Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Many New Wesleyan Arminians (including many evangelicals) and Eastern churches deny the doctrine of entire depravity and original sin, either in degree or in their entirety. This doctrine has been present, however, since the scriptures and has been maintained through the entire history of the church. Notable reformers and spearheads of Protestant theology Luther, Calvin, and Arminius held strongly to the doctrine (with nuanced differences), and even later English reformers such as Wesley believed in original sin (albeit somewhat modified). This entry attempts to make the case for both entire depravity and original sin simultaneously through scripture and demonstrate the continued teaching in the church fathers.
I will be using definitions from the Lutheran Book of Concord to define these doctrines. The doctrine of original sin is defined in Augsburg Confession Article II:
“1] Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with 2] concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost.
3] They condemn the Pelagians and others who deny that original depravity is sin, and who, to obscure the glory of Christ’s merit and benefits, argue that man can be justified before God by his own strength and reason.”
Apology Article II shows the connection of Original Sin to Entire Depravity:
5] For some contend that original sin is not a depravity or corruption in the nature of man, but only servitude, or a condition of mortality [not an innate evil nature, but only a blemish or imposed load, or burden], which those propagated from Adam bear because of the guilt of another [namely, Adam’s sin], and without any depravity of their own. Besides, they add that no one is condemned to eternal death on account of original sin, just as those who are born of a bond-woman are slaves, and bear this condition without any natural blemish, but because of the calamity of their mother [while, of themselves, they are born without fault, like other men: thus original sin is not an innate evil, but a defect and burden which we bear since Adam, but we are not on that account personally in sin and inherited disgrace]. 6] To show that this impious opinion is displeasing to us, we made mention of “concupiscence,” and, with the best intention, have termed and explained it as “diseases,” that “the nature of men is born corrupt and full of faults” [not a part of man, but the entire person with its entire nature is born in sin as with a hereditary disease].”
The subject is further defined and covered in the Formula of Concord Epitome Article I and Solid Declaration Article I, and it is defended in the Apology Article II.
Defense of Original Sin
Our sinful nature is present and widely encompassing from our youth. As it is written: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psa. 51:5). “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Pro 22:15). “For You write bitter things against me, and make me inherit the iniquities of my youth” (Job 13:26). “Man, born of woman, is of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). “What is man, that he could be pure? And, born of a woman, that he could be righteous?” (Job 15:14).
The New Testament makes it clear that all have sinned and have inherited the sin of Adam. “‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Mat. 10:18, 19:17, Luk. 18:19). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). “But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:15-19). “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
This same doctrine can be found in the Apocrypha. “For the first Adam, burdened with an evil heart, transgressed and was overcome, as were also all who were descended from him. Thus the disease became permanent; the law was in the people’s heart along with the evil root, but what was good departed, and the evil remained” (2 Esd. 3:21-22). “For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and how much ungodliness it has produced until now, and will produce until the time of threshing comes!” (2 Esd. 4:30). “For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death, and has shown us the paths of perdition and removed us far from life—and that not just a few of us but almost all who have been created!” (2 Esd. 7:48). “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die” (Sir. 25:24).
Defense of Entire Depravity
This begs the question, “How sinful is the nature of man?” Might he be partially deprave? This cannot be the case. The scriptures are clear on the complete depravity of man. The doctrine can be found from the very beginning in Genesis and Numbers. “Then the LORD [God] saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). “And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined” (Num. 15:39).
The doctrine is also found all throughout the wisdom literature. “Truly I know it is so, but how can a man be righteous before God? If one wished to contend with Him, he could not answer Him one time out of a thousand” (Job 9:2-3). “If God puts no trust in His saints, and the heavens are not pure in His sight, how much less man, abominable and filthy, who drinks iniquity like water!” (Job 15:15-16). “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt. They have done abominable works. There is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men. To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside. They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, no, not one” (Psa. 14:1-3 & 53:1-3). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Pro. 14:12). “The heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11). “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to all. Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecc. 9:3).
This can also be found in the Prophets. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity. Your lips have spoken lies; your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. They hatch vipers’ eggs and weave the spider’s web; he who eats of their eggs dies, and from that which is crushed a viper breaks out. Their webs will not become garments, nor will they cover themselves with their works. Their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their ways. They have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isa 59:1-8).
The New Testament continues this message even more clearly, and the doctrine can be found in the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and in Johannine literature. As it is written: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornicators, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Mat. 15:18-19). Perhaps the most famous passage on the subject from Romans: “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one’ (Ps. 14:1-3, 53:1-3, Ecc. 7:20). ‘Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit’; (Ps. 5:9) ‘The poison of asps is under their lips’; (Ps. 140:3) ’Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness‘ (Ps. 10:7). ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace they have not known‘ (Is. 59:7-8). ’There is no fear of God before their eyes’ (Ps. 36:1)” (Rom. 3:9-18). “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). “And you, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others” (Eph. 2:1-3). “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled” (Col. 1:21). “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all your trespasses” (Col. 2:13). “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (Tit. 1:15-16). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8).
The Patristic Witness
Many have said that original sin is an invention of Augustine, but this is far from the truth. While some church fathers, particularly in the East, denied original sin (that is, denied that we are guilty of original sin but instead only suffered its consequences, namely death). Figures in the early church maintained this doctrine, as once taught by the prophets and the apostles, and it can be found among many fathers across all of history. Some notable examples are listed below.
Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (175-185AD) Book 3, 22:4, Book 5, 16:3:
“Eve…having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race….Adam became the beginning of those who die.”
“But inasmuch as it was by these things that we disobeyed God, and did not give credit to His word, so was it also by these same that He brought in obedience and consent as respects His Word; by which things He clearly shows forth God Himself, whom indeed we had offended in the first Adam, when he did not perform His commandment. In the second Adam, however, we are reconciled, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning.”
Cyprian of Carthage (250AD), 64:5 (58:5):
“But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted — and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace— how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins— that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.”
Hilary of Poitiers (360AD), Commentary on Psalm 118 (119):
“Having been sent in a flesh in the likeness of that of sin, He did not have sin in the same way that He had flesh. But as all flesh comes from sin, that is, it derives from the sin of Adam the progenitor, He has been sent in a flesh similar to that of sin, because in Him sin does not subsist, but the image of sinful flesh…. [David] does not think he lives in this life, for he had said: ‘Behold I have been conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother bear me.’ He knows that he was born of sinful origin and under the law of sin.”
Ambrose of Milan (390AD), Commentary on Luke (12:52):
“Reason is the food of the mind, and a noble and sweet nourishment, which does not burden the body, and changes not into something shameful in nature, but into something glorious, when the wallowing place of lust is changed into the temple of God, and the inn of vices begins to be the shrine of virtues. This takes place when the flesh, returning to its nature, recognizes the nurse of its strength and, putting aside the boldness of its obstinacy, is joined to the will of the regulating soul – such as it was when it received the secrets of dwelling in paradise, before it was infected with the poison of the pestilent Serpent and knew that wicked hunger, and through gluttonous greed brushed aside the memory of the divine commandment which inhered in the senses of the soul. It is hence, we are told, that sin flowed from body and soul as though from its parents; the nature of the body being tempted, the soul suffered with the body’s disorderly health. For, if it had restrained the appetite of the body, the soul would have destroyed in its very beginning the origin of sin; but the soul, in its now corrupt vigor, heavy with burdens not its own, gave birth to sin as though in an evil pregnancy by the action of the male, the body.”
Council of Carthage (418-419AD): Canon CX (Latin)/ CXII (Greek):
“Likewise it seemed good that whosoever denies that infants newly from their mother’s wombs should be baptized, or says that baptism is for remission of sins, but that they derive from Adam no original sin, which needs to be removed by the laver of regeneration, from whence the conclusion follows, that in them the form of baptism for the remission of sins, is to be understood as false and not true, let him be anathema.
For no otherwise can be understood what the Apostle says, By one man sin has come into the world, and death through sin, and so death passed upon all men in that all have sinned, than the Catholic Church everywhere diffused has always understood it. For on account of this rule of faith even infants, who could have committed as yet no sin themselves, therefore are truly baptized for the remission of sins, in order that what in them is the result of generation may be cleansed by regeneration.”
After this, Augustine and the Augustinian tradition, carried by figures such as Prosper of Acquitaine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, and Lupus De Ferrier, continued Augustine’s strong and clear position on original sin and the depravity of man.
The Second Council of Orange (529 AD) addresses original sin and the depravity of man and settled this topic for the Western church for centuries to come, strongly defending the Augustinian position on scriptural grounds.