Unoriginal Sin

Sin is an imposter.

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.

See comments (2)


I’m a little surprised with Len’s article in regard to “original sin,” because in other articles he advocates for reinforcing the teachings of our confessions, especially for our young people.  We need to get back to catechism teaching, he suggests.  But this article seems to turn its back on those very confessions that explain the nature of original sin.

Original sin has to do with the first sin, Adam and Eve’s sin, that has had such a devastating effect on all of humanity.  Not only has this first or original sin been passed on to all of humanity with its guilt, but the sinful disposition by which it was committed has been passed on to all of humanity as well.  Because of Adam’s sin all people come into the world guilty of Adam’s sin, as well as having a sinful nature by which all of humanity cannot help but to sin.  According to our confessions and the Bible that is our natural inclination, that describes the human nature of all people.  Our sinfulness “originated” with Adam’s sin.

How can Len, or any Christian play down this fundamental human character, without also downplaying the significance of Christ’s sacrifice?  The glory of Christ can only be appreciated when seen in light of sin’s deadly effect.  It’s one thing to draw attention to the original goodness of creation, as Len does, but “original sin” with its devastating effect on all of humanity is the huge shadow that clouds and darkens the greatness of creation and of God’s creative glory.  That has always been the emphasis of the Reformed faith.

Len seems concerned that by putting Adam’s sin, or original sin, under a light, we come close to making God the author of sin, or at least attributing some fault to God for sin’s reality.  Reformed Christians, as well as most Christians, want to avoid this pitfall.  But the Bible doesn’t.  It is God who credits Adam’s sin to all of humanity, making all humans guilty sinners from birth on, apart from any decision on their part.  And it is God who ascribes and infuses Adam’s sinful nature to every human entering the world, so that it impossible not to sin.  Thanks to God that is our natural disposition from birth on, to be sinners.  It’s pretty difficult to dismiss God’s culpability in our sinful condition. 

The Bible doesn’t dismiss God’s involvement either.  In Romans 9, the apostle Paul suggests that God has the right to have mercy on some but also to harden others, using the Pharaoh as an example.  He can harden or have mercy on whoever he wishes, and no one, according to Paul, has the right to question God’s justice.  So the Bible, or Paul, suggests that hardening hearts (giving a sinful nature) to people is God’s prerogative and we are in no position to question him.  So although we may want to deny God’s involvement in sin’s pervasiveness, the Bible doesn’t.

Some may ask, who can understand the mind of God? There are some things we just cannot understand, so why try.  Others may suggest that this is a discredit to the God of the Bible and to Christianity.  How can Christians appreciate a God who makes all people helpless sinners, and then chooses only a limited number of lost people for salvation?  Others may simply deny God’s involvement in sin even though the Bible teaches otherwise.  Ignorance is bliss. 

God’s greatness in creation is awesome.  Most people do not deny this, even those who may not be Christian.  But that’s not the Christian message, is it?

I can’t help but to come back to this article.  Len wants to suggest that sin is not original.  He suggests that the original character of creation, including humans beings is blessedness, and not that of sinfulness.  Len says, “the Bible is clear that sin is not original to the creation.”  But I’m not so sure that is true.  I don’t read of Adam or Eve living in righteousness or blessedness before they fell into sin.  In fact, it seems that the first thing Adam and Eve do together is to sin.  It’s their sin that defines them.  It might seem that God not only foreknew that Adam and Eve would sin but that he foreordained it.  It would seem likely that God didn’t create them to be righteous but that his plan from before time was that they were created to sin and set the world in a sinful direction.  This fits with the idea that some hyper Calvinists hold to of a double predestination, that God created a human race that from the beginning would be fallen and condemned sinners.  And then from those created for condemnation he would choose some for salvation.  This is a view that is not altogether foreign to some Reformed thinking. And it does fit with some New Testament teaching such as what Paul advocates in Romans 9, as well as what the New Testament teaches about God’s elective purposes.

Len doesn’t believe in original sin.  To do so seems to cast a sinister view of God.  If sin is original to God’s creative plan, or was part of his original plan for human kind then what does this say about the God we claim to love?  Of course, if sin entered the world apart from God’s intended purpose, what would that say about God’s ability to accomplish his purposes and plan?  Sin has done a pretty effective job of messing with God’s plan for a good world already. Can we even be sure about the future?  We want to throw up red flags.  But Paul says, who are you to question God’s purposes, whether they seem fair to you or not. 

But we do question God, don’t we?  Arminians hate the idea of God choosing only a limited number of people for salvation, so they deny or reinterpret the Bible’s teachings on this subject. We (Reformed folk) love the idea of election because it emphasizes the idea that salvation is accomplished only by sovereign grace apart from human involvement or effort.  But we don’t like the idea of an election unto damnation (double election) because it stains our view of God.  So we deny those Scriptures that support such a view.  So many different views to deal with.  But Christians all love the Bible even though they interpret it differently.  The non Christian smiles behind our backs, as they point out the many inconsistencies of the Bible, this being just one of them.  That’s another view, as well, isn’t it?

Original sin.  Lots of different perspectives.  Thanks Len for yours.