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Original Sin & Total Depravity

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EXPLORING “ORIGINAL SIN” AND “TOTAL DEPRAVITY”

Ralph Sorter

Introduction

            I suppose the place to start on this subject is with a clear understanding of what we are talking about…a definition.  Those that believe in original sin believe that through the sin of Adam and Eve (eating the forbidden fruit) all mankind has become completely defiled (totally depraved) in all parts of the soul and body.  The guilt of this sin has imputed corrupt natures.  From this original corruption, man is supposedly totally depraved, made opposite to all good and is completely inclined to do evil.[1]

Origin of the Doctrine

            This thought originates with the Greeks who had the philosophy that evil is inherent within man.  The Greeks held a low view of man, but the Hebrews (the race from which our Lord and every Apostle stems from) held a high view of man.  Those that believe in depravity follow the Greek mind that man is no good.  Here is a statement by Martin Luther.  “Since the nature of man is corrupted through and through by original sin and is damned within and without, in body and soul, and flees from God…Spiritual powers are not only corrupted, but even totally destroyed in both men and devils, and nothing remains but a corrupted intellect and a will which is hostile and opposed to God at every point, which thinks and desires nothing but that alone which is contrary and opposed to God.”[2]

            This view reflects not the Hebrew philosophy, but that of the pagan Greek.  The Genesis account does not explicitly state that Adam had all his intellectual powers, or the ability to choose by his will, destroyed.  It does say that he felt ashamed, that he hid, that he suffered the loss of Eden, that he must work by the sweat of his brow, that Eve would have pain in childbirth, that woman was to serve man.  Nothing was said as to general depravity in the text.

            Further, in Isaiah 7:14-16, though in prophecy of the Messiah, the Hebrew philosophy contrasts the Greek when it shows that even the Messiah came to an age of accountability.  "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Emanuel.  He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good.  For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”[3]  Clearly here we can see that man has a free-will choice rather than an imprisonment to total depravity.  Total depravity teaches that we have no choice in the matter…we do instinctively what our corrupt nature tells us to do.

            Even Joshua called upon the people to make a free-will choice that would lead to life and security in the Promised Land.  “Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."  (Joshua 24:15)

            The doctrine of original sin stemmed from Augustine, a fourth century theologian.  Augustine wrestled with his own passions and surrendered to them in his days before his conversion in complete indulgence.  From this experience he wrote, “We are born of concupiscence.”  Concupiscence means inordinate sexual appetite.  It was his belief that even marital sex was bad.  He fixed the blame from his own unbridled life upon his birth instead of a choice of his own will.

            This fits nicely with modern psychology that says it is never our fault.  The culprit is our genes, our parents, or some other overpowering force.  It’s the old game of passing the buck of responsibility away from our own choices.  But the Bible reveals that God placed personal blame on Adam and Eve and they had to pay the price.  We do the same thing when by our own choice we listen to the voice of Satan rather than the voice of God.  The game of passing the buck of responsibility did not originate with Augustine, but with Adam and Eve.  God proved them to be wrong in that matter.

            We find this same faulty thinking in the days of the exile in the Old Testament.  In Ezekiel 18:1-4 there is a quote of a proverb (a saying) that Israel stated.  “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  It’s an obvious attempt to escape accountability for sin.  But Ezekiel corrected this faulty thinking later in verses 19-20.  "Yet you say, 'Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity?' When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.  The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”

Early Conclusions

            We cannot conclude from Scripture that since man is held responsible, he must possess sufficient ability to choose the right and reject evil.  His captivity, if any, would have to be that he is in the clutches of an evil generation and a society dominated by evil men who teach us to love what is wrong and choose against our best interests.  This certainly is a kind of depravity, but it certainly is not a genetic depravity that we inherit from our parents, their parents, and thus Adam.[4] 

When you think about it, total depravity is an unnecessary and artificial attempt to defend God’s honor.  There is certainly a depravity of relationships when man leaves fellowship with God for uncontrolled self-expression.  Habitual misuse of the abilities God gave us will harden our hearts and misalign our will to choose good.  Habitual wrong begins to justify our choices rather than judge it wrong.  When evil is compounded by habit and reinforced by society, which teaches us to love evil and to call evil good, and reward sin with advancement and pleasures, man will find himself trapped in evil.  Only God’s intervention can save us.[5]  Genetic depravity just can’t be found in either the old or New Testament.  The very words “total depravity” are absent from Scripture.  It’s the philosophy of Athens, not Jerusalem!

So What Is the State Of Infants?

            First we need to start with defining sin by the Bible itself.  Sin, according to 1 John 3:4, is transgression of God’s law.  In James 4:17 we discover that the “one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.”  And in Romans 14 23, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.”  And from Matthew 5:27-28, sin can even be in the mind, not just an act or omission. "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

            From these passages we can define sin: Sin is a wrongful choice in the mind, usually expressed in disobedience of God’s known law.[6]  Thus an infant cannot come under the Biblical definition of sin.  The Bible does not record a sin without a sinner.  Sinfulness is not a pre-existing hereditary condition, but an acquired condition as the result of personal rebellion against the law of God.  Once again, Ezekiel 18:19-20 is a clear indication that we are individually responsible for our own actions.

            God breathes life into the spirit of a child (Zechariah 12:1).  Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that the spirit returns to God who gave it.  The Author of life is pure…and the object of His creation is pure.  If God has created an infant’s spiritual life, it is an insult to His character to believe He would create a corrupt spirit in the child.

            Those that believe in hereditary sin believe that sin is transferred to all generations perpetually.  But Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”  Physical death was one of the curses in Genesis 3.  Even infants, who have committed no sin, do die physically as a result of this consequence.  But the consequence ends with the grave, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

            We are all familiar with the tender account of Jesus taking little children into His arms and blessing them (Matthew 19:14).  He did not baptize them, for Christian baptism was not even instituted at this time.  But He made the statement, “of such is the kingdom of heaven.”  It would hardly be conceivable that Jesus would have used them as an illustration of His kingdom if they were indeed “utterly opposite to all good and wholly inclined to all evil” (from Presbyterian Confession of Faith).  The fact is, He saw the innocence and purity in these little children and said that is why they illustrate His kingdom.

Examining Proof Texts of the Opposition

            Those who defend original sin use the passage Psalm 51:5 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  You could come to that conclusion of original sin if you isolate that passage from the rest of the Bible.  But it would be in direct contradiction to Ezekiel 18:19-20, and I choose to believe the Bible is without error.

            There are two principles of Bible interpretation that need to be applied here.  The first is that you interpret a vague passage in light of the plain passage.  Psalm 51:5 is the vague passage and Ezekiel 18:19-20 the plain.  The second principle of interpretation to be applied here is that you always interpret poetic portions of the Scripture in light of the didactic (teaching) portions of the Scripture.  The reason for this is that poetic literature is highly symbolic.  Everyone knows that the Psalms are poetic literature, and thus the passage in chapter 51 is symbolic.

            In the Psalms passage, David is poetically telling us that there was some moral violation in his conception.  But this is one of David'’ Psalms of penitence, and it is completely out of order to blame someone else for what you have done when your are truly penitent.  So our understanding here is that David is poetically stating that he was born into a world of iniquity.  He was brought forth into a world where sin is a prevailing influence.

            Another passage used in defense of inherited sin is Ephesians 2:3 – “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.”  Another rule of interpreting Scripture is that you always interpret according to the context.  You cannot isolate a phrase just to prove a point.  The context of this verse (verses 1-3) is that people are walking according to course of this world, dead in their trespasses and sins (an act of transgression of God’s law).  They were dead because they were directed by a spirit that now works in the children of disobedience to God.  They were subject to the wrath of God because they chose to walk in an evil course.  This fits the context of the rest of the Scripture.[7]

            Another passage used in defense of original sin is Romans 5:19 – “For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”  Often an error is made in interpreting Scripture by making it say more than it really says.  Such is the case here.  Notice that man experiences sin because of Adam, and on the other hand, man experiences righteousness because of Christ.  Those who follow Christ are righteous.  Sin is not universal because Adam sinned, but sin is universal because all men sin.

That is the choice of all time…by our free-will choice, will we follow Christ?  Those that choose Him, Jesus places His robe of righteousness upon their shoulders.  Each of us must receive Christ purposefully and willfully.

So When Does a Child Need Christ?

            The answer to that question is when they sin, feel guilty for it, and ask what they can do to be free of the guilt.  Whatever age that may be, that is the age of accountability.  Prior to this level of maturity (both mental and spiritual), they cannot make a responsible choice to purposefully and willfully follow Christ.  When they can understand transgression against God, understand what Jesus did in their place, and understand what it means to follow Christ and live for Him, then they are a candidate for teaching salvation and bringing them to that conclusion.  Prior to that, God does not hold them accountable for wrong choices.  Infants know wrong, such as an infant reaching for the knob on the television when having been told repeatedly not to, but does so and turns and looks at their parents for their response.  Children can even be willful and stubborn, but guilt of the consequences does not enter until the child’s development reaches that age of accountability (explained in the first sentence of this paragraph).  No where does the Bible teach infant baptism or infant conversion.  That practice did not enter Church history until the 4th Century AD.  Let’s not stray from the Scriptures, but follow it’s doctrine and practice as taught by the first disciples.


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[1] Presbyterian Confession of Faith, Revised Edition, 1939, pages 25-26.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, Westwood, N.J.: Revel.

[3] Holy Bible, New American Standard Bible, Thomas Nelson, 1985.  All remaining passages quoted are from the NASB.

[4] Mont W. Smith, What the Bible Says About Covenant, College Press, 1981, page 61.

[5] Ibid., page 61-62.

[6] Dale E. Erickson, Original Sin – Doctrine or Dogma?, Christian Standard, August 19, 1984, page 9.

[7] Ibid., August 26, 1984, page 5.

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