The Doctrine of Original Sin – Truth or Myth?

Within Christianity there are several different views of the doctrine of original sin. The three predominate views are the Roman Catholic (RC), the Eastern Orthodox (EO) and the Reformed. The RC and Reformed views are Augustinian (i.e. based on the doctrine as formulated by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century), with some differences in the details between them. The EO view is decidedly not Augustinian. The four main assertions of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin are:

1.The guilt of Adam is transferred to all of his descendants, making every person alienated from God (i.e. spiritually dead) and condemned to eternal judgment at birth. In this view original sin is a state into which all are born.

2. All are born with a sin nature whereby we are unable to do any good toward our salvation.

3. Through the fall of Adam and the inheriting of a sin nature man has lost free will so that his will is enslaved to sin and hence man is only free to sin but not to do good.

4. All are born mortal, i.e. physical death is certain for every person.

As stated above, both the RC and Reformed churches hold the Augustinian view. In Reformed churches numbers 2 & 3 are part of what is called the doctrine of Total Depravity. This is the idea that man is so corrupted in all that he is that he can do nothing toward his own salvation and must be saved by a unilateral or monergistic act of God. In the RC view man is considered depraved but not totally depraved; he is born inclined to sin but not enslaved to sin. Regarding number 1 above, the Reformed Church fully accepts Augustine’s concept of transferred guilt. The RC view is different. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all humans.

Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”.

As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called “concupiscence”).

So the RC view, at least presently, is a modified or softened form of Augustine’s doctrine, in which man is born “deprived of the original holiness and justice” that Adam had received from God prior to the fall but not born with the guilt of Adam’s sin charged to his account. What this amounts to is that all are born with the sin nature which inclines them to sin.

The EO view is much simpler – man does not inherit Adam’s guilt or a sin nature whereby he is enslaved to sin. Rather, humanity inherits the consequence of Adam’s sin which is physical death; man is deprived of the immortality that could have been his. This is the extent to which man’s nature has been corrupted. Along with this condition man is born into a fallen world in which everything is subject to decay, so that each man is in a constant fight for survival which engenders a self-seeking attitude which plunges him into sin.

So we could say that the Reformed Church is fully Augustinian, the RC church is semi-Augustinian and the EO is anti-Augustinian.

Though I had formerly held to a more Augustinian view, simply because it is the view I inherited or was indoctrinated into, I have now come to a view much like that of the EO church, which I see as the most biblical view. In the remainder of this study we will look at the scriptural support for this view, which I will refer to as the Inherited Mortality (IM) view, and show why the supposed scriptural support for the Augustinian view fails.

Death – The Consequence Of Sin – The Consequence Of Death

Rom. 5:12 – “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and so death spread to all men, on which account all have sinned.”

This is the key passage which Augustine used as a proof text for his doctrine. The underlined words represent the words of the Greek text eph’ ho. There has been much debate as to the proper translation of this phrase, with each side claiming that the grammar supports their view better. I do not think the grammar is going to resolve the issue; it is more a matter of interpretation based on the context. The three ways of understanding eph’ ho are:

1. It refers back to ‘one man‘ and so is translated ‘in whom‘ all have sinned, and so means that all sinned in Adam. This was Augustine’s understanding and is also that of the Reformed churches.
2. It refers to ‘all have sinned‘ and so is translated “because all have sinned.” This would mean that death comes to all men because all men have sinned personally. This is more of the RC view.
3. It refers back to ‘death spread to all men‘ and so is translated ‘on account of which‘ or ‘because of which‘, and so would mean that because of the fact that death spread to all men, all men have sinned. This is the EO view.

Number one is the most untenable since eph does not mean ‘in’ and ho is a neuter pronoun, which makes it unlikely to be referring to Adam. Two and three are both possible renderings of the Greek, but two seems unlikely because this would mean that each person dies a natural death1 because of their own sin. But Paul appears to be arguing that natural death comes to all men, even to those who have not sinned. This is the point of his parenthetical statement in vv. 13-14: “for before the law was given sin was in the world, but sin is not charged to one’s account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who did not sin after the likeness of Adam’s transgression (i.e. by breaking a commandment) . . .” If the sins of people between the time of Adam and Moses were not charged to their account, and natural death is the direct result of one’s personal sin, then why did these people die? Paul seems to be saying that they died as a direct consequence of Adam’s sin. He states this explicitly in vv. 15-18:

” 15 . . . For if the many died by the trespass of the one man . . . 16 . . . the judgment followed one sin (of Adam) and brought condemnation (i.e. the sentence of death) 17 . . . For if by the trespass of the one man death reigned through that one man . . .” 18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation (i.e. the sentence of death) for all men . . . “

Romans 5:15-18

Now there are many passages in scripture which seem to imply that death is the direct result of one’s personal sin, such as Ezek. 18; Rom. 1:32; 6:16, 21, 23; 7:5; 8:6, 13; James 1:15. But this can be explained by the fact that in these passages death refers not to natural death but to death either as a direct judgment from God for one’s sins (such as in the case of Korah and his followers in Num. 16 and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) or as the ultimate and final destruction that comes to one as a direct consequence of his sin. The death that Paul is referring to in Romans 5 is natural death that comes to all men and is not a direct result of one’s own sins. This is why infants and children die, even though they have committed no sin. This is the first death, which is inherited by all from Adam and from which all shall be awakened in the resurrection. Once awakened, all will stand before the tribunal of God to give an account of themselves. Those who are saved in Messiah shall live forever, never to die again; those who are not saved will be sentenced to die, for the second time, but this time for their own sin and rebellion. From this second death there is no awaking, it is an everlasting judgment, a perishing. Therefore, we can conclude that sin and death are inextricably involved in a circular relationship. Because of Adam’s sin, death, i.e. mortality, is inherited by every person born, guaranteeing their own natural death. This mortality then breeds personal sin in us, which, through habitual practice, enslaves us. This personal sin, unless repented of, will inevitably lead to one’s final destruction after the resurrection and final judgment.

So then, if Paul is saying, and it certainly appears that he is, that all men die because of Adam’s sin then this would rule out number two as the best way to understand eph ho in Rom. 5:12. This makes the third option preferable, i.e. that all have become sinners because of the fact that death is a part of our nature which is inherited from Adam. It is not that we are born sinners or born with a nature that can only sin, but rather because we have inherited a corruption in our nature i.e. mortality, and death is the inevitable prospect of every person, this leads men into sin. I will elaborate on this later.

Spiritual Death?

There are many commentators as of late who have come to recognize the validity of the translation of eph ho as “because of which” and so understand that Paul is saying that the result of death spreading to all men is that all men become sinners. But in order to maintain the idea that men are born with a sin nature and even with the guilt of Adam’s sin charged to there account, they make death in Rom. 5:12 to mean spiritual death. They then define this spiritual death as a separation or alienation from God, a condition which is inherited from Adam. Therefore, all are born in this state of spiritual death and so will inevitably sin. But this seems to me to be an ad hoc argument. Why should we understand the word death in this way? The Greek word for death, thanatos, appears four times in vv. 12-21 of Rom. 5 and not once is it modified by the adjective spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos). In fact pneumatikos occurs 26 times in the NT, while thanatos occurs 120 times in the NT. Yet there is not even one occurrence of the adjective pneumatikos being used to modify the noun thanatos. Yet many today see the concept of spiritual death (SD) in almost every occurrence of thanatos.

Another passage which is supposed to clearly teach the concept of spiritual death is Gen. 3, in the account of the fall. In 2:16-17 God had told Adam that he could eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Eve reiterates this warning from God when she is tempted to eat from the forbidden tree {3:2-3}. Proponents of the SD doctrine see in this a sure proof of that doctrine. They argue that since Adam did not die physically on the day he ate of the tree then he must have died in some other sense, i.e. spiritually. This SD is defined as separation from God or the lose of spiritual life in the soul. Also some proponents of this view see further confirmation of it in the Hebrew behind the English phrase “you will surely die.” The Hebrew has mowt tamut which can be literally translated as “dying you shall die.” It is asserted that man died spiritually that day and then eventually died physically. But is there anything in the broader context of the passage that confirms this understanding? Not at all. In 3:16-19, when God confronts the man and his wife about their disobedience, nothing is said about them being deprived of life in their soul or about being separated from God. To the woman he said that he would multiply her sorrow and her conception and that she would bring forth children in pain. This sorrow and pain was not simply physical but involved the knowledge that she was bearing children who were destined to die, and in fact, she may even personally experience the death of her children, as Eve certainly did with Abel. To the man God said that he would be in a life-long struggle to provide the necessary sustenance for his family and himself, until the day he returns to the ground, i.e. dies. Later in the passage, at 3:22-24 man is banished from the garden so that he will not be able to eat of the tree of life and live forever, thus consigning man to mortality. It appears from ch 4 that they still carried on a relationship with God and so did their children.  In fact, in the subsequent material, after the account of the fall, while man’s relationship to God, his surroundings, and other humans is altered in a negative sense, there is not the total separation from God that spiritual death proponents declare is the result of Adam’s sin. Yet it is the common belief that as a result of Adam’s sin all human’s are born in a state of spiritual death, i.e. separated from God. But after Adam’s sin we still see God conversing with the man and his offspring, in chapters 3 & 4. Though the relationship with God is strained it does not seem like a total break in the relationship occurs. The concept of SD is no where to be found here.

The phrase “dying you shall die” which consists of the double use of the word muth (= to die) is an idiom which is used some dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible and always refers to physical death. It is meant to convey the certainty of death, as in  Gen. 20:7; 26:11; Ex. 19:12; Num. 26:65; Judges 13:22; 2 Sam. 12:14; 1 Kings 2:37. That God said “in the day that you eat from it” need not imply the man would actually die on that specific day but rather that from that day he should know that death was his inevitable end.

So it appears that the concept of SD is a myth devised to bolster the claim of Augustine that the guilt of Adam’s sin has been transferred to all of his descendants. Death in the scripture should always be understood, unless the context demands otherwise, in it’s most natural sense i.e. the cessation of life. This is described in scripture as the breath of life departing from a person and them returning to the ground {see Gen 3:19; Job 7:21; 34:15; Ps. 90:3; 104:29; Eccle. 3:18-21}. Of course, there are places in scripture in which death is used figuratively or metaphorically {see Lk. 15:24, 32; Rev. 3:1} and death is even spoken of proleptically {see Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13; Rom. 8:10}, but never does the word death necessitate the meaning of spiritual death. When commentators speak of death in this way, in any given passage, they are simply reading that concept into the passage. For more on the subject of spiritual death see here.

What about Eph. 2:1-3, isn’t this referring to spiritual death? Doesn’t this passage teach that all men are born alienated from God because of Adam’s sin? Ephesians 2:1-3 says nothing at all about all people being born in a condition of SD due to Adam’s sin; this is a purely theological concept that has been foisted upon this passage. Note that the cause of the state of being ‘dead‘ is “your transgressions and sins” rather than Adam’s one sin. So then the death spoken of here cannot refer to SD, that supposed alienation from God into which all are born because of Adam’s sin, but must instead refer to a death which is the result of the transgressions and sins which each individual commits throughout their life. The death spoken of here is that final destruction of sinners (note the difference between this verse and Rom. 5:12-21, which speaks of the first death, the result, not of our own sins, but of Adam’s one sin). Because of our own transgressions and sins we were dead, i.e. doomed to die an everlasting death after the judgment. Paul speaks of this proleptically2 to convey the thought of the certainty of death resulting from the way of life described in v. 2. There is nothing here about having been born in such a state. Now v. 3 is usually taken to denote that this is a condition of birth, based on the phrase “we were, by nature, children of wrath.”  First off, the word ‘children‘ does not signify infants, making this appear to teach a condition of birth. “Children of wrath” should be understood as a Semitic idiom meaning “a people destined for wrath.” Second, “by nature” does not necessarily mean ‘by birth’ but rather should be understood as ‘by the nature of things,’ i.e. by the nature of the fact that we lived “in the desires of our flesh and practicing the inclinations of the flesh.” Wrath was the natural result or outcome of our behavior and this wrath consisted of death, forever.

Mortality Results In Sin

Now let’s look at the scriptural support for the Inherited Mortality view.

In addition to what we saw in Romans 5:12-18, we have another explicit statement by Paul showing the correlation between Adam’s sin and the mortality of the human race:

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so in Messiah all will be made alive.”

Now I am not aware of any other explicit statement in either the Hebrew Bible or the NT which connects man’s mortality with Adam’s sin, so from where did Paul derive this idea? The only possible place from which he could have derived this idea is the story of man’s fall in Genesis 3. Adam was told by God not to eat from the forbidden tree or he would certainly die {Gen. 2:15-17}, and then after disobeying this command the Lord pronounced his judgment in these terms:

“. . . By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Gen 3:19

Nothing in the text explicitly says that all of Adam’s descendants would suffer the same fate, but Paul must have extrapolated that it was so, based on the fact that this has indeed been the experience of all men ever since Adam and that in Jewish thought a man’s descendants are inextricably involved in the destiny of their patriarchal forebear. Another factor which may have contributed to Paul’s thinking on this is the reality that infants and young children die without having committed any personal sin. If natural death were indeed the direct result of one’s own sin then the death of children is inexplicable.

While there are no other explicit statements in scripture connecting man’s mortality with the sin of Adam, there are statements which speak to the universality of death, such as Ps. 89:48:

“What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of Sheol.”

Other passages which attest to the universality of death are Num. 16:29; Ps. 22:29; 49:7-12; Eccl. 3:2, 18-20 and Is. 40:6-8

Next we will look at 1 Cor. 15:56 -57 – “The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here Paul tells us that the sting of death is sin. If Paul had intended to mean that sin causes death would he not have said “the sting of sin is death?” Now that would be true in respect to Adam’s sin, which resulted in death for all men. But here Paul’s point seems to be that the fact of our mortality, i.e the certainty of death, has an effect upon us and that effect is sin. Paul says this after a lengthy discussion about the resurrection from the dead and the believers hope of exchanging this perishable, mortal body for an imperishable, immortal body. It is the assurance of this ultimate victory over death that enables us to have victory over sin now.

Heb. 2:15 – “[. . . by his death] he might free those who, by fear of death, were all their lives held in slavery.

At first glance it may look like the author is saying that people were held in slavery to the fear of death, but this is not the only or even the best way to understand the passage. We can take the fear of death as the cause of the slavery rather than as the object of the slavery. Since in the NT, the predominate thought in the figurative use of slavery is slavery to sin {see Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:15-20; 7:14; 2 Pet.2:19}, we can understand the verse to be saying that through the fear of death men become slaves to sin. This is because the natural impulses and inclinations of the body become twisted and distorted due to the fact that man has been thrust into a decaying world in a decaying body. When one then consistently yields to these twisted impulses he becomes enslaved to them. In this sense, fear of death need not be understood as the fear of the act or the event of dying but rather as the odious awareness of one’s mortality, and hence of the brevity of life, and a wish to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

In Rom. 5:20-21 Paul gives further elucidation of what he touched on in vv.13-14:

20. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase”

Though Paul’s thought is somewhat hard to follow, what I take him to mean is that before the law, the only sin that could be counted as a trespass was Adam’s sin, because he sinned against a direct command of God. Though righteous men may have committed what could certainly be called sin before the law was given, it was not charged to their account because they were unaware that their actions were sinful {see Rom. 4:15}. The law was given to make known to the Israelites what God deems as sinful behavior {Rom. 3:20; 7:7}. This also allowed God to justly punish the Israelites for their sins. Next he says:

” But where sin increased, grace increased all the more . . .”

Since the law was given only to the nation of Israel, “where sin increased” was in that people; but as the sin increased due to the law, the grace of God increased toward them even more, culminating in the coming of Messiah to redeem them. Now here’s where it gets interesting:

21. “. . . so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring everlasting life through Jesus the Messiah our Lord.”

Paul seems to be saying that sin reigned because of death i.e. because of their mortality sin gained power over men. Now Paul’s statement in v. 19, “. . . through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners . . .” may at first seem to support the Augustinian view that men inherit a sin nature from Adam, but all it really need mean is that because death comes to all by Adam’s sin and in this condition of mortality sin has gained the mastery over us, then in this sense all are made sinners by Adam’s one act of disobedience. Paul is using the word ‘sinners’ here to denote the fact that all have sinned, not in the usual Hebraic fashion to denote those specific people who live their lives in opposition to God and his word. In the Hebrew mind there was a distinction between the righteous and the sinners, but those among the righteous were never entirely without sin {see Eccl 7:20}. We can think of men like David, who was certainly among the righteous of Israel, yet we see that he succumbed to sin at times, though sin was not the constant habit of his life. There are many specific people in the scriptures of whom it is testified that they were righteous and that they pleased God {see Gen. 6:9; Ex. 33:12; 1 Kings 3:6; Job 1:1, 8; Lk. 1:6; 2:25; 23:50; Acts 10:22; Heb. 11:4, 5; 2 Pet. 2:7}. There are also statements about righteous people, in general, as distinct from those who were unrighteous {2 Sam. 4:11; 1 Kings 8:32; Ps. 1:5-6; 5:12; 11:3; 32:11; 34:5, 19; 37:12, 29-32; 55:22; 64:10; 69:28; 75:10; Is. 3:10; 57:1; Eze. 18:5, 9; Hosea 14:9; Mal. 3:18; Matt. 9:13; 13:17; Lk. 15:7}. But how can this be from the Augustinian viewpoint which sees all men born enslaved to sin? What we should learn from these references is that while all men have sinned, not all throughout history have been enslaved to sin. What this means is that enslavement to sin is not a condition into which one is born but a condition into which one grows, through practice.

Paul then goes on, in ch. 6, to show why believers in Christ should not live in the habitual practice of sin any longer and he connects the believers victory over sin to our union with Christ in his death and our assurance that we shall be raised with Christ into immortality.

5. “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection 6. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, so that we are no longer enslaved to sin. 7. For the one who has died has been freed from sin. 8. “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him, 9. having understood that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer rules over him. 10. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” 11. In this way also you should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it’s (i.e. the mortal body’s) desires.”

So then, in our union with Christ, his death to sin becomes our death to sin, and in view of the fact that we shall share in his resurrection, we should now live in the light of the certainty of our future immortality. In this way the believer can be freed from sin, which had formerly taken advantage of his mortality to enslave him. Paul shows, in ch. 7, how, for the Jew (and even for the Gentile who has placed himself under the law), sin seizes the opportunity to take advantage of their mortality by means of the law. He goes on to describes the war between the mind or heart, which desires to do good, and the flesh (i.e. the mortal body) which desires the very sin forbidden in the law. We will come back to this momentarily, but for now note how Paul expresses the anguish of this struggle in v. 24;

“Who shall deliver me from this body of death.”

Paul sees the ‘body of death‘ i.e. the body which is subject to death, the mortal body, as the main problem from which he needed deliverance. This is what Paul calls ‘the flesh‘. It is not that the body in and of itself is bad, but the fact that it has become corruptible i.e. mortal, due to Adam’s sin.

Romans 7

This chapter has been a source of confusion for many. The main issue is whether in vv. 7- 24 Paul is speaking of himself from a pre or post conversion perspective. Is Paul speaking of his experience as a Jew, under the law, prior to coming to a knowledge of Christ, or is he speaking of his experience in Christ? This is an ongoing debate among expositors, with Reformed exegetes taking Paul as referring to his then present experience in Christ, and non-Reformed exegetes usually coming down on the other side. It seems to me that the reason Reformed exegetes read the passages as they do has more to do with their theological concerns rather than contextual concerns, for Paul says a few things in this passage which they deem would be impossible for an unregenerate man to say {see vv. 18-19-23}. In the Reformed system only a person who has been made spiritually alive by irresistible grace would be able to say “I delight in God’s law” or “I desire to do good” or “the evil I do not desire to do” or “in my mind I am a slave to God’s law.” However, one reason why Paul cannot be describing his own experience as a believer in Christ is that he speaks of being a slave to sin {v. 14}, which would be quite inconsistent with statements he made earlier regarding a believers relationship to sin {see 6:1-2, 6-7, 11, 14,17-18, 20-22}. But there is yet another way to view the passage.

I have now come to see that Paul is speaking of the normal experience of Jews who sincerely desired to serve God but found themselves failing. Paul may be relating this struggle in the first person present tense simply for rhetorical effect, to make it more vivid to his readers, though it may reflect his own personal experience before coming to Christ. That this passage is not describing the universal experience of all people is evident by the context. Paul starts off chapter 7 specifically addressing his Jewish brethren and their relationship to the law {v.1}. He says that these Jews were once bound by the law, but have now been released from it {v. 6}. He says {v. 5} that when he and they were formerly in the flesh “the sinful passions were operative in our bodies by reason of the law,” and this is the very thing that Paul goes on to explicate in vv. 7 – 23. Thus, contextually, the passage must be speaking of the typical experience of this specific type of pre-conversion Jew. Gentiles would not even be in view because they were typically regarded as not being under the law {see Rom. 2:12-14; 1 Cor. 9:21}, unless they put themselves under the law by circumcision {Gal. 5:2-3}.

Now it must be understood that not all Jews would have fallen into the same category as far as devotion to God goes. There were Jews who truly loved God and were faithful to the covenant out of a genuine fear of God and were thus counted righteous {see 1 Kings 3:6; Neh. 7:2; Ps. 128:1; Ezek. 18:9; Micah 3:16; Matt. 1:19; Lk. 1:6; 2:25, 36-38; 23:50-51; Jn. 1:47}. Then there were those who had no regard for God or his law; these were the ones called ‘sinners’ or ‘the wicked’ by other Jews {see Ps. 1; 10: 2-11; 14:1; 36:1-4; Matt. 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:17; Lk. 6:32-34; 15:1; Jn. 9:31}. These people put on no pretense of conformity to the law, they lived in habitual and open defiance of God. Then there were the religious Jews, such as the Pharisees, who were for the most part hypocrites, though there were some truly righteous ones among them. These men put on a good outward display of godliness but inwardly they were driven not by love for and fear of God but by a love of the praise and adoration of man {see Matt. 23}. All of their outward acts of righteousness were motivated by a desire to be seen as righteous and thus to be well spoken of and admired by others.

There was still yet another kind of Jew, which I believe is the kind Paul is referring to in Rom. 7, i.e. the Jew who sincerely desired to keep the law but found himself consistently failing, especially with regard to inward obedience. This type of Jew was engaged in a struggle between his inner man or mind, which delighted in God’s law and desired to do the good required in the law and to avoid the evil forbidden in the law {vv. 15-25}, and his mortal body with it’s twisted inclinations. So real and so intense was this struggle and the sinful actions so antithetical to the heart’s desire that it was as if the individual himself was not the one carrying out the sin {vv. 16, 19-22}. When Paul speaks of sin living in him {v. 17, 21} I do not think he was speaking literally but figuratively, i.e. it was as if sin was a living entity within him, always there waging war with the law of his mind. This is much like the hyperbolic way that David described himself after being confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Ps. 51:5

So contradictory was David’s actions to his inner desire to please God that he could only express his disgust of his sin in such hyperbolic terms. The error of Reformed apologists is to take David literally, as if he were setting out a systematic doctrine of inherited sin, rather than simply uttering a highly emotional and exaggerated estimation of his behavior. The same can be said for Paul’s emotionally charged rhetoric in Rom. 7. Instead of seeing this passage as a systematic doctrine of man’s sin nature that is applied universally to all men, I think it is best to understand it as an emotional, hyperbolic description of the experience of a certain kind of Jew under the law.

Romans 8 – The Flesh

There has been much debate over Paul’s precise meaning of ‘the flesh‘, especially in Romans 7 and 8. It is agreed by virtually all that Paul’s meaning of ‘the flesh‘ in these chapters is unique, differing from it’s use by other NT authors, from his own use in other contexts, and from it’s use in the OT. The assumption of most Protestant and RC scholars is that Paul uses flesh in these chapters to denote the sin nature which is part of man’s nature by birth. The 1985 edition of the NIV even went so far as to translate the word sarx (i.e. flesh) in these two chapters as sinful nature. But such a translation probably tells us more about the theological predilections of the NIV editors than it does about Paul’s intended meaning of sarx. Nonetheless, this equation of ‘the flesh‘ with ‘the sin nature‘ seems to be a predominate view in much of evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed kind. If this equation is true, then Paul’s use would be unique and would not have been influenced by the Hebrew Bible’s use of basar (Str. Heb. #1320), which means flesh. But why should we think Paul invented a new meaning for sarx that has no connection with the Tanakh and the prophets? Why not rather assume that his meaning was drawn from the Hebrew scriptures? Can a meaning be found in the OT use that might be a basis for Paul’s own use of sarx? I want to suggest that there is a way to understand Paul’s use of ‘flesh‘ in Rom. 7 & 8 that corresponds to the Hebrew Bible’s use. I propose that Paul is using the concept of the flesh to denote man’s mortality and it’s resultant effect upon man’s behavior.

The Greek word behind the English ‘flesh‘ is sarx (Str. Gr. #4561). It’s foremost use is with reference to physical bodies, of both men and animals, in particular the soft tissue in distinction to bone. It can refer to the meat of animals which is eaten. It is also used to denote human beings and animals in the phrase “all flesh“. This sense may connote the idea of mortality. Two passages in Isaiah demonstrate the connection between flesh and mortality:

Is. 31:3 – “But Egypt is man and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When Yahweh stretches out his hand, he who helps will stumble; he who is helped will fall. They all will perish.”

Is. 40:6-8 – “. . . all flesh is grass and all it’s beauty like a flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades . . . Surely the people are grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of Yahweh endures forever.”

In the first passage Egypt, i.e. the people of Egypt are likened to man (Heb. adam) and contrasted with God, while their horses are regarded as flesh, in contrast to spirit. Both of these ideas imply mortality. As Adam was made subject to death because of his disobedience, so all beings composed of flesh, as was Adam, are likewise mortal beings. This is in contrast to God and other beings composed of spirit, who are immortal.

The second passage states that all flesh, i.e. all men, are like grass which dries up and dies, which is surely implying the fleeting nature of a man’s existence in this world, and hence his mortality.

Other passages which suggest a connection between flesh and mortality are:

Ps. 78:39 – “He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.”

Gen. 6:3 – “Then Yahweh said, ‘My breath will not remain in man forever, because he is flesh; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’ “

Both of these passages speak of the transitory and evanescent nature of man’s life in this world, which is a prominent theme in scripture. A number of English versions even translate basar in Gen. 6:3 as mortal (NIV, BSB, ISV, NET, NLT). It is clear that there is a connection between man being flesh and his mortality in these passages.

What if it was passages like these that influenced Paul’s thinking and formed the basis of his concept of ‘the flesh‘ in Rom. 7 and 8? It seems more reasonable to me that Paul would be using the term in a manner consistent with the Hebrew scriptures, than that he is investing it with a new theological meaning. I suggest that the concept of man’s mortality must be included in Paul’s use of sarx. The idea of sarx as a sin nature which one possesses from birth may seem attractive in light of English renderings of passages like Romans chapter 8, but this idea ignores the connection between the concept of flesh and man’s mortality established in the Hebrew scriptures.

Another clue that Paul’s usage of sarx conforms with the use of basar in the OT is found in the synonyms he uses for the flesh in Romans 6, 7 and 8. He calls it the body of sin {6:6}, the body of death {7:24}, the mortal body {6:12; 8:11} and just simply the body {8:10, 13}, thus equating the flesh with the physical body in it’s condition of mortality.

Let’s now look at Romans 8 and see how this understanding can be read into the specific phrases Paul uses, such as in the flesh, walking according to the flesh, the mind of the flesh, etc. The best way for me to relate what I think Paul means by these phrases is to present a paraphrase of the passage, interpreting the phrases as I understand them. Afterward, I will give an explanation of my interpretation. I will include the last part of 7:25 and go through 8:17.

7:25. So then, I myself, in the mind serve God’s law, but because of the mortal body, the law of sin.
8:1. Therefore, there is now no sentence of death hanging over those who are in Christ Jesus,
2. because through Christ Jesus the principle of the guarantee of immortality set me free from the principle of sin and death.
3. For the law (of Moses) was powerless in that it was weak on account of our mortality. So God, by commissioning his own son in the same mortal flesh and because of sin, condemned the activity of sin in the mortal body,
4. so that the righteousness of the law (of Moses) might be fulfilled in us, who do not live out our lives governed by the dictates of our mortality (hence seeking as much pleasure and happiness as we can before we die), but in hope of the guarantee of immortality.

5. For those without the hope of immortality are obsessed with fulfilling the inclinations of the mortal body, but those who have the guarantee of immortality are obsessed with the inclinations that arise from that expectation.
6. For the mind focused on the inclinations of the mortal body ends in death, but the mind focused on the hope of immortality ends in (everlasting) life and peace.
7. For the mind focused on the inclinations of the mortal body is in conflict with God because it does not submit to God’s law, neither can it do so.
8. Now those without the expectation of immortality cannot please God.
9. However, you are not without this hope but have the guarantee of immortality, if the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have this frame of mind which Christ had, he does not belong to him.

10. But if Christ is in you, your body is still subject to death because of (Adam’s one) sin but you have the guarantee of immortality because of (Christ’s one act of) righteousness.
11. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is dwelling in you, he who raised Messiah from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through his Spirit who dwells in you.
12. Therefore, brothers, we are debtors, but not to the mortal body, to live in accordance with it’s inclinations.
13. For if you are living by the inclinations of the mortal body you are certainly dying, but if in the hope of immortality you are putting to death the activities of the body you will live (in immortality),

14. For all those who are actuated by the Spirit, the guarantee of immortality, these are the sons of God.
15. For you did not receive a dominating frame of mind of slavery again to fear (of death) but you received the mindset of adoption, by which we cry “Abba Father”.
16. The fact that we have the Spirit itself, the very guarantee of immortality, confirms the testimony of our mind that we are God’s children.
17. Now if we are children then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Messiah, if indeed we share in his sufferings so that we may also be glorified with him (in immortality).

Now you may be wondering why I interpreted most of the references to the spirit as the hope or guarantee of immortality. This is because in Paul’s thinking about the spirit, a central proponent is that the spirit is given to believers as a down payment on their inheritance. Paul expresses this idea three times in his letters – 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5 and Eph. 1:13-14. The word he uses in these passages is arrabon (Str. Gr. #728) which speaks of earnest money given as a pledge that the remainder will be paid. In all three passages, the spirit, which God gives believers, is said to be such a pledge. Eph. 1 :13-14 specifically refers it to a pledge of our inheritance. 2 Cor. 5:5 is most pertinent in that it relates the spirit as a pledge or guarantee of immortality:

For while we are in this tent (i.e. the mortal body) we groan and are burdened because we do not wish to take it off but to put on over it (immortality), so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very thing is God, who gave to us the down payment of the spirit.

2 Cor. 5:4-5

A number of English versions translate arrabon in this verse as a guarantee3. Though Paul does not use the word arrabon in Romans 8 he does speak of the spirit as the firstfruit in v. 23, which may be denoting the same concept of a down payment with the promise of more to come. Other passages which associate the hope of believers with the holy spirit are Rom. 5:5; 15:13; Titus 3:5-7; Gal. 5:5 and 1 Cor. 2:7-10.

Now those who are without the guarantee of immortality as a living hope {see 1 Pet. 1:3} can be said to be in the flesh, because they live their lives obsessed with seeking as much happiness and pleasure while they can. Knowing that they are destined to soon die they set their minds on fulfilling the dictates of their mortality. Paul makes the connection between no expectation of immortality and the wanton pursuit of bodily inclinations clear in 1 Cor. 15:32:

“. . . If the dead are not raised let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

If there is no resurrection and hence no immortal existence, then the most reasonable thing a person could do in this brief life is pursue the maximum pleasure and happiness he can. In contrast to this Paul speaks of “those who by patient endurance in doing good are seeking (from God) glory, honor and immortality ” {Rom. 2:7}.

The Believers Hope

It is also significant that Paul continues on in Rom. 8:18-25 focusing on the believers attitude of expectant waiting for this guaranteed immortality, which he calls “the redemption of our body.” This he says is the hope of believers. In the English language we often use the verb hope to express a wish for some good outcome but with uncertainty as to it’s actual fulfillment. But we should not think like this when we encounter the word hope in the scriptures. In the NT the noun hope (Gr. elpis Str. #1680) carries the idea of a confident expectation of some promised good. Implicit in this concept of hope is the idea of patient waiting. This implies that we do not yet have, in actual experience, the thing for which we hope, and hence we are waiting for it, confidently expecting it’s fulfillment {vv. 24-25}. Paul says, “For in hope we were saved,” by which he means that when we were first saved i.e. when we repented and turned to the Lord and received the forgiveness of sins and were given the spirit, this was not the end-all but only the beginning, the entry point of our salvation. We were saved with the expectation of becoming like the Lord Jesus in his glorified humanity {v. 18, 29-30; 1 Cor. 15:49}. This is the destiny of all who are in Messiah.

The importance of this hope in relation to the believers victory over sin should not be underestimated. The author of Hebrews tells us that this hope is meant to be an anchor to keep us from going adrift {6:19} and exhorts the believers to maintain this hope as necessary to enduring to the end {3:6-14; 10:23}. In 12:1-4 he shows how the ability to endure and not grow weary is linked to “the joy set before [us]” as seen in the supreme example of our forerunner, Jesus, and relates this to our struggle against sin. John declares that everyone holding this hope of being like Jesus in his immortality purifies himself, apparently of necessity {1 Jn. 3:1-3; also cf. 2 Cor. 7:1}. Peter exhorts believers to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” and immediately connects this to living obedient lives before God {1 Pet. 1:13-14}. Hence, when a person has this expectation of immortality as a living hope within him it cannot help but have a profound effect upon his behavior in this present age.


This study is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject but is only meant to be a conversation starter. I am not dogmatic about everything in this article. I am firm in my opinion that the Augustinian view of original sin is a myth, and the view presented here, which I call the Inherited Mortality view, I now hold tentatively. I am open to making adjustments to this view where needed and value any constructive feedback. I may possibly do a follow-up article in which I examine the proof-texts for the Augustinian view, which is basically the Reformed view, and show the tenuous support they provide for that doctrine.


  1. By ‘natural death’ I mean death by natural causes, such as disease or old age. This would be in distinction to death caused by the hand of another, either justly or unjustly; to accidental death; to death caused directly by God as judgment for some specific sin. All people will die a natural death unless they die first by one of these other ways.
  2. Prolepsis is a rhetoric devise where a future certainty is spoken of as an already accomplished reality. Another example of prolepsis involving the certainty of death is Gen 20:3 where God says to Abimelech, “Behold dead man, on account of the woman you have taken, for she is married to a husband.” God calls him a “dead man” at first, then later, in v. 7, explains, “But if you do not restore her know that surely you will die . . .” The phrase “surely you will die ” is the exact Hebrew phrase found at Gen 2:17. The prolepsis was used in v. 3 to stress the certainty of death if Abimelech continued on his present course. Other cases of the proleptic use of death are Rom. 4:19; 8:10; Heb. 11:12.