Can Sin Be Inherited?
Before I get started I need to make something clear
I am not teaching that we can save ourselves! There is no connection between rejection of inheritable sin or righteousness and whether we need a Savior. People cannot save themselves because salvation is by faith in Jesus’ redemption of mankind. Faith is not a work, so it cannot be called “synergism” or “working with God”. Salvation is a gift, not a wage, so we cannot earn it. Neither can we “inherit” it by failing to sin! It can only be accepted by faith.
I say this now because in the following article I will undoubtedly be accused of heresy simply for rejecting the popular assumption of an inherited “sin nature”. These accusers assume that this “sin nature” is the reason we need a Savior, but that is false. I will show that inherited sin is irrelevant to the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice reconciled the whole world to God (2 Cor. 5:11-21), but only faith in his resurrection will save anyone from eternal conscious torment in hell.
Let’s see what the Bible says…
17 To Adam [God] said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
22 And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” (Genesis 3)
“But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
“The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Eze. 18:20,32)
These are the Old Testament (OT) references, but before I go on to the New Testament (NT), let’s stop and think about what we’ve read.
In Genesis 3, we see God cursing the ground (the only other curse was on the serpent). Adam himself was not cursed. Not one word is said about his spirit, other than that he had become “like God, knowing good and evil”. He was innocent before; there is no “sin nature” even hinted at. But after sinning, Adam and Eve were no longer innocent. They had no sin nature to cause them to sin, yet they sinned. So we see two things here in Genesis: that sin is not caused by nature, and that any alleged death of man’s spirit is completely absent from the very spot in scripture it should be the most prominent. To not see one word or even a hint about something this monumental speaks volumes; it didn’t happen!
But what we do see is the beginning of human mortality. God had told him that he would “die” if he disobeyed (Gen. 2:17), and in Gen. 3:22-23 we see that God insured Adam’s mortality by preventing him from partaking of the tree of life. So this tree of life would have been the “antidote” for God’s pronouncement of death. That being the case, it is impossible for the death spoken of here to be spiritual. Who would argue that spiritual life can be obtained from a tree?
And if spirits could die, then we’d be advocating the heresy of annihilationism. It teaches that spirits of the lost will not suffer in hell but be destroyed or “killed”. But the Bible clearly teaches that spirits live forever, either in heaven or in hell (eventually, the Lake of Fire). Spirits cannot die or be destroyed.
So the only possible kind of death shown in Genesis 2 and 3 is physical death, or mortality. We see throughout the OT that both the righteous and the unrighteous all eventually die physically, but there is not one word anywhere about the death of anyone’s spirit.
In fact, the references from Joshua and Ezekiel clearly show that each individual human is to make a choice to follow God or not. And Ezekiel further states that people die for their own sins, not anyone else’s— and that includes Adam. Note also that righteousness cannot be inherited either. And it should be obvious that a dead spirit cannot make choices.
But the context of Ezekiel 18 speaks of judgment of people’s works. Vs. 22 says that if the wicked repent, none of their evil deeds will be remembered; vs. 24 says that if the righteous turn to wickedness, none of their good deeds will be remembered. But again, this is all about committed sins; there is no such thing as inherited sins. God is correcting the people who believed in this. In fact, this chapter is a rebuttal to fatalism, the idea that since we cannot help but sin, there is no point in trying not to. This is the real source of the “license to sin” idea: that we are fated to sin so why resist it? But somehow the blame for this “license” keeps getting laid on those who believe in what God says here in Ezekiel.
So the context here is clearly about spiritual issues, about judgment for committed sins. Does that mean the terms “life” and “death” refer to literal continued existence or destruction of a spirit? Not at all! Righteousness was determined by faith even then, and the righteous would show it by their works (see also Gen. 15:6 where Abraham is called righteous because he believed what God promised him). Rather, just as it is in the NT, “life” and “death” here refer to eternity in heaven or eternity in hell. Either way, spirits live on; they are not destroyed or even just rendered unconscious. For anyone to argue that spirits can die is to go against scriptures that tell of eternal, conscious torment for the lost.
Back to Genesis: if “life” and “death” can refer to spiritual existence in heaven or hell, then why doesn’t that apply to Adam and Eve? It does— but let me explain.
We’ve already seen how physical death must be the meaning there. Of course they would have to repent like anyone else, but dead spirits cannot repent. So when the Bible uses “life” and “death” in a context of judgment for committed sins, these are to be taken figuratively, not literally. But we cannot ignore the physical aspect of Genesis, and the fact that the Tree of Life could have kept them from dying. So both meanings apply to Adam and Eve: literal physical death, and spiritual separation from God. But the figurative meaning is not at all supported by that particular context.
The important point about figurative “death” is that it does not equate to physical death, where the body returns to dust and no longer exists. Rather, it refers to separation from God. And we have seen that this separation cannot be inherited, but is solely based upon individual faith or lack thereof. But wait, there’s more!
Now to the NT.
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)
“1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death…
10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” ( Romans 8 )
More verses to come, but stop and look at this. In both John and Romans, we see the legal term “condemned”. There is an enormous difference between being doomed and being actually, literally dead, so we cannot use those terms interchangeably. Spirits cannot literally die (cease to exist).
In Romans, we see a crystal clear distinction between the body and the spirit. Our new life in Christ will include a new physical, immortal body, but we don’t get that till the resurrection of all believers at the Rapture. So in the meantime, we are stuck in our “sinful flesh” even though we are figuratively “alive” in spirit. But it cannot be denied that our bodies are mortal because of sin.
More importantly, the cause of condemnation is not inheritance but lack of faith. Individual committed sin condemns us to spiritual separation from God (figurative death). The only thing that we inherit is a mortal body and a cursed earth.
Let’s keep that in mind as we read on, in Romans chapter 6:
“1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin… 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” (Romans 6)
No one would try to claim that believers no longer sin! Yet that must be the case if spiritual death is literal. Instead, our physical mortality is compared to the physical death of Jesus, and our new life is compared to his risen life. Surely no one would say Jesus died spiritually! But he surely did rise physically, in a new and immortal body. And Paul goes on to state point-blank that our physical body is ruled by sin. (Many translations, even the one I’m using right now, are wildly inconsistent in their translation of the Greek word (sarx) that literally means “flesh”; they use “sinful nature” without contextual warrant.) It is the literal, physical flesh we battle, not some imaginary “sin nature”.
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all. 19 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.
20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5)
Reading through that section, did you notice the shifting between physical death and spiritual condemnation? Paul is going back and forth making comparisons and contrasts. All instances of “death” cannot mean literal death, nor can all of them mean figurative death, or the passage would be nonsense. There are clearly two kinds of “death” here: legal spiritual separation due to committed sins, and physical mortality. We cannot mix the two on a whim.
Now look at this: “many” died and God’s grace overflowed to “many” (vs. 15). But “all” were condemned and “all” were justified (vs. 18)! What can we make of this?
I think John 3:16 can help: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus took away the condemnation of sin, allowing us to be saved by faith alone. Adam’s one sin brought physical death to all humans, but Jesus took away the curse of mortality for all humans. But only those who trust in him and what he did will receive this new immortal body. All spirits have literal “eternal life”, but only the faithful get figurative “eternal life”.
I realize it simply isn’t possible to fully resolve such a huge and controversial topic, but remember that even Peter said, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Exactly who is doing the distortion is highly debatable! Each side on this issue of inheritable spiritual qualities will point their finger at the other. But as deep and complex as this issue is, we must remember that it is a secondary issue, one not critical for salvation.
But there are consequences for teachings. Calvinism begins with the assumption of inheritable sin (but never inheritable righteousness!), then concludes that people are “spiritually dead” to the point of being unable to do anything but sin (how can a literally dead spirit sin?), or to even accept the gospel. And because of that, they insist that God picks and chooses who goes to heaven (and, by default, who goes to hell). This idea has turned many away from the gospel, seeing that this God is an evil monster who condemns people for being sinners even though it isn’t their fault to have a “sin nature”.
Instead, we should just say what scripture tells us: that Adam’s sin brought death and decay into the physical world, and that our lack of faith in Jesus separates us from God and from immortality. Jesus sacrificed himself physically to reverse that situation, paying the price to redeem us from this legal separation called spiritual death. But only those who accept this as true and trust in Jesus alone can be saved. God is not an evil monster, but our loving and holy creator who requires only faith from us. Telling people this, that they can choose between heaven and hell, will not turn anyone away.
* All scripture quotes are from the TNIV.