Adam’s Sin and Ours—What Paul Really Said in Romans 5:12

October 2017 Credo

Few doctrines of the Christian faith enjoy as much simultaneous empirical confirmation and conceptual confusion as that of original sin.

Despite the universal evidence that all people are sinners, Christians through the ages have struggled to define exactly what original sin means, and to defend it rationally and ethically.

The key text is Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (NASB, my emphasis).  Theologians have grappled with the Greek phrase eph hō that is rendered above as “because.”

Augustine, influenced by the Latin Vulgate, understood eph hō to mean “in whom,” referring to Adam.  How could this be so?  One explanation was that all of humanity was literally in Adam, in some kind of real physical union such that we were all literally present and participating in Adam’s sin.  It is a moot point whether this makes any kind of sense in terms of metaphysics, human nature, or ethics, because there is a consensus that the Greek eph hō cannot mean “in whom.”

Currently the most common translation for eph hō is “because.”  This is the rendering followed by virtually all translations and commentators.  While this is clearly superior to Augustine’s understanding, scholars still struggle to explain how “all sinned” when Adam sinned.  Many subscribe to a theory that Adam is our “representative” such that his sin and guilt were imputed to us all when he sinned, and therefore, so was his punishment of death.  Many are impressed with the antithetical parallelism of imputation: we are imputed Adam’s sin and guilt, which is canceled (for those who believe) by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Given this translation, much of the discussion among theologians is how this can be reconciled with God’s justice, fairness, or goodness. It seems difficult, to put it mildly, to justify holding somebody guilty of sinning for something an ancestor did prior to one’s birth.    There is no legitimate sense in which Adam’s sin can be imputed to his descendants either as a wage or a gift.  Adam’s guilt cannot be a wage, for that presupposes what someone has earned or deserved based on what he has done.  Furthermore, the parallelism of imputation offers no help, for Christ’s righteousness is offered to us as a gift for our good, and accepted by faith, whereas Adam’s guilt is imposed upon us for our harm.  Once one has accepted the conventional translation of Rom. 5:12, he has committed himself to explain it by philosophical gymnastics that either strain credulity or that go far beyond what the text itself says.

In the 500th anniversary of the Reformers, we should follow their ethos on two points: (1) the continual need to reform our theology to bring it into greater conformity with the actual words of Scripture; and (2) the need for solid biblical teaching and Bible translation that is ultimately rooted in what the Bible says in its original languages.  In that spirit, let us reconsider the basic question: what does eph hō mean?

It is surprising to learn that eph hō, long the basis of the confusion, can be understood after less than one semester of basic Greek.  It is not an idiom meaning “because.” Eph is a form of the preposition epi, which usually means “on the basis of” when its object is in the dative case.  The word is the neuter dative of the relative pronoun hos and means “which.”  Therefore, eph hō in this context simply means “on the basis of which.”

As a result, Romans 5:12 should be translated: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, on the basis of which all sinned.”

What difference does it make?  It reverses the cause and effect relationship.  Paul did not say that all men died because all men sinned.  Rather, Paul said that all men sinned because all men died.  Paul is not imputing Adam’s guilt to us; he is explaining how it is that sin is universal: all people sin because all died spiritually as a result of Adam’s disobedience such that we are now alienated from God.

But isn’t death “the wages of sin” in Romans 6:23?  Yes, death is the eschatological consequence of a life of sin for all individuals, apart from Christ.  But Romans 5:12 is in a different context and speaks of different circumstances.  It explains how a particular event of past history caused a change in humanity’s circumstances, i.e., how Adam’s disobedience made everybody sinners.  Arguably, our overfamiliarity with Romans 6:23 has caused us to unconsciously assume that the concepts of sin and death must stand in the same exact relationship when they appear in Romans 5:12.  Sometimes we see what we expect to see in the text even if it’s not what is really there, and even many of the greatest scholars over the sweep of church history are not immune to this tendency.

This should humble us, for like the medieval church, we too can fail to see what the Bible says due to tradition and majority opinion.  May the example of Martin Luther inspire us to always return to the Scriptures and to reform our understanding and theology in accord with its eternal truth.


Dr. Brian H. Thomas is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Singapore Bible College (School of Theology English). He received a DTh in New Testament Theology from Trinity Theological College (Singapore), a MA in Christian Apologetics and a MA in New Testament from Biola University (USA), and a BA in History from Christopher Newport University (USA).