Essential to the historic Reformed doctrine of original sin is the belief that a humans come into the world innately predisposed to sin. The formal ground of this original corruption is itself a logically antecedent forensic imputation of the guilt of Adam's sin. Probably the most important proof-text for this doctrine is Romans 5:12-21:
"12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass[a] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness[b] leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"
Rather than attempt to demonstrate exegetically that this passage teaches the imputation of Adam's guilt to his posterity, we will seek to demonstrate that the corporate anthropology presupposed in such an imputation is by no means foreign to other passages in the Bible, and that to condemn the notion of an imputation of Adam's guilt to his posterity as unjust necessarily entails rejection of numerous key passages of scripture.
Perhaps one of the most well-known instances of corporate punishment based on corporate anthropology is the sin of Achan in Joshua 7:
1 But the sons of Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the things under the ban, for Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, from the tribe of Judah, took some of the things under the ban, therefore the anger of the LORD burned against the sons of Israel.
10 So the LORD said to Joshua, “Rise up! Why is it that you have fallen on your face? 11 Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things. 12 Therefore the sons of Israel cannot stand before their enemies; they turn their backs before their enemies, for they have become accursed. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy the things under the ban from your midst. 13 Rise up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, for thus the LORD, the God of Israel, has said, “There are things under the ban in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you have removed the things under the ban from your midst.” 14 In the morning then you shall come near by your tribes. And it shall be that the tribe which the LORD takes by lot shall come near by families, and the family which the LORD takes shall come near by households, and the household which the LORD takes shall come near man by man. 15 And it shall be that the one who is taken with the things under the ban shall be burned with fire, he and all that belongs to him, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has committed a disgraceful thing in Israel.’
Key in mind the bolded text in light of the following:
Jericho had been placed under the ban, a phrase which comes from the Hebrew word, herem, “a devoted thing, a ban.” The verb form, haram, means “to ban, devote, or destroy utterly.” Basically, this word refers to the exclusion of an object from use or abuse by man along with its irreversible surrender to God. It is related to an Arabic root meaning “to prohibit, especially to ordinary use.” The “harem,” meaning the special quarters for Muslim wives, comes from this word. So, to surrender something to God meant devoting it to the service of God or putting it under a ban for utter destruction.32
For something to be under the ban meant one of two things. First, everything living was to be completely destroyed. This has been called barbaric and primitive and nothing less than the murder of innocent lives. The Canaanites, however, were by no means innocent. They were a vile people who practiced the basest forms of immorality including child sacrifice. God had given them over four hundred years to repent, but now their iniquity had become full (see Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:24-28). The few who did turn to the Lord (Rahab and her family) were spared. As with Sodom and Gomorrah, if there had been even ten righteous, God would have spared the city (Gen. 18), but since He could not find even ten, God removed Lot and his family (Gen. 19). Further, if any city had repented as did Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah, He would have spared that city, but in spite of all the miraculous works of God which they had heard about, there was no repentance, they remained steadfast in their depravity.
Note that literally all of Israel was punished for the sin of one man, Achan:
But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.
"But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.2 Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth-aven, east of Bethel, and said to them, “Go up and spy out the land.” And the men went up and spied out Ai. 3 And they returned to Joshua and said to him, “Do not make all the people go up, but let about two or three thousand men go up and attack Ai. Do not make the whole people toil up there, for they are few.” 4 So about 3,000 men went up there from the people. And they fled before the men of Ai, 5 and the men of Ai killed about thirty-six of their men and chased them before the gate as far as Shebarim and struck them at the descent. And the hearts of the people melted and became as water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel. And they put dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, O Lord God, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan! 8 O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their backs before their enemies! 9 For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do for your great name?”"
God's anger was discharged upon all of Israel as though they themselves had committed Achan's sin in their own person. Of course, not only were the Israelites not all complicit in this sin, they did not even know why God was angry with them. Although they themselves had not as a whole done anything wrong, they are all regarded as having broken faith precisely because of the sin of only one man. It is event from v. 7 that Joshua did not even know why Israel as a whole was being punished. They knew nothing of Achan's sin.
Another example of this is 2 Samuel 24:
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” 2 So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army,[a] who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” 3 But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” 4 But the king's word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel. 5 They crossed the Jordan and began from Aroer,[b] and from the city that is in the middle of the valley, towards Gad and on to Jazer. 6 Then they came to Gilead, and to Kadesh in the land of the Hittites;[c] and they came to Dan, and from Dan[d] they went round to Sidon, 7 and came to the fortress of Tyre and to all the cities of the Hivites and Canaanites; and they went out to the Negeb of Judah at Beersheba. 8 So when they had gone through all the land, they came to Jerusalem at the end of nine months and twenty days. 9 And Joab gave the sum of the numbering of the people to the king: in Israel there were 800,000 valiant men who drew the sword, and the men of Judah were 500,000.
The Lord's Judgement of David's Sin
10 But David's heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, please take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly.” 11 And when David arose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David's seer, saying, 12 “Go and say to David, ‘Thus says the Lord, Three things I offer[e] you. Choose one of them, that I may do it to you.’” 13 So Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Shall three[f] years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days' pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”
15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men. 16 And when the angel stretched out his hand towards Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who was working destruction among the people, “It is enough; now stay your hand.” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. 17 Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father's house.”
The formal ground of the discharge of God's anger upon Israel is David's individual sin. He realizes that he has sinned (v. 10) and God responds to this by causing a pestilence that kills 70,000 Israelites(vv. 13-15).
The same Hebrew language and conceptual furniture of harem is operative in 1 Sam. 15:3-4: “go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." Obviously the infants had not direct or deliberately participated in the sins of the Amalekites. But this is irrelevant. They are regarded, in light of the Hebrew corporate anthropology with which Ancient Near Easterners would have been comfortable, as complicit in the relevant crimes. Likewise Num. 31:17: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones." Numerous other passages speak of God's judgments as involving the death of infants or small children(Exod. 12:29, 20:9-10, Isa. 13:15-18, Jer. 11:22-23, 19:7-9, Lam. 2:20-22). God sometimes even commanded, rather than ordained, such things (Deut. 2:34; 3:6; 20:16-18).
This obviously disproves the ridiculous notion of the age of accountability. But what it also disproves is the notion that God cannot hold someone accountable for something which they did not intentionally participate in, which is an essential premise of those who deny original guilt. Indeed, the point can be made that even if for the sake of argument we hypothetically grant that we only inherit death as the consequence of Adam's sin without necessarily inheriting the guilt of Adam's sin, as many of the Eastern Orthodox hold, this would necessarily entail the discharge of a degree of punishment by God that is incompatible with the very same premise they use to attempt to disprove original guilt. If God is unjust for original guilt, he is unjust for any any all immediate -- that is, unmediated -- consequences of that sin; in this case, physical death. It should therefore come as no surprise that many of the original Pelagians, in order to be consistent felt it necessary to argue that Adam would have died a natural, physical death even if he had never sinned. This is precisely one of the beliefs explicitly anathematized at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D.
Note also the following literary parallels in Paul's epistle to the Romans:
"The wages of sin is death"(Rom. 6:23).
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in[b] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works
For someone to inherit a "wage" is for them to inherit their "due." Since we have inherited the consequence of Adam's sin in our persons, that is, death, it logically follows that this is our "due." Our inheritance of such desert likewise implies some sort of participation in thte actual guilt of Adam's original sin. This is why even infants developing in the womb can die. It is evident from scripture that they are not yet capable of deliberately choosing unjust actions:
"He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted"(Isa. 7:15-16).
Nevertheless, infants, like all of us, die:
"for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come"(Rom. 5:13-14).
It is also evident from scripture that sin is both the necessary and sufficient cause of physical, biological death:
"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away"(Rev. 21:4)
"No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him"(Rev. 22:3)
It is precisely because of the presence of the curse that there is such a thing as death, and it is precisely on the ground of its removal that death will no longer exist.
P1: The just desert of all sin is death(Rom. 4:1-8, 6:23)
P2: All humans die.
P3: There is a point at which humans cannot yet deliberately sin, yet they still die(Isa. 7:15-16, Rom. 5:13-14)
C: All humans must be forensically under Adam's curse.
The category operative in all of these passages is the notion of curse:
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”[a] 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
This category of "curse" is defined explicitly in forensic language. Those who do not obey the "law" inherit a "curse." As lawbreakers in Adam, we inherit this "curse."
For Christ to become a curse for us is for him to bear the legal penalty of sin:
"He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf in order that we might become the righteousness of God in Him"(2 Cor. 5:21).
Charle Hodge's explanation of this passage is well-known:
There is probably no passage in the Scriptures in which the doctrine of justification is more concisely or clearly stated than [this]. Our sins were imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us. He bore our sins; we are clothed in his righteousness… Christ bearing our sins did not make him morally a sinner… nor does Christ’s righteousness become subjectively ours, it is not the moral quality of our souls… Our sins were the judicial ground of the sufferings of Christ, so that they were a satisfaction of justice; and his righteousness is the judicial ground of our acceptance with God.
Those who had been killed, either through God's providence or by God's preceptual command, are killed first and foremost because they are under a curse. It is on the basis of this curse that they are reckoned guilty before God, not by virtue of some sort of metaphysical status they either possess or do not possess. Such philosophical or metaphysical speculation could not have been more foreign to the Ancient Near Eastern thought categories of the Old Testament writers, and it is precisely these thought categories that are operative in Paul's exposition of sin, curse, redemption and atonement.
The language of blessing/currsing is likewise operative in the Romans 4 passage we have just looked at:
“Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Romans 4:7 )
Rom. 4:1-8 ought to be conceived of as a literary subunit. There is no metaphysical speculation in Paul here. The discussion of justification is simply a discussion of being under God's blessing or being under God's curse, and these categories are understood forensically. That's it. Metaphysical speculation is utterly absent the discourse. With respect to our covenantal headship with Adam, it is perfectly within biblical parameters that we should bear either the curse or blessing of our federal head for something that we did not do in and of ourselves.
Let's look more specifically at the conceptual category of curse as carried over from the Old Testament into the New Testament:
In the Old Testament being cursed includes loss of everything significant and a lowering to the most menial of positions. The serpent must crawl on his belly and eventually be crushed ( Gen 3:14-15 ). Cain can no longer farm and must become a vagabond ( Gen 4:11 ). Canaan becomes the lowest of slaves ( Gen 9:25 ).
Nowhere in the Bible is the state of being cursed portrayed in more graphic terms than in Deuteronomy 28:16-68. The curse follows its victims everywhere, extending to progeny and all means of livelihood. It includes incurable diseases, slow starvation, abuse by enemies, exile, panic, confusion, and eventual madness.
Curses are usually imposed by persons in authority for major breaches of the Torah that might threaten collapse of society. Thus in Deuteronomy 27:15-26 people who practice idolatry, incest, misleading the blind, ambush, disrespect for authority, and subversion of justice are cursed.
The curse is totally under Yahweh's control. It is his power, not magical forces, which brings about the curse. His sovereign decision alone decides who merits being cursed ( 1 Kings 8:31-32 ). He cannot be forced into action by proper wording or ritual. Thus a curse could not be used capriciously as a weapon against one's personal enemies.
A king might utter a curse against an innocent person but, like a nervous bird, it would not light ( 1 Samuel 14:24 1 Samuel 14:28 ; Prov 26:2 ). A curse directed against the elect could be turned into a blessing or even come back against the one who sent it ( Num 24:9 ; Deut 23:5-6 ). Curses could be removed by faithfulness. Levites were to be dispersed according to Jacob's curse ( Gen 49:7 ). Because of their faithfulness this scattering resulted in a widespread teaching ministry ( Deut 33:8-10 ).
The unusually severe imprecations hurled at enemies in psalms such as 109 and 137 may be understood as cries of agony. They accurately record a stage of human spiritual development in people longing for the deeper revelation of love that Christ brought into the world. In some cases these enemies appear more than human and may represent demonic forces of evil. In any case these psalms do not contain divine approbation of the curses.
In the New Testament Christ voluntarily assumed all the pain and agony reserved for those who do not keep the law ( Deut 27:26 ; Galatians 3:10 Galatians 3:13 ). He is publicly exposed in the same shameful manner as the rebellious son ( Deut 21:23 ; Gal 3:13 ). Paul wished himself to be accursed for his brethren ( Rom 9:3 ).
A curse came to mean total removal of a person from the company of the redeemed where all blessings are localized. Thus anathema [ajnavqema] in the New Testament became equivalent to herem [,rej] in the Old Testament. This curse was imposed for apostasy ( Gal 1:8 ), not loving Christ ( 1 Cor 16:22 ), and not extending loving care to the least of the brethren ( Matt 25:41 ).
First Corinthians 12:3 confesses the impossibility of an inspired curse against Christ. Revelation 22:3 looks forward to a day when the curse will be no more. (Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology)
We see that being under a curse does not necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with metaphysical substance, or even privation thereof. Gal. 3:10-13 explicitly speak of Christ bearing the curse that is due to us. Given Paul's use of the language and conceptual categories of the Old Testament understanding of curse, it is clear that to reduce Christ's death as the mere satisfaction of the insult to God's honor, as Roman Catholics do, is utterly absurd. The atonement is understood in light of the language of "curse", and the conceptual duality of "curse/blessing" is explicitly articulated, as shown before, in specifically forensic thought categories in Rom. 4:1-8, Gal. 3:10-13. I do not claim to fully understand how all of this works, but it is clear that it is the case. If someone wishes to ask me in bewilderment how God can possibly be "just" in discharging the consequences due our sin upon Christ in our stead, by laying the curse due to us upon Him, and crediting us with our forensic blessing, my simple response is this: I do not know how God is just in doing this, but clearly He is, because the Bible says that He is in spite of the apparent strangeness of the doctrine.
To summarize, we have demonstrated the following:
1) It is perfectly permissible, in light of the corporate anthropology and corporate responsibility operative in numerous Old Testament examples, for an individual to have a curse laid upon them, and its woeful consequences discharged, even though said individual did not commit the sin which incurred the first in the first place(e.g., Joshua 7, 2 Sam. 24, and numerous others)
2) In the New Testament, these categories of blessing and curse are articulated specifically in forensic terms and the Person of Christ is described as having this forensic curse laid upon Him, and its consequences discharged upon Him, with the consequence, that the objective blessing due to Him for His obedience is imputed to us because of His vicarious atonement(2 Cor. 5:21, Rom. 4:1-8, Gal. 3:10-13)
3) Apart from this, we are all partakers of Adam's forensic-curse due to our union with him, keeping in mind, of course, that such vicarious participation in curse and blessing has impressive Old Testament precedent(Rom. 5:12-21, esp. vv. 13-14).
4) We therefore cannot be charged with "nominalism": The debate has nothing to do with universals vs. particulars, and everything to do with biblical harmatiology(how sin is understood; in this case, we have demonstrated that the categories of "blessing/curse" and forensic guilt are essential considerations) and theological anthropology(corporate vs. individual).