Is Sin Original? A look at history

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Well, that post subtitle probably chased away about half the regular visitors. 😉 Of course I could change it, but I like history and I think it’s important to learn from history. So today, a look at history. Tomorrow, perhaps some discussion of the implications.

The evangelical, Bible-believing Christians I know ascribe to the doctrine of original sin. The idea is that Man was created in God’s image, for communion with Him, but sin changed his condition permanently.

No longer does Man bear the untarnished image of God because we are now born in the likeness of Adam. Consequently, all our righteousness is like filthy rags. Our best effort at goodness falls far short of God’s holy standard. We are born in this condition, in need of a Savior, without the internal wherewithal to please God.

Not only does this doctrine square with Scripture, it squares with Mankind’s experience. There’s a reason we have as an idiom we all know to be true, Nobody’s perfect.

But even if that weren’t the case, the reliable, authoritative Word of God makes the concept of original sin clear starting in the book of Genesis. In chapter one:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;

Then the command in chapter two:

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.

Recorded in chapter 3 is Adam’s disobedience and the consequence he would face. But then this line:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil;

In other words, whatever else that line means, we see that there was a fundamental shift. Man was no longer the way God created him when He declared all He had made to be good. Genesis 4 records the first effects of this fundamental shift—Cain’s jealousy and ultimate murder of his brother, among other things.

But chapter 5 records perhaps the clearest declaration of this shift:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created. When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.

The clear implication is that Adam’s likeness and God’s likeness are no longer the same.

So what’s the point? Our culture does not believe in original sin. Ask the average man on the street and he’ll tell you Man is good, though he’ll just as likely turn right around and tell you nobody’s perfect.

Today, as I was rereading an old college textbook, Religion in America by Winthrop S. Hudson, I discovered that the roots of this cultural change (because the depravity of Man was universally understood and accepted in western civilization from some time during the 2nd century AD until the 19th century) stem from American protestantism. Not exclusively, but in a large part.

America was a New World, with possibilities untold. Some years before independence, the colonial settlers experienced a Great Awakening that established Christianity as a way of life.

After independence the Second Great Awakening spurred believers on to hold camp revivals and send out missionaries and build more churches and colleges and schools all with the intent to bring the lost to salvation and teach the young to live godly lives.

But there began to be an added incentive. With all this hopefulness and push toward moral purity came a belief that God’s kingdom was being established physically right then and there.

And so, the shift began. Could it not be that Man, if given the right circumstances, could choose to live a holy and pure life in obedience to God? Could it not be that a community of such men would lead to a godly society? And wasn’t that the idea found in the Bible concerning God’s kingdom, when God’s law would be written on men’s heart?

Consequently, what started as a work of God seems to have become a work of men, built upon their good works (which Scripture says are but filthy rags), to the point that men came to believe, not only in the goodness of their works but in the goodness of their being.

This is obviously a simplified, stripped down version of that period of history, but here’s the thing. Even when the two world wars in the 20th century shot to pieces the notion that the world was getting better and better, the idea that Man was good had become a best-loved belief. And humanism spread. Even into the church.

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12 Comments

  1. Maybe you could expand a little more?

    I do agree that the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution (among other things) probably helped propel a man-centered worldview, but I think also that it’s no new thing, because nothing is truly new.

    The evangelical, Bible-believing Christians I know ascribe to the doctrine of original sin. The idea is that Man was created in God’s image, for communion with Him, but sin changed his condition permanently.

    I’m asking this one because I think it’s important: Could you define “evangelical”? Truth be told, I’ve seen multiple ways the word can be used, including as a swear word.

    Moreover, I do know people who would consider themselves conservative, Bible-believing people but do not believe in the doctrine of original sin (at least, not as presented traditionally).

    At any rate, hasn’t it always been a tendency of people to try to ‘earn their way if they’re good enough’? I mean, the NT writers had to address that frequently. Heck, the OT writers did.

    Anyway, looking forward to hearing from you.

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  2. I’d agree that the anti-original sin concept has been around for longer than the Enlightenment. Certainly the third-century ascetic monk Pelagius would qualify as one who did not believe in original sin.

    However, I do think that the Second Great Awakening had a more profound influence today on defining a man-centered concept or the idea of a life uncorrupted by sin. I have noticed that some, perhaps those that Kaci would describe as conservative, were influenced strongly by a Second Great Awakening pastor named Charles Finney.(Finney in turn was influenced by a man named Samuel Hopkins, whose beliefs helped influence the Second Great Awakening) Finney’s writings seemed to form the basis for many arguments made by like-minded people today. And yes, Finney also held the belief that God’s kingdom could be established on earth in his lifetime if the commandments were strictly adhered to.

    Overall, I think this idea has created two branches in our culture. I think the more liberal elements of our culture look upon those ideas as exalting man and his abilities, definitely humanistic, while those who are more conservative and Biblically-based use them to hold up an absolutist standard of moral piety and holiness that many Christians would say is not possible. I think it comes down to that.

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  3. This is a very good article I think I will share it on my facebook.

    Charles Finney does have a lot to do with supposedly conservative evangelical Christians thinking that man is basically good. Charles Finney even went as far as saying that at salvation nothing supernatural happens, men simply make decisions to start living for Jesus. Finney also started the altar call movement.

    Which is why today you have so many churches basically preaching decisional regeneration and having unbelievers simply say a prayer to receive salvation.

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  4. Excellent article and very well written comments — especially appreciated Thomas’ offering. It clears up a great deal for me!

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  5. Hi, Kaci, great questions. I went ahead and looked up “evangelical” in the Oxford English dictionary to be sure I was understanding it myself. Here’s what I found:

    of or according to the teaching of the gospel or the Christian religion.
    • of or denoting a tradition within Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement.

    Of course that doesn’t mention original sin. My contention is that an understanding of the sin nature of man is what requires the perfect blood sacrifice of our sinless Savior. Otherwise, if it’s even in the realm of possibility for a person to live without committing a sinful act, it negates the need for Christ’s death. Rather, it’s up to Man to be righteous, and only if Man messes up does he need Christ.

    Your comment that there are people who consider themselves Bible-believing and who do not believe in original sin is exactly why I wrote this (and the next two) post. My contention is that the philosophy of the world creeps into the Church and we let it by not confronting error.

    Yes, people have tried to earn their salvation at various times throughout history. My point in singling out the Second Great Awakening was to show how the ideas of the world crept into the Church and changed a basic doctrine that had been, up to that time in America, widely understood and accepted as truth.

    This is complex stuff and I feel like a blog post doesn’t do it justice at all.

    Becky

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  6. Jason said: Overall, I think this idea has created two branches in our culture. I think the more liberal elements of our culture look upon those ideas as exalting man and his abilities, definitely humanistic, while those who are more conservative and Biblically-based use them to hold up an absolutist standard of moral piety and holiness that many Christians would say is not possible. I think it comes down to that.

    Well said. I agree there are two factions. I was focused on the first, the humanistic tendency, but as I think about it, I wonder if the piety/holiness adherents aren’t just as humanistic without realizing it. I believe God is about the business of molding His children into the image of Jesus. Part of that process is how we deal with sin. If someone, because of his doctrine, does not confess his sin (because he believes he doesn’t have any), how then is his relationship with God restored? He goes about living to a standard by his own efforts much the way the Pharisees did.

    Jesus was the one who made us aware that sin involves our thought life. And He reiterated the greatest command—that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    So for a Christian writer, that says to me I should be as willing to promote the work of my Christian neighbor as I am my own. That my efforts (thoughts, desires) are to be spent loving God above all else—in fact, perfectly, if I am to be truly holy.

    The rich young ruler claimed he kept all the commandments, but Jesus called him on the area that he wasn’t willing to give up—his love for money more than for God.

    I believe, if I let Him, God will show me what places and ways I don’t love Him perfectly, too. But if I insist on my own righteousness, I’m quenching His Spirit.

    Becky

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  7. Thomas, thanks for making that transition for me. Yes, the idea that Finney popularized had a huge effect on Protestantism, and we’re still feeling the effects, perhaps more so as the culture has embraced the Man is good mantra. Now people can be churched and just like the world at the same time.

    Sue, thanks for joining in the conversation. I agree with what you said about Thomas’s comment.

    Becky

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  8. You say we are now made in the image of Adam, and not God, but Adam didn’t have any image but God’s image, as it is written that God made man in his image. So…I’m just gonna say that I ascribe to a belief more akin to Locke’s tabula rasa, with a small twist, we are born blank slate, with the Imago Dei, the image of God, and a hole where the relationship with God would be. It is perhaps true though that even Adam and Eve were born this way, and that man has always had a choice whether he would choose God or not. In truth as I read Genesis it seems that man was just as sin prone from the very beginning even Adam and Eve, there had to be some reason they made the choice they did. Nothing mystically changed between Adam and Cain and Abel. We are born with warring natures, neither evil intrinsically, but one prone to create evil. I do think man is basically good and evil. Either way, I think Pelagius gets a bad rap, and Finney too. But I came to these beliefs pretty much without influence by either of them, and despite what I was taught in the Church. I came to it by reading the Word really…

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  9. Justin,

    Have you ever read Romans 3? It says no one does good, no one is righteous, no one seeks God. How can man be “basically good” when the Bible says we do nothing that is good?

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  10. Half the people I know use ‘evangelical’ almost like a swear word.

    Of course that doesn’t mention original sin. My contention is that an understanding of the sin nature of man is what requires the perfect blood sacrifice of our sinless Savior. Otherwise, if it’s even in the realm of possibility for a person to live without committing a sinful act, it negates the need for Christ’s death. Rather, it’s up to Man to be righteous, and only if Man messes up does he need Christ.

    I think my thought here is, more or less, that a lack of belief in original sin doesn’t insist, necessarily, salvation by works. As we both know, a person can be a good, upstanding citizen and still be in need of Christ. So the belief itself doesn’t immediately lead to a works-based system.

    The people I’m thinking of actually appear to come at the same thing from another angle, honestly. They still see some kind of inborn flaw (we’re bent or broken; have a spiritual birth defect, etc), so what I see in these cases is not a rejection of the sinfulness of man but a rejection of the word “depraved,” which would insist that a person is incapable of doing anything good outside Christ. However, Christ himself said that “if you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much moreso your Father in heaven.” It’s not a matter of capability; it’s a matter of, as you say, human “righteousness” (if you’ll allow that phrase, for lack of better one) is filthy rags. God is after our hearts. So when I say “reject a traditional definition,” I mean reject a fatalistic approach, rather than a “man is basically good” approach. Assuming that makes sense.

    I’m on the fly, so bear with me. Personally, I think anyone not God is going to fall (or at least has the potential to fall) eventually, simply by way of not being God. Course, I also think angels can still fall, so yeah.

    Your comment that there are people who consider themselves Bible-believing and who do not believe in original sin is exactly why I wrote this (and the next two) post. My contention is that the philosophy of the world creeps into the Church and we let it by not confronting error.

    I didn’t say “don’t believe in original sin.” I said they don’t believe the Calvinist position on it. There are those who truly don’t, but I wasn’t referring to them.

    As far as the world…they can be even more cynical at times. It’s human nature to polarize, evidently.

    Yes, people have tried to earn their salvation at various times throughout history.

    See, and I wasn’t referring to such people.

    You say we are now made in the image of Adam, and not God, but Adam didn’t have any image but God’s image, as it is written that God made man in his image.

    There’s also this odd little verse that says “and then people egan to call on the name of the Lord.”

    So…I’m just gonna say that I ascribe to a belief more akin to Locke’s tabula rasa, with a small twist, we are born blank slate, with the Imago Dei, the image of God, and a hole where the relationship with God would be. It is perhaps true though that even Adam and Eve were born this way, and that man has always had a choice whether he would choose God or not.

    I don’t know that it can really be said humans were created with a hole. I think we were created with a need to be in fellowship with God – just as we were created to eat and drink and sleep – but a “hole” implies we were created lacking. Know?

    In truth as I read Genesis it seems that man was just as sin prone from the very beginning even Adam and Eve, there had to be some reason they made the choice they did. Nothing mystically changed between Adam and Cain and Abel. We are born with warring natures, neither evil intrinsically, but one prone to create evil. I do think man is basically good and evil.

    That warring nature likely is part of the Fall.

    My thing is always back to: “How much yeast does it take to make bread rise?” Or, rather, “How much bad does it take to make something evil?” Know?

    Funny…at one point I’d come up with four possibilities (basically good, basically evil, blank slate, and the good/evil ying-yang you present) and had somehow ruled out all four.

    Have you ever read Romans 3? It says no one does good, no one is righteous, no one seeks God. How can man be “basically good” when the Bible says we do nothing that is good?

    However, what gets the goat of the other side of the argument (which I am posing here just for the sake of it) is: What do you do with the commands to be perfect/holy, just as he is?

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  11. Forgive me if I sound a bit pretentious, but the people who are arguing for “original sin” are not using the actual definition of original sin. “Original sin” really means that every human after Adam is personally culpable for Adam’s sin, that our spirits were all inside Adam in the garden of Eden and therefore we consciously chose to sin before we were born physically. Therefore it’s really that specific sin that sends people to hell, because it is the reason we are born sinners and therefore cannot help sinning. This gets a little sticky when you start thinking about unborn babies dying and so forth.

    Becky, your argument that no sin nature = no need for Jesus is a strawman argument. You can disbelieve in original sin and still believe that man has a broken, sinful nature (and I guess that’s what the term has come to mean in lower tradition Protestant circles). And you can even believe that people don’t have a “sin nature,” per se, and still believe that everyone needs Jesus, because everybody sins anyway. Even if it were *theoretically* possible for somebody to live a sinless life, it’s not going to happen in reality. It hasn’t yet anyway. And even if a person *did* live without sinning, they would *still* need Jesus because our works don’t get us into heaven, and there is a lot more to righteousness than lack of sin.

    If man doesn’t have a sin nature, then he is absolutely responsible for his own actions because he can’t say that he “couldn’t help” sinning. He can’t blame his sin problem on an ancestor thousands of years ago. He has only himself to blame, because he is the one who chose to rebel against God.

    As a disclaimer, because I know what kind of responses I’m going to get, I haven’t said what I believe in this comment, so I ask that anybody who responds to me keeps that in mind.

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  12. Edit: After further research, there are actually several variations of the doctrine of original sin. The most extreme is the one I gave, which is what St. Augustine taught (man was spiritually present in Adam and therefore sinned when he did); this is what I was taught growing up in Baptist tradition and I’ve also heard a Presbyterian defend total depravity this way. The Roman Catholic definition is that man inherits the guilt of Adam’s sin, that it is transmitted by sexual reproduction. The Eastern Orthodox definition is that man inherits the consequences of Adam’s sin only.

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