The Mormon Second Article of Faith says “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This understanding of personal accountability for sin is a rejection of the idea of original sin. On its face, it seems incredibly just. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s misdeeds? Mormons are proud of this doctrine. And while I have not taken a thorough survey of worldwide Christians on the subject, I imagine that the understanding of sin and the Fall that are wrapped up in this Article of Faith are in no way unique to Mormonism.
This understanding of the Fall says that through Adam and Eve’s transgression, humanity became not corrupt but corruptible. This belief holds that we inherit from Adam and Eve only the capacity to sin. As free agents, we are able to choose between sin and not-sin. This is very important: just as we have the capacity to be sinful, we also theoretically have the capacity to be sinless, but as a practical matter, each of us individually fails to do so. The fact that we all inevitably choose to transgress is forseeable and predictable, but really, at the end of the day your sins are nobody’s fault but your own, and the consequences of your sins are justly earned by you and you alone. You could choose not to sin, but you do not. If you simply exercised enough self-discipline, you would be sinless. Thus, your eligibility for heaven is a product of the quantity of sins you have committed. If you have committed more sins than zero, you are ineligible for heaven and in need of salvation. If you have committed zero sins, you are eligible for heaven. Your guilt is your own; you have nobody to blame but yourself.
That’s important. Think about that. Consider its magnitude. You have free agency, and you have personally and individually chosen to sin. Consequently, you are ineligible for heaven unless you, personally and individually, are able to erase the stain of your sin or find a way to get someone else to erase it for you. Because you have chosen to commit a quantity of sin that is greater than zero (whether it is a finite or infinite quantity is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant), you are in need of a quantity of atonement that is greater than zero. The scales must be balanced.
This is a harsh rule, but certainly holding me accountable for the sins I committed is more fair than holding me accountable for the sins someone else committed, right?
Except, that’s not what original sin is all about at all.
I shouldn’t have to sell you Aura Salve to convince you that we are a fallen race living in a fallen world. Just look around at, oh, the entire sum of human history. We are broken and dysfunctional on an individual, cultural, national, and even global level. We hurt each other. We exploit each other. We destroy our environment. We hurt ourselves. We destroy ourselves. We are slaves to our habits, our appetites and our addictions. We are sick. Sure, we manage to do some good things too, but rarely without some destructive fallout somewhere, usually with a lot of it, and the fact that we are able to callously ignore so much of the fallout is even more evidence of our sickness. We are broken. We are fallen.
Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have inherited a broken nature. A sin nature. That’s original sin. We are heirs to brokenness. The idea that if we just exercised our free agency correctly we could choose to live sinless lives is a ridiculous and self-destructive notion. We are broken because we have a broken nature. Yes, we are autonomous moral agents, hypothetically capable of making any decision. For that to really play out in practical terms would require a kind of neutral contextual baseline that does not exist. We are not blank slates of pure will born into blank slate world. To an incredibly great extent, the way we are able to exercise our free agency is limited by our circumstances. By our environment. By culture, situation and upbringing. We are invariably the product of our situation, and our situation is a fallen world, and here is the rub: ours is a fallen world for which we, individually, are not responsible.
That doesn’t make us any less broken and miserable. That doesn’t make us any more able to bear the presence of God. But what it does mean is that we are hurting enough as it is without needing to borrow pain. The belief that we are ineligible for heaven because of our particular, individual sins leaves us on a self-destructive treadmill of guilt and shame, because we are never gong to stop committing them. Even if we believe that forgiveness for specific sins is obtainable, it still means a lifetime of feeling like heaven is slipping through our grasp as, no matter how often we believe we can obtain forgiveness, we inevitably sin again. The result may very well be a lifetime of darkness, self-loathing, despair and moral exhaustion: evidence that the notion that righteousness is a matter of disciplined sinlessness, the Second Article of Faith itself, is itself a product of our fallen nature and this fallen world.
None of this is necessary at all. Compared to the enormity of our fallen world and our fallen nature, our particular, individual sins are really kind of petty.
Original sin is thus a profoundly merciful doctrine. It is a realistic doctrine. Yes, you sin. Yes, you choose to sin. But let’s be honest, you choose to sin because you are broken and you are broken because humanity is broken. You were born broken. You were born a slave to sin and darkness.
Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified to balance a cosmic ledger-book and pay off a debt you incurred by committing your specific sins so that you can get a priceless reward you don’t deserve. Jesus Christ was crucified to defeat sin itself and ransom you from the shackles of a fallen world, to work in you a transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ came to redeem you, not from your sins, but from the reason that you commit them–the brokenness that is at the heart of all the dysfunction and darkness in your life. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from your sinful nature. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from original sin.
You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.
(Author’s Note: This is cross-posted from Into the Hills, a group blog I contribute to. Because it is so relevant to where I am right now in my spiritual journey, I thought it made more sense to re-post it here in full and open it to comments than to jsut post a closed link. But Into the Hills is a pheomenal blog and you should head over there, check it out, and follow it as it really takes off.)