I’ve sometimes been hesitant to describe sin as like a disease. I think that’s because, being Reformed, I want to be sure I properly explain the doctrine of sin. To admit that sin is like a disease can sometimes imply that somehow we are able to help ourselves in the midst of our sinfulness. That’s why it’s common among Calvinists to say, “A dead man can’t believe!” and things of that nature. And to describe our spiritual state in this way is certainly accurate. We are dead. We can’t will our way to God. It’s only by our being born again by God’s Spirit that we believe. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1–2). Nevertheless, sin is often connected with sickness in the Bible (Ex. 15:26; Ps. 103:3; Matt. 8:17). As COVID-19 has spread so rapidly around the world, I’ve reflected again on sin as a disease. I admit that sometimes I have used disease as a metaphor—especially in describing original sin.
Original sin is a difficult theological concept to convey to people today, particularly in the United States. We vote for our leaders, we choose where we’ll buy a home, and we decide what church to go to. Burger King for years even had a well-known slogan, “Have it your way.” How could it be that something so significant as my status before God was decided by somebody else? It’s un-American! Nevertheless, the Bible says, “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). That is, it’s not just that we actually sin but that we’re now sinful by nature. We are counted as guilty in Adam, and we are also born with corrupted minds, wills, bodies, and affections. Here’s how I describe the effects of Adam’s sin on our moral and physical constitutions in Bible studies: “Adam became diseased. His disease was passed to us. We’re his kids. There’s an inherited sickness that now attends every generation of humans.” Often when I explain things in this way, I see several light up with understanding: “Oh, I get it now.”
Perhaps the reason that this metaphor is helpful is because people generally understand how disease spreads. We don’t decide who catches a cold, the flu, or COVID-19. We can try to keep disease from spreading, and we can seek to alleviate its affects, but the decision to “be sick” is outside our control. It’s especially outside our control when a disease is passed from a parent to a child before birth. That’s why, even now, we listen with rapt attention to the news cycle as doctors and scientists explain to us the way that COVID-19 spreads and the ways that we can prevent it.