Monday, April 15, 2013

The Joy of Confessing: Original Sin

I recently returned from giving a series of lectures on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. The exercise was stimulating (at least to me) and gave a real sense of privilege and gratitude for blessing. In particular, I mean the blessing of joining with the saints of decades and centuries gone by in confessing truths that have been revealed by God—redemptive truths that bear within them the matter for endless praise. We get to state and meditate on what Paul called “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9). 

Confessions of faith give witness to these truths as well as our confidence that they are clear and may be synthesized into a “form of sound words.” The family of confessions surrounding the NHC, both before and after, share a doctrinal witness historically summarized as “the doctrines of grace.” When Boyce explained why the committee appointed to produce the documents that would give foundation to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote its own confession, The Abstract of Principles, he explained that one feature upon which all were agreed was that it must have “a complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of grace.” 

That position had been a mainstay of Baptist confessional adherence leaping in the womb from which Southern Baptists were born for more than two centuries before Boyce wrote that explanation. When the Philadelphia Association in 1752 received a “query” asking whether “a person denying unconditional election, the doctrine of original sin, and the final perseverance of the saints, and striving to affect as many as he can, may have full communion with the church?” they answered that they could not “allow that any are true members of our churches who deny the said principles.” Their affirmation and brief explanation of all three doctrines included a statement on original sin. “We,” so they believed, “are originally sinful or partakers of the first sin of human nature, being included in Adam when he was created, [and] are justly shut out of our native happiness, and have lost our right thereunto forever, unless our title be restored by the second Adam the Lord from heaven., by being effectually called in time.” They went on to call this doctrine, and the others included in the query, “next to the belief of an eternal God,” as fundamental doctrines of Christianity on which our faith must rest. 

Well, still, our faith and our formal confessions of faith must rest on that truth. The Abstract states, “his [Adam’s] posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” The Baptist Faith and Message (hereafter BFM) reads, “his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” 

The phrase "nature and environment inclined toward sin" [the environment is, not trees and mountains, but people, rational moral beings, already involved in the course of sinfulness before God] views men as already sinful and transgressing. The fact that, according to the Bible, there never has been and never will be an individual born from Adam’s vine who does not sin, argues for an explanation of universal depravity, that is, a propensity that necessarily produces sin. Does such a moral propensity not involve real guilt? Andrew Fuller wrote in 1778, before he published The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, “Destitute of the last, i.e. of an inclination or heart to do good, which all men by nature are, all our natural powers are of no avail to the performance of good, since internal inclinations are those by which all external actions are entirely guided and governed.” His use of the word “inclination” is consistent with the use of that word in theological discussion. A heart “inclined toward sin” means that the direction of the heart at its inception is against God, and unless arrested by some power extrinsic to it, will proceed in a continual descent of sin. The moment of conception involves that inclination, (“inherit a nature . . . inclined toward sin” BFM) and in its preferences and propensities, already a moral being at conception, is inclined away from holiness and righteousness, and is thus, per the Abstract of Principles, “corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law.” These confessions embody Jesus’ teaching when he incriminated the so-inclined heart as the evil fountain from which evil actions arose. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:23). An inclination to evil has no moment of innocence but already is weighted with guilt. 

From whence is such a heart? Under divine inspiration, David lamented, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3) By way of personal application, David confessed, ”Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Transgression abides first of all in heart—disposition and inclination of soul to disregard God’s law. The environment-inclined-toward-sin is the sum total of all the natures-inclined-toward-sin since the fall of Adam. An inclination toward sin in the status of no condemnation is a contradiction. Jesus taught that the heart problem is fundamental to sin and Paul's description of transgressors as "by nature children of wrath" seems to focus on that same point. The "nature inclined toward sin" followed Adam's transgression and constituted the punishment of spiritual death that immediately came upon him and, as the BFM affirms [“whereby”], passed on all men by inheritance (Romans 5:12). The presence of this punishment implies the pre-existent condition of guilt. Otherwise we have the punishment for guilt, but have no guilt. Jesus suffered without guilt and was punished without personal guilt, but no other of the sons of men has ever done so. Apart from the virgin-conceived-and-born Son of Man, Adam’s vine has never produced an innocent fruit. 

This teaching of the Scripture, and the confessions, does not flatter man, but certainly prepares him to count everything as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. 

Tom J. Nettles 
Professor of Historical Theology 
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

9 comments:

Steve Martin said...

Indeed.

We have a sickness unto death. It's worse than we think.

But Christ Jesus is even better than we think. And much more necessary than we often think.

Thanks.

biblicalrealist said...

Dr. Nettles,
How is it that we were "included" in Adam? How were we "partakers of the first sin" and "justly shut out?" Unless my moral agency was present in Adam, there is no moral basis for passing his consequences onto me. While theologians may separate culpability from punishment, justice cannot.
You state, "An inclination to evil has no moment of innocence but already is weighted with guilt." When addressing so early a state (in Rom. 9:11a), Paul does not seem to agree with you: "...(for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil.." If the Bible teaches anything in the introduction to the idea of sin in Genesis 3, it teaches us that it consists in the will of the sinner disregarding the will of God. If the will of the sinner is taken out of the picture, you might have "inclination," but you will never have an earned condemnation. Unearned salvation and unmerited righteousness is grace, but unearned condemnation and unmerited guilt is injustice by any intelligent standard.

Thanks,
Ken Hamrick

Candi said...

Dr. Nettles,

How does your view of original guilt, as I would call it, impact the thought of Jesus' birth as it relates to Mary? Would your view not necessitate the idea of Mary's sinlessness. If Jesus was fully man, and we certainly would agree that he was, would he not inherit original guilt in adam's sin based on this view? Either we would have to accept Mary's perfection or Jesus' inherited guilt it would seem

Tom said...

Ken,

Thank you for these important observations. I will give my observations on three ideas you have raised.

The historic answer for our inclusion in Adam has been that we were both federally and naturally present, in “his loins” so to speak even as Levi was present in the loins of Abraham. This seems to be the case since Paul affirmed, “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15;22) He continues this analogy from Adam to Christ in verses 45-49. Also in Romans 5:12 Paul observes, “Therefore just as sin came into the world through one, man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” he presents the pervasiveness of death as evidence that our “moral agency was present in Adam,” in Paul’s words, “Because all sinned.” He goes on to say “the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation” (16) and “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, s one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” All included in Adam come under condemnation; all included in Christ come to justification (Romans 8:29, 30). I don’t see how we can escape the conclusion that in Adam’s sin, we fell under condemnation and also experienced death, the immediate effects of which were corruption of heart. The entire narrative of the Bible subsequent to the fall is the piling on of layer upon layer of evidence that there is none righteous, all are corrupt, all are under condemnation; The point seems to be that this corruption and degradation was all included in the disobedience of the one man Adam. Theologians, the ones that believe the Bible, do not separate culpability from punishment, but assume, since God is just, that our present experience of the punishment is the sure sign of culpability. As far as Jacob and Esau are concerned, the statement is crafted in defense of God’s sovereign prerogative to elect one and pass over another—“That God’s purpose of election might continue not because of works but because of him who calls.” In light of Paul’s treatment of mercy, grace, justice, patience and the concept of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” I would conclude that Paul is not saying that Jacob and Esau had no moral standing in the womb, but that they had done nothing either good or bad to distinguish themselves from one another, so as to explain why God might favor one over the other. He viewed both of them as indistinguishable from a moral standpoint, but demonstrated his sovereignty by his gracious purpose to show mercy and compassion toward one and justice toward the other.

You write, “If the Bible teaches anything in the introduction to the idea of sin in Genesis 3, it teaches us that it consists in the will of the sinner disregarding the will of God.” Rather the point there is that mankind existing in the first man and his wife, even while they were holy and righteous and had knowledge of God (at that point they were not sinners), when left to their own devices and judgments were brought, by the subtlety of Satan, to a point of disobedience, submerged the world under all its curses, and brought condemnation and death to all their posterity. It seems to me, that, rather than abstracting the “will” as an autonomous faculty in man, that the “inclination” constitutes a major element of what we call the will.

Tom Nettles

sbcopenforum.com said...

Dr. Nettles,

You stated, "It seems to me, that, rather than abstracting the 'will' as an autonomous faculty in man, that the 'inclination' constitutes a major element of what we call the will."

There is vital difference between an inclination that is chosen and one that was present prior to any personal choice. Ezek. 18:20 comes to mind, as well as Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; and Rev. 20:12-13. While it is true that any man who chooses to sin in such a way as to bring moral corruption to his nature (and even those already sinful can bring further corruption by sinning in certain ways) brings guilt on himself not only for his sin but also for the corruption of his nature, it does not necessarily follow that those whose corruption of nature cannot be traced to their own personal (individual) sin are still held guilty for their nature alone. Sin pertains to the will alone, and only pertains to the nature to the extent that the corruption resulted from an act of the will.

Nature and person are distinct. One’s inborn nature justly brings only natural consequences and cannot bring personal penalty or guilt. Only personal sin—-transgressions by the individual person—-can bring personal guilt and penalty. The penalties brought on all by the sin of the human nature in Adam are not personal. Everyone dies, for example (even animals, and they didn’t sin in Adam). Death comes on all regardless of personal moral status before God. It matters not whether one is a “normal” sinner, a satanist serial killer, or a justified believer, physical death is impersonal and comes on all regardless of personal guilt or lack thereof.

Thanks,
Ken Hamrick

biblicalrealist said...

(a repost: this may have gotten stuck in your spam filter earlier.)

Dr. Nettles,

Thank you for the response. You stated: "The historic answer for our inclusion in Adam has been that we were both federally and naturally present, in 'his loins' so to speak even as Levi was present in the loins of Abraham."
The historic answer has changed over the centuries. In the early Reformed church, federalism did not exist. The Augustinian idea of a participative union in Adam prevailed, such that it was taught that Adam's sin was imputed to us because it was ours. Even after the federal/covenant idea became prominent, it was held in conjunction with the old Augustinian idea, so that the justice of designating Adam as our representative was grounded on our participative presence in him. In other words, the sin still belonged to us prior to the federal imputation. Only from the 18th century did the federal idea completely replace the Augustinian, resulting in the teaching that the sin of Adam was ours because it was imputed to us. Under the Augustinian idea, the corruption of nature was inherited as the natural and just consequence of our participative sin in Adam; but under the federal, the corruption of nature became the penalty for Adam's sin that was sovereignly put on us without any just ground in reality. Theologians who remove all ground of real justice ought not to then assume that their portrayal of God is just merely because it is a fact that God is just.

Thanks,
Ken Hamrick

biblicalrealist said...

Candi,

You stated:"If Jesus was fully man, and we certainly would agree that he was, would he not inherit original guilt in adam's sin based on this view? Either we would have to accept Mary's perfection or Jesus' inherited guilt it would seem "

The "community of nature" of all men in Adam, and the "propagation of nature" to all men from Adam affects us only through paternal lineage. Whether the propagation involves a real continuity of substance or is only a propagation by pattern (God creating the spiritual nature of the child our of nothing, but according to the nature of his father), the propagation of (the immaterial, spiritual) nature of the child must come from his father alone. Otherwise, it was not "through one man" that sin came into the world (Rom. 5:12) but "through one man and one woman;" and also, only one-sixteenth(?) of Levi could have been "in the loins of his [great-grand-]father Abraham" when he paid tithes to Melchizedek.

I don't know how Dr. Nettles would answer this. Good question, though.

Tom said...

Ken,

As you have pointed out in Ezekiel 18:20, every person will be judged for his own sin. All of our individual transgressions will be judged on the final day. I will not stand my father’s sins and he will not stand for mine. Nothing will escape the holy omniscience of God. But Ezekiel is not writing about choosing a nature. He's writing about the performance of individual transgression. No person since the fall of Adam and the subsequent propagation of the race holds accountability for another’s transgression. Romans 2:6-10 with many other Scripture passages establishes the point and probably no Christian theologian disagrees with that proposition. I do not think, however, that the biblical position on the relation between nature and choice is what you set forth. As I sought to indicate in my original article, the biblical teaching is that our actions, or choices, flow from our natures and in such actions our whole person does so as a free moral agent, thus having responsibility for our actions. This total corruption of moral nature is connected with the threat of death for Adam’s disobedience so that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” and as an extension “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” The fact that a moral nature determines the character of one’s actions seems to be consistent with the explanation of how God acts. He has not chosen his character by a free act of autonomous will prior to the presence of any attributes of character. He is self-existent and has always been what he is. He is holy, naturally and necessarily, and can be no other than holy; he is truth and can do nothing against the truth; he is just and can do no other than what is just. In all of these, moreover, he acts as a free agent and all his actions are worthy of our praise, even though they are determined by his very nature and the unchangeable propensity of that nature to do those things that being him glory. His will is a manifestation of his nature. Even so (as you pointed out in your answer to Candi with which I substantially agree) we are connected to our sinful natures through Adam, [and so Christ was not born through the male but from the seed of the woman] but that does not free us of the responsibility of all those issues that flow from our connection with him. The whole creation has been subjected to the curse by God as a reminder to us (Romans 8:20, 21) of the pervasive impact of the fall, but we are moral participants in the sin that brought on the curse, and our moral participation consists in a just verdict of condemnation and a deeply corrupted nature (“by nature children of wrath” Eph 1:1-3) from which the abundance of culpable transgressions flows. I know of no other way to read the entire biblical narrative, as summarized prior to the flood in the words “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great n the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) and after the flood, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).Romans 1, Romans 5 and the consequent exegesis of 6-8, Galatians 3 etc.

Tom said...

(continued from above)

Yes, I agree that person and nature are not precisely the same for we know that our Lord was of two distinct natures in one person. And all of humanity has the same nature but there are no two person exactly alike. Jesus also had a personality distinct from every other human and also holding personal distinction from the other two persons of the trinity, though they are of one nature. So distinction of personality in one nature in a part of the image of God in which we are created. Personhood, however, is the vehicle through which nature expresses itself so that when the nature acts, the person acts. There is no such thing that is an action of the nature that is not at the same time an action of the person. When Jesus acted as God in forgiving sins he followed with proof that “the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” He could only do that in his divine nature, but as the single person, Jesus of Nazareth, he did it, and took responsibility for the action.

Maybe there is more to say, but I think I have said all I can say here. I am new at the blog, so if my etiquette has not been on par with expectations, I can only ask your indulgence until I learn.

Tom Nettles