What’s the most unusual holiday tradition in your family? One of the more unusual ones in mine is to eat haggis for breakfast the day after Christmas. As if the culinary onslaught the day before wasn’t enough, here we are, barely minutes into the morning, ingesting offal, suet, and oats (with a fried egg on top).
It may not be a common tradition, but it is a telling one. It’s one of the few tangible reminders that my family has Scottish roots. At some point in the early twentieth century, the family made its way down from north of the border, and ever since we’ve all found ourselves being born in southeast England. It wasn’t a decision I was involved in, obviously. And given the choice, I’d probably have preferred to grow up around the rugged hills of Galloway with a lilting Scottish accent.
The fact is, much of our lives is shaped by decisions made by our forebears. The choices of previous family members have determined many details of our lives even before we’ve begun deciding anything. It’s not always comfortable to think about (we prefer to think we are masters of our own lives), but it’s incontrovertibly true. We find our lives to be, in many ways, the product of other people’s choices.
And what’s true of our physical family is also true of our spiritual family. One of my Scottish forebears made a decision, and ever since, successive generations have been born rooting for the wrong side when watching Braveheart. And one of my spiritual forebears made a decision that has meant we all were born very far from home.
Corruption in the Family Tree
The apostle Paul summarizes the defining moment this way:
Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
The first part describes what happened historically: through one man disobeying God, sin entered what had been a pristine world. The second part helps us see what was happening theologically: all of us sinned. Paul is not just saying that Adam kicked off a trend, like that ice-bucket challenge a few years back, where someone started it off and eventually everyone ended up doing it. No, Paul is saying something more profound and tragic:
By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners. (Romans 5:19)
By Adam’s act, all of us are constituted sinners. His sin made us sinners. Not just in status, but in our very nature. We’re not born neutral, and then discover sin and consequently become sinners. We’re born sinners, and that’s why we sin. We can’t do otherwise. This is the doctrine of original sin, and it often gets bad press.
Gift of Original Sin?
The doctrine of original sin goes against so much of our instinctive Western individualism. It can feel unfair. But just as my eating fried sheep’s offal every late December is tangible evidence of my family background, so too the propensity of all of us to sin is evidence of where we come from. Original sin might be a hard doctrine to accept, but it’s one of the easiest to prove. There are around 7.7 billion pieces of evidence for it walking around the planet today.
“Original sin might be a hard doctrine to accept, but it’s one of the easiest to prove.”
If, however, we deeply accept what the Bible tells us, the doctrine can transform us for the better. Most importantly, we will cherish what Christ has done for us all the more. This is Paul’s purpose in Romans 5 — to show how Adam’s actions are a photonegative of Christ’s. We were in Adam, made sinners through what he did. But by God’s grace we are now in Christ, made righteous through what he has done.
When I first became a Christian, I was barely aware of how deeply rooted sin was in my life. The more I’ve come to appreciate this, the more I’ve realized just how much Jesus achieved on the cross.
Seeing Others Through Adam
But original sin hasn’t just deepened my appreciation for the cross; it’s changed how I see other people. Properly understood, it should make us more compassionate. The very part of this we often find difficult — our helplessness through Adam — can soften our hearts to one another.
Adam’s sin makes all who succeed him sinners by nature. The presence of sin in our lives is inevitable. We can’t help it. It doesn’t mean we’re not responsible, or that there aren’t consequences for our sin, or that God isn’t right to condemn and punish it, but it shows just how helpless we all are apart from Christ. We’re sinners and can’t be otherwise. When we see another lost person sin, we’re watching them be the only thing they know how to be. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but it makes it all the more understandable. We can’t snap ourselves out of this. We can only be reborn out of it.
This shapes how we see all of humanity, even at its ugliest. It explains the world to us, showing us how even with unprecedented wealth, education, and technology, we can’t seem to get our act together as a species. We may be cleverer, healthier, and cleaner, but we’re not better. We see the ongoing pattern of sin, that inherent Adamness, repeating itself in each new generation. No human advances will get us out of this.
This doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to encourage social reform or pursue justice. God’s common grace means there are ways we can restrain aspects of our sinfulness. We rejoice over efforts to abolish trafficking, racial discrimination, and abortion. But we do so knowing the deeper issue hasn’t been resolved: sin is native to us, and sinners are going to sin.
How Original Sin Warms a Heart
How does original sin make us more compassionate? We see opportunities in nearly every area of life. For instance, parents, this doctrine teaches us that your child’s sinfulness isn’t just the result of your imperfections as a parent. Even if, somehow, you’d made all the right parenting choices at every moment along the way, your child would still be a sinner.
“The doctrine of original sin makes the gospel all the more urgent, and all the more precious.”
I’m not a parent, but I encounter plenty of sinners. A pushy driver cuts me up in busy traffic: fine — it’s just a sinner being a sinner; no need to get upset. My wallet gets stolen: I’ll cancel my cards and make whatever arrangements need to be made, but I’ll also pray for the thief — he or she needs the new heart only Jesus can give. I meet someone with highly complex issues that has made him or her hard work to be around — I’ll do what I can to understand what’s going on under the surface, but I can feel assured that I already know what’s most deeply needed.
Every person I meet, no matter how different from me culturally or ethnically or economically — this lens of original sin helps me to understand what that person most needs deep down. However bewildering another culture may be to me, the underlying superstructure of the human heart is the same. Our birth certificates may state that we were born in London or Peshawar or Madrid or São Paulo. But spiritually, we’re all born in Adam.
The best-raised child will still be fallen. The most advanced human civilization will be no less sinful than the least. It makes the gospel all the more urgent, and all the more precious. Every human I set eyes on today (including the one in the mirror) has the same ultimate need and helplessness. By nature, we’re all descendants of Adam, whatever is on the menu for our post-Christmas breakfast.