Thursday, September 23, 2010

Original sin, original grace?

The following passage is frequently quoted as establishing the doctrine of original sin:
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, for all have sinned ... (Romans 5:12, though the whole passage is instructive)
But Paul's point in this passage, overwhelmingly, is that Christ's goodness far surpasses Adam's badness, that Christ's righteousness eclipses Adam's unrighteousness, that "the gift is not like the trespass".

Paul develops the theme with the familiar Hebrew "how much more" style of logic: if a single act by a bad man can have bad consequences worldwide, how much more does the single gift of God have redeeming consequences worldwide.

Most Christian thought shows no real doubt about everyone's sinfulness. But whether Christ's grace reaches out to all, some express doubt. With Christ, many see "if" and "unless" and other limits to the grace that comes through Christ. The mental list of exceptions pile up for how the consequences of Christ's act aren't quite as wide-scoped as the consequences of Adam's act. In effect, we think "How much less" Christ accomplishes than Adam. But Paul's point was the opposite: How much more.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many. (Romans 5:15)

We act as if the sin of Adam was greater than the righteousness of Christ, or as if the sin of man might have further reach than the grace of God. So next time someone discusses Romans 5 as if the main point is original sin, remember Paul's point in bringing up the original sin: to show how small a thing it was next to God's grace:
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)


Anonymous said...

Great post and great point. Another point I would add is that Paul was not concerned to argue for 'total depravity' in Romans. He was much more concerned to put the Jews and Gentiles on an equal footing when it came to standing before God. That's not to downplay the plight of sinful humans, but it seems that some evangelicals try to extract from Paul a picture of human nature in which each person is as bad as they possibly could be, that they never do anything good. That would be to misunderstand Paul's rhetoric.

Randy said...

In agreement with the post and with JD Walters comment, I sometimes have difficulty extracting the concrete doctrines of "original sin" and "total depravity" from my reading of Paul, at least in the manner that many expositors of Paul's writings seem to assert.

I am (somewhat) of the mind that Augustine's dualistic worldview influenced the development of this interpretation of some of the scriptures that might indicate both original sin as well as total depravity.

Don't the Eastern Orthodox (as well as a number of other denominations) reject these doctrines?

Weekend Fisher said...


You're right; it's frustrating to watch people take away a point that wasn't the author's, and claim it as the author's. When it comes to human sinfulness Paul strongly argues that all are affected -- in order to show how Christ's redemption is likewise for all and God's gift is mercy for all. His overarching point is that Jesus isn't just a "Jewish thing".

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Randy

I'm with the camp that gives Augustine mixed reviews, so you won't hear any argument from me about second-guessing him on original sin. Like you, I'm not sure that's what Paul intended to communicate.

The Eastern Orthodox I've read have such a different take on it that it's not recognizably the same doctrine; they see it more as a curse than a sin. I've also met Arminians who reject original sin (though that may be because their theology requires us to participate voluntarily in coming to faith; not sure which idea propelled the other in their theology).

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

Totally off topic (But, no doubt, related at some level), I just wanted to invite you along to my new blog:

The nature of the material means the blog has to remain 'members only', so there may be a joining procedure,
but I hope you will join me in what, I hope, will be an encouraging and edifying venture!

I look forward to hearing from you,


Martin LaBar said...


Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thank you for the encouragement.
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Howard

I admire beauty very much, but do not trust myself to be exempt from temptation in that area as I have personal struggles along those lines.

Even though I have to decline, thank you for the kind thoughts in extending the invitation.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF