In the mid-14th century, a bacterium called yersinia pestis was carried by fleas from Asia to Europe, being transported on rats that commonly infested merchant ships. As these ships arrived in ports such as Constantinople, Marseilles, and Barcelona, the rats would disembark, carrying the infected fleas through Europe. And the Bubonic Plague was born.
Estimates put the death toll from the plague between 75–200 million Europeans, which would have been half of the entire population.
In recent years, fears of a global pandemic returned with the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.
Yet, the entire human race already has been infected by a pandemic that leads to certain death. No one is immune; everyone is infected.
We call this pandemic sin.
It is a universally shared condition into which every human being is born regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religious affiliation.
You are infected. I am infected. Our children. Every family member. Every neighbor and friend.
It is the pandemic of sin that is at the root of every evil, from global conflicts to interpersonal conflict, from corporate corruption to inner-city violence, and from school bullying to religious hypocrisy, greed, slander, gossip, jealousy, and hatred.
The good news is there is a cure.
In Romans 5:12, the apostle Paul described what happened in the opening pages of history, saying,
“Sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men because all sinned.”
Paul is taking us back to Genesis, where “in the beginning” God created a perfect world that was to be governed by creatures uniquely created in the image of God.
In theology, when speaking about mankind created in the image of God, we distinguish between the natural image and the moral image of God. The natural image consists in man’s spiritual and rational characteristics, while the moral image refers to our capacity to live according to the expressed will of God stated in the moral law.3
While the essential, natural image of God remains, the moral element was shattered when Adam and his wife, Eve, consciously defied the clearly expressed wisdom of God by eating of the only fruit in the garden of Eden which had been forbidden.
In his book, Created in God’s Image, the late Anthony Hoekema provides a helpful six-part analysis of what happened in Genesis 3.
Of course, Adam was present, overhearing the conversation between Eve and the serpent. He was as complicit as Eve, which is why Adam, having been given the responsibility of headship, was ultimately responsible for the entrance of sin into the world, as Paul says in Romans 5:12.
This blatant act of rebellion was like opening Pandora’s Box, letting sin out into the world, leading to physical, spiritual and even eternal death — the three dimensions of death that have plagued each member of the human race ever since.
This is the doctrine of “original sin,” a phrase that does not refer to the first sin as much as it describes the human condition, where each human being is born into a sinful, corrupt condition. It is our original state.
We don’t become sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. A propensity to reject God’s ways is now our original nature.
Of course, this contradicts the popular, epistemological notion of the human person as a “blank slate.”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle articulates the concept of the human person as a blank slate in his treatise, On the Soul, where he describes the newborn human as an “un-scribed tablet.” The Latin form of this phrase is tabula rasa, or blank slate, which teaches that human behavior is not primarily influenced by something broken internally, but by external environmental forces such one’s social context or educational opportunities or the lack thereof.
In other words, each person is born with a blank hard drive that becomes coded by our life experiences and perceptions.
Using the image of a white piece of paper, 17th century English Philosopher, John Locke, popularized the concept of tabula rasa for the English-speaking world. His ideas would shape and fuel the major philosophical movement of the next century that we call the Enlightenment.
Aristotle’s notion of tabula rasa is cast in direct contrast to a theology of original sin, which claims that we are born with a corrupt nature. We don’t become corrupt because of negative social environments. Even though negative social environments certainly add fuel to the fire.
The debate becomes one of nature vs. nurture. This is a foundational difference between modern psychology and biblical anthropology.
Biblically, we begin with human nature as corrupt then consider issues of nurture. Obviously, nurture is significant and no believer seeking a holistic understanding of the human person would deny the power of experience and perception. But to limit an understanding of human behavior to nurture alone will leave us with a dreadfully incomplete grasp of human nature.
This also leads to unnecessary guilt. Consider parents who strive to nurture their children in a godly, gospel-centered environment, only to have those children rebel or leave the home as unbelievers.
If we are formed merely by nurture, then maybe those parents should feel shame for failure to effectively nurture. But if we take into account nature, then parents whose children make shipwreck of their lives should not be shamed or blamed.
This is not to make an excuse for poor nurturing. It is simply to recognize the reality of “original sin” and reckon with the presence of the sin nature in our lives and the lives of our children.
Although we cannot see our sin nature nor analyze it under a Petri dish, we may observe the symptoms of the disease. This is because internal moral corruption leads to external moral pollution.
In Luke 7:21–23, Jesus says,
“21 It is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Some parents remember their child’s first defiant exclamation of “no” in response to a parental command and the tantrum that ensued.
Young parents may turn to each other, wide-eyed, saying, “Where did that come from? What happened to our little angel?” As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Our children are the way they are because we are the way we are. Because Adam was the way he was. It is as if Adam’s spiritual genetics have been passed down through the generations.
British journalist, G. K. Chesterton, noted in his book, Orthodoxy (Chap. 2), that original sin may be the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable and validated by thousands of years of human history.
It is also validated every day in my life and yours.
One of my favorite books on marriage is by Dave Harvey titled When Sinners Say “I Do.” I love that title because of its theological realism.
There is a reason why you keep betas in their own bowls. Put them together and you are going to have a fight.
The same is true with humans, whether global conflicts or marital conflict. This is to be expected.
Some of us get married, experience conflict, and respond, “What was that?!”
Never underestimate the power of indwelling sin in your spouse or yourself.
The apostle Paul, who was skilled in heart analysis, wrote about his personal experience with his own corruption in Romans 7:14–25,
“14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul is writing in the present tense. Not of past struggles with sin, but of his present, ongoing struggles with sin as a regenerate believer and as an apostle.
If he had this struggle, you better believe that I am going to have the struggle, too. Big time!
Paul is brutally honest about his sin. But he is also gloriously hopeful about God’s grace.
Even in reflecting on his moral failures, he is able to distinguish his sin nature from his true identity in Christ. His sin no longer defines him or ultimately controls him (which is what we see in the following chapter of Romans).
He is convinced that although the struggle is real, the gospel, too, is real, reminding Paul and you and me that, in Christ, we are free from the penalty of sin. And to the degree we believe the penalty has been removed, I will experience liberation from sin’s power as well.
There is no power in merely recognizing your sin. It is what you do with it that matters the most. Will you despair or let the conviction of sin drive you to seek the cure?
In verses 24 and 25 of Romans 7, Paul comes to the end of himself, which is where we find the beginning of grace. He writes,
“24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul acknowledges that he must be rescued, conceding that the solution to human corruption is not found in ourselves.
In theology, we talk about the principle of “spiritual inability,” which is grounded in passages such as Ephesians 2, where Paul says that in our natural condition we are “dead in sin,” and must be “made alive” by the supernatural, resurrecting work of the Holy Spirit.
This making alive again is what we call “regeneration,” where someone with who is spiritually deaf is given ears to hear the gospel. They are given eyes to see their need, and they are given a new heart that is able to respond to the invitation of deliverance offered in the gospel.
As Paul says in Romans 7:25, this liberation from the penalty and power of sin comes not by self-effort but “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Back in Romans 5, Paul does not only speak of the origin of the corrupt human condition, but he also addresses the solution.
In verse 19 he says,
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”
This is the doctrine of “Federal Headship,” which teaches that Adam was the representative for all of the human race. This is why when Adam sinned, we sinned because he was our federal, or collective representative appointed by God to serve in that capacity. He was like one of our representatives in government. His decisions were our decisions.
Some will push back against this idea of moral representation, crying that it is not fair to have my spiritual condition depend on the action of someone else.
However, we may stop pushing back when we realize that our new condition as redeemed and righteous sons and daughters is totally dependent upon the actions of someone else — the obedience and sacrifice and obedience of Jesus.
Dr. Ian Crozier was born in Masvingo, Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe), but his family moved to the United States when he was 10, and he became an American citizen. He attended medical school at Vanderbilt University on scholarship, specializing in infectious diseases.
Eventually, his heart led him back to Africa.
While living in Kampala, Uganda in 2014, treating patients with H.I.V. and training doctors at the Infectious Diseases Institute, the Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa.
Seeing such a desperate need and having skills to help, Dr. Crozier immediately signed on with the World Health Organization — without pay — and by August was in Sierra Leone, at the very heart of the epidemic.
The epidemic was even more heart-wrenching than he had imagined — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the steady stream of deaths. The afflicted arrived day and night. Even though the facility was mopped with chlorine several times a day, blood, stool, and vomit were ever-present.
What would cause someone to intentionally enter that environment? To volunteer?
On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 6, during rounds on the ward, Dr. Crozier developed a headache, and then a fever. Three days later he was in route via airplane to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
As his blood teemed with the virus, he became delirious, sustaining a temperature of 104, his heartbeat grew faint, and his lungs, liver, and kidneys began to fail.
During his forty days in the hospital, there were dark stretches when his doctors and his family feared he would die, or at least sustain severe brain damage.
Infectious-disease specialist, Dr. Jay Varkey commented, “Ian was by far the sickest patient with Ebola virus that we’ve cared for at Emory.”
What would cause someone to volunteer to serve in those conditions? Why would someone risk so much for so little? Why expose yourself to the stench of someone else’s sickness?
The kind of love that drove Jesus to volunteer, coming from the glory of heaven to our sin-sick world to save afflicted sinners.
It is the kind of love that moved Jesus to enter our stench and to become our sickness, where on a cross he received the wounds that would cure us of the disease with the antivirus of his blood.
This is love.
Or as John puts it in 1 John 4:10,
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
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What if Jesus is Still Buried?
The Grace of Adoption
God’s Work For Us Versus In Us
The Gospel is Not a Second Chance nor a Clean Slate
The Grade Exchange
The Heart of the Christian Message
The Question Everyone Gets Wrong
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