The Heart of It All: Sin

October 2, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Humanity’s Sinful Nature

Audio length: 12:38

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

We’ve discussed in previous articles that Scripture teaches that all humans sin and that sin is universal. The Bible speaks of humans being sinful from birth, which would indicate that humans are born with inherent sinful natures.

Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.[1]

What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?[2]

When King David was confessing his sins to the Lord, he stated that he had always been a sinner, that even when he was conceived in the womb of his mother he had a sinful nature.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.[3]

The sinful nature of human beings causes people to have a natural disposition toward sin.[4] Sin has polluted everyone.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”[5]

People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.[6]

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.[7]

Because of the corruption and pollution of sin, human beings are said to be by nature “children of wrath.”

Among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.[8]

Our sinful nature alienates us from God, makes us hostile to Him, hard of heart, and in possession of defiled minds and consciences.

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.[9]

You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds …[10]

They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.[11]

To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.[12]

Our sinful nature translates into every aspect of a person being affected by sin. There is corruption at the very center of man’s being which affects both body and soul. It also makes us unable to deliver ourselves from sin’s power. In body and soul, we are sinners and are incapable of saving ourselves from our sinful nature.[13]

The apostle Paul expresses the difficulty of living with a sinful nature.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![14]

The universal corruption of humanity’s nature makes it impossible for humans not to sin. The theological term for this is non posse non peccare—not able (unable) not to sin. We are by nature depraved sinners. This doesn’t mean that humans can’t do good, or that everyone is as evil as they can possibly be, or will engage in every form of sin, or that they have no discernment between good and evil. However, we have a natural disposition toward sin.

Original Sin (Inherited Sin)

The question of why all human beings have a sinful nature and how they acquire it is one that the Church Fathers and subsequent theologians have sought to understand through the centuries. As is the case with many doctrines in Christianity, the understanding of how the sinful nature of human beings due to the sin of Adam and Eve is passed on to their posterity is something that developed over time. As the centuries went by, different outlooks and theories were put forth and debated.

While not all theologians and denominations hold to the same understanding, the Roman Catholic view, as well as the dominant view in Protestant Christianity, is that because Adam sinned in disobeying God, sin and sinful nature is passed on to all humans through Adam. This sin or sinful nature is often referred to as “original sin” or inherited sin. Since there are different outlooks on how sinful nature is passed on to Adam’s descendants, I’m including some history as to how the doctrine developed.

Some of the early Church Fathers felt that all humanity was present in Adam seminally, in the sense of Adam having within him all of humanity, and that from his seed all humanity would be born. As such, all of humanity was potentially and numerically present in Adam when he sinned, and thus we all sinned. The main focus at that point in the development of the doctrine was that the pollution of Adam’s sin was passed on to humanity, but not necessarily his guilt.

Over time, the idea of Adam’s guilt being imputed to all humans took root. The concept of both the nature of sin and the guilt of Adam’s sin being passed on came to be generally accepted. The debate then focused on how it was transmitted.

A further development was the interpretation of the historical Adam being the representative of the human race. Adam was seen as representing humanity when he chose to sin, and thus God counted all of humanity legally guilty of his sin. This doctrine is called federalism. It sees Adam as the federal head or representative of humanity. It’s as if the president of a country, the federal head of the country, makes an agreement with another nation, and then all the citizens of that country are bound by that agreement. The president represents all members of his country when he signs the agreement. In similar fashion, Adam represented all humanity when he sinned, thus we share guilt with him since he was our representative before God.

Some of the primary verses used to support the doctrinal position that human beings are sinners who are guilty because of Adam’s sin are in Romans chapter 5, where the apostle Paul draws a parallel between Adam, whose disobedience brought sin and thus punishment for sin into humanity, and Jesus, whose death and resurrection have redeemed us from all sin and guilt. Paul is drawing the parallel between all people being legally guilty in Adam and all people having their sin and guilt redeemed through belief in Jesus. He’s stating that as humanity’s representative, the guilt of Adam is imputed to everyone and that Jesus, who represented humanity by suffering and dying for our sins, has brought forgiveness of sins, and His righteousness is imputed to us. In Adam we are all guilty; through Jesus we are made righteous.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For 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.[15]

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.[16]

We all come into this world with sinful nature, due to the sin and disobedience of Adam. We all are somehow culpable for Adam’s sin and thus face condemnation. Through God’s grace we can be spared the condemnation through Jesus’ taking our sins upon Himself.

Actual Sin

While our sinfulness is connected to Adam’s sin, we are also all guilty in our own right, due to the sins we personally commit. Humans are sinners not only because of our sinful nature, but because we freely commit sins. We know that some things are wrong, and we do them anyway. While there may be varying opinions about how the guilt of Adam’s sin or the sinful nature is transmitted to people, there is no question regarding how individual guilt comes about. Every person knowingly sins, thus everyone is responsible for the results of their sins. While it may seem unfair that due to Adam’s sin, all humankind fell into sin, each person also does exactly what Adam and Eve did—they freely choose to do wrong, and thus sin.

No matter what the circumstances or the temptations, personal sin comes from the heart, from the freewill choices of each individual. As such, we are morally responsible for the sins we commit in our own lives.

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.[17]

Realizing our tendency to sin, our sinful nature, our inherited corruption, and the ultimate result of sin in our lives, should make us forever grateful for the free and undeserved gift of forgiveness of our sins. As Christians, we have the blessing of knowing that though we are sinners, we are forgiven sinners through our wonderful Savior, Jesus. It should also help us to realize the dire need that so many people have, as they exist in this world without knowing that salvation from their sins is available. It should instill in us the desire to bring the message of salvation to all we can.

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?[18]

[1] Job 14:1–4.

[2] Job 15:14.

[3] Psalm 51:5.

[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 246.

[5] Romans 3:10–18.

[6] 2 Timothy 3:2–4.

[7] Romans 3:23.

[8] Ephesians 2:3.

[9] Romans 8:7.

[10] Colossians 1:21.

[11] Ephesians 4:18.

[12] Titus 1:15.

[13] James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1 (N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000), 558.

[14] Romans 7:18–25.

[15] Romans 5:18–19.

[16] 1 Corinthians 15:21–22.

[17] Matthew 15:18–20.

[18] Romans 10:14.