Original Sin: The Doctrine and Its Implications

John V. Fesko

Ordained Servant: February 2009

Original Sin

Also in this issue

Now We Live In Q's World

Original Sin: A Cultural History

We Become What We Worship

A Prayer


In the opening paragraph of John Calvin's magisterial treatment of the doctrine of justification he writes that it is "the main hinge on which religion turns" but he also goes on to explain that man must first grasp what his relationship to God is, and the nature of the judgment against him, otherwise man has neither a foundation on which to establish his salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.[1] Calvin does not make explicit reference to the doctrine, but it is original sin that lies in the background. Original sin is the condition that affects all mankind as a result of the first man's act of disobedience. Adam yielded to the temptation of the serpent and ate the forbidden fruit. But his single act of disobedience not only made Adam the slave of sin but also brought both the guilt and pollution of sin upon all of his descendants.[2] Or, as the Shorter Catechism states,

The sinfulness of that estate whereunto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of the whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it. (Q. 18)[3]

If Calvin's statement regarding the doctrines of justification and original sin is true, then wherever there is an attenuation of the significance of original sin, a diminution of the doctrine of justification is certain to follow.

This formulaic relationship between original sin and justification can be illustrated from appeal to Charles Finney (1792-1875). Finney is perhaps one of the better-known evangelists of the nineteenth century particularly because of the role he played in what is now called the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790 - ca. 1840). All too often people evaluate Finney based on the numbers he could produce rather than his doctrine. One need not dig very far before he uncovers Finney's views on original sin: "Moral depravity, as I use the term, does not consist in, nor imply a sinful nature, in the sense that the substance of the human soul is sinful in itself. It is not a constitutional sinfulness. It is not an involuntary sinfulness. Moral depravity, as I use the term, consists in selfishness; in a state of voluntary committal of the will to self-gratification."[4] According to Finney, man was neither inherently sinful nor were there any adverse effects from the fall upon mankind. Rather, moral depravity is simply voluntary sinning with no direct connection to Adam and his sin.[5]

Finney's view of original sin, or moral depravity as he calls it, ripples through his understanding of doctrine so that he all but demolishes the doctrine of justification. Finney writes: "If Christ owed personal obedience to the moral law, then His obedience could no more than justify Himself. It can never be imputed to us."[6] If there is an absence of an imputed righteousness, then the vacuum must be filled with the obedience of man. In fact, Finney believed, "There is no proof that mankind ever lost their (sic) ability to obey, either by the first sin of Adam, or by their own sin."[7] This means that man's justification is, according to Finney, entirely reliant upon his full and entire consecration of heart and life to God and service to him, and the penitent Christian remains justified only insofar as his full-hearted consecration continues.[8] In other words, man's justified status is never settled and is constantly in the balance hinging upon his continued faithfulness. The pastoral implications of Finney's understanding of original sin crystallize in his counsel to pastors: "I am fully convinced that until evangelists and pastors adopt, and carry out in practice, the principle of total abstinence from all sin, they will as certainly find themselves, every few months, called to do their work over again, as a temperance lecturer would who should admit the moderate use of alcohol."[9] One of the ciphers to an effective gospel ministry, then, is not merely living a godly life, but a total abstinence from sin. If a minister can abstain from sin, then his ministry of gospel persuasion can be all the more effective. The pastor's obedience becomes as effective, if not more, than Christ's.

Sadly, because ideas have consequences, the echoes of Finney's understanding of original sin reverberate in much of the broader Evangelical church today. A parallel to Finney's theology can be found in the preaching of Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, a mega-church that meets in the former home of the NBA Houston Rockets. Osteen writes,

We have to conceive it on the inside before we're ever going to receive it on the outside. If you don't think you can have something good, then you never will. The barrier is in your mind. It's not God's lack of resources or your lack of talent that prevents you from prospering. Your own wrong thinking can keep you from God's best.[10]

There is no mention of sin and therefore what need is there to be justified, to be saved? Osteen's message certainly harmonizes with Finney's message of self-reformation, and does not ruffle the feathers of most professed American Christians, 80 percent of whom believe that Benjamin Franklin's aphorism, "God helps those that help themselves," actually comes from the Bible.[11] Even though the great heresiarch Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420-40) has long since died, his spirit lives on in Finney, Osteen, and sadly, in many so-called Evangelical churches.[12]

The remedy for this Pollyanna view of man lies in a biblical understanding of original sin. Therefore a brief review of the salient points of this doctrine is in order. Just as Finney's views led him to believe that ministers had to set the example by abstinence from sin to influence their congregations, a thorough understanding of the bad news of sin gives the church and her ministers a greater appreciation and understanding of the good news of the gospel. The pastoral implications of a proper understanding of original sin can have a dramatic effect upon the ministry of the pastor and the local session as well as the church's broader witness to the world.

Original Sin in Brief

The key to understanding the doctrine of original sin lies in a truth that rubs against the individualistic grain of many Americans—corporate solidarity. Mankind is not a collection of individuals but an organic unity, one race, one family (Acts 17:26).[13] The principle of corporate solidarity manifests itself in God's covenantal dealings with man, whether in the covenant of works between God and Adam or the covenant of redemption between God and Christ and its consequential covenant of grace.[14] The apostle Paul highlights both the corporate and covenantal solidarity that mankind knows through the two federal heads of the first and last Adams. In a word, all of history can be summarized as the consequences of the representative disobedience and obedience of the two Adams. Paul is crystal clear in this regard despite the claims of some that he does not have in mind the manner by which people become sinners.[15]

Paul explains, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Rom. 5:12). Adam's one act of disobedience becomes the sin of all mankind and this is why all men die, even the most fragile and seemingly innocent of the race, infants. Paul succinctly states: "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were constituted sinners" (Rom. 5:19b).[16] Adam's representative disobedience, according to Paul, brought two devastating effects: all mankind bears the guilt (reatus) and pollution (macula) of Adam's sin.[17] This conclusion is evident not only in that through Adam's one sin the many were constituted sinners, but that "one trespass led to condemnation for all men" (Rom. 5:18a).

The twofold effect of Adam's one transgression is certainly evident in Scripture. First, man is totally depraved. Man is evil from his youth and is himself a source of all sorts of evils. The Genesis flood narrative observes: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5; cf. 8:21). All men are conceived in sin (Ps. 51:5) and from sinful man's heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, and adultery (Mark 7:21). Not only is man morally evil, but because of his fallen state, he is incapable of understanding the things of God or in submitting to God's law (1 Cor. 2:14; John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:17, 20; 8:7). It is in no uncertain terms that Paul describes fallen man as a child of wrath by nature and as dead in his sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1-3).[18] Given Adam's covenantal (or federal) representative status, when he sinned not only did he plunge himself into total depravity but the entire human race.[19] Adam was God's vice-regent over the creation (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 8), and so it is also legitimate to say that he surrendered his kingship to the reign of Satan, sin, and death (Eph. 2:2; Rom. 8:2). Adam's fallen kingdom is coterminous with the sin-darkened present evil age (Gal. 1:4), a kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:13). Therefore, not only is the human race individually and corporately depraved, but so is the very temporal place that man occupies in history. Original sin does not have consequences merely for the ordo salutis (order of salvation) but also for the historia salutis (redemptive history).

The second consequence of Adam's sin is that the entire human race is liable for Adam's one transgression. Paul tells the church at Rome that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23a). As stated above, all men die because they have all sinned in Adam (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22). Paul elsewhere writes: "As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust" (1 Cor. 15:48a). In other words, the promised covenant sanction of death of which God warned Adam is visited upon all of his offspring (Gen. 2:17). Some think that God granted Adam a stay of execution of sorts because from all appearances, God did not immediately strike Adam dead—Adam went on to live more than nine hundred years (Gen. 5:5).[20] Such a characterization of the covenant sanction fails to consider what it means to be exiled from the benevolent presence of the living God. For the faithful Israelite, to be exiled from the camp was akin to death itself.[21] On the day that Adam ate of the forbidden fruit he truly did die—not only did he thrust himself into a state of spiritual depravity but he was also exiled from God's presence. For all of Adam's progeny, due to Adam's one sin, they not only exist in a state of spiritual death, but their physical death culminates in a state of eternal death—eternal exile from the benevolent presence of the triune God (Rev. 22:15).

Due to Adam's one representative act of disobedience, he secured both his spiritual state of depravity and the liability for his action for all of his progeny, and this is to say nothing of the actual sins that each individual might commit which only bring greater guilt and condemnation. Mankind has its existence anchored in this corrupted and guilt-ridden state save one hope—the representative obedience of the last Adam. The only way that man, weighed down by original and actual sin, can be saved is by believing and trusting in the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is Christ's work that is the antithetical counterpart to Adam's work. If Adam's representative disobedience brings guilt and condemnation, then Christ's work brings righteousness and justification (Rom. 5:18). The antithetical parallelism between Adam and Christ is especially evident when Paul writes: "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were constituted sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be constituted righteous" (Rom. 5:19).[22] God imputes Adam's corruption and condemnation to those in him and righteousness and justification to those who are in Christ.[23]

It is Christ through his resurrection and ascension who becomes a life-giving Spirit and overcomes both the corruption and condemnation of Adam's one transgression on the ground of his own representative obedience (Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Cor. 15:45). If death came through Adam, then life comes through Christ (1 Cor. 15:21-22). For those who are united to Christ by faith and through the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the effects of original sin are more than reversed. Not only is redeemed man eventually cleansed of all his sin in his glorification, but unlike Adam, who was created in a state of defectible righteousness, those who are in Christ are indefectibly righteous. Redeemed man cannot fall away. He will not only bear the image of the man of heaven (ordo salutis), but he irreversibly enters the kingdom of God, the age to come (historia salutis) (1 Cor. 15:47-48). The only remedy for original sin is Christ and his gospel. This conclusion, as one can imagine, has significant pastoral implications.

Pastoral Implications

In Brian McLaren's most recent book, Everything Must Change, he lists four significant global problems: the environmental breakdown caused by the global economy, the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, the danger of cataclysmic war fueled by those at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, and the failure of the world's religions to address the three aforementioned global problems. McLaren's answer to these four global crises is to learn what it means to call Jesus Savior and Lord and to discover what he intended to save people from,

His angry Father? The logical consequences of our actions? Our tendency to act in ways that produce undesirable logical consequences? Global self-destruction?

He argues,

The popular and domesticated Jesus, who has become little more than a chrome-plated hood ornament on the guzzling Hummer of Western civilization, can thus be replaced with a more radical, saving, and I believe, real Jesus.[24]

McLaren sees that these global crises are threats to man's existence and that Jesus is the solution. But what of original sin? What of man's spiritual corruption? What of the gospel of Christ?

At one level, it is easy to criticize McLaren's social gospel, as it is one entirely bereft of a biblical soteriology. However, many do not realize that the same social gospel chickens come home to roost when the church engages in social reform movements of various sorts. Many within the church are ardent supporters of placing the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, yet how many of those same Christians read the Law in their own churches? Many Christians vigorously support pro-marriage legislation to stem the tide of the gay-marriage agenda. Or Christians want legislation that will overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet why is there a cacophony on gay marriage or abortion and a relative silence on divorce, drunkenness, pornography, or adultery? Could it be that far too many Christians are divorced, drink to excess, fill their computers with pornography, and regularly engage in adulterous conduct?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) once observed that in Anglo-Saxon countries churches often organized "campaigns" or "crusades" to combat various sorts of societal evils. He saw this pattern as a continuation of the medieval practice of a crusade. Bonhoeffer argued that this crusade-mindedness that starts first with human problems and then looks for solutions from that vantage point is unbiblical. The essence of the gospel is not found in solving worldly problems but in first starting with God's Word to the world. This Word is: Jesus Christ and salvation in his name.[25] In a word, it is only the message of the gospel that preaches sinful man's need for Christ. To borrow Cornelius Van Til's apologetic terminology, the church as the church must dispense with its blockhouse approach to societal ills, a piecemeal engagement of individual problems, such as abortion or gay marriage.[26] Such a blockhouse method, while undoubtedly well intended, reflects a hypocritical view towards the church's own sins. Rather than using the blockhouse approach, the church must bring the transcendental critique of the Word of God, that which levels the weight of the whole law against all sin, including the church's, and points all sinful men to their need for the gospel of Christ. The gospel of Christ brings with it the inherent acknowledgement of the disastrous effects of the representative disobedience of the first Adam (original sin) and the only remedy, the representative obedience of the last Adam (the gospel).

The same observation can be made regarding the ministry of the pastor and local session. Will a church see its significance chiefly in the family-friendly programs that it offers or in its ministry of Word and sacrament? Will the pastor and the session tell the congregation that godly covenant children can be raised through a specific parenting method, or that God's people, including covenant children, have only one hope for the death-laden cancer of original sin—the Spirit-applied gospel of Jesus Christ? Scheduled feedings, spankings, home schooling, courtship, and Christian colleges are powerless to extirpate original and actual sin from the heart of a covenant child. Only the miraculous power of the Spirit applying the representative obedience of Christ removes the heart of stone and grants the heart of flesh.


If anything, this brief essay has emphasized what Calvin wrote long ago, that sinful man cannot build a foundation of piety and godliness unless he first understands the judgment that hangs over him. Apart from understanding the weight of the millstone of original sin around the neck of man, sinners will never see the need for the gospel of Christ.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, vols. 20-21, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.1.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (1932-38; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 221.

[3] All quotations from the Westminster Standards are taken from The Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Texts (Willow Grove: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005).

[4] Charles G. Finney, Finney's Systematic Theology: The Complete and Newly Expanded 1878 Edition, eds. Dennis Carroll, Bill Nicely, and L. G. Parkhurst, Jr. (1878; Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1994), 245.

[5] Jay E. Smith, "The Theology of Charles Finney: A System of Self-Reformation," Trinity Journal 13NS (1992): 76.

[6] Finney, Systematic Theology, 363.

[7] Ibid., 327.

[8] Ibid., 369.

[9] Ibid., 395.

[10] Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Nashville: Faith Words, 2007), 3.

[11] Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 74.

[12] For some of the literature of the famous Augustine-Pelagius debate, see St. Augustine, Writings Against the Pelagians, Nicene Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, volume 5; Pelagius, Pelagius's Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, trans. Theodore de Bruyn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

[13] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4 vols., ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003-08), 3.102.

[14] On the relationship between the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, see David VanDrunen and R. Scott Clark, "The Covenant Before the Covenants," in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California, ed. R. Scott Clark (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2007), 167-96.

[15] So N. T. Wright, Romans, New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 526-27.

[16] Translation mine. See Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 345 n. 144; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans, International Critical Commentary, 2 vols. (1975; repr. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 1.290-91.

[17] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 182, 258.

[18] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.119.

[19] Cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.121.

[20] E.g., Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 72.

[21] Gordon J. Wenham, "Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story," in I Studied Inscripturations from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, eds. Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura (Winona: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 404.

[22] Translation mine.

[23] John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1959), 76.

[24] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 5-6; cf. Walter Rauschenbush, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1945; Nashville: Abingdon, 1987).

[25] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6, eds. Ilse Tödt, Heinz Euard Tödt, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Kraus, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (1949; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 355-56.

[26] See Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1976), 72-78.

John V. Fesko is the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Woodstock, Georgia, and adjunct professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. Ordained Servant, February 2009.

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Ordained Servant: February 2009

Original Sin

Also in this issue

Now We Live In Q's World

Original Sin: A Cultural History

We Become What We Worship

A Prayer


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