Thursday, January 27, 2011

Original Sin

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Original Sin:

Q: I have heard even newborn babies are guilty of sin. How can this be true when they have not had the opportunity to do anything good or bad in their life?

This teaching is probably one of the most difficult for the average person to accept in all of Christian doctrine, because it seems so contrary to what we can observe. As far as our senses can tell us, children seem innocent. Based solely on our own observations, we would be likely to conclude that a baby could not sin, because they seem capable of doing very little at all.

But, in spite of what our observations would seem to indicate, the four oldest and largest theological traditions in Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and Calvinist) all teach that all humans are guilty of sin, even as newborn infants. They do so, because it is so clearly stated in Scripture.

In Psalm 51:5, King David writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, "I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me." This verse is the primary Scriptural evidence for this teaching.

Paul also writes a more lengthy description of this in Romans 5, when he says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many… For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19 ESV)

The doctrine expressed in the verses above is called Original Sin. Typically, when we think of sin, we think of something that a person has done, such as theft, murder, assault, gossip, or adultery. That type of sin is called Actual Sin. Original Sin, on the other hand, is passed on to a person like a hereditary disease even before they have attained the capability to commit Actual Sin. Even though the theological traditions that hold the doctrine of Original Sin give different explanations regarding how Original Sin occurs, they are agreed that it occurs.

In Lutheran theology, Original Sin consists of two parts. The first is that a person is guilty of sin because they are Adam's descendant. Paul expresses this in the verses above from Romans. Because Adam sinned against God, all of his descendants are therefore guilty of sin. The second part is that a person is born with the inclination to sin. While it cannot be observed in infants, this characteristic of Original Sin becomes quite obvious as soon as children become able to speak and act. No parent has ever had to teach their toddler how to disobey or misbehave. It comes naturally. This is the first evidence of Original Sin's effects on a person.

Even though we are able to explain what original sin is, we cannot thoroughly explain why or how original sin comes to a person, because Scripture does not give us these details. Christians in general and Lutherans in particular hold that Scripture is the only source for spiritual truth, so we boldly affirm what it does say, while avoiding the temptation to supplement with our own thoughts and reasons where it has not answered.

Although it may be difficult to accept based on our sensory observations, and it is certainly contrary to many people’s instinctive conclusions about infants, I do believe that the doctrine of Original Sin is an accurate reflection the Bible’s teachings about human sinfulness.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Suicide:

Q: How does God judge people who die by suicide? Is it still possible for such a person to be saved and receive eternal life?

For many readers, this subject probably brings back memories of a past era when those who committed suicide were sometimes forbidden from having their funerals in the church and when their graves were often located outside the gates of church cemeteries rather than among the other deceased members of the congregation. These, however, are unfortunate forms of malpractice in the church’s past, which have since (I hope) been remedied.

Suicide is certainly a serious matter, and not one that the Bible encourages or permits. Today, in light of the knowledge that depression is a legitimate medical illness with physical causes, Christian ethics recognizes that suicide is typically an act that is committed out of despair in the midst of mental illness or seemingly hopeless circumstances rather than an act of unrepentant defiance against God.

Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther, who many historians believe may have suffered from clinical depression himself, already recognized this fact. He once commented in a letter that suicide can be like “a man who is overtaken by a robber in the woods,” when a person suffering from depression reaches a point of despair at which they take their own life. In the case where a suicide is committed out of despair rather than defiance, Luther saw the person as a victim in need of mercy rather than an unrepentant sinner deserving condemnation.

When the Christian considers the eternal consequences of suicide, he must keep in mind the central teaching of the Christian faith: that a person is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone, and not by his own effort or worthiness. When faced with the death of someone close to us, regardless of the circumstances, the Christian ought not build or demolish his hope for the deceased person’s salvation upon how he died, but upon whether he lived and died trusting in Jesus.

Even though one who takes his own life does not have the chance to consciously confess and request forgiveness for his actions, this does not exclude him from salvation, because God’s forgiveness is not conditioned even on our asking. Instead, the forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus is a constant state in which the Christian is kept by the Holy Spirit.

For one who trusts in anything other than Jesus, no good deed short of moral perfection can save them from the justly deserved punishment for their sin, but for the one who does trust in Jesus, no act, even that of suicide, can separate him from the forgiving love of God in Christ crucified. While we cannot judge another person’s heart, the evidence to which the Christian looks is not the actions of the one who has died, but rather whether his sins have been forgiven by Jesus.