Original Sin and the State of Man


On the relationship between the sin of Adam and that of his descendants there is no consensus of opinion. There is, in fact, even much controversy over what ‘dead’ means.

In the fourth century AD St. Augustine debated with a British monk by the name of Pelagius. Pelagius insisted that man was not really helpless in his sin, but that, spiritually, he was in fact well. Adam’s sin only gave man a bad example, and all bad examples can be overcome. This is, in essence, what Christ came to do – to give us a good example to overcome the bad. We can save ourselves spiritually because we are really healthy.

Augustine, on the other hand, said no: Paul wrote in Ephesians that we are dead, and that could mean only one thing. Christ and the Holy Spirit must first restore life to man before man can do anything for himself; only then can man believe and begin the process of spiritual growth. The matter was finally decided by church council, Pelagianism declared heretical, and the issue settled.

But not for good. During the time of the Middle Ages we find the emergence of a new hypothesis, a sort of theological middle-ground position which has come to be known as semi-pelagianism. This position says that man is neither well nor dead spiritually, but is in fact sick. Within this school there is a variety of positions, with some theologians saying man is very sick indeed, while others insist he is only slightly so; but all agree that he is sick, and that a sick person can do something – he can respond at least. This position
believes the gospel of Christ is God’s medicine to a sick – and perhaps dying – man. The sick man takes the medicine and is then enabled to believe. The sick man’s contributions are his faith and his acceptance of the medicine, and then the gospel medicine cures the sickness. This was in direct contrast to  Augustinianism, which said no, the gospel is not medicine to a sick man; the gospel gives life itself, and enables the man even to respond.

Thus the debate concerning the relationship of Adam’s sin to us continues even today, with Christians lined up on both sides of the issue. Reformed thinkers – Calvinists, Presbyterians, Reformed, and those Baptists of the Charles Spurgeon persuasion – argue that man is indeed dead in his sin. On the other hand, virtually all Methodists, the majority of Baptists, the independent churches, Pentecostals, and Catholics insist he is merely unwell (with Catholics arguing he is only a little off-color while perhaps Pentecostals and Baptists hold out for a much more serious illness). It is differences of opinion on this issue, together with about four or five others, which lie behind and between all the various denominations in this country.

All do agree, however, that Adam’s sin has had a deleterious effect on his descendants. For through it sin has entered the human race and, or so the Bible insists, mankind has fallen; there is now something seriously amiss in man.

Even as sin entered, however, God began to reveal a cure. In Genesis 3:15 – in that passage theologians have come to call the ‘Proto-evangelion’ – God declares to the serpent that he ‘will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ This passage has been traditionally interpreted by theologians as a promise by God that the head of the serpent – that is, sin – would be crushed by the heel of the offspring of woman – God’s savior – who would in turn suffer pain. Thus even here we find the dual themes of suffering and victory which were to become the dual foci of Christ’s ministry during the Incarnation. This cure for sin was to ultimately involve a re-union
with God, a restoration of that fellowship which man had lost, and the final defeat of the sin’s ultimate penalty – death. This final aspect of God’s salvation is played out for us in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56:
‘”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God? He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘ God’s salvation from sin is a salvation which reverses the effects of sin.

Some Final Comments on The Beginnings

We also find a number of recurrent themes in the early chapters of Genesis. These include the following:

Some men – the majority, in fact – live in rebellion to God, and will be punished for their rebellion. Other men, however, are righteous, and will be delivered from punishment. This is one of the two major themes of the story of Noah and the Flood. In this account we find that the majority of men are in opposition to God and to the divine rule and are as a consequence punished by God through the agency of a universal flood. A small minority, however – namely, Noah and his family – does in fact seek God, and is thereby delivered even from the midst of the punishment of others.

Probably the greatest force against which human beings struggle, aside from that of Satan, is the force of peer pressure. This force is felt not just by teen-agers but by adults as well. Noah was pressured by his peers to abandon his seeking after God, and to forget about his building of the ark. The point of the story of Noah is that there was a minority which was willing to stand against the stream, and was therefore saved.

The other element in the Flood account, in addition to the two major themes discussed above, is that of the unity and the diversity of mankind. All men are related to each other not only through common descent from Adam and Eve, but through the family of Noah as well. Thus, while we find ourselves in the midst of disunity among men due to such forces as culture and race and so forth, we are urged by the biblical authors to remember that this unity of man must ultimately take priority.

And yet there is much diversity, and this diversity is caused by two things: first, there is much family disunity which may be traced in the biblical accounts back as far as the sons of Noah themselves. The Bible traces the descent of the various branches of man back to the groups which descended from Noah’s sons. And in chapter 11 of Genesis we see a further cause of this division among men – culture. The most dominant feature of culture is language, and diversity of language has from the dawn of time separated men into diverse groups. In Genesis chapter 10 we find what has come to be known as the Table of Nations, which traces the various descendants of Noah as they spread to various geographical areas which correspond closely to ethnic and cultural differences as we find them today.

As we close this discussion of The Beginnings, we must emphasize that what we find here is a foundation that must be laid to build upon in any discussion of the rest of the Bible. Foundational questions such as How did man and the universe he lives in originate?, What is God’s need to act?, What are the origins of sin and evil?, Does God punish sin? and Does he reward those who seek him? must be understood before we can continue to discuss the higher issues found in the rest of Scripture.

What then is the current world situation? We find both unity and diversity among nations, and this is explained in Scripture on the basis of the actions of God. But as the nations begin to develop, God selects one to serve as the foundation for his salvific work.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago