by Elder Dennis Priebe
I have become convinced, during the past fifteen years of disagreement and even controversy on the subject of righteousness by faith, that most of the erroneous views of the gospel stem from a faulty understanding of sin. Specifically, the crucial issue is why human beings stand condemned as sinners in the sight of God. Are we condemned sinners because we are born with fallen natures in a sinful world, or are we condemned sinners because we have chosen to exercise our fallen natures in a rebellious way against God's will? Depending on the answer given to this question, two quite different versions of the gospel are taught. The meanings of justification, the new birth, and sanctification are different depending on the answer to this question. Differing beliefs are held about our relation to God while we are involved in personal sins and about whether we can have victory over those sins.
I do not believe that we are condemned, lost sinners because we are born with fallen natures in a sinful world. However, this is the standard, orthodox belief about sin in the Christian world. In this article I wish to examine some of the inspired evidence which is used to support the belief that we are born into this world as lost sinners. Some of this evidence seems quite compelling, but I believe that there is a bigger picture from inspiration which is often overlooked.
Perhaps the text most often used to prove that we are sinners from birth is Psalm 51:5:
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Notice that David does not say that he was a sinner from birth. Some Bible versions say this, but that is a theological interpretation rather than a correct translation. Where else could David have been born except in iniquity and sin? His mother and father were sinners, and he was born in pain because of the sin of Adam and Eve. David was born in a sinful world to sinful parents. If a child would happen to be born in a family of thieves, where thievery was practiced and taught by the parents, he would be born in thievery. Would this in itself make him a thief? Likewise, to be born in sin does not automatically constitute one a lost and condemned sinner. It does mean that one's circumstances from birth are extremely undesirable, and that one is most likely to end up a sinner.
Another text is Ephesians 2:3, which says that we "were by nature the children of wrath." This clearly says that our fallen natures deserved nothing but wrath. Our fallen natures are not righteous, and the only just response to our natures is destruction. Our inheritance from Adam is definitely not good.
Then there is Romans 5:12-19, which contrasts what we receive from the first and second Adam. It could hardly be clearer than in verse 18. "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation." This text states rather unequivocally that all men are condemned because of Adam's sin. I believe that this is exactly what the text means. Paul is too clear to be misunderstood.
There are several statements from the Spirit of Prophecy which say just about the same thing. "Adam sinned, and the children of Adam share his guilt and its consequences." (Faith and Work, p. 88) "The inheritance of children is that of sin. Sin has separated them from God... As related to the first Adam, men receive from him nothing but guilt and the sentence of death." (Manuscript Releases, vol. 9, p. 236) "Fallen human beings... were heirs of guilt, under sentence of eternal death." (Ibid., vol. 12, p. 61) "These dear children received from Adam an inheritance of disobedience, of guilt and death." (Ibid., vol. 13, p. 14)
These statements are also quite clear. Those who are born into this sinful world receive from Adam guilt, sin, separation, and eternal death. Many have concluded that the evidence is clear that we stand under condemnation from our birth, and that we are sinners by inheritance from Adam. I believe that these statements mean exactly what they seem to say, that this whole world and every person born into it justly deserve nothing but condemnation.
But has the whole story been told? Or is this only half of the total picture? Do we need to look a little further before coming to final conclusions on this subject?
There are some rather unique texts in the New Testament which speak of Christ's work for the whole race of mankind. Normally we read of how the atonement applies to the individual sinner, but sometimes the focus is broadened to include all mankind. One of these texts is 2 Corinthians 5:14. "If one died for all, then were all dead." In some very important sense Christ's death affected all human beings. That includes Adam and Eve, and it even includes Cain and Hitler. In some way all were dead because of the atonement of Christ.
Another text is 1 Timothy 4:10, which says that God "is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe." God's work for mankind reaches deeper than saving those who believe in Christ. 1 John 2:2 drives the point home. "And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." Christ’s redeeming work includes not only the sins of those who have repented and believed in Christ, but He has done something for all the sins that have ever been committed.
One of the clearest texts is 2 Corinthians 5:19. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." The work of the atonement was a work of reconciliation--a removing of barriers to fellowship and love. Christ's death reconciled all men to God. In other words, there were no hindrances on God's part to the restoration of Edenic unity and harmony. Now the only barrier would be on man's part, if he refused to accept what Christ had done for him.
Now we will return to the text which speaks most clearly of the damage Adam did to the human race--Romans 5:18. This time we must read all of the verse. "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." How many were condemned automatically because of Adam's sin? All men. What about those who have never even heard of Adam and who have never heard of the Biblical record of creation and the fall? Are they still born under condemnation? All men--the human race--were legally destroyed by Adams sin. Irrespective of knowledge or choice, every human being was doomed by Adam's rebellion.
But is that the whole story? Right in one verse we have the complete picture. Not only were all men affected by Adam's sin, but all men were affected by Christ's life and death. The same "all men" who were doomed by Adam's sin were freed from condemnation by Christ's righteousness. To put it simply, what Adam did to the human race, Christ undid for the same human race. But what about those who have never heard of Christ and the Biblical record of the atonement? Do they still receive the free gift? All men--the human race--were legally reconciled to God by Christ's life and death. Irrespective of knowledge or choice, every human being was reconciled by Christ's atonement.
Some are confused about the word "justification" which is given to all men. One of the meanings of the word is "acquittal," which means being cleared of charges brought against one. Justification is used in this sense in Romans 3:4, where God is justified when He is judged. Obviously God does not need forgiveness, but He does need to be acquitted--cleared of the false charges Satan has brought against Him. In Romans 5 all mankind is acquitted of the correct charge of rebellion which has been brought against the human race. In other words, the race--and all individuals in the race--are no longer under condemnation.
There are some significant statements from the Spirit of Prophecy on this point. "He restored the whole race of men to favor with God." (1SM 343) "The fallen race uplifted from the pit of ruin into which sin had plunged them, and brought again into connection with the infinite God." (ST 745) "Though earth was struck off from the continent of heaven and alienated from its communion, Jesus has connected it again with the sphere of glory." (ST Nov. 24, 1887) "Christ has thrown His divine arm around the human race." (RH June 11, 1889)
These statements all address the situation of the human race as a whole, just as the Biblical texts did. The whole race had been cut off from heaven and separated from God by the sin of Adam, but Jesus restored the same human race to favor with God. All men are brought again into connection with God. Clearly we are not born separated from God, as is claimed by those who believe we are born lost and condemned. Because of Adam's sin, we suffer' under many of the curses of sin, one of which is inheriting a fallen nature, but this in itself does not constitute separation, condemnation, or lostness. While these inspired statements do not say that we are born in a righteous or holy state, they do say that we begin life connected in some important way to God. At the very least they mean that we do not stand condemned from birth for the sin of Adam or for our sinful inheritance. Corporate condemnation through Adam is cancelled by corporate acquittal through Christ.
We have even more specific information about how and when this acquittal entered the picture for humanity. In Genesis 2:17, God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the forbidden tree they would die in that day. "Why was not the death penalty at once enforced in his case? Because a ransom was found. God's only begotten Son volunteered to take the sin of man upon himself, and to make an atonement for the fallen race." (1BC 1082) Why didn't Adam, and thus every member of the human race, die immediately'? Because, that very day, the plan of redemption was put into effect.
"The instant man accepted the temptations of Satan, and did the very things God had said he should not do, Christ. the Son of God, stood between the living and the dead, saying, 'Let the punishment fall on Me. I will stand in man's place. He shall have another chance.'" (1BC 1085). At the instant of Adam's sin, before he knew anything about the horrible future of mankind due to his decision, and most importantly, before he repented of his sin, Christ stepped into the picture. He stood between the living (the heavenly universe) and the dead (the human race), and He took the punishment of death upon Himself. Now this act of Christ was not about personal salvation for Adam and Eve--that would come after their repentance and the offering of a personal sacrifice for their sin. Christ was dealing with the legal condemnation that had just come upon the human race. Jesus freed the race from the condemnation brought upon it by Adam's sin, just as we read in Romans 6:18. No human being would ever bear the condemnation brought upon the race by Adam, for when Christ paid the penalty for sin, it was paid for all eternity. Yet countless Christians today believe that we are born under condemnation because of Adam's sin, in effect, denying the power of Christ's atoning blood to adequately deal with Adam's sin. When Christ stepped into the Garden of Eden that day, He gave Adam and the human race a second chance to decide for or against God. Adam and the human race were given temporary life in order to make a decision about eternal life.
"As soon as there was sin, there was a Saviour... .As soon as Adam sinned, the Son of God presented Himself as surety for the human race, with just as much power to avert the doom pronounced upon the guilty as when He died upon the cross of Calvary." (1BC 1064). Once again we see that there is a Saviour before repentance, which means that we are not dealing with salvation and eternal life. Jesus stepped in here on behalf of the human race. As soon as there was sin (condemnation for all men), there was a Saviour (justification of life for all men). This means that every baby born into this world already has a Saviour, who has dealt with the problem of Adam's guilt and condemnation, so that the baby does not come into the world bearing that condemnation. Adam and the human race were not left for even one second all alone under the penalty of sin and its condemnation. At the moment of Adam's sin, Christ was there to save the race from destruction.
It may be well to note here that we are not talking about justification by faith or believing in Jesus or repentance or the new birth. If Adam was to have any chance for eternal life, he would have to go through all these steps, as will any child after the age of accountability. These are steps in personal salvation. What we are dealing with in the inspired statements we have read is how God solved the problem of a race under condemnation and in dire threat of total destruction.
Now we can look at total picture. Did all men receive guilt and condemnation and the sentence of death from Adam? Is that the legal inheritance of all children? Absolutely. All the statements quoted under "The First Adam" are literally true. Adam can give us only condemnation and death. He has no life or hope to offer us. The question of the ages is, Were all men really freed from that condemnation 'in Jesus Christ? Most Christian theology, including the current Evangelical gospel, says no to that question. In spite of what Christ did on the cross; in spite of what He did in the Garden for Adam and Eve, most Christians believe that we come into the world bearing Adam's condemnation--that we are lost sinners from birth. An entire gospel system is based on this false belief, which should make us rightly suspicious of the teachings of this gospel, as they relate to justification, sanctification, and the assurance of personal salvation.
But if it is true that we are all condemned through Adam, it is far more importantly true that we are all freed from that condemnation through Christ. If the first part is true, than the glorious truth is that the second part is just as true. Just as Adam condemned all men, Jesus freed all men from condemnation, both without personal involvement or choice, and both at the same instant of time. All human beings were given a second chance to make up their own minds about the gift of personal salvation.
Some would like to suggest that we must divide Romans 5:18 into two chronological parts. First we are under condemnation through Adam, and then later we are freed from that condemnation. That is a little like asking whether the front of a coin comes before the back of a coin. If we could slice the coin in half and separate them in time, that might be a possibility. But the reality is that when we cut the front of a coin from the back of a coin, the coin no longer exists. The only way the coin has value as money is when the front and back are Joined together, both in time and space. The only way the plan of redemption can have any value is when the front of the coin--Adam's coin--is inseparably connected with the back of the coin--Christ's atonement. It is impossible to speak of a time in the history of sin on this planet when the atonement did not alter' what sin had done to us. Therefore we cannot speak of condemnation through Adam without immediately speaking of how Christ altered that condemnation. It is false theology to split corporate condemnation and corporate acquittal into two separate compartments, first analyzing one part and then examining the other part. Christ's entrance into the Garden of Eden forever altered, for all men, the guilt and condemnation that Adam handed to the human race.
Some believe that the inspired statements under "The First Adam" are enough to prove that we are all born under condemnation because of Adam's sin. But, as shown above, those statements alone are not enough. What we must have, if it really is true that we are born into this world as lost sinners, is a clear inspired statement that we stand condemned because of Adam's sin. Without this statement, there is no support for the belief that we are born lost sinners. It is not enough to prove that we receive guilt from Adam or that our inheritance is separation from God. All these statements can tell us is what we have rightly received from the first head of the race. What is far more important is what we have received from the second and real Head of the race, and how that has altered forever what the first head would have given us.
The practical reality of all of this is that while we are born in a sinful world with a fallen nature, we are not born lost sinners. We become lost sinners later by wilfully choosing to sin when we know the difference between right and wrong. E. J. Waggoner summarized it well in these words: "Not that men are born into the world directly condemned by the law, for in infancy, they have no knowledge of right and wrong and are incapable of doing either, but they are born with sinful tendencies, owing to the sins of their ancestors." (ST Jan. 21, 1889)
Another way of saying it is that we inherit character traits, not all of which are positive. Then character is developed in the very young child by the interaction of parents and the child together. Up to this point there are sinful habits being formed to some degree, but there is no personal guilt or condemnation. At some point character is chosen by the individual, which is the point of personal accountability and guilt for wrong choices. Here is where personal sin enters the picture. "The thoughts and feelings combined make up the moral character." (ST 310) It is the character that determines our condemnation or salvation, not our inherited nature. If we are saved, we will take our character to heaven exactly as we developed it on earth, while our nature will be totally recreated. In the matter of the gospel, the focus must always be on character development, which is the result of many personal choices. Sin and salvation always have to do with the character, not with inherited nature.