Article IX: Of Original or Birth Sin (Part 1)

Introduction

Whatever you believe, you have to be able to explain the existence of evil or wrong in the world don't you? We all have a sort of inbuilt antenna or conscience that reacts when we see something we feel is morally wrong. It picks up those well publicized evils: Nazi Germany, the horrors of the moors murders, the vileness of some of the sex abuse cases at the moment and so on.

But it also works at a more personal level.  Our consciences prick us when we know we've done something wrong: the lie we tell, the gossip we share, the unkind thought we have. We know that evil exists within each one of us. It's something that seems to come naturally.

As a parent, I don't spend my time teaching my children to be naughty.  That came naturally enough. No, I have to spend time teaching them to be good.  You know in yourself that even when you're being “good” that behind that is a whole bunch of mixed motives.  I'm good when people are watching, because I want them to think I'm good.  I'm helping so-and-so out because it makes me feel good to help them.  I'm giving to charity, but I want you to know that I'm giving so you can recognize what an upstanding member of the community.  Even in our best actions, we experience the problem of bad motives and thoughts.

How, as Christians, do we explain this natural bent to do wrong?  How do we explain that even in the best of our actions, when we're honest, we can recognize that mixed-motive thing going on in the background?

We find an explanation in Article IX of the the XXXIX Articles of the Church of England.

IX. OF ORIGINAL OR BIRTH-SIN
ORIGINAL Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, "Phronema Sarkos", which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

The Sin Nature

Let's take it a step at a time.  First of all the article addresses our sin nature.  That at the heart of human beings, from birth, sin reigns.  That's what it means to talk about original sin or birth sin.

It's worth noting a few places in the Bible that lead us to that conclusion. So David recognised his original sin in Psalm 51:5:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5 NIV)
Jesus teaches it in Mark 7:21-23:

For it is from within, out of a person's heart, that evil thoughts come--sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person." (Mark 7:21-23 NIV)

What he's saying is that, in our hearts, in who we are, there's a problem and brokenness.  That all these actual sins we see, big and small, happen because we have a sin nature.

And Paul explains that in terms of fall of Adam an Eve that we read of in Genesis 3 in Romans 5:12:

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned-- (Romans 5:12 NIV)

And the point of the article and those Scriptures is to say that it is a principle that we have all inherited, by virtue of being part of the fallen human race.  Since the fall, that is who we are.

Now that is quite counter-cultural.  For example, people will often think of children as innocent.  But they're not.  Yes they are less experienced, but not innocent.  Almost instinctively we like to think of ourselves as good.  We're not perfect, but we're basically good people.  But we're not.  People talk about some and say: so and so has a good heart.  And we have to say.  No, he or she doesn't.

It's worth saying that's not a new thing.  You might have noticed the comment against Pelagians. Pelagius was a British monk from around 400AD, who was a heretic.  He and his followers taught that all humans were, like Adam and Eve, free to chose between good and evil and if we would only choose rightly we could live a perfect life.

Probably the reason it is in the article is that the Roman Catholic church and possibly some of the Anabaptists (the more extreme end of the reformation in the 16th Century) were in view.  It was probably a bit unfair on the Anabaptists, but the Reformers saw both as at least part way towards Pelgianism.

The thing is we might naturally like to think of this potential to do good.  But actually the Bible doesn't talk of us in those terms.

So Paul for example describes us as under the power of sin in  Romans 3:9, slaves to sin (Romans 6:20) and dead in our transgression and sins (Ephesians 2:1).  And that sin works itself out in every child of Adam.  As Paul said in Romans 3:10, quoting the OT:

As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; (Romans 3:10 NIV)

and then in v.23 of that chapter:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23 NIV)

Original sin – that broken heart in each of us – has meant that we all have sinned.  Sin naturally, flows out of us.  That principle in us means that, even our best efforts are wrapped in sin.

Now that is an explanation of the world we live in.  It is an explanation of the mess, the brokenness, the sadness, the pain, the destruction, the downright wickedness and evil we see in the world.  It is an explanation of the reality of our lives.  The failures, the anger, the deceit, the betrayals not just that we've experienced at the hands of others, but that we've perpetrated.

But mostly, it's not an explanation we want to hear.  Because we can't write it all off as someone else's fault, or a particular group of especially wicked people.  We can't rationalize it away as illness or genetics or upbringing.

No the sin nature that we all have makes the broken mess of the world – at least in part – my fault and your fault.

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