Recently during a conversation on ethics at a local college, I agreed with the consensus that it is unjust to blame or punish a child for the sins or crimes of a parent. The students knew I was a local pastor, so one immediately interjected, “So you reject the doctrine of Original Sin?” This question demonstrates the errors often made about difficult biblical concepts. This young man assumed the doctrine said something drastically different from what it actually says. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding is shared by many, including some accepting the doctrine.
Punishing a person for actions of a parent is self-evidently wrong—requiring no justification, being based on a commonly held view of justice. Yes, there are societies where it is considered “just” to punish a child for the parent’s offenses. This does not mean “justice” is relative, it simply means some societies have twisted the definition of justice—in other words, their society is simply wrong.
Before I go further, some, as one friend of mine did, will paraphrase Numbers 14:18 as, “The LORD [...] punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” This is a common way to see this passage, but it actually abuses the intent behind it. The full passage says:
“The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
To understand this passage we must not simply look at the words “punishes the children for the sin of the fathers.” In the passage, God declares His intent to forgive sin and rebellion, and responds to a couple of common misconceptions about forgiveness. First, when counseled to forgive an offender many respond, “But if I forgive her, she’ll get away with it.” Loving forgiveness can be seen as too lenient and allowing injustice to go unpunished and uncorrected. A second misconception about forgiveness is that it makes sin painless. Could forgiveness lead someone to assume there is no cost for sin? Wouldn’t this encourage more, rather than less sin? The sinner, though forgiven, is not protected from the earthly results of sin. These will still be experienced by the forgiven sinner and even by his children or grandchildren. Remember, the Old Covenant revelation did not have a well-defined view of the afterlife. The faith God gave them was much more concerned with the here and now (or perhaps more accurately, “there and then”) of life in this world. When they spoke of divine punishment they did not think or consider banishment to Hell, they thought of bad things happening in this world—crop failures, attacks by enemies, enslavement, impoverishment. The Mosaic Law concentrated on how to live in this world, with repercussions for sin being experienced while still alive. Numbers 14:8 is saying, “Because I love you, when you sin I am quick to forgive, but the results of your sin will still fall upon you, your children and even your descendants to the third and fourth generation.” This is perfectly natural and correct. When I sin there are consequences. Though God has promised to forgive me, this does not mean He is going to divinely block or wipe away the results of what I did. These consequences are felt by me, my family and my descendants. For example, I have and still do experience many difficulties in life based on the sinful actions and choices of my father. My children have also experienced problems that can easily be traced back to my father’s sins or to my own sins. My grandchildren may, likewise, experience difficulties as a result of these. Being forgiven does not mean escaping the results of sin. Sin still causes problems for me and mine, or you and yours, long after God has forgiven the sin. It is wise to shun sin, even when forgiveness is available, because our sins can impact far more lives than our own. This is the intent of Numbers 14:8.
The Doctrine of Original Sin is often taken (mistakenly) to mean I am declared guilty for the sin of Adam, my distant father. By this view, Adams sin was a debit against my account, so I am responsible not only for my own sins, but also for Adams. Though this is not the correct way to see Original Sin, some try to find support for it in Hebrews 7:9f, which says (NIV):
“One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of Abraham.”
Many misuse this passage to justify applying Adam’s sin to us today. The claim would be that just as Levi tithed to Melchizedek by being within the body of Abraham, we were in the body of Adam when he sinned we sinned as well. Funny thing is that such an argument, while far from accurate and very abusive of Hebrews 7:9f and of the Doctrine of Original Sin, at least gets one thing right—when Adam sinned, we sinned. We are not being held accountable for Adam’s sin in the garden, but for our own sin in the garden. Before coming back to this, let me point out some problems with this understanding of Hebrew 7:9. First, if this were supported by the passage wouldn’t it justify punishing children for the sins of their fathers so long as they were not conceived before the sin? While in seed form “within their father’s loins” they would be sinning right along with him. Such a view is ludicrous enough that further consideration is unneeded. Besides, since Hebrews is speaking of a positive action rather than a sin, wouldn’t this mean we would also be credited with all the good, as well as the bad, of each and every ancestor? Second, this application of Hebrews 7 would leave us with no recourse to the sacrifice of Christ to wash away our sins. Under this scheme, we would have to be physical descendants of Christ in order to have our sins atoned for. Remember, the saving sacrifice of Christ is applied to us upon the same basis as the sin of the garden. Finally, this interpretation of Hebrews 7 takes the passage far from its intended context. It actually speaks of the superiority of Melchizedek over Levi and through this the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Levirate priesthood established in the Old Covenant. The purpose of this passage is to explain why the old priesthood had to be swept away by the new priesthood of Christ.
The Doctrine of Original Sin does not say we are guilty and worthy of punishment for Adam’s sin. Original Sin means we are guilty of our own sin, including our original sin, the one we committed in the garden. Now I know many read that and balked. They’ll say, “But I wasn’t even in the garden! That happened long before I was born. How can I have sinned when I wasn’t even born?” Original Sin is found in the Federal view of the fall. When someone acts as my agent, my representative, they are empowered to take action in my name. In property and medical matters this is usually accomplished by way of a Power of Attorney. If I empower you to make my certain choices, any of those choices made on my behalf are recognized as my own choices. If I empower you to negotiate on my behalf with another person then your negotiation decisions are recognized as binding upon me. There is no difference in either case between decisions I make and decisions my agent makes. Adam was our representative in the garden. When he was tested, all of mankind was tested. Our representative chose, on our behalf, to sin; at that moment each and every one of us chose to sin. It is this sin for which we are responsible.
Many will question the agent or representative status of Adam. Perhaps you might say, “When I send out a representative I am responsible because I choose and empower that person to represent me. I never picked Adam to be my representative.” Actually, that was not needed. Even in our legal system we recognize that one incapable of acting on their own behalf can have a representative chosen for them. There are only three requirements:
- The person chosen is capable of being my representative.
- The person is chosen to act for my benefit.
- The person choosing has the wisdom and right to make this choice.
For example, in a court of law, if you are deemed incapable of making your own decisions for your own benefit, the judge is empowered by the legal system to select a representative for you. In the test in the garden the perfect man—Adam—was chosen by the perfect judge—God—to represent us. Who would pick a better representative, me or God? As a fallible human being, capable of error, the chance of me picking a better representative than God is nil. Perfect God, incapable of error, chose to create a sinless representative to stand in for all of us in a special test. Unfortunately, Representative Adam failed the test and sinned. When he sinned as our representative we sinned. The only way you can call God’s choice of a representative unfair is if you would have chosen someone better than a perfect human, (but even perfect Adam failed, so your perfect choice would have also failed), or if you would have been better able to choose than perfect God. You and I were properly represented in the garden and through our representative we sinned. The Doctrine of Original Sin means the original sin was our own.
There is good news from this. Original Sin is not the end of the discussion. The concept of agent, or representative, gives us the cure for our sin. God chose to actively eradicate the guilt of sin. To do this he chose another representative to stand in for mankind. This representative had none of his own sins—nothing of his own to pay for. He came and lived upon the earth as a perfect human. He went through temptations and triumphed. In the end he died upon a cross and rose from the dead. God applies his obedience to cover our disobedience. Christ has become our new soteriological representative. When we confess Christ his act of obedience becomes our act of obedience and our sins become his.
“God made him who had no sin to become sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” 2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV.
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous,” Romans 5:19 NIV.
- If you are a social relativist, believing society determines morality and no self-evident truth exists, then this document is not going to make any sense to you.
- My father died in 1998, and, since he confessed Christ prior to his death, I look forward to seeing him in heaven. However, this does not make the choices he made in life any less sinful or the results of them any less real. Yet, I don’t want the reader to think that this statement is an attack on my father. Honesty is honest. Teaching is best illustrated by the life of the teacher.
- The Laugh Test is just as applicable to theology as to the rest of life. If you, as a believer, can’t repeat a doctrine without breaking into laughter you either misunderstand the doctrine or there is a problem with the doctrine.
- 1 Corinthians 15:22; 45-49
- When interpreting scripture be careful to keep to its context. The old saying is very true: “A text without context is a pretext.”
- But to be better at choosing than God, you would have to be more perfect than God. Since perfect means completely without anything superior, how could you be more perfect God? How can you out perfect the perfect, since the perfect cannot be surpassed? If you were equally perfect to God, you would have chosen the same Adam to represent you—because what the perfect did choose is exactly what any perfect would choose.