Article 15 - Original Sin
We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race. It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother's womb. As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race. It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source. Yet, in spite of all this, original sin is not imputed to the children of God to their condemnation but by His grace and mercy is forgiven them. This does not mean that the believers may sleep peacefully in their sin, but that the awareness of this corruption may make them often groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.
Article 15 takes us back to our Fall into sin as related in Genesis 3. It is true that the believer, by God’s grace and mercy, has been forgiven of original sin. Yet, in spite of this forgiveness, sin remains a very real component of the believer’s life on earth. The child of God experiences sin as an inescapable reality of daily life, and this bothers the child of God. DeBres has learned from Scripture that God’s forgiveness “does not mean that the believers may sleep peacefully in their sin, but that the awareness of this corruption may make them often groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.”
WHAT IS SIN?
Sin is not simply a misdeed. Such a definition is much too innocent, and makes the God who “cannot look on wickedness” (see Habakkuk 1:13) into an ogre. Sin is rebellion, rebellion against God’s God-ness, rebellion against my needing to submit to Him as God. Sin is that I push God aside and decide that I determine what is right in my circumstance. Sin, then, is not just an outward deed, but sin is an attitude of the heart, arrogance over against God. This arrogance is not occasional or sporadic, but pervasive; “we have turned, every one, to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6), and continually act as if we can make the rules ourselves.
WHERE DOES MY SIN COME FROM?
After David acknowledged his transgression before the Lord in his affair with Bathsheba, he asked himself where his sin came from. His words have been recorded for us in Psalm 51:5. “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” David confesses that sin was present in him from the moment of his birth, yes, from the moment of his conception.
David does not say here that sin is just one more characteristic inherited genetically from one’s parents, just like one inherits eye and hair color. One cannot be held responsible for the color of his eyes or the color of his hair with which he was conceived. Yet the Bible definitely does hold each individual responsible for his sinfulness. Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned –”. According to Paul it was not just Adam who sinned (and so sin entered the world), but “all sinned”. Here is an explanation of David’s words in Psalm 51:5. David was sinful from the moment of conception because he had sinned in Paradise with Adam already. So, too, ourselves: when Adam sinned, we all sinned. This matter of personal responsibility for sin (and being sinful) underlies the Bible’s revelation concerning God’s punishment upon sin. If I were not responsible for being sinful, if I could blame my parents for my being sinful (as I can trace the color of my eyes to them), then God would not be just in punishing me for sinning. Hell would then be unjust for all but Adam and Eve.
The term ‘original sin’ is a reference to the sin described in Genesis 3, and contrasts with ‘actual sins,’ ie, the sinful acts we commit day by day. Romans 5:12 (quoted above) refers to original sin, and teaches that we fell into sin in Paradise. This thought is basic to the Bible’s doctrine of sin and the doctrine of redemption. If I am not responsible for sin in the first place, then I am not in need of redemption either.
How then must I imagine or understand that I am responsible for the sin of Genesis 3? Two different approaches attempt to answer this question, as follows:
1) The Realist Approach
This approach insists that I was actually present in Paradise, and appeals to a passage as Hebrews 7:1-10 for explanation. Hebrews 7 recalls the episode of Genesis 14, where Melchizedek received from Abraham one tenth of the booty he had acquired after defeating the four kings in battle, and argues that in effect the Levites paid tithes through Abraham. “Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him” (Hebrews 7:9,10). The Realist explanation for my involvement in the fall in Paradise says that as Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through his being present in Abraham’s loins (though born years later), so we were present in the loins of Adam when he sinned and so we partook in that act of sinning.
2) The Federalist Approach
This second approach reasons that Adam was the head of the human race, and when he followed a particular course of action, the whole human race followed suit. This can be compared to a Head of State declaring war on another country. As a result of his declaration not the Head of State only is at war with the other country, but every resident of his land is at war. The decision of the one is a decision from all and for all.
Neither of the above two approaches answer all the questions that can be raised about how I can be held responsible for an act I cannot recall (and occurred even before I was born!). The important point is that the Bible insists that each of us is responsible for being sinful. I cannot comprehend how I am personally responsible for my fall in Paradise (my sinful, limited mind cannot grasp it), but I am to admit it and confess it: my sinfulness is my own fault; I am guilty of original sin.
Since I am responsible for original sin, I am also worthy of God’s judgment on sin. It would be perfectly just of God to send me to hell. Even before birth I deserved nothing else, because I already sinned in Genesis 3. Knowing that each person is worthy of damnation points out how great a marvel it is that God does not cast all people into hell. It is God’s good pleasure to save some and leave others subject to damnation. Given our own responsibility for sinfulness, it will not do for me to complain if I should find myself in hell, nor am I to complain if someone else goes to hell. Every one justly deserves hell. See Lord’s Day 4.11.
At this point consideration should be given to the matter of children who die in infancy. Take for example all the victims of abortion. Can some or all of these babies, themselves victims of sin, who have not even had the opportunity to commit a sin, be sent to hell? This does indeed sound rash and harsh to our minds. However, we do well to remember that our minds are but sinful and that our feelings and emotions can stand in the way of a correct perspective on this. The issue here is, ‘what does God think?’ God hates sin. What is it that all people have in common? They are all totally sinful. Where do sinful people deserve to go? All deserve His sentence of hell. Where do people go unless Christ saves them? All go to hell. This is true for people of all ages, for infants as well as the elderly. No single person after the fall stands on some neutral ground before God, but all have deserted God and joined the devil; all, whether born or unborn, have sinned – and the wages of sin is death, eternal, spiritual death (Romans 6:23). I am to understand, then, that all people (myself included) rightly deserve hell – regardless of whether or not we have committed so-called ‘actual’ sins. My sinful emotions may not hinder me from humbly acknowledging the sentence God rightfully may pronounce on every human being, regardless of age. Only when it is clear in my mind what I and all people by nature deserve, can I be amazed that God has actually reached out to save some. It is then that I can also truly marvel at the fact that He even saved me!
THE EFFECT OF SIN
The result of the fall into sin was total depravity. The radical effect of the fall into sin is clear from the chapters that follow directly after Scripture’s account of the fall. Genesis 4 relates how the first child ever born let jealousy and hatred govern his heart, so that he killed his brother. Genesis 6 tells us that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (vs 5). The effect of the fall into sin is that the heart has become depraved, corrupted. Jeremiah 17:9 states the matter most graphically: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” Jesus describes some of the evils found in the human heart: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within...” (Mark 7:21-23). There is not a single good thing left in man; he is totally depraved. This does not mean that all people all commit all the most radical, horrendous sins possible. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sin has so totally corrupted the human heart that, no matter what I do, the heart remains totally depraved. To the human eye one sin is worse than another, but in God’s eyes sin is sin.
Sin affects everything we do; it touches all of life. We were not ‘little innocents’ at birth; even at birth we were already totally depraved and hence inclined to all evil. When our parents had us baptized, they confessed concerning us that we were “conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation” (Book of Praise, p 587). It is on account of this reality of sin in children’s hearts that Solomon tells the parents and young people of his realm to appreciate discipline. “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, But a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Proverbs 13:1). “He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (Proverbs 13:24). Biblical parenting takes seriously the reality of depravity.
Western society does not believe that children are inclined to all evil. The thought is not new. Long ago already, Pelagius (c. 355 – c. 425) taught the early church to think positively of people. According to Pelagius children are born sinless. It is only, he said, through what children see others do that they learn to do evil. Let a child grow up with no negative example, and it will become a perfect adult. DeBres summarized Pelagius’ position in our article: “sin is only a matter of imitation.” The church has soundly condemned Pelagius’ positive evaluation of mankind, yet his teaching remains attractive to sinful people – and therein supplies further evidence of how insensitive we have become to our sinfulness. At heart his teaching is embraced today by social constructionists who would have us believe that the answer to improved conduct lies in providing a child with a good context in which to grow up. As if the heart is not inclined to all evil to begin with….
The Lord, though, has revealed something much different concerning our identity. To know what we are, and to know what our children are, leads us to an attitude of humility. If my sinfulness is my own fault, as a result of my own transgression in Paradise, there remains no room for me to challenge God concerning anything He does in my life. On account of my own transgression, I deserve only evil – and I readily acknowledge this humbling reality. More, to accept the reality of original sin is to open the way for marveling at the great gift God has given in Jesus Christ. Given my depravity, this gift of salvation is indeed the great surprise of the Gospel, and it moves to hearty praise for a God of such mercy.
FORGIVEN AND RENEWED, BUT NOT YET PERFECTED
In unfathomable mercy God has given His only Son to pay for my sins, both original and actual. He has also given me the Holy Spirit and so renewed me (see Article 24). However, the Spirit’s renewing work does not mean that I have already been made perfect. Even today I am still corrupt and inclined to all manner of evil. As deBres says it in Article 15, sin “is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source.” Should I then be surprised if I would commit David’s sin? Or Peter’s? No, I should not be surprised at all. Dismayed, yes; but surprised, no. I should not be surprised because my heart remains so sinful.
Paul knew this well. Consider what he writes in Romans 7:18,19. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practise.” Paul writes this after his conversion, after he became a Christian; else he could not say that “to will is present with me.” Like Paul, I can desire to do what is right, but I just do not have what it takes to carry it out. I am forgiven and renewed, but I am not yet made perfect. That is why Jesus taught His disciples (and so all of us) to pray for forgiveness of sins and to ask God not to lead us into temptation. Though regenerated by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we remain “so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment” (Lord’s Day 52). Or, as Lord’s Day 51 says it with Paul in Romans 7:24: we remain “wretched sinners”. So the Heidelberg Catechism can summarize Scripture in Lord’s Day 44 like this: “In this life even the holiest – think, for example, of David or Peter – have only a small beginning” of the obedience God requires. David committed adultery and Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times. They, too, wanted to serve the Lord, but could not rise above sin. Nor should I think that I could do better. Of course, this is no reason to cease struggling against sin. In Lord’s Day 44 the Christian confesses that “with earnest purpose [the Christian does] begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.” Yes, I must fight sin zealously, but I must not delude myself that I can get above sin.
That is also the reason why I am to be so very cautious in passing judgment on another. My neighbor is no better than I am, and I am no better than my neighbor. I can fall into gross sin, and so can he. Dismay at sin is never to be confused with surprise. Let us stay humble in relation to our abilities.
The radical extent of our sinfulness is something we so badly need to acknowledge. We live in a time when not only the world, but also Christianity in general thinks positively of the person. Evangelicalism has taken on a heavy strain of Pelagianism/Arminianism; man (it is said) is not all the way down on the bottom rung, but somewhere higher up the ladder. We do well, however, to echo the unflattering terms Scripture uses concerning what man is, what I am. In the words of our article, “... the awareness of this corruption may make (believers) often groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death.” This is what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 15:53-57. He longs to be released from this body of death, when the power of sin shall be totally removed. “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There comes a day – any day now! – when we will be relieved from the clutches of sin! Who is not impatient?!
Points for Discussion:
- Explain what sin is. What actually makes a particular action (or attitude) ‘sin’?
- Where does sin come from?
- Is it just of God to send heathens, regardless of age, to hell? Why or why not?
- Should you be surprised to find grievous sin in your (regenerated) life? Why or why not?
- Will sin always remain a part of us? Explain.
- How would you describe yourself to God? Is the language of the Prayers in the Book of Praise (pg 641ff, esp Prayer 1 & 3) too self-condemning? Explain your answer.