Adam’s Sin, contemplated: Did even Calvin make a mistake here?

John Calvin

The doctrine of original sin has been debated since the earliest days of the Church. It was one of the battlegrounds on which the Reformation was fought. The split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism led to two radically different interpretations of original sin and the sin by which all have become sinners. Having explored the Catholic doctrine, we now move into the classic Reformed understanding. 

In this series of essays we have been reviewing John Murray’s short book The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. Specifically, we are narrowing our focus to the explanation of a single clause in Romans 5:12. We have already examined the Catholic explanation. Here, we look at Calvin’s.

Calvin’s doctrine of original sin differs most radically from that of the Roman Catholic church in the understanding that, in our sin, we are born totally depraved. Not one thought, word, or deed that we have is good. Nothing about us is good. We have no good virtues.

In comparison, the Catholic view might be summarized, in a word, as saying that we “have some problems, and we’re mostly bad, but there’s still some good remaining within us.”

Murray (densely) explains the Roman Catholic doctrine as stating that “original sin consisted simply in the privation of original righteousness and integrity and that the concupiscence which resulted from the loss of integrity was not itself truly and properly sinful.” [p.17]

“Concupiscence” is a theological term mostly used by Catholics that means “strong desire.” So, in other words, we are deprived of our good nature and integrity, but our strong and passionate desires are not necessarily or always sinful, though they can certainly lead to sin. The Catholics hold to the idea that human nature cannot be totally evil because it was made by God.

The Reformed doctrine of original sin, on the other hand, insists that every possible area of our being, our entire human nature, is utterly and hopelessly corrupt from conception. Every “strong desire” we might have is sinful because “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job. 14:4) If our nature is corrupt, then any desire springing forth from it is also corrupt.

This is why Paul quoted Isaiah when he wrote “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one…there is none that seeketh after God…there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10-12).


However Pauline and orthodox Calvin’s view of original sin was, when it came to his exegesis and understanding of this critical clause in verse 12 it seems he missed the mark. As a reminder, the clause from verse 12 is “…and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned”.

The question in view is “In what way have all sinned such that we should justly suffer the curse of death?” Calvin’s explanation of this clause suffers the same weaknesses and succumbs to the same criticisms as the Roman Catholic explanation does.

The Roman Catholic version, no matter what their interpretation of the effects of “original sin” might be, asserts that the specific sin referred to in “for that all have sinned” is transmitted sinfulness. [p.15] Calvin’s interpretation is similar in that he explains this sin as “that natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb.” [cited in Murray, p. 18]

Likewise, Calvin’s explanation of this clause fails to hold up. It doesn’t comport with the grammar used (i.e. assuming the phrase refers to an on-going process when it most naturally means a single act), it breaks the analogy Paul uses when comparing the imputation of sin to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and its inconsistent with Paul’s five-fold repetition in verses 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 that linked our sin with Adam’s.

The sin by which “death passed on to all men” is not inherited sin, whether the Roman Catholic formulation or the Reformed doctrine of total depravity.


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