ORIGINAL SIN

What if I said that all humans beings are inherently vile, evil, and despicable? What if I then said that we were all born that way, and it was impossible to ever be good using what we know, learn, and experience in the natural world? What if I concluded that since we are all so corrupted, that we didn’t even choose to do evil, but wickedness passively flowed from us like water overflowing from a sink?

More than 1,600 years ago, Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the first Christian theologians to gain fame and recognition, posited the above ideas when he formulated the concept of original sin. His insistence that the Church as an institution served as a spiritual center and a divinely ordained means to bring love, peace, and joy into the earthly realm certainly pleased the powers-that-were for obvious reasons.

As with many topics regarding faith in modern times, people often tend to get bogged down in the superfluous details while being distracted away from the true heart of the message. Original sin is a pessimistic, burdensome concept that is (and was) perversely wielded as a tool to consolidate power and control in the hands of an elite few that could offer “redemption”. Even in 2014, many laypeople perceive religion as an oppressive, sin-oriented, guilt-inducing institution that would rather chastise than demonstrate love and mercy. Thankfully, the message of the scriptures triumphs over said notions and the negative connotations of original sin.

The following is an academic paper that I wrote for an ethics class, but I hope some of the curious will find it intriguing. Augustine may have lived thousands of years ago, but his writings certainly have endured the test of time.

Using the Bible as a lens, many perspectives confirm and even expound upon Augustine’s concept of original sin. Although less numerous, some Biblical examples speak out against Augustine. Consequently, the Biblical validation of Augustine is paramount because the fall of all humans through one individual points directly toward the eventual (potential) redemption of all humankind through Christ. Augustine defined a concept that invariably influences all of humanity, but the scriptures demand that it is God’s mercy in grace that triumphs over the bondage and death that comes from original sin. In short, contemplation of original sin committed by one man leads one directly to the greater overcoming power, universal redemption, and the liberation from death that Christ provides for all of humanity.

As it says in I Corinthians 15:55-57,

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. (NLT)

I shall first define what Augustine meant by original sin. Then, from several biblical perspectives, I will illustrate what the Bible says regarding Augustine’s hypothesis. I will accomplish this by, (1) highlighting the importance of a person’s mental state of fidelity over action, (2) juxtapose the divine act (and central message of the Bible) of grace and redemption through Christ with the human act of original sin, and (3) analyze the counterpoint to original sin made by the apostle Paul in Romans. Finally, Augustine thought the focus or nexus of all sin was the focus on the self. I shall answer whether the Bible says this assertion is correct or incorrect through my analysis of the three points.

In Confessions, Augustine defines original sin as an act of free will—a misdirection toward serving the self and not God—and subsequently that act is what degraded and corrupted the will for all of humankind. Adam and Eve had fallen away from God, and sin was birthed into humanity, inescapably tainting each and every one of us with a corrupted will, a sinful nature, and an evil disposition. Without God, we are free only to sin, and only with God are we free not to sin. Prior to the fall of man, Adam remained wholly good, and he had the power to do either good or evil. He unfortunately chose the latter. Augustine emphasized that the original sin was grounded in conceit and that human pride is the root of all sin.[i] Augustine says that we do not choose evil; instead through pride and loving ourselves only, evil inevitably results as a function of our corrupted nature. In contrast to a Thomistic understanding of actively choosing evil, this is a passive form of evil.

In Genesis 2:17, God tells Adam, “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Subsequently, in Genesis 3, the crafty serpent then asks Eve if God really did say that they must not eat from the tree. The woman then responds (verse 3), “[F]rom the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The italics are mine and intended to highlight the human addition to God’s initial command. For this reason, it is evident that our first parents had fallen away before eating the forbidden fruit. Prior to any concrete action being taken, the mind had been misdirected and thus misconstrued the command of God. Moreover, the inward manifestation of pride can be seen in verse 6, where it says, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (NASB). Pride drew power from what the eyes saw, what the mind thought, and the perceived benefit to the self.

The term “original sin” first appears in Book V 9.16 of the Confessions, where it details, “[T]he bond of original sin whereby we all die in Adam.”

Augustine writes,

So I set myself to examine an idea I had heard—namely that our free will is the cause of our doing evil, and Your just judgment is the cause of our suffering evil … And when I willed to do or not do anything, I was quite certain that it was myself and no other who willed, and I came to see that the cause of my sin lay there.[ii]

“Whence then is evil, since God who is good made all things good?”[iii]

It is concluded evil, or sin, cannot originate from God, who is incorruptible and wholly good. Humans, however, are corruptible, capable of sin through their own will, and inherently subordinate to God. Augustine says,

But seeing the superiority of the incorruptible I should have looked for You in that truth and have learned from it where evil is—that is, learned the origin of the corruption by which Your substance cannot be violated. For there is no way in which corruption can affect our God, whether by His will or by necessity or by accident: for He is God, and what He wills is good, and Himself is Goodness; whereas to be corrupted is not good.[iv]

A key component of the doctrine of original sin proclaims that all of humankind inherits the sin of Adam, and thus we are unable to release ourselves from the burden of sin due to a corrupted will. Augustine says,

When I was deliberating about serving the Lord my God, as I had long meant to do, it was I who willed to do it, I who was unwilling. It was I. I did not wholly will, I was not wholly unwilling. Therefore I strove with myself and was distracted by myself. This distraction happened to me though I did not want it, and it showed me not the presence of some second mind, but the punishment of my own mind. Thus it was not I who caused it but the sin that dwells in me, the punishment of a sin more freely committed by Adam, whose son I am.[v]

He also states,

If Adam had not fallen away from You, there would not have flowed forth from him the bitter sea of the human race, with the depths of its curiosity, the storms of its pride, and the restless tossing of its instability …[vi]

In discussing happiness, Augustine surmises that since all people have a concept of happiness and uphold it as a desirable thing, then somewhere, an ancient knowledge and recognition of it must lay in memory. He then says,

I strive to know whether or not this knowledge is in memory, for if it is then we have at some past time been happy—whether individually, or in that man who committed the first sin, in whom we all died and of whom we are all in misery descended.[vii]

In a more general sense, Augustine furthered his view of sin as follows:

Man indeed desires happiness even when he does so live as to make happiness impossible. What could be more of a lie than a desire like that? This is the reason why every sin can be called a lie. For, when we choose to sin, what we want is to get some good or get rid of something bad. The lie is in this, that what is done for our good ends in something bad, or what is done to make things better ends by making them worse. Why this paradox, except that the happiness of man can come not from himself but only from God, and that to live according to oneself is to sin, and sin is to lose God?[viii]

A natural question that follows from Augustine’s construction is did Adam (or does any human being for that matter) in fact have the freedom to choose, cognizant of God’s foreknowledge of past, present, and future? Augustine insists upon each person’s ability to choose freely and the evil that subsequently results from turning away from God. In Christian Ethics, Wogaman recognizes that “there can be no moral obligation where there is no freedom to choose” and “to Augustine, God’s foreknowledge does not minimize human freedom: God just knows how that freedom will be exercised.”[ix] As an extension of that statement, “God is able to see the mind and the heart” (Jer. 20:12, NASB). Perhaps it is an exercise in futility to attempt to rationalize God’s conception of justice and to hold us all legally accountable from the lens of human understanding. The paradigm that Wogaman described may not “make sense” to us all, for The Lord has said, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9, NASB).

If we are all born into sin, and thus do evil passively, how does one come to seek God, who represents all that is good? Does evil, then, passively seek good, or does it instead understand its own shortcoming and actively chooses that which is against itself? For God to have given grace as a gift, he also demands our obedience to Him. Therefore, without Him, we must not have been able to choose that which is good, which supports Augustine’s hypothesis.

Although Augustine portrayed original sin as an act, in the eyes of God sin is as much a mental attitude as it is an action. Accordingly, in agreement with Augustine, these mental attitudes invariably focus on the satisfaction of the person’s own selfish needs and not the desires of God. In the Decalogue, God tells Israel, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17, NASB). Specifically, this mental attitude of craving what is not one’s own is explicitly prohibited. Furthermore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ condemns as guilty anyone “angry with his brother” (Matt. 5:22) and also those who haven’t committed adultery but have simply thought about it. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). In these examples sin is rooted in selfishness that manifests as what I desire, what I feel, and what I want even though it belongs to someone else.

Jeremiah prophesizes in Jer. 31:33, “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord. I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (emphasis added, NASB).

On the verge of entering the Promised Land, in the Shema, Moses tells the nation of Israel, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (emphasis added, Deut. 6:4-5, NASB). According to Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew root of the word love is ahab, meaning, “to have affection for, to love, like; a desire within the bounds of lawful relationships.”

Next, how can God hold us all morally and ethically responsible for original sin? What does the Bible say about us being held accountable for the sins of Adam and Eve?

Original sin is a concept that engenders judgment, guilt, despair, and condemnation. The driving force in the Bible, however, is just the opposite: mercy, grace, hope, and freedom. To focus one’s answer on the damnation that original sin imputes would be to ignore the greater gift of redemption declared throughout the Bible. After all, we have all been made in God’s image, and so He has a vested interest in all of us. An all-powerful God could have “hit reset” and started creation anew, but He did not. God chose to nurture and care for his fallen creations and provide them with a path toward reconciliation. God chose to stick with humanity, despite our rejection of the paradise He had just made for us. Indeed, the sin of Adam was imputed to humankind, but the gift of grace is the more profound story.

This theme starts in the Garden of Eden even before Adam and Eve are banished. In Genesis 3:15, God verbalizes that He has already laid the foundation of humanity’s redemption by alluding to Christ: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (NASB). Accordingly, in an act of continued care, God’s immediately clothes his creations upon exit from Eden (Gen. 4:21).

Likewise, as the gift of a redeemer (Christ) is a free, merciful gift to undeserving people, the scriptures indicate that for the heart to know, the eyes to see, and the ears to hear Him is in fact a gift from God.[x] He not only decided to save the fallen creations but also took a step further and bestowed a gift to exactly those who betrayed Him. The reason for this is that God was fully aware of humankind’s propensity for sin after the fall, and the recurrent cycle of sin and disobedience that started in the Garden of Eden continues until today. Hence, in agreement with Augustine, God knew that our human will was corrupted, that we would perpetually act in self-interest, and so any turn to obey and follow Him must therefore be the result of a divine initiative. An imperfect will cannot find a perfect God, and that actuality is always accomplished by His will.[xi]

This concept becomes evident as the people of Israel were on the verge of entering the Promised Land, where God, aware of the wilderness generation’s repeated acts of waywardness, establishes a second covenant at Moab—explicitly made with all members of the community and pertinent to contemporary times by the frequent use of the word “today”—where the Lord proclaims a divine act through Moses:

The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. (Deut. 30:6, NASB)

In contrast to the human act that brought death from Adam, God’s act brings life to all.

Other First Testament prophets echo this concept. In Jeremiah 24:6-7, the prophet speaks the words of the Lord to those who had been exiled away from Judah:

For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them again to this land; and I will build them up and not overthrow them, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart. (NASB)

After the exile, the prophet Ezekiel says,

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God. (NASB)

The Second Testament succinctly states this point in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NASB).

Without the gift of God, no human action can propel one’s self closer to redemption.

The most acute counterpoint to the condemnation of original sin can be seen in the book of Romans. There, the apostle Paul 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 … For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:12, 17, NASB). Sin and grace are parallel, but the latter is much greater. One sin led to death, but the grace of God overcomes many sins. Particularly after the resurrection of Christ, it is always the case that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

As Augustine proposed, we are unable to escape the corruption of our will (and thus not sin) by our own doing. It is only through Christ that we are free not to sin. Paul says, “For if we have become united with Him … that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to  sin … Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ … [P]resent yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God … For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:5-14, NASB).

Christ conquered sin in death and then death in rising from the dead. Notably, our participation in this process is mediated through baptism (Rom. 6:4), where death is described in the past tense and resurrection is described in the future tense (Rom. 6:8). The point is that original sin had kept us in bondage but through Christ we will be alive again in Him.

Interestingly, Paul also addresses the quandary that if we are all enslaved to sin, are we then not free to choose Christ? The apostle’s answer is a resounding no, in contrast to Augustine’s perception: sin does not crush our will to do good; rather, sin simply prevents us from doing it.

Paul also elaborates on a peculiar duality of all humans. He describes the flesh (sarx in Greek), which sets its eyes on and yearns to do evil. The Spirit, empowered and strengthened only by Christ, sets its eyes on good and yearns to do good. These two forces are diametrically opposed and set their desires against one another “so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17, NASB).

The concept of the sarx provides support for Augustine’s concept of original sin. Paul analyzes the tendency of man toward evil in Chapters 1-3 and then provides a specific synopsis in 7:13-25. In the latter verses, Paul identifies the conflict of two natures, and identifies the flesh as an inherently evil force that compels him to do exactly what he does not want to do. In sum, he can’t help but to do evil. Paul does not comment on if the focus of the flesh is on the self, but the sarx is certainly focused away from God.

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free fromthe body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (NASB).

Paul continues to say in Romans that those who submit to Christ will not be condemned to live in the flesh but will live in the Spirit: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10). In Galatians 5:22-23, we also learn that the Spirit, working in the lives of believers, will manifest Himself through love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Hence, in contrast to Augustine, who said that the redeemed are free only not to sin, the apostle Paul states that the redeemed are in fact free to do more than not sin. They are free to do good as well as a function of the Spirit, which dwells inside them.

The following select scriptures all lend support to Augustine’s contention that the focus on the self is the root of all sin.

In a time characterized by strife, idolatry, disobedience, and no divinely ordained kingship, the people turned away from God and, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (italics mine; Jud. 17:6, NASB).

“But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:22, NASB).

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13, NASB).

In Deuteronomy 31, Moses bears testimony to the faithful ways of the Lord, and details the eventual vindication of Israel beyond God’s judgment. Particularly, in verses 24-29, Moses alludes to the fact that the people are destined to fall away from the Lord. In verse 21, Moses gives a reason for the falling away, suggesting that a propensity exists within their heart to disobey God. God knew the intent of the Israelites, and that intent led to disobedience.

Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. (Deut 31:21, NASB).

This propensity is also mentioned in Genesis 6:5 and 8:21:

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5, NASB).

The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.’ (Gen 8:21, NASB).

Near the end of his days as a leader of Israel, and before entrance into the Promised Land, Moses portrays the loving of, and subsequent obedience to, God, as a voluntary choice that each person has to make. This is in direct contrast to Augustine. The reward for choosing God is life, and the penalty for disobeying Him is death. Moses even uses the language of  “the heart turning away” as each person’s decision rooted in his or her own conscious will. By Moses telling Israel to “choose life” he is in effect calling on the part of each member of the community to act upon their ability to do good and obey the law that The Lord has set forth. Moses says:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants … (Deut 30:15-19, NASB).

I am led to speculate whether is was the Spirit that reigned supreme in both Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden’s original state, before original sin. Good created them both, and it was indeed good, as a result of the God-centered Spirit that controlled their thoughts and actions. In this state, the sarx was suppressed, had almost no voice, and pride was crushed under the predominance of the Spirit. I must assume then that the serpent appealed to the sarx by tempting the natural state—reason (the tree was “good for food”), vision (“it was a delight to the eyes”), and the self (“was desirable to make one wise”)—thus elevating this portion of human nature to the forefront, crushing the Spirit, and therein corrupting the composition of all individuals thereafter. Original sin can thus be viewed not as a corruption of the will, but as a reordering of the human being where the sarx dominates over the Spirit. God has always intended for the Spirit to be in control, and the redemption of Christ is His gift for us to restore proper balance.

In conclusion, the Augustinian idea of original sin is a concept that inevitably burdens the lives of all those who are born into this world. God had the option of irrevocably condemning His creation, but despite the bondage of original sin, He had already made a plan to redeem us all. That redemptive plan was based on love and mercy, a force that had been proven over and over again in the scriptures to triumph over judgment. For the most part, the Bible supports the assertion that all human sin is rooted in the focus on the self, but this paradigm is counteracted by the perfect model of Christ, who thought not of Himself, but wholly of us. Perfect goodness (which no person may achieve) involved complete and total devotion to others, and not thinking of the self; God’s actions are rooted in love. As it says in John 3:16, “For God so loved, that He gave …” This action occurred after repeated violations to His law, and after He had saved the Israelites, only for them to betray Him. His response was not to think of the injustice done to Him, but to bestow upon the world His only begotten Son.

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18, NASB).


Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal



[i] Wogaman, J. P., Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 52.

[ii] Augustine, Confessions, VII.3.5, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed. (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[iii] Augustine, Confessions, VII.5.7, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed. (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[iv] Augustine, Confessions, VII.4.6, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed.  (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[v] Augustine, Confessions, VIII.10.22, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed.  (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[vi] Augustine, Confessions, XIII.20.28, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed.  (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[vii] Augustine, Confessions, X.20.29, trans. F. J. Sheed et al., 2nd ed.  (Hackett Publishing Co., 2007).

[viii] Augustine, City of God, XIV.4, trans. Gerald G. Walsh et al. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Image Books, 1958), pp. 300-301.

[ix] Wogaman, J. P., Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 53.

[x] Miller, Patrick D., Deuteronomy Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 206.

[xi] Miller, Patrick D., Deuteronomy Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 208.

 

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3 comments on “ORIGINAL SIN
  1. BCHC says:

    If you said that all humans beings are inherently vile, evil, and despicable, I would have to agree with you.

  2. Bearded Redneck says:

    Nerds.

  3. Marcus says:

    Original sin has been used as a weapon since the first century to damn the innocent and formalize the church (through sacraments and graces) as the sole means to redeem fallen people. This concentrated power and control into the hands of a few who then manipulated the masses as they saw fit. Original sin gave birth to sins of its own.

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