I have a writing assignment due today for a particular denomination's Sunday School literature. I thought I would draft it here.
“Original sin” is not a topic we hear much discussed or even mentioned from the pulpit these days. Many Christians may never have even heard of it. It refers of course to the first sin of our human parents, Adam and Eve, the “original” sin. In terms of us today, the question of original sin has to do with how the sin of Adam and Eve has left its impact on us as human beings.
At least since the days of a Christian named Augustine (354-430), it has been conventional to think of our human nature as “fallen.” That is to say, our humanity is not what God intended it to be originally. God intended for us to do good and not to do evil. God intended us to be able to think more clearly and understand the world more accurately than we do.
Instead, Augustine—and then later Protestant leaders like Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley—believed that we have a sinful nature inside us, a “carnal” or “fleshly” nature that makes it impossible for us to do good or choose God without the power of the Holy Spirit inside us. Without the Holy Spirit, our plight is that of Romans 7:15: “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Augustine believed this sinful nature was passed down “genetically” through sex, thus providing a partial explanation for why Jesus needed to be born of a virgin.
The default state of humanity is now “totally depraved,” incapable of doing any good in its own power. Although “total depravity” is more often associated with John Calvin, many of us in the Wesleyan tradition (as well as many Calvinists themselves) might be surprised to know that John Wesley affirmed this idea as well. Like Calvin, Wesley did not believe that we as human beings are able to choose God or do good on our own. Like Calvin, Wesley believed we could only choose God or do good if the Holy Spirit was empowering us to do it. The difference is that Wesley believed God offered this power to everyone, while Calvin believed that God only selected a few choice individuals to receive it. Such people were only God’s puppets, forced to do only what He made them do.
Another key difference between Calvin and Wesley is in how optimistic they were about God’s power to help us do good in this life. Luther did not believe we should even discuss such things, for the very discussion might tempt us to boast in our own righteousness. By contrast, Calvin did think the drive toward becoming more righteous in this life was important. But he believed the imprint of the original sin inevitably stayed with us our entire lives, with the result that we would never be able to stop sinning. The sinful nature inside us would be a part of us till we were glorified at the point of our deaths.
Wesley, on the other hand, was more optimistic. He believed that God wanted to overcome our sinful natures entirely, to “sanctify” us entirely and make us completely holy in this life. In the century that followed Wesley, various thinkers responded to these ideas. The Wesleyan tradition has historically affirmed that God wants to eradicate our sinful nature and destroy it. Others, like the Keswick tradition, have taught that our “carnal nature” will always be around, tempting us to sin, although they believe God can and wants to empower us to win over such temptation, even though it will always be a struggle on some level.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have the benefit of recent studies that help us look at Paul’s writings with fresh eyes. As a result, several aspects of the historical debate we have just mentioned seem a bit out of focus. For one, the phrase “sinful nature” is misleading at best, even though the New International Version and other translations use it consistently. But Paul nowhere uses the word nature in this way. The actual word he uses is flesh.
To begin to understand what Paul means by “flesh,” we only need take the word in its normal sense: skin. Paul understood our bodies to be enslaved to the power of Sin, along with the entire creation (cf. Rom. 8:19-21). This understanding is similar to what Augustine and later Christian thinkers have thought, but also significantly different.
In Paul’s thinking, the entire creation, including the skin of my body, has come under the power of Sin as a result of Adam’s sin. It is better to think of this power as a power over me rather than a power inside of me. To be sure, we have to take such images as metaphors. Paul was not thinking of the frontal lobes of our brains, but God was giving Paul’s audiences true pictures of the human condition in terms they could understand. We get into strange waters indeed when we try to mingle Paul’s ancient psychology with modern categories!
So Paul says things like, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (Rom. 7:14, NASB). A nice way to define flesh in this sense is my skin under the power of Sin. However, Paul does not see this state as the norm for the believer. Many readers of Romans 7 strangely stop without going on into Romans 8, where Paul indicates that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). In other words, Christians not only can get “out of” their sinful flesh—they cannot please God if they do not!
The confusion in debates over our “sinful natures” follows both from subtle misreadings of Paul we have inherited from Augustine and from taking various metaphors too literally. Basically, Paul teaches that the default state of humanity is one of moral disempowerment and alienation from God. Christ has made it possible, not only for us to be reconciled to God, but also for the Holy Spirit to empower us in relation to sin.
The powers of Sin in this world will be around until Christ returns. But we as Spirit-filled believers are not consigned to defeat in the face of temptation. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13, TNIV). This truth, consistently proclaimed by Paul, has largely been lost to contemporary Christianity to such an extent that it is scarcely believed even by those of us in the Wesleyan tradition.
But it is a truth we more than any other tradition are responsible to bring to this generation of believers. God has made it possible, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for us to live Christ-like lives in this world. What was impossible in our own power and in our own flesh, “God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and ... condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4, NASB).