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Posts Tagged ‘Original Sin’

Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

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.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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The Not Even Once Club is a new children’s book by Wendy Nelson (who is married to Russell M. Nelson) about a group of kids who form a club where they pledge to never break the commandments, Not Even Once.

I think a book like that might be okay (if a little didactic) if it was a heartwarming story about kids with good intentions to do the right thing all the time but who inevitably fall short, because we all do, and learn a little something along the way about forgiveness, grace and the power of the cross.

But nope, it’s apparently just a story about choosing to never break the commandments and only hanging out with other kids who do, and it even comes with a certificate your kids can sign to join the club by pledging to never break the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, break the law of chastity or look at pornography. NOT EVEN ONCE.

There was a recent post about it over at Wheat and Tares but that post deals more with the psychological and sociological problems with making commitments like that, rather than the basic incompatibility of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that does address gospel issues more directly.)

The Bible is incredibly clear that we all sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because we are fallen people in a fallen world and heirs to a sinful nature, a promise to never break God’s commandments is a promise that we will invariably break. We are hard-coded to break God’s commandments, and we absolutely lack the power on our own to do anything about it. Personal perfection projects like the Not Even Once Club, whether we attempt them as little kids or as adults, get us off on the wrong foot from the very start. Are the kids in the Not Even Once Club really going to never break the “law of chastity,” not even once? What about when they hit puberty and their brains are flushed with hormones? They’re going to be able to never entertain lustful thoughts? Really?

How is the Not Even Once Club good news? “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can be part of the club!” “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can go to heaven!” That’s not good news for sinners like you and me. That’s really bad news. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Not Even Once Club, and I’d love to be wrong about it (by all means, tell me if I am!), but everything I have read about it and everything I know about Mormonism leads me to believe that the book is nothing less than a false gospel aimed at children. I am confident that Wendy Nelson has good intentions, but they’re not enough.

The Good News is that we don’t have to join the Not Even Once Club, because we get to join a far better club. Despite our corrupted natures and our inborn tendency to sin, we are declared to be in the right with God, right now, by virtue of Jesus Christ. Not because we managed to never sin (no matter who we are, that ship has always already sailed–we literally can’t help it), but because he did. Through God’s grace we are given the ability to respond to God’s grace and submit to the reign of Jesus. He makes us good. We don’t.

We don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Not Even Once Club because we get to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I promise you it is way better.

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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.

Thank God.

(Author’s Note: This was originally cross-posted from Into the Hills.)

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