This article is intended to deal with the difference between original sin and actual sins, especially as it is relevant for preaching. I have stumbled a bit finding the right way to begin, probably because of a language problem. So, I am going to begin by addressing the matter head-on which should prove to create some useful reflection as we head into this topic.
My initial quick, but obviously wrong idea was to write on the concept of, “preaching about sin.” Certainly, there is space for a sermon concerning sin, even one clarifying the difference between original and actual sin. This is true, just as you might also preach about Baptism, the Trinity, or the doctrine of Two Kingdoms. Sin is, in the same way as these others, a legitimate topic for a well-crafted, Law-Gospel sermon.
But that is not what I had in mind. I mean to talk about the words of sin-related preaching which are necessarily present in every sermon. This is the preaching of the Law applied carefully toward a goal of it being an effective mirror for a person’s life - not just holding the mirror, so to speak, but also spinning the barber’s chair around so the hearer sees exactly the part of life he or she needs to see. But here is the difference: that is not preaching “about sin” anymore. This is preaching to people, about their own sin, and about themselves. It is much more personal, and much more performative, because it leads to repentance.
My next idea was to say this is about, “preaching against sin,” but that is not quite right either. It has the advantage of being a powerful declaration: when we preach, we oppose sin! Hard to dispute, but even at its best the formulation is too narrow. As much as it is a satisfying and certainly also laudable goal of preaching to prevent the hearers from falling into sin, on its own it collapses the Law into its first use and dispenses with the redemptive work of Christ. At its worst, “preaching against sin,” has a chiliastic twinge to it, as though it were the mandate and destiny of the Church to remove sin from the world, instead of to proclaim the world’s redemption.
“Preaching to people as sinners,” seems to be a stronger way of speaking. This expresses not just something which is sometimes true, but in fact a foundational Truth about preaching. It is foundational in the sense that there are no exceptions to it, but also because attention to it significantly informs the preaching craft. It leads into the discussion I want to have here: Preaching to people as sinners calls for precision. This means knowing whether you are addressing their original sin or actual sins.
So that is our foundation, but one special case before we get there. You can also preach, “in response to sin,” by which I mean preaching to address, in a timely fashion, recently arisen sins or actively occurring iniquities among those to whom you preach. This is particularly challenging, but also important and certainly Biblical as even a cursory read of the New Testament Epistles demonstrates. It is, however, probably the exception rather than the usual sermon, since it is so obviously liable to two failures: the micromanagement of the hearer’s lives and the ignoring of those sins which are not front-and-center, but no less troubling.
As I weigh briefly here the advantages and disadvantages of preaching original sin and preaching actual sin, I do not mean to argue for one and against the other. Instead, I mean to suggest a benefit in focusing during a given sermon on one or the other, and that neither type of sermon should be the only type a Christian hears. It is difficult and sometimes detrimental to integrate the two definitions of sin in the same sermon, but even though I have not done it well yet, that hardly means it cannot be done. But preaching is not so much a place for impressive demonstrations of skill as for humble faithfulness to the Scriptures. It is from this perspective that I recommend what is simpler.
I will start with original sin. This sermon addresses a person in the depths of his being. It intends to close all the doors through which the hearers might excuse themselves. What makes it easier, you do not have to formulate a particular sin in a way which is broadly applicable, but this also makes it more difficult. It is harder for a hearer to confess an ultimate and undeniable opposition to all that is good and godly than to only concede a momentary failure with respect to one commandment. The necessity of preaching original sin is that only its depth does it properly set the stage for the true Christian life of continuous repentance. The challenge of preaching original sin is a practical one. The hearers are as likely to take offense at this truth as to acknowledge it.
The necessity of preaching original sin is that only its depth does it properly set the stage for the true Christian life of continuous repentance.
The benefits and challenges of preaching actual sin are different. Among the benefits is the curbing of a sort of resignation that risks arising when every sermon is a broad-scale, personal condemnation. Preaching about and against actual sins is more focused and, perhaps, more palatable as it clarifies for the Christian the need to avoid sin and pursue a life faithful to the 10 Commandments, even as the actual freedom from actual sins remains an eschatological reality. Another benefit, however, is surely the simple principle that you start small. Repeatedly leading a person to knowledge of “small” sins may, over time, help them to see the reality of the vastly larger problem of their heart hardened against God. But the pursuit of this larger goal does not undermine the importance of the immediate one: repentance. This includes faith in Christ, which is the goal of every sermon. At the same time, what is challenging about preaching actual sins is the risk of describing the sins in ways which allow people to exclude themselves on technicalities.
So again, it is helpful to deliberate on how you need to preach both original sin and actual sin. It does not mean entirely taking the reins yourself though, since the Lectionary really guides this decision. The texts are often obviously focused toward one or the other. Some also provide neatly for the preaching of either, but even then, you are never obligated to exhaust the content of a text. You will preach it again.
But in the long view you must do both (rather, the Christian needs to hear both). If you never preach on original sin, the depth of the sinner’s problem will slip away from many of the people. Those few who feel their original sin, whether you preach it or not (though perhaps by another name), may find the sermons only scratch the surface and are not likely to find the help they need. If you never separate out actual sins to preach on, but instead tend to turn the problem of individual sins into a springboard for depicting the problem of original sin, you run a very present risk and I will close by remarking on that.
Let us call the risk: collapsing actual sin into original sin. This exaggerates the aspect of preaching actual sin in terms of its usefulness in leading someone to the knowledge of original sin. As though the only purpose of preaching on Commandments 2-10 is to lead a person back to #1, the mention of sexual immorality, theft, or covetousness is treated as valueless except in its worth of leading a person to a renewed sense of their deeper problem. Of course, preaching the individual commandments is valuable in that way, but also already on its own. Where this mistake actually occurs, it is a failure to take seriously either the Biblical witness concerning the Law or the specific obedience of Christ which refers not only to His faithfulness to the Father’s will for our salvation, but also specifically to each of the Commandments. Finally, treating sin only as a categorical violation of God’s will, but not on its own “merit” implies an arbitrariness of the Law and ignores the important reason God gave the Law: to protect from the harm inevitably resulting from sin (Galatians 3:19).
Even so, this is a boundary on which Lutheran preachers necessarily live, an edginess inherent in our preaching. As long as we insist on the hopelessness of redeeming yourself by reforming your life, we place a premium on the knowledge of original sin over actual sins. But this is just all the more cause to give the distinction careful attention.