The meaning of Original Sin

When it comes to Adam and his wrongdoings there are three main views of God’s position:

  1. God planned and indeed decreed that Adam should sin.
  2. God knew Adam would sin before he created him, but created him anyway.
  3. God’s hopes for humanity were dashed in a single, if allegorical act.

I’m firmly in Camp 3, believing that God hoped we’d do better but we failed him. In fact, as I’m not a biblicist, I believe that Genesis 1-3 is an allegorical tale designed to promote the God of Israel above the pagan gods and to explain why we so desperately need rescuing from the state we’re in.

When Adam ate of the mysterious fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (nothing to do with apples) he incurred the wrath of God. He and his new partner were expelled from the Garden and cast out into the hostile lands surrounding it, to eke out an existence from the now cursed ground, from amongst the thorns and thistles.

Catholics say we carry the stain of that Original Sin and Augustine in the fifth century claimed that we are jointly guilty of that first sin, and unless we turn to God’s Son, Jesus Christ in faith and obedience we are doomed to Hell fire. We are all born sinful and so deserve to die and suffer. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church defines Original Sin as Ancestral Sin, and says we don’t share in Adam’s guilt, but suffer the effects of it, and this is the view to which I hold.

Because of my beliefs I find myself trawling through the story to find its key metaphor in order to more easily explain what Original Sin is, and how we may use that knowledge to talk to others, perhaps (and hopefully) persuding them that God doesn’t make people bad then punish them for it – a view held, but denied, by Calvinists. For me, the key lies in the expulsion of the first couple, described by a fellow commentator as “being cast out into the wilderness”, stolen from Ezekiel 29.5ff.

To cast somebody out from the perfection of that first garden and into the wild, denying them access to the Tree of Life (and thus denying them eternal life) is a pretty definitive act of rejection. The holiness of living under God’s protection and all the benefits that closeness to God can bring were instantly lost.

Genesis 3:23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.

This is the cause of our being separated from God. This is the effect of that Original Sin. As Adam’s progeny we are born out of fellowship, alone in a harsh world without God’s special protection and blessing. We are children in the wilderness, some searching for a way home, others resigned to their condition, and some completely ignorant of it. Our restoration can only come through our relationship with Jesus Christ, dying with him and rising to new life in harmony with the Father. The undivided Church held that the means of this rebirth was through baptism, where we symbolically die and rise again, cleansed by grace, symbolised by water.

At birth we carry the effects of our disfellowship. We have not yet sinned, but we lack that closeness to God. Worse, we have a propensity to actual sin, something Adam displayed as resident in the human psyche. For believing adults, baptism brings membership into the family of God. For infants, baptism does exactly the same thing, bringing them to God and into the family of the Church, to be later ratified by their personal faith. Actual, personal sin is only remitted by repentance, but with the promise of forgiveness for those who truly repent.

In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has moved broadly in line with the Orthodox, and now insists that we don’t carry Adam’s guilt, merely the effects of his disfellowship as head of the human race. The charge that the Church teaches that babies are “born evil” can at last be consigned to the bin of historical quirkery; The effects of Adam’s Original Sin separate us from God, but thankfully he has provided the solution in the form of his Son.

Sin and Redemption

This is just a very brief article to answer a question I see often on Calvinist boards:

If Man isn’t born sinful then why is he in need of redemption?

 

First of all, we have to understand that Calvinists, Wesleyans… pretty much everyone in the main theological camps believes that Man somehow suffers from the effects of Adam’s sin, the Original Sin. So do I, and I’ve outlined what the Church believes by the term Original Sin, here. To recap: Original Sin is the loss of Original Holiness, revealing the inclination to self-interest and “fleshly” desires, inherent in all men. BUT (and this is the point) an inclination to sin, known as concupiscence, is not sin in itself. The main differences between the historical Church and the later Protestant Reformation is the way that concupiscence is defined; in the historical Church it isn’t sinful, but acts as “the tinder for sin”, whereas the Protestant Church sees it as a sin in its own right.

sin1Traditionally, this “stain of sin” as it’s historically referred to, is removed during the cleansing of baptism (see more here). Baptism restores the gifts of fellowship between Man and God, lost after the first sin took place. However the presence of concupiscence is NOT removed, but lessened to a controllable degree. Man will continue to sin (though not inevitably) and believers in Christ are assured that if they sin and repent of that sin, forgiveness is granted. However, unrepentant sinners face condemnation.

Redemption, therefore, is the restoration of Man to his former position in the sight of  God, through the death of His Son and the death and resurrection of self through baptism.

The fact is, if God is as merciful as we believe, Original Sin does not send people to Hell. ACTUAL sin sends people to Hell. Both the sins of the unrepentant and the sins of the unbeliever (including the sin of unbelief itself) are those which are condemned. The faithful who confess and repent are saved; infants who have not sinned we believe and hope are saved through the grace and mercy of God.

This view has profound implications for the Reformed, who claim that only Elect infants are saved if they die in infancy according to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), and that Reprobate children go straight to Hell because of their separation from God due to Adam’s sin. Under pressure many will deny this, in which case the following questions can be useful:

1. Are all infants who die in their infancy elect?

2. Can Reprobate children be saved?

After a long pause many will answer “Yes” to question 1, and “No” to question 2. In which case, they may want to answer why the word “Elect” features in the WCF at all, when “Elect” actually means “All”…

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3).

Baptism

Baptism divides the Christian Church, and a good online friend of mine, Tom Torbeyns, has been quizzing me about the  Anglican understanding. So here goes:

baptism1The first thing to acknowledge is that the Anglican Church is both catholic and reformed in nature, which actually provides two views of what baptism means. I’ll concentrate on infant baptism for the  purposes of this article, as it seems the most contentious aspect. Firstly, the view held by traditionalists within the Church, i.e. those who’s views were formed prior to the English Reformation:

You may want to refer to my article on Original Sin for exactly what baptism is needed for. Secondly, the Book of Common Prayer is crystal clear on what infant baptism achieves:

Let us pray.

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin: We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

ALMIGHTY and immortal God, the aid of all that need, the helper of all that flee to thee for succour, the life of them that believe, and the resurrection of the dead: We call upon thee for this Infant, that he, coming to thy holy Baptism, may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration. Receive him, O Lord, as thou hast promised by thy well-beloved Son, saying, Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: So give now unto us that ask; let us that seek find; open the gate unto us that knock; that this Infant may enjoy the everlasting benediction of thy heavenly washing, and may come to the eternal kingdom which thou hast promised by Christ our Lord. Amen.

baptism3Pretty straightforward – baptism is for the “mystical washing away of sin”, “sanctification”, “deliverance from wrath” and bringing the child to everlasting life. The child is regenerated, i.e. born again, and brought into the family of God. Declarations of faith are made FOR the child by his sponsors, much in the way a parent can speak for his or her child until he reaches an accountable age. It is a hope and an expectation, sometimes frustrated, that the child will grow in faith within the Body of Christ through familial nurturing, both from his birth-family and the wider family of the Church. When the child is  older, he will make his own declaration of faith in his Confirmation, at which time the strengthening of the Holy Spirit is requested.

At the reformed end of the  communion the promises given during baptism are seen as delayed, and conditional upon the child’s eventual personal faith. In reality of course, whatever view one holds, the procedure and outworking of baptism is the same.

But what of the unbaptised baby?

The Catechism of  the Catholic Church (Anglicans have no such document) says:

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”63 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

Calvin, for the Reformers, said:

“But this controversy will at once be disposed of when we maintain, that children who happen to depart this life before an opportunity of immersing them in water, are not excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Now, it has been seen, that unless we admit this position, great injury is done to the covenant of God, as if in itself it were weak, whereas its effect depends not either on baptism, or on any accessaries.”

Institutes Book IV Chapter 15 Section 22

However, the Westminster Confession of Faith (the “Calvinist handbook”) hedges its bets with the following:

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3).

Elect infants are those chosen by God for salvation from the foundation of the world in Reformed theology.

I remain convinced, along with the historical, pre-Reformation Church, that infants should be baptised into the family of God, that their baptism is regenerative, and that infants dying before baptism are saved in the mercy of God.

The Order of Salvation

Broadly speaking, Christians believe that we are, as a race, separated from God and in need of restoration. We sin, and sin is offensive to God and outside of his intentions for us. Because of our separation, God suffers, we suffer and the world is in a state of corruption, and because it is outside of our capabilities to put things right God must take the initiative, which he does through the sacrifice of his son on our behalf. Christ died bearing the sins of us all and rose to new life, conquering both sin and death for the believer. Believers are thus saved from destruction and brought by Christ to new life with him. Anyone who studies the faith must have some form of blueprint for the process of salvation in order to provide himself with a framework upon which to build his studies.

I can only write this piece from a personal perspective, as there are several theological stances on the order of salvation and any conclusion one reaches on which one is right is entirely dependant upon which aspect one starts with. What follows is, I hope, a non-heretical, generally acceptable, but carefully considered order, based on scripture. First, it will help to identify the key components. They are:

  • Grace
  • Faith
  • Justification
  • Baptism
  • Regeneration
  • Sanctification
  • Glorification

Grace

graceGod’s grace is not a commodity. It doesn’t come in buckets, litres, pounds or yards. God’s grace is his merciful and unmerited favour towards us. It is his unerring and unfailing kindness towards his creation. Some branches of theology attempt to further define it by categorising it into “strengths”, from “common grace” to “irresistible grace”, the weakest to the strongest. I reject any attempt to categorise; God is not “a little bit kind” or “so kind that you have no choice but to comply with his wishes”. His grace is universal and constant, surrounding us from our conception, giving us air to breathe, food to eat, and life to live.

Traditionally, our separation came at The Fall, the point at which man first sinned and all life changed. This “Original Sin” or loss of original holiness was passed from parent to child and the whole of humankind is said to suffer the effects of that sin, rendering us unable to turn to God of our own volition. Only god’s grace can enable us in such a way that we can turn to him.

There is a theological divide at this point, where Christianity is drawn along two distinct and contrary paths. On the one hand we have the views of the Arminians, called after Jacob Arminius, a Dutch Reformer of the sixteenth century. Arminius believed as the majority of Christians and I do, including the Catholic Church, that grace comes before anything else, and is thus “prevenient”. All may come to Christ, but those who reject him seal their own damnation. On the other hand we have the beliefs of John Calvin, who said that grace was not universal, but limited, specific and irresistible; God chooses whom he will save, enables them only to believe, and damns the rest, who according to Calvin were created for that purpose. Whatever path you follow, grace is your starting point, and without it we would all be “dead in our sins” and would remain unsaved.

Faith

faithThe link between grace and faith is well established, in that most theological positions hold that man is unable to turn to God without grace. As said above, this position can be rigidly held, where grace is seen as almost an enabling substance which is 100% effective upon those to whom it is administered, to a looser definition, which can say as little as that our very existence is in itself a gracious act. Similarly, faith can be seen as a gift of God, given only to those whom he has fore-ordained will believe, to a voluntary action of man’s, brought about by a recognition of his need for salvation from his broken relationship with God. A third view understands that the grace of God is shown to us in the giving of his Son for our sake, and that Christ’s action alone shows us sufficient grace to enable our faith, though some will reject this graceful act and continue in a broken relationship with God. It’s important to accept that faith goes beyond a mere intellectual assent given to the idea of Christ’s sacrifice, or agreement that he was, in fact, a person who really lived 2,000 years ago. As a child, you may have jumped from a swing at it’s highest point, having faith that your father would catch you. This is very different from merely acknowledging your father’s existence.

Justification

Justification is the act of being declared righteous. It is the point at which God recognises your faith and declares you one of his people. Romans 4:

9 [Cometh] this blessedness then upon the circumcision [only], or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.

10 How was it then reckoned ? when he was in circumcision, or inuncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.

11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which [he had yet] being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe , though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:

12 And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which [he had] being [yet] uncircumcised.

13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, [was] not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Justification then comes through faith, to all who believe.

Baptism

baptismThe placement of baptism is a difficult one for  some. For many, baptism is analogous with circumcision, and as we have seen, Abraham was declared righteous BEFORE his circumcision, therefore baptism must follow justification. However, most would see that faith leads to obedience, and obedience requires baptism. For many the process of baptism would include the washing away of the stain of sin, forgiveness for past sins, justification and regeneration. Those of us who baptise infants and those unable to make their own decisions through mental impairment do so on the understanding that the individual is brought into the family of the Church, cleansed, forgiven and given new life. As time progresses is it hoped and believed that the grace of God will work within the individual to strengthen and build faith, which is ultimately personally declared at confirmation, where further helpful grace is imparted.

Regeneration

Regeneration is the process of New Birth, Rebirth or being Born Again. It is also described by Christ as being “Born from above” (John 3:7). God, after justifying us, gives us new life in the Power of the Holy Spirit. We then work with God, empowered by his grace and our faith to become the person he would have us be. The traditional churches see Baptism as the most common means of effecting regeneration, though God can use any means he pleases. Baptist churches deny God this freedom, rejecting baptismal regeneration and reducing baptism to mere ordinance – something we undergo because God says we must, but without specific salvific purpose.

Sanctification

sanctificationBeing born again does not, in itself, make us perfect. The process of gradual perfection is known as Sanctification. As we live a life fulfilling our Christian calling we grow daily in our faith. Our faith, in turn, leads to good works and we grow more Christlike. What may have started with some difficulty becomes “second nature” over time as our sanctification progresses, always aiming for Christian perfection. Most will say we can never achieve this perfection in this life, which has led some to believe in some form of post-mortem sanctification to complete the work. This is a huge debate. Catholics hold to a view of Purgatory, more of a state of being than a location, where sanctification continues and punishments for venial (or minor, non-mortal) sin takes place. Some hold similar views without using the word “Purgatory”, and many reject the view that sanctification continues in time, but that God makes all things perfect for believers prior to their final judgement. John Wesley, founder of Methodism and a lifelong Anglican priest, held that Christian Perfection was achieved on a daily basis, whereby every single decision a man makes is the best possible decision in God’s eyes, given the wherewithal of the individual. Man must make God his first thought in every action. Some have confused his view with Sinless Perfection, the ability to never sin, which he never agreed with nor supported in any way.

Glorification

glorificationThe act of being Glorified. This, then, is salvation, the point at which one is actually saved following death and final judgement. Some, particularly Protestants, will see salvation as occurring at the first point of belief. On this basis they may argue that salvation once given, cannot be lost, as God will complete the work started in an individual. In this God acts Monergistically. Orthodox believers (by which I mean non-Protestants) see salvation as a process, never complete until the very end. This is a Synergistic process whereby an individual CAN turn his back on God and foolishly walk away.

As a member of the Church of England, and therefore an Anglican, the above ordo salutis (order of salvation) can be seen to have both catholic and reformed elements. It is the order I personally adopt and one held by churches worldwide.