What about Paul? Original Sin and Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Joel B. Green

Are we sinners because we sin, or do we sin because we are sinners?

This question, torn from the pages of many an ordination exam, sharply focuses the debate around original sin. A Jewish text from the late first or early second century opts for the first answer: we are sinners because we sin, for “each of us has become our own Adam” (2 Baruch 54:19). The second answer belongs to the traditional doctrine of original sin; as Article VII of The United Methodist Articles of Religion puts it, “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam …, but it is the corruption of the nature of every [person].”

Older arguments against this conventional view tended to focus on the theological and ethical problem that God might hold all people responsible for the disobedience of a single ancestor, Adam. More recent discussion has centered on the doctrine’s problematic reading of our evolutionary history. Traditional readings of “the Fall” seem to flounder on biological evidence against the idea of a single, original couple, and against the idea that human history might be divided into two eras, pre- and post-Fall. Those of us interested in the significance of scriptural authority on this question often wonder, what about Paul? Indeed, Rom 5-7 is ground zero for this discussion.

A careful reading of Paul urges contemporary readers to rethink our notion of “sin.” “Sin,” we often think, refers to individual acts of disobedience, missing the mark, and so on. Paul can use language that supports this view, but his concern is less than we might imagine with “sinful acts.” Consider, for example, how rarely the phrase “forgiveness of sins” appears in those letters attributed to Paul – only twice, in Eph 1:7 and Col 1:14. As Rom 5-7 clarifies, for Paul “sin” is more a power from which humans need to be liberated than individual, wrongful deeds for which humans require clemency. It is Sin, with a capital “s.”

In Rom 5-7, Sin is allocated a surprisingly robust agency. Sin “entered the world” (5:12), where it now exercises the broad-shouldered muscle of a slave master. Earlier, Paul had introduced sin’s work, opening the body of his letter in Rom 1:18-32 with an argument that would lead to the conclusion that “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (3:23). In Paul’s diagnosis there, “sins,” identified as human impiety and wrongdoing, arise from “sin,” a general disposition to refuse to honor God as God and to give him thanks. Romans 1:18-32 sketches Paul’s analysis of the human situation understood corporately, as God hands the human family over to their own desires and distortions (1:24, 26, 28). Accordingly, returning now to Rom 5-7, humans are “controlled by Sin” (6:6), the aim of Sin is to “rule your bodies, to make you obey their cravings (6:12), people present “parts of their body to Sin as weapons to do wrong” (6:13), and people are enslaved to Sin (6:16). The baptized were formerly ruled by Sin, but are now liberated from its dominion (6:17-18, 20, 22).

Paul sketches the basis of the transformed life of Christ-followers by contrasting the deeds of Adam and of Jesus Christ in Rom 5:12-21. In fact, he brackets this section of the letter with phrases that document humanity’s changed situation: “Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin … so also grace will rule through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:12, 21).

Romans 5:12 is the pivotal text, since here we have what might be regarded as Paul’s reflection on the effects of Gen 3: “Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned.” With this compact argument, Paul grounds universal human mortality in his recognition of the universality of sin, itself grounded in a phenomenological observation – “because all sinned” – which he interprets theologically in relation to Adam’s sin.

How this is so merits close attention. On the one hand, through Adam and from Adam, Sin entered the world, death ruled, many people died, judgment came, many people were made sinners, and Sin ruled in death (Rom 5:12-21). On the other hand, death came to everyone because everyone sinned. We might say, then, both that Sin (with an upper-case “s,” a malevolent, enslaving power) entered the world on account of Adam, and that Adam’s disobedience set in motion a chain of effects, one sin leading to the next, not because Sin was an essential constituent of the human condition but because Adam served as the pattern all humanity followed in his sinfulness.

Paul thus underscores the solidarity of the entire human family in sin – first, because Adam’s disobedience introduces Sin as a hegemonic force in the world; and second, because everyone follows Adam in sinning. Paradoxically, therefore, human sinfulness is for the apostle a sign of both human helplessness and culpability with the result that, without exception, all humanity stands in need of the life available in Christ.

Suggested reading

Mark E. Biddle, Missing the Mark: Sin and Its Consequences in Biblical Theology (Abingdon, 2005).

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Westminster John Knox, 2007), chap. 9.

Rowan A. Greer, “Sinned We All in Adam’s Fall?” in The Social World of the First Christians, ed. L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, 382-94 (Fortress, 1995).

Posted Dec 19, 2015

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