What it means to be truly Lutheran: Original sin

Original sin

Joel D. Otto

“There’s a little bit of good in everyone.” “Such a cute baby . . . so innocent.” “Everyone’s got the choice to be good or bad. We just have to put people into the right environment so they’ll make the right choices.”

We have all heard such thoughts. It’s the prevailing view today. It is also the view of every non-Christian religion and even many Christian denominations. It’s nothing new. Throughout history, people have believed that they are not that bad, that they can do enough good to earn heaven—or at least make some kind of contribution.

The Bible, however, says the opposite. The Bible teaches that every person who is born of a mother and father inherits a corrupt sinful condition, going all the way back to the first sin of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12; Psalm 51:5). Of all Christian denominations, true Lutherans believe, teach, and confess this more clearly than most. The Augsburg Confession states: “It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God” (II:2).

The Formula of Concord explains in even more precise language. “In spiritual and divine matters, the mind, heart, and will of the unreborn human being can in absolutely no way, on the basis of its own natural powers, understand, believe, accept, consider, will, begin, accomplish, do, effect, or cooperate. Instead, it is completely dead to the good—completely corrupted. This means that in this human nature, after the fall and before rebirth, there is not a spark of spiritual power left or present with which human beings can prepare themselves for the grace of God or accept grace as it is offered” (II:7).

That is a far cry from believing that we enter the world morally neutral or possess some spark of goodness. That is recognizing and confessing that from the moment of conception we are lost and condemned creatures. We are incapable of taking the first steps toward God. We cannot by our own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus.

The problem with denying the totality and severity of original sin is that people imagine they can do something to earn God’s favor. But how could anyone ever be certain they have done enough? When we confess and understand our absolute helplessness and hopelessness, we can see that salvation has to be entirely, from beginning to end, the work of God for us. And it is. Of that we are certain.

Questions to consider

1. Read Ephesians 2:1; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14. How do each of these passages describe our natural spiritual condition?

  • Ephesians 2:1: We are spiritually dead by nature. This means we are incapable of doing anything positive in a spiritual sense (a corpse cannot do anything except be lifeless). We do not have the power, for example, to make a decision for Jesus.
  • Romans 8:7: We are enemies of God, actively hostile to his will. We fight against his will. Not only are we incapable of obeying him; we do not even want to. This is even stronger than the description of spiritual deadness.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: Unbelievers are incapable of understanding what God reveals in his Word. Without the Spirit’s work, the gospel remains foolishness; it makes no sense. It should not surprise us that people reject the good news about Jesus. We should be amazed and rejoice that we (and anyone) believes in Jesus.

2. Why is it so difficult for people to believe the Bible’s teaching about original sin? Why do you think this might be an especially “American” problem?

By nature, people think that they have the capacity to do what God says, at least to the extent that God will be pleased. Or people think they can accept Jesus on their own. No one wants to think that they are spiritually dead, enemies of God, and blind to spiritual truth, which is how the Bible describes them. No one wants to believe that they are as powerless as the Bible says. This is an especially “American” problem because the American dream and mindset is that if you just set your mind to it, you can be anything you want. You can succeed. You can climb the ladder of success. The American mindset thinks that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get things done. This kind of attitude especially makes the biblical teaching of original sin difficult to accept because this teaching leaves no room for human contribution in salvation.

3. Read Psalm 51:1-12. Explain how the teaching about original sin fits into this psalm of repentance. Why is confessing that we are “by nature sinful” so important in our regular confession of sins?

David wrote this psalm after Nathan confronted him about his sins of adultery and murder involving Bathsheba and Uriah. David was brought to repentance and expresses that repentance in this psalm. The first part of repentance is acknowledging our sins and turning from them. David confesses his natural sinful condition. That’s where actual sins begin. This is so important in our regular confession of sins. In our minds, we might be able to minimize and even excuse some of our sinful behavior. But we cannot get around our natural sinful condition. And because this condition is universal and makes us so spiritually powerless, we come to see and appreciate even more the grace and mercy of God in blotting out our transgressions and washing away all our iniquities. This is especially important in the corporate Confession of Sins in worship. Certain sins may not apply to some members of a congregation. But all of us are “by nature sinful.” Therefore, all of us equally need to hear and receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ has earned and which the Word and sacraments proclaim and give.

Contributing editor Joel Otto, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This is the third article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Dec. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

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