Just and the Justifier

A Christian Distinctive

Imputed Sin? Really?

Being a perfectionist, a ‘precisionist’, often to pathological levels; I always had an acute sense of a scrupulous, exacting justice. A parent betrayed a confidentiality at ten years old, which in my adult judgment as it would have appeared to that parent, to be minor. But a child has a different estimation of such violations, which parents dismiss at our and their peril. The ‘great betrayal’ happened two years before my conversion. I never trusted either parent with any secrets throughout my teen-age years, to my great detriment. I was a different sort of holy terror, for any parent to put up with.

In my spiritual battles of the mind, it was necessary for me to perceive the justice in the Justification in order to certify to myself the truth of Christianity. This was a critical and pivotal issue. For to borrow from Apostle Paul, if the Justification does not satisfy Justice, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”[1].

When I was in primary school, whenever the teacher could not discover the perpetrator of some minor vandalism or other misdemeanor, she (usually) would stay the whole class in detention until the culprit came forward. The latter rarely happened. However, I was fully galled. And my general contempt for public school educators had some roots in that unjust display of collective guilt. The idea of coercively ascribing guilt by association is so contrary to common human notions of natural justice.

And indeed, the God of Scriptures differs not in this regard. “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”[2]The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”[3] “He will render to each one according to his works.”[4] These are but some of the Scriptural passages that deals with the principles of (judicial) guilt

And yet, the Reformed/Calvinist traditions, in their Calvinolatry and fidelity to creeds found wanting, continue to persist in the Westminster Confession assertion that the guilt of Adam was imputed to all humanity.

They being the root of mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by original generation.[5]

This notion derives from Augustine of Carthage, who like us, was under the influence of his own Hellenized-Roman cultural milieu; which included the Roman Republican ethos that the purpose of marriage was the functionalist ability to procreate and nourish children; and whose influential views on sexuality, although not exclusively his, probably prevented far more males from considering Christ than any soteriological considerations. The Orthodox refute the concept of imputed guilt, settling for an inheritance of sinful nature; having avoided the influence of Augustine’s writings until the 14th Century when it was translated into the Greek.

It was the Latin half of the Roman Empire who adopted Augustine. And no wonder! The mores of the Roman Republic considered decimation, the elimination of one tenth of a military troupe on account of wide scale desertion and other abuses, a practicable form of justice. Proscriptions (i.e. Sulla 82 B.C.) eliminated whole patrilineal family lines to prevent the children from becoming future rivals and agents of vengeance. To what extent do insidious Roman mores, however distant from his times, influence Augustine’s understanding of Scriptures and ‘Jewish’ justice?

And ought we not to be careful in getting our hermeneutical understanding of Scriptures through the Chinese Whispers of theologians and ecclesiastical traditions over the centuries? Is this not why the de facto Constitution of the United States, as wrested by unfaithful secular jurists, is so unrecognizable from its original wording? Is this not the complaint by Christ against the Magisterium of Second Temple Judaism? Is this not the complaint by Luther against the Magisterium of Hellenist Christianity?

Moral/legal imputation of guilt differs from the inherited consequences of Adam’s sin. For, after the spiritual mutation of Adam’s nature, “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth”[6]. Likewise throughout the generations, all human beings have inherited that sinful nature. The seed of bad fruit; caused by defective DNA mutation in the original; inherits the defective DNA of the original. And therefore, bound to sin, descendants are sinners by nature and thereby guilty in their own right as sinners and for their sins.

The Scriptural grounds for this Calvinist assertion are passages involving God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me”[7]. However, the consequences of a parent’s sin differs from the imputation of his guilt. Parents go bankrupt. The child suffers from fewer economic opportunities. Parents divorce. The children suffer anxieties and will be more inclined to criminality and divorce. The natural consequences of the A.I.D.S. epidemic extended well beyond those, whose deliberate actions directly contributed to its widespread transmission. (The issue here being more one of multiple partners than the nature of the sexual activity). The evil, which makes evil evil, includes the harms it exacts to others beyond the immediate participants.

But it requires hermeneutical somersaults and rational incoherence to suggest that the visiting of the iniquity is equivalent to the imputation of its guilt, especially since other Scriptures clearly limit and circumscribe the nature of that visitation to exclude guilt. Indeed, in other passages, which involve a variation of the same Hebrew word, visiting is interpreted as punishing. But the punishment of a father’s sin upon the children differs from ascribing his guilt to them.

Scriptures even implies such understanding in acknowledging the complaint found in the Hebrew proverb “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”[8] The Israelites were not complaining about guilt being ascribed to them from the parents, but its punishment.

If third and fourth generations are deemed guilty for their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s sin, rather than just suffering its consequences, justice suffers from double jeopardy. Furthermore, moral / legal logic dictates that the imputed guilt that such grandchildren and great-children acquire, should likewise be imputed to their third and fourth generation descendants in infinite regress. It is judicially incoherent, arbitrary and capricious for the collective guilt of one’s ancestors to just stop at the third and fourth generation.

The last generation standing in history must be a truly sorry lot. For, if Dante’s Inferno were true, then the order by which hell-bound people were arranged in the various circles of Hell would not correspond to the nature of their prevalent sin, but in accordance to which generation they inhabited the earth.

This is all too very stupid and absurd! And yet the leading Neo-Calvinists of our day continue to persist in this morally and legally atrocious thinking!

The problem with the human race is not most deeply that everybody does various kinds of sins—those sins are real, they are huge and they are enough to condemn us. Paul is very concerned about them. But the deepest problem is that behind all our depravity and all our guilt and all our sinning, there is a deep mysterious connection with Adam whose sin became our sin and whose judgment became our judgment.[9]

Exegesis on Romans 5:12-21

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—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 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.

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. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 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.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 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. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.[10]

According to Piper, “all have sinned in Adam…in some deep and mysterious way we were united to Adam in his sinning”[11]. Being a student of history, when I see words like mystery bandied about by theologians, I hear of echoes of befuddlement swept under the rug, or disingenuity and deceit wrapped in gnosis and mystery. I will not ascribe anything so nefarious upon John Piper. I know not his heart. Indeed, this slight man is of such gentle Christian disposition, which no agent of deceit has been yet able to duplicate and long sustain, that such an accusation of nefariousness would lose credibility and discredit the accuser.

However, any assertion made, without credible and incontrovertible substantiation, and then shrouded in mystery, is suspect. And I suspect that those who are beholden to any creedal tradition feel compelled to defend the indefensible; for reasons partisan, to uphold the credibility of the creedal tradition; or because of the internal sociopolitical pressures toward organizational and ideological hegemony that Thomas Kuhn speaks about in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962).

Through one man sin entered into the world and death spread to all men, because all sinned. For, our first parents, whose natures suffered mutation, begat in their own likeness and image. Thereby, all are sinners, and all sin by default and nature. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”[12] “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.”[13] If all humanity are wicked, they are wicked from birth. Being “born this way” sinners, and sin bringing harm and ultimately killing in every way (i.e. deadening of sensitivities, numbing of our psyches, physical death, death of relationships and societies, eternal death), death spread to all men.

But it is loose and fancy-free extrapolation to suggest that the textual claim that all have sinned, means all have sinned in Adam; especially since the text claims that the death [which] reigned from Adam to Moses, was produced by sinning [which] was not like the transgression of Adam. Such a claim of imputed sin literally goes beyond what is written and is in contradiction with other Scriptural passages. Sinning instills a natural consequence of deadening. “Sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.”[14] The act or attitude, which is sinful, is deemed sinful for the very reason that it is deadening.

Now, Piper’s concern, it seems, is that by excluding the imputation of sin from Adam to all humanity in humanity’s condemnation, an understanding of the parallel imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us will be lost.

If we don’t understand “because all sinned” as “because all sinned in Adam,” the entire comparison between Christ and Adam will be distorted and we won’t see the greatness of justification by grace through faith for what it really is… Right here he says that Adam is a pattern for Christ because the all-important parallel is seen here. What? The parallel here is this: The judicial consequences of Adam’s sin are experienced by all his people not on the basis of their individually doing sins like he did, but on the basis of their being in him and his sin being imputed to them. [15]

However, the text itself says But the free gift is not like the trespass…And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. There is a contrast between the manner by which Adam’s sin and sinful nature is passed onto his descendants and the manner by which Christ’s righteousness is emitted.

So, in what way do they contrast?

Is it merely that Adam brought sin and condemnation, whereas Christ brought righteousness and justification? If that be so, then if Adam categorically brought sin and condemnation to all men, then likewise and in parallel, Christ categorically brought righteousness and justification to all men, not merely the ones who subscribed and practicably trusted the Gospel of their salvation. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men (v18). Such hermeneutical logic would thereby lead to universalism, which Piper deplores and condemns in Rob Bell.

Furthermore, the text says that sin entered (v12), death spread (v13), trespass brought condemnation (v16). It does not say that sin, death and condemnation were categorically or logically applied. And through transmission like a communicable disease, all people caught these evils. And thus one trespass led to condemnation for all men. Likewise, in parallel, Christ’s righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. But that does not necessitate that all catch this cure. This righteousness leads to justification and life for all and only those who believe. So in manner of application, if not in extent, both sin and righteousness work similarly.

So, in what way do they contrast?

Evidently, the manner of transmission differs. Humanity naturally inherits through Adam his sinful nature, without choice. One must deliberately choose to practicably believe Christ, which involves a deliberate intervention by the Spirit in the background. However, this natural transmission of sin by inheritance is the guaranteed way, by which I already claim humanity becomes depraved. This does not abet Piper’s case. Indeed, it would seem that imputed guilt is a superfluous and unnecessary addition to this natural inheritance of the sinful nature, which leads to sin and to death and to condemnation.

Scriptural logic, utilizing the full sum of relevant passages to this discussion suggests that the primary differentiation between Adam and Christ is that of inheritance in the former and imputation in the latter. It has already been demonstrated that imputed collective ‘justice’ is not justice, which natural [law] notions of justice and Scriptures abundantly confirms.

Furthermore, God Himself would be a hypocrite when He declares “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD”[16] He would be mandating one principle upon humanity with whom He shares a common affinity in spiritual and ‘psychological’ structure, and therefore to whom, such principles should likewise and would naturally apply where appropriate; while He is above His own principles. What makes the imputation of sin upon Christ an act of Justice, is in its very voluntary consensual sacrificial offering by Christ to own and pay our debt. It is not a “cosmic abuse” imposition of divine caprice upon the innocent.

If such divine imposition of guilt without consent upon the innocent party (Christ) would have been unjust, a divine imposition of guilt without consent upon humanity for Adam’s sin would likewise be unjust. Some deep and mysterious way we were united to Adam in his sinning. Humbug!

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The case is made by Piper and others that since people died between Adam and Moses, although there was no Law given by which to justly condemn them (‘sin is not counted where there is no law’), this must mean, by inference, that they are dying on account of Adam’s sin. But it is duly possible that a person may die from natural consequences of their shortcomings (a.k.a. sin), without it being consequence of a judicial verdict. Furthermore, both Paul and Christ deal with judgment in the absence of given Law. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul writes:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.[17]

It is a well-known legal principle that in the absence of a written and witnessed contracts, the habitual practices of the participants proffers evidence that such an understanding, an unwritten contract has been reached and operated on. Prior to the legal ‘institutionalization’ of marriage in the 15th and 16th Century, judges would determine, as best they could, whether indeed couples were married on the basis of their prior conduct. Part of the reason for institutionalization was because of increasing difficulty in making those determinations because of decline in fidelity and geographical mobility. (Women would therefore be abandoned with many children and had little recourse without sufficient proof of husbandly domicile.)

In like manner, to the extent that those outside the Mosaic Law, practice, however inconsistently, a particular subset of principles that are found in that Law; or who judge others on the basis of such principles (“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”[18]); or whose internal consciences indicate that they have internalized and accepted these principles; they shall be judged in accordance to that which they have acknowledged as true. This universal principle pertains both to those born before the Law was given and to those outside of hearing distance of the Law.

Therefore, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, could have occurred because of natural consequences of their shortcomings. A person pushed off a high climb will die, even though the victim is not at all guilty of such folly or vice.

However, the likely meaning of the passage is that they died (physically and spiritually) as consequence of a judicial verdict on knowingly violating those principles, to which they agreed, and to which were in accord with the Law of God. They died for their own manner of sins, which they could not avoid because they had naturally inherited the sin nature of the first parents.

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If John Piper’s representation of God be the true nature of God, I would vehemently reject, as a matter of principle, His vile and unjust God. May God be God in His omnipotence and omniscience! But my scrupulous understanding and love of justice, which is, in no small way, derived from Scriptures, would provoke the very same hostility in me as that found in any militant atheist.

For, if God declares that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne”[19]; that is, God rules by principle and moral authority and not by arbitrary and capricious power; then either He lies in hypocrisy, or His righteousness and justice is so inscrutable so as to be no source of reliability, material safety or psychological comfort to humanity. The caprice of heaven will be of little greater solace over the chaos of hell. And all humanity are most miserable of men without hope if we could not be certain of the immutable and scrutable righteousness and justice, fidelity and love of our God.

Indeed, Piper’s understanding of justice would make Christians the most dangerous of men. For, if the Scriptures calls on such men to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”[20]; to “be imitators of God, as beloved children”[21]; and if the highest form of worship and flattery is to emulate that whom we adore; than Piper’s understanding of the capricious imputation of guilt would make no man safe from Christian caprice. On the basis of some forgotten ancestor from centuries past, the basis of imputed double jeopardy guilt is formed without regard to actual guilt of deed. What a nifty way to eradicate dissenters and the sociopolitical undesirables. From the standpoint of non-Christians; to pre-emptively protect ourselves, we ought to burn their churches and permanently incarcerate and eradicate their persons before they do likewise to us!

The Augustinian-Reformed tradition leaves us with this quandary. Either Christians, as imitators of God, are the most unjust and dangerous of men. Or Christians dwell on a different ethical plane than the God they serve. Christians abide by common notions of actual guilt for actual vices. But their God is a Machiavellian tyrant, who is above the very principles He exacts on humanity; who not only can do as He pleases, but in fact does not submit His conduct under any principles, including those that He Himself promulgates. While He will render to each one according to his works, He Himself is beyond any such ethical restrictions. Talk about Napoleonic complex! Perhaps, that is why Barth of the Reformed Tradition, found God to be so “wholly other”.

One cannot thumb through the Scriptures exhaustively and see this Augustinian-Reformed monstrosity. The very Justification through the blood of Christ demonstrates an inordinately scrupulous fidelity to the satisfaction of all principles of a scrutable Justice, to which both the God and the man in Christ submitted.

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Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things —things that belong to salvation.[22]

I have little reason to believe that some form of capricious theonomist tyranny should soon visit our planet, although the sudden shifts, observed in history, do not preclude such possibilities. Nor do I suggest that John Piper and the tradition that he represents and upholds are anything but well-meaning men. The tradition he represents and upholds may have an uneven history, including that involving moral travesty and atrocity in direct consequence of their beliefs. But it is not any more ignoble than that experienced in the travesties of the 20th Century.

Polemical extravagance is sometimes necessary to provoke the man out of his befuddlement, arrogance or stubborn fidelity to nonsense. It is doubtful that worshippers of Calvinolatry can be so budged. But the logical ramifications of this scripturally unwarranted and rationally incoherent theological innovation offends natural and scripturally influenced notions of justice. And most of all, its stupidity and irrationality undermines the credibility of the Faith and the Gospel

This supposedly “reformed and always reforming” tradition should start living up to its name and acknowledge and repent from such foolish notions as these.

We ought to go to the Scriptures and say if my theological system can’t do justice to all of the passages; the relevant passages to this discussion; I need to rethink the system because reality is Scriptures. Our systems are an attempt to understand it.[23]

I am a fan of exegesis. However, limiting the exegesis to only one particular passage such as Romans 5 or only a conveniently selective subset of relevant Scriptures, without reconciling the appearance of contradiction from other passages, is incompetent at best and disingenuous and deceitful at worse.

© John Hutchinson (2014)


[1]1 Corinthians 15:17

[2]Deuteronomy 24:16

[3]Ezekiel 18:20

[4]Romans 2:6

[5]Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, Chapter 6, Article 3.

[6]Genesis 5:3

[7]Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9, Exodus 34:7

[8]Exekiel 18:2, Jeremiah 31:29. Also Job 21:19

[9] John Piper, “Adam, Christ, and Justification: Part 1”, desiringGod, June 18, 2000, Accessed http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/adam-christ-and-justification-part-1 on March 21, 2014.

[10]Romans 5:12-21

[11] John Piper, “Adam, Christ, and Justification: Part 2”, desiringGod, June 25, 2000, Accessed http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/adam-christ-and-justification-part-2 on March 21, 2014.

[12]Psalm 51:5

[13]Psalm 58:3

[14]James 1:15

[15] John Piper, Adam, Christ, and Justification: Part 2

[16]Proverbs 17:15

[17]Romans 2:14-15

[18]Matthew 7:1-2

[19]Psalm 97:2

[20]Matthew 5:48

[21]Ephesians 5:1

[22]Hebrews 6:9

[23] Michael Horton, For and Against Calvinism: A Discussion with Dr. Michael Horton and Dr. Roger Olson, Biola University, October 15, 2011, minute 1:10.

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