I remember many years ago being asked the question, “Do we sin because we are sinners, or are we sinners because we sin?” The concept of original sin, which is found in Article 15 of the Belgic Confession, helps us to understand how to think about and answer this question. Drawing upon Romans 5:12-13, this article states that “We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has been spread through the whole human race.” As this sentence indicates, the idea of original sin is different from but related to the idea of the original sin; that is, the original sin (the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden) has led to the idea of original sin, which is something that is spread to all humans. As a sidenote, this idea of the first sin of all humans being the cause for human beings having a sinful nature (one that is bent towards sin) is very important when it comes to discussions about the origins of humanity. Since Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that sin came to all people because of Adam, there is a sense in which we all must be descendants of Adam; the historicity of Adam is thus important.
At this point, however, we have yet to define what original sin is — only its relation to the original sin. Here is how the Confession then defines original sin: “It is a corruption of the whole human nature—an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother’s womb, and the root which produces in humanity every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God’s sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring.” Original sin refers to the fact that we have been corrupted in every area of our lives and that this corruption is something that is true of us when we are conceived in our mother’s womb (see Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”) – before we have done anything! Small infants can be cute, but they are not immune from original sin. Both because of the sin of Adam, who represented us all, and our own sin that comes because of our corrupt nature, we all stand condemned before God. The idea of condemnation is dealt with later in this article, but before we move to that, it is good to also note that the Confession here highlights that baptism does not erase original sin. That is, our guilt and propensity to sin remains even after baptism. Christians will struggle with the effects of original sin even after we placed our faith in Christ.
We struggle, but we do not stand condemned, as the Confession also notes: “Nevertheless, it is not imputed to God’s children for their condemnation but is forgiven by his grace and mercy—not to put them to sleep but so that the awareness of this corruption might often make believers groan as they long to be set free from the ‘body of this death’ [quoting Romans 7:24].” We are forgiven through faith in Christ, but we are not yet released from the effects of sin so that we will call out to God in help. We are not able not to sin before we have faith, but with faith we are now free to sin or not to sin; we still need the Spirit to help us not sin and thus must be dependent upon God. While the struggle might be frustrating at times, it should draw us back to God’s grace.
The Confession ends by noting: “Therefore we reject the error of the Pelagians who say that this sin is nothing else than a matter of imitation.” Once again, the Confession names a group that is no longer around today (it was not around at the time of the Reformation either, as Pelagius was a teacher in the early church) but whose ideas remain. They taught that there was no guilt from Adam’s sin on us, but that we are only guilty because we imitate Adam’s sin; we are sinners because we sin is what they would say. Like the Pelagians, some people continue to say that people are by nature good or at least neutral, and thus we are only condemned because we choose to imitate Adam (and that we can save ourselves by not imitating him). The Confession, however, points out that the issue is not that we are sinners because we sin but that we sin because we are sinners; we imitate Adam and are condemned, but we are ultimately condemned because of Adam’s sin.
Now, I realize that you might say, “Why should Adam influence me?” Well, Adam was representing the whole human race as the first human, and thus his actions have implications for us (leading us to sin and condemnation). If you say that it isn’t fair, you also need to remember that the idea the actions of another man, Jesus Christ, influencing us would not be fair. While we are stuck in Adam’s sin, we can be free from it through Christ’s work; it is not that we can will ourselves to obedience (like Pelagians taught) but that we are made right through the work of Christ, the second Adam who can undo what Adam did. Do you want to be in Adam or in Christ?
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