This week we will be discussing Romans 5. This chapter begins with one of Paul’s greatest arguments concerning our hope in Christ. The argument starts with the proclamation of an immediate justification by faith in 5:1 and ends with eternal assurances that “those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:30. This glorification comes about through Christ’s victory over sin. Within these three chapters, Paul mentions “sin” 36 times. (In the rest of Romans he mentions “sin” only nine times.) Within the context of Romans, Paul spends the first few chapters of the letter setting forth that all (Jew, Gentile, etc.) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Rom 3:23. In chapter 4, Paul gives us the story of Abraham that demonstrates both that God has promised us salvation and that we partake of that salvation by believing God. God is faithful, and we have faith in God’s faithfulness. In Romans 5-8, Paul brings together these two themes of sin and faithfulness.
In his introduction to this portion of his letter, Paul reminds us of the three great theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. See, 1 Cor. 13:13, 1 Thess. 1:3. He then proceeds to the great upside-downness of the Gospel which is that Messiah came not for the righteous, but the ungodly. See, Mark 2:17. In the second half of this week’s reading, Paul begins his discussion of our promised deliverance from sin by comparing the old Adam of Genesis 3 with the New Adam of Jesus Christ. It is within this discussion of the origins of sin, that the doctrine of Original Sin arises based upon Romans 5:12.
Like most Christian doctrines, Original Sin is born out of a specific controversy. In 410, Alaric the Goth sacked Rome. Two of the refugees were St. Augustine and a British monk named Pelagius who both escaped to Carthage. Pelagius taught that human beings were born in a state of innocence, and that everyone had the innate ability and free will to live the life Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the gospels. Particularly, Pelagius believed that we could be (morally) perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect. Matt. 5:48. According to Pelagius, Jesus would not have commanded us thus, unless we had the ability to carry out the command. Pelagius taught that the Christian life was strict adherence to Biblical morality and that we obtain salvation through moral perfectionism.
In response to Pelagius, Augustine articulated what is now known as the Doctrine of Original Sin. This Doctrine teaches that Adam’s sin so fully and wholly corrupted human nature that all of humanity tends towards evil and is rightly deserving of God’s damnation. Therefore, it is impossible for any human being by his own effort to obtain godly perfection or even goodness. We can do absolutely nothing good unless God gives us his grace. This Doctrine was codified at the Council of Orange (southern France) in 529. Please read the Canons of the Council for a good short articulation of this Doctrine. From Orange to the present, the Doctrine has remained a fundamental belief of Western Christianity. During the Reformation, Original Sin and the Trinity may be the only doctrines that all sides agreed upon. I have attached Reformation-era statements on Original Sin from Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist and Roman Catholic confessions. See, Article II: Of Original Sin, Augsburg Confession (1530) (Lutheran); Decress Concerning Original Sin, Council of Trent (Fifth Session, 1546) (Roman Catholic); Article IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571) (Church of England); Chapter VI – Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment thereof, Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) (Reformed/Calvinist Puritans). These statements are more detailed on what is meant by “Original Sin.”
Through “Original Sin” Augustine not only answered Pelagius’ but only found an answer for his own personal experience and for the tradition of infant baptism. As related in his Confessions, Book II, chapters 6 and 9, when Augustine was sixteen he and his friends raided a pear orchard. He says that the pears were beautiful and sweet for they came from God, but he stole them and destroyed them out of pure meanness – “But as my enjoyment was not in those pears, it was in the crime itself, which the company of my fellow-sinners produced.” Original Sin answers the question of why he would take pleasure in destroying God’s creation. Does your own experience likewise support an understanding of Original Sin?
Original Sin also answers the question of infant baptism. At the time of Augustine, infant baptism was widespread but not universally practiced. If we are baptized for the forgiveness of sins, then why would infants need to be baptized? Original Sin answers the question. By the century after Augustine, infant baptism was universally practiced.
The Doctrine of Original Sin also provides the foundation for Augustine’s (and the Western Church’s) understanding of predestination that we will discuss in Romans 8:29. If we are totally depraved of God’s goodness and can only obtain salvation through God’s grace, then do we have a free will or is our eternal salvation predestined by God since only God can provide it to us? We will not be discussing predestination this Tuesday, but as you think through the idea of Original Sin, think about whether the Doctrine of Original Sin allows for free will or necessarily leads to predestination as Augustine and the Thirty-Nine Articles (Article XVII) would hold.
The Doctrine of Original Sin which begins with Romans 5:12 is unique to the Western Church. The Eastern Church never went through the Pelagian controversy (and never struggled with Augustine’s pears or infant baptism). For the East, Adam’s sin simply means that we are now capable of sinning (breaking communion with God) as well. Our nature remains good but now it has a defect that gives us the propensity to sin. The East also looks at Adam as an archetype of all humanity (Adam represents all of us), not necessarily as a historical figure from which we are biologically descended. Therefore the Fall is simply replayed whenever we separate ourselves from God. A good comparison of the Western and Eastern views of Original Sin is HERE and HERE.
Finally, I have attached the excerpt from Witherington’s Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Romans 5:12-21 (pp.141-52). Witherington reminds us to keep Christ as the central focus of this section. In this section “the dark backdrop of Adam’s sin serves to highlight the brightness and clarity of God’s grace gift.” Paul is intending to remind his audience that “those who are in Christ and feeling the effects of the reign of his grace in their lies are no longer in Adam and do not labor under the right of sin.” p.142 Therefore, as you read this section and think through “original sin” remember that focusing on Adam and sin in this section is similar to focusing on the shadows and background of painting to the detriment of seeing the brightness and centrality of the subject matter. Paul’s overall purpose is to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ and not to answer the question of why we sin.
If you have time this weekend, read through the attached confessional statements or the canons of the Council of Orange and see if they are in line with Romans 5 and the entirety of the New Testament. And remember, that Paul’s purpose is not to articulate a theory of sin or damnation, but to display the beauty of Christ. Jesus is the focus of the letter, not us.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is hamburgers. Discussion about 6:45. Hope to see you here.
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the FruitJohn Milton, “Paradise Lost,” Book I
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse.