Our view of the human race is too high. We think that people are better than they really are, that people are basically good by nature. Sure, everyone does bad things once in a while, but people are good at heart--we think. But things are actually a lot worse than we think. Our perspective is distorted, and we need the truth of God's word to clear away the fog from our understanding and tell us how things really are. And God, who knows the hearts of all people, says that humans are not basically good at heart, but are basically sinful. In fact, the whole human race has fallen into sin, and therefore we are all born sinful.
If we are going to have an accurate view of ourselves and the greatness of God's grace that rescues believers from sin, we must see the world the way God sees it. In fact, one aspect of our spiritual growth is that our new nature is "being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (Colossians 3:10). In order to bring ourselves closer to God's view of the world, we will examine the doctrine of original sin.
Humans are all born sinful as a result of the sin of Adam, the first human
The Bible teaches that Adam's sin had two main effects on the human race. The first is that it is imputed to everyone. This means that we are all counted guilty for what he did. When Adam was tested in the Garden of Eden, He was acting as the representative of the entire human race. Therefore we share in the blame for his sin. I have written on this doctrine, called imputed sin, in an article called "Born Guilty." What we are going to examine in this article is the second effect that Adam's sin had, called original sin. Original sin means that, because of Adam's first sin, we are all born with an evil nature that is against God. We all come into this world with a sinful nature. It is important to see that whereas imputed sin means that we share in the blame for Adam's sin, original sin means that we become polluted because of Adam's sin. Imputed sin most directly involves our legal standing, original sin most directly involves our moral character.
Sometimes it is thought that original sin means the transgression Adam and Eve committed, since that was the first (and thus original) sin. That is not accurate. Original sin refers to the results of Adam's sin--that all of his descendants are born sinners.
R.C. Sproul very clearly explains one of the very important truths that original sin teaches us: "We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners." People do not come into this world good and then get a sinful nature upon their first willful sin that they commit. Rather, we come into the world with a sin nature and all of our sins are a result of having that sin nature. We act according to our natures. So because of our sin nature, we do sinful actions. A cow does not become a cow by mooing, but moos because he is a cow. Likewise we do not become sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners.
There is a great wealth of scripture teaching that we are born sinful. The Bible everywhere either assumes original sin or outright teaches it. Let's take a look at some of this Scriptural evidence.
Where does the Bible teach original sin?
The first thing to understand is that God did not originally create Adam and Even as sinners. He created them good, without a sinful nature and without sinful inclinations in their hearts. When tested, they sinned by their own choice. Thus, God cannot be blamed for original sin, because he originally created Adam and Eve morally good: "God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices" (Ecclesiastes 7:29).
Scripture says that we are born sinners and that we are by nature sinners. Psalm 51:5 is a very clear statement that we all come into the world as sinners: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." Ephesians 2:2 says that all people who are not in Christ are "sons of disobedience." Being a son of something involves being born with its traits. For example, just as Bill Clinton was born with the traits of the Clinton family, so also all humans are born with the trait of disobedience. Ephesians 2:3 also establishes this, saying that we are all "by nature children of wrath." We are all "by nature children of wrath" because we are all by nature sinners--for God's wrath is not on a person unless they are a sinner and deserve that wrath. And since we are sinners by nature, we see that sin is not just something you do, it is something you are. Thus, Adam and Eve were originally created morally good, but because of their sin moral goodness vanished from the human heart and all of their descendants are thus born with a sinful nature.
Why did Adam and Eve, once they had become sinners, only give birth to more sinners? Why weren't their children born good? Because God has established things such that things reproduce after their kind. Since Adam and Eve were sinners, their children, who were born after their nature, were also sinners. Job 14:4 says "who can make the clean out of the unclean? Not one!" So because Adam and Eve became sinners, all of their descendants are sinners (which is the whole human race) because unclean people cannot produce clean people, but only more uncleanliness.
Scripture calls humans wicked from infancy. Along the same lines as the evidence we have just seen, there are verses which declare that we are wicked from the time that we are born. Proverbs 22:15 says "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child." Genesis 8:21 declares, "...the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth." Jonathon Edwards, in his classic work The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, remarks that on this verse: "The word translated youth, signifies the whole of the former part of the age of man, which commences from the beginning of life. The word in its derivation, has reference to the birth or beginning of existence...so that the word here translated youth, comprehends not only what we in English most commonly call the time of youth, but also childhood and infancy."
Wickedness is often spoken of in Scripture as something belonging to the human race as a whole. This implies that it is the property of our species. In other words, wickedness is considered a property of human nature after the fall. Thus, it must be concluded that we are all born sinners, since we are all born human and sin is regarded as a property of humanity. One very clear passage on this we have already seen. Ephesians 2:3 says that we are "by nature children of wrath." The verses before this are also relevant to original sin: "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest" (vv. 1-3). Paul is reminding Christians of what they were like before their conversion to Christ ("you were dead in your trespasses...in which you formerly walked"). Thus, all people, until and unless they are converted, are sinners. Paul went on to make it absolutely clear that all Christians came from this state ("...we to all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh") and that all non-Christians are still in this state ("...and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.") Thus, Scripture regards all people before they are saved by Christ as sinners and thus deserving of punishment from God.
In Psalm 14:2, 3 we read: "The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." This verse is clear that wickedness is a property of all humans: "they have all turned aside...there is no one who does good." The phrase "together they have become corrupt" seems to point to the fact that all humans became corrupt at the same time--when Adam fell.
Job 15:14 similarly declares that wickedness is a property of humanity: "What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?" Verse 16 says that humans are "detestable and corrupt" and that we "drink iniquity like water!"
Jeremiah 17:9 says that "the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it." This seems to assume original sin--wickedness is a property of the human heart. Ecclesiastes 9:3 declares a similar truth: "...the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts through their lives." Again, the human heart is wicked, and therefore all humans are wicked. This proves that we are born that we, for if infants did not come into the world as sinners, it could not be true that all humans are wicked and that wickedness is a property of humanity.
These texts make clear, then, that human nature is corrupt. Therefore, even infants are corrupt because they are human. And if infants are corrupt, then this is the same as saying that we are born that way--which means we are born with original sin. One may, however, object that these texts speak nothing of infants, only those who are old enough to make moral decisions. All of those people are wicked, but this doesn't mean that infants are. This is an ingenious objection, but it does not succeed.
First, the texts do not seem to restrict themselves to people who are old enough to make intelligent decisions. They seem to speak of human nature as a whole, a classification under which infants certainly fall. Second, as Jonathon Edwards pointed out, "..this would not alter the case...For if all mankind, as soon as ever they are capable of reflecting, and knowing their own moral state, find themselves wicked, this proves that they are wicked by nature."
In other words, even if these verses were only speaking of people old enough to mentally understand sin, they would still be teaching original sin. For on that view, these verses would be saying that all people, as soon as they know good from evil, find themselves sinners. But if all people, as soon as they are capable of moral decisions, find themselves sinners, this proves that they are that way by nature.
Third, Edwards also says, "why should man be so continually spoken of as evil, carnal, perverse, deceitful, and desperately wicked, if all men are by nature as perfectly innocent, and free form any propensity to evil, as Adam was the first moment of his creation?"
Infants die, therefore they must be sinners. Death--both physical and spiritual--is a result of sin (Romans 5:12; 6:23). Thus, death cannot come upon anyone unless they are guilty of sin. Since infants die, they therefore must be sinners. Someone may point to Christ, who was sinless and yet He died. But He willingly gave up His life, and He did it to conquer the curse of death that we were under. In fact, God imputed to Christ our sins on the cross, and Christ died in punishment of those sins. (Remember, imputation involves your legal standing, not moral character. Christ was not turned into a sinner on the cross--He remained perfectly holy in His nature. He was counted guilty, or blamed, for our sins.)
God executes His judgements on infants. Thus, they must have come into the world guilty of original sin, since they have not yet committed any personal sins. Have you ever been troubled by the many Old Testament passages where God commands Israel to destroy whole cities--including the infants? These are very difficult passages! But that is because we do not have a proper view of sin. Since God is commanding the infants to be destroyed in judgement along with the rest of the inhabitants, the infants must be sinners. For God does not judge people for sin unless they are guilty of sin. But if the infants are guilty of sin, it cannot be by their own personal choice--since they don't yet have the mental capacity to make moral decisions. Thus, they must come into the world sinners because of Adam's sin.
Let's take a closer look at some of these passages. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he said he would not destroy the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:25). The only righteous person found was Lot (and perhaps his family), and he was therefore rescued with his family. But the infants were left to be destroyed in that city. Therefore, the infants must have been wicked. This means that infants must be guilty of original sin. People often have the idea that infants are innocent before God. Not so! Looks are very deceiving. They are sinful just as we are.
In 1 Samuel 15:3 God commands Saul "Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." The fact that God's judgement extends to children and infants must indicate that they are sinners. These passages should alert us to the fact that we have a very low, weak view of sin. We tend to think of sin as not being that big of a deal. But God considers sin to be so serious that even infants are deserving of judgement for their sinful natures.
If we are not born sinners, why must we be born again? In John 3:6 and other places, it is said that we must be born again. But why is this, if the first time around we all enter the world fine? In declaring that we must be born spiritually, Jesus is declaring that physical birth is not enough for salvation (John 3:3-15). But how could He say this if we are born into the world innocent of sin?
If there is no original (or imputed) sin, there is no need for us to be redeemed by Christ. Christ came to save a fallen world. If our world is not in the clutches of original sin, then it is not fallen. If it is not fallen, what ultimate need is there for Christ?
If humanity is not born in sin, wouldn't we expect there to be some people who have "beaten the odds" and never sinned? If we are born innocent and good, wouldn't you expect there to be at least some people to have continued in this state and be sinless today? I think all of us know that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 6:23). The fact that everybody sins needs some explanation. The best explanation is that we are sinners by nature--we are born that way. Someone might argue that the reason all people sin is because society is sinful, and thus society renders it impossible for anybody to keep themselves entirely pure. But that only pushes the question back one step. How did society get sinful in the first place? If people are born morally good, wouldn't we expect there to have been at least some societies develop which are morally good?
The OT ceremonies indicate original sin. In his book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Loraine Boettner writes: "The Old Testament ceremonies of circumcision of the new-born child, and of purification of the mother, were designed to teach that man comes into the world sinful, that since the fall human nature is corrupt in its very origin."
Is original sin fair? One may wonder if it is fair for us to be born sinners because of what somebody else did before we were even born. I believe that many reasons are able to establish the fairness of it. But for the sake of space, I will only give one. Consider these words of the great theologian R.L. Dabney: "[Man] is obviously under a curse for something, from the beginning of his life. Witness the native depravity of infants, and their inheritance of woe and death. Now, either man was tried and fell in Adam, or he has been condemned without trial. He is either under the curse...for Adam's guilt, or for no guilt at all. Judge which is most honorable to God, a doctrine which, although a profound mystery, represents Him as giving man an equitable and most favored probation in his federal head; or that which makes God condemn him untried, and even before he exists."
What a shocking truth: there is nobody and nothing on earth that is unaffected by sin. There are no pockets of goodness left in human society, apart from what God puts there by His redeeming power. So much for the common American notion that "people are basically good at heart." Let us be gripped by the startling truth that the whole world is corrupted to the core by sin!
Applications As you let the truth of original sin sink into your heart, it will have many good effects. You will begin to see the world as it really is--doomed, utterly doomed, with no hope apart from God's grace because no one escapes the clutches of sin, not even infants. Let this wake us up to the extent of sin's grip upon the world. We often lack awareness of how wide-spread sin really is. The fact is that everybody, always, since the time of Adam and Eve has the terrible evil of sin in their hearts. Let this destroy the cocky security we may be tempted to take from any thoughts about the "goodness of humanity." Humanity is not good! Let us stop flattering ourselves and admit the truth.
Further, as we let the truth of original sin grip us, it will help drive home to us that we cannot save ourselves, because no one is unaffected by sin. We will see that we have to look outside of ourselves to Christ Jesus for salvation--for He is fully God and fully man, the only perfect human to ever live. We should see the value of Christ's redemptive work shine more clearly as we come to terms with the extent of sin and that our world is totally unable to save itself. We need help from above, and God has provided that in Christ.
Understanding original sin also strips us of any superficial views of sin that we may have, because sin isn't just something humans do, it is something that we are. Sin is not just on the surface of our being, it goes to the very core of our being. Original sin also wakes us up to the seriousness of sin. The fact that even infants, which outwardly appear so good, are sinful should be a very sobering thought. That infants therefore deserve eternal judgement should show us how terrible and offensive to God sin really is.
Finally, the great truth of original sin teaches us not look to the ways of the world--merely human ideas, religions, or how-to books--for instruction on how to live. They are all themselves affected by sin since they are a product of a world in the clutches of sin. Instead, we will use the infallible and pure word of God as our standard in discerning the truth, and as our only fully trustworthy guide to doctrine and practice. Of course we should not close ourselves off from human teachers, but we should seek to learn from the people that teach the word of God, not the wisdom of the world.
The extent and seriousness of sin should combine to make us feel the danger that the world is in. If you are saved, praise God that he saved you. And have a greater sense of urgency in reaching the world for Christ. Life is serious!
Notes1. Jonathon Edwards, "The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended," in The Works of Jonathon Edwards Vol. I, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1995 reprint), p. 188.
2. I know that this may raise the question in many people's minds about what happens when infants die. I believe that God is able to save them if He so desires. For example, it says that John the Baptist would be "filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15). However, I do not know if God saves all infants who die, or only some. We must also recognize that if an infant is saved, it is not because of any inherent goodness in them. They are guilty and must be forgiven, and thus it is out of God's sheer mercy that He would act in saving any of them.
All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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