There is a lot of push back today against the doctrine of “original sin”. Some question whether the Bible teaches it, others question whether it is fair that someone pay the consequences for someone else’s sin.
So what is “original sin”? The term refers not to the actual sins we all commit, but to the universal sinfulness shared by all human beings, a sinfulness which is traceable to the moral fall of the first humans, Adam and Eve.
While debated, some of the more common passages used to support the doctrine of original sin are Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, Romans 5:18, Ephesians 2:3, and 1 Cor. 15:22. Romans 5:12 says, “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”.
Some argue that it is not fair or just that humanity has to be punished for Adam’s sin. It should be noted that we are not being “punished” for Adam’s sin. Instead, we are living with the consequences of Adam’s sin. There is a big difference there. God does not punish us for Adam’s sin, that idea is mistaken.
However, because Adam fell, we live in a world that is completely affected by that act. Now someone may reply, “But that’s not fair! Why should I live in a messed-up world because of what someone else did?” That is true – it’s not fair. It is not fair when a negligent driver hits an innocent person and that person dies. But it sadly happens. It, interestingly, is also not fair that God would offer anyone salvation in Jesus Christ. Mercy is not fair. So, if we want only justice, we are in big trouble. But the Christian message is that God, in his mercy, is willing to reverse the consequences – this time with our representative as Jesus, instead of Adam. We can have the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ when we are united with him (Romans 5:12-19).
However, what is often forgotten in the push back against original sin, is why it is actually a very important Christian doctrine. There are many reasons why, including its explanation of why human sinfulness and evil is so persistent and pervasive.
But here’s another: when we discard the doctrine, we set ourselves up to look down on others. Original sin is a very democratic doctrine, because it means that we’re all sinners. We all have faults and flaws. We all depend on the grace of God. By denying original sin, we begin to think that it is possible to become virtuous, even perfect, and obtain God’s salvific favour if we perform certain actions.
This most famously goes back to an argument between two theologians back in the fifth century. Pelagius – who denied original sin – argued that it was possible for Christians to become perfect through their own agency. For him, “grace” was just free will, the Law of Moses, and the teachings of Jesus. In Pelagius’s thinking, if you acted sufficiently virtuously, you could attain perfection and God’s favour through your own good actions. This, of course, went completely against the gospel of grace as taught in the scriptures.
Against Pelagius was Augustine, the famous North African Bishop, who argued that due to original sin (which Pelagius denied) all people are deeply affected by sin and thus cannot earn salvation through their own agency. They need God’s grace. Augustine, thankfully, won the day, and Pelagius’ teaching was declared heretical by the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD.
A denial of original sin allows us to sit in moral judgment on those we consider less enlightened as ourselves. It allows us to look down on people in disgust. It creates the toxic environment we are seeing today in our public and political discourses where people look down on others who do not share their own particular opinions and beliefs.
Sadly, Christians who believe in original sin can be as equally toxic or destructive as anyone else. But that is inconsistent with their core beliefs. If a Christian believes in original sin, then they have to equally believe in the beautiful doctrine of grace. That our salvation is not based on our own works and actions, but on the works and actions of Jesus Christ. And thus, it is impossible to look down on anyone, and as the famous saying goes, “there but for the grace of God go I”.