In the past three years, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research have worked together to survey the theological state of Christians in the U.S. Amongst other shocking discoveries, the project found that the majority of evangelical Christians in the U.S. espouse the heresy of Pelagianism, the false doctrine of the fifth-century monk Pelagius, who denied that humans are sinful by nature and, instead, are basically good, possessing the power to choose God and do good without his grace.[1] According to the study, 28% of evangelicals said they “strongly agreed” with the statement that “humans are basically good.” 25% “somewhat agreed” with the statement, and 3% were unsure. Only 44% of evangelicals disagreed to any extent with the Pelagian assertion that “humans are basically good.” Whatever opinions one might have about statistical or sociological analysis, the general picture painted is that a majority of evangelical Christians (to say nothing of liberal Protestants) reject the doctrine of original sin in support of a heretical view of human nature.

But what is original sin anyway? In Article II of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon states that original sin is a fallen, inherited nature common to all humans, and that this nature consists of a lack of the fear of God, a lack of trust (faith) in God, and the presence of something called “concupiscence.”[2] By concupiscence, Melanchthon means a corruption of the nature with which God originally created humans, so that everything humans do after the fall of Adam and Eve is tainted by sin, which is a lack of fear and trust in God.{

This corruption is so radical that it has perverted our original nature as God created it. The authors of the Formula of Concord explain this by saying that as fallen humans, we have all lost original righteousness, the right relationship with God in which Adam and Eve were created. Instead of coming into the world already living in communion, at peace with God, and able to do his will, we are now born as enemies of God, dead to everything good, “turned towards evil,” and prisoners of Satan.

Original sin is an issue of idolatry. It means that rather than trusting in God for all we need, we children of Adam and Eve put other things in place of God.

Through original sin, both our relationship with God is broken, and we are held captive to sin, death, and the devil. To put it as St. Paul does in his Epistle to the Romans, all humans after the fall are “in Adam” and thus inherent to each of us is this broken relationship, this lack of faith in God (Rom 5:12-21). We are all born enemies of God, inclined to evil, and with a lack of trust in God as God.

Martin Luther gives context to original sin when he defines “a god” in the Large Catechism. As a result, we see quite a frightening picture of human sinfulness take form. Luther defines “a god” as that to which we as humans “look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.” When we think of it this way, original sin is an issue of idolatry. It means that rather than trusting in God for all we need, we children of Adam and Eve put other things in place of God. We make our own gods. We look to money, friends, possessions, our own reason and will, and a host of other created things to be our gods rather than the God who created us. Instead of recognizing these as gifts of the Creator to be used for the good of all, we hoard them for ourselves and set up altars to them; loving them, instead of God, with all our heart.

Thus, the picture of original sin drawn for us by Paul, Melanchthon, and Luther is one of a condition shared by all humans, in which we do not trust God as God, but look to ourselves or other created things to be our gods. Furthermore, it is a picture in which every part of our human existence is corrupted and tainted by this condition so that whatever created good there is in life is spoiled by this inherited sin. This condition, says Luther in the Smalcald Articles, is the “chief sin.” It is the main sin from which come all the little sins we commit.

Moreover, says Luther, this original sin has so corrupted our human nature that we cannot, by our reason or will, understand the things of God, choose him, or obey him. The corruption is so bad that we are blind to it and think that nothing is wrong. In fact, the corruption of original sin actually makes us think that we are okay the way we are.

The power of original sin is so strong, and the corruption it brings is so deep, that we cannot see this fallen condition without it being revealed to us from the outside.[10] Luther says that this revelation from the outside comes as God’s word in the law, which identifies for us our fallen condition and condemns us for it.[11] If it were not for this exterior word of God, we as fallen sinners would continue to go our merry way as if nothing were wrong with us. Or, at the very least, we would look for someone else to blame. That is precisely what Adam and Eve did moments after the fall. They blamed each other, the snake who charmed them, and ultimately God himself for their sin (Gen 3:12-13).

The most astounding and radical thing about original sin is not that it infects every human and stains everything in life. It is not that it holds us all captive to eternal death. It is not even that it makes us think that we are alive when we are dead and free when we are in bondage—though it does do all these things. The most astounding and radical thing about original sin is that the God who is sinned against has taken original sin upon himself to do away with it.

From the depths of his great compassion for his fallen creatures, God is willing to and actually does take the blame through Jesus Christ. True God, eternally begotten of His Father from all eternity, Christ has become a human and a sinner for us, even though he “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21).

When we think about sin, we must immediately look to Christ.

In works from both his early career and later in life, Luther describes this action of God’s taking sin upon himself as “the happy exchange.”[12] In this, the best trade of all time, Jesus took our sin upon himself. At his baptism in the Jordan River, he threw his lot in with us and took our original sin and every actual sin ever committed. Then, on the original Good Friday, he took the judgment of the law and God’s wrath upon himself as if he were the sum total of all sinners on earth. Bursting from the tomb on Easter Sunday, he gave to us his very own, right relationship with the Father.[13]

This is why Jesus came to earth: to share our sinful nature in order to take the power of it away from us. While in this life, we still carry original sin and its effects around with us, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, our inherited nature has been sentenced to eternal death. This is why when we think about sin, we must immediately look to Christ.

And when we look to Christ, we need to make sure we are looking at Him rightly, not as a lawgiver who comes just to point out our sinful condition or to work on being less sinful, but as the one who comes to take that condition from us.

We should see Jesus, our God and Savior, not as the one who comes to indict our original sin or instruct us on how to sin less, but as the one who has taken it upon Himself and destroyed it. That is the most astonishing thing about original sin, as well as the last and loudest thing we should say about it.

The danger of denying the truth of our common human fallenness and brokenness by original sin is that the denial of this doctrine may also lead us to the denial of Christ as our Savior.

It is tragic that many Christians—to say nothing of unbelievers—do not believe in the doctrine of original sin and thereby do not recognize the full depth of their own desperate need for Jesus the Savior. The danger of denying the truth of our common human fallenness and brokenness by original sin is that the denial of this doctrine may also lead us to the denial of Christ as our Savior. If we are not completely corrupted, are not born outside a right relationship with God, and are not dead to God and his will, then perhaps we can come to him on our own terms or at least contribute to his work in our own salvation. Then Jesus becomes simply a teacher, a role model, one who shows the way to go; but that is not who Christ is. He is, instead, the God made flesh who overcomes our sin, our death, and our bondage to Satan, for us.

We hold to the doctrine of original sin because it tells us of our desperate need for Christ. The prevalence of the denial of this doctrine in our society and in Christianity today only demonstrates more clearly the need for Christ as Savior. Christians who do believe this doctrine should, therefore, confess and proclaim it to those who do not, out of compassion and love, recognizing that they too need God’s grace given in Christ. Yet, even greater is the task incumbent upon us to, believe, teach, confess, and proclaim that God in Christ has taken our original sin—in all of its gory details—upon himself in Jesus Christ and thus, has freed us from it!