Original Sin

Fallen man's natural sinfulness, the hereditary depravity and corruption of human nature because of Adam's fall. Though it inheres in human nature and is propagated by natural generation, it does not arise from anything in man's original natural constitution.

Reformed Position

Calvin said, "Man is corrupted by a natural depravity, but which did not originate from nature. We deny that it proceeded from nature, to signify that it is rather an adventitious quality or accident, than a substantial property originally innate. Yet we call it natural, that none may suppose it to be contracted by every individual from corrupt habit, whereas it prevails over all by hereditary right" (Institutes, 2:1.11). "On account of the corruption of human nature, man may be justly said to be naturally abominable to God" (ibid., 2:1.11).

"Sin has possessed all the powers of the soul, since Adam departed from the fountain of righteousness. For man has not only been ensnared by the inferior appetites, but abominable impiety has seized the very citadel of his mind, and pride has penetrated into the inmost recesses of his heart" (2:1.9).

In tracing Paul's doctrine of original sin, Calvin concludes "that man is so totally overwhelmed, as with a deluge, that no part is free from sin: and therefore whatever proceeds from him is accounted sin; as Paul says that all the affections or thoughts of the flesh are enmity against God, and therefore death (Rom. 8:6–7)."

Hence, though sin in man is not a material principle in human nature (as Manicheism holds) or an original, or necessary part of it, the soul of fallen man "is not only wounded, but so corrupted, that it requires not merely to be healed, but to receive a new nature" (2:1.9). Calvin thus safeguards the doctrine against Pelagianism of every degree. Furthermore, he does not make corruption something in our nature but yet in some way distinct from our nature. He acknowledges that in its first state human nature was holy, but he proves from Scripture that it has degenerated from that state. Now it is not merely overcome by corruption; it is in itself corrupt—"man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence [lust]," and "abominable impiety" is the ruling principle of his unrenewed mind.

Lutheran Position

Lutherans debated and rejected the idea that original sin "is properly and without any distinction the very nature, substance, and essence of corrupt man, or at least the principal and pre-eminent part of his substance, namely rational soul" (Formula of Concord, Art. 1). They hold that even after the fall there is a distinction between man's corrupt nature and original sin "which adheres in the corrupt nature and also corrupts the nature" (ibid., Art. 1). The nature of man is God's work; original sin is the devil's work (ibid., Affirmative 1), and "the distinction between our corrupt nature and the corruption which is implanted within the nature, and through which the nature is corrupt, can be easily discerned" (Affirmative 2). None but God can separate the nature from the corruption within it, but He will certainly sever one from the other by means of death and resurrection (Affirmative 3). Despite this insistence that man's nature is distinct from the corruption that now resides within it and thereby corrupts it, Lutheranism seeks to avoid the notions that as God's creature man's nature is fundamentally good and that corruption is something alien to it, or "merely the liability and debt of another's transgression, transmitted to us apart from any corruption of our nature" (Negative 8.1). While holding to the truth that man's nature is corrupt, the formulators of this Lutheran standard desired to ensure that no one could charge God with any lack of goodness or wisdom on account of that corruption. God did not create man's nature corrupt.

As believers in creationism, these Lutheran fathers believed that God has continued to create souls and that His creation could not be corrupt as it comes from His hand; that is, man is not corrupted because of some concreated necessity or because of his finiteness. Their desire to show that man's corruption does not come from his original constitution and is not the natural consequence of his humanness is Scriptural and praiseworthy, but their statements are open to two major objections:

First, they tend to a materialistic view of nature and corruption, though Lutherans would protest such a conclusion and point to the Formula of Concord's strong denunciation of Manicheism. But the notion that an uncorrupt, pure soul is created by God and united with a physical body by the act of conception, and that by that union the soul becomes corrupt seems to fall into the very dualism and materialism of Manicheism that the Formula so roundly condemns.

Second, the way Lutherans describe the distinction between the nature of man and the corruption in it, has led to a modification of the original stand of Luther on the subject of the total inability of fallen man's will to originate anything good or pleasing to God. McClintock and Strong quote Charles O. Krauth's summary of Lutheran doctrine, which includes the statement, "The depravity of man is total in its extent, and his will has no positive ability in the work of salvation, but has the negative ability (under the ordinary means of grace) of ceasing resistance" (emphasis is added). This ignores the fact that such cessation of resistance is in itself a good work; it is, indeed, a good work that flies in the face of the evil inclination of the unrenewed will. This is certainly a serious modification of Luther's view.

The somewhat dialectical pronouncements of the Formula of Concord may be contrasted to the Reformed statement of the doctrine of original sin in the Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 6, sec. 2–4): "By this sin [our first parents] fell from their original righteousness, and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions."

Roman Catholic Position

Rome holds that "all men are implicated in Adam's sin" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 402); however, in Roman Catholic theology this implication is limited and falls far short of the Protestant doctrine. "Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice [righteousness], but human nature has not been totally corrupted" (ibid., ¶ 404).

Rome admits that original sin causes every person to be "inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence" (¶ 405), but insists that this concupiscence is not in itself sin.

The heart of Rome's position lies in her failure to understand the truth of concreated holiness. She sees man's original holiness as a gift superadded to his nature. He lost this by the fall, but the loss did not involve the radical ruin of his moral constitution.

Rome teaches that "baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back toward God" (¶ 405, see Baptismal Regeneration). Despite this, concupiscence and a nature "weakened and inclined to evil" ensure that he will continue to have "a hard battle" with sin (¶ 407–409).

Pelagian and Arminian Positions

Pelagianism entirely rejects the doctrine of original sin and confines sin to separate acts of the will, which retains the power to choose sinlessly as much as sinfully.

Arminianism is semi-Pelagian in its position on original sin. It agrees with Pelagians that sin consists in separate acts of the will, and that the guilt of Adam's first sin is not transmitted to his descendants. It disagrees with Pelagians in that it holds that fallen man is depraved, though not totally, and that the pollution of Adam's first sin is transmitted to his descendants.


Original sin is the natural sinfulness of Adam's descendants, by natural generation. The designation original sin signifies the following:

1. This sinfulness is derived from Adam, the original root of the entire race.

2. It is inherent in Adam's posterity from the womb; it is not the result of environment or imitation.

3. It is the root of all the actual transgressions each sinner commits. Rome's idea that though the root has been removed by baptism, the fruit still remains, is both illogical and unscriptural.

4. It consists of original guilt and original pollution. Guilt signifies a liability to punishment. Pollution signifies the absence of original righteousness and the presence of evil. Pollution involves guilt; there is no such thing as guiltless pollution. The Arminian view that pollution alone, not guilt, is transmitted from Adam to his posterity is based on an unscriptural view of man's sinfulness, and obviously views pollution as a moral disease which is guiltless per se.

See Depravity; Imputation; Inability; Traducianism; Transmission of Sin.

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