Can Sin Be Inherited?

By Cecil Willis


Hereditary total depravity is the foundation-stone of all forms of Calvinism. From this premise, the whole Calvinistic theological system is fabricated. The classic statement of this doctrine is found in the Confession of Faith of the ultra-Calvinistic Presbyterian Church:

By this sin (eating of the forbidden fruit) they (our first parents) fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all 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 ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby they are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.

Calvinism And History

Though the above is the classic statement of hereditary total depravity, the concept did not originate with John Calvin (born 1509). This doctrine had already been explicated by the Fifth Century monk known popularly as Augustine. But the doctrine had even been promulgated before Augustine, by the Third Century “Church Father” named Tertullian. Calvinism was the theological undergirding of main-line Protestant Denominationalism that arose shortly after the Middle Ages.

But today, various forms of Calvinism have seeped into the church of the Lord through the efforts of misguided and misinformed young preachers, many of whom have been nourished at the feet of Calvinistic teachers in denominational seminaries, and have imbibed the contents of commentaries and sermons compiled by Calvinistic writers. In fact, many of these preachers’ libraries are filled with virtually nothing but the books of Calvinistic writers. This partially is attributable to the fact that Calvinism has often virtually been equated with Fundamentalism. But the damage has been done none the less.

When I was just in my teens, the beloved Luther Blackmon took me aside one Lord’s Day evening and advised me: “When you go off to college, be careful that you do not learn too many things that are not so! ” What a timely warning that was. This precisely is what has happened to too many of our contemporary young preachers: They have learned too many things that are not so . . . and even worse, they now are teaching these denominational heresies to unsuspecting brethren. These misguided young instructors are precisely the reason why a series of articles such as are contained in this issue of Guardian of Truth are so timely and needed.

Ashdodic Language

It was said of the early Christians that their vocabulary, teachings, and practices were indicative of their having “been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Peter’s speech even betrayed him on one occasion; it evidenced that he had “been with Jesus.” During the Old Testament days of Nehemiah, it was said that some of God’s people spoke “half in the speech of Ashdod” (Neh. 13:24). In like manner, the vocabulary of many modern young preachers evidences that they have been drinking deeply at denominational founts. One would never conclude from their doctrinal speech that they “had been with Jesus.” They speak “half in the speech of Ashdod.” While these educated young men use the nomenclature of Calvinism, teach the doctrines of Calvinism, make the arguments of Calvinism, and even cite the “prooftexts” of Calvinism, they seem astounded when someone attaches the label of “Calvinism” to them! The fact is, many of them have not even explored Calvinism deeply enough to recognize that what they are so widely spouting is nothing more or less than the classic doctrines of deterministic Calvinism.

Imputed Righteousness

Be assured, brethren, the modern doctrine of “imputed righteousness” is nothing more than the flip-side of the Calvinistic doctrine of hereditary sin. One springs from the other. Calvinists teach that the sin of Adam is imputed to all mankind, but that the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to that portion of mankind whom they denominate as the “elect.”

Can sin, or righteousness, be transferred from one person to another? This is the question we seek to answer in this article. The transferral of sin, or imputed righteousness, precisely is what must happen if hereditary sin, or imputed righteousness, is to be accepted. One is as illogical and unscriptural as the other. The principle reason why we must now re-examine hereditary sin, as in this issue of Guardian of Truth, is because so many brethren are now teaching its flip-side: the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Can one who has the perfect life of Christ credited to his account possibly be lost? The implication of this question is the reason why so many confused young preachers (and some others old enough to know better) sound so much like they are inching toward acceptance of the impossibility of apostasy doctrine. Calvinism is a doctrine that proceeds logically from its premises. That is why it is so difficult to imbibe just a little of Calvinism. Logic requires the acceptance of all of Calvinism, or none of it. Accept this doctrine of transferring sin, or righteousness, from one person to another, and one logically then must accept the doctrine of election and reprobation. If Adamic sin is transferred to one, then his salvation is dependent upon the imputation of the perfect life of Jesus, according to Calvinism.

If sin is inheritable, why is not righteousness also inheritable? The doctrines of election and of the final perseverance of the saints are logical concomitants inextricably connected to this concept of transferring sin or righteousness from one person’s account to the account of another.

About fifteen years ago, I was holding a meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Brother George Eldridge, who lived in Baton Rouge, showed me a letter which brother Edward Fudge had written to someone in the Baton Rouge church. Brother Fudge has since aligned himself with an ultra-liberal church in Houston, where he now serves as an Elder. In brother Fudge’s letter, he recommended that the brethren in the Baton Rouge church accept the proffered services of two liberal preachers in their work. In justifying his recommendation, Brother Fudge said something to this effect: “I do not have to live a perfect life, because Jesus lived a perfect life for me.” This statement tremendously shocked me, for I readily recognized that here was an educated preaching brother who did not even understand the plan of salvation! He did not even understand that our salvation was grounded in the sacrificial death of Christ, rather than in His imputed perfect life. Christ’s perfect life merely qualified Him to be our perfect and atoning sacrifice. Since this shocking experience in Baton Rouge fifteen years ago, a veritable host of other preachers among us, both young and old, have espoused the Calvinistic doctrine of the imputation of the perfect life of Christ to sinning Christians.

But Albert Barnes, himself an ardent Calvinist, exposed the fallacy of this imputation doctrine very succinctly. He said: “I have examined all the passages (the so-called “prooftexts” – CW). . . . There is not one in which the word (Greek logidzomai – impute – CW) is used in the sense of reckoning or imputing to a man that which does not strictly belong to him, or of charging on him that which ought not to be charged on him as a matter of personal right. . . . No doctrine of transferring, or setting over to a man what does not property belong to him, be it sin or holiness, can be derived, therefore from this word” (Commentary on Romans, p. 102). Do not ever forget this very true statement from Barnes. It says all that needs to be said about either inherited sin, or imputed righteousness.

Definition of Sin

The fact is those who talk about imputing sin, or righteousness, really do not understand the definition of sin and/or righteousness, or else they deliberately misuse the terms in their preaching and writing. Sin is not an object, like a bag of potatoes, that can be transferred from one person to another, nor is righteousness a transferrable object.

Sin by definition is an act! Consult any number of word study books or religious encyclopedias on the Bible, and you will find sin again and again referred to as an act. Note a few of the Bible words used to describe or define sin. Hebrew Words. asham (guilt); hattah (missing); pesha (transgression); awon (perversion); ra (evil in disposition); chata (err, miss the mark); chet (error, failure); avon (iniquity); resha (impiety). Now note these Greek Words. harmartia (missing the mark); parabasis (transgression); adika (unrighteousness); asebeia (impiety); anomia (contempt and violation of law); poneria (depravity); epithumia (lust); paraptoma (offense, trespass). A careful study of the hundreds of passages where these terms are used to describe and define sin will evidence it is always something an individual does.

Note in this connection the sins of Satan (Jn. 8:44). He is said to be a “murderer,” “standeth not in the truth,” and “speaketh a lie.” Sin is not some ethereal object that floats around in the air and lights upon this one or that one, and is therefore transferrable from one being to another. Note also that the angels who sinned “kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation” (Jude 6). These angels did something which was wrong.

Merrell Tenny defined sin in these words: “an act of the free will in which the creature deliberately, responsibly and with adequate understanding of the issues, chose to corrupt the holy, godly character with which God originally endowed His creation” (Pictorial Bible Dictionary, p. 796). Tenny also said of the sins of Satan, angels, and men: “Their sin was an act of a group of individuals as individuals and does not involve the ‘federal’ or representative principle . . . their sin was . . . a deliberate act.”

The Westminster Shorter Catechism correctly defined sin in these words: “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God” (cf. Lev. 19:2; Isa. 6:1-3; Rev. 4:7,8). Tenny also said sin is the “violation of the expression of God’s holy character. . . . Sin may be defined ultimately as anything in the creature which does not express, or which is contrary to, the holy character of the Creator.” W.E. Vine uses these terms in discussing sin: “concrete wrong doing,” “a course of sin characterized by continuous acts” (1 Thess. 2:16; 1 Jn. 5:16); “a sinful deed, an act of sin,” 64an act of disobedience to Divine law.”

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible defines sin in these words: “Sin is an essentially historical phenomenon. It has a event-character. To become real, it must happen . . . sin . . . is historical: . . . a happening or event.” Now can one transfer an historical event from one person to another? Even the thought of it is preposterous. As previously said, sin is not like a bag of potatoes which can be shifted from one person to another. Instead, it is an event, an action of one individual, and cannot be transferred to another individual. It is true, however, that the sin of one person (such as Adolph Hitler’s) may affect other people. Other individuals may suffer as a consequence of another’s sinful act, but they do not bear the guilt of that person’s sin.

Hereditary Sin and God’s Nature

The Bible teaches that God is a Being of infinite justice and righteousness (Psa. 18:30; Tit, 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:13; Rom. 3:3,4). Scores of passages teach that judgment will be on an individual basis, in which each person shall answer for his own sins only, and for the sins of no others (see 2 Cor. 5: 10; Rom. 14:12; Mt. 12:36; Gal. 6:7-9; Col. 3:23-25; Rev. 3:4; 14:13; 20:12; Rom. 2:9, and a host of other passages which substantiate this same point).


The very concept of transferral of sin, or righteousness, directly contradicts God’s Word. The clearest and most explicit passage on this subject, at least in my estimation, is that of Ezekiel 18:14-20. Among Ezekiel’s statements is his affirmation that the person who “hath executed mine ordinances, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. As for his father, because he cruelly opposed, robbed his brother, and did that which is not good among his people, behold, he shall die in his iniquity. Yet ye say, Wherefore doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. ” If God’s Word is to be accepted, this passage forever shows the fallacy of hereditary sin, or transferrable righteousness.

The very concept of transferrable sin is physically, logically, philosophically, biblically, and therefore, actually impossible. The concept of hereditary sin is therefore totally absurd. But look for much more discussion among brethren of hereditary sin in years to come, for too many preachers among us have drunk for too long from the polluted wells of Calvinism. As they talk more and more about “imputed righteousness,” and Jesus’ “doing and dying,” you are going to find their logic forcing them into an acceptance of an hereditary sinful nature for man. And when they accept this premise, they then are going to find it increasingly impossible to reject unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the final perseverance of the saints the other inextricably interwoven doctrines of Calvinism.

Some brethren, with their doctrine of unconditional forgiveness for the erring Christian, now are already on the doorstep of classical Calvinism, and seemingly do not even know it.

And if such brethren persist in the leaching of the tenets of Calvinism, in the very terminology of Calvinists, upheld by the usage of Calvinistic arguments, and even use the Calvinistic “proof-texts, ” they certainly should not be surprised if they are referred to as Calvinists, or Neo-Calvinists. Be advised, brethren, it is now going to be increasingly necessary for us to fight again the battle against Calvinism, even though some naively might think that the war against Calvinism was finished in the Nineteenth Century.

And while this battle is again being waged, some of these unusually wise young preachers will pontificate: “They are answering questions which no one is asking.” I guess they think theirs is a cute little saying that sounds so wise. But the false teaching of Calvinism necessitates the answering of such false teaching.

It very well may turn out that the major battle of the late Twentieth Century to be fought among brethren will center around various forms of classical Calvinism. The earliest tips of the fatal icebergs of Calvinism among us now are rising. Hence the need for a special series of articles on Calvinism, such as you find in this issue of Guardian of Truth.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 17-18, 21
January 1, 1987