Romans (Part 11) – Judgment of Works Continued
Paul’s insistence on being judged for our works may create a troubling splinter stuck in the skin of our overall structure of belief. We have been born in sin, correct? We have inherited this sin from our first parents, Adam and Eve, correct? We are then guilty before God for that very first sin that caused Adam and Eve and all creation with them to fall under penalty of death, correct? If all this is so, why is Paul so insistent to inform us we are judged for (and seemingly only for) our works without giving proper acknowledgment to being judged for our imputed sin from Adam? We are guilty of that too, right? We are born in sin—totally depraved—estranged from God from birth—worthy only of death. Were we not to perform a single sin in our lives, would we not still be condemned for our part in Adam?
(Because we will be arguing nuances in this summary that may, at times, seem to be leading away from an effect from original sin, I need to state upfront that I believe in original sin and in consequences from it for all people. I also believe that we are born in sin. But explanation of that idea will not come until the end of this lesson.)
The idea of original sin and the transference of its effects has much to do with how we view the origination of our spirits. The question of individual spirit origination goes all the way back to the early church fathers. Origen seemed to write (based on interpretation) of the new creation of each individual spirit. Thus, God creates each new spirit ex nihilo (from nothing) as that human being is conceived. But Tertullian suggested another idea: the soul is, as is the body, generated from our parents. Of course, we have no demonstrable or even theoretical idea of how this occurs; it is simply thought necessary by many scholars as a philosophical requirement. And so, down through the centuries from then until now, the differing opinions of generationism, or traducianism (from Latin tradux, meaning branch of a vine), and creationism (the new-from-nothing individual spirit creation) have been wrestling. We are going to take the time to examine this issue because its resolution is needed not only to satisfy our thoughts in Romans 2 concerning Paul’s exclusive claim as to judgment based on our own works but also to serve us well in understanding Paul’s argument later in the center chapters of Romans. We will investigate traducianism and creationism together through the following steps:
- Biblical statements / silence on guilt of the spirit
- The logic of inheritance/imputation of sin guilt
- The structure of the image bearer
- The meaning of being born in sin
So let’s first examine some biblical passages that speak of the possibility for inherited sin guilt. Of course, we have already mentioned Romans 2:6 (and its source in Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12). In these verses we have strong insistence that God will judge and repay based on our own individual works. No mention is made of being judged because we are guilty of Adam’s sin. The point is not to make a conclusive argument from silence. However, the verses certainly do not argue in favor of punishment for Adam’s sin, and if it were shown that punishment does result from guilt for Adam’s sin, some kind of reconciliation would have to be made for Romans 2:6 to be read as complete fact.
In Ezekiel 18 we read of God’s displeasure for the practice by the Jews of claiming the proverb, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The proverb implies that the wrongdoing of fathers leads to punishment for their children. The Jews used the proverb to explain their terrible condition in Babylonian captivity resulting from the sins of their fathers. Jeremiah 31 recounts the same Jewish complaint using this proverb. But God is displeased with the Jews who use the proverb. God insists that they are suffering not from their parents’ sin but rather for their own. And so God states in Ezekiel 18:20, “The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity.” This verse implies emphatically that sin does not move from parent to child so that the child must pay the penalty for it.
Of course, consequences still remain. There are consequences affecting other people for most sins. For example, if I, in a drunken stupor, drive my car into another car, killing the passengers in the other vehicle, they do suffer consequences for my sin. Yet the consequence is not some punishment for sharing in the guilt of my sin. It is harmful and hurtful consequence, but I alone am at guilty and at fault . We find then that consequence can be passed from father to child (or one person to another), but God seems to insist that guilt (and therefore punishment) does not pass from one to another.
In Deuteronomy 1, God is displeased with the Israelites for failing to trust him to support them as they entered the Promised Land. For their sin of distrust, they were cursed to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness until they all died out. After their deaths, their children were allowed to enter the land. Verse 39 reads, “Your little children, whom you said would be plunder, your sons, who don’t know good from evil, will enter there. I will give them the land. . . .” The point here is that the children did not inherit the guilt of their parents’ sin, and consequently they did not inherit judgment for their parents’ sin. Though their parents, in their guilt receiving punishment, were not allowed entrance to the land, their children, not guilty and not receiving punishment, were allowed entrance.
One more verse is worth reviewing. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is speaking of death. He states in 12:7, “And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The implication here is that the body and spirit do not derive together. the body came from the earth (and thus passed by parents). But the spirit is given immediately by God and, therefore, returns to God.
Having reviewed some Scripture, let’s now think in philosophical terms. The traducian idea seeks to satisfy the path of guilt from Adam to us. The thought starts with the Bible’s indication that we have a fallen nature (Eph 2:3; Psalm 51:5). God certainly would be accused of being the source of sin if he created new, but corrupt spirits. In order to have a sinful nature, then, the traducian supposes our spirits must have inherited the corruption and guilt from Adam’s spirit. And therefore, along with the body, the spirit must be derived from our parents, carrying that guilt of initial sin on it from Adam.
Although there are some (what I consider) faulty assumptions in that reasoning, up to this point, looking at the limited information we have, the logic almost seems to make sense. But even before we get to the faulty assumptions, let’s consider the fuller implications. If our guilty spirits are generated from the guilty spirits of our parents, it is not only Adam’s guilt of sin that would be passed to us, but also all all guilt of all sins of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on up the line. If the logic demands the necessity for spirit generation to make sin transmission possible, all sin guilt must be transmitted. How could God selectively say he would transmit Adam’s sin but not some other sin. Thus, if Hitler were my father (or grandfather), God would hold me guilty, responsible before his judgment throne for the decisions to exterminate the Jews. No matter my cries, saying I did not do that, even detesting Hitler’s actions, nothing would be able to dissuade God from finding me guilty, if my spirit held the guilt of my parents’ sins.
I find such a judgment unjust—not simply because I feel cheated but because it does not mesh with what God has taught us of his justice. The insistence by Paul, David, Solomon, Moses, and the rest of Scripture that we will suffer judgment for our own sin is precisely to argue against the monstrous, unjust implication of a God who would hold people accountable for other people’s sins. For this reason alone, traducianism cannot be true. It either makes people unjustly guilty for the sins of others, or (if God selectively allows transmission of sin guilt), allows certain sins to be wiped clean from our spirit’s responsibility by mere caprice without benefit of the cross.
Creationism does not have this particular difficulty. In creationism, the newly created spirits in newly conceived individuals are without sin. But the argument against creationism is that the spirit then has no connection to original sin. Leaving it there and saying original sin has no bearing on our spirits is one of the Pelagian heresies. To avoid such a heresy, creationists must discover the way of effect.
The idea of federal headship came along to try to rescue the creationism idea from this charge. In federalism, we do not so much inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin as the father of our spirits (as in traducianism), but we are imputed with the guilt of Adam’s sin because he is seen as the representative for our race. Thus, as representative, his sin passes to all those whom he represents. This idea avoids sin guilt from our immediate parents (who are not our federal head representatives) but maintains the sin guilt transference from Adam (who supposedly is our federal head representative).
The problem with the concept of federal headship is that it is (1) not mentioned in Scripture) and (2) impossible to show it consistently from Scripture. The idea is not expressed in Scripture, but developed based on interpretation and applied backwards. It is mainly the idea formed from interpretation of Romans 5:12 that makes federal headship seem (to certain people) a necessity in order for the verse to have any sense. (We will discuss another interpretation for Romans 5:12 in a moment.)
But federal headship rests on the fact that Adam is our agent in the original covenant of humankind with God. As original agent, Adam’s actions have consequence for all those embraced in the covenant—all humans. But when we look at other covenants, we don’t see the same kind of all-embracing consequence. Abraham, in covenant development with God, believed him and it was counted to him as righteousness. Yet his righteousness was not imputed to all who were embraced by the Abrahamic covenant. And the same is true for the other covenants. With such inconsistency and without direct biblical reference, assuming and basing federal headship on interpretation of a verse, such as Romans 5:12, when other interpretations are plausible is not satisfactory.
But we are not left than in a swamp of confusion. I believe we can come find the right connection of original sin to our fallen state as we look into the final two points of our investigation: the structure of the image bearer and the meaning of being born in sin. Note the following chart. It is a rearrangement of the chart of image bearing that we have used before. In other words, all the same elements are there, but they are rearranged to help depict how original sin has clouded our view.
Let’s briefly go through all the elements of this chart. God is, in his one essence, truth, goodness, and beauty. But God is also Trinity, which means that although he is one in essence, he is three in Persons. His personal characteristics include his ability to think (intelligence, moral sense, and aesthetic sense), his belief (holding of faith and hope), and his activity (his loving care). All three of these attribute groupings (his thinking, believing, and acting) are based completely on his one essence of truth, goodness, and beauty (TGB). That is our God.
In creation, God wanted relationship based on his one essence of TGB. So God created us with certain attributes so that we could recognize and understand his essence—his TGB. He made us with attributes of apprehension (conceptual intelligence to grasp his truth, conscious morality to understand his goodness, and critical aesthetic to recognize his beauth). He also made us with attributes of approbation (faith and hope) so we could conclude from our understanding of his TGB and preserve it in hope. And he made us able to articulate that TGB revealed to us through cooperative love for him and of others. All these attributes of apprehension, approbation, and articulation exist in each person—all his image bearers. But all image bearers also are united in one essence. Our one essence is our physical, material existence.
All of God’s relational interaction depends on God’s activity revealing himself. Therefore, God reveals (as Paul explains in Romans 1) his invisible attributes: his divine nature (his essence of TGB) and his eternal power (his activity of loving care). And he reveals this essence of TGB to and through his creation (Romans 1:20), which is our essence. Essentially, God reveals from his essence (TGB) to our essence (physical creation). And our spirits apprehend God as he works this revelation through our essence.
The point of reviewing this chart is to see how sin has distorted things. The blue curtain depicts the shrouding over of God as source that we humans have done in sin (and as Paul describes in Romans 1). Thus, we end up still searching for truth, goodness, and beauty, but we look no farther than our own essence—the physical creation through which God has revealed himself. Instead of acknowledging God, we claim ourselves and our physical world and beings as the source of TGB.
That was the sin of Adam and Eve, actuated in eating the fruit. When Adam and Eve sinned, they bore the full responsibility (the guilt) of their evil action. But they had been given dominance over creation and had been told to subdue it (Genesis 1:28). In their sin, they allowed physical creation to take the upper hand. Therefore, in their sin, all physical creation was corrupted and held sway (evil influence) over their spirits. As they had children and their children had children, this same evil influence of corrupted essence (physical creation) dominated the spirits as they were newly created and joined with the newly conceived physical bodies. The influence of original sin, then, is through fallen creation as the corrupted essence of human essence (our physicality) holds dominant influence over our spirits. In Romans 1 through 3 (and beyond) Paul is showing that we all fall to this dominating influence of our flesh. And this fact is to what we refer when we discuss our sinful natures. Remember that God’s divine nature is his essence—his TGB. Our human nature is also in our essence—in our physical creation. And it is this essence that is corrupted.
God knew no one could overcome this dominance of evil influence of our flesh. So he decided himself to come and enter into this flesh (this corrupted flesh). But Jesus did not allow the flesh to dominate his spirit. He trusted in God in spite of the pressure of his fleshly influence and temptation, and he, therefore, remained sinless. He died and rose again with a body devoid of the fleshly corruption. In this renewal of flesh he is called the firstfruits of a restored physical creation (I Cor 15:20). We will find Paul discuss in Romans 8 all the rest of physical creation’s groaning, waiting for that renewal.