On Original Sin
Many Christians deny the doctrine of original sin on the basis of Ezekiel 18:19-20:
Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
The question before us is this: are we held responsible for Adam’s sin? If so, why? Does it not clearly say in Ezekiel 18 that the soul that sins shall die, and that the wickedness of the wicked will be on himself?
Let’s back up for a minute and examine just what “original sin” is. “Original sin” was not, contrary to many people’s beliefs, the first sin. “Original sin” refers to the effects of that first sin.
Up to humanity’s defining moment in Genesis 3, everything on this earth had obeyed God. He said, “Let there be light,” and the light came. The light didn’t hesitate. It didn’t say, “Maybe later; I’m sleeping.” God spoke, he commanded, and it happened. So it was with every decree through two and half chapters of Genesis.
Suddenly, what happened at the Tree of Knowledge? There was disobedience to God. Eve ate the fruit and gave it to Adam as well. God had decreed that this should never be done, and yet it was done. By the very first people in the Garden, let alone!
What were the consequences? Adam would have to work hard to till the soil, and Eve would have pain in childbearing. But it was more than that. As the apostle Paul put it, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22). All of creation was punished along with Adam for his sin.
Why? I thought that the soul that sins will die. No one said anything about all of this groaning together crap! That is because we aren’t being punished for the first sin. We are feeling the effects of the first sin. Find me where, in Ezekiel 18, it says that we won’t suffer the effects of someone else’s sin.
In fact, suffering the effects of someone else’s sin is Scriptural. Consider Exodus 20:5-6:
You shall not bow down to them [idols] or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (emphasis added)
In other words, if my father steals a loaf of bread from Meijer, I won’t be punished by God. But, if my father is a raging alcoholic, I will have the effects of that sin visited upon me, my children, and their children. Until one of us breaks the cycle, that is.
Now that that is settled, I have another problem with Ezekiel 18. God says that “The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself. . .” Yet we know from Scripture that the only way to stand justified before God is by the righteousness of Christ. Our own righteousness is nothing.
Which brings me to the ultimate conclusion: this saying in Ezekiel isn’t meant as an absolute case, it is meant as a proverb. Proverbs are never absolutely true, they are merely trustworthy sayings. The context fits that conclusion: Ezekiel 18:2 talks about how a certain proverb will never be repeated in Israel, and God goes on then to replace that proverb with another.
What is really at stake here is that Christians have absolutely no problem with the Last Adam’s righteousness being imputed to them, but they have a beef with the First Adam’s sin being imputed to them. They don’t want to be punished for that sin. Understandable, but that is a little like complaining about an extra week being tacked on to your sentence for a crime you didn’t commit, when you’re already serving life for crimes that you did commit. No one stands sinless before God except Christ alone.
My friend Craig, a wise individual, is fond of pointing out that if you deny the imputation of the First Adam’s sin, then you deny the need for the imputation of the Last Adam’s righteousness. And Craig and I agree nicely: deny imputed sin, deny imputed righteousness. That’s all there is to it!
Those of us who have already admitted the need for a Savior know well the depths of our own need. We wouldn’t want to deny that need for imputed righteousness. Each of us is Christian because we recognize that we can’t get to God on our own steam. We need Jesus!
Now the slam dunk: if the effects of the Fall were limited in a way that meant we are only sick in our sin (rather than dead), then we can still find a way to God under our own steam. We don’t actually need a Savior in this scheme. And there is a certain appeal to that. But I think we all know that that is not the case. No one even seeks after God, let alone would be able to make it to heaven under his or her own steam.
The effects of original sin are rather more than we care to contemplate, even on our darkest days. The effect of original sin was spiritual death immediately, and later, mortal death. And it wasn’t just humans the felt the effects of original sin. Animals, minerals, vegetables, all of creation groans together!
Since we are spiritually dead, we do not seek after God. God has to come to us, quicken our hearts to him, and bring us to him in his perfect time. All of this due to one man’s sin. Do you understand the gravity of that first sin now?
But more importantly, do you understand the gravity of denying it? You lose a major theological truth and leave man able to find God on his own. Man is not able to find God on his own; God brings man to himself, adopts him, justifies him, and conforms him to the image of God’s Son. This regeneration is all the work of God, and we have no part of it (lest any of us could boast).
Denying original sin makes man responsible for his own destiny, rather than God. We are denying the potter some right over his clay.