This article describes how original sin is passed on since Adam through the generations. The author looks at some structural aspects and relationships that play a role in inheriting original sin, and the impact they have on everyone.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2010. 4 pages.

Original Sin in the Structure of our Being


The doctrine of original sin raises many questions and is often cause for discussions. I would now like to present a few thoughts of my own on this doctrine, stating my conclusion straight away for the sake of clarity and ease of reference.

What is original sin? When we speak of original sin we confess our sinful nature. We confess it to be sin: I am a sinful being! Sin is deeply rooted in me; it is the confession of Romans 7 – “What a wretched man I am!” From the very beginning of my existence it was in me: “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51).

Characteristic of this part of Christian confession is that we, conscious of guilt, acknowledge this sinful nature as sin before God. Our inherited sinful nature is not the same as inherited physical characteristics. Skin colour and the colour of one’s eyes are hereditary; but that is not sin. An AIDS infection can be passed on from parents to children, as can a susceptibility to alcohol addiction and certain degenerative diseases. Perhaps even a strong attraction to the opposite sex can be passed on. Yet genetic characteristics, deviations or weaknesses are not sin. Illness, whether or not hereditary, is not sin. Physical factors outside of our responsibility are not sin.

It is also not the same as receiving an inheritance. You can inherit from your parents without being able to do anything about it. It takes place outside your will. You can even – under our inheritance laws anyway – accept or reject such an inheritance. You can accept it conditionally: if the debts turn out to be larger than the assets, you can ultimately renounce the inheritance. When we confess original sin, we acknowledge that we will not renounce it; that indeed we cannot do so. We have no influence over this inheritance.


The term ‘inherited sin’ need not be avoided, so long as we weight the second word as heavily as the first. It is inherited sin. In confessing that, we take the responsibility for it upon ourselves. Yes, it is true: that sinful being – it is I!

I am connected with my ancestors in my sin. We are all of us sinful together. Such confession can be found in Psalm 79:8: “Do not hold against us the sins of past generations”, which implies that God does us no injustice by imputing those sins to us, though we plead with Him not to do so.

Something like that can be heard in Psalm 106. Verse 6 says: “We have sinned, even as our fathers did; we have done wrong and acted wickedly”. The psalm continues by describing those sins of the forefathers in terms of “they” and “them”. Even though there is no reference to “our” sins, the history does wind up with “us” pleading for salvation: “Save us, O LORD our God”. We have sinned. The sins of our forefathers in the course of history, of which we also have a part, eventually led to the wretchedness in which we find ourselves now. It is a pity that these texts are seldom if ever brought into the discussion where the doctrine of original sin is concerned.

No Going Back🔗

The general resistance to the doctrine of original or inherited sin can be compared with the complaint of people who have emigrated from a paradise to a desert. The first forefathers emigrated (I do not compare the consequences of sin with emigration, but the sin itself). As a result, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren now live in the desert, while the first forefather is already long dead. They still live there after many generations and complain about the step their forefathers took: how could they have been so stupid as to choose this environment over the original one? “I would never had done that!” they cry out. They complain about their wretched living conditions, and these complaints in themselves are valid. But they do not go back. They might talk of doing so once in a while: “We would prefer to go back. We are stupid not to go back. Shall we go?” They make plans, but they are always half-hearted plans. In the end they stay where they are: from parents to children to grandchildren. All together as one large family, clan, tribe, nation ... humanity: one large community. Nobody leaves. Nobody has it in them to do it. The will, the pure consequent will that leads to action, is simply lacking. They do not go back to the holy life, the life dedicated purely to God.


When you speak of inherited sin, you acknowledge that. You acknowledge that to be the hindrance. You take responsibility for that yourself.

That is only possible if you, as a human standing before God, have self-knowledge. You confess your sin to Him. Awareness of guilt, with the knowledge of inherited sin, is a part of conversion. Through the work of God’s Spirit, I have become a new ‘me’ that distances itself from the soiled old ‘me’. Not distanced from the responsibility, but from the will, the attitude. This is the way I am, I see it again and again, but I do not wish it so. That is Romans 7: the new ‘me’ takes over the old; they are two very real ‘me’s, and both of them are part of me.

This is where the actual problem of the doctrine of original sin can be found. It cannot be discerned in an objective-scientific manner. The theologian cannot cut himself loose from his position before God. The question is whether I say yes or no to God, his being God, his creation, his claim on my life, his claim to my obedience.

This is what makes the Christian confession of original sin so unique.


The uniqueness of Christian confession of original sin lies not in the manner in which we look upon the relationship between parents and children, forefathers and offspring and the familiarity between them, but in the acknowledgment that we are sinful like our forefathers ‘because God has constructed us humans in a mutual cohesion’.1 We could also say: created.

This quote from contemporary times is no new insight. It is a common approach in Reformed theology.2 We were not there when Adam sinned, but we have, through our forefathers, come forth from him. Along that route proceeded sin and sinfulness. Sin was decay or corruption. ‘Man brought forth children of the same nature as himself after the fall. That is to say, being corrupt he brought forth corrupt children’.3

The cohesion between the generations conveyed the corruption along with it. The created structure now became the vehicle for sin. The corruption of the best became the worst. The best: a structure designed for man to multiply himself into a whole humanity. It became the worst: community in sin, a mass revolution against God.

Accepting Responsibility🔗

This is why revolt against the reality of original sin is nonsensical. Nobody can validly dispute their being a child of their parents. Here the word applies: “Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What have you begotten?’ or to his mother, ‘What have you brought to birth?’” (Isaiah 45:10). It is absurd to reproach your parents for having brought you into the world. The objection itself implies your being a child of your parents. Had your parents not conceived you, you would not be here, you would not have been capable of anything, let alone reproaching them. You cannot accept life with all its opportunities as an inheritance from your parents, and not accept your sinful nature also. Which is better: to exist, though a sinful being, or not to exist? We can understand people in utter misery crying out that they wished they had never been born. But this cry too can only be answered standing before God, both as Creator and Redeemer. I was conceived and born. Thus I live, but as a corrupted being – just as my father and mother. In the course of my life and my development into adulthood, I must learn not to shift responsibility for my life onto my parents, in endless inner reproaches, but learn to take responsibility for my own life upon myself. This is also an insight that psychology today brings prominently to the fore. They were contaminated; so was I!


Hereditary Deviation🔗

It is therefore not necessary to try to fathom and expound a separate explanation, a separate mechanism, through which the decay is passed on from parents to children. It proceeds through the structures and relations that God has laid down – through all those structures. One speaks of inherited contamination: that concerns the sinful nature that is in us. And inherited guilt: from parents to children, we all stand guilty before God. We could name many more structures. It can be helpful to conceive of the structures as discerned in Calvinist philosophy, the ‘law spheres’, as they were originally termed.

As humanity, in communion, we have strayed away from God. We have broken the covenant. (This is a notion that Reformed theology is comfortable with). Let us return to the image of emigration. The relationship with God is disturbed; estrangement has set in. The atmosphere is troubled, communication is disrupted, association is blocked. That passes on from parents to children. The distance remains. The estrangement proceeds – so far as we can help it. We could call this hereditary estrangement or hereditary deviation.


Another example can be given. Our philosophy of life and our worldview, our perception of reality, is something we share as humans. It is part of our cultural baggage. We tend to adopt this from our environment without thinking about it, without even being aware of it. Individualism, for example; or the way we treat the ecological environment; or a pessimistic view that has no eye for the sunny side of existence and God’s remaining ‘common grace’ therein. There are different worldviews: the Chinese differs from our own. Questioning the reason for suffering is something we find perfectly normal, yet inhabitants of India have quite a different view of it. Views also change through time. Yet we all share worldviews. Apparently, we adopt such a view without thinking about it. We experience it as an objective fact: ‘isn’t it like that?’ In reality, people are actively involved in the manifestation of such views. There is a subjective aspect: the interpretation of reality. This can be called the ‘social construction of reality’. In such a ‘construction’, there are, to put it mildly, things that do not coincide with God’s truth. We could call this the inherited error or hereditary distortion. The two elements discussed here are pre-eminently social; they occur in our social relations – the first in our life with God,4 and the second in our social connections as humans. Our own times pay a great deal of attention to social aspects, less so do our theological traditions. Perhaps we should now place a greater emphasis on this.

Imitation is another aspect of the passing on of sin from parents to children. Young people identify with their elders, for better or worse; they experiment with imitation of elders – as well as peers – who are important to them. That is unavoidable in the process of upbringing, development and socialization. It is this element that Pelagius emphasized – although he did not pay sufficient attention to the unavoidability of it. The church has rejected the process of imitation as a complete explanation for the passing on of the tendency to sin, including the worldview that lies behind it. However, in doing so it has never denied that it plays a role.

Family Likeness🔗

Theology systematically speaks of our connection with Adam as far as sin is concerned. I have been speaking all the time of parents and children, forefathers and offspring. Is there a difference here? If original sin can indeed be traced through connections with which God has structured our existence, then we should not only think of Adam.


We are connected to him via all the intermediate generations. On the other hand, whilst it has been repeatedly and emphatically asserted that we are guilty of Adam’s sin, the impression must not be given that we are guilty of the sins of all following generations.

But if that is the case, then inherited original sin becomes very abstract and, I fear, not fathomed deeply enough. Yes, we are guilty of the sins of the fathers. We heard that in the psalms cited above. Not guilty of all their individual bad deeds, though we acknowledge within ourselves the same main features. As it is with other hereditary traits, so it is with sin. We are different people, different individuals, yet we display the image of our parents, we look like them.

We may not drown our problems, yet we are prone to ignoring them and making things comfortable for ourselves. We may not have daggers drawn when we argue, yet we have other ways, perhaps more subtle or psychological, of paying the other back and hurting him. We may think in a more egalitarian way and no longer look down on those of lower classes, yet we just as easily, carelessly, and selfishly turn away from the suffering of the less privileged of this world. We may not be guilty of the deeds of Hitler, Dutroux and Bin Laden, yet the doctrine of original sin instructs us to recognize our familiar connection with them.


So, is the sinful nature passed on through the route of sexuality and reproduction? Augustine struggled with this question. In his opinion, there was something sinful about the act of copulation because it is accompanied by unbridled lust. We have learned not to follow him in this train of thought. The sinful nature is passed on from parents to children, through the generations, as we said – that is not the same as along a purely biological route, just as parenthood is not just biological. That does not eliminate the fact that reproduction has a vital role in parenthood. The maxim that ‘corruption of the best becomes the worst’ can be applied here. I believe that we are not yet done with the Old Testament laws concerning (normal) sexuality and birth, though we no longer have a feel for the meaning of them. Could not these laws have worked towards the learning process that eventually brought David to confess ‘I was guilty when I was born, already when my mother conceived me?’


  1. ^ J. van Genderen en W.H. Velema, Beknopte gereformeerde dogmatiek, Kampen 1992, p.378
  2. ^ S. Greydanus, Toerekeningsgrond van het peccatum originans (Adam’s bondsbreuk), Amsterdam 1906, p. 35.
  3. ^ Canons of Dort Chapter 3-4, article 2.
  4. ^ Although it is not commonly called ‘social’, this does concern association, communication between persons – God and us.

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