The Original Justice and Sin Debate

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As you might be able to tell from recent posts, I’ve been studying original justice and sin as of late, from different traditions.

What many may not know, is there is a disagreement between the Catholic/Eastern church and the Reformed church over the state of Adam pre fall and post fall. Both agree that Adam was in a state of justice and righteousness before the fall. And both agree that mankind fell in Adam.

However, the Reformers differed on Adam’s state in original justice, and especially on mankind’s state after the fall, from the Catholic church. Luther and Calvin wrote much on their disagreements on mankind’s pre and post fall states.

With that said, what is the main difference between the Catholic church and Reformed?

Charles Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, aptly lays out the disagreement here:

The doctrine of [Catholic church] as to the original state of man agrees with that of Protestants, except in one important particular. They hold that man before the fall, was in a state of relative perfection; that is, not only free from any defect or infirmity of body, but endowed with all the attributes of a spirit, and imbued with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, and invested with dominion over the creatures. Protestants include all this under the image of God; the Romanists understand by the image of God only the rational, and especially the voluntary nature of man, or the freedom of the will. They distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained. Protestants, on the other hand, hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy. This, however, may be considered only a difference as to words. The important point of difference is, that the Protestants hold that original righteousness, so far as it consisted in the moral excellence of Adam, was natural, while the Romanists maintain that it was supernatural.

Now what is Hodge saying here? What he is describing, is that fact that the Catholic church distinguishes between the “image of God” (man in his natural state), and Adam’s state of original justice. For them, Adam’s state of righteousness and relationship with God was something supernatural, rather than something within his nature; it was an endowment given above and beyond his natural state. Thus, Adam’s original righteousness and justice was preternatural. It was a gift of God, infused into the soul of Adam at the point of creation, which made him more than a creation; it made him a divine son with divine qualities.

What is to be noted here, is that Catholics argue that without this supernatural endowment, Adam would have been subject to death and temptation. Matter, by definition, is subject to change, breakdown, and finitude. And thus even the universe itself would be subject to constant breakdown without supernatural intervention. Adam was thus unfused with supernatural life, enabling him to live beyond his naturally created state.

In contrast, Protestants hold that Adam’s state of righteousness was something natural to him. Adam’s righteousness was the “image of God”; something he was created with. And so he was created naturally righteous, naturally immortal, naturally in fellowship with God. Had Adam not rebelled, he would have lived confirmed as he was. He possessed within himself that life and righteousness which God desired.

This disagreement, as would be expected, flows into one’s understanding of original sin. Both the Catholic and Protestant tradition agree that something fundamental happened to the entire human because of Adam’s sin. Adam fell, but from what? And how does it affect us?

Protestants, logically hold from the position that Adam was naturally righteous, that mankind fell from an upright nature. As Hodge says, Protestants “hold that it is the divine image in its most important constituents, that man forfeited by his apostasy”. In other words, the human nature became cursed and depraved as a result of the fall.

As a result, humans, while still containing the image of God in some form, are said to be born marred and defaced in their nature. Man then operates from this broken nature; and thus sinful desires, thoughts, and actions spring from this depravity.

In contrast, Catholics hold that, rather than falling into a depraved nature, mankind fell from this supernatural grace which endowed them with eternal life. Hodge says,

[Catholics] distinguish, therefore, between the image of God and original righteousness. The latter they say is lost, the former retained

Mankind lost the grace which upheld them, but the human nature is retained. In other words, human nature is not defaced; rather, it is only deprived of the grace which upheld it. Thus, mankind is evicted, as it were, from God’s life, and left to death and sin.

Catholic Taylor Marshall distinguishes the difference such:

The Catholic Church teaches that Adam and Eve were constituted in grace prior to the Fall … The Catholic Church teaches that Adam “fell from grace”; where as some Protestants teach “Adam did not fall from grace, because he wasn’t sinful and was therefore not in a state of grace.” This begs the question: If Adam “fell”, then from what did he fall? It seems that the answer is that Adam fell from nature (source)

Catholics, would then not hold to total depravity. However, they would add that human nature is wounded in several ways:

The fall of Adam and Eve brought the “four wounds” to human nature. These are enumerated by St Bede and others, especially St Thomas Aquinas (STh I-II q. 85, a. 3):
  1. Original sin (lack of sanctifying grace and original justice)
  2. Concupiscence (the eleven passions are no longer ordered perfectly to the soul’s intellect)
  3. Physical frailty and death
  4. Darkened intellect and ignorance (source)

What is notable, is that the Catholics do not understand the temptation to sin, or disordered passions, labeled “concupiscence”, as inherently sinful. Passions are disordered — given to sin — as a result of the deprivation of grace. Contrastly, Protestants teach that desires or passions for sin come from the depraved nature, and are thus sinful. Consequently, Catholics do not believe the individual person himself is worthy of wrath — rather, from a deprived (not depraved!) nature, those actions which are sinful merit punishment. Reformed thinkers believe that the human nature is inherently fallen, deserving of wrath.

So then, there is much debate over the state of Adam in original justice, and the state of mankind after his apostasy.

While we can agree on much, this teaching creates some dissonance between the Protestant and Catholic traditions.

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Douglas Wilson on Total Depravity

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“There are two basic pictures of man’s state in the Bible. The first is that man is a slave to sin. The second is that man is dead in his transgressions and sins. In both cases, man is utterly helpless, and the helplessness is comprehensive. It affects everything he is, and everything he does…

As Paul states, no one seeks after God. The sinful mind is hostile to God and cannot desire Him. But as Paul also recognized, the unregenerate Jews did have a zeal for God, but without knowledge. This zeal only increased their condemnation. Paul, before his conversion, delighted in the law of God, and had a great zeal for it. But he also hated the people of God… [As Paul himself said, he had a] zeal without knowledge. [What this means, is that] seeking after God on your own terms, with your own understanding, is simply a subtle way of running from Him. An unregenerate man can love the Word of God, but only so long as he misunderstands it. An unregenerate man can understand the Word of God, but only so long as he hates it… If he lifts his arm, the rest of him sinks deeper…

The sinful mind is hostile to God. This does not mean that the non-Christian cannot praise God or pray to Him. It does mean that everything is done in the context of his larger rebellion against God. And the context affects everything. Therefore, when he praises God, even his praise is sin. When he prays, his prayer is an offense. This means that evangelical obedience, obeying the gospel, is impossible for the non-Christian. He cannot repent properly, and he cannot believe properly. He can perform what he believes to be repentance (but which is actually a worldly sorrow unto death), and he can assent to the truths of the Christian religion. But as he does these things, he will always be doing something else that negates or denies it. He will take back with one hand what he gives with the other. He cannot remove himself from the context of his rebellion. He cannot cease rebelling; he cannot surrender. If he runs up the white flag, it is with treachery in his heart.”

Douglas Wilson, Easy Chairs, Hard Words: Conversations on the Liberty of God 

How should Christians respond to Robin Williams’ death?

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As Christians, how then should we respond to this news that Robin Williams has committed suicide?

To begin, here are a few ways not to respond to new of his death:

Christians should never comment about how selfish suicide is. We should never comment about how Williams should’ve chosen joy over depression, as Matt Walsh so tactlessly and ignorantly suggested (source). We should never suppose that it was because of some secret sin that Williams couldn’t get over his depression, and chose to end his life. We shouldn’t even say that his suicide sent him straight to hell, as if there were any sin more grievous and deserving of hell than the next. 

So how should we then respond?

I believe that Christians of all people, should have a humble, loving, mournful and broken attitude toward this incident. And rather than making any type of comment about what he must have done wrong, or why he chose what he did, or why it was sinful, or selfish, or why we would’ve never done that, or why he could have chosen another path, our first response should simply be to mourn.

We should mourn that sin (rather than simply being bad choices we make) has so infected and affected our entire nature in such a way that it not only alters our soul, but our bodies and minds as well. 

As Christians, our worldview, and our theological grid, requires that we respond differently than anyone else to something like this. Because the Bible declares that no one is better than anyone else. All people are enslaved to sin, unable and unwilling to free themselves. Scripture declares that “no one is righteous, no not one” (Rom 3:10), and that we are slaves to our sin (Rom 6:16, John 8:34). The Bible declares that we not only choose sinful things, but that we have been born with a sinful nature, deserving of wrath and hell (Eph 2:1-10). Even more than that, the scriptures tell us over and over that apart from God’s grace, we all will (not might, not maybe, but will) choose self-destructive, selfish, suicidal sins, and we all will die because of it (Rom 3:23).

Because of this, we aren’t any better than Williams. And so, we should mourn, pray, and be reminded of the fact that we have all chosen, in a thousand different ways, the same fate as Williams. We are all just as sinful, and all in need of Christ’s transforming grace. If we don’t respond this way, we are, in a subtle, small way, saying that we are, even if just a little bit, better than Robin Williams. This is simply not true. 

But more than this; because sin is not just something we do but is an infection that has invaded every part of our being, we must recognize that the fall affects not only our soul, or our will, but our bodies and brain. Sin has affect every part of our being, including our physiology — and part of this includes our brain, which in turn affects our mood, thoughts and reason. As one blogger once put it,

…the fall effects every area of life. We are usually fine admitting that the fall causes physical problems. Sure, if you are born disabled, that it’s not your fault but a result of original sin. But… when it comes to mental disorders or sexuality we suddenly become Pelagians. Depression can’t be inborn. Anxiety can’t be inborn. Homosexuality can’t be inborn. But if we truly believe that our birth was corrupted by the fall of man, why wouldn’t we acknowledge that these aspects of human nature have also been affected? Is the mind so divorced from the body that we are only affected outwardly, without any damage to the emotions? (source)

What a healthy view of human depravity! And in fact, the fall has affected every part of man. Yes, Adam (and all of us), when he chose to sin against God, died spiritually. But God also pronounced a judgment not just on the soul, but also the body, saying, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Our bodies are affected in such a way by the fall, that we are born into death. From the moment of our birth, our bodies decay and are corrupted. And this decay and corruption includes our brains and bodies. It affects our moods and thoughts.

All this to say, Robin Williams did not choose depression. In fact, from what I understand, he very much so wanted to be joyful. But because he was born into sin, the fall had affected him in such a way that spiraled him into depression, and tragically, to suicide. And while this suicide was a choice, and a choice for which he will answer, it was a choice warped and infected by sin. 

We must understand, the fall affects us all in all sorts of different ways. It affects our perception of reality, our will, our choices, and our moods which in turn leads us and propels us into irrational and sinful actions that are destructive and harmful. This is how deep and wide the fall has wrecked us. And this awful incident is one such case.

And because of this, Christians should react to Williams’ death with deep sorrow, and deep acknowledgement that we are all broken and sinful people, born into death, enslaved to sin. How else could it be otherwise? More than that though, Christians should react with prayer, knowing that apart from the gospel, we all will all choose death all the time.

We need the grace of God!

On the Nature of Sin (part 2)

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In my first post, we discovered that sin is a core heart issue, and that apart from saving faith in Jesus, is impossible to remedy. I want to consider another text from Romans in which Paul talks about the inability of man’s will in being pleasing to God. Akin to the doctrine of depravity is the thought that man’s will is so hopelessly bound; that apart from the Spirit’s regenerating work, we are simply unable and unwilling to change ourselves.

Paul says in Romans 8:8, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God”.

In Romans 7-8, Paul has been discussing his own inability in his flesh (man in his natural state) to obey the Law of God. This discussion climaxes at the end of Romans 7 where Paul declares that though he has the desire to do what is right, within his own power, he has “not the ability to carry it out” (Rom 7:18). Notice the totality of Paul’s statement: in our natural state, we cannot please God. This statement is one of absolute inability. We are utterly powerless to obey. Though we may know what is right, and even desire what is right, we lack the resources to live what is right.

This is in fact Paul’s entire argument in Romans 7. Everyone has at least some understanding of right and wrong; but, this knowledge alone does not enable us to actually obey it. Paul says that he in fact “delight[s] in the law of God, in [his] inner being”; and yet, he completely lacks the capability to apply and live out this revealed law (Rom 7:22). So then, Paul concludes that he is unable to obey God, being dead to God and alive to sin (Rom 7:24).

This is the deep rooted nature of our sin. Without outside help, we are chained, bound, completely helpless. And though we might desire to obey, we simply cannot. Even with our best effort, “evil lies close at hand” (Rom 7:21).

And so what is the solution to this law of sin that dwells in us? Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the Spirit of God is the solution. Martin Luther rightly says that our own effort to obey God “will never give rise to a single instance of ability … if God does not give the Spirit”. We must be enlivened, awakened, raised. We must be given new life from God by his Spirit. And Paul tells us that if we live by the Spirit, we will be alive to righteousness (Rom 8:10). This Spirit-enabled life comes from faith in Christ Jesus, who breathes life into us, giving us his righteousness, and making us a new creation (Rom 8:1-4, 2 Cor 5:17). We are not only given new life, but a new nature. We are given a new will through which we can live toward God and obey his commandments.

John Piper says that “the very nature of mercy that we need is will-awakening, will-transforming mercy”. We need a new will by the power of God. And God does this by awakening us by his Spirit. Apart from this sovereign awakening transformation from God, we are left unable to please Him. Praise God that he can and does awaken sinners to new-creation glory. 

As God said to his people in Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you” (Ezek 36:26-32). 

What is this grace but divine enablement? It is God’s divine, righteousness-imparting, new-creation-making, will-transforming gift of obedience.

On the Nature of Sin (part 1)

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I plan on writing a few meditations on the totality and exceeding nature of our sinfulness apart from the sovereign grace of God in our lives.

I want to start off with the all-encompassing nature of sin apart from faith in Jesus. Paul makes a startling claim in his address to the Romans that, if not thought through, can easily be missed.

In Romans 14:23, Paul says, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

Every action apart from faith in Christ, is sinful at its root. This is a very all-encompassing claim. All things done without faith as sin. What Paul wants to say here is that all of humanity’s actions at their core are sinful. All actions are at their heart, sin.

Notice here that Paul does not say that men cannot do outwardly moral things. Nor did Paul say that men cannot try or even want to do good things. In fact, Paul affirms that people can have an outwardly moral life, even one in more conformity to God’s law than a Jew (Rom 2:14). But in Romans 14, Paul makes clear that the issue is not outward conformity; rather, it is the inward intentions of the heart — God wants hearts that are in line with his character. And Paul says that this happens only through faith-filled obedience to Jesus. Without Christ, our hearts are hopelessly crooked, mixed with wrong intentions and motives. Many outward actions may look in conformity to God’s desires, but at the heart level, are in rebellion to God. And so even good deeds done without this faith are by nature, sinful. What we must gain from this verse is that the nature of our sin is total. It is not that apart from Christ, men can do some good things. Rather, at the foundation, we can do nothing good in and of ourselves.

On this verse, John Piper says,

“Many outwardly good acts come from hearts without Christ-exalting faith, and therefore, without love, and therefore without conformity to God’s command, and therefore are sinful. If a king teaches his subjects how to fight well and then those subjects rebel against their king and use the very skill he taught them to resist him, then even those skills, as excellent and amazing and ‘good’ as they are, become evil. Thus man does many things which he can do only because he is created in the image of God and which in the service of God would be praised. But in the service of man’s self-justifying rebellion, these very things are sinful. We may praise them as echoes of God’s excellence, but we will weep that they are prostituted for God-ignoring purposes” (source)

Without faith then, even our best efforts are but dirty rags to God, sinful in his sight. And apart from saving faith in Christ, we are hopelessly unable to obey God from the heart. We are unable to offer to him good works that are at any level godly. In fact, we need God’s transforming grace to redeem and enable us to obey in faith and from the heart.