If you were born in our motherland, Kenya, you are most likely familiar with the Swahili song by Mary Ominde and Pst. Alex titled “Dhambi Asili” (Original Sin). The theological narrative captured in this song is profound, considering how long it has been since its production. What were you taught about sin and sinning in your formative years in the faith? Some of us only look at sin from the outer perspective – as bad manners or behavioural failures. Is that all? As revealed in scripture, there is much more about sin, and we shall seek to lay the foundation for our souls. Moreover, sin is a biblical doctrine, meaning that the matter is sufficiently handled and expressed in both Testaments.
What is Sin?
In a very poetic fashion, pastor John Piper summarizes sin in this way: “Sin is any feeling, thought, speech, or action that comes from a heart that does not treasure God over all other things. And the bottom of sin, the root of all sinning, is such a heart — a heart that prefers anything above God, a heart that does not treasure God over all other persons and all other things.” In his book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem explains sin in this way: “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. Sin is here defined in relation to God and his moral law. Sin includes not only individual acts such as stealing or lying or committing murder but also attitudes that are contrary to the attitudes God requires of us.”
In other words, when we live independently of God, oblivious to his authority and expectations of us, we sin. Genesis 3 gives us the account of the fall of man. Eve only ate the fruit from the tree and was punished for it. If that is all that happened, then God must be very petty in his dealings; however, he is not. In Genesis 2:16-17, God grants permission to Adam and Eve to eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree in the middle of the garden. So we see that the Holy God tagged the fruit Eve ate with a command. It was the oversight of the command that made it a sin. They did what they did independently of God and in rebellion against him. Sin is rebellion or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Sin is taking as simple what God has commanded us, trampling his providences underfoot, delighting in what is contrary to God’s glorious expectations, and taking for granted God’s grace. And right here in the garden of Eden – where our first parents lived – the first ever sin was committed.
With this in mind, the term original sin (never before seen or heard) was coined, and it needs to be understood through the lenses of scripture and how it affected the rest of humanity until now. (Our article shall use the term inherited sin rather than original sin). There are many schools of thought on this matter, including the following: Genesis 3, where the fall of man is captured; the Psalmist in Psalm 51:5; the inspired writings of Apostle Paul; and the 3rd-century writings when the conversation was formed in the writings of Augustine of Hippo who used the words’ original sin’ for the first time. Many have sought to establish how man is sinful and to what extent Adam’s sin in the garden messed things up. Since there is much more for our mental consumption in books and libraries, we shall seek to lay a basic understanding of the matter using scriptural references as we hope to build our faith.
Of initial importance is the explanation of the word ‘original’. The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines original as the earliest form of something from which copies may be made. In Genesis 1-3, we have the original couple (there had never been another human couple before) in Eden. God created them and put them there, giving them terms of engagement that were to guide them in their life together in the presence of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:15-25). In the original family created by God, we can see God’s original design not only for marriage and family life (Genesis 2:22-25) but also for fellowship and growing in God-likeness- obedience (Genesis 2:15-17). But Adam and Eve, due to unbelief and deception, walked against the command of God by listening to what the Devil said (Genesis 3:1-6), automatically walking in disobedience and rebellion. There had never been any time before that instance that man – created in God’s image – went against the command of God. This act became the original (inherited) sin; that is, the depth of corruption and compromise that happened that day would affect everyone else who would be born from the union between Adam and Eve after their ex-communication from the Garden of God (Genesis 3:23-24). How did it affect us?
- Inherited guilt. We are counted guilty because of Adam’s sin. Paul says that sin came into the world through one man. It spread to all men when that one man – the first man – sinned (Romans 5:12). This idea that “all men sinned” means that God thought of us all having sinned when Adam disobeyed (Rom. 5:13–14, 18-19). Many people think it unfair that Adam’s sin is counted on others who weren’t there when it all happened, therefore deeming God unfair in his dealings. But we all have voluntarily committed many actual sins for which God holds us guilty (Romans 2:6). Secondly, if we think it unfair to be represented by Adam, then we should also think it unfair for us to be represented by Christ (Romans 5:12-21).
- Inherited corruption. We have a sinful nature because of Adam. David says he was born in iniquity and sin; his mother conceived him in sin (Psalm 51:5). Anyone who has raised children can give experiential testimony to the fact that we are all born with a tendency to sin. Nobody teaches them how to sin; they do it naturally. This state of existence also means that we are incapable of spiritual good before God by ourselves. It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Instead, every part of our being is affected by sin: our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the centre of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives, and even our physical bodies. Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, we are like all other unbelievers, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:18.
- Inherited Judgment. We have a death penalty because of Adam. Paul can affirm that before we were Christians, “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3), deserving of death (Ezekiel 18:4, 20, Romans 6:23, Romans 2:6-9), and this all points back to Adam’s rebellion in the garden. But Christ, the sure and better Adam, took this penalty and punishment upon himself by dying on the cross. He took our place (2 Cor. 5:21) so that the righteous requirement for the sinner would be fulfilled in him and removed from us (Romans 8:1-4). Therefore (in the cross), there is a clear demonstration of why God punishes sin: if he did not punish sin, he would not be a righteous God, and there would be no ultimate justice in the universe. But when sin is punished, God shows himself to be a righteous judge, and justice is being done in his universe.
We need to see sin for what it is – a rebellion against the Holy God – and turn to him in faith and repentance. We have everything in ourselves to become the most rebellious of men, just as we have everything in Christ to become the most obedient among men.