The Joy of Confessing: Original Sin

I recently returned from giving a series of lectures on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. The exercise was stimulating (at least to me) and gave a real sense of privilege and gratitude for blessing. In particular, I mean the blessing of joining with the saints of decades and centuries gone by in confessing truths that have been revealed by God—redemptive truths that bear within them the matter for endless praise. We get to state and meditate on what Paul called “the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9). 

Confessions of faith give witness to these truths as well as our confidence that they are clear and may be synthesized into a “form of sound words.” The family of confessions surrounding the NHC, both before and after, share a doctrinal witness historically summarized as “the doctrines of grace.” When Boyce explained why the committee appointed to produce the documents that would give foundation to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote its own confession, The Abstract of Principles, he explained that one feature upon which all were agreed was that it must have “a complete exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of grace.” 

That position had been a mainstay of Baptist confessional adherence leaping in the womb from which Southern Baptists were born for more than two centuries before Boyce wrote that explanation. When the Philadelphia Association in 1752 received a “query” asking whether “a person denying unconditional election, the doctrine of original sin, and the final perseverance of the saints, and striving to affect as many as he can, may have full communion with the church?” they answered that they could not “allow that any are true members of our churches who deny the said principles.” Their affirmation and brief explanation of all three doctrines included a statement on original sin. “We,” so they believed, “are originally sinful or partakers of the first sin of human nature, being included in Adam when he was created, [and] are justly shut out of our native happiness, and have lost our right thereunto forever, unless our title be restored by the second Adam the Lord from heaven., by being effectually called in time.” They went on to call this doctrine, and the others included in the query, “next to the belief of an eternal God,” as fundamental doctrines of Christianity on which our faith must rest. 

Well, still, our faith and our formal confessions of faith must rest on that truth. The Abstract states, “his [Adam’s] posterity inherit a nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law, are under condemnation, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, become actual transgressors.” The Baptist Faith and Message (hereafter BFM) reads, “his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin, and as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.” 

The phrase “nature and environment inclined toward sin” [the environment is, not trees and mountains, but people, rational moral beings, already involved in the course of sinfulness before God] views men as already sinful and transgressing. The fact that, according to the Bible, there never has been and never will be an individual born from Adam’s vine who does not sin, argues for an explanation of universal depravity, that is, a propensity that necessarily produces sin. Does such a moral propensity not involve real guilt? Andrew Fuller wrote in 1778, before he published The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation, “Destitute of the last, i.e. of an inclination or heart to do good, which all men by nature are, all our natural powers are of no avail to the performance of good, since internal inclinations are those by which all external actions are entirely guided and governed.” His use of the word “inclination” is consistent with the use of that word in theological discussion. A heart “inclined toward sin” means that the direction of the heart at its inception is against God, and unless arrested by some power extrinsic to it, will proceed in a continual descent of sin. The moment of conception involves that inclination, (“inherit a nature . . . inclined toward sin” BFM) and in its preferences and propensities, already a moral being at conception, is inclined away from holiness and righteousness, and is thus, per the Abstract of Principles, “corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law.” These confessions embody Jesus’ teaching when he incriminated the so-inclined heart as the evil fountain from which evil actions arose. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:23). An inclination to evil has no moment of innocence but already is weighted with guilt. 

From whence is such a heart? Under divine inspiration, David lamented, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3) By way of personal application, David confessed, ”Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Transgression abides first of all in heart—disposition and inclination of soul to disregard God’s law. The environment-inclined-toward-sin is the sum total of all the natures-inclined-toward-sin since the fall of Adam. An inclination toward sin in the status of no condemnation is a contradiction. Jesus taught that the heart problem is fundamental to sin and Paul’s description of transgressors as “by nature children of wrath” seems to focus on that same point. The “nature inclined toward sin” followed Adam’s transgression and constituted the punishment of spiritual death that immediately came upon him and, as the BFM affirms [“whereby”], passed on all men by inheritance (Romans 5:12). The presence of this punishment implies the pre-existent condition of guilt. Otherwise we have the punishment for guilt, but have no guilt. Jesus suffered without guilt and was punished without personal guilt, but no other of the sons of men has ever done so. Apart from the virgin-conceived-and-born Son of Man, Adam’s vine has never produced an innocent fruit. 

This teaching of the Scripture, and the confessions, does not flatter man, but certainly prepares him to count everything as loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. 

Tom J. Nettles 
Professor of Historical Theology 
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary