4. Christ’s Victory Over Original Sin

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Before getting to what I believe is the source of traditional opposition to Full Salvation (post #5), I want to take a moment to discuss the doctrine of Original Sin. This little dogma plays a major behind-the-scenes role in the conversation about Christian salvation and thus deserves a post. The content in today’s post is adapted from a book by Neil Punt entitled A Theology of Inclusivism.

In orthodox Christianity the doctrine of Original Sin teaches that all of humanity is corrupted by sin. There is no one who has not turned from God; none who are righteous (Rom. 3:9-23). It is not merely a description of what we deserve but of who we are. We are all sinners and have, in some way or another, turned from God.
Up to this point we are still on good biblical ground. The problem, however, is that traditional Protestantism espouses that Original Sin (and its twin “Total Depravity”) is the grounds for the damnation of the unsaved. Evangelical Christian teaching often goes as follows: Everyone is sinful and deserves to go to hell; unless you repent and believe in Jesus the Christ then you will go to hellbecause you are going there by default anyway. In other words, Original Sin holds all of humanity in bondage and hell is our default destiny.
Neil Punt explains the error of this view when he writes, “Human blameworthiness is taught so consistently throughout the Scriptures that all of orthodox Christianity confesses it. This has uncritically filtered into our thoughts and theology as if it were evidence that all persons are outside of Christ. This erroneous deduction from the doctrine of original sin accounts in large measure for the widespread and firmly held premise that ‘All persons will be lost…'”
Far from being a contemporary phenomenon, this view of Original Sin has its roots in the Pelagian controversy of the 4th and 5th centuries. Here is some interesting history:
Pelagius (about 350–418 AD), usually described as a pious British monk, was concerned that Christians were becoming lax in their lifestyle. For this reason he began to teach that everyone will be lost except those who, by their own strength and determination of will, would live in obedience to the law of God following the example of Christ. Augustine (354–430 AD) recognized in Pelagianism an unacceptable works-based righteousness. He taught that all will be lost except those who God, in his eternal, sovereign, incomprehensible grace, has chosen to bring to salvation. A middle position between these two was that of the Semi-Pelagianists. They proposed that all will be lost except those who by their own sovereign decision accept God’s offer of salvation…. By the end of the fourth century, theologians began to view the plan of salvation in the restrictive form with which we are familiar: ‘All persons will be finally lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved…’ Ever since that time, mainstream Christian theologians have attempted to define the ‘exceptions,’ that is, those who they judged will be saved.” (Punt, my italics)
It is not difficult to see how this view of Original Sin has influenced traditional views of salvation. Today most Christians believe that all persons will finally be lost unless some kind of conversion to Jesus the Christ occurs. If Original Sin controls our default destiny, then of course there must be hell; of course Full Salvation cannot be true. 
 
But what if this approach to Original Sin is wrong? Are human beings all lost because of Original Sin? 
Believe it or not, the Bible teaches an unequivocal “No.” The Bible teaches that Original Sin has been disarmed and defeated by Jesus the Christ. This is what Paul explains in Romans 5.
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. — 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. 20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21)
Punt continues to explain, “Nowhere in all of Scripture do we read, neither is it implied nor to be inferred, that anyone suffers eternal death solely on the basis of his or her sin in Adamapart from individual, personal, willful, persistent unbelief and sin on the part of the person so rejected.”
Interestingly, before Pelagius and Augustine, “Those who were closest (in time) to the apostles had an inclusive view of God’s plan of salvation (For proof of this claim, see here). For the most part, they taught that all will be saved with no exceptions or that all will be saved with some exceptions. …Such restrictive definitions of those who will be saved are not found among the leading church fathers in the first, second, and third centuries.” (Punt, my italics)One of those leading church fathers was the great bishop of Alexandria Athanasius. In his treatise “On the Incarnation of the Word” he wrote the following:”By the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,” and so forth. Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all, “which in its own times He shall show,”even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us.”

What I think both Paul and Athanasius are saying is that Original Sin has lost its grip on humanity’s destiny. Although we are still sinners, it is no longer the “default” destiny of humankind. Because the grace and obedience of Jesus abound, humanity has received a new destiny: the destiny of the “New Adam” (Jesus). This has clear implications for the doctrine of salvation: we must shift from a presupposition that humanity’s default destiny is hell to a presupposition that our default destiny is reconciliation with God in Christ. Put simply, Original Sin should not be the starting point of our theology of salvation, the victory of Jesus must be our starting point.

While sinners must still “put on” Christ and live into their new destiny, I do believe that this is, in fact, their capital-D destiny because of what Christ accomplished. It does not mean that we are already “Good” or that in the stylings of Lady Gaga we may affirm everyone as “born this way.” No, we are simultaneously justified and sinners. However, I do believe that it is the task of the church to preach the eschatological victory of Christ and tell people who they truly are in Christ.

***NOTEThis view of Original Sin does not rule out the possibility of sinners being lost. It does not ignore the biblical texts that seem to teach eternal damnation, etc. What it does, however, is shift the grounds of that damnation from Original Sin to works done in conscious opposition to God. A survey of the New Testament will show that the passages that insinuate a final lostness of sinners base such lostness on works, not Original Sin (e.g. Matt. 7:23, 16:27, 25:45; John 5:29; Rom. 14:11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12-13, 22:12).
At this point, let us once again summarize what has been put forward in this post:
  1. Original Sin is often viewed as holding the keys to humanity’s destiny. Christians have traditionally presupposed that all humanity will be lost because of Original Sin (or Total Depravity).
  2. Although there are forms of the doctrine of Original Sin in the writings of St. Paul, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, the doctrine as we know it today owes its development to the Pelagian controversy of the 4th/5th centuries. This controversy viewed Original Sin as humanity’s default destiny.
  3. Original Sin does not hold the keys to humanity’s destiny. Jesus, the New Adam, holds the keys to humanity’s destiny.
  4. The earliest orthodox Christians presupposed that all would be saved because of the scope and finality of Christ’s victory.
  5. There is no biblical support for the view that Original Sin is the grounds for hell. The NT support for hell as a final destiny is based upon works and the conscious rejection of God.

The assumption that “all will be lost” because of Original Sin is unbiblical. If, as Neil Punt claims, “Nowhere in all of Scripture do we read, neither is it implied nor to be inferred, that anyone suffers eternal death solely on the basis of his or her sin in Adam,” then perhaps Thomas Talbott is correct in surmising that something other than ‘clear biblical exegesis’ is behind this stance. And perhaps this is yet another example of how something other than the teaching of scripture is behind traditional opposition to Full Salvation. This is precisely what I will put forward in the next post.

-jmw

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