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Is Sin Inherited?

Introduction

When interviewing a Lutheran pastor about infant baptism, I inquired why infants need to be baptized. He said that infants inherit sin from their mother and father. I then asked him to read Ezekiel 18:20, which says,

“The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”

His response was, “I can see how that passage disagrees with what I said.” Unfortunately, the conversation went no further, but the Bible did its work. It is the only source where answers can be found to questions about inherited sin. Let us take a look at the inspired Word of God.

What Is Sin?

There are several passages that define sin, but James 1:13-15 will be the focus of this article. James said,

“(13) Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. (14) But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. (15) Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

Notice that sin is described as a process which begins with temptation. Temptation originates from the devil.[1] Next comes lust – lust for fornication, drunkenness, idolatry, etc.[2] The last thing that occurs is sin. James implies that sin is a decision to give in to lust and commit an evil act against God. It is impossible to assume that sin is something that we inherit.

Now we come to Romans 5:12. The objection to the previous paragraph would be, “How can sin be a decision if Paul said that sin was inherited?” Let us see exactly what Paul said: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned...” What spread to all men: death or sin? Certainly not sin! It was death that men inherited from Adam. The reason why we did not inherit sin from Adam is because of the last three words of the text – “because all sinned.” In other words, every accountable human being would have sinned in the garden just as Adam sinned. So, does Romans 5:12 teach the doctrine of inherited sin? It is clear that it teaches the opposite.

Who Can Sin?

Can an infant make the decision to give in to lust and sin? Since it has been proven that sin is a decision to commit evil, we must understand who has the ability to do so. Do infants contain the knowledge to do evil? The Bible has an explicit answer. Deuteronomy 1:39 says, “Moreover, your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there, and I will give it to them and they shall possess it.” This text is similar to Genesis 3:22. God said that Adam and Evil knew good and evil after they disobeyed Him. They were both created as adults, or at least they were old enough to be past the age of “little ones”. Therefore, infants cannot sin. The age of accountability is different for everyone, but the Bible is clear – sin is not passed down through our mother and father.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Perhaps a syllogism can summarize what has been covered:

1) If sin a decision to commit evil, and infants do not know how to commit evil, then sin is not inherited.

2) Sin is a decision to commit evil, and infants do not know how to commit evil.

3) Therefore, sin is not inherited.

There is no clearer statement found in the Bible about the conclusion than in the book of Ezekiel:

“The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”[3]

Every accountable person has a choice between good and evil. At some point, we will do evil, but there is a solution – the righteousness of Jesus Christ that allows good to be done and evil to be forgiven.[4] That can be obtained by belief, confession, repentance, and baptism.[5]

[1] Mat. 4:1, 3 [2] Gal. 5:19-21; cf. 1 John 2:16 [3] Eze. 18:20 [4] Eph. 2:10; 1 John 1:7 [5] Rom. 10:9-10; Acts 2:38

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