Barry is the founder and dean of Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.
In Genesis chapter 2, God gives Adam the conditions for life in the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam that he may eat from all the trees except for one. If Adam eats from the forbidden tree then Adam will die. Eve eats from the tree and then Adam also eats. In Genesis chapter 3, God pronounces a curse upon the Serpent, on Eve and Adam. This account is referred to as the Fall. All agree that it was Adam who “fell,” in the sense that Adam disobeyed God and sinned.
The question that has been debated in Church history is what affect, if any, did the sin of Adam have on his soul and the souls of his posterity. Any effect of sin could not result in a better or improved condition for Adam. Any effect would be a negative effect. Logically, there are only three possibilities. There could be no effect, a partial effect or a complete effect.
All three of these positions have been articulated and debated. Pelagius (5th century) was one of the first people to say that the Fall of Adam did not affect the posterity of Adam. He believed that the sin of Adam did not affect his soul and therefore, had no effect upon those born from Adam. He said that babies were born “tabla rasa” (“a clean slate”). Adam’s sin only serves as a bad example.
The view of Pelagianism has reappeared several times in the history of the Church. There are even contemporary supporters of this view. The most notable Pelagian and source for Pelagianism today is Charles Finney.
“No such change is needed, as the sinner has all the faculties and natural attributes requisite to render perfect obedience to God." Therefore, "...regeneration consists in the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference." Those who insist that sinners depend on the mercy of God proclaim "the most abominable and ruinous of all falsehoods. It is to mock [the sinner's] intelligence!” Charles Finney (Systematic Theology, p.226)
At issue for both Pelagius and Finney was the justice of God. How can God command men to do something that they are not able to do? They both were reacting to the view of the Fall that says men are now born sinners. If humanity is tainted with sin, or worse, completely corrupted by sin, then how is it just for God to command men to do moral good? How can it be fair for God to give orders such as “You shall not lie,” if it is in the corrupt nature of men to lie? The Pelagians cannot accept these commands as just unless men are able to obey.
Pelagians and the Death of Christ
What must be noted here, is that whatever premise we begin with there will be conclusions that will naturally and logically follow. If we begin by saying that the sin of Adam did not affect humanity, that people are born today in a morally neutral state, then several serious questions must be asked. Of primary concern, is the death of Jesus. If men are not sinners, then why does Jesus die on the cross? If men are born with a sin nature, then the death of Jesus would provide a sacrifice to atone for sin. But if men are not sinners then no such sacrifice would be necessary.
Several theories are offered to explain the death of Jesus. Some say that it was to show the anger of God against sin. The Dutch theologian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), said that while sin deserves punishment it does not necessarily follow that sin must be or is punished. God could relax His laws and choose not to punish sin and still be just. Grotius was not a Pelagian but many contemporary Pelagians hold to his ideas of atonement.
A Little Logic
If we start with the premise that the sin of Adam did not affect the rest of humanity, then we must come to several conclusions.
1) It is not necessary that people sin.
2) People who do sin, do so of their own free will and without compulsion.
3) If a person is born spiritually neutral, then they are just as likely not to sin as they are to sin.
4) Given people have no disposition to sin, there is no temptation or influence.
This point needs further development. If there is no sin nature or corruption in the souls of man, then there is no desire for sin. Without a sin nature or sinful corruption, there would be no appetite for sin. It should further be pointed out that if humanity is morally neutral, then there is no internal desire for good but only for neutrality.
We could come to other conclusions as well but this is enough to serve our purpose.
Without being overly technical, there are several possibilities in regards to whether people will sin or not. Understand, I am only speaking in terms of potentiality and ratio. If we start with the premise that man can equally choose to sin or to not sin, then it should follow that half the people would choose to sin and half would not. This is operating on the assumption that maintaining neutrality is not an option.
“What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” Romans 3:9-12
The Bible’s assessment of humanity is that all are sinners. Universally, there are no good people. The Bible is also clear that man is not neutral but rather has been affected by sin.
“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
The Bible says that humanity is a slave to sin (John 8:34), a slave to corruption (2 Peter 2:19), sold under sin (Romans 7:23), slaves to our passions and pleasures (Titus 3:3), etc. It is abundantly clear that man is not neutral and certainly not inclined to good, but is inclined to sin. And this is a direct result of humanities connection with Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:12).
At the very least, we must see that the sin of Adam did have a negative, universal affect on all people.
© 2019 Barry G Carpenter