Romans 5:12 and Original Sin

Ever since the 1950s’ dialogue between Seventh-day Adventists and evangelicals and the 1957 publication of the book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, there have been a number of huge controversies within Seventh-day Adventism about the nature of sin, the human nature of Christ, and the nature of the atonement (including questions regarding the close of human probation in the heavenly sanctuary and sinlessness in the last generation).

One of the doctrines introduced into Adventism during this time was the doctrine of involuntary guilt, otherwise known as original sin. The sentence that you have just read is very precisely put and, for that, there is a reason. Much confusion surrounds what the teaching of original sin actually is. Is it the doctrine that all men inherit the sin of Adam? Is it merely that we inherit his corrupted, dying nature? Or is it both? All doctrinally faithful Seventh-day Adventists wholeheartedly agree that man has a fallen nature, but does this fallen nature transmit guilt to the recipient of that nature?

It is to the last of the above questions to which many within our church now give opposing answers. For the purposes of this discussion, “original sin” refers to the teaching that Adam’s guilt is transmitted to his descendants via their birth nature. 

Many proponents of original sin within and without our denomination probably will admit that it is at least questionable to build a doctrine of original sin on the Old Testament, with the exception of Psalm 51:5. (For an examination of this verse, visit this article: What Does Psalm 51:5 Teach?. Therefore, let us examine one text that is used conspicuously by these same proponents to support the doctrine of original sin in the New Testament: Romans 5:12. 

“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” (King James Version, Romans 5:12). 

In a letter I received from Elder Dennis E. Priebe, a retired revivalist and Seventh-day Adventist theologian, it was confirmed for me that, based on a Latin Vulgate rendition of this verse, “Augustine translated the [latter] phrase to ‘in whom all sinned’ … .” The idea that all men die and are eternally condemned because all have inherited guilt from Adam is built substantially on this verse, but is this in fact what the verse is teaching?

First of all, as Ángel Manuel Rodríguez of the Adventist Biblical Research Institute website observes in his article, “Romans 5:12,” Paul’s own use of the phrase “all have sinned” indicates personal, actual deeds that the person commits. To evidence this, one simply has to go back into the earlier chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those that rejected God and have descended into moral depravity by their own choices, leading God to give them up to their own desires (1:18-32). In Romans 2, Paul asks questions of those who make boasts of the law while disobeying its precepts and bringing judgement upon themselves by their hypocritical actions in contrast to those that both hear and do the work of the law written on their hearts among the Gentiles (2:13-16). In Romans 3:9-20, Paul speaks of those who have forsaken God and become morally debased by their rejection of God, much like those in Romans 2. It is at the conclusion of the discussion of those people, before speaking of justification by faith, that Paul makes the observation that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). The same Greek phrase “all have sinned” is repeated in Romans 5:12, indicating that Paul is here, once again, speaking of guilt on account of actions, not guilt because of the involuntary receipt of a fallen nature through birth.

So, what is the meaning of Romans 5:12?

I submit that the meaning of this verse is reiterated in the conclusion of the passage (Romans 5:12-21) of which this verse is the introduction. Romans 5:21 reads, “... sin reigned in death …” (New King James Version, Romans 5:21).

We often think of the cause-and-effect relationship between sin and death to always be with sin as the cause and death as the effect—and, granted, it was that way at the entrance of sin. Romans 5:12 says as much, but Hebrews 2:14-15 makes an interesting observation,

“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; [a]nd deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (King James Version).

Are we not held in bondage by our fear of death? Hebrews 2:15 answers that question affirmatively. Who are we held in bondage to? Satan. What are we held in bondage to? Sin. The Book of Romans says, “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (6:6). This is also alternatively translated as, “... in bondage to sin” (American Standard Version, English Revised Version, World English Bible). To put this all together, as the author of the article, “Through One Man Sin Entered—Romans 5:12, 18” does, Satan uses our fear of death to hold us in bondage to himself and to sin. Once that fear of death is removed, sin loses its hold on us because it is Jesus “who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10) and we find our freedom through eternal life in Him (John 8:32; 3:16; 14:6). 

In sum, Romans 5:12 is a perfect complement to Paul’s teaching of how life through Jesus Christ delivers us from captivity to Satan and sin in order to experience true freedom and victory over sin. This is also in harmony with the Bible’s teaching that all are responsible for their own choices (Gen. 4:7; Deut. 24:16; Ez. 18:4, 20), that sin is disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4; cf. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 493) and that guilt is incurred only when knowledge of God’s will is present and willfully neglected and/or disobeyed (John 9:41; 15:22, 24; Acts 17:30; James 4:17; Heb. 10:26).