Do people die because of their own sins? This is a question that gets to the foundations of Christianity.
I’m reading a short book titled The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. It was written by John Murray. It is a study on one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, that question which deals with Point Two of the Five-Point Biblical Covenant: What is man? It is an examination of Romans 5:12-19.
It is four chapters (and 95 pages) long. The first chapter examines the Pelagian view, the Roman Catholic view, Calvin’s interpretation, and the classic Protestant interpretation of the doctrine of sin. The remaining chapters deal with “The Union Involved,” “The Nature of the Imputation,” and “The Sin Imputed.”
In this article, I’m going to summarize the first section of Chapter 1, which deals with the Pelagian view of sin.
THE PELAGIAN VIEW OF SIN
The Pelagian view of sin is not that Adam’s sin was imputed to all people, as the traditional orthodox (Protestant) view holds, but rather that people die because they sin individually. So just as Adam died because of his sin, so all men die because of their own sins.
This stems from a certain interpretation of Paul’s verse from Romans 5:
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— (vs. 12, ESV)
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (vs. 12, KJV)
The emphasized phrases are the ones in question. Pelagius would have the interpretation of these verses to mean that “Just as Adam died from his sins, so all men die from their own sins,” as opposed to “Adam’s sin has been imputed to all men, and because of that they suffer the penalty of death.”
Grammatically, as Murray points out, this is a valid interpretation. He notes that Paul uses a very similar phrase earlier in his letter to illustrate that very idea: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He writes that the structure of the sentence alone cannot disprove the Pelagian view. But Murray tells us that the correct meaning of the phrase is understood from its context, not just its grammatical structure alone.
He gives us four main reasons, rooted in logic, exegesis, and theology, why the Pelagian view is wrong:
- Historically speaking, the Pelagian view isn’t true. Not everyone dies (in history) because they sin; people commit serious capital crimes like murder and do not die. Also, infants die, but they have not committed the same magnitude of transgression that Adam did.
- Paul specifically states the opposite of the Pelagian view in the next two verses (13 and 14). He maintains that death rules over all people equally, “even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam.” If people die because of their own individual sins (as the Pelagian view holds), but if they sinned to a lesser degree than Adam did, then it’s implied that perhaps the individual consequences (negative sanctions) would vary from person to person. Some may die, some may not. But what we see is that all die. Paul explicitly affirms this.
- The strongest refutation of the Pelagian view is the fact that Paul says, over and over again, that all people die because of Adam’s sin. He hammers this point home five times in five verses: “many died through one man’s trespass” (v.15); “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (v.16); “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (v.17); “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (v.18); and “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (v.19). As Murrary summarizes, “the Pelagian insistence that death and condemnation find their ground solely in the personal voluntary sin of the individuals of the race cannot be harmonised with this sustained witness of the Apostle.” [p.11]
- Finally, if the Pelagian understanding of this doctrine were true, then it would destroy the analogy that Paul sets up between Adam and Christ. Paul, quite simply, is saying that just as death entered into the world and afflicts individuals because of one man (Adam), so are individuals justified and brought into everlasting life on the basis of the righteousness and obedience of one man (Jesus Christ). Up to this point, Paul spent four four and a half chapters refuting the idea that men are justified by their own works. He would be an imbecile to then setup this analogy between Adam and Christ, only to mean that we aren’t actually justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, but our own. It would be a logical and rhetorical absurdity, an exercise in confusion.
Because of these four reasons, the Pelagian doctrine cannot stand up to solid exegetical analysis and must be discarded.
John Murray examines the technical grammatical structure of Rom. 5:12-19 in his book The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. He describes the Pelagian view of the doctrine of sin, which conflicts with the orthodox Protestant doctrine of original sin. The Pelagian doctrine denies that Adam’s sin is imputed to all of mankind. Instead, it affirms that all people die because of their own sins, not because of Adam’s.
The Pelagian interpretation comes from a meaning derived from a certain sense taken from Paul’s phrase that “death spread to all men because all sinned.” The Pelagian view holds that by this phrase, Paul means that everone dies as a consequence of their own individual sins (not because of Adam’s).
Murray provides four critical reasons that are steeped in history, logic, exegesis, and theology which demonstrate that the Pelagian view of sin is heretical. From those four reasons, we can safely conclude that men do not suffer death on the basis of their own sins. Instead, each individual death is linked inextricably to Adam’s original sin.