I don’t believe in original sin. In fact, I think sin is just about the most unoriginal thing in the world.
Now, before you start to write your protest letter to the editor, let me explain. I believe that all of us are sinners, and that our sinfulness is deeply engrained in our nature. We sin as soon as we can, and we continue to sin throughout our lives. Sin is, as the Canons of Dort explain, pervasive—it infects every area of human life.
My problem is with the term “original sin.” It gives sin much more substance than it deserves.
First, the Bible is clear that sin is not original to the creation. The original character of creation, including the creation of human beings, is blessedness. It was all very good, and everything was immersed in God’s blessing. We should rather speak of original blessing, original goodness, rather than original sin.
It’s important to remember that sin is a fall, and God’s work of salvation in Jesus Christ is a work of restoration. God is not making something brand new in redeeming humankind, as though true human righteousness is an oxymoron. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “God created [humankind] good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with God in eternal happiness, to praise and glorify him” (Q&A 6).
Second, sin is unoriginal in its very nature. Sin is a parasite, it can only live off the good. Just as fruit flies need ripe, luscious fruit to exist, sin needs goodness. In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga writes, “Good is original, independent, and constructive; evil is derivative, dependent, and destructive. To be successful, evil needs what it hijacks from goodness.”
Lust is a perversion of love. Pride needs some accomplishment, some excellence to turn into self-aggrandizement. Greed refuses to gratefully accept the good things of life but instead demands to have it all. Even the devil is nothing but a fallen angel whose only power derives from what God originally gave.
By calling sin “original” we give away too much. God is the only original being in the universe, and what God made good are the only original things in the universe. Sin’s only power and purpose is to destroy, corrupt, and maliciously infect God’s good creation.
The term “original sin” also carries with it the implication that sin is somehow God’s fault, since only God can be credited with true originality. Sin always has the character of an invasion, and an invasion can only seek to displace or destroy goodness that is already there.
My purpose here is not to minimize the destructive power of sin and the appalling misery it has strewn across its storm-track throughout human history. Nor do I want to diminish the hold that sin has on our lives. Sin, while not original, is frighteningly real, and failing to recognize its subtle and sinister power in our lives will only allow it to thrive.
Rather, I want to magnify the incomparable greatness and goodness of God in creation and in God’s saving grace. The ugly parasite of sin is no match for the Creator God. In his resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed the devil and all his works, making “a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15).
Originality belongs to God alone. Sin is a fake, an impostor. The despotic empire of sin has been overthrown by the goodness of God in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. And its emperor has no clothes.
Questions for Discussion
- What did you think of when you first heard or read the term “original sin”?
- “Sin is a parasite, it can only live off the good.” Besides lust, pride, and greed, as listed in the article, what other examples do you see in the world that show how sin corrupts what is good?
- The article suggests that the term “original sin” implies that “sin is somehow God’s fault.” What examples, maybe even biblical ones, illustrate how we may have blamed God for evil?
- Do you think the church, in its history, has focused more on sin than on God’s goodness and grace? Why or why not? What are some examples?
- How does knowing God has overthrown the “empire of sin” affect the daily reminders of sin’s hold on our lives?
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.