What is original sin?

Question: "What is original sin?"

The term “original sin” deals with Adam’s sin in eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and its effects upon the rest of the human race from then on, particularly its effects on our nature and our standing before God, even before we are old enough to commit conscious sin. There are three main views that deal with that effect; they are as follows:

Pelagianism: Adam’s sin had no effect upon the souls of his descendants other than his sinful example influencing those who followed after him to also sin. According to this view, man has the ability to stop sinning if he simply chooses to. This teaching runs contrary to a number of passages that indicate that man is hopelessly enslaved by his sins (apart from God’s intervention) and that his good works are “dead” or worthless in meriting God’s favor (Ephesians 2:1-2; Matthew 15:18-19; Romans 7:23; Hebrews 6:1; 9:14).

Arminianism: Arminians believe Adam’s sin has resulted in the rest of mankind inheriting a propensity to sin commonly referred to as having a “sin nature.” This sin nature causes us to sin in the same way that a cat’s nature causes it to meow—it comes naturally. According to this view, man cannot stop sinning on his own, that is why God gives a universal grace to all to enable them to stop. This grace is called prevenient grace. And according to this view, we are not held accountable for Adam’s sin, just our own. This teaching runs contrary to the verb tense chosen for “...all sinned” in Romans 5:12 and also ignores the fact that all bear the punishment for sin (death) even though they may not have sinned in a manner similar to Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:14-15,18). Nor is the teaching of prevenient grace found in Scripture.

Calvinism: Adam’s sin has resulted in not only our having a sin nature, but also has caused us to incur guilt before God for which we are deserving of punishment. Being conceived with original sin upon us (Psalm 51:5) results in our inheriting a sin nature so wicked that Jeremiah 17:9 describes the human heart as “deceitful above all else, desperately wicked, and beyond cure.” And not only was Adam found guilty because he sinned, but his guilt and his punishment (death) belongs to us as well (Romans 5:12,19). There are two views as to why Adam’s guilt should be seen by God as belonging to us as well. The first view states that the human race was within Adam in seed form; thus when Adam sinned, we sinned in him. This is similar to the biblical teaching that Levi (a descendent of Abraham) paid tithes to Melchizedek in Abraham (Genesis 14:20; Hebrews 7:4-9), even though Levi was not born until hundreds of years later. The other main view is that Adam served as our representative and as such, when he sinned, we were found guilty as well.

The Calvinistic view sees one as unable to overcome his sin apart from the power of the Holy Spirit, a power possessed only when one repents of his sin and turns in reliance upon Christ and His atoning sacrifice for sin upon the cross. One problem with this view is in explaining how infants and those incapable of committing conscious sin are saved (2 Samuel 12:23; Matthew 18:3; 19:14), since they are nonetheless held responsible for Adam’s sin. Millard Erickson, author of Christian Theology, feels this difficulty is resolved as follows: “There is a position [view] that...preserves the parallelism between our accepting the work of Christ and that of Adam [Romans 5:12-21], and at the same time it more clearly points out our responsibility for the first sin. We become responsible and guilty when we accept or approve of our corrupt nature. There is a time in the life of each one of us when we become aware of our own tendency toward sin. At that point we may abhor the sinful nature that has been there all the time...and repent of it. At the very least there would be a rejection of our sinful makeup. But if we acquiesce in that sinful nature, we are in effect saying that it is good. In placing our tacit approval upon the corruption, we are also approving or concurring in the action in the Garden of Eden so long ago. We become guilty of that sin without having to commit a sin of our own.”

The Calvinistic view of original sin is most consistent with biblical teaching and “original sin” could be defined as “that sin and its guilt that we all possess in God’s eyes as a direct result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden.”

Recommended Resource: Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie.

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What is original sin?