Original Sin or Imputed Guilt?

Original Sin or Imputed Guilt?

Many include inherited guilt in the doctrine of original sin. While I see ample evidence for the latter, I have significant reservations about the former.


Original sin is the doctrine that all of humanity has inherited a corrupted nature from Adam. The term itself is not in the Bible, but comes from Augustine (fourth century).

For Augustine, original sin also included the concept of inherited guilt: this is the idea that we do not merely have a built in tendency or desire to sin (as I’ve defined original sin above), but rather we are born guilty — even before we directly sin. However, Augustine also believed that baptizing infants purified them of this guilt. So while we may (rightly) afford much respect to Augustine, he, too, was a man with a fallible and sometimes mistaken understanding.

The point of this essay is to argue (1) for original sin (we all have a corrupted nature, inherited from Adam) and (2) against inherited guilt (we are guilty for a sin we did not commit).

As few evangelicals challenge the notion of original sin (as I have defined it here), I will focus on the case for and against inherited guilt.

Are we all guilty before God?


In the Bible, Paul writes plainly: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Then later John reiterates a similar point, noting that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

This is not so far-fetched when look around and see deep brokenness of our world. Yet, even those who seem to be doing a lot of things right are not free from this, for James writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).

If there was any doubt, Paul again is clear:  “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God [and] . . . each of us will give an account” (Romans 14:10, 12).

It should be clear: the question is not whether we are guilty. Rather, the question is: How is it that we are guilty? 

Inherited guilt and its implications

Before looking at the biblical case for and against inherited guilt, it is important to fully understand the implications of this position.

According to this position, all of humanity inherits Adam’s guilt. That is, we are all born guilty.  

Can God rightly hold us accountable if we had no say in it? Maybe, but that’s questionable. What about “all have sinned,” is that then pointless if we’re already guilty?

What of the mentally handicapped and infants?


A biblical case for inherited guilt

Look at Ephesians 2:1–3 and Romans 5:12–21.

What is happening with the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 (and then the Messianic references of Isaiah 53)?

A biblical case against inherited guilt

Add to that 



If original sin both with and without imputed guilt both lead to a position where everyone eventually sins, then what’s the point of making a distinction?



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