Christian Church / Christianity / Religion

Original sin or not?

Recently I came across an article titled “Joel Osteen is a Heretical Pelagian and Universalist!” I’m a little embarrassed to say that I had to look up Pelagian. This point of view by Pelagius is in opposition to Augustine’s original sin and total depravity premise. He is father to the idea that Adam’s sin did not corrupt the flesh but rather simply set a bad example. This then means that man is still fully capable of choosing to do good or evil, and not predisposed to do evil unless redeemed. Christ sets the good example and atones for the sins that do come about. This whole idea is to protect the goodness of God by saying that man can choose whether he wants to be good or evil and therefore God has no responsibility for sin.

Also included in this view is the idea that man effects his own salvation. “When will a man guilty of any crime or sin accept with a tranquil mind that his wickedness is a product of his own will, not of necessity, and allow what he now strives to attribute to nature to be ascribed to his own free choice? It affords endless comfort to transgressors of the divine law if they are able to believe that their failure to do something is due to inability rather than disinclination, since they understand from their natural wisdom that no one can be judged for failing to do the impossible and that what is justifiable on grounds of impossibility is either a small sin or none at all.” (Taken from here.) So if man decides to, man can be good. It also presents man not as a victim, but as the criminal. This changes the dynamic of the necessity of salvation and is ultimately why most declared it heretical.

On the other hand, original sin by Augustine presents the idea that Adam corrupted all flesh with his sin, and man no longer can choose to do good unless God enables it. Thus, man is totally depraved and in need of the grace and salvation of God. Christ’s role then is to provide the atonement and enable people to do good. I’ve always found Augustine’s view troubling to say the least. To make God the one who won’t allow men to be good and then say that they are worthless and need salvation makes God look like an ass. I mean, who would hold a child’s hand into the fire and then turn around and smack the child for getting burnt after you told them not to touch the flame. It doesn’t make sense to me. However, I haven’t thought through all the implications of Pelagianism yet.

There is also semi-pelagianism. Woo, that’s a mouthful. Semi-pelagianism presents the idea that the grace of growing in your faith is God enacted, but that the beginning of faith is of free-will. Instead of the irresistible grace presented in the total depravity idea, we have the idea that man can make the decision to come to God and ask for salvation of his own accord. It also doesn’t let go of the idea that man is able to choose good of his accord. This was thought to be heretical because it allows man to still be the effector of his own salvation.

From under these umbrellas we have Calvinists and Arminians, Janenists and Jesuits. many differing ideas all because of one little question, is man capable of doing good on his own still?

What are your thoughts on the nature of evil? What do they mean to you? What are the implications of your beliefs?

21 thoughts on “Original sin or not?

  1. Here is what I think:
    Mankind evolved to a certain point and at that specific point in history God gave them a spirit thus making them in his image and giving them the capacity to choose good or evil. Before this they were no more culpable than any other animal. But man had no idea about good or evil outside of his conscience and still relied on seemingly “evil” things like murder, to survive. Man had the capacity to worship but not the direction and worshiped things like the sun and rain, anything that effected them.

    Then God created Adam as a representative to help guide mankind toward the truth about Him and his desires for us. There were many of the representatives along the way (Enoch, Noah, Moses, etc.), Adam was simply the first. But here is the deal about sin.

    12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned – 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. (So all of the people who sinned before Adam was given a direct command and thus law entered the world, their sin was not counted. Probably because it is consistent with the rest of scripture that God does not judge ignorance the same as willfulness.)

    14 Nevertheless death (This is not physical death as that existed long before Adam but instead spiritual death or separation from God brought on by sin.) reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. (This is where I get the representative thing. Adam as a type of Christ.)

    15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.

    So here is the short of it. Adam introduced the concept of counted sin into the world but we do not have to sin just because of that. We are not sinful because of some biological link to Adam. But just as Adams sin caused sin to be counted, so Jesus’ death caused sin to be canceled.


  2. “Total depravity” is the Calvinist takeaway from St. Augustine — but something Augustine never held or taught. Neither did he teach “irresistible grace” — that is also a Calvinist invention. Calvinism, which most evangelical sects ultimately sprang from, though they’ve now fallen far from the tree, has had a much greater impact upon American Christianity than Augustine ever has or probably will. Calvinists claim Augustine — but they do so falsely. Calvin’s ideas regarding justification, grace, and the human condition actually have very little in common with Augustine. It really bothers me when folks go around saying “Augustine said this” when he said nothing of the sort. I’m not blaming you — you’ve been misinformed like everybody else. So don’t be turned off from Augustine — be turned off from Calvin.

    Here’s a piece I wrote not long ago regarding what Augustine actually taught:
    The Doctrine of Justification: Augustine is Catholic

    Reformed people are also the only ones who talk about “semi-Pelagianism,” and they generally misapply the term. They also love to call Catholics “Pelagian,” which is ridiculous, since we are the ones who branded Pelagianism a heresy in the first place.

    The doctrine of original sin has had a long and wandering career. I was just reading about it this morning, in relation to baptism, on which I’ve been writing recently. The Catholic understanding today, tempered by two millennia of dealing with, is fairly sensible: Original sin is not so much an actual sin as it is a condition, a fallen nature — the human condition. Original sin wounds our free will and makes it impossible for us to approach God without grace (this is what Augustine actually taught) — but God gives His prevenient (coming before) grace, to prepare us to approach God on our own and participate in our salvation. (I would link you to the Catechism, but then that would put this comment into the moderation queue. If you want to look, “original sin” has a big section in the index.)


    • Maybe I wasn’t quite clear. Augustine is credited with the idea of original sin. Augustine and Pelagius are two sides of a coin and quite opposing. I was definitely not trying to say they were one in the same. As far as original sin and total depravity, don’t they go hand in hand? If you are born sinful, you need to be redeemed to be good. He also begins the idea people are saved not according to their own will or merits but only by the grace of God.
      Calvinists definitely take them to extremes, but the base belief is definitely still there. most Christians and Catholics, I think, still believe that people are not capable of being good without God. I think f it like seven day Adventists. The base of their beliefs exist in Christianity but they take them to extremes.


      • Original sin as it’s commonly formulated today owes a lot to Augustine. But he didn’t invent the idea. The basic idea is quite biblical (Romans 5:12ff, 1 Corinthians 15:21f), and Church Fathers from the very beginning commented on it. And yes, Augustine and Pelagius are diametrically opposed — mostly because nearly all of the Augustinian writings we have regarding justification and grace were written as polemics against Pelagius.

        As far as original sin and total depravity, don’t they go hand in hand? If you are born sinful, you need to be redeemed to be good.

        No, they’re not. That’s a Calvinist idea. Original sin in Augustine’s thought only wounds the will. Calvinists go to the extreme, in “total depravity,” of saying that we’re entirely incapable of doing good — that even our good acts done before salvation were not really good, but ultimately selfish and sinful. This is a complete misreading of Scripture and of Augustine. Augustine taught that the unregenerate will can’t do anything salvific — that is, man can’t do anything to attain unto God or save himself, which is the rejection of what Pelagius taught.

        Original sin, in the Catholic mind, also doesn’t mean that we are “born sinful” — again, that’s Calvinist thinking. As the Catechism puts it, “Original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense: it is a sin ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act.”

        He also begins the idea people are saved not according to their own will or merits but only by the grace of God.

        … Who? Certainly not Augustine. That’s Calvin. Augustine taught free will, the necessity of man’s assent and response to God’s grace, and of cooperation with that grace.

        most Christians and Catholics

        Hey! Catholics are Christians, too.

        … I think, still believe that people are not capable of being good without God.

        Catholics don’t believe that.


        • Interesting. Everything I’ve read about Augustine is slightly different from this. But it is quite fine lines.

          The distinction between Christians and Catholics was only to make sure that both were included.
          Christians do believe that there is nothing that we can do to merit salvation. The only thing we can do is accept the gift of salvation. That’s less an action than the lack of rejection. But it seems we’re saying kind of the same thing in a different way at the end.

          Oh and the not capable of doing good, to me that always always meant that morality doesn’t exist outside of salvation. There is no sin without the knowledge of sin, so before you are saved nothing you do is either sinful or good. Not that I agree with that completely, but that’s the impression I took.

          Wish I had kept the catechism from school. It would be nice to have succinct answers rather than simple recollection of teachings. πŸ™‚


          • Hey! Again, Catholics are Christians, too. There is no distinction between the the two. Don’t say “Christians believe this” when you’re really talking about Protestants or Reformed Protestants or Catholics. πŸ˜‰

            One of the big beefs between Protestants and Calvinists has been just this issue, how one attains salvation, namely the doctrine of justification. And you’re right, the two very often talk past each other, and are saying the same thing different ways. Catholics and Lutherans have made a lot of progress toward resolving that misunderstanding in recent years. Calvinists, especially the very conservative ones (who, in their minds, are the only ones who count) still adamantly reject any sort of compromise or even dialoguing with Catholics. And there are some significant differences there in our understandings of justification, as I’ve pointed out.

            Scripture teaches that God has written the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15, Hebrews 8:10) — such that there is a universal morality, a universal good and universal evil. The postmodern mindset tries to reject such notions, saying that everything is relative, but it’s undeniable that in every culture that’s ever existed on earth the murder of innocents is wrong, stealing from other people’s livelihood is decried, and telling falsehoods that hurt other people is a bad thing. And just as all people can do bad, all people can do good. It’s also universal that love is a good thing, that caring for children or the sick or dying is an act of love — even though that doesn’t make any evolutionary sense at all. It’s true that for something to be a sin, one must have knowledge that it is wrong — but some things are universally wrong, and everyone knows it in their conscience.

            What kind of school did you go to?


            • It’s one of those distinctions that seem to mean a lot to only me. I have taken to the idea that one doesn’t sin unless one knows it. Yes, there are things that our conscience innately knows are wrong, well in most people, and those are the things that are sin. However for those who don’t know that it is sin or bad, it isn’t sin. Not relativity, but reason or not for judgment, much like mental illness kind of cases. I don’t know why that opinion has become so important to me. I guess the discussion on the Knowledge of good and evil fascinates me.

              Well, no offense meant but I went to a Christian school. That’s what it was called as opposed to the Catholic schools in the area. Lock Haven Christian school and Walnut Street Christian school. Separating the two when I talk to fellow Christians is a long running habit, but for some reason I notice I switch to inclusion of Catholics on certain topics and most of the time when talking to non-Christians.


              • Regarding the above, that it is not sin if you don’t know it’s bad, the Catholic Church agrees with you, almost to the letter (even bringing up mental illness):

                Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. (CCC 1735)

                I wasn’t offended. I knew you didn’t mean it that way. But do think about being precise in your language. πŸ˜‰ They call some schools “Christian” around here too, but mostly because they’re not strictly affiliated with any particular Protestant denomination, and Protestants tend not to like calling themselves Protestant.


              • Oh, and this too:

                1859. Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart (cf. Mk 3:5-6; Lk 16:19-31) do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

                1860. Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.


                • Though most protestants don’t ascribe to the idea of mortal sin, the idea of rejection of Christ’s salvation is the only thing that won’t be forgiven and may as well be a mortal sin. This presumes that the rejector would have the opportunity to hear and accept the message of Christ. That’s where we get into the revelations.

                  For the most part, I agree with the above.


                  • Well, you’ve nailed it: That’s essentially what mortal sin is, the deliberate choice to reject Christ’s salvation. It’s only “mortal” if we don’t repent of it; and Christ’s mercy will meet us wherever we are, whatever we’ve done, if we do repent (1 John 1:9). To intentionally choose to do something that’s gravely wrong, having full knowledge and complete consent, is basically telling Jesus, “I don’t want any of this.”


    • I should elaborate: Catholics don’t believe that one has to be a Christian to do good. But God is the source of all good, and even those non-Christians who do good, who act in love or compassion or selfishness, are receiving graces from God whether they realize it or not. And if they follow the trail of breadcrumbs, they’ll find their way to God.


  3. Hi SS, here’s another line of thinking ….

    In my mis-spent youth, I completed an degree in theology, so I have some familiarity with theological thinking. And I think, as it is commonly practiced, it is often a waste of time or worse.

    I think following Jesus must be basically pretty simple, because children and uneducated people can do it. Of course more educated and intelligent people should offer Jesus their whole selves, including their intellects, but we/they need to be careful how we/they use them. Good theology thinks about God and how we can better follow Jesus. But bad theology (in my view) tries to understand and explain things that are beyond our knowing, and to systematise things that we only know partially, and is therefore often hubristic and humanistic. Often it is used to divide christians, and to exclude some.

    I think original sin is bad theology, born of trying to understand something that God hasn’t revealed very fully, and isn’t very important in following Jesus. I think it is based on a wrong way to interpret the Bible. I therefore think we shouldn’t worry too much about it. I think everyone will be judged by the good and evil they have done, not what Adam did (assuming the Adam & Eve story should be interpreted as historical).

    Best wishes.


    • I agree that it’s more important to live right. But it’s definitely my favorite way to waste time though!

      I find original sin to be problematic for many reasons. Mostly because it makes a good God less defensible. But God’s way are not our ways. We judge differently. Even if it’s not literal, the symbolism would result in the same kind of result.


  4. Theologically, I’m a Wesleyan Methodist, so I go with original sin – but Wesley’s theology (or, as I see it, insight) of prevenient grace, i.e. the grace that works beforehand, allows me to say that free will, our choice, is also an essential component of salvation.

    In practice, I like UNKLEE’s comment above. It’s not so much your particular theology, not so much what doctrine you believe, as how you are living your life. Is faith making itself visible in your transformed life? Because that is how I know that I am really saved, and that is how I recognise my sisters and my brothers.


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