It’s time to say goodbye to Original Sin

Scripture: Genesis Chapters 2-3; Matthew 6: 5-15

Each year,  we begin the season of Lent with prayers that call us to, “observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving …”  We also read Psalm 51.  Together they make Lent begin  with a very gloomy feel. A few weeks ago,  Todd Townshend was the speaker at our Clergy Day.  Even in Lent, he said, clergy should proclaim the good news of the Gospel.  So this week I want to set aside  gloom, and proclaim Good News by rejecting Original Sin.

This Sunday, Lent 1, we usually read about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. However, we already studied that passage right after Jesus’ baptism.  His time alone prepared Jesus for his public ministry.  Instead, I used Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reading. I combined it with the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [Genesis Chapter 3]. That reading does not appear at all in the regular cycle of Scripture readings.  This is surprising, given the enormous influence of Original Sin on Christian thought and doctrine (Church teaching).

The Fall of Adam and Eve

God told the mythical first people that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  They ate the forbidden fruit, so God banished them from the garden for ever. The doctrine of Original Sin is that Adam’s disobedience to God made all his descendants sinful. This doctrine has made countless generations of people consider themselves unworthy and incorrigibly sinful.  That is the opposite of ‘very good’ that God declared in the other (first) Creation story [Genesis 1:31].

Original Sin and Paul’s theology of justification

Original Sin comes from St. Paul, not the Gospels. Paul took literally the story that Adam is everyone’s ancestor.  He struggled to understand the meaning and purpose of Christ’s death. One man (Adam), Paul wrote, brought sin into the world.  Another man’s (Christ’s) obedience to God made possible justification for all [Romans 5: 12 and 18-19]. Paul was previously a Pharisee.  That’s why he used the legalistic term justification. That word means that God can mercifully set aside the punishment that our sins deserve — but only if we have faith in Jesus Christ [Romans 3: 21-25].

Augustine, concupiscence, and original guilt

In the 5th century CE, St. Augustine extended Paul’s theology.  He used the word concupiscence, which means that humanity has an ardent desire to sin.  Augustine linked our desire to sin with sexual desire. A faulty understanding of human reproduction led him to conclude that all Adam’s descendants are born ‘infected’ by sin. Original Sin is thus essentially a sexually transmitted disease.

Augustine also introduced the concept of inherited guilt.  We are all eternally damned from birth unless and until we become justified through faith in Jesus Christ.

Original Sin is not part of Jesus’ teaching, nor of his own religion, Judaism. In Judaism, reconciliation with God is always possible through repentance, which literally means ‘turning your life around’. Judaism sees infants as born innocent because they cannot understand right and wrong. That was irrelevant to Augustine.

Protestant interpretation of Original Sin

Original Sin ,as understood by Augustine, is a doctrine that we find only in Western Christianity.  Protestant churches embrace its most extreme form. For example, Martin Luther agreed with Augustine, as we see in these words from the Augsburg Confession, Article II: “… this inborn sickness and hereditary sin … condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”

Hard-line Protestant thinkers went further. John Calvin termed our inherently sinful nature as ‘total depravity’.  This separates us from God so completely that we cannot possibly reconcile with God through our own efforts. I need to note that Original Sin remains an official doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada (Book of Common Prayer, 1962, p. 702; Article of Religion IX).

Pelagius’ rebuttal of Original Sin

Augustine’s perspective has reigned supreme in western Christianity for 1500 years.  But in his own day it was the subject of vigorous debate. His best-known opponent was the Welsh monk Pelagius.  His writings on sin and forgiveness blend Jewish theology with Paul’s. ‘By granting us the wonderful gift of freedom, God gave us the capacity to do evil as well as good. Indeed, we would not be free unless God had given us this ability’ [Letters of Pelagius, trans. Robert van der Weyer, Little Giddings Books, 1995, p. 6].  Pelagius makes clear that in the Genesis story, God gave Adam (and us) the freedom to choose to disobey. We had to learn the difference between right and wrong for ourselves. Banishment from the garden symbolizes that doing wrong can have unfortunate consequences.

Augustine wrote that Pelagius claimed that people do not need God’s grace for forgiveness.  However, Pelagius was clear about this. ‘God forgives all sins. His grace can discharge you from all the wrongs you have committed … Yet in his mercy God will set aside all punishment’ [ibid., p. 39].

Augustine was a prominent bishop.  Pelagius was just a monk.  So the Church sided with Augustine and declared Pelagius heretical. We got lumbered with Original Sin because of Church politics!

Original Sin negates the Good News of the Gospels

The Good News is that the Gospel calls us to love one another.  That is the New Commandment that Jesus gave his disciples [John 15: 12]. We are imperfect creatures, so we will not always achieve that goal. We can be petty or mean-spirited, instead of loving and respectful. Sometimes we discriminate against other people unfairly.

But the Gospel is clear.  The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13) tells us that God  will forgive our own sins.  It also reminds us to pray for the grace to forgive other people who hurt us.  Forgiveness is the point of the message of John the Baptist, concerning repentance.  Turn your life around and God will forgive you [Mark 1: 4].

Both Paul and Pelagius argued that only God can forgive sins. But Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer were wrong. They burdened humanity with the curse that it is impossible to escape being born into the unworthiness and guilt of Original Sin. I believe that it’s time that our Church said goodbye to this pernicious teaching.

The Gospel Jesus preached Good News. Original Sin is not a doctrine of good news. The Church has foisted it on ordinary people for 1600 years. It’s time to let it go.