What Is a Sin?
Approximately fifty years ago when I wrote a paper about sin at a theology school in a southwestern state where I was pursuing a masters degree in church music, the professor called me into his office to tell me that my thoughts were unBiblical. I had contended that anything can be a sin: eating, sex, sports, recreation, reading, movies, or even religion. Yes, even church can be a sin if it becomes a twisted obsession that separates us from the love of God. Anything, regardless of how good it can be in some respects, can be a sin. If it becomes so important to us that it alienates us from God, it is sinful. Even though I respected my professor’s view, I still believe that sin is anything that alienates us from God. Sin damages or completely severs our relationship with God.
Sins are those things we choose to do because we want to do them, even though we know they are wrong. If a person is honestly unconscious that he is choosing to follow a sinful course, I would have a difficult time saying they had sinned. The person may be morally obtuse like those Christians who kept slaves or those who fought to preserve segregation in the South.
Forgiveness of Sins
I believe that God, and only God, can forgive sins. God requires two things of us as conditions of forgiveness: repentance and forgiveness of others. The following are three Christian scripture verses about the forgiveness of sins:
• “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25-26)
• “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
• “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9)
The Doctrine of Original Sin
Original sin is the doctrine that says humans are born sinful as a result of the fall of mankind which took place in the Garden of Eden. This doctrine comes from Paul’s writings in which he identifies Adam as the one man through whom death came into the world. Paul wrote:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned… For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many… Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous… just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:12-21)
and he wrote,
“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:21-22)
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin defined original sin as follows:
“Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh.” And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it – such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousing – he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21), although they are also commonly called “sins” in Scripture, and even by Paul himself.”
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote,
“Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”
Martin Luther contended that humans inherited Adam’s guilt and are in a state of sin from the moment of conception. The Augsburg Confession summaries the Lutheran view of original sin as,
“It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”
The notion of original sin is rejected by the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ. They believe we are personally responsible for the sins we commit. These churches do believe that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world by their disobedience and future generations were influenced by their disobedience to God, which made all individuals above the “age of accountability” have a tendency towards sin.
The Book of Ezekiel appears to refute the idea that children would suffer for the sins of their parents:
“The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
Another example from Ezekiel:
“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” (Ezekiel 18:19-20)
Many people believe that Adam and Eve sinned by making a wrong free-will choice when they were tempted by the serpent and as a result brought “the knowledge of good and evil” upon themselves and all people after them, and that although humanity still retains free-will it is the knowledge of good and evil that makes it difficult for humanity to live without committing sin.
Roger Wolsey, a United Methodist minister and author of Kissing Fish, writes, “The notion of ‘original sin’ isn’t Biblical, isn’t part of Judaism, wasn’t known by Jesus, and wasn’t known by any of the Christians for the first three hundred years of the early Church. It was invented by Augustine – and it hasn’t been a helpful ‘gift’ to Western Christianity.”
Can we actually believe that because Eve persuaded Adam to eat a forbidden apple the entire human race is doomed to hell? Can we truly believe that for several thousand years there was no chance for any human to be saved, even though none of them had anything to do with Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden? Isn’t it ludicrous that a child born today is doomed because Adam and Eve disobeyed God? That creation/damnation scheme sounds more like devil-worship than God-worship.
To even suggest that a baby is born with original sin is, in my opinion, immoral. Babies are sinless until they are old enough to make a moral choice, to understand the difference between right and wrong, to understand the consequences of their choice, to consciously choose to do wrong, in other words, they must reach the age of accountability.
Since I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, I have a problem with the doctrine of original sin. According to Christian theology, all human beings are tainted by Adam and Eve’s disobedience. If Adam and Eve did not actually exist, then they did not sin and their sin was not transferred to the rest of mankind. The point of the Adam and Eve story is what it tells us about human nature – we are tempted to want to be God.
Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?
If most Christians were asked to summarize Jesus’ significance, they would answer, “Jesus died for my sins.” In their minds, God will not or cannot forgive our sins unless adequate atonement was made. Therefore, Jesus, God’s perfect son, had to die. Such thinking, Marcus Borg attests, leads to a vision of the Christian life that is centered in sin, guilt, and forgiveness. That type of Christianity ignores the compassion of Jesus who was a friend of sinners.