Original Sin is not Original nor Sin nor the Original Sin

Original sin is not original, nor sin, nor the original sin. The term is a misnomer and should be changed.

1. First of all, original sin is not original. It is not only past, but also present; not an act, but a state; not belonging to one, but to many; not a start, but a continuation. In other words, original sin is not Adam’s first, original sin of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at the dawn of history.

Rather, as Reformed theology has come to use this term, original sin designates the two-fold state of every person: his guilt and his pollution.

One part of original sin is guilt—the guilt of Adam’s first sin. Cod tested the first man in the Garden. He sinned and became guilty of temporal and eternal death (hell). His testing was not only for himself but also for the whole human race—for “all men” (Rom. 5:12, 18). In his testing he represented and acted for all mankind (Rom. 5:12–21). So, when Adam became guilty, all men became guilty; or, to use Paul’s terminology, “through one man judgment came unto all men to condemnation” (Rom. 5, 18).

A second part of original sin is pollution. Because of Adam’s original, first sin, man, including Adam, is totally depraved. His heart is “deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). He does not know the good, nor desire it, nor is he able to do it. He is dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1). Not only is he “wholly incapable of doing any good” but he is also “inclined to all evil,” as the Heidelberg Catechism so scripturally confesses (Question and Answer 8).

Thus, to reiterate, original sin is not original. It is the guilt and pollution resulting from Adam’s sin that belongs to every man, and not only to Adam.

2. Neither, secondly, is original sin sin. “Sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4). It is a breaking of God’s law whether by thought, word or deed. But original sin is guilt and pollution, not a misdemeanor. It is guilt. Guilt presupposes sin, but is not that sin itself. Original sin is also pollution. Pollution precedes sin causes sin—but is not that sin itself. As pollution or corruption, original sin is prior (not necessarily temporally) to sin. It is the condition of the evil heart out of which proceed “evil thoughts…fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21–22). Thus original sin both precedes and follows sin, but it is hardly sin itself.

3. Thirdly, original sin is not the original sin. The original sin is the sin of Adam in the Garden thousands of years ago when, tested by God, he disobeyed and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Original sin, however, in distinction from the original, first sin, follows that sin. It is guilt and a state of corruption, but not the deed that caused them.

Thus it is erroneous to suppose that original sin is original or sin or the original sin. It would be better if the term were abolished, but it is impossible to rewrite theological history. So we must learn to live with the term, but at least we should understand what it means.



Rev. Edwin H. Palmer is pastor of the Grandville Ave. Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Mich.