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What is the Doctrine of Original Sin and Why is it Important?

by | Oct 25, 2022

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There is a growing movement within Evangelical churches to reject the doctrine of original sin. The doctrine of original sin teaches that through Adam, all people are born with an inherent nature inclined toward sin and are in need of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to remove the sin nature and replace it with a new nature inclined toward God. In short, this is the biblical definition of being “born again.”

The doctrine of original sin is supported by various passages within Scripture including the following: Romans 5:12-14 states:

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men[e] because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

and Psalm 51:5, where David states:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

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While these passages do directly support the doctrine, it is evident, theologically, that the denial of original sin undermines the nature and work of Christ and the purpose of the gospel. A robust and biblically-supported theological argument for the doctrine helps us wrap our minds around the necessity of it while addressing arguments against the teaching. As the late R.C. Sproul stated, “We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.”

Both Roman Catholics and Protestants historically hold to the doctrine of original sin. One of the first major historic figures to oppose this doctrine was Pelagius, a fifth-century heretic who taught that man is essentially good and that through their free moral agency, man chooses to rebel against God. This denies the corrupt nature of man’s will despite the fact that Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1 that we are “dead in the trespasses and sins” and in Ephesians 2:3 that all of mankind are “by nature children of wrath.” Notice the emphasis in that verse, “by nature.” Paul does not claim that we are children of wrath by our free will, but that we are born into a natural, spiritually-dead state of enmity with God.

Today, those who deny the doctrine of original sin follow in the tradition of Pelagius. The denial of the doctrine of original sin leads to a number of problems in Christian theology. For example, as stated in Romans 1:12 above and also in Romans 6:23, the consequence of sin is death. But for those who deny the doctrine of original sin, there would need to be another explanation for why infants die. Of course, opponents of original sin could argue that even if one is sinless, one could still suffer the consequences of sin inflicted upon them by others. But then, even that would give credence to the idea that the whole creation is unwillingly in bondage to corruption and needs to be set free from it (Romans 8:20-21).

If the entire creation is in bondage to corruption, yet men are exempt from this bondage with no natural inclination toward sin, then it’s worth exploring the reason that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)” and why the Apostle John would say (1 John 1:8) “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Both Paul and John seemed quite sure of their assertion that everyone is a sinner, yet, without original sin, how could this be true? Would the opponents of original sin argue that it was revealed to the Apostles that everyone would freely choose to sin? If it’s written in the Bible that all would sin, is there any possibility that it would be possible for one not to commit sin? When you reduce that argument to its logical conclusion, it seems absurd.

The denial of original sin also logically concludes that one can walk away from their salvation. Yet, these same opponents of original sin will also argue that one can return to a state of grace willingly after walking away. This notion suggests that either a.) one can be “born again” multiple times or b.) there are born-again people in Hell.

First, the notion that people can be born again more than once is nowhere found in Scripture. The Apostle writes in 1 Peter 1:23 that we “have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable.” This tells us that our first birth, natural birth, is a birth that surely leads to death because of sin, but that once we’re born again, a spiritual birth (John 3:5), there is no possibility of spiritual death from that point. Something that is imperishable cannot choose to perish.

Secondly, the alternative explanation is that there would be born-again people in Hell. Of course, this notion is even more absurd than the first and is certainly refuted by Scripture being that Hell, according to Revelation 21:8, is the second, or spiritual, death.

So then, what is the attraction of people to embrace Pelagius’s error and deny the doctrine of original sin? Most essentially, it’s pride. The natural man is unable to acknowledge the corrupt state he carries with him and out of pride, one naturally wants to “prove” himself good by attempting to attain perfection. The great Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards argued that it is often pride disguised as humility that creeps into the Church:

Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.

What’s best is to understand that original sin plagues all of us, and because of it, we all need a savior. Our hearts are naturally sick and deceitful, so much so that we can’t even understand them (Jeremiah 17:9) and we all need to have our hearts of stone replaced with new hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

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