I’ve never met a perfect human being. Even extraordinary Christian people I’ve known who are uncommonly humble, gracious, and loving admit that they have moral and spiritual flaws like envy, selfishness, and pride.
It seems all human beings have a congenital moral condition that stands beyond complete cure in this life. Personally, I sincerely desire to fulfill what Jesus called the two great commandments: To love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and my neighbor as myself (Mark 12:29–31). But while I’ve seen what I think is genuine spiritual growth in my life in terms of love and devotion to God and striving to be altruistic toward others, my attempts at doing so over my entire adult Christian life have been, at best, limited and painfully inconsistent. So the truth is I haven’t fulfilled God’s commandments and thus need a Savior from my sin.
So what explains this universal flaw within human beings?
The Bible’s depiction of the defective human condition explains the moral failure by revealing that all human beings are captive to the debilitating force of original sin. Theologian John Jefferson Davis in Handbook of Basic Bible Texts defines “original sin” as “the sinfulness, guilt, and susceptibility to death inherited by all human beings [Christ excepted] from Adam.”1
I’ve explained the doctrine here: Does Original Sin Explain the Human Condition? and defended it here: Responding to Objections to Original Sin. Yet some people continue to question it for various reasons. Let’s look at a reader’s recent thoughtful objections that I received recently on social media (paraphrased) and my response to them.
Objection from an Evangelical Christian
Please allow me to play devil’s advocate here and say that in regard to the doctrine of original sin, it is, in effect, a moot point:
Consider two respectful challenges:
First, children become morally culpable through committing their own sin as soon as they are able to do so! Although often adduced as an argument for the logical plausibility of original sin, this fact also seems to be an argument against the practical value of such a doctrine, because at the instant of their first “atomic” acts of sin, children become sinners by volition, regardless of whether they were sinners by nature before then. Do toddlers sin because they are sinners, or do they become sinners because they sin? If Adam himself proved anything, it’s that one does not have to be a sinner by nature in order to disobey the first time one faces a real test.
Second, even among those (Western) Christian teachers who claim to believe in original sin, most will posit the idea of an age of accountability. Realizing that the thought of any baby ending up in hell offends the sensibilities of most reasonable people, they thus make a de facto nullification of original sin by suggesting an exception to the usual necessary means of salvation (direct, consciously exercised faith in Christ) for those who die as infants or small children. I don’t know. But shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?
Greetings in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your respectful and thoughtful comments. Let me offer a few points in response:
First, the devil doesn’t need an advocate.
Second, as my article Responding to Objections to Original Sin indicates, not all of theologically conservative Christendom affirms original sin. Eastern Orthodoxy affirms a universal proclivity to sin but rejects a universal guilt in Adam.2 Also, some of the modern-day representatives of the radical reformation (Anabaptists) reject the teaching that all people are guilty in Adam.
Third, the most important question for evangelical Protestants is does the Bible teach original sin? See my article where I reference Scripture that children are conceived in sin and people are sinners by nature, not just by choice (Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Proverbs 20:9; Romans 5:10–12).
Fourth, the gospel message itself seems to trade on the idea of original sin. That is, the apostle Paul seems to say that people inherit Adam’s sin similarly to how believers inherit Christ’s righteousness (Romans 5). So human beings can be judged fairly for Adam’s sin similarly to how Christ is judged for the collective sin of humanity.
Fifth, your description of sin seems too restrained (Augustinians may call it Pelagian-like) compared to Scripture. A mere volitional choice or proclivity to sin doesn’t seem to square with Scripture’s definition of sin as “disobedience,” “evil,” “inequity,” “lawlessness,” “transgression,” “trespass,” “ungodliness,” “unholiness,” “unrighteousness,” and “wickedness.”3
Sixth, Adam did sin without a sinful nature but if all children have free choice, then why is sin universal among humanity? Why haven’t some freely chosen not to sin? It seems most of Western Christendom thinks original sin is a better explanation for the human condition (the universality of sin).
Seventh, affirming an age of accountability doesn’t biblically invalidate original sin. Saying something is “moot” doesn’t exegetically explain the clear teaching of Scripture. An age of accountability can simply mean that a person has reached an age where they are more cognizant of their sin, but that doesn’t remove one’s possible corporate sin as part of the human species.
Eighth, Western Christendom (both Catholic and Protestant) by and large does affirm original sin and this is especially true of magisterial Protestants. The practice of infant baptism is usually connected to the perceived state of sin in the child.
As I said in Responding to Objections to Original Sin: “I think original sin is a clear biblical doctrine and a coherent idea that carries great explanatory power and scope when it comes to the human condition.”
Peace be with you, brother.
The doctrine of original sin is, in some respects, a perplexing teaching. But it has a biblical basis and it is confirmed universally among human beings.
Reflections: Your Turn
Do you see original sin manifested in your life? Visit Reflections to comment.
- For more about original sin and God’s cure in the gospel of Jesus Christ, see my book, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), chapters 9 and 10.
- See my article “Blaise Pascal on the Human Condition.”
- John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Text: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine and Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 56.
- Fr. John S. Romanides, “Original Sin According to St. Paul,” Orthodox Christian Information Center, accessed September 19, 2022, http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/frjr_sin.aspx.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), chapters 9 and 10.