Are we sinners because we sin or do we sin because we are sinners?
Growing up, this was one of the questions preachers liked to use when discussing man’s problem with sin. Now, if you were like me, you would have been traditionally taught that we sin because we are sinners, and not the other way around. However, if one really thinks about, it seems counter-intuitive. The term “sinner” technically means “one who sins”, so the act of sin should have preceded the identity of being a sinner.
Now, consider the case where we are sinners because we sin. Now this effectively means that we only become sinners after the first act of sin. Since sin is defined as falling short of the glory of God, therefore prior to the first act of sin, man is not a sinner and is meeting the standards of God. Therefore prior to the first act of sin, man is righteous, and thereby saved. However, this is practically impossible, as we know that man, one way or another, sins. But it does say that theoretically it is possible to not commit an act of sin, and thereby remain righteous. This kind of implies that it is theoretically possible to effect one’s own salvation by not sinning, even if it is practically impossible to do so. This theoretical case might not sound too well for some Christians.
On the other hand, consider the case where we sin because we are sinners. This effectively means that the identity of being a sinner is caused by something other than the act of sin. Which begs the question, if not sin, what causes us to be a sinner? And this is what the preachers are trying to get at with such a question. Basically, what is the initial state of man with regard to sin?
Perhaps, a better way to term this question then in light of this is, “Are we sinful because we sin or do we sin because we are sinful?” This gives the question a slight twist.
What Calvinism teach with regard to where man begins at in relation to sin is what we call Total Depravity.
Now, we have to qualify that term because it has a tendency to be misunderstood. Total Depravity does not mean that man is devoid of anything good and is as evil as one can be. It doesn’t mean that we are all literally Hitlers. Nor does it imply the absence of the image of God in us, as some Gnostic might teach. To put it simply, the doctrine of Total Depravity means that man begins with an inward disposition towards sin. It is termed “total” to imply that every part of man is affected by sin, and that nothing in him remains uncorrupted by sin.
What Total Depravity teaches is that even before the first act of sin, man is by nature sinful and so deserves God’s wrath. This nature is what some would call as the sinful nature and is the same concept as the original sin that Augustine, an early church father, taught. Man does not begin innocent but rather inherits not only a capability to sin but an inclination to sin that bounds his entire being.
How does man inherit this sinful nature? It is through Adam. The basic idea is that because of Adam’s action in the Garden of Eden, he caused a corruption in the nature of man and so brought forth condemnation to all. Many people have suggested different models by which this inheriting of sin is done. For example, some have formulated a Seed view, suggesting that this corruption is passed on to one’s offspring via the act of procreation. This effectively excludes Jesus from this inheriting of sin since he was not formed from procreation. Another example is the Federal Head view, suggesting that Adam acted as our representative in the same way an ambassador represents his country to a foreign nation. Nevertheless, the point is that Adam sinned and caused all men that came after him to be born with a sinful nature.
But what verses in the Bible support this doctrine? One such example can be found in Psalms 51:5-6. This is a psalm that David wrote after Nathan confronted him about his sin with Bathsheba. In this particular passage, David reflects on the fact that he was already sinful at birth and that his problem was not just a problem of an act but rather a problem of his nature. Another such verse is Ephesians 2:1-3, where Paul mentions that we were once dead in our sins, a phrase people have used to connote the Total Depravity of man, and in some versions (NIV) even explicitly mentions that we were gratifying our sinful natures.
But perhaps a better passage that illustrates this doctrine can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. This passage tells us how death came through one man, Adam, and not really through our own individual actions. Similarly, in Romans 5:12-21, we find Paul expounding more on this topic on how condemnation for all men was due to one man’s sin.
But one might ask: Isn’t it unfair of God to hold us accountable for what someone else did? Perhaps, but we must note that the Bible never really tells us that God is fair. Sure, it tells us that God is just. However, the Bible has been fairly consistent in showing us that God can be quite unfair and does often show partiality. After all, he selected Israel among many nations to be his people. In fact, the entire possibility of salvation is brought about by God’s unfairness. If God was fair, then all would go to hell period.
But then, wouldn’t God be unjust to punish us for someone else’s sin? Now this becomes a bit trickier.
True, God would be unjust if we are condemned strictly because of Adam’s sin, as this wouldn’t really explain why we would be deserving of death. But this is not quite the case. You see, think back on how we define sin. Sin is to fall short of the glory of God. Sin is to not hit the mark, to miss the standards of God. Now imagine the scenario where God’s standard is at least 6’0 in height. This means that anyone less than 6’0 misses the mark and so sins, and thus is condemned.
The point of the example is to show us that when we talk about the standards of God, it does not necessarily just refer to our actions; God’s standards can also be looking at our state of being. This implies that sin itself is not just a matter of action, but can also include our state.
Think of it this way: God requires perfection. Perfection is not an action, or even a series of actions. Perfection is a state of being. The fact alone that man is sinful is a sin in itself. So man is not directly condemned because of Adam’s sin, but is condemned directly because of man’s state of being sinful. Adam’s sin indirectly brought the condemnation of man, because it resulted in man inheriting a sinful nature and thereby becoming deserving of wrath.
And this is the basic idea of the Total Depravity by Calvinism. Man begins with a state of sinfulness, one that deserves condemnation, and thus require God’s intervention since he cannot help himself.
But what does Arminianism say on this matter? Interestingly, Arminianism likewise teaches Total Depravity.
It is a common misconception among Calvinists that Arminians do not believe in the Total Depravity of man. Arminianism actually agrees with Calvinism in that the initial state of man is one that has a sinful nature and is in bondage of sin. Historically, some Calvinists have wrongly accused Arminians as believing in Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism, two doctrines that the early church, especially Augustine, fought against.
What Pelagianism teach is that man is born innocent and can, in his own volition and without any divine aid, seek God. Through man’s seeking of God, he can then effect his own salvation. Semi-Pelagianism, on the other hand, works as a sort of middle ground between Pelagianism and Total Depravity, teaching that man is still born innocent and can make the first move in seeking God, who then responds and assists in the growing man’s faith. In both cases, man acts as the initiator, which is in stark contrast with the concept of incapability to seek God in Total Depravity which requires God to be the initiator.
So as far as sin is concerned, both Calvinism and Arminianism agree that man is born sinful, unable to choose God. Therefore God must initiate the process of salvation.
Now, this doctrine is not without its criticism. Some have pointed out how Ezekiel 18:20 tells us that God does not punish us for our ancestors’ sins. The accountability with regard to sin is personal. However, once we are able to move away from the notion that sin is an act and understand that man is condemned because of his state of sinfulness, we can then see that the verse does not really contradict the idea of Total Depravity.
An interesting implication of Total Depravity is that it sort of addresses one of the age-old questions of whether dead babies go to heaven or hell. Strictly speaking, if we are to believe in the Total Depravity of man, then we must conclude that dead babies go to hell since they are born sinful. However, some Christians have suggested that newborns might have a special provision that covers them.
The Bible, though, never explicitly mentions any such provision. Some people have suggested Jesus’ comment that we must be like the little children, theorizing that it is a nod to their innocence. However those verses would be better interpreted to suggest a nod to what we term as child-like faith, a faith that exercises full dependence on God. Perhaps the best passage to suggest a special provision for newborns is in 2 Samuel 12:23. After David’s first son with Bathsheba died, he said that the baby will not go to him but that he would be the one to go to the baby, possibly hinting at a future meeting in heaven. Perhaps, but as the Bible never really reinforces this notion elsewhere, we also have to take note of the possibility that it could have been just a mistaken notion that David had.