All who believe in the one true God, and in His only Son, Jesus Christ, and redemption through His blood, certainly believe the Biblical doctrine of sin. For none can believe in Christ as Redeemer without believing in that from which He redeemed us; and there is no knowledge of Jesus the Savior without the knowledge of sin. Our Lord Himself clearly points out this necessary connection when He says: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12). All saints are poor sinners; all Christians know and acknowledge and lament their sin. Every Christian believer can join St. Paul in confessing: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). The Christian Gospel is for sinners only.

What is sin? The clearest and briefest definition is given in 1 John 3:4: “Sin is the transgression of the law.” In the creation God wrote His Law into man’s heart; and though this natural knowledge of the Law has been dimmed in consequence of inborn sin (of which you will read more later in this chapter), it may readily be shown that man daily transgresses also that remnant of the divine Law to which his conscience bears witness. That we may be left the more utterly without excuse, God has clearly revealed His Law through Moses, briefly summarizing it in the Ten Commandments, and causes it to be proclaimed to us in order to sharpen our knowledge of His just demands and so deepen our knowledge of sin. Only that which is contrary to God’s holy Law is sin; but everything which steps beyond the bounds of this Law, in desire, thought, word, or deed, is sin. “We daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment.” (From Luther’s Small Catechism. Explanation of the Fifth Petition).

The Bible, however, not only tells us what sin is, but also how sin was brought into the world and what a hold it has obtained upon our nature. The prince of the fallen angels, who “kept not their first estate” (Jude 6), as mentioned in the previous chapter, called the Devil and Satan (Rev. 20:2), seduced our first parents into unbelief and disobedience to God, which radically ruined their nature, depriving them of their concreated righteousness, and so also depriving of righteousness the human nature shared with them by all their descendants, corrupting the stream, as it were, at its source. The devil made a beginning with sin (1 John 3:8: “The devil sinneth from the beginning”), and the consenting will of Adam, the father of our race, brought sin into the world (Rom. 5:12: “By one man sin entered into the world”). The history of the fall and its immediate consequences is to be read in the third chapter of Genesis.

Romans 5:12, just quoted, continues: “And death by sin.” Death, spiritual, temporal, and eternal, is both the immediate and ultimate consequence of sin. “The wages of sin is death,” Rom. 6:23. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” Ezekiel 18:4, 20. Spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God. Genesis 2:17: “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Eph. 2:1, 5: “You. . . were dead in trespasses and sins . . . We were dead in sins.” Temporal death is the separation of the soul from the body. Rom. 5:12: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Heb. 9:27: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Temporal death would never have come upon man except as the consequence of sin. Turn to your Bible and read all of Rom. 5:12, noting the chain of cause and effect. Spiritual and temporal death will be followed, unless the guilt of sin is removed from the heart and conscience by faith in Christ, by eternal death. In other words, those who meet temporal death while still in a state of spiritual death will fall into eternal death. Eternal death is the eternal separation of soul and body from God in the torments of hell. 2 Thess. 1:9: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Matt. 25:46: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment.”

The immediate and continuing effect of Adam’s sin upon his descendants is called original or inherited sin. It is the total corruption of our entire human nature. Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” This total depravity of our whole human nature involves both a deprivation or loss to human nature as it was originally created and also an evil inclination or positive evil state and tendency which human nature acquired in the fall and which inheres in the nature inherited by us all. In the fall man lost the original righteousness (“image of God”) in which God had created him, and is thus by nature without true fear, love, and trust in God, destitute of all righteousness: “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing,” Rom. 7:18. Positively, man is inclined only to evil: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” Gen. 8:21. Whatever we desire, think, speak, or do, of ourselves, by the prompting of our own original nature, is “only evil continually,” Gen. 6:5. “There is none that doeth good, no, not one,” Rom. 3:12. “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not,” Eccles. 7:20.

Looking a little more deeply into the Biblical teaching concerning original sin, we perceive that it embraces two things: hereditary guilt, the guilt of the one sin of Adam which God imputes to all men; and hereditary corruption, which in consequence of the imputation of Adam’s guilt is transmitted to all his descendants through the natural descent from the first fallen pair. In short, original sin means that we are both counted guilty of Adam’s sin and inherently corrupt in our own inherited human nature. The Scripture proof for the first (imputed guilt) is clearly furnished by Rom. 5:18a: “By the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation,” and Rom. 5:19a: “By one man’s disobedience many were made sinners.” If this imputed guilt should seem harsh to us, let us recall that it is the correlative of the precious doctrine which lies at the heart of the way of salvation, the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. To perceive this connection between the Scriptural doctrine of original sin and our blessed hope of forgiveness, life, and salvation look at Rom. 5:18, 19 in its entirety: “Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.” The Scripture proof for the second (inherited corruption) is Psalm 51:5: “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” and John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” Only this Bible teaching, which every Christian will and must believe on the basis of God’s Word, is a factual and realistic description and explanation of human nature as it actually is. Every system of education and every psychology of human behavior which fails to recognize these basic truths is utterly unrealistic and woefully at variance with the facts of experience as well as with the truth of Scripture.

Original sin is the prolific source of all actual sins. It is the underlying cause of which all sorts of actual sins are simply the natural result. Actual sins are variously classified in accordance with Scripture, the most familiar categories under which they are grouped being expressed by the terms: sins of commission (see James 1:15) and sins of omission (see James 4:17). Summing up, we may define actual sin as every act against a commandment of God in thoughts, desires, words, and deeds — which will be found to be in harmony with our Lord’s statement, recorded Matt. 15:19: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” It is important that Christians, by examining themselves in the mirror of God’s Law, perceive ever more clearly the deep inward corruption of the thoughts and desires of their hearts, lest they fall into a Pharisaic externalism which regards only such crass outward transgressions as, when detected, are punishable by human law as being serious sins, while comparatively disregarding the far greater host of damnable sins which remain hidden in the depths of the heart. “Who can understand his errors? cleanse Thou me from secret faults. Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:12–14.

The next chapter deals with the “only hope for sinful mortals:” Saving Grace.