By Archie England, NOBTS
Question: Is a person born a sinner, or does he or she become a sinner once the first act of sin occurs? In the later 4th century of the early church, Pelagius argued the latter – asserting Adam’s sin harmed only himself. So, Adam’s original sin did not taint the remainder of humanity. Like Adam, every person becomes a sinner by a first act of sin. Pelagius’ views (humanity was uninjured by the sin of Adam (no original sin) and thereby had a will totally free to choose good or evil) were condemned as heretical in AD 418 (though not so in AD 416).
Archie England responds: What’s at stake here is how we understand the “Fall” of Adam in Genesis 3. Either Adam’s choice affected only himself or it affected both him and all future humanity. In the Garden of Eden, Satan’s trickery of Eve (Gen 3:1-6a) became Eve’s enticing of Adam (Gen 3:6b): she offered; he ate. Verse 7: With their eyes now opened, they saw (their nakedness) and reacted (crafted coverings). When God arrived for fellowship with creation (3:8), Adam and Eve hid!
The strong imagery compels the reader to “see” that sin disrupted the relationship. God still offered them the fellowship of His Presence but they withdrew theirs. Once becoming sinners by that first transgression, they continued such behavior because they had forfeited the ability to use their sentient God-likeness (including will, emotion, and reason) unfettered from its bondage to sin. What God freely offered, they rejected. Yet God still sought them!
God searched for Adam and Eve and initiated the ensuing conversation. Rather than immediately confessing the wrong-doing, Adam modeled his new traits of “recognition” (heard the sound of God), “fear” (became afraid), “rejection” (hid), and “blame” (specifying God first and Eve second). As a result, every aspect of creation was cursed by God.
Like tea bags in hot water, the taint of sin would irrevocably diffuse throughout all creation. Though a specific role for childbearing was not mentioned here (but see Ps 51:5; Job 14:4; 15:14; vs. Ps 58:5), it wasn’t needed. Sin would defile everything. Genesis 4 confirmed sin’s foothold: Cain slew Abel, and Cain’s offspring willfully plunged humanity deeper into the morass of sin (4:17-24).
Genesis introduces humanity as made in the likeness (image) of God. Sin defiled that (but did not destroy it) for Adam, Eve, and all others. Hence, sin injured not only those first humans but everyone subsequent. Every human is born defiled by and in bondage to sin! Choices after birth confirm you inherited Adam’s fallen nature and are so “inclined to sin.” Christ alone is our only hope: Sin’s the curse; Christ, the cure!
Archie England Ph.D. is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, and director of the Baptist College Partnership Program, both at NOBTS.