Saturday, March 1, 2014

Bob Dylan on the Imputation of Adam’s Sin


Temptation's not an easy thing,
 Adam given the devil reign
 Because he sinned I got no choice,
 It run in my vein

Pressing On        Copyright © 1980 by Special Rider Music

The Christian Doctrine of the Imputation of Adam’s Sin is not an easy one for Americans to swallow.  Now you’re telling me that simply because Adam sinned, I am guilty of it and I am in some kind of bondage to sin?  That doesn’t sound fair.  God wouldn’t do that to me.   He wouldn’t punish me for the sins of another…. would He?

But this doctrine, which seems to have fallen on hard times, it was once the popular and only one for the early British Americans known as the Puritans.  The New-England Primer, one of the first books printed in America in 1687 was the first reading primer designed for the American Colonies.  They used this little book to teach children the Alphabet by creating catchy rhymes to help children to remember each letter.  The first letter in the alphabet is A, so they thought they should begin with a foundational truth about Adam.  These early American Puritan children were taught to define the "self" by relating their life to the authority of God and His Word.

In Adam's fall
We Sinned all.
When you think about it, this idea of Federalism, i.e. that your Federal Head commits a sin and you bear the consequences, happens all the time.   When the leader of Iran, for example, makes a poor choice about developing an atomic weapon and the world responds with sanctions, suddenly all the people of Iran begin to suffer for the choice of the one.   Or if your parent is an alcoholic or addicted to gambling, the children will bear the consequences of no longer having a parent around or of not having any money left after the incessant gambling squanders away all that the family has to live on.

Now this word “imputation” is a bit hard to understand.  The dictionary tells us to impute, is to “ascribe or attribute to a source or cause” usually in a legal context.   We might use the word "transmission" instead of "imputation" if it is easier for us to understand this legal terminology common used by Reformed theologians.
But the theologians chose this legal word to connect it to the strong analogy made by the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12-21 between the work of Adam and of Christ and the Christian's relationship to each.

All of humanity stands with Adam as their representation to the extent that both his guilt and his corruption are imputed to them.   And similarly those who stand with Christ as their representative receive both His forgiveness and His righteousness by imputation.
The biblical position is that in Adam's sin, humanity was constituted sinners in the same manner that the elect are constituted as righteous – so we see this parallelism between Adam and Christ again.

As Paul puts it in another place (1 Corinthians 15:22) “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” 
Now there is another main theory on these matters and that is called Pelagianism.  It is named after the British Monk Pelagius (354-440 AD).  It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special Divine aid.   While few know the name of this belief,  Pelagianism is very popular in the world today, but it is a very hard doctrine to square with what the Bible says.   See for example Jeremiah 17:9   

"The heart is deceitful above all things, 
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?"

Or Gen 6:5

"The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."

Only.... evil.... continually?, This is a pretty bad situation.  The human heart is clearly tainted

It is also very hard to square Pelagianism with a casual observation of the daily news, or the world around us.  In fact the doctrine of Original Sin is pretty easy to believe when you look reality squaely in the eye.   This biblical teaching is probably one of the best attested doctrines.   Look around for a minute or two and you will see human depravity almost every where you turn.   It is pretty clear to any honest observer; that there is something desperately wrong with human nature.  It is clear that sin has tainted human nature, so that it is no longer what it once was, and now one of the deepest longings of our hearts is to get back to that original place.

It was for this reason that James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, and student in his college days of the Presbyterian Minister John Witherspoon, wrote in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."   So the American system of representative government is built upon this fundamental premise, the doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin.

To get clarity on this difficult subject, we need more easy rhymes like the Puritans used:
“In Adam’s Fall, We sinned All.”

Or like we find in some of Bob Dylan’s songs:
Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is

Blind Willie McTell       Copyright © 1983 by Special Rider Music

For a really great version of Pressing On, Click the Link below to hear Dylan's poetic description of Original Sin and the difficult, but fundamentally important doctrine of the Imputation of Adam's Sin.

Pressing On by Liam and Glen Dublin 2011



  1. Thanks for a most interesting and informative post. Some theological questions: Could the lyric be rein rather than reign? Was the devil supposed to be granted dominion over this world? Or is it that he has free rein to lead astray? One commentator reported the lyric as " 'cause Eve sinned" (with implications for the place of women). Is this a possible reading?

  2. Hi Fred, Thanks for your post. The lyrics that I cite at the top of this article come from "The Official Bob Dylan Web Site" where the Songs are spelled out "correctly" one would at least assume. If you can't trust "The Official" site, who can you trust? On the question of the devils dominion over this world, there is some evidence for this in a passage like Ephesians 2:2 "... in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience" indicating that this prince, note not king, does have his followers, and he is at work in the sons of disobedience, but he is never portrayed as equal with God, or omnipotent, or omnipresent as God is. So this "roaring Lion" prowls around, but his power is limited. The book of Job gives a good sense of his limited power, he can only do what God permits and he cannot stop us from finding the Lord, as Calvin said: “No man is excluded from calling upon God, the gate of salvation is set open unto all men: neither is there any other thing which keepeth us back from entering in, save only our own unbelief.” The commentator who reported a lyric different than that posted on "The Official site" maybe misheard, which is easy to do, so I would say "No, that is not a possible reading." Thanks again for you interest.


    Were denominations created so they could teach the apostles doctrine? No they were not.

    Acts 2:42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.(NKJV)

    The Roman Catholic denomination was established so it could teach the doctrine of popes, cardinals, the doctrine of the Roman Catholic denomination.

    The Lutheran denomination was formed so they could teach the doctrine of Martin Luther.

    The Baptist denominations were brought into existence so they could teach the doctrine of John Calvin and that of Baptist preachers.

    Denominations were formed so they could teach doctrines contrary the doctrine of the apostles.

    Can you name one denomination that teaches the terms for pardon that the apostle Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost?(Acts 2:22-41 ......40 And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them,)(NKJV)

    Peter did not preach. .1 Salvation by good works. 2. Salvation by Law keeping. 3. Salvation by grace alone. Salvation by faith only. 5. Salvation by saying the Sinner's Prayer.

    Peter preached. 1. Faith; John 3:16. 2. Confession; Romans 10:9. 3. Repentance; Acts 2:38. 4. Water Baptism; Acts 2:38.
    Peter preached the apostles doctrine.

    Denominations were created to teach and preach the doctrines of men.

    Mark 7:5-13......"making the word of God of no effect through your traditions which you have handed down. And many such things you do."(NKJV)

    Denominations were created to teach the traditions of men.

    If all believers in Christ taught the apostles doctrine, found in the New Testament Scriptures, there would be no denominations.