Sin in the Life of the Human Race

by Louis Berkhof

A. The Connection Between Adam's Sin and that of His Descendants. The Pelagians deny that there is any necessary connection between the sin of Adam and that of his descendants. The earlier Arminians maintain that man has inherited his natural corruption from Adam, but is in no sense responsible for the sin of the latter, while the later or Wesleyan Arminians admit that man's inborn corruption also involves guilt. There are especially three different ways of explaining the connection between the sin of Adam and that of his descendants.

1. THE REALISTIC THEORY. The earliest of the three is the realistic theory, which is to the effect that God originally created one general human nature, which in course of time is divided into as many parts as there are human individuals. Adam possessed the whole of this general human nature; and as the result of his sin it became guilty and polluted. Consequently every individual part of it also shares in this guilt and pollution. This theory does not explain why we are responsible only for the first sin of Adam, and not for the rest of his sins, committed by the same human nature, nor for the sins of the rest of our forefathers. Neither does it give an answer to the question, why Christ was not held responsible for the sin of Adam, for He certainly shared the very nature that sinned in Adam.

2. THE THEORY OF IMMEDIATE IMPUTATION (COVENANT OF WORKS). According to this view Adam stood in a twofold relation to his descendants. He was the natural head of the human race, the progenitor of all the children of men. To this natural relationship God added the covenant relationship, in virtue of which Adam was also the representative head of all his descendants. When he sinned in this representative capacity, the guilt of his sin was naturally imputed to all those whom he represented; and as the result of this they are all born in a corrupt state. This theory explains why the descendants of Adam are responsible only for the one sin which he committed as head of the covenant, why they are not responsible for the sins of their forbears, and why Christ, who is not a human person, does not share in the guilt of Adam.

3. THE THEORY OF MEDIATE IMPUTATION. The last theory proceeds on the assumption that the guilt of Adam's sin is not directly imputed to his descendants, and advocates the following idea: Adam's descendants derive their innate corruption from him by the process of natural generation; and on the basis of that inherent depravity which they share with him they are also considered guilty of his apostasy. They are not born corrupt because they are guilty in Adam, but they are considered guilty because they are born corrupt. If this theory were consistent, it ought to teach the mediate imputation of the sins of all previous generations to those following, for their joint corruption is passed on by generation. Moreover, by holding that our moral corruption is imputed to us as sin, it clearly implies that this corruption would not be guilt, if it were not so imputed; but there is no moral corruption that is not at the same time guilt and that does not make one liable to punishment.

B. Original and Actual Sin. In a general way sin is divided into original and actual sin.

1. ORIGINAL SIN. In virtue of their connection with Adam all men are, after the fall, born in a sinful state and condition. This state is called original sin and is the inward root of all the actual sins that defile the life of man. It contains two elements:

a. Original Guilt. This means that the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to us. Since he sinned as our representative, we are guilty in him. This means that the state in which we are born is one of wilful violation of the law, and that we are therefore by nature liable to punishment. The Arminians of the seventeenth century and the advocates of modern liberal theology both deny that original sin involves original guilt. Yet this is certainly the case according to the plain teachings of Scripture, Rom. 5:12–19; Eph. 2:3.

b. Original Pollution. The descendants of Adam are not only burdened with his guilt, but also inherit from him their moral pollution. They are not only deprived of original righteousness, but also have an inherent positive disposition toward sin. This pollution may be considered from two different points of view:

1) As total depravity. This does not mean that every man is as bad as he can be, cannot do good in any sense of the word, and has absolutely no sense of admiration for the true, the good, and the beautiful; but simply that the inherent corruption extends to every part of man's nature, and that there is in him no spiritual good, that is good in relation to God, at all, but only moral perversion. The total depravity of man is denied by Pelagians, Socinians, and the earlier Arminians, but is clearly taught by Scripture, John 5:42; Rom. 7:18, 23; 8:7; 2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:18; 2 Tim. 3:2–4; Tit. 1:15; Heb. 3:12.

2) As total inability. Here, again, it is necessary to distinguish. Reformed theologians generally maintain that the sinner is still able to perform (a) natural good; (b) civil good or civil righteousness; and (c) externally religious good. He may perform acts and manifest sentiments that deserve the sincere approval and gratitude of their fellow-men, and that even meet in a measure with the approval of God. Yet when these works are considered in relation to God, they are radically defective, since they are not prompted by love to God, nor by any regard for the will of God as requiring them. Moreover, man cannot change his fundamental preference for sin to love for God, nor even make an approach to such a change. There is abundant Scriptural support for this doctrine, John 1:13; 3:5; 6:44; 8:34; 15:4, 5; Rom. 7:18, 24; 8:7, 8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 2:1, 8–10; Heb. 11:6.


a. The Difference Between Actual and Original Sin. The term 'actual sin' denotes not only sins consisting in outward acts, but also all those conscious thoughts and volitions which proceed from original sin. They are the sins which an individual performs, in distinction from his inherited nature and inclination. While original sin is one, actual sins are manifold. They may be sins of the inner life, such as pride, envy, hatred, sensual lusts and evil desires; or sins of the outer life, such as deceit, theft, murder, adultery, and so on. While the existence of original sin has met and is still meeting with widespread denial, the presence of actual sin, at least in some sense of the word, is generally admitted. At the present time, however, many deny that it constitutes guilt, and thus close their eyes to the real sinfulness of sin.

b. The Unpardonable Sin. There are passages of Scripture which speak of a sin that cannot be forgiven, after which a change of heart is impossible, and for which it is not necessary to pray, Matt. 12:31, 32; Mark 3:28–30; Luke 12:10; Heb. 4:4–6; 10:26, 27; 1 John 5:16. It is generally known as the sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This sin consists in the conscious, malicious, and wilful rejection and slandering, against evidence and conviction, of the testimony of the Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Jesus Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity to the prince of darkness. It presupposes in those who commit it a rather profound knowledge of the truth, an inner illumination of the Holy Spirit, and an intellectual conviction of the truth so strong and powerful as to make an honest denial of it impossible. The sin itself then consists not simply in doubting the truth or in a simple denial of it, but in a contradiction of it that goes contrary to the conviction of the mind and to the illumination of the conscience. It is unpardonable, not because its guilt transcends the merits of Christ, or because the sinner is beyond the renewing power of the Holy Spirit; but because it is a sin that excludes all repentance, sears the conscience, and hardens the sinner. In those who have committed this sin we may therefore expect to find a pronounced hatred of God, a defiant attitude to Him and to all that is divine, delight in ridiculing and slandering that which is holy, and absolute unconcern respecting the welfare of their soul and the future life. In view of the fact that this sin is not followed by repentance, we may be reasonably sure that they who fear that they have committed it, who worry about it, and who desire the prayers of others for them, have not committed it.

C. The Universality of Sin. Scripture and experience both teach us that sin is universal. Even Pelagians do not deny this, though they ascribe it to external conditions, such as a bad environment, evil examples, and a wrong kind of education. According to Scripture, however, the explanation for it lies in the fall of Adam and in the imputation of his sin to all his descendants. It may be proved in various ways:

1. The universality of sin is asserted in several direct statements of Scripture. The following are some of the most important passages that come into consideration here: 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:1–12, 19, 20, 23; Gal. 3:22; Jas. 3:2; 1 John 1:8, 10.

2. Several passages of Scripture teach that sin is the heritage of man from the time of his birth, and is therefore present in human nature so early that it cannot possibly be considered as the result of imitation, Ps. 51:5; Job 14:4; John 3:6.

3. Death as the penalty of sin is visited even upon those who have never exercised a personal and conscious choice, Rom. 5:12–14. This passage implies that sin exists, in the case of infants, prior to moral consciousness. Since infants die, and therefore the effect of sin is present in their case, it is but natural to assume that the cause is also present.

4. According to Scripture all men are under condemnation and therefore need the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Children are never made an exception to this rule. This follows from the passages quoted under (1), and also from John 3:3, 5; Eph. 2:3; 1 John 5:12. They all need the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit unto salvation.

Questions for Review:
What different opinions are there respecting the connection between Adam's sin and that of his descendants? What is the realistic theory, and why is it objectionable? How does the doctrine of the covenant of works conceive of the connection between the sin of Adam and our sinful condition? What advantages has this view? What solution of the problem is suggested by the theory of mediate imputation? What objections are there to this solution? What is original sin? What two elements does it include? How should we conceive of man's total depravity? How must his total inability be understood? What is included in actual sin? How does actual sin differ from original sin? What is the nature of the unpardonable sin? Can there be any reasonable doubt as to the universality of sin? What explanation do some offer for this? How does the Bible account for it?

References for Further Study:
Berkhof, Reformed Dogmatics, I, pp. 226–242; Hodge, Outlines of Theology, pp. 325–366; McPherson, Christian Dogmatics, pp. 242–256; Orr, Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine, pp. 100–106; Candlish, The Biblical Doctrine of Sin, pp. 55–81, 90–128.


From Manual of Christian Doctrine by Louis Berkhof


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