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Article 9 — Of Original or Birth-sin

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Posted by John Percival, 9 Mar 2017

John Percival helps us think through the meaning of original sin, in today’s instalment from the 39 Articles.

Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth [concupiscat] always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Having laid down the foundations of who God is and how we come to think rightly about him (through Scripture as interpreted by the creeds), we now arrive at the beginning of God’s work of salvation for humanity. Before turning to the good news, we must hear the bad news, the black backdrop against which the jewel of the gospel can shine most brightly.

Article 9, “Of Original or Birth Sin,” shows us just how bad we really are. Amongst the various technical terms is an utterly shocking analysis of human nature. Contemporary debates within the Church of England, as well as society more widely, desperately need to hear this biblical anthropology.

First, let us see the Source of Original Sin. It’s not just about our environment (copying the bad examples around us, tracing their way back to Adam) affecting a neutral human nature. The fifth century bishop, Augustine, standing in a long line of African leaders who have had to speak out against British false-teaching, corrected Pelagius on just this point. Drawing on texts such as Psalm 51:5 (“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me”), he argued that our very nature is corrupted. Every single person born in Adam’s race is “inclined to evil.”

Yes, we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27), but our nature is now positively faulty at the deepest level as a result of the fall. This means that just because we desire something, or find pleasure in something, does not make it good. We are not as we should be. Our ‘natural’ desires must be evaluated in light of God’s word.

Secondly, let us consider the Consequences of Original Sin. Our nature is sinful and it therefore deserves “God’s wrath and damnation.” The problem with humanity is not just that we make life miserable for each other, but that we face the justice and holiness of our perfect creator God. When he assesses our nature — whether we are male or female, in utero or in a care home, straight or gay, Northern or Southern, or whatever other divisions we might imagine — he judges that it is “very far gone from original righteousness” and so we all deserve to face the consequences.

The Bible tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), that ultimate and fearful experience of God’s wrath. This is why all of humanity so desperately needs to receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. It is easy to lose this eternal perspective and become engrossed in the here-and-now, so may the dire consequences of Original Sin fire our passion for sharing the gospel whenever we can.

Thirdly, let us acknowledge the Persistence of Original Sin. When anyone is born again by the Holy Spirit, coming to Christ in repentance and faith, receiving the sacrament of baptism, there is then “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1). Nevertheless, the sinful human nature remains, persistently waging war against the work of God’s indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5–13). Our sinful desires (“concupiscence”, often used to translate the Greek epithumia) still bubble away inside.

Were it not for the justifying work of Christ and the continual sanctifying work of the Spirit, we would be no different to anyone else. Indeed, this is why we pray daily: “Almighty and most merciful Father… there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders…” As Anglicans we are realistic about who we are, even as believers—people who are continually dependent on God’s mercy, even after conversion, and people who are engaged in a lifelong battle between our sinful human nature and God’s indwelling Spirit (Galatians 5:16–25 and Romans 6–7). Just as the tenth commandment shows us that even our desires must be subjected to God’s will, so now as believers we must fight against all fleshly desires, which are hostile to God and his good will for his creation.

Historically, the ninth article was written to combat errors propagated by the Roman Catholic church, particularly the Council of Trent, which tended to downplay just how bad we are as a result of the fall. So too today there will be those whose theology lacks serious engagement with the reality of our fallen nature. This might be articulate theologians arguing for the blessing of human desire in various unbiblical forms. Or it might be a ‘normal’ Christian, who doesn’t see a problem with doing what feels good to them as long as no one really gets hurt. Both need to return to God’s analysis of human nature and realise the profound corruption that lies at the heart of human experience and desire.

Article 9 is vital to healthy, biblical Christianity, for “superficiality in our consciousness of the nature and power of sin will tend not merely to a superficial statement of the Atonement of Christ, but to the destruction of the idea of atonement itself.” (Griffith Thomas) Before long we will reach those articles that speak of the wonderful saving work of Christ, but for now let us return in contrition to our merciful God and Father, “from whom all holy desires … do proceed.”

W. H. Griffith Thomas’s commentary on the 39 Articles, quoted above, is available to purchase in our online shop.

John Percival is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and the Production Editor of Churchman.

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