What do we do with Original Sin?

I’m not going to use any quotes from John Wesley  in this post, but I am going to try to explain as best I understand it the Wesleyan doctrine of Original Sin.

The doctrine is important if we seek to maintain contact with the theological tradition that John and Charles Wesley inhabited and became the bearers of in the English-speaking world. For them, Original Sin was the first great doctrine of the connected series of doctrines that form the heart of Christianity: Original sin, justification by faith, new birth, inward and outward holiness.

Humanity was created in the image of God. We were alive to God and good. Our natural and spiritual faculties were tuned to God and God’s purposes. But we were created free as well, and there cannot be any freedom if there is no freedom to fail, so God gave us a test. And we failed.

In that moment, humanity was alienated from God. Adam and Eve died spiritually and came under the power of physical death. They became blind to God and the things of God. And their spiritual death corrupted every other aspect of their nature. They were no longer happy in God but natural creatures living in a purely natural world of blood and tooth and claw.

A few important details of Wesley’s doctrine are worth our attention. First, although we are left totally depraved in the state of nature, because of God’s preventing grace no actual human being we encounter, including you and me, is left in this state of nature. We have the first inkling of God restored and the faculty we call our conscience is the sign of God’s grace working to restore to us some of our created character.

Second, although we all bear the marks of Original Sin, Wesley taught that no person was condemned to hell because of Original Sin alone. It was only for actual sins that a person would be damned. Given our corrupted nature it happens that everyone sooner or later does sin, but it is for sins a person commits not a corrupt nature that we inherit that we are under the wrath of God.

For 21st century United Methodists, of course, Wesley’s doctrines present all kinds of trouble. Wesley held a strong belief in the accuracy of the Bible. He had no problem with the creation story. He believed in miracles and the present work of the Holy Spirit. He thought being rich was virtually impossible for a Christian.

Rather than paper over our problems with Welsey, however, United Methodist theologians, clergy, and laity should deal with these issues because you cannot have a Wesleyan understanding of grace or salvation without the foundation of Original Sin.

We can have a theology that has a Wesleyan flavor or sounds like it uses the same words. We can quote him and sing his brother’s hymns by translated terms and giving them new meaning, but if we do that we should be honest with ourselves about it. As the movies say, we can say we have a theology inspired by Wesleyan theology, but admit that we no longer hold to Wesleyan theology as he understood it.

For my part, I tend to take a GK Chesterton approach. I see the world around me today, and I have no doubt about the doctrine that says humanity is corrupted and fallen. I can see glimmers of God’s preventing grace at work in myself and others, but the alienation of humanity from God and our blindness to God and the things of God is as true as gravity.

The Bible tells this great truth. Being an English major and a bad poet, I have no problem reading Genesis as truthful and yet not as literal history of the creation of the world. I believe John Wesley would rebuke me on that point were he here today, although he’d be about 300 years old, so maybe he would not have that much gusto.

So, I am left with a mystery, similar to the mystery I confront when asked about the end of all things. I know that we were created in the image of God. I know that we are fallen. I know that we will be restored. Genesis and Revelation tell me these truths. And so, I share the conviction of John Wesley that our condition is in need to repair and restoration in ways that are beyond our power.

I’m not certain if that means my theology is Wesleyan or based on Wesley or inspired by Wesley. Perhaps one day the Board of Ordained Ministry will help me figure that out.

15 thoughts on “What do we do with Original Sin?

  1. I am a lay person, a gentile, who attends a Methodist church on Sundays but I have also attended Friday worship services at a Messianic congregation with a Jewish pastor along side with my Jewish and gentile brothers and sisters. Whatever I know about Christianity and YESHUA is from what I gleaned from books written by Messianic Jews and also by listening to their preachings. I have also read books written by gentile apologists, mostly non-denominational. Except for their mild Calvinistic leanings, my doctrinal beliefs are compatible with that of the Jews for Jesus of which I am an ardent supporter. So, here I am with that background to give my 2 cents on the topic on discussion.

    “Wesley taught that no person was condemned to hell because of Original Sin alone. It was only for actual sins that a person would be damned. Given our corrupted nature it happens that everyone sooner or later does sin, but it is for sins a person commits not a corrupt nature that we inherit that we are under the wrath of God.”

    The above line of thinking, theology or doctrine is contradicted by Romans 5:14. The entire chapter of Romans 5 deals with the original sin and the role of Adam & Jesus on this topic.

    Romans 5:14-15 NIV 1984
    14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

    Romans 5:14-15 NLT
    14 Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. 15 But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.

    Romans 5:14 -15 NKJV
    14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.

    Romans 5:14 -15 NRSV
    14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a [i]type of Him who was to come. 15 But [j]the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many

    1. These are verses that obviously deserve careful study. Wesley did not say that “death” had no dominion for those who had not sinned. His distinction was that we are not condemned to eternal fire because of Adam, but because of our own sin. Sin and death hold sway in the world for now, and so we will die a mortal death, but we are not condemned to hell for the sins of Adam, but for the sins that we in our fallen nature commit.

  2. Genesis 3:15 gives an indication that God will take the initiative and that He will send a deliverer and redeemer to rectify the situation at the Garden of Eden.

    Genesis 3:15 NIV 1984
    And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring[a] and hers;
    he will crush[b] your head, (ultimate defeat of Satan)
    and you will strike his heel.”(necessitating the sacrifice and crucifixion of Jesus Christ)

    Genesis 3:15 NLT

    And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
    He will strike[b] your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

    Matthew 1:21 (NASB)
    21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for [a]He will save His people from their sins.”

    Isaiah 49:6 (NLT)
    He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me.
    I will make you a light to the Gentiles,
    and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

    Romans 1:16 -17 (NIV1984)
    16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[a] just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

  3. John,
    As someone who is also laity, I think that you have Wesley right. If our Boards of Ordained Ministry were actually keepers of Wesleyan theology, we would not have had so much nonsense promulgated by our clergy and bishops (e.g., Bishop Sprague). Do what you need to do to get ordained. We need clergy with your clear understanding of Wesleyan theology and high view of God. Praising God for you!

  4. As a retired pastor, and as a fellow English major, I view these early passages of Genesis as an excellent description of reality. They do not tell us how things WERE in an historical or scientific sense; rather they tell us the truth about how things ARE. The world is a mess and we need a Savior.

    I wouldn’t count on having the Board of Ordained Ministry straighten you out, John. From what I see, they don’t really understand Wesleyan doctrine and practice very well. I suspect most of them see Wesleyan theology as impractical and unsuitable for the needs of today’s church. Doctrine doesn’t really matter all that much and faithful preaching doesn’t really matter. What matters are our official metrics…. Lord have mercy on us all.

  5. Hi John. Great blog.

    As a fellow English major, I concur in your assessment of Genesis being an “existential” description of some kind of spiritual reality rather than a historical, causal event. However, with that understanding we face to major problems as I see it.

    1. Paul and NT writers seem to understand the Genesis event as a causal, historical event. As protestants, how do we handle this?

    2. Folks that don’t have higher education have a hard time understanding why we should let a poetic “myth” guide their behavior or fundamentally shape their lives. How do we close the gap between the “educated” and the “folks”? Who needs to adjust?

    1. Thanks for coming by and commenting. These are powerful questions, which I will answer feebly.

      To be honest, I do not see any need for anyone to change. I don’t think Paul’s salvation was in any way damaged by living before the Big Bang Theory, so clearly this piece of knowledge is not necessary to salvation. If accurate scientific knowledge of the workings of the cosmos were required for salvation, then no one could be saved, as we still are working out and revising our theories all the time.

      The knowledge that is necessary is the knowledge that we are sinners in need of saving. We are exiles who need to go home. This is the truth of the Garden of Eden.

      The Bible shows us the way home.

      I fully understand that there are people who don’t trust the Bible because they have reason to doubt that it gets science or history correct — or even that it contains contradictions. I think the only answer the Bible offers to such objections comes from the lips of Jesus: “Come and see” and “Follow me.”

      The Scriptures are a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church to help guide, convict, and strengthen us. That is not what the church has always said. It is not what many people would say today. It is my best understanding.

  6. Follow-up questions to your insights:

    Paul specifically mentions Adam as the source of our inherent sinful natures. This seems to be a hereditary passing down of sin — a causal source of current sin. To say that Paul was wrong in this is to question the authority of the plain words of the Bible. This troubles me.

    I just don’t think people feel as impacted or bound by the Bible if its historicity can so easily be reinterpreted. Scholarly educated folks like ourselves get a kind of intellectual buzz by rationalizing the Bible to fit modern knowledge, but normal folks just scratch their heads and are confused when on the one hand people swear on the authority of the Bible but on the other hand dismiss or ignore the clear meaning of the words. Is it true or not? If not all is true, who gets to decide and why? If the Bible is not a clear authority for common folks, then what happens to the promise of the Reformation?

    1. TM, I’m not sure I understand your trouble. What does it mean to you to say the Bible is authoritative?

      1. Authoritative to me is not really the question. Authoritative to a relatively uneducated farm hand that wants to read the bible for himself, that’s another question imho.

        But to answer your question, the Bible to me is a record of God’s unfolding revelation to mankind of how he wants us to understand him, our relationship to him, each other, and the world.

        Now, I realize that there are many different genres in the Bible that require a different level of interpretation than just literal, and I understand that the writers’ understanding in the OT is not always as robust as those of the NT. I understand the problems involved in the hermeneutic circle, difficulties in translating an ancient text, etc. I am also aware of selection bias. Yet, because my faith is founded in experiencing God through Jesus Christ in my life, I can deal with the ambiguity and the hermeneutics of interpretation.

        Now, the farm hand doesn’t really have the education to understand the complexity of all this. According to the rhetoric of the Reformation (Which I am a descendent of), the common person should be able to just pick up the Bible, read it, and come away a changed person. But increasingly I see a divide between the sophisticated hermeneutics of the clergy and the relatively uneducated majority. They want a simple, drama filled story they can understand. And they have to accept the authority of the person or book that is telling them this story. Either the educated are failing to provide that story, or they are diluting it in their advanced hermeneutic pontifications. I have a lot of problems with the Catholic Church, but at least they provide an authoritative body that can act as an authority with a simple tale to tell (albeit, a tale that probably manipulates emotion and fear in an effort to sustain itself). Well, now I’m the one pontificating…

        To sum up. Perhaps we have trouble telling the simple story because the pillars of that story have been eroded — authority of the Bible, authority of the church, and the basic feeling of sin and our need of salvation.

        1. I forgot to add at the end: the authority of parents. Our culture continually undermines this fundamental pillar.

        2. Thank you for the response, TM.

          I think I understand the issues better now. I’m not an expert on the Reformation rhetoric about sola scriptura, but being a Methodist, I’ve always been sheltered from it a bit by the Anglican tradition that birthed us. I always get the impression the authority of Scripture is a much more life and death issue for my Reformed friends than it is for me. I’m quite at ease with a “means of grace” understanding of Scripture that still holds it up as the last word on matters of salvation but does not get too worked up about whether Paul understood germ theory.

          There is a great tension that needs to be maintained on both ends between naive readings of the Bible and critical readings. The highly educated can fall too far to the critical end at times and the plain folk (for lack of a better term) can fall too far to the naive end. But both are helpful ways to read the Bible.

          I try never to wave my Bible in the air and act as if it is the thing we believe in. As one old farmer in my congregation says, “It is a tool.”

          I suppose part of my problem in being constructive in this conversation is that most of the farm hands and plain folk I’ve encountered have not raised these questions, so I’ve never had to bridge the gap.

  7. Thanks for the response John. I’m a fairly new Methodist, and I have encountered a lot of Reformed theology in my studies. Your response encourages me that I’m in the right place.

    God Bless, TM.

    1. I’m glad to be of help, but don’t confuse me for the fount of all wisdom when it comes to Methodism. 🙂 Welcome to our merry band.

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