“I just realized that I don’t understand the concept of original sin. I mean, why did the first sin lead to sin being innate?” – Nicole D.
Hi Nicole! This is a very good question. I appreciate you asking about it because I don’t think we’ve had the chance to address it yet at our site.
The doctrine of original sin deals with the fact that Scripture defines all human beings as sinners. Passages like Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Proverbs 22;15; Ephesians 2:3; etc. seem to show that we are all sinners at birth. If humanity is comprised of sinners then there must be an explanation as to why that is the case; and the theological answer is: We are all sinners by nature. This is reflected in Scripture as Job’s friend Eliphaz asks,“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” The clear suggestion is: There is no man like this; not one (Psalm 14:2-3).
If all people by nature sin then where did this propensity come from? Again, Scripture makes this clear: Adam. “[T]hrough one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12). So the biblical record states that Adam is the cause of our propensity to sin. But what is unclear is how exactly this propensity became (and still becomes) a part of humanity’s nature.
In Christianity there have been several methods to answer this question. I’m going to list two main answers and then discuss which one I lean towards. Some words of caution: I’m only going to give a brief synopsis, Nicole. For further study, I suggest a systematics text (perhaps Grudem’s or Erickson’s) or dictionary of theology. Also, don’t take my particular stance on this issue as a reflection of our team. I took a quick survey yesterday and got a number of different answers.
The two main approaches to answering this question are sometimes referred to as federal or natural headship. Federal headship is the notion that Adam was ordained by God to be our representative. In other words, not only was Adam supposed to act on his behalf but ours as well. Therefore the consequences of his actions would have been passed down to his descendants (i.e. all of us). This means two things: 1) all of us inherit Adam’s corrupt nature simply because we are his children; 2) we are not guilty of Adam’s sin because we did not personally commit the act with him. Rather, we are guilty of Adam’s sin because his sin was imputed to us as his equivalents or correspondents. This idea of guilt by imputation draws a close parallel to the imputation of Christ as our representative for the punishment of our sins (Romans 5:15-17). Arminian’s typically hold to the federal headship position.
Natural headship is the notion that, not only do we inherit our sinful dispositions from Adam, we bear the exact same guilt he had when he disobeyed God in the garden. In other words all of humanity was present in Adam (in germinal or seminal form) when he committed his sin. This means that his sin in the garden was not the action of one individual but the action of all of humanity at once. This notion changes the way we understand humanity, particularly in the U.S. where much of the corporateness of the church has been replaced by the idea of rugged individualism. I’m getting off on a tangent but, for more on this idea, see Logan’s post: “God Never Approved the American Rebel.” Calvinists typically hold to the natural headship position (as did Augustine).
So the answer to your question, Nicole, is that Adam is our parent and we innately possess his corrupted nature simply by being his children.
I do want to take an extra moment and discuss which of the two headships I subscribe to. Truth be told, I’m still chewing on this issue. But I lean toward natural headship, and the reason is purely exegetical. Let me explain.
There is a slight problem with understanding what Paul is driving at in Romans 5:12-19. On the one hand, sin entered the world through one man (v. 12), on the other, sin became universal because all men sinned (v. 12). In the passage, the verb hemarton (sinned) is a simple aorist that always refers to a single, past action. But look at what Paul is saying: “and so death spread to all men, because all hemarton [“sinned” single, past action]” (v. 12). If we look closely, we should note that Paul isn’t saying what we think he is. What we often think he’s saying is, “and so death spread to all men, because all hamartanousin (“sin” present tense, continual)” (v. 12). But that’s not what Paul said. Paul used language to indicate that the sin was a single sin committed by all men in the past and, when you see it parallel with mention of Adam’s action earlier in the same verse, it seems to indicate natural headship.
Now that’s about as far as I can take this. There’s more to say but I’ll stop here. I’m sure an Arminian with a better grasp of the Greek will take issue with my interpretation. But as far as I can tell I have not erred in my exegesis.
Thanks again for the question, Nicole! Anyone with some insight is welcome to weigh in!