The danger does not lie in the logic, which is sound, but rather in attempting to tie the argument to God. One reason that it is dangerous is that we do not know the whole story (what happens to unborn children in the afterlife, what would have happened to that unborn child if they had lived, what the nature of that unborn child was, and whether they would have chosen life over death given full knowledge of the circumstances all have an impact on whether X and Y really do imply not Z). Another is that we cannot comprehend God's timelessness or have his perspective on what is going on this side of heaven (so we do not completely know what trait X or trait Y mean when applied to God). Another is that we cannot fathom the impact or importance of free will (again calling into question the implication of not Z). For these reasons, and because the Bible so often surprises me, I have found it to be wise to be very hesitant to say what God can and cannot do using logical arguments based on my interpretation of his character.

My argument B follows a similar approach, but rather than claiming a disproof of the axioms it locates the place in the attempt to tie the interpretation to scripture that leads to the contradiction. It maintains the axioms and uses them to judge between two alternative interpretations of scripture, showing one of them (my alternative) to be consistent with the axioms whereas Grudem's seems not to be..

Another dangerous approach: Another approach I have seen taken is to apply human standards of some particular quality to God, along the lines of "I can't believe in a God who would send anyone to Hell; a loving God would never do that." This is like the first dangerous approach, but here the person making the argument decides on the standard rather than pulling it from scripture. This has all of the pitfalls of the first approach plus the additional one that our human, perhaps situational, idea of the attribute may not apply to God. It assumes that love from God's point of view is the same as love from our point of view, and that there is not some sort of deeper love that actually compels God to allow each person to choose whether to come to heaven and be with God or to go their own way -- and perhaps go to the only other place that exists at the end of time.

Two people I have talked with have responded to my argument B by assuming that it takes the second dangerous approach: "But you can't say that God is unjust no matter what; who are you to judge, and by what criterion?" In fact, I do not intend to be constructing a criterion and then applying it to God, but rather attempting to apply the criterion that He placed on himself (the Bible says that God is just, I didn't invent that). I do not see this as me attempting to judge God. Let me illustrate using an example:

If the Bible said "Every time God appears, he does so as a green-skinned person" and then a person appeared and said "I am God" but they didn't have green skin, you would rightly say "you are not" without judging God. You are applying God's standards to the present facts and using them to judge the facts.

I am using the Bible to judge the interpretation Grudem gives to Romans, and when I try to do so I find that it is not in agreement with the rest of scripture, so I'm basically saying the equivalent of "this interpretation does not have green skin, so it is not of God."

What is (in)justice? My argument B hinges to a large degree on the definition of "justice". What is injustice? For the purposes of my argument, justice is punishing the guilty for the crimes they commit and not punishing someone for crimes that they did commit. Injustice is therefore punishing the innocent for a crime they did not commit, or setting the guilty free without punishment.

But Jim Sloat, who has studied this a lot more than I have, points out that the word in the original Greek that is translated as "justice" did not have the narrow legalistic punishment definition that the word currently has, but rather meant something more like what we mean by the word "righteous". If righteous includes just in its meaning, then I think my argument still stands and I still like my interpretation better, but I've not gone through carefully to check.

A third pair of dangerous approaches: A third dangerous approach, mentioned in both of the others above, is assuming that we know the full meaning of words as applied to God. The problem with this is that we don't comprehend either God's essence or the extent of His power. My argument B falls prey to this danger; it applies the word just, as I understand it, to God. It does not try to judge God, but it does apply human standards of justice (the only one I have access to) to God's actions to judge between different interpretations. I don't know how to avoid this because I am human.

But there is also a ditch on the other side of the road: Two people responded to my argument by defining justice as "whatever God does is just"; to me, this is producing a new definition of justice for God that is different than the one it has in all other cases. If not, then either man can then do these things justly or else there is a separate meaning of "justice" for God and for man, in which case this is a different word, in which case you may as well have said "God does whatever God does", because you're not saying anything beyond that. If this is what God meant when He said that He is just, then He may as well not have spoken. If the language God uses to describe Himself has no relation to the language used to describe human interactions, the words are left left without meaning.

I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, on the slippery slope, and this is why we need the Holy Spirit's help to rightly interpret scripture.

Appendix D: Further Study

My pastor, Jeff Lawrence, pointed me to The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas J. Moo, which provides detailed commentary on the text, including descriptions of alternative interpretations and how well these interpretations match the original text. Section III.2 (pages 314-350) describe Romans 5:12-21, the section that bears on the question at hand.

Moo's view is that the text makes it clear that there is a group of (all) people who belong to Adam and are in some sense condemned by his act, and that there is a group of people (believers) who belong to Christ and are redeemed by His act. There is tension between verse 12 (which describes each person being responsible for their own sins) and vs. 18-19 (which describe all as dying because of Adam's sin).

He describes three views of how this tension can be resolved, the representative or federal view (which Grudem adopts), the realist view of biological inheritance (presented in Appendix A), and what I'll call a gating view, in which Adam's sin was the gate by which Sin entered the world -- where it now holds sway. In the end, he concludes that Paul says nothing explicitly about how Adam's sin resulted in death for everyone, so we cannot use the text as presented to select between the alternatives; there is support for each, but not overwhelming support for any (page 321-322 points out that "in Adam all sinned" is an unlikely translation on grammatical grounds, but interposing "Adam gave mankind a sinful nature" is interposing a critical step that was unstated in the text). But Moo insists that the text makes it clear that Paul intended to say that Adam's sin somehow resulted in all being condemned.

Version 6. Copyright 2009-2010, Russell M. Taylor II