Righteousness by Faith and the Questions on Doctrine Controversy, Part II: What is “Sin”?

“… He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

In the first instalment in this series of articles, we discussed the book Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (hereafter, Questions on Doctrine), and the history of it. We also discussed the doctrinal revisions that Questions on Doctrine made to certain areas of Seventh-day Adventist theology and the doctrinal issues and controversies associated therewith. One of the doctrines that Questions on Doctrine revised was the doctrine of sin.

Understanding Sin

Any understanding of salvation must be established on a proper concept of sin. For according to the Bible, “JESUS … save[s] His people from their sins.”

So, what is sin?

The Bible defines sin as “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). The law by which sin is judged is identified as the Ten Commandments in the following passages:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet (Romans 7:7).

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law (James 2:10, 11).

There is only one law in the Bible wherein is contained the command not to murder, commit adultery, and covet—the law of Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17). This law is the ground of God’s government and the supreme standard by which we are judged (Romans 3:19-21) (1). Of course there are other laws by which we are to abide, but the Ten Commandments are the primary law to which the New Testament refers as defining sin.

So a person sins when disobeying God’s law, and becomes a sinner if and when they do so. This is much different from the concept that people sin because they were born sinners, as evangelicals believe. Where does this latter concept come from?

Questions on Doctrine and Original Sin

This concept comes from a Calvinist understanding of the doctrine of sin that was accepted by certain of our brethren in the game-changing book, Questions on Doctrine (2) (3). This doctrine of sin—otherwise known as “original sin”—incorporates both the sinful nature and imputed or inherited guilt. In essence, this doctrine teaches that we are born sinners before we ever make a conscious choice to sin (4). However, according to the Bible, no one is responsible for any one’s sin but their own—including that of ancestors and descendants:

The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die...The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him (Ezekiel 18:1-4, 20). (Emp. added.)

These emboldened verses above are merely a repetition of the command of God in Deuteronomy 24:15.

The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for their fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin (Deuteronomy 24:15).

The Bible is absolutely unequivocal on this point: each person is responsible for his own sin, and no one is punished for someone else’s sin.

Problem Solving

Though the Bible is clear on this point, there are passages in Scripture that are often used to support the idea that we are born sinners and thus guilty before we ever consciously choose to sin—namely, Romans 5:12 and Psalm 51:5. And so, the Scriptural exhortation to compare Scripture with Scripture is abandoned for the sake of one or two Scriptures that seem to teach in opposition to the totality of divine revelation.

Romans 5:12 states, “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.” The first part of the verse is quite clear, but some have interpreted the latter part of the verse (“death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”) to prove that death is our punishment because we have sinned in Adam and have thus inherited his guilt. Is this what this verse teaches?

Not if Deuteronomy 24:15 and Ezekiel 18:1-4, 20 are true! Besides this, Romans 3:23 uses this same phrase “all have sinned,” and this verse is part of an argument developed in chapters 1 and 2 wherein Paul is chastising both Jews and Gentiles for being guilty before God because of their choices! (5) Therefore, we must seek another answer.

Romans 5:12 states that “death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (italics added). Death passed upon all men because all have sinned. The death that passed upon all men in Romans 5 is eternal, not temporal, as the immediate and extended context of the passage (Romans 5:12-21) indicates (6) (7). Therefore, this verse constitutes a refutation of original sin, rather than a supporting text.

Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me” (N.K.J.V.). This verse does not teach involuntary guilt either. Taken at face-value, it is simply stating the obvious—that we are all conceived by sinful parents and brought forth into this broken world that is steeped in sin (8).

How is Guilt Acquired?

Sin is the transgression of the law (I John 3:4), but when and how do we become accountable for the breaking of this law? Sin is sin. If you transgress against God’s law, you are a sinner—man, woman, or child. However, we are only accountable for our sin when we know God’s will and walk contrary to it. James spells this out very well:

Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin (James 4:17). (Emp. added.)

According to Jesus, those who rejected Him were only sinners because He came and performed “mighty works” in front of them (John 9:41; 15:22, 24), else they “had not had sin.” In Romans 7:10, Paul did not experience spiritual death until confronted with God’s law. God also winks at sins committed in ignorance (Acts 17:30). In short, we are only held guilty for sin when we knowingly transgress a divine command.

The “Demon” Inside

To be sure, sin has indeed corrupted human nature, as it has all of Creation (Romans 8:20). We are all born physically dying—as are plants and animals—which is a consequence of sin (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12). This is part of the fallen nature we all possess. In addition, we are “born with weaknesses and tendencies to evil” (9), as we partially addressed in my last article. There is a force within our flesh that drives us toward the forbidden; this is why our flesh is called “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), having a “law of sin” (7:25). Galatians states this:

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (5:19-21).

“The works of the flesh” are the deeds that the flesh does, is drawn to, and is characterized by. Without the Holy Spirit’s “striv[ing]” (Genesis 6:3), sinful men would not be able to control themselves. This corruption of human nature is also seen in the Old Testament:

Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7).

In addition, man’s heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). The Holy Writ also said, “[T]he imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21). Hence, man’s fallen predisposition to evil.

However, a damaged human nature with tendencies to sin is not sin itself. According to the book of James, sin is what happens when we yield to temptation:

[E]very man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (1:14, 15).

If our tendencies or proclivities to sin were synonymous with sin itself, Jesus could not be our Saviour, for He would be a sinner simply by virtue of allowing His human nature to be tempted (cf. Hebrews 2:18; 4:15, 16). Furthermore, there is never an excuse for yielding to temptation, for Paul wrote,

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it (I Corinthians 10:13).

Ellen White concurs:

The light of life is freely proffered to all. Every one who will may be guided by the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. Christ is the great remedy for sin. None can plead their circumstances, their education, or their temperament as an excuse for living in rebellion against God. Sinners are such by their own deliberate choice (10). (Emp. added.)

Righteousness by Faith and the Voluntary Nature of Sin

We are all sinners by choice, and it is because of these choices to rebel against God that we are condemned before Him (Romans 3:19-21). The just punishment for our sin is eternal death in the lake of fire (Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8), as it would have been for our forefather Adam had not Christ our Lord immediately offered up His life in his place (13:8). Becoming a human babe, the Lord Jesus clothed His divinity with humanity. Empowered by the Holy Spirit by which He was conceived in His mother’s womb, He lived a life of perfect righteousness for 33 years (Matthew 1:18; II Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). Then, He offered His righteous life up as an offering for our sin in return for the guilt of the entire world on the cross (II Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 53:6; I Peter 2:25). Bearing the weight of the world’s sin on His shoulders, He was crushed within the winepress of God’s wrath and died a horrible, excruciating death—the death that we rightly deserve (Isaiah 53:10; Revelation 14:19).

Having satisfied the wrath of God, He slept in the tomb on the Sabbath and rose to life on the third day (I Corinthians 15:4; Romans 4:25), that believing souls who confess and forsake their sins, believing on His name, may receive eternal life and have His righteous life reckoned to them and their sins washed away through His shed blood (Proverbs 28:13; John 3:26; Romans 6:23; 4:5; I John 1:7, 9; Revelation 7:14, N.I.V.). Trusting in the merits of His righteousness by faith, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow His sinless example (I Peter 2:21, 22; Romans 8:4), thus receiving their “right to the tree of life,” by which they “may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14).


In conclusion, sin is a choice—the transgression of God’s law (I John 3:4), and guilt is incurred only when knowledge of God’s requirements are present and are disobeyed and/or neglected. Though born with a sinful nature, we must yield to this nature’s tendencies in order to sin. We are not born sinners.


  1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 493.
  2. Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1957), pp. 406-408. Reproduced by permission at “Questions on Doctrine -- The Book,” SDAnet, n.d.
  3. Original Sin in the Prepublication Draft of Questions on Doctrine” [PDF], Advent Hope Atlanta, n.d.
  4. GotQuestions Ministries, “What is original sin?,” GotQuestions Ministries, n.d.; cf. GotQuestions Ministries, “Did we all inherit sin from Adam and Eve?,” GotQuestions Ministries, n.d.
  5. Ángel Manuel Rodríguez, “Romans 5:12,” Adventist Biblical Research Institute, 1999.
  6. Kevin Paulson, “The Brinsmead Heresy and Last Generation Theology, Part 2,” ADvindicate, November 18, 2016.
  7. Mentone Seventh-[d]ay Adventist Church, “12/11/2015 ‘Are We Born Sinners?’ | Elder Kevin Paulson” [Video], YouTube, December 11, 2015.
  8. Kyle Pope, “What Does Psalm 51:5 Teach?,” Ancient Road Publications, n.d.
  9. General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “28 Fundamental Beliefs (2015 Edition)” [PDF], Official website of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, July 2015, 7; cf. Ellen G. White, Education, p. 29.
  10. Ellen G. White, From the Heart, p. 151.


Richard Sheppard, 23, is a Bachelor of Arts student in religious studies at Burman University in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.


All Scriptures unless otherwise noted are from the King James Version of the Holy Bible.

All Scriptures cited “N.K.J.V.” are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.