‘Original sin’, like some other terms (‘total depravity’, ‘unconditional election’, ‘limited atonement’, irresistible grace’ come immediately to mind) requires careful definition if it is to provide useful service in theological discussion.
For Calvin, original sin is
‘a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19).’ (Institutes, II.i.8)
Henri Blocher, in his important work on the subject, elaborates the concept in the following ways:-
1. Original sin is universal sinfulness, consisting of attitudes, orientations, propensities and tendencies which are contrary to God’s law, incompatible with his holiness, and found in all people, in all areas of their lives.
2. It belongs to the nature of human beings…nature being that stable complex of characteristics typical of the class of creatures known as ‘human’, and present form birth…
3. Since it belong to our nature, it is inherited…
4. It stems from Adam, whose disobedience gave original sin a historical beginning, so that the present sinfulness of all can be traced back through the generations, to the first man and progenitor of the face.
The term ‘original sin’ harks back, then, to the origin of sin. Jn 8:44 touches on this, as does Rev 12:9; 20:2. As Augustine noted, the qualifier ‘original’ draws attention to the historical beginning and cause of universal sinfulness. Turretin remarked that sin is not radically original, for it does not date back to the creation, yet the term is apt, because (a) original sin flows from the original sin; (b) propagates itself in each person’s origination’ and (c) becomes the origin of actual sins.
In Judaism the relationship between original sin and actual sin was likened to that between the capital and the interest. The relationship between the two is so close that it would be difficult to draw an exact line between them.
Do we incur guilt because of original sin? Augustine thought so, and so did Calvin (cf. his comment ‘…which makes us liable to God’s wrath’. But some other Christian thinkers have found it difficult to see how guilt can be incurred before any actual sin has been committed.
Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Apollos/IVP 1997), p18f.
The Bible insists that the state of sin is inevitable and universal. According to the OT prophets, sin is located deep in our inmost being (the ‘heart’; e.g. Jer 5:23; 17:9-10). In the NT, Paul concludes that all people are under sin’s power (Rom 3:9). We are not sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners. Or, to put it another way, we do not come into this world and then fall into sin; we come into this world as fallen sinners.
Adam became a sinner and, by simple observation as well as biblical assertion, all of his descendents sin by nature (see Rom 5:12). The usual name for this inborn disposition is ‘original sin’. This term, although not found in Scripture, is apt,
‘whether one takes it as signifying that this disposition comes to us from the original man, or that it is in us from the moment of our own origin, or that all our acts of sin originate from it.’ (J.I. Packer)
The Bible often refers to the sinful nature as ‘the flesh’. In every heart where Christ does not reign, sin does.
Bromiley (art. ‘Sin’, in ISBE, 2nd ed.) notes that many questions that we might pose about original sin are not raised, let alone answered, in the Bible:-
‘It does not state how original sin is transmitted, whether by hereditary taint, environment, or a recurrent fall. It does not state how individual sin is related to original sin, whether by necessary consequence, concurrence, or influence. It does not state what measure of guilt attaches to original sin if it stands alone, e.g., in the day-old baby who dies without committing actual sin of its own. It does not state in what form original sin persists in the regenerate, whether as sin that is guilty, sin that stands under pardon, or as no more than a scar or weakness that easily leads to sin.’
We are not to infer from the doctrine of original sin that the process of procreation is itself inherently sinful (Psa 51:5 means, “I have been sinful all my life”, not, “I was sinfully conceived”). Nor are we to understand from this doctrine that human nature itself is inherently sinful (it became sinful through Adam’s fall; Christ himself was truly human and yet sinless; we ourselves shall one day be perfectly free from sin and yet still truly human).
The related doctrine of total depravity teaches, not that everyone is as sinful as s/he might be, but rather that no part of human nature – mind, will, affections – is unaffected by sin. Nothing that we do is meritorious in God’s sight; we rely utterly upon his grace.
Traducians favoured the idea of hereditary transmission of original sin.
Pelagius rejected the idea of original sin. He taught that we are born ‘with a capacity for good and evil’, and can freely choose between the two. Any relationship between our sin and that of Adam is one of imitation. A similarly optimistic view is taken by some popular writers today: Steve Chalke, for example, writes:
‘While we have spent centuries arguing over the doctrine of original sin, pouring [sic] over the Bible and huge theological tomes to prove the inherent sinfulness of all humankind, we have missed a startling point: Jesus believed in original goodness! God declared that all his creation, including humankind, was very good. And it’s this original goodness that Jesus seeks out in us. That’s not to suggest that Jesus is denying that our relationship with God is in need of reconciliation, but that he is rejecting any idea that we are, somehow, beyond the pale.’ (The Lost Message of Jesus, p67)
This, however, disregards humanity’s fall in Adam.
Due attention to the reality of original sin does not lead to despair, for it throws us on the bountiful mercy of God. It should, however, make us watchful:-
‘Let original sin make us walk with continual jealousy and watchfulness over our hearts. The sin of our nature is like a sleeping lion, the least thing that awakens it makes it rage. The sin of our nature, though it seems quiet, and lies as fire hid under the embers, yet if it be a little stirred and blown up by a temptation, how quickly may it flame forth into scandalous evils? Therefore we had need always to walk watchfully…. A wandering heart needs a watchful eye.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)
It is not difficult to find objections to the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. If I am a guilty and condemned sinner because of Adam’s transgression, it’s not fair! More subtly, it has been asserted that the doctrine involves a confusion of categories: the moral (sin and guilt) and the physical (heredity and natural propagation).
It will not do (writes Henri Blocher) to take refuge in paradox and irrationality when dealing with the propagation of sin. It is particularly tempting to do so in the light of the irrationality of sin itself. But even if sin’s original entry into the world is inexplicable, it does not follow that sin’s spread is also inexplicable.
Traditional explanations of sin’s spread have resorted to metaphor. Chief among these has been the metaphor drawn from medicine and genetics. Older writers spoke of transmission by infection; more recent ones sometimes compare it to genetic inheritance. To be sure, Scripture employs medical metaphors for sin (Jer 17:9; Mt 9:12f). But there are limitations to these sickness metaphors, because they avoid the essential point that the spread of sin involves wilful intent, responsibility, and therefore guilt.
Augustine and others held that there was an inseparable connection between the transmission of sin and the sexual act. But Scripture itself does not promote the ascetic view, refusing both to idolise sex and to blame it. The typical Jewish ascetic – the Nazirite – did not abstain from marriage, unlike his counterparts on most other religions. Psalm 51 does not contain anti-sexual sentiments, contrary to what Augustine thought.
Theology has also turned to legal or forensic language to explain sin’s spread. This receives solid support from Scripture itself. ‘Realists’ hold that we all fell ‘in Adam’ because of some ontological identity with him. When he sinned, we sinned. Scriptural support is claimed from Heb 7:10. But this approach detracts from the distinct existence of individuals, who themselves stand condemned as guilty.
Others have used metaphors drawn from animal or plant life. Sin spreads from Adam to the rest of the human race in the same way that movement spreads from the will to the hand (Aquinas). Or, it spreads like an infection from the root to the branches (Calvin). But such metaphors beg the question: parts of a body are not responsible individuals, and neither are branches of a tree. Humankind is not a single person; it is many.
Such objections do not apply to the doctrine of federal headship. If God appointed Adam as the head of the human race, then his acts can rightly be regarded as acts of the whole community. This is not to be regarded as a ‘legal fiction’, because there is also a very real familial and genetic bond between Adam and his descendants. But it is still difficult to avoid the objection that the imputation of alien guilt seems unfair.
It is not to be denied that there is truth in the metaphors mentioned above. But perhaps of the problem is that they are too apt to set up dichotomies, to lapse almost into dualism. They tend to set up concepts such as ‘biological’ and ‘spiritual’ as mutually exclusive. Butk in fact, a human life is a synthesis of physical and spiritual. The highest spiritual affection will trigger an alteration in cell chemistry, and vice versa. So too the human will is a part of human nature and thus not to be separated from other aspects of our human nature, including physiological processes and the pervasive influences of original sin. More broadly, we need not ignore, in our account of original sin, the influence of cultural heredity as we receive in traditions, customs, mores, folk wisdom, art and literature. Psychology reminds us of the impact on a child of damaged images of mother and father. It reminds us too of the destructive power of untamed sexuality which, because it is so intensely relational is so capable of propagating misery.
At the level of genetics, we should, of course, reject the simplistic notion of a ‘sin gene’. Geneticists, if not theologians, tend to be sympathetic to the idea that certain behavioural traits, traditionally defined as ‘sinful’, can be transmitted. But even Turretin speculated that though children do not inherit from their parents actual diseases such a gout and callouses, they might receive from them what we would call ‘predispositions’ towards such disorders.
We should not exclude the sway of evil powers from our account of the propagation of original sin. We note the role of the snake in Gen 3, and the link in Eph 2 between the prince of the power of the air and wrath-deserving human nature. In Rev 12:9 the Devil is that power who seduces the whole inhabited earth. See also 1 Jn 5:19.
If the distinction between ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ should not be pushed too far, then neither should that between a ‘positive’ and a ‘privative’ understanding of sin. The ‘privative’ aspect does not merely mean the absence of good: it can have devastating results. When God withdraws his gifts and his presence, the vacuum will be filled by all kinds of horror.
We should question (says Blocher) the traditional Reformed idea of the imputation of alien guilt. The truth is that original sin does not place us in a sinful state, but places within us a disposition to sin. Being born sinners is to be seen not so much as a penalty, but as a simple fact. And this ‘fact’ is itself simply the outworking of the organic solidarity of the human race. Think of the analogy of nationhood: once the head of a nation has declared war on another nation, all children born during the war are at war with the other nation. In Adam’s case the issue goes much deeper, because our solidarity with him is more essential: we are physically descended from our parents, fallen Adam multiplies as fallen, as ‘what is born of the flesh is flesh’. It goes deeper, too, because it is our relationship with God, ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ that has been disrupted.
We may be all means protest against the biblical doctrine of original sin. We may protest be exercising our vaunted freedom by dissociating ourselves from Adam’s sin, freeing ourselves from its bondage , and proving ourselves exceptions to the universal rule declared by Paul: ‘There is none, not even one’ (Rom 3:10, quoting Psa 14:3). If we can.
Based on Blocher, Original sin: illuminating the riddle, 105-131.
Wayne Grudem, in his standard evangelical textbook on Systematic Theology (494-498), prefers terms such as ‘inherited sin’ and ‘inherited corruption’, to ‘original sin’.
Grudem points to Rom 5:12, which teaches that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned.’
The idea that ‘all men sinned’ means we are all thought of as having sinned when Adam sinned. Rom 5:18f provides further confirmation: ‘…by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners…’. God looks upon future, not-yet-existing human beings as inheriting Adam’s guilt, just as (so the same passage teaches) he looks upon not-yet-existing believers as beneficiaries of Christ’s death.
If it be thought unfair that we are regarded as inheriting sin and guilt from Adam before we have ever committed any sin, then, (a) everyone who thus protests has committed many actual and voluntary sins, and these will form the primary basis of judgement at the last day (Rom 2:6); (b) if it is thought unfair for Adam’s sin and guilt to be imputed to us, then we must also object to Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us: and these two imputations are parallel in Rom 5:12-21.
The fact is that God has constituted the human race as an organic whole, with two representative heads – Adam and Christ.
We do not only inherit an adverse standing before God from Adam; we also inherit a sinful nature. David testifies to this in Psa 51:5, in which he confesses that he has been a sinner right from the start. This innate disposition to sin is also taught in Eph 2:3. Experience shows that children do have to be taught to do wrong; but doing what is right will only come as a result of deliberate parental effort, Eph 6:4.
The disposition to sin does not mean that human beings are as bad as they possibly could be. By God’s common grace, civil law, social pressure and conscience (Rom 2:14f) combine to restrain the worst effects of sin. Indeed, that same common grace has enabled much good to be achived in education, health care, civilisation, culture, arts, technological progress, and other acts of kindness and benevolence.
Nevertheless, all that we are and do is tainted by sin (Rom 7:18; 8:8; Eph 4:18; Titus 1:15; Jer 17:9), and we therefore have nothing of our own which might commend us to God. We are, in fact, by nature ‘slaves to sin’, Jn 8:34. We cannot rightly understand the things of God, 1 Cor 2:14. We cannot come to God by our own ability, Jn 6:44.
If we are thus innately corrupt, slaves to sin, and incapable of pleasing God, what account is to be given of human freedom? It is certainly true that we make voluntary choices, and that we are responsible for those choice. But it is also true that those choices will themselves be tainted and biassed, and expressive of our basic attitude of rebellion against God. We are thrown on the mercy of God to enable us to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, to repent without delay, trust in Christ, and receive a renewed nature.
Blaise Pascal wrote of man as paradox, and of sin as a riddle. We are a mass of contradictions, a mixture of the noble and the base. Nothing could be more puzzling than the transmission of sin from our first ancestor to the rest of the human race. And yet, as Niebuhr was fond of repeating, ‘The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.’
Henri Blocher explores the paradoxical dualities involved in the Christian doctrine of original sin:-
Misery and royal descent
No-one can deny the terrible hold that evil has over our world. One of the paradoxes of human evil is that the most terrible atrocities have been committed by ‘decent’ people – respected by their neighbours and adored by their children. The liberal dream of human progress was been shattered by slaughter of millions of young men in the First World War. At the same time, psychoanalysis lifted the lid on the deeper aspects of human nature and found (in Freud’s words) ‘a veritable hell’. A little later, a worldwide economic crisis ruined whatever optimism remained. All the Marxist regimes failed to live up to their promise. Their retreat has left a yawning ideological vacuum. Today’s technocratic optimism is undermined by continuing problems within the cities of the world, the morals of young people in most countries, and the incidence of unemployment, crime and drug addiction. None of the various rivals to the Christian worldview has enjoyed any staying power.
And yet the optimists are not completely mistaken. They can point to limited progress. There are material improvements in medicine, education, social programmes and so on. There are beautiful and heroic personalities and admirable personal achievements. People still long for the good, and resist the evil. There is a memory of, and a hope for, something better and nobler. The Cynic says of man – almost literally – ‘How like a dog!’ But Shakespeare (and the Bible) exclaim persistently, ‘How like a god!’
Original sin affects the good creature of God. The good creature was not annihilated at the Fall. Scripture insists that even sinful man retains the image of his Maker. God’s common grace is generous and far-reaching. Preachers should not so emphasise human sinfulness as to disregard our God-given dignity.
There is a temptation to regard sin as a eruption of our ‘lower’ nature; as a lack of control over our animal instincts. There may be elements of truth in this. But evil attaches itself most of all to the ‘higher’ and more central parts of our nature – to the heart. Our capacity for destruction goes far beyond that of any predatory animal. The worst forms of evil are committed by those who are better education and more amply gifted. All too often, we turn our freedom and our power towards evil ends; and the more freedom and power we have, the worse evil we commit. Then again, we never sin so cheerfully and unrestrainedly as when we do so from religious motives. The history of Christianity itself has some frightening illustrations of this.
And yet we can only name and describe evil by reference to a known and recognised norm. We demonstrate this when use words such as injustice, disorder, misfortune, and so on. The doctrine of original sin as fallenness from a prior elevated position. Good and evil are not equal and opposite, as dualism teaches. Evil is not a metaphysical reality; it is an abnormality: it describes only a good creation which is presently out of order. Sin has no separate existence: it is a perversion, corruption, abuse and misuse of the good.
Shared inheritance and individual decision
Historically, it was accepted that each individual was fully responsible for his or her behaviour. Many social scientists tell us that individual behaviour is ‘conditioned’ by a number of external factors. Behaviour now seems to many to be virtually determined by these factors. But other voices assert personal autonomy. In order the relieve the tension, some object to deterministic reductionism and posit something more transcendent in human nature.
The doctrine of original sin provides a good explanation for the tension between freedom and determinism. It teaches both that ‘I am a man of unclean lips’ and that ‘I dwell among a people of unclean lips’ (Isa 6:5). But the Bible refuses to absolutise either aspect. Under the authority of God, determinism cannot be ultimate. But, again, freedom cannot be ultimate, since it is the gift of God.
We cannot deny the riddle: we sin because we belong to a sinful race; and yet we also sin because we want to.
We are born into an environment in which sin abounds; in which sin has become institutionalised, ingrained and habituated.
But does this mean that sin is in our genes? Daily observation shows that the seeds of evil – pride, greed, deceit and cruelty – are present from a very early age. Today, more than at any time in the past, it is apparent that all peoples of the earth tend to adopt the same way of life, and that similar patterns of unrest and crime, egoism and unbridled lust are evidence. ‘The whole world lies in the power of the evil one’, 1 Jn 5:19. This is evidence of what Scripture has asserted all along, the unity of the human race, Acts 17:26; cf Gen 3:20, and therefore the organic wholeness of that race under representative ‘heads’. We are defined not only by our individuality but by our belonging. We are not only one genetically, but also spiritually: we are ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’. The Trinity itself might provide some kind of pattern or model for the combination of individuality and spiritual oneness that we find in humankind.
Necessity and responsibility
If sin is universal, then it must inescapable, and some kind of necessity must be operating. Jesus asserts that everyone who sins is a slave to sin (Jn 8:34), and Paul speaks too of bondage to sin (Rom 7:14-24). But how then can we be held responsible for sin? The doctrine of original sin asnwers by drawing attention to the historical character of Adam’s disobedience, now passed on to all his descendents. This makes sin a matter of ‘tragic necessity’, even though it is not a matter of fate.
Even non-Christian thinkers such as Freud have posited something very like a primeval Fall in order to explain the condition of humankind. Parallels can be found in Marxist thinking and even in the thought of Sartre.
The biblical account of original sin is actually more humane than that of Pelagius, for absolute freedom requires absolute condemnation when misused.
Based on Blocher, Original sin: illuminating the riddle, 83-103.
As usual, that fine Puritan writer Thomas Watson exhibits a clear head and a warm heart on this subject. Watson begins this section of his Body of Divinity by quoting the Westminster Catechism:-
Q: Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?
A: The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him, by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in his first transgression.
A key text is Romans 5:12. Adam stood at the head of the human race as our representative. ‘While he stood, we stood; when he fell, we fell.’
Rom 5 makes it clear that Adam’s sin is made ours by imputation, and not merely by imitation (as Pelagius held). It is also made ours by propagation; we not only share in the guilt but inherit the disposition, Psa 51:5.
Original sin is both privative (a lack of righteousness and purity) and positive (a contamination of our nature: ‘Original sin has poisoned the spring of our nature, it has turned beauty into leprosy; it has turned the azure brightness of our souls into midnight darkness.’)
Sin has become inevitable to us. We cannot but sin: we have an aversion to God, and to good. We have a propensity to evil, even though it does us so much harm. See Job 15:16; Jer 9:9; Eph 4:19. ‘Though God has set so many flaming swords in the way to stop men in their sin, yet they go on in it; which all shows what a strong appetite they have to the forbidden fruit.’
As salt is present in every drop of water in the ocean, as a poison is diffused into all parts of the body, so sin affects every part of our nature:-
- The mind is darkened: we neither know or understand aright, our judgment is impaired, we confuse sweet and bitter, good and evil, we are proud and prejudiced.
- The heart is defiled: in it are legions of lusts, hypocrisies, and passions.
- The will is twisted: we cross God’s will, in order to fulfil our own; the will is like ‘an iron sinew, it refuses to bend to God.’
- The affections, like the strings of a violin, are out of tune; ‘they are the lesser wheels, which are strongly carried by the will, the masterwheel.’ Our affections are set on the wrong object, like a person who craves for poison rather than for food.
Original sin adheres to us, so that we cannot get rid of it. It does not come as a lodger for the night, but as a permanent resident.
Original sin retards us and hinders us in our worship. ‘Whence is all that dullness and deadness in religion? It is the fruit of original sin. This it is that rocks us asleep in duty.’ It is like weights tied to our legs so that we cannot run, Heb 12:2.
Original sin is a latent force which, like an underground stream, often breaks forth unexpectedly. David did not expect to commit adultery, and Peter did not know that he would deny his Lord. Afterwards, both were shocked at their behaviour. ‘If God leave a man to himself, how suddenly and scandalously may original sin break forth in the holiest men on the earth!’
Original sin mixes itself with our duties and graces. As a paralysed hand cannot move without shaking, so ‘the best works of the godly have sin cleaving to them’. As a sick person may not be able to exert himself without breathlessness, so our very faith is weak, and mixed with unbelief.
Original sin is a vigorous principle within us. It never lies still; it is restless inmate. Like the pulse, it is always beating. ‘Original sin sets the head plotting evil, and the hands working it.’
Original sin is the cause of all actual sin. ‘it is the womb in which all actual sins are conceived.’
Original sin is never fully cured in this life. Grace subdues, but does not fully remove it. Though we have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we have the remnants of sin. The tree may be chopped down, but the roots remain. There is no sinless perfection in this life. Though we are delivered from sin’s penalty and power, we are not yet free from its presence.
Let us take original sin very seriously, and be humbled by it. ‘Some think, as long as they are civil, they are well enough; ay, but the nature is poisoned. A river may have fair streams, but vermin at the bottom. Thou carriest a hell about thee, thou canst do nothing but thou defilest it; thy heart, like muddy ground, defiles the purest water that runs through it. Nay, though thou art regenerate, there is much of the old man in the new man. Oh how should original sin humble us!’
Let us look daily to heaven for help. ‘Beg Christ’s blood to wash away the guilt of sin, and his Spirit to mortify the power of it…Though grace cannot make sin not to be, yet it makes it not to reign; though grace cannot expel sin, it can repel it.’
Let us watch over our hearts. ‘The sin of our nature is like a sleeping lion, the least thing that awakens it makes it rage. Though the sin of our nature seems quiet, and lies as fire hid under the embers, yet if it be a little stirred and blown up by a temptation, how quickly may it flame forth into scandalous evils! therefore we need always to walk watchfully. ‘I say to you all, Watch.’ Mark 13:37. A wandering heart needs a watchful eye.’