Positively, we break God’s law by transgressing it. As sinners, we do not simply stand still. We actively cross lines that God has put in place. God commands us to have no other gods before Him, even while we create a pluralistic society in which all religious ideas are equal. God says not to murder, and we slander others, curse them, or harbor anger and bitterness toward them in our hearts (Matt. 5:21–22; James 3:9). God tells children to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1), and the curse of sin shows itself in disobedience to parents (Rom. 1:30). These principles apply to “any law of God.” Without God, sin evaporates into nonexistence. Sin is both great and bad because the triune God is so great and good (Ps. 119:68).
What Is Original Sin?
In light of this definition of sin, it may surprise some people that the Westminster Larger Catechism begins with “the guilt of Adam’s first sin.” This is part of original sin. Adam represented humanity in what theologians have called the covenant of works. While I cannot explore this idea here, it means that just as Christ represents His people in the covenant of grace, so Adam represented human beings in a different covenant. This means that just as Christ acted in our place, so did Adam. Paul says that “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). Drawing the parallel between Adam and Christ, he adds, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (v. 19). This involves imputation, which means that Adam’s sin in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was counted to his descendants in the same way that Christ’s obedience is counted to those who trust in Him. All who are in Adam die, and all who are in Christ will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). We cannot understand the imputed righteousness of Christ unless we understand that it is God’s remedy to the imputed guilt of Adam.
As bad as this is, it is not all that is involved in original sin. Adam’s sin also gave us a disposition toward sin. We are indisposed to spiritual good, we are unable to do it, and we are opposed to God and His law in principle. The quotation above from Romans 3 presents a bleak picture of who we are and where we find ourselves in relation to God and to others. This is what we usually mean by total depravity. Jesus told some Jewish people who professed faith in Him: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). He added that they were willing slaves to sin and to Satan, saying, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (v. 44). Sin is slavery, and we cannot be truly free until we become slaves to God through Christ instead (Rom. 6:15–23). These professing believers did not like hearing this, and Jesus earlier said that the world hated Him because He testified “that its works are evil” (John 7:7). How do you respond to Jesus’ teaching about sin? Do you burn with anger, or do you recognize that God knows you better than you know yourself?
People do “good” things like working hard at their jobs, helping the needy, being good neighbors and citizens, and so forth. But, unless we learn to place God first, we are “wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually.” Westminster Larger Catechism 26 concludes, “Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way are conceived and born in sin.” This is as true to life as it is the clear teaching of Scripture. We must come to terms with it.
What about Actual Sin?
Our personal rebellion against God and His law likely represents what we typically think about when we think about sin. Yet in light of the above, we should realize that we are not sinners merely because we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners. When we read or hear God’s law, we should be convicted of our personal sins, which should lead us to personal repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). Yet conviction of actual sin is a window through which we can see our hearts and our status before God more clearly as the Spirit convicts us.
We must be delivered from both original sin and actual sin. The Holy Spirit removes the corruption of our natures by breaking the power and dominion of sin. Christ removes the imputation of Adam’s sin through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This restores us to a right relation to the Father through faith. The Holy Spirit also removes actual sin from our lives by bringing repentance and conforming us to God’s law through Christ. All we need to inherit original sin is birth. In order to inherit the kingdom of God, we need new birth. Do we understand, recognize, and feel the depths of our sin and need of Christ?