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Question and Answer

Reformed View of Original Sin

Question:

I have a question about the Reformed view of original sin, and its relationship to the human will before and after regeneration.

I understand that in the Roman Catholic view, original sin is something which binds our wills (though still allowing for a free choice to come to the church) until baptism, which "removes the stain" of original sin. From this point onward, we are free creatures, like Adam before the fall, and all sin committed after baptism is a result of our free will decision to sin, and not any bondage to sin. The righteousness of Christ is "infused" into our souls.

As I understand the Reformed view, baptism does not confer any grace, but rather represents the grace that is already present. Believers, already elected by God, are called forth from the world through God's sovereign call and are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Regeneration precedes faith.

My question is this: Does the regeneration of the soul "remove" original sin? Are we free to choose between obeying and disobeying God after we're Christians? Or do our wills remain in bondage to our sinful nature? Paul seems to make clear that the battle between spirit and flesh, between the old man and the new, will continue in all of us until the day we're finally sanctified before God after our earthly lives pass. I've never been able to reconcile the R.C. claim that original sin is "removed" and that we become free creatures, with Paul's descriptions of the ongoing battle within all believers. If original sin is "removed" (whether by baptism, regeneration, or whatever) then why is it so hard to stop sinning?

Thank you for your time! Please let me know if I'm misunderstanding original sin altogether. I've never had a clear definition, and this term doesn't always seem to mean the same thing among churches.

Answer:

You asked: "My question is this: Does the regeneration of the soul 'remove' original sin? Are we free to choose between obeying and disobeying God after we're Christians? Or do our wills remain in bondage to our sinful nature? Paul seems to make clear that the battle between spirit and flesh, between spirit and flesh, between the old man and the new, will continue in all of us until the day we're finally sanctified before God after our earthly lives pass."

An answer:

1. No. No. Yes and No. Yes.

2. A more full answer.

The following words that I took from your letter are essentially correct: "As I understand the Reformed view, baptism does not confer any grace, but rather represents the grace that is already present. Believers, already elected by God, are called forth from the world through God's sovereign call and are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Regeneration precedes faith."

Yes, in the Reformed view, regeneration precedes faith as "believers, already elected by God, are called forth from the world through God's sovereign call and are regenerated by the Holy Spirit." You are also correct that baptism does not confer grace, but we should note that the Westminster Confession of Faith does speak of a "conferring of grace" in connection with the sacraments:

The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXVII, Section iii)

The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time. (WCF, XXVIII, ix)

So baptism as an act does not confer grace, but the Holy Spirit does confer grace in baptism as he so chooses.

You also say, "baptism ... represents the grace that is already present." It would perhaps have been better to say, I think, that "baptism represents the grace already present when adult believers are baptized," but even in that case "the grace promised is ... really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time" (WCF, XXVIII, ix). Thus the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer in Reformed tradition are regarded as "means of grace."

Here is how Benjamin B. Warfield expressed it in his A Brief and Untechnical Statement of the Reformed Faith:

I believe that God has established his Church in the world and endowed it with the ministry of the Word and the holy ordinances of Baptism, the Lord's Supper and Prayer; in order that through these as means, the riches of his grace in the gospel may be made known to the world, and, by the blessing of Christ and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them, the benefits of redemption may be communicated to his people; wherefore also it is required of me that I attend on these means of grace with diligence, preparation, and prayer, so that through them I may be instructed and strengthened in faith, and in holiness of life and in love; and that I use my best endeavors to carry this gospel and convey these means of grace to the whole world.

Let us contrast two systems: the Reformed and the Roman Catholic/Semi-Pelagian. Both systems are Biblical to the extent that they talk of original sin, of baptism, and of regeneration. The Roman/Semi-Pelagian system ceases to be Biblical when it talks of baptism's [God's promise to wash away all sin and to make clean] affecting only original sin and not other aspects of the sins men commit, when it talks of man being completely clean and morally neutral when baptized, and when it talks of the sinner being not dead, but only weak and sick.

The Reformed view holds that the Bible teaches that all mankind is guilty of Adam's first sin (Romans 5:14-21); that as a result of the curse, man's human nature is corrupt (original sin); that from this corruption comes forth man's actual sins in thought, word and deed; and that as a result of God's curse upon Adam and his progeny, all mankind is dead, not just sick, in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1; Genesis 2:17):

14Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. 15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16And the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:14-21, English Standard Version)

And you were dead in ... trespasses and sins .... (Eph. 2:1, ESV)

... but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. (Gen. 2:17, ESV)

The Semi-Pelagian concept of moral neutrality for man at any point is an ethical monstrosity. Can you ever justify being morally neutral toward your mother? I hope not! God certainly does not. It is morally evil for a teenager or a man to look at his mother without a sense of debt to her giving him birth, to her care of him as an infant, to her molding of his character, to her nurture and admonition to him from God's word. In place of the "moral neutrality" myth of the Roman Catholic/Semi-Pelagian system, the Reformed view teaches that a person is, since the Fall, either condemned to die, or else elected to be given ''eternal life" through faith in Jesus Christ, and its several concomitants including regeneration. There is no moral neutrality stage. Man is either cursed or blessed. The thief on the cross, as an adult, went to heaven without baptism, but he did not get there without calling upon the Lord to remember him when He comes into His kingdom.

As you will see the Roman Catholic/Semi-Pelagian system uses the words, "stain of original sin" and "morally neutral" which fit the "sick man" or "weak man" model. They speak of "grace," but it always turns out to be God's grace plus man's works. The infusion of grace makes it more metaphysical than legal, losing the graciousness of the Great Judge and of the Heavenly Father. The Bible never uses a term like "infusion" to describe God's regeneration, forgiveness as a Judge, nor as giving life in either the Covenant of Works or the Covenant of Grace.

The Reformed position then that you will see in the "Westminster Confession of Faith" and in the Bible is as follows:

1. Christ removes in the regenerated, the penalty of Adam's first sin, the guilt of our corrupted human nature and of the actual sins we commit. This is taught when Jesus says he gives life, life eternal, or that he forgives sins. This is justification by the Great Judge. It is received by faith. This removal of the penalty meets the legal needs of the elect as respects their condemnation in Adam, and that is only one of several aspects of the Curse of the Covenant of Works.

2. Our sinful nature is not instantaneously removed when we first repent for our sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus told his disciples they must take up their cross daily. They were his disciples, but they had to deny their sinful nature daily and submit to doing God's will. The Apostle Paul wrote similarly, giving the encouragement that the Spirit leads us in doing God's will, but warning us that the appeals of our sinful nature [our "flesh"] to live according to the sinful world around us would have us deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1, King James Version)

12So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Rom. 8:12-14, ESV)

Although we are set free in Christ, man's will is never totally free from absolutely everything. You can never reconcile the view that original sin is totally removed and man is free [from all the penalty, power, and presence of sin] with the Apostle Paul's doctrine of sin or his doctrine of three uses of the law of God. Jesus taught we are to say to God that we are unprofitable servants even if we were to have fully done our duty to God (which is never the case). (Luke 17:10).

No saint (even Adam before the Fall) lived out from under the Lordship of God and above the necessity of Special Revelation. The Bible teaches that the authority of God and the Word of God are always above the "free" man. In the Bible freedom is freedom from slavery to sin and Satan's kingdom of darkness. In the Bible freedom is freedom to serve God. Indeed, in His service we find perfect freedom.

In theory one could conclude that, if man were without sin immediately after regeneration, he would immediately go to heaven. But God forms character over time; he gives gifts to men and women and children over time. Together these are developed (although not perfectly) in this fallen world. God's handiwork in redemption is very rich and good and full. The saved are not old-fashioned mechanical robot or embarrassing simpletons. The changed character—the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit)—call the world to behold the defeat of Satan and the demise of the kingdom of darkness in these former subjects of his realm.

Look especially at Rom 5:1-6:

1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. (New International Version)

So also James 1:2-8. As Job had trial of his discipleship, so do we. As Peter faced a trial of his discipleship, so will even the preachers as well as the members of the church. We must call upon the Triune God as our God who made the wondrous promise in the Covenant of Grace and as our only worthy Father.

In summary, the grace of regeneration, as the Reformed use the word in the "Ordo Salutis," begins with the new birth and God's effectually enabling the "totally depraved" sinner to answer God's call and to begin to do other things that new saints do, such as worshiping and adoring God. But that is only the beginning of forming new character and maturing the fruits of the Spirit. So, the new birth as the first aspect of regeneration does not remove all "original sin," i.e., corruption of our nature. When regeneration has reached all that God has planned it to be, we have every reason to believe that "original sin" will be fully removed. The Reformed often cover that under the topics of "sanctification" and glorification".

If there are still aspects of this issue that you would like to continue to discuss, please write again.


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