Original Sin

What do theologians mean by the term original sin?

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The term original sin is one of the most common in the theological vocabulary, but it's not immediately obvious what that refers to. And it may be helpful to begin by remarking on one thing that it does not refer to: it does not refer to the first sin of Adam. A lot of people instinctively think original sin must refer back to the story of Genesis 3, but that's not what theologians mean by it. What theologians mean by original sin is the sin with which each of us is born. So, each of us individually are born as original sinners. And there's some variation among theologians as to what exactly that means, but in the mainstream of the Reformed theological tradition, there are really two aspects to this original sin. One aspect is the idea that we are guilty in Adam, that we are all in this covenant and organic union with Adam as he fell into sin, and we are now guilty. We are born in sin because of Adam and we lie under God's judgment because of that. And I think this is a very important point that Paul makes in Romans chapter 5. Well, there's a second aspect to original sin, and that might be referred to as our original corruption. It's not just that we are born under God's judgment or are conceived under God's judgment, but from our various earliest days, our natures are corrupted. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, we were dead in our transgressions and sins. So, not only are we guilty in Adam, but it means we also add to our own guilt every day. We are prone to evil, and apart from God's grace, his sanctifying grace for us, we will continue to sin and to be unable to please him.

Answer by Dr. David VanDrunen

Dr. David VanDrunen is professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.