SIN AND SANCTIFICATION:
A PROBLEM FOR WESLEYANS
Wesleyan Theological Journal
An Old Testament theologian has
rightfully stated that “What a religion affirms concerning the meaning of sin
is a highly suggestive clue to its entire creed.”
This is especially true of the relationship between the ideas of sin and
There is an urgent need within the
modern Wesleyan movement to rethink the concept and terminology of original sin
in relation to sanctification. Thirteen years’ pastoral experience and ten
years of college teaching convince me that there is widespread confusion about
the traditional teachings on original sin and entire sanctification.
Why are so few members able to
articulate an unequivocal and lucid understanding of the concept often held to
be “cardinal” in our tradition? I believe the primary reason lies in the
error of trying to wed a traditional (i.e., a mechanical—and to my mind
faulty) concept of original sin with the dynamic work of the Spirit in
sanctifying a believer’s heart.
The traditional understanding of
original sin—which is basic to the “eradicationist” view of entire
sanctification—appears to be the assumption of most modern holiness advocates.
This traditional view came into the mainstream of Christian thought principally
through Augustine’s influence and it describes the condition by various terms
such as “sinful nature,” “inherited depravity,” “carnal nature,”
“adamic corruption,” “inbred sin,” or, simply, “original sin,” etc.
This condition, it is held, originated with the sin of Adam and Eve and was
passed on to all their descendants with the result that we are all now born in a
state of moral depravity. I am going to argue that neither logic nor the
scriptures support the implications of such concepts and terminology, and that
the most charitable thing that can be said about this view is that it is
Terminological and Theological
One of the implications often
associated with terminology such as “inherited depravity,” or “inbred
sin,” etc., is the thought that somehow this condition we inherit is a
“something”—and hence is seen in substantive or quantitative terms. This
something is thought to be removed in the experience of entire sanctification.
Thinking in such terms, in spite of efforts to explain that “this is not what
is meant,” gives rise to confusion and disillusionment on the experiential
side of sanctification and a “magical” view on its theological side.
There is a hiatus or at least a tension between the experience and the
description of it. The problem of terminology is not new, of course, nor can it
ever be fully solved. There are, however, ways of preaching and teaching the
concept in personal, dynamic, and relational terms
which make it easier for the man in the pew to understand. Precisely because
terms convey meanings ipso facto they
need to be selected with care in order to convey as much precision as possible.
But there is a suspicion that the
problem is deeper than semantics. It is more likely an acutely theological and
philosophical problem. The designation, “original sin,” is a curious
expression at best. The problem is compounded when expressions like “inherited
corruption” or “inherited depravity” are used as synonyms. Unless one is
content to be a fatalist there is something fundamentally askew in the notion
that anything truly moral can be inherited. Morality is a quality of responsible
human action. So is immorality. Most people would accept this without question.
In spite of this the notion has prevailed among many Christians that human
beings inherit a sort of “corruption” or “depravity” from Adam. But
terms like these are moral terms and they convey concepts that are deeply moral.
In view of this it must be said that one can no more be corrupted by the act of
another human being (be it Adam or his own father) than he can be held guilty
for the act of another human being. There is no way that one can discuss
original sin in terms of inherited “corruption” or “depravity” and at
the same time maintain that he is discussing a mere abstraction or even using
the terms metaphorically. Such terminology makes no sense in a truly moral
In the opinion of this writer the
basis of the theological and practical problems, vis-a-vis sin and
sanctification, stems in part from the rather curious anomaly in Wesleyanism of
blending an Augustinian-Reformed concept of original sin with the
Arminian-Wesleyan view of grace and human responsibility. Although Wynkoop makes
an admirable attempt to show that Wesley’s view of original sin is basically
moral and spiritual,
it must nevertheless be said that Wesley was essentially in the
Augustinian-Reformed camp on this matter.
Lindstrom makes this clear in his excellent study.
One might ask what difference for a
theology and experience of sanctification might result if a more truly Arminian
rather than Augustinian view of the effects of the Fall were followed. It is a
too-little-noticed fact among Arminian-Wesleyan advocates that Arminius himself
does not follow the historic creeds of the church in seeing original sin
primarily in terms of a depravation. Rather, he views the effects of the Fall
primarily in terms of deprivation or the “absence of original
righteousness.” This has been noted specifically by Carl Bangs in his valuable
study on Arminius.
In “Private Disputations”,
Arminius makes the statement:
. . we permit this question to be made a subject of discussion: Must some
contrary quality, beside (carentiam) the absence of original
righteousness, be constituted as another part of original sin? Though we think
it much more probable, that this absence of original righteousness, only, is
original sin itself, as being that which alone is sufficient to commit and
produce any actual sins, whatsoever.
It is further illuminating in this
regard that Arminius considered any discussion on the question of the
propagation of original sin to be “useless.”
This supports the position noted earlier that a moral condition cannot in any
intrinsic way be transmitted from one person to another. “It makes better
sense to see the condition of the posterity of Adam in terms of a privation of
any positive orientation to God than it does in terms of a positive corruption
The implications of Arminius’ view for the concept of sanctification will be
shown later in this essay.
It is doubtful also that one can
make a strong case from scripture to support the traditional understanding of
original sin as inherited depravity. Frequently passages such as
, Psalm 51:5,
–21 are appealed to in support of the traditional position. Particularly is
interpreted as Paul’s view of the aetiology of sin as being rooted in the sin
of Adam. But this is questionable.
The passages in question are largely descriptive of man in the general sense of
his sinful predicament and do not strictly teach that sin is inbred or
inherited. The Romans passage in particular needs to be seen in light of the two
spheres: man in Adam =sin/death, while man in Christ = righteousness/life. Paul
is emphasizing the contrasts of conditions in the sense of the two typical
environments or spheres which each “Adam” represents. There is not strictly
an aetiology of original sin presented here—i.e., not in the sense that Paul
is teaching that a positive depravation is inherited from Adam.
Part of the problem with the Romans
passage, is the expression eph ho
(inasmuch as) in verse 12. Käsemann points out that the older Latin translation
which has so influenced Western thought since Augustine is in quo (in whom). This is to be rejected in favour of rendering eph
ho as “because,” in which case the meaning is “concrete sinning,”
The result of this is that “Adam is thus the cause for himself alone; each of
us has become his own Adam, each for himself” (2 Apoc. Bar. 54:15, 19).
“Clearly,” says Käsemann, “the emphasis here is on personal
Paul does not say in verse 12 that sin passed on to all men but that “death
passed unto all men,” i.e., death is universal because sin is universal. The
point is not therefore that all sinned when Adam sinned, but, rather as
Lightfoot has said the “disease was communicated to the whole race not
inasmuch as all were descendants of Adam, but inasmuch as all sinned.”
All have turned astray after Adam’s example
A further problem is posed by verse
19 which on the surface seems to teach both fatalism and universalism: through
Adam’s disobedience “the many” were made sinners, while through Christ’s
obedience “the many” shall be made righteous. The analogies of Adam and
Christ cannot be strictly pressed to their logical implications, however. To do
so would be to disregard the teaching of Paul elsewhere—and of the NT
generally—that man is to respond to God’s offer in Christ. If universalism
is in view here then the clear teaching of condemnation for the unbelieving
elsewhere in the NT is erroneous. Since Paul cannot, therefore, mean that all
men inherit righteousness from Christ, neither can he mean that all men inherit
a sinful nature from Adam. Plainly what Paul means is simply that Adam
introduced sin into the world which brings death, while Christ introduced a
saving righteousness which brings life. One’s orientation to the two
“Adams” is to be viewed as dynamic not mechanical, and the orientation to
the respective “
” determines whether one is sinful or saintly.
The dynamics of the “Fall” are
seen clearly illustrated in
ff., especially verses 21–25, 28. This passage reveals remarkable affinities
, and with
, a fact pointed out some time ago by Morna Hooker.
Man, who was created as “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 9:7) is
as exchanging this “glory” for “images resembling mortal man or birds. .
.,” etc. (verse 23). This exchange included “the truth about God for a
lie” and the worship and service of “the creature rather than the Creator”
(verse 25). As a result of this exchange—this failure “to acknowledge God”
(verse 28)—man’s condition degenerated to a tragic depravity (verses 29 ff).
Claiming to be “wise” he became a “fool” (verse 22). The central point
of Paul’s emphasis here is the idolatry of man. “Original sin” is the
potent tendency of man to “serve the creature rather than the
creator”—meaning essentially a fixation upon himself—which inevitably
leads to a positive moral depravity. It should be emphasized that this account
is not merely a description of what happened “once-upon-a-time” in the
distant past, but it is primarily a description of the existential situation of
man throughout history.
But does this view mean that man is
born into the world in a neutral position unaffected by the sin of Adam? No, man
does not simply sin like Adam; he is born into an environment of sin and in a
state of spiritual impotence which means that he inevitably does sin. Ernest
Best states it well when he says that
sin of Adam was the first sin of all, and once it had entered no one was able to
escape its power: just as a child picks up the words and gestures of those among
whom it is reared, so it picks up the sin that is already in the world. Thus
though all men have indeed sinned by their own personal acts, these sins cannot
be dissociated from the sin that entered the world when Adam disobeyed. No one
can ever be back in the position of Adam when there was no sin in the world and
so be unaffected by the sin of Adam.
If, as it has been argued in this
essay, man cannot on logical and Biblical grounds be described as having a
congenital corruption or depravity, then how can his condition be described? The
answer is that he is in a state of privation of all those positive qualities
which would truly make him “man the image of God.” His basic reference point
is himself. He is, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “separated from Christ,
alienated from the
, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in
the world.” (Ephesians 3:12
). C. K. Barrett describes the condition as follows:
could never be a private matter, but corrupted the whole race, which consisted
of men born out of true relation with God and condemned constantly to worsen
their relationship whether they carelessly ignored it or self-righteously
essayed to mend it. Like planets robbed of the center of their orbit they could
not possibly keep a proper course.
As such man stands under the
imperative of the new birth. In such a state he inevitably becomes “dead in
trespasses and sins” and positively depraved.
James Denney once said that
has been more pernicious in theology than the determination to define sin in
such a way that in all its damning import the definition should be applicable to
“infants”; it is to this we owe the moral atrocities that have disfigured
most creeds, and in great part the idea of baptismal regeneration, which is an
irrational unethical miracle, invented by men to get over a puzzle of their own
While many may take objection to
this strong statement there is a relevant overtone sounded here which has some
parallel to the problem which the traditional doctrine of original sin poses for
the idea of entire sanctification. It has already been stated in this essay that
the traditional way of understanding original sin is at the heart of a
widespread confusion—and in many cases a disillusionment—over sanctification
as taught in holiness circles. This is because of the faulty and simplistic way
in which the traditional view sees sanctification primarily in subjective terms
as the removal of some “foreign” element from the person. This places
sanctification primarily in a negative framework and implies that once the
culprit (inherited depravity) is removed the door is open for victorious living.
The “fly in the ointment” is that most people do not experience
sanctification quite that simply and furthermore they still have to cope with
self. The emphasis on crisic sanctification seen in terms of the traditional
view of original sin, undermines the essential Wesleyan and scriptural emphasis
and human responsibility, and contributes to a chronic immaturity among many
But what are the implications for
sanctification if a more truly Arminian view of original sin as privation is
followed? First it does not mean that either the crisic or the secondness aspect
is sacrificed. Second, it means that sanctification can be presented as a much
more positive, realistic and desirable experience. No longer is it seen
primarily in terms of the extraction of something from us but rather it is seen
as (1) the regeneration of the believer to spiritual life, which is initial
sanctification, and (2) the orientation and integration of the responsible self
in a depth relationship of love under the Lordship of Christ following
regeneration. This is living in the fullness of the Spirit which is dynamic and
O. J. Baab, The Theology
of the Old Testament (Abingdon Press, 1949), p. 84.
The problems associated
with thinking of original sin in substantive terms have been well pointed
out by M. B. Wynkoop, A Theology of Love (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press,
1972), pp. 50, 157–164.
Cf. Wynkoop’s chapter
“The Meaning of ‘Moral,’” op. cit., pp. 165–183.
–4, 19–20 should be
illuminating here. Also related to the principle under discussion is the
(faulty) notion that Adam was created holy, i.e., in the moral sense. But
God does not create holy robots. Adam, at his creation, was a man standing
before possibilities—he was neither holy nor unholy. There is no such
thing in the moral universe as created holiness—and on the same basis
there can be no such thing as inherited sin. The story of Adam is the story
of every man.
Commenting on Romans 6:6
in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley states: “Coeval
with our being, and as old as the Fall; our evil nature; a strong and
beautiful expression for that entire depravity and corruption which by
nature spreads itself over the whole man, leaving no part uninfected.”
That he viewed original sin as a congenital condition can be seen clearly in
his comments on Romans 5:19 (cf. also “The Doctrine of Original Sin,”
Works IX, p. 335). However, he also described the condition in moral/dynamic
terms on occasions—eg. as “pride, self-will, unbelief, heart-idolatry”
(cf. his sermon “On Sin in Believers”).
Harold Lindstrom, Wesley
and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation (London: The
Epworth Press, 1946), pp. l9ff.
Carl Bangs, Arminius: A
Study in the Dutch Reformation (Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 339–340.
James Arminius, The
Writings of James Arminius, II. trans. by J. Nichols (Baker Book House,
1956), p. 79.
The idea of privation of
course does not imply any less ultimately serious spiritual condition for
man. One who suffers a privation of the Spirit or of a positive orientation
to God is just as spiritually needy as one who is morally corrupt. Man’s
congenital condition cannot logically be described in terms of moral
depravity. Rather it is self-centeredness which invariably leads him to a
“me first” syndrome and an ultimate moral corruption. In other words it
is inherited “deprivity” and acquired depravity.
Cf. Jerry McCant, “A
Wesleyan Interpretation of
–8” in Wesleyan Theological Journal, 16:1 (Spring 1981), pp. 70–71.
Cf. Ernst Kasemann,
Commentary on Romans, Translated and edited by G. Bromiley (Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1980), who states that “the western theory of original sin
and death . . . is much too rationalistic, especially when both are taken to
be sexual transmission” (p. 147). Further he states that “the apostle
does not know of an inheritance of sin and death in the strict sense”
(p.148). Ernest Best, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, The Cambridge Bible
Commentary on the New English Bible (Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp.
60–62, holds a similar position.
Kasemann, Commentary on
Romans, pp. 147–148.
J. B. Lightfoot, Notes
on the Epistles of
“Classic Commentary Library” (Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), p. 289.
“M. D. Hooker, “Adam in Romans I,” New Testament Studies 6:4.
July 1960, pp.
297–306: “In his argument (Paul) moves from all men (1:18–2:16) to the
Jew (2:17–3:20), from the Jew (4) back to all men (5). The theme of
chapter V is the same as that of 1:18–2:16, but considered from the point
of view of justification instead of wrath, and it is framed in both passages
in terms of man’s solidarity with Adam.” (p. 306).
It is not clear in
Paul’s thought precisely how he conceived of the relationship between
Adam’s Fall and the sin of men in general. There is a solidarity with Adam
but the solidarity should not be viewed as aetiological, but rather as
E. Best, The Letter of
Paul to the Romans, p. 60.
C. K. Barrett, A
Commentary on the Epistle to The Romans, Black’s New Testament
Commentaries (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1962), p. 119.
James Denney, “
’s Epistle to the Romans,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament Vol. II,
ed. by W. R. Nicoll (Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), pp. 627–28.
There is no question but
that the modern holiness movement lacks the balance between process and
crisis that we find in Wesley.