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Original Sin and Total Depravity - Part II

It would appear that Paul accounts for human corruption and our propensity for evil by appealing to the fall of Adam. But is it in fact true that all are born “in sin” in the sense that all inherit from birth an evil disposition and a proclivity for rebellion and unbelief?

What evidence is there that all humanity is born morally corrupt and spiritually dead, deserving of divine judgment?

One approach taken by Jonathan Edwards is to demonstrate the propensity of the human heart to evil by appealing to the observable phenomena of human behavior. One cannot generalize based on any single event or random irregularity. One must look for an undeniable constancy of effects. An effect argues a cause, and a steady effect argues a steady cause. Said Edwards:

“If for a thousand years men cultivate a piece of ground that produces only a thicket of briars and thorns, they must conclude that the product is agreeable to the nature of the soil. . . . [That is to say], empirical or statistical tabulation confirms the lesson of logical or psychological analysis: the persistence of evil is an effect, of which the prevailing disposition of the human will is the adequate cause” (cited in Miller, Jonathan Edwards, 271-72).

Edwards points to the great variety of people as well as the circumstances in which humans find themselves, the vast array of cultural diversity, together with the fact that such effects are spread consistently throughout the expanse of human history. Notwithstanding this wide array of difference in setting and time, we observe the constant prevalence of evil. There must, says Edwards, be a cause adequate to account for such a prevalent effect. Whatever “good” may be observed is, Edwards argued, the product not of the natural disposition of the human heart but of the activity of God’s common grace.

Why is it, asked Edwards, that all people without fail commit bad deeds? All persons without exception, notwithstanding a variety in circumstances, time, place, do in fact sin sufficiently to warrant eternal condemnation. If such universal sin were not evidence of a propensity common to human nature, surely someone (or many) would never sin at all. And not only do all sin, they do so immediately, that is, as soon as they are capable of it, i.e., as soon as their rational faculties are sufficiently developed to be capable of moral deliberation. [On the universality of sin, Edwards appealed to 1 Kings 8:46; Eccl. 7:20; Job 9:2-3; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:19-20; Gal. 2:16; 1 John 1:7-10.]

Edwards proceeds to argue that the operative and ultimate criterion is not the quantity but the quality of one’s deeds. And the fact that only one sin, notwithstanding the possible existence of countless good deeds, is sufficient to warrant eternal death demonstrates that the orientation of man’s heart is toward evil. That is to say, notwithstanding numerous alleged good deeds, if all persons invariably incur divine wrath, their nature must be morally pernicious and corrupt.

Edwards also points to the response to divine revelation in history. How might it be explained, if not because of innate corruption, that the world has, in general, proven resistant to the divine favor and the light of truth so profusely dispensed throughout every age and among every nation?

He also points to the pervasive extent of infant death. If so many infants experience the affliction and agony of death prior to the responsible exercise of their moral faculties, it is evidence that they are not without guilt but are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).

Can we not explain the existence of evil in all people by appealing to bad example? Could it not be that all sin because they observe others who sin? But would this not be a circular argument in that one is accounting for human corruption by an appeal to human corruption? The bad examples by reason of which human corruption allegedly exists are themselves evidence of human corruption. And if human nature is no more inclined to evil than good, why are there more bad examples than good ones? In other words, you must explain why there is such a prevalence of bad examples.

Edwards points to specific texts that he believes affirm the doctrine of inherited corruption of nature:

(1)       Psalm 14:2-3 (“The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one”). Said Edwards:

“Why should man be so continually spoken of as evil, carnal, perverse, deceitful, and desperately wicked, if all men are by nature as perfectly innocent, and free from any propensity to evil, as Adam was the first moment of his creation, all made right, as [some] would have us understand (Eccles. 7:29)? Why, on the contrary, is it not said, at least as often, and with equal reason; that the heart of man is right and pure; that the way of man is innocent and holy; and that he who savors true virtue and wisdom, savors the things that be of man? Yea, and why might it not as well have been said, the Lord looked down from heaven on the sons of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and did seek after God, and they were all right, altogether pure, there was none inclined to do wickedness, no not one!” (Original Sin, 264).

(2)            Proverbs 22:15 (“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of discipline will remove it far from him”). How does such foolishness or sinfulness come “to be so firmly bound, and strongly fixed, in the hearts of children, if it be not there naturally? They have had no time firmly to fix habits of sin, by long custom in actual wickedness, as those that have lived many years in the world” (266).

(3)            Genesis 8:21 (“for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth”). The word “youth”, notes Edwards, “comprehends not only what we in English most commonly call the time of youth, but also childhood and infancy, and is very often used to signify these latter” (cf. 1 Sam. 12:2; Pss. 71:5-6,17-18; 129:1-2; Isa. 47:12; 2 Sam. 19:7; Jer. 3:24-25; 32:30; 48:11; Job 31:18; Gen. 46:34; Ezek. 4:14; Zech. 13:5). A related text is Genesis 6:5 (“The the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”). John Murray comments:

“There is the intensity – ‘The wickedness of man was great in the earth’; there is the inwardness – ‘the imagination of the thoughts of his heart’, an expression unsurpassed in the usage of Scripture to indicate that the most rudimentary movement of thought was evil; there is the totality – ‘every imagination’; there is the constancy – ‘continually’; there is the exclusiveness – ‘only evil’; there is the early manifestation – ‘from his youth’” (“Sin”, in New Bible Dictionary, 1962).

(4)       Psalm 58:3. Here it is said that “the wicked are estranged from the womb: They go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”

(5)       Job 15:14-16 (“What is man, that he should be pure, or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, He puts no trust in His holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in His sight; how much less one who is detestable and corrupt, man, who drinks iniquity like water”). What is of importance here, beyond the graphic description of human sin, is that it tells us how one comes by it: “by being of the race of mankind, by ordinary generation” (Edwards, 269).

(6)       Psalm 51:5 (“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me”). The psalmist confesses his hereditary sin (v. 5) as the root cause of his actual sin (v. 4), but makes no effort to exculpate himself on that basis. Thus, in explaining his sinfulness by reference to the natural propagation of the species, the psalmist moves beyond his birth (v. 5a) to the very genesis of his being in the womb of his mother, indeed, to the very moment of conception (v. 5b). However, “David is not trying to accuse his mother in order to excuse himself!” (Henri Blocher, Original Sin [Eerdmans, 1997], 28). The focus of the entire psalm is the personal accountability of David. No one is to blame but him alone. His point is simply that “his very being is shot through and through with the tendencies that produced the fruits of adultery and murder. As far back as he can go, he sees his life as sinful” (Blocher, 28).

It is not the psalmist’s intent to impugn the sex act itself, but rather confesses the native corruption of that which is its product. Edward R. Dalglish (Psalm Fifty-One in the light of ancient near Eastern patternism [Brill, 1962] says that the words “in sin” “ought not to be conceived as qualifying the coitus which resulted in the conception of the psalmist’s being. It should properly be taken either to describe the status of the generating mother or else be referred generally to the embryological development resulting in transplanting the predicate of sinfulness to the child. It would be utterly opposed to the thought of the Old Testament [cf. Gen. 1:28; 9:1,7; Ps. 127:3,5; Gen. 29:31; 30:22,33; Ruth 4:13; Ps. 139:13; Job 10:8ff.] to imagine that conception or parturition was sinful” (121-22).

(7)            Ephesians 2:3 (“we were by nature children of wrath”). What does he mean by the word “nature”? The word phusis refers to what is essential as opposed to what is incidental or accidental; what is innate as opposed to what is acquired, made, or taught. There are two ways it has been interpreted.

First, “by nature” = in ourselves, as apart from divine grace; i.e., in our natural condition as lost.

Second, “by nature” = by birth (see esp. Gal. 2:15). If the latter, Paul is describing our liability to wrath prior to acts of personal sin. Snodgrass defines it as “what one is by constitution rather than from experience or circumstance” (99). Observe Eadie’s explanation:

“And so ‘we are children of wrath,’ not accidentally, not by a fortuitous combination of circumstances, not even by individual sin and actual transgression, but ‘by nature’ – by an exposure which preceded personal disobedience, and was not first created by it; an exposure which is inherent, hereditary, and common to all the race by the very condition of its present existence, for they are ‘so born’ children of wrath. For phusis does not refer to developed character, but to its hidden and instinctive sources. We are therefore . . . organically children of wrath; not each simply by personal guilt, but the entire race as a whole; not on account of nature, but by nature” (135-36).

Note also the contrast between what we “were”, and that “by nature”, namely, objects of wrath, and what we “are”, and that “by grace”, namely, the children of God. At first glance one might think that the “children of wrath” (2:3b) is similar in force to “sons of disobedience” (2:2b), but the “of” in these two phrases functions differently. Sons of disobedience are “disobedient sons” but children of wrath are not “angry children”, they are the objects of God’s anger.

Before leaving this passage, let us briefly note the earlier statement in 2:1 that all were at one time “dead in trespasses and sin.” Ernest Best makes this important observation:

“The idea is not that people are born alive and slowly die through sinning and are then made alive again at conversion. Still less is there any suggestion that people begin by being spiritually alive and then die because of sin. . . . [Paul] does not have in mind a process of slow dying or moral degeneration. . . . He is not indicating that there is a certain point in the development of human life at which ‘death’ takes place . . . People are born dead and remain so until they come to believe . . . . Those who are dead in this way cannot come to life of their own accord; only God can make them live; so the passage goes on to speak of the way God gives life (vv. 5,6)” (201).

I should briefly mention the view of Stanley Grenz. He argues that we should translate the phrase “wrathful children” and understand it as referring not to humans as the objects of divine displeasure but to humans as those given to or characterized by anger and wrath in their relation to God and others.

(8)       John 3:6 (“That which is born of the flesh is flesh”). Flesh begets only flesh. Like produces like. This is the law of heredity. We are sinful flesh because we are born of parents who are sinful flesh. And they are sinful flesh because . . .