What Is Original Sin?
Original Sin is a Christian doctrine proposing that all humans are born “in sin.” As with many doctrines, the specific interpretations of terms like “in sin” vary. Also, not all expressions of Christianity subscribe to the doctrine of Original Sin.
This is a very brief introduction to the doctrine of Original Sin. Some additional resources are linked at the end.
What Does It Mean to be Born “In Sin?”
The term “in sin” often has one of several meanings related to doctrines of the Fall:
- Born into a sinful world — that is, “sin” indicates the state of the world, or creation, as corrupted from God’s original design because of the existence and influence of sin.
- Born in a state of sin — that is, an individual is born inherently distant from God, separated by one’s sinful nature. Similar to the previous meaning, the introduction of sin through Adam and Eve has corrupted creation away from God’s original design, including humanity. That sinful state is now part of human nature, so every human is born in such a state of sin (i.e. predisposed to sin).
- Born inherently guilty due to sin — that is, one inherits both a corrupted human nature (see previous point) and the guilt of sin, in general. This is one of the arguments sometimes used in favor infant baptism; if one is only saved when sin is addressed through Jesus, then baptizing infants is important when this interpretation of Original Sin is being used.
The differences in meaning may seem subtle from context to context, but they can have significant impact on a person’s or community’s theology. How we understand sin and what it means to be “in sin” changes how we understand our relationship with God, the Christ, the Holy Spirit, Jesus, etc.
One way of distinguishing between different understandings of “in sin” and the doctrine of Original Sin is by using a second term: Original Guilt.
Original Sin vs. Original Guilt
By identifying guilt as something separate from sin, some nuance is added to the doctrine of Original Sin. In the previous section, all the meanings of “in sin” acknowledge that human beings are inherently part of creation, and, therefore, share with all of creation in the Fall.
The first two meanings separate sin and guilt, ascribing sin to creation, in general, and/or humanity, specifically, but neither presumes inherent guilt/condemnation. Rather, “in sin” at conception/birth only addresses a brokenness in creation and a predisposition in humanity toward things that aren’t in line with God’s will.
The third meaning assigns both sin and guilt to human beings at conception or birth. Sin and guilt are understood as inseparable, so anything corruption or brokenness that results from sin necessarily results in condemnation. In other words, people are born condemned and later redeemed upon accepting Jesus.
As far as I’m aware, in every version of Original Sin, Jesus is presented as the solution. Whatever criteria a denomination or congregation has for what constitutes “accepting Jesus” or “being part of the body of Christ,” that’s what a person needs to do to overcome their original sin. Infant baptism, adult baptism, confession, attendance, etc. It varies from context to context.
Do All Christians Believe in Original Sin?
No, not all Christians believe in Original Sin. Expressions of Christianity that don’t interpret the story of Adam and Eve as a fall from grace, for example, may have a different understanding of Original Sin or may not subscribe to the doctrine, at all.
One example is the distinction between the consequences of sin and the inheritance of sin. Above, one of the meanings of “in sin” described the corrupted state of the world or creation because of it’s “fall” into sin, but some Christian theologies don’t subscribe to doctrines of the Fall so don’t subscribe to either Original Sin or Original Guilt. They may view the state of the world as a consequence of the existence of sin and the sins of past generations. They may even view death as one of those consequences (as the “wages” of sin) as a result of humanity’s first sin but not necessarily as a fall from grace.
Whether a person, group, or community accepts the doctrine of Original Sin can depend on many things. Here are a few things that can impact a person’s posture toward Original Sin:
- How one understands the nature of God — who God is and how God operates
- How one understands the Mission of God — what God is doing or trying to accomplish in, with, and/or through creation
- What one believes about scripture — whether it’s inerrant, infallible, inspired, literal or metaphorical, has continuity, speaks with one voice, etc.
- What one believes about the Biblical canon — closed or open, etc.
Interpretations of specific passages in the Bible will also influence Christians’ thoughts about Original Sin. Here are some passages to consider (how do you understand them?):
- Genesis 1–3 — the story of creation and Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden
- Deuteronomy 5:8–10; Exodus 20:4–6 — punishing children for the iniquity of parents (and loving children for the righteousness of parents)
- Psalm 51:5 — being born in iniquity
- Ezekiel 18:20 — not punishing children for the iniquity of parents
- Romans 5:12–21 — the relationship between sin and death as brought on by Adam
The list goes on, since our interpretation of all scriptures will play into our understanding of Original Sin. What passages or beliefs shape your own thoughts?
Here are some links to what specific denominations teach concerning Original Sin.
- Many denominational and non-denominational expressions of Christianity aren’t listed, because many groups do not have centralized creeds or catechisms.
- If a denomination doesn’t teach the doctrine of Original Sin, it might not be mentioned in the linked material; further reading might be necessary to understand why they don’t subscribe to Original Sin.
- Beliefs and doctrines change, even within older denominations. Other documents or voices from within a denomination may dissent from even a well-established tradition.
Anglicanism The Thirty-Nine Articles
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Original Sin
Eastern Orthodox Catechism of Philaret
Jehovah’s Witness What Was the Original Sin?
Lutheranism Book of Concord
Methodism Articles of Religion
Orthodox Church in America St. Augustine & Original Sin
Roman Catholicism Catechism of the Catholic Church
Seventh-Day Adventism Some Thoughts on Original Sin
Swedenborgianism Servetus, Swedenborg, and the Nature of Salvation
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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on December 17, 2022.