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 The Principles of Theology - Article 9

by W.H.Griffith Thomas


<< The Result of Original Sin

Part 4. The Condemnation of Original Sin

“And therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.”

The wording of the English Article is very significant in its clear distinction between person and nature, between the sinner and his sin. “Every person born … it deserveth.” This is sometimes charged with being philosophically incorrect, but it is certainly true spiritually, for while everyone is born into this world with the evil principle within derived and inherited, it is only as the individual asserts himself and does what is wrong that he is personally subject to the Divine condemnation.

“Is it not, in fact, the nature and not the person that is regarded in all such statements? Sin may be considered abstractedly from the person in whom it resides: in its own nature it is ἁμαρτία, or a missing of the mark, and ἀνομία, or contrariety to the Divine Law. In whomsoever, therefore, it is found, even as a latent potentiality, it must in itself be an object of God’s displeasure; but it does not follow that the person must be so, still less that the sentence on sin will in such a case be actually inflicted. The fomes, or tendency, which if the infant lives will assuredly give birth to actual sin, cannot in God’s sight be a thing indifferent; but as it is only an objective guiltiness (to which the will has not consented, because the subject is incapable of will), it may be covered from God’s sight by an objective atonement (not appropriated by an act of will); so that the infant himself, if he dies as an infant, is not, and never has been, an object of God’s wrath.” [1]

The word “deserveth” is also important, expressing the Divine justice and emphasising what sin is entitled to receive. It does not for a moment say that every case of inborn sinfulness actually receives the Divine judgment, but only refers to its essential nature in the sight of God. It is a profound truth that while Scripture does not hesitate to emphasise in the strongest way the actual fact of inborn sinfulness and its essential blameworthiness in the sight of God, yet on the other hand, “in no case does original sin, considered in and by itself, carry with it the penalty of eternal condemnation.” [2]

Some little explanation of the phrase, “God’s wrath and damnation” seems necessary. The New Testament statement, “the wrath of God” (ὀργὴ θεοῦ), always means His judicial displeasure against sin. There is, of course, nothing personal, arbitrary, and vindictive, but always and only that which is righteous in the Divine attitude towards that which is wrong. Sin, to use a Bible phrase, is “the abominable thing which God hates” (Jeremiah 44:4).

This reference to the Divine condemnation of inborn sinfulness is a definite reminder, as we have already seen, of man’s conscious relations to law, and of his conscious responsibility to obey that law because of his possession of a conscience. Sin is the abuse of human freedom, and there is nothing more fundamental in the universe than the eternal distinction between right and wrong as it appears and appeals to man. No view of evolution can ever be allowed to destroy this basis of moral life. This at once introduces the question of guilt, for Scripture invariably associates sin and guilt. Whether we think of inborn sinfulness or personal transgression, sin is always regarded in Scripture as absolutely inexcusable and involving man in Divine condemnation. [3] By guilt is to be understood responsibility for sin and as a consequence the danger of God’s righteous displeasure. Of course, as there are degrees of guilt in sin, so there will be degrees of punishment, but we are now concerned with the fact that the sinner whose conscience is awake invariably admits his responsibility and guilt. There is nothing more distinctive of human nature than the action of conscience in charging the soul with responsibility. This fact cannot possibly be explained away, for it is one of the fundamental realities in the universe. Nor is it merely the consciousness of actual disobedience, but the realisation of a spiritual state which is opposed to the will of God. The guilt of sin is invariably associated with the consciousness of a personal relation to God, and in that a consciousness of the breach of those relations. Whatever qualifications may be made, and however we may attempt to explain or even palliate sin, this consciousness of guilt remains. “The objective fact of evil is accompanied by the subjective side of moral condemnation.” [4] This sense of guilt in man is thus an instinctive but very real confession that he has fallen, and as Coleridge has said, “A fall of some sort or other is the fundamental postulate of the moral history of man.” [5]

This consideration of sin in the light of law is essential to a true understanding of the problem. Evil is a mystery in any case, but it would be absolutely inexplicable if God were supposed to place man under a law of development, which makes sin a necessity of his progress. This would altogether banish moral guilt. The animal impulses which we are to overcome are not sin in the lower creation, and it is impossible to identify sinful propensities with animal powers since in such a case there would be no moral responsibility. It must never be forgotten that human sins have no prototype in the lower creation. Thus, it would be impossible to speak of such things as pride and avarice among animals. Evolution fails to account for the present moral state of mankind, [6] and it is obviously incorrect to say with Matthew Arnold that sin is not a monster, but only an infirmity. It is impossible to assert that sin is merely a survival of the brute in man, for, as we have seen, its characteristic is moral, not physical. Besides, when we examine our own heart our conscience at once testifies to the fact of moral responsibility. Whence then has man this moral sense? Nothing can rid him of it, and any denial really means the denial of life itself, to say nothing of Christianity.

Nor can we be satisfied to call sin inherited temperament, and still less is it to be explained simply by environment, for, if this were all, then it is obvious that, as we are often not responsible for our environment, we could not be responsible for our sin, and such a position is really indistinguishable from the Pelagianism of old days, since Pelagius “never denied that our environment is a source of temptation.” [7]

A familiar modern explanation of sin is that it is identical with selfishness, and here again we are conscious of inadequacy, for our life involves very much more than ourselves and our brothers. There are three circles of life: our relation to self; to our fellows; and to God. And when this is realised it is at once seen that sin and selfishness are not synonymous. Selfishness is, of course, one of the consequences and manifestations of sin, but it is not sin itself. Sin involves something far more than this. The New Testament definition of sin is not selfishness, but “lawlessness.” Law is as real in the moral world as in the physical, and no definition of sin is adequate that does not regard it as a violation of the law of God, whether of conscience or Scripture. Without the conception of law there is no place for forgiveness, and, indeed, no need of it, for apart from law and responsibility to it the sinner is only in error and needs instruction alone. But we know that information is not redemption, and the deepest element that satisfies man is the Divine judgment on sin and deliverance from it. It must never be forgotten that our views of sin and salvation are related and inextricably bound up. As is the one, so will be the other.

We therefore hold that sin it its fullest sense is (a) an act; (b) an attribute of the nature; and (c) an attitude of the spirit. Scripture sometimes emphasises one and sometimes another of these. As such, sin is the corruption of the stock by race connection. The fact of propagated tendencies can hardly be denied, and this is a factor when the time of choice comes. Yet transmission and propagation do not lead to excuse or palliation. If it be said that this thought of the unity and solidarity of the race in sin and guilt is an impossible position, the reply is that there need be no difficulties in view of the fact that Christ died for the race. As sin has affected the whole of humanity, so the death of Christ meets and more than meets this universal fact. “Since by man came death by man came also the resurrection of the dead.” [8]


Modern Theories of Sin

The various views held on this subject have been helpfully distinguished as follows: [9]

(1) Theories which trace sin to the will of man (represented by Kant, Coleridge, and Muller).
(2) Theories which regard sin as a necessity (represented by Schelling, Weisse, and Hegel).
(3) Theories which seek to explain sin by confining it within the bounds of religion (represented by Schleiermacher and Ritschl).
(4) Theories which seek to explain sin from empirical observation (represented by Pfleiderer and Tennant).

The conclusion drawn by the author of the book now referred to is that most of these modern theories “tend to reduce largely the circle of human conduct to which sin in the strict sense can be applied, and to cast serious suspicion upon the alleged consciousness of guilt, in that they fail to confirm its judgment by the philosophical, religious, or empirical methods, at least in its depth and extent. [10]

Speaking of Dr. Tennant’s theory, which is best known as the latest and ablest attempt in English theology to solve the problem, the same writer adds, “It is doubtful whether an empirical account really gives us an origin of sin at all.” [11] There is no doubt that the fact of guilt is the key to the position, and no explanation of sin which ignores this or sets it aside can be regarded as true, because with the guilt is associated the need and provision of an atonement, and the two may be said to stand or fall together. It is, therefore, pretty certainly true that “on the basis of current anthropological theories we can never have anything but defective and inadequate views of sin.” [12] And anything defective and inadequate in this respect will assuredly bear upon the question of redemption, for superficiality in our consciousness of the nature and power of sin will tend not merely to a superficial statement of the Atonement of Christ, but to the destruction of the idea of atonement itself. [13]

Reviewing the entire subject, it is clear that human sinfulness consists on the one hand of an inborn tendency to evil, and on the other in the free choice of the individual man. The fact of an inherited tendency to sin cannot well be denied, a propensity which, while it leads to actual guilt, is not in itself culpable. But beyond this, voluntary choices which a person makes after the stage of moral responsibility are, of course, affected by the developed natural tendency, and it is impossible to conceive of conscious moral corruption which does not depend upon inherited tendencies. It is this combination of the evil principle and the evil act that constitutes sin in its completeness, and at the same time provides the problem of human sinfulness. Each attempt to solve the problem contains an important element of truth, and the subject is undoubtedly two-sided, according as man is considered either as a member of the race or as a distinct individual. It is impossible to disregard either side, though in our endeavour to include both it is easy to conceive of difficulties and contradictions. The prevailing tendency of modern thought is to ignore the former element of inborn sinfulness, and to concentrate attention solely upon human acts. But no such partial view will suffice to meet all the facts of the case, and whatever difficulties and contradictions exist it is our duty to emphasise the facts on both sides, to adjust them to one another to the best of our ability, to recognise that there is an inscrutable element which at present is beyond our ken, and to believe that there will be an adjustment which will enable us to understand the awful fact of sin in God’s universe. Meanwhile, it will be our safety to give attention to the conclusions stated by the great German writer, Julius Müller, in his Preface to The Christian Doctrine of Sin.

“That everything in Christianity is connected more or less directly with the great facts of Sin and Redemption, and that the plan of Redemption, which is the essence of Christianity, cannot be rightly understood until the doctrine of Sin be adequately recognised and established. Here, certainly, if anywhere, Christian theology must fight pro aris et focis.”


>> Part 5. The Permanence of Original Sin (to be added)



[1] Litton, ut supra, p. 162.
[2] Litton, ut supra, p. 163.

[3] “Sin in its broadest and most comprehensive sense is inexcusable, incurs the wrath of God, entails guilt and punishment, and therefore, whether original or actual, is equally ethical, equally personal. There is no warrant in Scripture for regarding it under any circumstances as a pathological condition” (Simpson, ut supra, p. 116).
[4] See J. Scott Lidgett, The Christian Religion, p. 437 f.

[5] “This witness of the conscience is confirmed by everything we read in Scripture. A bad conscience is never treated there as a groundless fear of God; it is a reflection, all too feeble at the best, of God’s awful judgment upon sin. A great mass of modern theology denies this. … But to make sin unreal is to make redemption unreal also; it is to cast the shadow of illusion over the whole extent of man’s relations with God. There is nothing, I believe, which at the present time needs more to be insisted on, in theology and in gospel preaching, than the objectivity and reality of guilt” (Denney, ut supra, pp. 93, 94).

[6] Orr, ut supra, pp. 158, 209, 298.

[7] Simpson, ut supra, p. 120.

[8] As modern writers seem to think that this doctrine of inborn sinfulness can only be based on separate texts of Scripture, and that these texts do not warrant the exegesis often given to them, it is well to remember that the truth of original sin does not depend upon any isolated texts of Scripture, but on the whole trend and tendency of the Biblical revelation concerning man and redemption.

“The appearance of strength in Dr. Tennant’s attack upon the biblical argument for the doctrine of original sin is chiefly due to his giving a negative turn to the proof-text method. He rests his case in this direction upon what the proof-texts do not prove, that is, when separately considered. He ought to have reckoned with the contention that catholic doctrine affords an explanation of all the relevant phenomena of revelation, inductively considered” (Hall, Evolution and the Fall, p. 140, Note).

[9] Orchard, ut supra.
[10] Orchard, ut supra, p. 102.

[11] Orchard, ut supra, p. 95.
[12] Orr, ut supra, p. 11.

[13] Orr, ut supra, p. 11.


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Article 9

>> Introduction

>> The Meaning of Original Sin

>> The Extent of Original Sin

>> The Result of Original Sin

>> The Condemnation of Original Sin

>> The Permanence of Original Sin

Content of The Principles

>> Index

>> Preface by J I Packer

>> Introduction

>> 1 - Trinity

>> 2 - Christ

>> 3 - Descent into Hell

>> 4 - Resurrection

>> 5 - Holy Spirit

>> 6 - Holy Scripture

>> 7 - The Old Testament

>> 8 - The Three Creeds

>> 9 - Of Original or Birth Sin

>> 10 - Of Free Will

>> 11 - Of the Justifcation of Man




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