The blame game—it’s one of our favorites to play. Why take responsibility when something goes wrong; it’s much easier (not to mention more enjoyable) to lay the fault at the feet of another, right? Fast-food restaurants are to blame for my weight issues. My pastor’s poor preaching inhibits my spiritual growth. This is nothing new: Adam blamed Eve (Gen. 3:12), and Aaron, after producing a golden calf, blamed the Israelites for his idolatry (Ex. 32:22–24). So, whom do we blame for our sinful actions? Paul blames Adam (Rom. 5:12), but how are we to understand this?
Original sin is the idea that all of humanity enters the world alienated from God and is thus culpable before Him as corrupt and guilty. This state derives from Adam’s fall in the garden of Eden in Genesis 3, and it results in humanity being born with a sin nature (Ps. 51:5). This nature—a collection of attributes that make up a being—means that humans have no capacity to do anything that commends them to God. Several results come from original sin. We are born guilty before God, leading to divine disfavor (Matt. 7:4–5; 12:34; 1 John 1:8). If left in that condition, we would eventually experience His justice (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). Physical death became part of the human experience (Gen. 3:19, 22; Rom. 5:12). Also, various personal and social effects developed from original sin. On a personal level: (a) enslavement to sin (Rom. 7:14); (b) relational distance (Gen. 3:11–12); (c) self-deception (Jer. 17:9); and (d) cognitive deficiencies in regard to our conscience (1 Tim. 4:2). On a social level: (a) racism or tribalism (Acts 17:26); (b) economic inequality (2 Cor. 8:13–15); and (c) other identity-based conflicts (Gal. 2:11–14).
There are several views concerning original sin, all trying to make sense of Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” Augustine (354–430) claimed that humanity really participated in Adam’s sin. This is often called the realist position, since Adam’s posterity were in some way present in him when he fell (The City of God, 2:251). Just as Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek by being present in the body of Abraham (Heb. 7:9–10), so corruption and guilt were imputed via the “loins” to all of humanity as Adam’s progeny.
Pelagius (354–418) maintained that God directly created each soul innocent, not guilty of Adam’s sin. Pelagius simply thought Adam was a poor example. In his reading, Romans 5:12 does not affect humanity in general; only the acts of sin people themselves commit are imputed to them. Humanity did not die because of original sin, but because of the law of nature. Pelagius also thought each person possessed a perfect free will, in contrast to the bondage of the will evident in Augustine. Pelagius did think people will experience a personal fall, though he left open the possibility that a person could choose to live a life without sin. His views were condemned at the Council of Carthage in AD 418 but have continued on throughout church history. A later development of this view, semi-Pelagianism, was condemned at the Council of Orange in AD 529.
“Sin affects the entire person, not just one aspect.”
Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) rejected the idea that humanity was guilty because of Adam’s sin, but he acknowledged humanity had a corruptive influence. In his view, when people purposefully choose to sin, even though they could choose differently, God imputes or reckons sin to them and declares them guilty. Humanity does not possess original righteousness due to Adam’s sin; this distinguishes Arminianism from Pelagianism. Arminius’s innovation is that God confers on humans a distinctive work of the Holy Spirit that can neutralize the effect of inherited depravity. This makes obedience possible on the condition that the human will cooperates with the Holy Spirit. Total depravity is rejected in this view; Romans 5:12 is imputed to humans only once they sin themselves.
Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) developed the standard Reformed view. Adam was humanity’s federal head, and God entered into a covenant of works whereby Adam would be blessed if he obeyed. The result of his failure, however, was that all of humanity fell into evil and death. The depravity of humanity was total; sin and all of its guilt were imputed to humanity because of Adam’s sin and his federal union with us. Paul’s comparison between Adam and Christ favors the federal view over the realism of Pelagianism. However, many find the idea of inherited guilt offensive. This is nothing new; the Israelites struggled with the same idea. There was, however, an awareness that their ancestors were sinful; nevertheless, blame could not finally be shifted (Ezek. 18:24; Jer. 16:11–13). Even though many struggle with the idea of Adam serving as our representative, our lack of conformity to God’s law suggests his sin is more evident in us than we care to admit.
Total depravity indicates that every aspect of the human person is infected with sin (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 7:18), while total inability highlights the idea that humanity can do nothing on its own to reorient itself toward God and away from the sinful self (Rom. 8:8–10). Sin affects the entire person, not just one aspect (Eph. 2:1–3). This is not to say that unregenerate humanity doesn’t do anything that might be deemed virtuous—it clearly does (Matt. 7:11). The claim here is that unregenerate humanity does nothing that would enable them to change their condition in regard to their sinful nature (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 2:12).
Why does this doctrine matter? Often original sin and total depravity are misunderstood, and it’s important to ask questions concerning what is actually meant by words when they’re used. Total depravity is a load-bearing distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism. As followers of Christ, we can be reminded of who we are now. Once we were spiritually dead but now we are spiritually alive (Eph. 2:1–5), by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1–8).
While the reign of sin has been broken, we, by the ongoing work of the Spirit, still need to be vigilant: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature” (Col. 3:5). A good understanding of this doctrine helps us to be empathic with others struggling with sin, all while maintaining the clear message of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:2–6; Eph. 2:9). Finally, it motivates our worship as we remember all that God has done for us by grace (Rom. 7:24–25; Eph. 3:20–21).
by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner
Theology can be intimidating, full of big words and lofty ideas. Yet theological terms aren’t just for professors to argue about in the...
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