So Whats the Big Fuss For Anyway?

Posted: 7 June, 2009 in Theology


The doctrine of Original Sin has been one I’ve often struggled to understand. The fact that we are born with sin has always been as plain as daylight to me from the Scriptures, yet there exist so many diverse interpretations of Original Sin, that one is often left confused into mystified acceptance – resigning one’s self to remaining semi-ignorant until we meet Christ. The problem I have found with that attitude becomes plain when you ask the question of yourself, “Would I be confident to die for my beliefs about this particular doctrine?”

Obviously, we cannot presume to understand fully every spiritual reality set forth in the Bible – some things we need to humbly accept just because God is God and we are not. But the fact remains that the Word is God’s revelation of Himself to us, and it is our duty to study, and seek with all of our heart to understand, by God’s grace the things He has chosen to reveal to us. Too quickly I find myself giving up on a particular passage because I don’t understand it. What ever happened to the attitude of Martin Luther:

“I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. According to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically. I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. That place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”

The fact is – gems don’t often fall into our laps, mines must be built, and energy expended in prayer and study before the Word will yield its treasures.

John Calvin, in his Institutes explains aptly and concisely the doctrine I had given up on so long ago. I must just note right here at the start, that most of what follows is the work of Calvin – I cannot claim credit for much in this post – even my own thoughts have been shaped by his thoughts, and as I cannot hope to set it out in a better way than he has, I have quoted him prolifically. I have sought only to summarise my own understanding of the doctrine from his work and put it into slightly more modern language and a length that will (I hope) not scare readers away… Trust me – my version is short compared to Johnny C’s!

Well, to begin with, Calvin argues that we need to begin to understand ourselves. We must divest pride and clothe ourselves with true humility which will enable us to consider our fall and to embrace the mercy of God in Christ. For starters, we need to recognise our original situation – our goodness and holiness with which we began. Secondly we need to recognise that we lost many of those qualities in the fall and this should destroy all of our confidence and pride. The sin which God punished us so severely for could not have been a small thing because it provoked God to inflict punishment on the whole human race. The crime must have been heinous. Being prohibited from touching the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a test of obedience by which Adam and Eve could prove their willing submission to the command of God. It was to keep him contented with what he had and not to aspire beyond it. It was to test his faith.

Augustine says that pride was the beginning of all evil. Adam revolted against the authority of God, not only by giving in to temptation, but by rejecting the truth and believing lies instead. Calvin claims that when the word of God is despised, all reverence for Him is gone. The original sin was not only a simple sin, it was a “foul insult to God” because Adam and Eve agreed with Satan’s claims that God was full of envy, malice and lies. “Man, therefore, when carried away by the blasphemies of Satan, did his very utmost to annihilate the whole glory of God.” Adam’s spiritual life was one united and bound to God, his maker and so “estrangement from him was the death of his soul

Creation was cursed as a result of man’s rebellion because man represented creation – therefore there is nothing unreasonable in the curse extending to all his offspring. Original sin simply put is hereditary corruption. This is something I, and many other Christians struggled to come to terms with – how is it just that we be punished for the sin of Adam when it wasn’t our fault? Some have suggested that we were simply born with the inclination to sin, but are not in fact utterly sinful from birth. This is a cop-out because we are not corrupted by acquired wickedness, but we actually bring an innate corruption from the very womb. “Before we behold the light of the sun we are in God’s sight defiled and polluted. The only explanation for the expression,in Adam all died,is, that by his sin he brought disaster and ruin not only on himself, but also plunged our nature into destruction. By the corruption into which he himself fell, he infected his whole seed.Both the condemned unbeliever and the acquitted believer beget offspring not acquitted but condemned, because the nature which begets is corrupt.” “Guilt is from nature whereas sanctification is from supernatural grace.” The crux of the matter rests on this definition of Original Sin – I believe that this is biblical and it opened my eyes to the justice of God in imputing the sin of Adam to us as his offspring:

“Original sin, then, may be defined a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all the parts of the soul, which first makes us obnoxious to the wrath of God, and then produces in us works which in Scripture are termed works of the flesh.”

Do you see – through Adam, not only have we been punished in the curse, but our nature – which was originally made in the image of God – has been polluted, for which punishment is due. A baby does not suffer for Adam’s sin, but for its own defect.

“For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sin, and therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God… the whole man, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is so deluged, as it were, that no part remains exempt from sin, and therefore, everything which proceeds from him is imputed as sin.”

Can you see that no pure product can come from a corrupted machine? “The offense is not with the work itself, but the corruption of the work.” We have been so fully and completely corrupted that a mere cure is not enough, we need a whole new nature, which we obtain by the grace of God through Christ at salvation in much the same way that we obtained our corrupted nature from Adam.

  1. I too have found original sin difficult to wrap my mind around, but see it as an absolute prerequisite for the Christian story. How are we to understand our need for a redeemer if there is no bondage from which to be redeemed? Indeed, as I have ran around the blogosphere in the last few years (particularly in my own branch of the church), it seems that the underlying departure from classic orthodox doctrine has been a retreat from the doctrine of the fall. All else, from failures in Christology to changes in moral theology seem to have required this retreat as a necessary clearing of the ground, and seems to be a position held by most of the innovators I have spoken with.

    I think you are very much on the right track with the focus not on individual “sins” but on a twisted nature as the root of the thing. It is not so much that we are “sinners” because we commit sins, rather we commit sins because we are sinners.

    My own experience tells me that this is so, and yet I wrestle with exactly how the sin of Adam corrupts my nature. The model of biological heredity is helpful, but I think it is an analogue only; a useful metaphor, but not the true mechanism. I think part of my trouble may come from my post-enlightenment western mindset, with its attendant preference for individualism. I think this part of my mental makeup may slow me down here. In reading Charles Williams’ prose and fiction (particularly Descent into Hell) I came to value what he called “coinherence”. I don’t know if he originated the term or not, the idea is certainly not original. With this, there seems to be much more to our being “in Adam” and “in Christ” than our baggage can easily grasp.

    Ultimately (and this is what confirms it for me) the mystery of coinherence, as opaque as it is to me, is tied up with the fundamental reality of all realities, the nature of God as Trinity. We see God as three unique persons, each of whom is fully God. I think it plain that if the Trinity accurately depicts the creator of all, some “echos” or fingerprints of that nature as plural unity should be visible all over creation. I think the fact that I am somehow “in Adam” and that through his sin, I die, is such a trace. Likewise, Christ being able to impart to me His sanctity, while taking on my sin, is rooted in the nature of Trinity.

    All this doesn’t make it any more intuitive for me, but like much of mathematics, or quantum physics, the veracity of the truth doesn’t rest on its intuitiveness for me. It is enough that I see it as hanging together with the rest of the puzzle, that if I accept this one point, everything else becomes clear.

    R. Eric Sawyer

  2. Ant says:

    I agree completely Eric – thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts, its refreshing to meet other like-minded Christians out there!

  3. Janice says:

    Hmm, very interesting post and comments – thanks for sharing! =)

  4. felixracca says:

    You might want to see my interpretation of original sin on my blog. (
    I think God wanted us to commit it.
    Because a higher good would come of it.

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