Understanding the Doctrine of Original Sin 

Probably one of the most divisive topics in Christian circles is the question of sin. 

We ask questions about it, like:

-is it sinful to get a tattoo?

-is it sin if two homosexuals marry?

-is it sinful to drink alcohol?

-is it sinful to smoke marijuana?

I think that honest people ask these questions because of their inherent knowledge of God and that he expects certain things from them. I mean, whenever I interact with atheists there is inevitably a discussion about matters regarding sin. Which means, if we are going to discuss the concept of original sin, then we need to discuss sin itself. 

Defining sin

In his entry in the Lexham Bible Dictionary, J.  Jordan Henderson defines sin as, “[human] activity that is contrary to God’s will.” Well, that seems simple enough, but we have to realize that sin is a very broad concept, as Henderson notes,

The broad concept of sin as failing to live up to an expected standard of conduct or as a violation of cultural customs or laws can be seen in every culture and society throughout history. Various religions also see sin as a violation of the divine will. This concept has developed in various ways in different societies.

Henderson notes later,

In some contexts, particularly in some Old Testament texts, the term “sin” is primarily used in reference to external actions performed by human beings (e.g., murder, adultery). In other parts of the Bible, the term “sin” is expanded to include the inner actions of humans, such as their thoughts and desires. Sin is also often portrayed as an entity not dependent on human actions, such as a state of being in alienation from God or an impersonal force acting within humans or societies against God.

Probably that last part is seen most evidently in God’s conversation with Cain before he kills his brother in a jealous rage, when God warns,

…sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it. (Genesis 4:7, ESV)

The problem is that a concept of sin is not necessarily universal, cross-culturally, as Henderson notes,

It is difficult to speak of a single concept of sin in the polytheistic world of the ancient Near East prior to the Hebrew Scriptures beyond the broad definition of sin as deviance from local customs and beliefs. In the polytheistic cultures of the ancient Near East, there was no understanding of a single, overarching divine will that governs humanity.

He continues,

Sin thus comes to be seen as a violation of the whims of individual gods and goddesses within a pantheon. As gods often personify the forces of nature, sin and repentance become viewed in relation to illness, suffering, and death.

Now, some might attempt to use this as a wedge against either biblical truth or the nature of sin, but the narrative thread that unites scripture with scripture allows the believer to harmonize the exposition of the biblical text with historical facts regarding concepts, especially if one embraces the Deuteronomy 32 worldview. 

Picking flowers in Geneva

If I have one bone to pick with my reformed brethren it’s that while they embrace the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, they will often stumble over some of the ideas that lie behind scripture, ideas that are relevant to the context of Scripture, rather than embracing them. They seem to forget that the biblical authors weren’t born in Geneva in the 15th century, and while they do a good job of recognizing biblical truth when it comes to matters of salvation, they will struggle when they are faced with sin in regard to its origin and its nature. It’s not that they don’t know what sin is, it’s just that preconceptions about the Bible and the worldview of its writers is often overlooked or suppressed because it could put them in a position that they simply would rather not be in. 

Misrepresentation of the facts of Scripture will often assert that Christians that accept original sin as a doctrine insist that God made men sinful. This is, at least from my position, a misrepresentation of either the position or the understanding of the facts of Scripture regarding sin, as a property of reality, or how it relates man to the God against whom he sins. As this brief paper asserts in its argument against the doctrine of original sin, 

There are only two possible ways that one can say one inherits depravity from Adam. Either the spiritual soul is depraved at birth as a consequence of heredity, or the physical body is depraved at birth. I will argue in this article that it is false to say that either is the case, and therefore that the doctrine must be false.

Making such an argument is simply fallacious, especially if one understands the Deuteronomy 32 worldview and concepts associated with it, thereby are presenting a false dilemma, the horns of which are split by asking a simple question: can any man stand in the presence of a holy and just God on the basis of his works? The answer, to be consistent in the Christian message would be “no,” because no man can stand in the presence of God and plead his works as merit. One of the conclusions of the paper is that “…the soul cannot be created evil.” That assumes something about the soul of man that should be examined. 

The Soul of the matter 

One of the many issues with defining the concept of a soul is exactly what it is. If it is something that is created by God specially, as the authors of the paper mentioned above insist, then such would seem to establish an ethical issue should technology increase to the point that human clones could be produced. However, this poses another problem, as Dennis Durst points out in his brief essay on the subject in the LBD, because certain animals are given a soul as well. The problem seems to go further by the fact that the Hebrew authors use the term for soul in innumerable ways, including to,

  • indicate meanings of desire (Pss 25:1; 42:2)

  • personal or individual being (Gen 12:5; Lev 2:1)

  • a conscious self (Lev 11:44–45)

  • emotional state (Gen 26:35; Job 21:4; Eccl 7:9).

An obvious problem with asserting that the soul itself is good would seem to be that one would have to argue that God is unjust to place that good thing (the soul) into a body that would corrupt it. That would seem to run headlong into the argument made by Greek philosophy that undergirds Gnosticism, rather than that of the Christian understanding that the body is also good, and made for good things, that is why we are to honor God in our bodies. That would mean that the soul and the body are not separate entities, but are related, correspondent and necessary to each other. While “you” are distinct from your body, “you” are nonetheless identifiable with your body.

As R.C. Sproul notes, in outlining the doctrine of original sin,

…the doctrine of original sin defines the consequences to the human race because of that first sin.

The question then would seem to be, what were the consequences of the first sin?

Even a casual reading of the texts in question (Genesis 2 and Genesis 3) tell us of at least two consequences. Further, there’s the scriptural admonition that comes from the lips of God himself through the prophet,

“[The] soul that sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4 & 20 ESV)

In fact, this finds its principle enshrined in the Mosaic legal code (as discussed here): that individuals are responsible for their own sins before God. But then wouldn’t that principle refute the doctrine of original sin?

Not so fast, because biblically, there seems to be a two-fold nature to sin: first in condition, then in action.

The two-fold nature of sin

David seems to recognize that there is something about him, in his poem of repentance to God, that causes him to act the way that he does. He begins his poem,

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1-2, ESV)

Before David can even hope to approach God, he realizes that there is nothing that he can do to make himself pure enough to approach the Holy God of Israel. He needs God himself to cleanse him. More importantly, he traces this back even to his conception, where he writes,

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,

and in sin did my mother conceive me. (PSalm 51:5)

David doesn’t make this an excuse for his actions, rather this is an admission of his utter inability to do anything to please God because he was contaminated from the beginning. And that is the root from which original sin grows: the contamination brought into the human condition and spread through the most basic human action. Sin, Adam’s sin—his high-handed rebellion against God—infected mankind. The Preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes states the problem that human beings face,

God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. (Ecclesiastes 7:29, ESV)

Humans exist, not in the immediate presence of God, represented by the Garden in which Adam found himself; rather man exists in a world that is untamed and chaotic. Man was meant to go in and out of God’s presence, establishing order and returning to rest in safety and security, but Adam’s rebellion corrupted us. Now we may try to wave this away by admitting that there are certain behaviors that are desirable or undesirable, or commendable or condemnable, that promote well-being or subtract from well-being, but these concepts are mere echoes of what man knew in that original state before God. When man decided that he was capable of making his own way in the world and took that which was forbidden him, he demonstrated that he was not, and so man wavers from one extreme to the other unable to hold onto anything because he is corrupt and imperfect. Instead, man schemes and plots constantly to attempt to gain control only to lose it. 

The doctrine of original sin serves as a recognition that we live in a state that is in rebellion to our rightful ruler, to the only one who has the power to sustain and moderate his creatures. It has tremendous explanatory power when it comes to the why’s and what’s of our nature and actions, and explains our desperate need for salvation from it, made available through faith in Christ.

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