Jesus Christ died for us. He absorbed the penalty that we deserve, the punishment for our sins was accorded to him when he died on the cross and three days later, he rose from the dead. But why? Why are we in such a condition that we would need a Savior? Theologians throughout the centuries have reflected upon the biblical data and developed a theory that seems to explain what has been revealed. This theory is known as the doctrine of original sin. It states that when Adam and Eve (the first humans) sinned, they were infected with a satanic nature, and when they had children, they passed that satanic nature onto them. Parents beget their children, meaning that they share the same nature. A duck begets a duck; they share the same nature. When Adam and Eve had children, these children were begotten, and hence they share in the satanic nature. There are certain groups, such as Pelagians, who challenge this doctrine. Among them is a gentleman named Kerrigan Skelly. I compose this article as both a response to Mr Skelly and in defense of original sin. My response to Kerrigan Skelly should provide a robust defense of this doctrine and expose some of the errors that he has made.
As concomitant to Mr Skelly’s Pelagianism, he maintains the belief that men are intrinsically good, having been made in the image of God and therefore can surrender their will to him. They possess in and of themselves the ability to turn to him and to abdicate all sin. He thus thinks it is possible for somebody to live impeccably, with no sin at all. Accordingly, he denies that Adam’s sinful nature was passed on to his children. He denies the doctrine of original sin and he denies that mankind possesses a sinful nature. Is he right? I write this in defense of original sin.
Through one man’s disobedience, man were made sinners (Romans 5:12-21). Adam seems to fade into irrelevancy throughout most of the biblical narrative. He is scarcely mentioned aside from a genealogy here or there. Theological discourse would have ignored him if not for the scientific and philosophical questions that Genesis 2 and 3 raise. Yet Paul uses Adam in a central way. He draws startling parallels between Adam and Jesus Christ. Through Adam, sin entered into the world (v. 12) and judgment arose from one transgression (v. 16). Through Jesus Christ, the free gift arose (v. 17). As through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men (v. 18). There is an irrevocable link between our sin and the sin of Adam, just as there is an irrevocable link between our justification and the righteous act of Jesus Christ. The disobedience of Adam led to our condemnation, but the obedience of Christ led to our justification. The mechanism for our eternal life is Jesus Christ, and the mechanism for our condemnation is Adam. It seems that the doctrine of original sin emanates from this text.
In his critique of our drawing original sin from this text, Mr Skelly suggests this parallel is incoherent for it implies universalism. The proponent of original sin argues that the condemnation is for “all men,” and as I just pointed out, the parallel is undeniable. If the condemnation is for all men, then the justification is for all men. Therefore, reasons Mr Skelly, if we interpret this text to be teaching original sin, universalism follows right behind it. The problem with this is that Paul introduced a caveat into his parallel. As Doctor Douglas Moo pointed out in his commentary on Romans (The NIV Application Commentary: Romans, page 193), Paul breaks his parallel by adding the word “receive” in verse 17. It is, Paul says, only those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace who will reign in life. We have to allow Paul to define his own terms. He establishes this parallel and he can establish a caveat to it. Therefore there is nothing about the orthodox interpretation that implies universalism. Pastor Pat Necerato pressed Mr Skelly about this point during their debate and the question was never answered.
Further, and critically, it should be pointed out that Mr Skelly provided no exegesis or understanding of this text. He does not tell us how we should understand it. He just tells us how we should not understand it. He critiques the orthodox interpretation by saying that it implies universalism, but his video about Romans 5 is bereft of any interpretation of the text. We are left with no explanation for why there is an inextricable link between Adam’s sin and our sin. We are left to wonder why the text says that we are judged for Adam’s sin. Mr Skelly is just reduced to saying that the text is unclear, and we have to interpret unclear texts through the lens of clear texts. But it seems pretty clear to me. I am left thinking that the only reason that Mr Skelly think that it is unclear is because it is incongruent with his theological presuppositions. Any serious critique of the doctrine of original sin needs to provide a serious exegesis of Romans 5:12-21. Likewise, Romans 5:12-21 should be used in defense of original sin.
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Psalm 51:5 This discussion of original sin is not just a topic of reflection for the theologians and the philosophers. It emerges in daily conversation and in our daily lives. We daily see the struggle against sin. Peter would be called Satan one day (Matthew 16:23) and the blessed recipient of God’s revelation, the rock upon whom Christ will build his church the day before that (Matthew 16:13-19). Peter would recognize in himself the struggle against sin that David faced, as do may other disciples of Jesus. This is because it is impossible for us to live the Christian life in the power of the flesh. We have to constantly repent and constantly pray for God’s forgiveness. This is the testimony of all of Scripture. But David’s is quite significant and quite telling. He says in Psalm 51:5, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Mr Skelly objects in his video about Psalm 51:5 that this rendering is just an interpretation of the NIV translators. It is their attempt to capture the propositional content of the psalmist and simplify it for the audience. But they misunderstood what David was saying and so the propositional content was not properly presented. A more literal translation, such as the NASB reads, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” Mr Skelly argues that the focus is on David’s mother, but not David. However, as Mr Skelly pointed out, this is a psalm of repentance. David is emphasizing his sin. He is asking God to wash away his iniquities (v. 2) to cleanse him of his sin (v. 3), and that he has sinned against God (v. 4). He is elucidating his sinful state. To empower this argument, he adds that he was wrought in iniquity, surrounded by the power of sin. This is the kind of person he is and he is standing before a holy and righteous God with nothing to provide as he throws himself on the mercy of God.
In response, Mr Skelly objects that the Psalms are just poetic expressions. That is the genre of literature. Accordingly, we need to assume that these verses are vulnerable to a metaphorical interpretation. While I am sure that there are enough Christian scholars who would say that they were mere metaphors, I would say that their being psalms is not a sufficient condition to interpret these passages metaphorically. For example, do the heavens literally declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1)? Did God literally create the heavens and the earth (Psalm 102:25)? Will the Messiah literally be pierced (Psalm 22:16)? We need to interpret as literal that which is literal and that which is hyperbole as hyperbole. I do not see any reason for us to arbitrarily say that Psalm 51:5 is hyperbole. The only reason that I can imagine is that if taken literally, it seems to be in defense of original sin. My response to Kerrigan Skelly seems to unveil the doctrine of original sin and unravel the web of difficulties that Mr Skelly has presented.
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23 The essential nature of creatures cannot be changed. It defines what they are and establishes who they are. Jeremiah argues that a leopard cannot change their spots just as an Ethiopian cannot change their skin color. These are permanent features that they were born with and have by nature. The parallel that Jeremiah draws is to the sinner. Just as the Ethiopian cannot change their skin color, so also the sinner cannot choose anything other than sin. It does not align with their nature. God could perform a miracle and enable them to choose something other than sin. But the boundaries of their nature offers them to freedom to choose only that which is sinful. The spots of the leopard and the skin of the Ethiopian are immutable just as the sinful disposition of men is immutable.
This is a point that Pastor Necerato pressed in his debate with Mr Skelly, and the response that imposed itself was unsatisfying. For Mr Skelly replied that this sinful condition is merely the result of an inveterate adaption. They acquired this sinful disposition, just as one acquires the habit of smoking. There are two problems with this interpretation. First, one can quit smoking. But the text says that for this individual to do good is akin to the leopard changing their spots. Is quitting smoking like a leopard changing its’ spots? Obviously not. Second, and this was pressed by Pastor Necerato, the condition of the Ethiopian skin color and the leopards’ spots is a natural condition that comes from birth. Therefore to parallel it with the sinful condition of man is to establish the sinful nature of man and serve in defense of original sin.
“The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity.” Ezekiel 18:20 When Mr Skelly argued that we need to interpret Romans 5 through the lens of clearer passages, he appealed to Ezekiel 18, wherein God says that the son will not bear the punishment for the fathers’ iniquity. But since the doctrine of original sin states that the fathers’ iniquity is passed on to the son, the advocate of original sin would have a lot of explaining to do. For the doctrine of original sin states that we are judged on the basis of the sin of Adam. I would like to first point out that even if I were to concede for charity that this passage was teaching what Mr Skelly is saying, that would not be to surrender the doctrine as a whole. For it could still be said that mankind has a sinful nature on the basis of passages such as Romans 5, Psalm 51:5, Jeremiah 13:23, Romans 3, etc etc. This is only relevant to the mechanism for the reception of our sinful nature.
But as TurretinFan pointed out in his blog post Misuse of Ezekiel 18, Especially 18:20, Mr Skelly’s interpretation is unwarranted. For this chapter is a response to a non-biblical proverb that the Jews were reciting, namely, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” It is to say that God treats people unfairly. God is full of iniquity. They are doing everything right, but God is still punishing them. God responds by saying that he is not punishing them for the crimes of their fathers, but the crimes that they have personally committed. TurretinFan concludes, “We have seen that the passage is talking about repentance, and how inherited guilt is no bar to repentance. We may still repent and live – and that God has provided the opportunity for repentance.”
Would a righteous God create us with original sin? Mr Skelly argues that the doctrine of original sin is an assassination of God’s character. It would mean that God has put us in a circumstance wherein we are doomed to fail, and then he condemns us for it. He argues that it would not align with the goodness of God to create us with this imperfection. But this argument is not an exercise in exegesis or biblical theology. Rather, it is an argument against biblical theology. It is to say that if this were the case, then God would be immoral, for God has to create us perfectly. If he were to do anything less, then that would be an act of evil for which he would need to demonstrate contrition.
This objection runs parallel to the argumentation that I encounter from atheists. Atheists will often say that if God does not meet their guidelines, criteria and standard of morality, then he is not really God. On Page 173 of God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails To Answer Life’s Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, Doctor Bart Ehrman offers a similar argument to Mr Skelly. He writes, “God appears at the end of the poetic exchanges, and refuses to give an answer.” He goes on to complain on page 188, “God does not explain why Job suffers. He simply asserts that he is the Almighty, and as such, cannot be questioned… God is not to be questioned, and reasons are not to be sought… Doesn’t this mean that God can maim, torment, and murder at will and not be held accountable?” Ehrman applies this reasoning precisely because he denies biblical authority. He denies who God is.
But if we acknowledge that God is more righteous, holy, and loving than we are (as I assume that Mr Skelly does), then who are we to stand in judgment over him? For in Ezekiel 18, when discussing that proverb that accused God of iniquity, God said, “All souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) All souls belong to God. He can do with them as he pleases. A denial of that will place one firmly outside of the realm of biblical authority, allowing us to stand in judgment over almighty God. Thus I do not think any moral argument can be mounted against God, in defense of original sin. My response to Kerrigan Skelly will hopefully provide insight into these difficult exegetical and moral questions. Indeed, there are answers to these moral questions, but it is more important to emphasize that we, as creatures, need to put our trust in the righteousness of God, and then these problems will dissolve. He knows more than we do.
Did Jesus Christ possess original sin? Mr Skelly argues that if Jesus really is to be truly human, then he must have possessed original sin just as the rest of us do. But that makes the assumption that we are arguing that original sin is intrinsic to human nature, that it is impossible to be human without possessing the demerit of original sin. But we are not proposing that. Rather, we are proposing that human beings possess the extrinsic property of original sin. Therefore, since Jesus did not possess this extrinsic property, he could be thought of as the Second Adam in this way. For Adam was the first figure that did not possess original sin, and he failed. Jesus Christ came, and did not possess original sin, and he succeeded where Adam failed.
Mr Skelly makes the additional argument that since Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, that entails that he must have had a sinful nature if the rest of us do (Hebrews 4:15). Of course, he was tempted. If he had a sinful nature, then that would have expressed itself in a yielding to those temptations. But temptations that he endured and that the rest of us endure are external. If they were internal, then they would reflect corruption and hence would be sin. That is why lust (internal) is sin (Matthew 5:28) and the temptations that lead us to lust are things that we perceive in the external world. I do not know of any advocate of original sin who would posit that there are additional temptations that would be chauffeured by our possession of a sinful nature. That seems to define the doctrine of original sin an unsympathetic manner with which that none of its’ advocates would align.
In Defense Of Original Sin. My Response To Kerrigan Skelly. While Mr Skelly may be sincere in his beliefs, I am afraid that he may be allowing his theology to portray the biblical data in a way that the authors never intended. His presentation of Romans 5 was bereft of an exegesis and all he was left saying is, “Well, this text is unclear.” Yet for the person who has not been influenced by Pelagian theology, the text is manifestly clear. Men died in Adam and were raised to life in Christ Jesus. This seems to echo the message that we cannot look to ourselves for our salvation. We will always fail. We need to look to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
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