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Calling God a liar.
A few thoughts on original sin and its imperiled denial.
One of the more debated topics throughout the ages of theological and ecclesiological discussion is, to be sure, the notion of man’s culpability in the tragedy which befell Adam and Eve, a.k.a. original sin. When they both succumbed to the serpent’s lie, a series of curses were laid down by God himself as a result of their rebellion and disobedience. Seminally, the unbridled fellowship both Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden would no longer be their privilege. Significantly, included in these curses was the somber stroke which assured them both that, eventually, their bodies would return to the dust from which they were made (Gen. 3:19). Death, then, is normative to the human condition as a result of the sin of Eden, which corresponds to the apostle Paul’s claim in Romans, where he asserts, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
The conviction that Adam’s sin and its repercussions have been passed down to each succeeding generation for several millennia seems, at first, to be the height injustice, bordering on ludicrous. Modern sentimentality surely finds such a notion as more than a minor encroachment upon one’s goodness and decency. Case in point, in the 2022 State of Theology survey, published by Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research, data shows that 66% of evangelicals respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.” The statement is itself pregnant with Pelagianism, a school of theology which maintains that mankind is the inheritor of neither Adam’s corrupted nature nor Adam’s guilt. Instead, Adam endures as a tainted moral exemplar.
The Pelagian understanding of original sin and human innocence, then, insists upon the belief that human beings are born uncorrupted, and that it is only by a failure of volition that they fall into corruption and, even, condemnation. In this paradigm, the grace of Christ, which remains a central tenet to the gospel of Christ, is thereby devalued to little more than an epoxy which enables men and women to ascertain rightly the laws of Moses and the teachings of Jesus, both of which codify the way in which one is able to live a good and decent life. Pelagius, however, was more than a little mistaken in his view of human sin. And, consequently, so are the 66% who agreed with that statement which echoes his interpretation of the matter.
In any event, claiming one’s innate innocence “in the eyes of God” not only refutes experiential but also biblical data. To insist that humans are not plagued with wretchedness which is to deny reality. It is, however, also a denial of plain scriptural truth. The apostle John says in his first epistle, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8–10). The mere assertion that one is not a sinner is both a catastrophic self-delusion and a misguided indictment of God himself.
“We all,” says Millard J. Erickson in his work on Christian Theology, “have a depraved or corrupted nature that so inclines us toward sin that it is virtually inevitable” (575). This not only underscores the apostle’s point in Romans 5, but also gets to the heart of his agony in Romans 7, where he opines his inability to do anything “good” (Rom. 7:18–20). As Paul avers, there is a connection between what Adam did in the Garden and what mankind continues to do. Like Augustine, the arch-nemesis of Pelagian thought, it is concluded that Adam’s sin was, in a way, mankind’s sin, too. Therefore, human beings are both culpable and responsible for the nature of sin with which they enter the world, a.k.a. original sin.
This, as Erickson notes, is “a precondition of our lives” (575n10). And, it should be noted, it is a precondition for the gospel itself. Those who rebuff the notion of original sin are, likewise, countervailing the premise upon which the gospel stands — namely, the notion of being represented by a substitute. “Just as we are not actually righteous in ourselves,” Erickson concludes, “but are treated as if we have the same righteous standing that Jesus has, so, though we are not personally sinful until we commit our first sinful act, we are, before that time, treated as if we have the same sinful standing that Adam had” (578). The good news of God’s fellowship with and reconciliation of man is predicated on the fundamental premise that there are sinners who are in need of saving. To say otherwise is to call God a liar.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013).