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3. The Effects of Sin

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How did Adam’s sin affect humanity? His disobedience affected the human race in at least two ways:

1. Because of Adam’s sin, the human race inherits his guilt.

Romans 5:12, 17, and 19 says,

So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned… For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!... For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.

God promised Adam and Eve that if they ate of the tree, they would die (Gen 2:17). Death really just means “separation.” In physical death, the body is separated from the soul. Eventually, in Genesis 5, Adam and Eve died physically. But there are also two other types of death: spiritual death and eternal death. After Adam and Eve sinned and when God was looking for them in the garden, they hid from him (Gen 3:8). They experienced spiritual death—separation from intimacy with God and his goodness. Now, all people hide from God. In Romans 1:21-23, Paul said this about the ancient world,

For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Like Adam and Eve who hid from God, people know there is a God because of an innate, God-given conscience that all people have (Rom 1:19, 2:15) and also because of creation’s witness. Paul said because of creation people are without excuse for believing in God (Rom 1:20, cf. Ps 19:1-6). However, instead of acknowledging God, people hide from him by ignoring God to focus on themselves, creating idols to worship instead of God, or denying his existence altogether. That is the state of people before salvation—spiritual death. And if people continue in spiritual death without repenting and following Christ, they will eventually experience eternal death—separation from God’s goodness in hell forever. Since God is omnipresent, he is present everywhere, at all times, including hell. However, in hell, he is present only to judge eternally and never to bless. In hell, there will be no grace, mercy, love, or goodness. Revelation 20:15 describes this final judgment when it says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.” Because of Adam’s sin, the human race, now, experiences spiritual, physical, and eternal death. The only hope for us is Jesus, God’s Son, who experienced death for us so that we could experience eternal life.

Now what must be noticed in Romans 5 is that even though all people sin and earn death on their own (Roman 3:23, 6:23), we are first of all guilty because of Adam’s sin. Romans 5:12 says because of one man’s sin, “death spread to all people because all sinned.” All people “sinned”—past tense—in and through Adam, including those who have not been born yet, and therefore experience his guilt, including death. Likewise, Romans 5:17 says “For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one.” All die because of one man named Adam. Further proof that all people experience Adam’s guilt is the fact that even infants die, though never sinning willfully.

How is it possible that all “sinned” in Adam? There are two primary views:

  • One view is called federal head theory. In federal head theory, Adam represented all of humanity before God, even as kings, presidents, and prime ministers represent certain people groups today. As the federal head, when Adam sinned against God, he essentially declared war with God. And because he declared war with God, all his offspring are included in that war. Though this may not seem fair, it’s the same with wars today. When the king, president, or prime minister declares war, the people in that nation are at war, even those who disagree with it. God made Adam our king, and we sinned and rebelled against God when he did. Doctrinally, this act is called imputation. Adam’s sin is credited to our account because of him being our leader; therefore, we all are guilty and experience the resulting consequence, which is death.
  • Another view is called realistic theory or natural theory. It is also sometimes called the Augustinian view. Augustine believed humanity sinned when Adam sinned because humanity was in Adam’s loins when it happened. Biblical support for this view is seen in Hebrews when the writer describes Melchizedek’s priesthood as greater than the Levitical priesthood (7:1-10). The author argues based on the fact that Levi was Abraham’s grandson, and Abraham paid tithes to the ancient priest Melchizedek (Gen 14). Levi, though unborn, essentially paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham, as “he was still in his ancestor Abraham’s loins” (Heb 7:9-10). Therefore, since the lesser typically pays tithes to the greater, the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than that of Levi. Thus, Augustine believed all of humanity likewise “sinned” in the loins of Adam, and consequently received his same punishment. Though there is merit to the Augustinian view, the federal headship has been more widely accepted throughout history.

Now again, many would vigorously declare, “This is not fair! How can we be punished because of the sin of Adam?” (1) It should be remembered that though we all die because of Adam’s sin, we all sin like Adam and therefore deserve death. Again, unless we die as infants, we all rebel against God in our thoughts, words, and actions. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 says, “the payoff of sin is death.” Apart from Adam’s transferred guilt, we earn death because of our own sins. (2) Another thing we must consider when trying to understand Adam’s sin being imputed to us is Scripture’s teaching that when we repent and follow Christ, his righteous life is imputed to ours, which is why God saves us from the penalty of our sins. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous.” In this way, Christ is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45). The first federal head led us into sin and death, but the second one leads us into righteousness and eternal life. If we think it is unfair for Adam’s sins to be imputed to us, we must also consider it unfair for Christ’s righteousness to be imputed to us (2 Cor 5:21). God regards the human race as an organic unity under Adam, and Christians—those who repent and believe in Christ—as an organic unity under Christ.1

How else did Adam’s sin affect humanity?

2. Because of Adam’s sin, the human race inherits his sinful disposition.

This is often called “original sin” or “inherited sin.”2 It is original because it traces back to Adam’s original sin. After Adam’s sin, he then had a sinful disposition—a sin nature—and all his children inherit it as well. R. C. Sproul describes original sin this way:

Original sin describes our fallen, sinful condition, out of which actual sins occur. Scripture does not tell us that we are sinners because we sin; rather, it affirms that we sin because we are sinners. We have a fallen, corrupt nature, out of which flow the actual sins we commit. Original sin, then, describes the fallen condition of the human race.3

Though people tend to think of humanity’s sinfulness as a product of environment—something learned—that simply is not true. Scripture says we are born with this sinful tendency. In Psalm 51:5, David said: “Look, I was guilty of sin from birth, a sinner the moment my mother conceived me.” From conception, in the womb, children are sinful. They are born as little tyrants—wanting their own way. As they become toddlers, they cry, scream, yell, fall on the floor, and hit if they don’t get their way. They don’t have to be taught to do wrong. They discover that on their own. They have to be taught to do good. Likewise, Psalm 58:3 says, “The wicked turn aside from birth; liars go astray as soon as they are born.”

Total Depravity

The effects of sin on human nature are widespread and total in scope. Sin has affected every aspect of humanity, including the mind, will, and emotions. This is called the doctrine of total depravity. “Depravity” simply means “corruption.” In Romans 7:18, Paul said: “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it.” Often in Scripture, our sinful nature is called the “flesh” or the “old man” (Rom 8:5, 6:6). In the flesh, there is a continual inclination to sin against God and others. Galatians 5:19-21 describes this:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

Likewise, Jeremiah 17:9 (NIV) says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” In fact, sin has affected the human mind and emotions in such a way that people, apart from God’s grace, cannot understand God’s Word or submit to it. Romans 8:7 says, “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.” Also, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Because the effects of sin are so debilitating on the human will, God must do a supernatural work in a person’s life for him or her to be saved at all. In John 6:44, Christ said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” And, Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Since the flesh—our natural disposition—is hostile to God and cannot obey him (Rom 8:7) and the fact that our unredeemed minds cannot understand or accept God’s Word (1 Cor 2:14), God must act to save us. Salvation is by grace—unmerited favor—and includes God giving people faith to be saved (Eph 2:8-9, Phil 1:29). Paul rightly described unbelievers as “dead” in their “transgressions and sins” (Eph 2:1). As dead people, they cannot respond to spiritual stimuli. God must act by drawing them to himself and giving them faith to positively respond to the gospel message (John 6:44).

Total depravity essentially means three things:

1. Because of humanity’s sin nature, the mind, will, and emotions of every person have been corrupted. Again, in Romans 7:18, Paul said, “For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.” This taints everything one does—thoughts, words, and deeds.

2. Because of humanity’s sin nature, people can do nothing that pleases God, apart from grace. This is taught in various texts: Isaiah 64:6 says, “We are all like one who is unclean, all our so-called righteous acts are like a menstrual rag in your sight.” Even our good deeds are tainted by sin before God. This is because, though humans do many good deeds, their heart motives in doing them are corrupt. For example, Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please” God. Since unbelievers are not trusting in God nor seeking to bring him glory by what they do, they can’t please God. Also, in John 15:5, Christ said that by abiding in him, we’ll produce much fruit, but apart from him, we can do nothing. Again, this means people, apart from Christ, can do nothing pleasing to God. It’s our being attached to Christ which makes our works acceptable. Therefore, total depravity means that people, apart from saving and sanctifying grace, can do nothing that pleases God or earns merit with him.

3. Because of humanity’s sin nature, people can do nothing to save themselves. Though humans are free to make choices, their choices are driven by their nature. Again, in Romans 8:7, Paul said, “the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so.” Apart from God graciously drawing us to himself and equipping us to respond, nobody will choose God. Like animals, humans always act according to their nature. If you offer a lion steak or salad, 100 out of 100 times he will choose steak because of his nature. Likewise, our sinful nature causes us to reject Christ and choose sin. Therefore, to be saved, God must graciously act by choosing us, providing an opportunity to hear the gospel, and giving us faith to respond to it (cf. Rom 8:29-30, Eph 1:4, 2:8-9, Phil 1:29). Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Because of the total depravity of our nature, people cannot contribute to their salvation, unlike what most religions teach, including Roman Catholicism. Salvation must be completely by grace—unmerited favor from God.

With that said, total depravity does not mean everybody is as bad as they could be. Wayne Grudem’s comments on this are helpful:

This inherited tendency to sin does not mean that human beings are all as bad as they could be. The constraints of civil law, the expectations of family and society, and the conviction of human conscience (Rom. 2:14–15) all provide restraining influences on the sinful tendencies in our hearts. Therefore, by God’s “common grace” (that is, by his undeserved favor that is given to all human beings), people have been able to do much good in the areas of education, the development of civilization, scientific and technological progress, the development of beauty and skill in the arts, the development of just laws, and general acts of human benevolence and kindness to others.2

All people, including unsaved ones, (1) are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), (2) have a God-given conscience, though imperfect, which convicts them of sin and affirms their good deeds (Rom 2:15), and (3) are recipients of God’s common grace, as God provides many good things for them—life, breath, sunshine, rain, etc.—so that they will seek him (Acts 17:5, Matt 5:45). Therefore, people have a tremendous capacity to do good, and have done so; however, apart from God’s saving grace which gives them a new nature, they cannot please God or have ultimate victory over sin.


  1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
  2. What were the effects of Adam’s sin on the human race?
  3. What are the federal head theory of sin and the realistic/natural theory?
  4. What does the term original sin mean?
  5. What is total depravity and what are its implications for the human condition?
  6. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

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1 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (pp. 495–496). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

2 Aaron, Daryl. Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day: How can I know God? Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

3 Sproul, R. C. (2014). Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (p. 108). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Hamartiology (Sin)

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