WARNING – Some of what you are about to read is considered heresy by many Christian theologians. (I don't care)
Those who study the Bible with the motive to codify its facts, themes, principles, and doctrines – theologians – have generally settled on a few basic teachings about God and people.
One of these has been named “Original Sin” after the first act of disobedience of Adam and Eve, the first people on the planet.
Related to this is the popular notion among said theologians of the spiritual/moral Total Depravity of humans. Meaning, that all people are totally and helplessly sinful, rebellious and morally bankrupt. They are incapable of thinking or doing anything good (as defined by God) and, thus, are hopelessly doomed to go to hell when they die. That is, unless God himself, intervenes in some way, with some mechanism/process/person to provide an escape. This concept includes the requirement that people are so completely unspiritual and devoid of moral will, that God must give them the impulse to recognize the workings of God, the will to repent and the faith to believe that God even exists and will do what he has promised.
These two basic concepts are supported by various and numerous scripture passages, some providing more lucid validation than others. The link between Original Sin and Total Depravity for many students of doctrine is basically that the sin of Adam and Eve changed them spiritually and, thus, their offspring and descendants, including you and me. So, stated another way, you and I are Totally Depraved because Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Eden 10,000 or so years ago.
This is like you being held liable for a car wreck because someone stole your grandfather's car and hit another car. Even though you were not in the car, you were related to the owner of the car and, thus, you are responsible. So, Adam and Eve messed up way back then and now you and I are Totally Depraved. Too bad. This is believed by many Christian theologians in spite of the absence of a single scripture verse that specifically supports this association.
To be clear, there are many scriptures that support and/or describe the Original Sin. And there are many scriptures that support and/or describe the Total Depravity of people. But there are no scriptures that link the two concepts. Despite this, the invisible link is commonly believed.
But I began to ponder this link of Original Sin and Total Depravity. There is no doubt that the first – or Original – sin took place. Genesis 3 describes it in detail. It even describes some of the ramifications of the act, both implied and actual. Other scriptures refer to it or are phrased as if it happened. But the Bible does not specifically state that all the descendants of Adam and Eve will be Totally Depraved – or even partially depraved. In fact, it states nothing about this. Nothing. Anywhere.
In fact, Genesis 3 clearly states that the “first” sin was not committed by Adam or Eve. It was committed by the snake, almost universally understood to be the devil. He told a lie to Eve to entice her to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. All the theologians seem to ignore this detail. If they did not, they would be referring to the sin of Adam and Eve as the Second Sin. But I digress.
How or why does the Original Sin result in my Total Depravity? It would be so if God said it was so, but he does not. This is not to say that I was (prior to my repentance and conversion) not a sinner. Or that I was not Totally Depraved. Or Partially Depraved. Or 37.925 percent Depraved. The key question is, why was I Totally Depraved? Was it because of Adam and Eve or because of something that I had done?
The Bible provides some help here. It is rich with scriptures that portray people as being sinners, sinful, rebellious, “stiff-necked”, undone, as wandering away, etc. But there are a few verses that indicate that people are not completely sinful or guilty of sin in all circumstances.
14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves,
15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)
13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. )
Even though both of these references are fragments of sentences, a full reading of the context of each will prove that I am interpreting them accurately.
Basically, both of these references state that guilt for sin is relative. Said another way, there are two types of sin – that which we are charged with by God (imputed), and that which we are not charged with by God. Technically, both actions are sin (the violation of a law or command or will of God). How can we sin and not be charged, you ask? Because God says so. It is when God knows that we are ignorant of a command (“law”) for that particular act/thought/emotion/motive. Morally or spiritually, innocence is simply ignorance. Here is another scripture on this concept:
17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
So, culpability for sin is related to knowledge of the will/commands/law of God. Still skeptical? Lets take the logical reverse of this statement and see how it reads:
“Therefore, to him who does not know to do good and does it, to him it is not sin.”
The concept holds up both ways.
How can this be? This is one way the grace – undeserved love and favor – of God overrides a spiritual/moral law of God. This makes sin relative. Not by our human measure, but in God's omnipotent view of justice mixed with love and grace. You doubt this?
Consider the following scenario: You are a saved person, doing your best to obey all the will/commands/law of God you know about. You know that you do not know all of God's commands, but are trying to obey all that you know of them. While in church service one Sunday morning, a point is mentioned during the sermon that speaks directly to you. You learn that the Bible says that a certain matter should be handled in a specific way. You know that you have not been handling this matter in this way. You realize that all this time you have been committing a sin by handling this matter in this way. You may or may not be condemned by the Spirit of God to repent, but you are urged to change the way you handle this matter from then on. This is a common scenario. It has happened to me several times. I know of many others who have had this same experience.
Some questions -
Was handling the matter in a way not prescribed by the Bible a sin?
Yes. The Spirit of God clearly pointed this out to you.
Was it a sin before the believer (you, in this case) found out about it in the church service? Yes.
Was it a sin after the believer (you, in this case) found out about it in the church service?
Why were you not bothered by the way you handled the issue before you went to the church service?
Because you were ignorant of the Biblical command/law on the matter. You were innocent. Not willingly ignorant. You were not trying to avoid certain knowledge to ensure your ignorance/innocence. On the contrary, you were seeking to learn as much as you could about the will/commands/law of God because you loved him and wanted to please him as much as possible. Part of you welcomed this new information, even though you felt badly that you had been violating God's law/command in this area. Because of this, God did not charge you with sin in this specific area. However, from this point on, if you fail to obey this new knowledge, you will feel condemnation because God will charge you with transgression of a (now) known command. From now on, you will have to repent for violations of this command.
Some refer to this as “walking in the light” (1 John 1:7), or “progressive revelation”, or “sanctification”. It is the process of growing progressively more holy, or more like God. This comes, first by more knowledge of the law/commands of God and, through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, the ability to obey this new knowledge. While it is more than just new knowledge, knowledge is part of walking in the light/sanctification.
Here is another way to look at this principle: God knows what every sin is. Let's say there is a total of 100 different sins any person could commit. That is all the sins any human can be guilty of. When someone comes to God to repent, they may be guilty of 50 of the 100 sins. God knows exactly what these 50 sins are, when they were committed, how often they were committed, etc. But because of the imperfect memory of this person, they can only repent of 10 of the 50. They either have forgotten that they committed some sins or they did not know that the things they did were sinful in the first place. One cannot repent of something they are not aware of. But when God forgives this person, he forgives them for all the 50 sins that he knows the person is guilty of. They now have a clean slate in the view of God. No sins. None. Zero.
But as this new Christian goes about living his/her new life, they unknowingly repeat some of the 40 sins they were forgiven of. These are not part of the 10 sins that they repented of, these are part of the 40 that they did not repent of because they did not know about or remember them. This is not because they are willingly disobedient, it is because they are ignorant of the law/commands of God in this area. Because they are ignorant/innocent of these sins, God forgives them through his grace. He does not condemn them or charge them (impute) with these other 40 sins. Yet.
Over time, as the new believer reads the Bible, goes to worship services, builds new relationships with other believers, God through the Spirit brings these other 40 sins to the attention of the new believer, one at a time, and instructs him/her to stop committing them. Not only does the Spirit of God instruct the new believer about these 40 sins, he gives them the spiritual strength to overcome them. Over time, the 40 unrepented sins will become 39 and then 38, and so on. Thus, God only charges a person with sin he/she has knowledge of, even though God knows all 100 possible sins, and the 50 sins he/she had committed, and the 40 sins he/she has not yet repented of.
It may be that a person may never repent or stop committing all the sins that God sees. Again, this is not because the person is rebellious or actively disobedient, it is just because they are ignorant of the law/commands of God in these areas. This is where the grace if God comes into play. This is why all of us need the undeserved love and favor (grace) of God, even after we are saved. The grace of God covers the sins we are not aware of.
Does this mean that people cannot live holy, as God commands?
No. But it does mean that the holiness of believers is relative, just as sin is. This issue is not whether holiness is commanded or achievable – it is clearly taught in the scriptures. The issue is, what is the nature of human holiness.
Can a human be as holy as God?
Can a human live a holy life as commanded by God?
Yes. But that is not the same as being as holy as God is.
God is holy by nature, humans are not. Humans are holy by regeneration. We must be born again. But people are still subject to temptation; God is not. People are still subject to failure, temptation and sin. God is not. So, even though people can live in a holy way according to the commands of God, they are not holy by nature, as God is. Thus, holiness is relative just as sin is relative..
Professor Calvin and his students are both correct and overly protective of the concept of the moral depravity of people. Their fear, it seems, is that someone will (incorrectly) read in the scriptures and/or believe that some people can, by their own moral strength and will, do enough good, in either quantity or magnitude, to earn eternal salvation with God. Thus, the Calvinists exaggerate the magnitude of human moral depravity beyond what is pictured by the scriptures.
I understand their concerns and sympathize with them to some degree. But I will not tie my logic, and my theology, into unscriptural knots defending a principle that the scriptures do not support to the same degree.
To say that humans are capable of doing some good is not the same as saying that humans are capable of earning sufficient merit in the view of God for salvation from sin. There are numerous and clear scriptures that specifically disallow this. Given the strong scriptural antagonism for salvation by works, the fear of this concept should not be reason to distort the doctrine of human Depravity.
So, the sins of Adam and Eve did not cause the moral/spiritual depravity of all people, just their own. People caused their own depravity by their own acts of sin. And, conversely, even though people are capable doing some good, this in no way allows then sufficient merit to earn salvation from sin and entrance into God's heaven for eternity.