What Is “Original Sin”?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5).

If there is one aspect of the doctrine of sin that has caused more people to stumble it is what is commonly known as “original sin” or the reality that each and every human being, with the exception of Jesus Christ, has inherited a sin nature from their ancestor, Adam.  That because of the sin inheritance received from Adam all human beings stand guilty and condemned before God the moment they are conceived in the womb (Ps. 58:3).  That prior to God’s gracious intervention in the lives of the guilty and condemned all are “dead in trespasses and sins” and walk according to the world’s standards, led about by “the prince of the power of the air” and “the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2).

The reasons for the stumbling are many, beginning with a misunderstanding of just what the expression “original sin” is supposed to mean.  Some believe that original sin means the actual sin that Adam committed in the Garden of Eden which caused the rift between him and God.  The apostle Paul, however, makes it clear that it was not Adam’s original act that is in mind when speaking of the concept, but the tendency or propensity to sin that is in mind.  “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—” (Rom. 5:12).  People sin because it is in their nature to do so.

Another reason many bristle over the idea of original sin is because the same individuals have embraced neo-Pelagian teaching centered on human “free will.”  When Adam fell, in other words, he did not fall as far or as hard as the Bible teaches.  That it was not his whole being that was affected, but only certain parts of it.  His will was left intact and therefore capable of returning to God if he merely chose to do so.  All God had to do was dangle an invitation before him, like one might dangle a carrot before a donkey, and eventually Adam would accept the invitation by exercising his “free will.”  Elsewhere it has been pointed out just how mythical, if not downright damnable, such thinking has been (see also Epicurus: Atomic Free-will Hedonist).

A third reason some give to reject original sin is that they believe it is unfair of God to automatically condemn all human beings before they have even taken one breath upon the earth.  Such a rejection stems from the previous point on free will and a faulty understanding of human nature.  To them, if God is going to be fair, then he needs to only condemn certain ones for the actual acts committed, not because of some alleged connection between whomever and Adam.  Moreover, human beings are much better, perhaps even good, than is often thought.  Therefore, all they need is a little reformation, not complete repentance.

The Bible, however, makes it quite clear that when Adam sinned against God, his sin nature was not only passed on to his progeny, but that whatever “free will” he had was lost upon his progeny as well.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin,” emphasized Jesus (Jn. 8:34).  Slaves or prisoners are only as “free” as the bonds, shackles, or walls allow them to be.  Furthermore, to charge God with unfairness by condemning all in Adam is tantamount to also charging God with unfairness in the redemption of anyone in Christ (Rom. 5:15).  Few there be, though, who possess such consistency who also subscribe to such a blatantly unfair assessment of sin’s affect or God’s judgment.

Original sin, therefore, is about human inheritance of a disposition or attitude conceived by our first parents, Adam and Eve, when they decided to act independently of God.  The inheritance becomes a part of the makeup of each and every human being as soon as they are recognized as human beings, which begins in the mother’s womb.  That is not to say that every human being is going to act upon every debased or corrupt thought that might pass through his or her mind.  It is to say, though, that the potential is there, because of the presence of sin and evil within (Rom. 7:18-21), for each and every human being to commit any heinous or diabolical act ever committed or even those yet to be committed.  It is because of that inheritance that all mankind stands condemned before God until he or she is justified otherwise.

The doctrine of original sin may be a stumbling block to many, but to those who acknowledge and accept its biblical precedent, it provides a sure foundation for understanding not only why man acts the way he does in times of duplicity—“that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5)—but, they also have a deeper appreciation and intimate thankfulness for the redemption bought by God through the sacrifice of his Son to forgive it.  Furthermore, those who accept the fact that a sin nature was passed on to them, by merely being a part of the human race, understand a reality that few wish to discuss, mainly because sin is nothing to be proud of, regardless of the pride involved in trying to hide it.

Nevertheless, there will continue to be those who will reject the biblical concept of original sin for any one of a variety of reasons, most of which involve some kind of endorsement of human autonomy or re-propagation of Pelagian dogma.  So be it.  Such thinking easily falls within the scope of what it means to be affected by original sin; to think of oneself as to be better off in one’s own estimation, than in God’s.  To counter such rejection and thinking one merely has to point to what the Bible has to say about those affects; affects that will be turned to in the next essay.

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