Good, Bad or In Between
A Short Survey in the Doctrine of Man
Name that Creed
What is man? All theologies answer this question. Some say man is good; others that man is bad, but most say that there is a mix of good and bad. So well play a theological game (you're favorite kind, I know). Below are four statements on the teaching of man and the depth of sin, your job is to guess who said it.
Man is responsible for sin because he is endowed with free will; yet he is by nature frail, and the tendency of the mind is to evil: "For the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. viii. 21)
“By his free choice man sinned against God and brought sin into the human race. Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation. Only the grace of God can bring man into His holy fellowship and enable man to fulfill the creative purpose of God.”
“[Original sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin-an inclination to evil that is called 'concupiscence.'”
"Nor do I absolve my own self of blame: the human soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."
Before we get to the answers, let's point out the difficulty of the game: all the answers are the same! The key word in each answer is 'inclination'. In the first answer: “the tendency of the mind is to evil.” In the second and third: “a nature and an environment inclined toward sin” and “inclined to sin.” And in the last answer: “The human soul is certainly prone to evil.” There is a common theme in all of these teachings, and that is that man is not good, and yet not necessarily evil, but inclined and prone to do evil.
Now for the source of each statement:
The Jewish Encyclopedia
Baptist Faith and Message (2000)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405
The Quran 12.53
Stunned? It is an amazing thing that modern Judaism, the Southern Baptist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Muslim religion have the same doctrine of man. All of these teach that man is wounded, sick, troubled, but that there is still some degree of freedom and life in the will of man.
I, A Poor, Miserable Sinner
Most people think of themselves as a “pretty good person.” The Scriptures beg to differ. The denial of original sin means that most people live in the delusion of their own freedom, but the Bible teaches that all men are dead in trespasses and sin. How many good people are there? St Paul answers:
It is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips." "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." "Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known." "There is no fear of God before their eyes." Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” [Romans 3:10-19, see also Ephesians 2:1ff]
The Scriptures teach with clarity that man is wicked and unholy, and yet (as we have seen above) this teaching that no one is righteous or holy is almost universally denied. But this makes sense. Our sinfulness is so complete that we are blind to our sinful condition.
Imagine a man who falls off a ladder and breaks his ankle. He is broken and he knows it, he cries out for help from someone else. But imagine again that this man breaks his ankle and his back. Now he doesn't feel the pain of his injury, and in fact might not even know that he is hurt. “Give me a hand up, I'll be okay.” So is our fall, we are so badly hurt that we do not even feel the injury; we do not know the depth of our sin.
Martin Luther talked of this trouble, that our sin is so deep that we don't even feel it:
“This hereditary sin is so deep and horrible a corruption of nature that no reason can understand it, but it must be learned and believed from the revelation of Scriptures, Psalm 51:5; Romans 6:12ff; Exodus 33:3; Genesis 3:7ff.” [Smalcald Articles III.I.3]
What Does it Matter?
Most churches teach that our sin is a tendency, not a death. Does this matter? Yes, in fact the Gospel is at stake.
If the article of Justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls, then the article of original sin is the article upon which justification stands or falls. When we know the depth of our sin then we know the height of God's love for us. The law shows us the depths to which we have fallen, our complete inability to love, serve and fear God, our complete lack of freedom, and so our utter dependence on Jesus for freedom, life and salvation.
Our Lutheran Confessions comment on this:
But the knowledge of original sin is necessary. For the magnitude of the grace of Christ cannot be understood and no one can heartily long and have a desire for Christ, for the inexpressibly great treasure of divine favor and grace which the Gospel offers, unless our diseases be recognized. As Christ says Matt. 9, 12; Mark 2, 17: They that are whole need not a physician. The entire righteousness of man is mere hypocrisy and abomination before God, unless we acknowledge that our heart is naturally destitute of love, fear, and confidence in God that we are miserable sinners who are in disgrace with God. [Apology to the Augsburg Confession, II.33-34]
The depth of our sin puts the “alone” in front of grace, in front of faith, in front of Christ. When we know the depth of our sin then we cry out with full voice to God, “Help!” “Lord, have mercy!” And the Biblical doctrine of our original sin gives us the comfort that Jesus has done all to win our salvation. This is the only comfort for sinners. May God grant us this comfort in life and in death.
INJ, Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller