“I just realized that I don’t understand the concept of original sin. I mean, why did the first sin lead to sin being innate?” – Nicole D.



Hi Nicole! This is a very good question. I appreciate you asking about it because I don’t think we’ve had the chance to address it yet at our site.

The doctrine of original sin deals with the fact that Scripture defines all human beings as sinners. Passages like Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Proverbs 22;15; Ephesians 2:3; etc. seem to show that we are all sinners at birth. If humanity is comprised of sinners then there must be an explanation as to why that is the case; and the theological answer is: We are all sinners by nature. This is reflected in Scripture as Job’s friend Eliphaz asks,“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” The clear suggestion is: There is no man like this; not one (Psalm 14:2-3).

If all people by nature sin then where did this propensity come from? Again, Scripture makes this clear: Adam. “[T]hrough one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12). So the biblical record states that Adam is the cause of our propensity to sin. But what is unclear is how exactly this propensity became (and still becomes) a part of humanity’s nature.

In Christianity there have been several methods to answer this question. I’m going to list two main answers and then discuss which one I lean towards. Some words of caution: I’m only going to give a brief synopsis, Nicole. For further study, I suggest a systematics text (perhaps Grudem’s or Erickson’s) or dictionary of theology. Also, don’t take my particular stance on this issue as a reflection of our team. I took a quick survey yesterday and got a number of different answers.

The two main approaches to answering this question are sometimes referred to as federal or natural headship. Federal headship is the notion that Adam was ordained by God to be our representative. In other words, not only was Adam supposed to act on his behalf but ours as well. Therefore the consequences of his actions would have been passed down to his descendants (i.e. all of us). This means two things: 1) all of us inherit Adam’s corrupt nature simply because we are his children; 2) we are not guilty of Adam’s sin because we did not personally commit the act with him. Rather, we are guilty of Adam’s sin because his sin was imputed to us as his equivalents or correspondents. This idea of guilt by imputation draws a close parallel to the imputation of Christ as our representative for the punishment of our sins (Romans 5:15-17). Arminian’s typically hold to the federal headship position.

Natural headship is the notion that, not only do we inherit our sinful dispositions from Adam, we bear the exact same guilt he had when he disobeyed God in the garden. In other words all of humanity was present in Adam (in germinal or seminal form) when he committed his sin. This means that his sin in the garden was not the action of one individual but the action of all of humanity at once. This notion changes the way we understand humanity, particularly in the U.S. where much of the corporateness of the church has been replaced by the idea of rugged individualism. I’m getting off on a tangent but, for more on this idea, see Logan’s post: “God Never Approved the American Rebel.” Calvinists typically hold to the natural headship position (as did Augustine).

So the answer to your question, Nicole, is that Adam is our parent and we innately possess his corrupted nature simply by being his children.

I do want to take an extra moment and discuss which of the two headships I subscribe to. Truth be told, I’m still chewing on this issue. But I lean toward natural headship, and the reason is purely exegetical. Let me explain.

There is a slight problem with understanding what Paul is driving at in Romans 5:12-19. On the one hand, sin entered the world through one man (v. 12), on the other, sin became universal because all men sinned (v. 12). In the passage, the verb hemarton (sinned) is a simple aorist that always refers to a single, past action. But look at what Paul is saying: “and so death spread to all men, because all hemarton [“sinned” single, past action]” (v. 12). If we look closely, we should note that Paul isn’t saying what we think he is. What we often think he’s saying is, “and so death spread to all men, because all hamartanousin (“sin” present tense, continual)” (v. 12). But that’s not what Paul said. Paul used language to indicate that the sin was a single sin committed by all men in the past and, when you see it parallel with mention of Adam’s action earlier in the same verse, it seems to indicate natural headship.

Now that’s about as far as I can take this. There’s more to say but I’ll stop here. I’m sure an Arminian with a better grasp of the Greek will take issue with my interpretation. But as far as I can tell I have not erred in my exegesis.

Thanks again for the question, Nicole! Anyone with some insight is welcome to weigh in!

Speaker, Educator, President of A Clear Lens, Inc. and host of A Clear Lens Podcast. B.Sc., M.Ed. Lives in Las Vegas with his wife, two sons, and dogs.


  1. This was very helpful to me as well, Nate! For a minute there, I was wondering if you were going to touch on Free Will, but this was good to me!

    Peace & blessings!

  2. Hi, Nate.

    So the answer to your question, Nicole, is that Adam is our parent and we innately possess his corrupted nature simply by being his children.

    1.As the Human Genome Project has dispelled the notion that Adam and Eve were genuine historical people (as per the biblical tale) how do now square away the notion of Original Sin?

    Also ….

    2. As Paul clearly believed Adam was a real person, as did Augustine , who later refined the doctrine of Original Sin, how do you balance an evangelical view of biblical apologetics and Paul’s reliability and trustworthiness in other matters now that we know the facts behind his mistaken belief?

        • Do you think ridicule is really the best way to change someone’s mind? Genuine question. Also, I asked you a question and you sent me an article. Are you not able to answer my question yourself?

          • I am actually shocked, more than anything else.

            I sent you the article out of respect as Coyne is a professional biologist and much better able to convey the facts than I could.

            So, now you have read the article do you better understand the scientific position; that the biblical tale is simply nothing but myth?

          • I’m already well familiar with the issue. What I’m unclear on is why you need to punt to an article instead of conveying the information yourself. If you find it so compelling why not explain it in your own words? Just curious.

          • Because Coyne is a professional. Good grief, why on earth would I try to re-articulate an already perfectly comprehensible piece of literate by one of the most competent people in the field.
            I am going to presume you understood what Jerry Coyne was saying? I did.
            So, have you any thoughts on the article now that you understand why the biblical tale is fiction,or are you still holding to a Granny Smith apple, a talking snake, and some rather dubious incest?
            Come on Nate, for goodness sake!
            We are both adults.
            The Genesis account is a piece of mythological nonsense and you know it.
            Let’s drop the charade and embrace the science, shall we?

          • I’m actually testing a theory, Arkenaten (and I’m beginning to think I’m right). You cite the human genome project as if it were a defeater for the Christian worldview because you don’t fully understand its limitations. So when I ask you specifically how it does, as you said, “disspell” the Christian view, you copy a link to an article instead of explaining how you think it does in your own words. Because you continue to refuse to explain it in your own words, it makes me think you can’t. And if you can’t then I suspect you haven’t given the view enough careful thought. Either way, this conversation is going absolutely nowhere so I think I’ll move on now.

          • The biblical tale relies on a literal understanding of the garden of Eden story, as it also involves fallacious the doctrine of original sin.
            The Torah was written by Jews for Jews and was never intended to
            a: be understood literally and
            b: intended to to be interpreted by Christians and Muslims.
            The Jews do not recognise original sin and t does not feature in Judaism.

            That I fully admit Coyne is far better able to articulate the science should be seen as a mark of respect that I wouldn’t spend an entire thread waffling on about something I am not trained in.
            This does not mean I do not grasp the salient points

            Your refusal to acknowledge the science is indicative of the unfortunate indoctrination you continually display, tinged with a little fear, I suspect that your worldview is not quite build on the solid foundation you originally believed.

          • You could be right about that. For sure. Or it’s possible that you never heard my substantive response to your claim (utilizing DNA evidence) because you refused to do any work yourself. And now you’ll never know which.

          • *Smile*
            I could be right? I reckon it’s a dead cert.
            There is no substantive response from a theological point of view because the foundational tenets of your entire relgious belief are all faith-based.
            So, are you going to accept the science or are you still going to cling to a talking snake and an incestuous family heritage?

          • “There is no substantive response from a theological point of view because the foundational tenets of your entire religious belief are all faith-based.” This is probably the most ignorant statement you’ve made in your short time commenting on our site. Since you clearly are not interested in having a genuine conversation with people who rationally hold differing points of view than you (and you seem immune to making any kind of serious argument for your belief), your time is up here.

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