Humanity is a fallen race. The first three chapters of Genesis give us the story of how Adam, the first man, who was created “very good,” and in fellowship with God, fell from that estate and took the whole creation with him. The rest of Scripture is the story of how God dealt with that fall to redeem creation to Himself. There is, however, much disagreement on how the transgression of one man, Adam, has affected the rest of the world, and all his descendants in particular. It is a question that must be answered if we are to make any sense of the state of the world today, in which we find death and suffering permeating the human existence. This passing down of the fallen nature from Adam to all his descendants is commonly known as original sin. There are basically two elements to deal with in regards to original sin: that of corruption, and that of guilt. There are several varying views on how these two elements are inherited from Adam (if at all), as well as what the relationship between the two are.
The way in which original sin is transmitted also has weighty implications for how we understand soteriology. In some sense, God undoes what Adam has done in the fall, and the logical means by which God deals with sin is often seen as congruent with the means by which sin is transmitted.
We should also consider the Biblical material. I want to focus primarily on the Genesis 3 account of the fall and its relationship particularly to Romans 5. We should first note the nature of God’s curse upon each participant in the fall in Genesis 3:14-19. There have been some like Pelagius who asserted that Adam sinned, but the resulting punishment is only upon him. But the text of Genesis 3 is clear that each pronouncement is made not only on the individual, but that also that individual’s descendants are to be affected. The serpent’s offspring, like the serpent, goes on their bellies and eats dust. Not only Eve, but all of her daughters as well, experience pain in childbirth. And for Adam, then are we to think that his penalty is only for himself? Certainly not. Not only Adam, but his offspring after him, are subjected to death and futility.
But within God’s pronouncement of curse upon Adam’s race he provides hope. That hope, in congruence with the curse that falls upon the offspring, also stems from the offspring. That hope is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. As we will see, the nature of our hope in the seed is likewise congruent with the nature of the transmission of Adam’s sin.
The transmission of Adam’s sin to his descendants is commonly known as imputation. The word comes from the Greek ἐλλογέω, which means “to charge with a financial obligation, charge to the account of someone.” The sense of the word is forensic, and it emphasizes the sense of debt and guilt associated with sin. While generally the word “impute” is understood as a transfer of something from one account to the another, the sense in which we use the word in theology should not necessarily be equated with the way Paul uses it in his epistles. The basic meaning of the word is to charge to one’s account, regardless of whether the charge properly belongs to that account or it is transferred from some other account.
For those who recognize the transmission of Adam’s guilt, there are basically two ways of viewing imputation: mediate and immediate. The difference between the two is in the cause and effect relationship between guilt and corruption. In mediate imputation, guilt is the effect of corruption. In immediate imputation, it is the cause.
Before contrasting mediate and immediate imputation, we should note that there is one thing they both agree upon. Both forms of the doctrine of imputation rely upon and presuppose a literal Adam. There is no room in the doctrine of imputation for the idea that Adam is a symbol rather than a person, for both declare that mankind is under condemnation as a result of Adam’s sin. To say that Adam is simply a symbol would render imputation nonsensical. Not only this, but because of the congruency between imputation of Adam’s sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, it would undermine the very foundation of justification set forward by Paul in Romans 5. Indeed, Paul clearly presupposes that Adam is a literal person, for he makes direct and real (not merely theoretical) parallels between Adam and Christ.
The view of mediate imputation is less forensic, and emphasizes natural depravity and corruption more than the transmission of Adam’s guilt. According to this view, since all of Adam’s children inherit from him a corrupt nature, the guilt associated with his first sin is mediated by the sin nature inherited from him in a hereditary sense. All men are therefore accounted (imputed) as guilty before God because of that sinful nature.
The transmission of Adam’s corruption doesn’t necessarily need to be biological, but the view of mediate imputation certainly lends itself to a biological transmission. Sin, then, becomes a kind of disease that spreads from Adam to each generation and makes every individual subject to God’s judgment upon sin. Mediate imputation is a more general reckoning, making mankind liable not so much for Adam’s first transgression as much as for general sinfulness in a broad sense. This view was first presented by Placaeus in the late 17th century, and Jonathan Edwards is thought by many to have held to some form of this. I believe Murray in The Imputation of Adam’s Sin demonstrates convincingly that Edwards did not, in fact, hold to mediate imputation.
The view of mediate imputation standing alone will have logical difficulty explaining how the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as set out in Romans 5 is congruent with the imputation of Adam’s sin. Paul tells us that the justification granted to us in Christ is in some way like the condemnation we receive in Adam. But if imputation of original sin is only a result of a hereditary condition passed down by natural generation, then in what sense can justification be the “like opposite” of the imputation of Adam’s sin?
Immediate imputation, on the other hand, is a direct accounting of Adam’s guilt upon all of his descendants. Each individual of Adam’s race is directly liable to punishment for Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. That is, the sin for which Adam’s children are condemned is in some sense identical with the sin of Adam’s first transgression.
Immediate imputation does not have the difficulty that mediate does as regards to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Since it does not require mediation of corruption to lead to guilt, it does not need to explain incongruence with an absence of mediation for the removal of corruption leading to justification. The grounds for justification is likewise immediate and direct, based solely on the transfer from Adam’s federal headship to that of Jesus Christ.
One interesting feature of immediate imputation taken alone is that it views the corruption of man to be a result of the imputation of Adam’s sin. In other words, a forensic judgment against a person renders them actually and personally corrupt. Hodge states in his Systematic Theology that
. . . the reason why we are depraved is, that we are regarded as partakers of [Adam’s] sin, or because the guilt of that sin is imputed to us (emphasis mine).
The key passage for whether one sees imputation as mediate or immediate is Romans 5:12. In particular the Greek particle ἐφʼ ᾧ. The English Standard Version reads:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.
In this translation we find a clear causality of death coming from sin. But other readings have been proposed which reverse the causality, rendering the verse “so death spread to all men, as a result of which all sinned,” making sin a result of spiritual death.
The implications for imputation are pretty clear, as the causality in the passage directly reflects the causality of sin and corruption already noted in Murray. If death spread to all because all sinned, then death is a result of some corporate identification with Adam. If, however, universal sin is the consequence of universal death, then sin is the result of the corruption of the nature. The latter reading of Romans 5:12 has been gaining some traction with commentators. Notably among those who hold to some form of this reading are the Jesuit biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmeyer and Thomas Schreiner of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In his commentary on Romans, Schreiner concludes:
As a result of Adam’s sin death entered the world and engulfed all people; all people enter the world alienated from God and spiritually dead by virtue of Adam’s sin. By virtue of entering the world in the state of death (i.e., separated from God), all human beings sin.
This reading very clearly supports the view of mediate imputation. I’ve already noted the difficulty this reading poses for the congruency in justification. If guilt is not directly imputed, then the imputation of Adam’s sin has a different mechanism than the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This in itself would not be an issue if it were not for the fact that Romans 5 seems to present a very congruent parallel between our relationship to Adam and our relationship to Christ. Romans 5:12 begins with the comparative phrase “just as” (ὥσπερ), which automatically suggests a congruent parallel, and is complimented by “so also” (οὕτως). To assert a discontinuity of causality between sin and death makes Paul’s parallel unclear at the very least.
To be sure, later in the passage, Paul draws contrasts between Adam and Christ, declaring in v.15 that “the free gift is not like the trespass.” But the contrasts he shows are differences in scope, and not in mechanism. Christ’s gift is different from Adam’s trespass because God’s grace far surpasses the consequence of Adam’s sin. Again, in v.16, the free gift is “not like” the result of Adam’s sin. And again we see that the contrast is one of scope. Adam has one trespass which brings condemnation while free gift of justification follows the many trespasses of history.
The final strike against purely mediate imputation comes from Romans 5:18.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
After this series of contrasts, Paul is again drawing a parallel. One trespass (ἑνὸς παραπτώματος) leads to condemnation. One righteous act (ἑνὸς δικαιώματος) leads to justification. Though some Reformed commentators (such as Hodge) have translated ἑνὸς δικαιώματος as “the righteousness of one” rather than “one righteous act” in an attempt to defend the doctrine of immediate imputation, I believe this is misguided, for this also creates a problem with Paul’s parallel. Reading “one trespass” and “one righteous act” as congruent causes for condemnation and justification respectively is, I believe, the stronger reading for immediate imputation, as well as the most natural. Working backwards in Paul’s argument, we see that there is no mediation of anything like natural generation between Christ’s righteous act and our justification. It is directly imputed. To suggest then that there is an unstated mediating element of corruption between Adam’s one trespass and our condemnation destroys the parallel. In short, I believe Paul’s reasoning following Romans 5:12 does not support a mediate imputation reading of the passage.
The alternative is the first reading I presented: that just as universal sin came through Adam’s sin, leading to death, so also universal death is the result of the fact that “all sinned.” The question is then, in what sense did all sin? Is it talking about personal sins, or a corporate sin? It seems to me that the focus is still on how universal realities of sin and death came from one man, Adam, and therefore we should take this general statement as well in a corporate sense.
The contrasts and parallels following v.12 support this, especially v.18, in which one trespass leads directly to condemnation for all. So then, the guilt of Adam’s sin is immediately imputed to his posterity.
However, I see one problem with immediate imputation independently considered, similar to the congruency problem of mediate imputation. As noted before, the usual understanding of immediate imputation is that imputed guilt is the cause of corruption. Federal headship in Adam, then, has a direct effect on the human nature. John Murray, in demonstrating that Jonathan Edwards was not a proponent of mediate imputation, specifically shows that Edwards denounces a “double guilt” involved in original sin. That is, he sees both corruption and guilt as being participatory in Adam’s first transgression, the corruption being a consequence and punishment of participation in Adam’s first sin.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IX, 4 tells us:
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, He freeth him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil.
But if immediate imputation of the guilt of Adam’s transgression to his offspring is the direct cause for their corruption and depravity, then why is it that removing ourselves from “participation in his sin” and into the headship of Christ does not also remove corruption and the tendency to sin? If corruption is itself a penal and not a natural consequence of original sin, then why is it not removed at justification?
The converted sinner, while having had the guilt of sin removed, only begins to undergo a reversal of the corruption inherited from Adam through God’s progressive freeing of his will to do what is good. This is commonly known as sanctification. Still, the corruption is never fully removed in this life, but rather, as the Confession goes on to say, “The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only.” So then, the guilt of Adam’s sin is removed through a federal joining to Jesus Christ by which his righteous act is imputed to us, but the reversal of corruption is a result of sanctification by the Spirit, which results from our justification. Is this not a kind of flipside of mediate imputation?
My suggestion is that mediate and immediate imputation are not mutually exclusive, in that both are related but separate consequences of original sin. That is, Adam’s guilt is imputed to his posterity, and the corruption of his nature, which is the consequence of the curse, is passed on to that same posterity in a hereditary sense. So contra Edwards as presented by Murray, (though it is possible that Murray has misread Edwards on this point) the guilt of Adam’s transgression imputed immediately would carry with it the penal consequence of original sin, and the corruption passed down to us by hereditary means would be the natural consequence of original sin.
In support of this, I believe it is the natural reading of The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VI, 3:
They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation” (emphasis mine).
And by “ordinary generation” I take to suggest a hereditary trait, perhaps even genetic in the scientific sense, though the divines certainly wouldn’t have been considering genetics. Flowing from this corruption is personal sinfulness, itself worthy of condemnation of guilt.
Psalm 51:5 tells us, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” This teaches us that there is something about natural generation that perpetuates the corruption of man’s nature and the transfer of original sin.
My resulting view involves a combination of both mediate and immediate imputation. If there is no causal relationship between the guilt and corruption imputed, then this would make unnecessary the question of why guilt is removed by justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but corruption is not. Justified people continue to struggle with sin after regeneration and justification because they still suffer from the natural consequences of Adam’s original sin. Much in the same way that someone who uses drugs during pregnancy may be forgiven of their sin, but the child will still be affected by the natural consequence of that sin.
Both guilt and corruption, then, may be categorized as aspects of original sin imputed to Adam’s posterity. But because the mechanism for imputation is different, so is the way God deals with them. The solution is congruent with cause. The removal of guilt requires a forensic declaration that the sinner is righteous on the grounds of Christ’s federal headship. The removal of corruption requires sanctification by the Spirit, dying continually to the old man and living to newness of life.
I want to take a look at one Biblical comparison contrast of seemingly contradictory declarations of God that will illustrate this coexistence of both mediate and immediate imputation.
In the third commandment of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:5-6, God warns his people: “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” And again in Number 14:18 we read “The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
This seems a clear example of a sort of microcosmic imputation. God imputes the sins of the father upon the children and grandchildren and their children after them. And yet in Ezekiel 18:20 we find a declaration that seems contradictory: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” This seems to be a command not to impute the father’s sin to the son.
So what shall we make of the contradiction? While some commentators will simply say it is a contradiction or development in Israel’s religious thought and leave it at that, we must hold to the consistency of God’s commandments to His people.
I believe these two together express both mediate imputation on a smaller scale and repudiation of immediate imputation on a civil level. The visitation of iniquity of fathers upon children is an expression of mediate imputation. God visits the sin of the fathers upon the children because the children walk in the way of their fathers. It is a necessary consequence, not an immediate imputation of guilt. The guilt is their own because they have personally participated in that sin. The declaration that the sons shall not suffer for their fathers’ sin is an expression, albeit a negative one, imputed guilt. God declares that it is not just for a civil court to impute the guilt of the father upon the children. Rather, the immediate imputation of Adam’s sin to all is unique.
One might easily ask what the practical outworking and application of this may be. Why does it matter whether imputation is mediate or immediate or both? Well, I think it has a very direct effect on how we understand human nature and deal with sin in general. My understanding of corruption as a hereditary trait stems somewhat from the scientific research of today. While it can be dangerous to use science for theological insight, I do believe that what we discover about God’s natural revelation has things to teach us about the creator and revealer, and how He relates to His creation.
Recent studies in sets of twins separated at birth give us insight into how much of our personality is hereditary and how much is due to the environment in which we are raised. Anecdotally, I personally know people who have adopted unknown children with no background check. These children later, though raised exactly the same and together with their biological children, showed radically variant personality traits and dangerous tendencies, and were discovered to be the biological children of organized crime bosses by prostitution. Studies in genetics have been used politically to justify certain things like homosexuality and other deviant behaviors. This last is an interesting use of genetics.
The logic of the day is that if something is natural, then it is justifiable. If the tendency toward homosexuality, for instance, is a genetically inherited trait, then it is an unchosen condition, and acting upon the tendency cannot be wrong because it is “natural.” Very often, the response of Christians has been to object to the science and to say that homosexuality is not genetic. Homosexuality is against God’s created order, and therefore it is not possible that it should be handed down by heredity. I use homosexuality as an example because it is a pervasively argued issue. But any kind of behavior that Scripture tells us is sin would be equally applicable.
Sin itself is also against God’s created order. When God created man, He created him “very good,” with the ability to do good and to please God. The result of Adam’s fall is that humanity has lost this ability. Not only has Adam’s guilt been immediately imputed to us, but also the corruption of his nature is passed down to us from generation to generation. Both are results of original sin. One might inherit a father’s tendency for outbursts of anger or a mother’s tendency for deception. But these are only individually emphasized wavelengths on the spectrum of sin. They are simply different manifestations of the same original corruption.
Obviously, I believe that we may glean some pastoral insight from this understanding of original sin. When we counsel or give advice where sin is involved, we must remember that we are not dealing simply with behaviors based on nurture. Scripture is clear, of course, that a person’s upbringing is a major factor in their walk. Parents are admonished to train their children in the way they should go so that they will not depart from it. But training is only part of the equation. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It says not that the heart of those who have not been taught is deceitful, but the heart of all. Verse 10 is even more sobering in that context: “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
We must remember that only an act of God can turn the heart to do what is good. The nurture-only approach to behavioral psychology is an extension of the world’s view of sin, or at the very best a Pelagian one—it assumes that with the correct upbringing, sin can be averted. But the truth we find in Scripture is that all have sinned and all sin. All sinned in Adam in a corporate sense, and because of Adam’s corruption passed on to us, all personally sin. We are doubly guilty. The hope offered to us, then, like imputation of original sin, is two-fold, and we may extend it to any who are weary of sin. First, that Jesus Christ “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). Just as the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to us, Jesus’ act of righteousness leads to our justification. Second, while the corruption of our nature remains because we have inherited it from Adam, being joined to Christ means that we have His Spirit working in us, setting us free from sin and enabling us to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. So Romans 8:1, which tells us that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” encompasses a reversal both of Adam’s guilt and corruption.