It is a blessed truth that we sing: “What can wash away our sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” These words speak of the Christian’s greatest boast—that Christ died for us and the blood that he shed has washed away our sin. This is the Christian doctrine of the atonement. On the surface it is a very simple doctrine: Christ took the penalty deserved by sinners upon Himself, thereby releasing the ones He died for from guilt. But when you dive into the deep waters of this truth, things get much more complex. This is partly because the doctrine of the atonement encroaches upon many other doctrines that are just as complex: anthropology, hamartiology, Christology, theology proper; all of these doctrinal systems, and more are involved in the atonement. However, this shouldn’t cause us to shy away from studying the issue. John Piper once famously said that “raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
This two-part series will attempt to catch but a small glimpse into the wonderful intricacies of the doctrine of the atonement. We will begin by discussing the why of the atonement, that is, sin; namely, the nature and degree of sin that was dealt with. This will be followed up by a discussion of how Christ atoned for this sin—exactly what Christ did to garner for us our freedom. To begin, we’ll look at the doctrine of original sin.
A key element in understanding the atonement more fully is grasping the distinction between what theologians call “original sin” and “actual sin.” Original sin is probably the most familiar term of the two as it has caused the most controversy throughout church history, so we’ll begin there. Original sin refers to the guilt that every human being is born with as a result of the fall of Adam. The biblical justification of this is found in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Because all of mankind is the resulting progeny of Adam and Eve, all of mankind is subject to futility and sinfulness (Romans 3:23). This condition affects us to the deepest core of who we are, even our souls (Ezekiel 18:20). Because of original sin we are unable to discern the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14), nor do we even desire to, for “no one seeks after God” (Romans 3:11). Original sin then, as defined by Henri Blocher, consists of four tenets:
First, original sin is universal sinfulness, consisting of attitudes, orientations, propensities, and tendencies which are contrary to God’s law, incompatible with his holiness, and found in all people, in all areas of their lives. Secondly, it belongs to the nature of human beings, ‘nature’ being that stable complex of characteristics typical of the class of creatures known as ‘human’, and present from birth. Thirdly, since it belongs to our nature, it is inherited… [sometimes called] ‘hereditary sin.’ Fourthly, it stems from Adam, whose disobedience gave original sin a historical beginning, so that the present sinfulness of all can be traced back through the generations, to the first man and progenitor of the race.
As is seen, original sin is an all-encompassing depravity that affects all of mankind at the core of who we are. When Christians refer to a “sinful nature”, they are referring to original sin.
So whereas “original sin” refers to the state of our beings and the condition of our natures, “actual sin” is the term used to denote the “actual sins” that we commit. “They are the individual sins of act in distinction from man’s inherited nature and inclination.” Original sin is concerned with our natures—who we are, but actual sin is related to what we do. The Bible is very clear about the reality of actual sins. David says in the Psalms “there is none that does good, no, not one” (Psalms 14:3) and “no man living is righteous before you” (Psalms 143:2). And Solomon says, “There is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46; cf. Proverbs 20:9). Paul spends the majority of the first three chapters of the book of Romans proving that all men stand guilty before God because of the things that they do. Paul also provides many lists of “works of the flesh” throughout his writings to the churches (Galatians 5:19-20; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Like original sin, actual sin is a universal experience among all of humanity, so prevalent in fact, that the Scripture says that “if we say we have no sin, then we make Him a liar, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:10).
The Relationship Between Original and Actual Sin
But perhaps one of the most illuminating Scriptures in regards to original and actual sin is found in a discourse by Jesus Himself. In a discussion about eating unclean foods, Jesus clarified the issue by proving a much broader point regarding uncleanliness, “he said, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man’” (Mark 7:20-23). Notice that Jesus mentions two different lists here in regard to the things that defile the man. First he mentions “evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, and deeds of coveting and wickedness.” What these all have in common is that they are all actions—sins of commission. Obviously this is a reference to actual sins. Jesus ends this list and separates it from the next one by mentioning “as well as”, and following it up with “deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” These sins describe certain attitudes and dispositions of man’s nature that defile him; a reference to original sin.
Both of these lists of sins Jesus says “proceed from the heart of man.” Both the actual sins that He mentions and the descriptors of original sin are birthed in the nature of man. When understood this way, it is easy to see the relationship between original and actual sin, that they are two sides of the same coin. Understanding this, John Calvin offered a definition of original sin that includes a reference to actual sins as well. He says that original sin is “that hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ’works of the flesh.’”
The Resulting Problem
Both original sin and actual sins pose problems for us. In regard to original sin, the Bible is clear, “that by the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:19). Because we are all sinners, we are all guilty before God and are therefore deserving of His wrath. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), so therefore because of our inherited guilt from Adam, we all face the punishment of death. Actual sins pose a problem for humankind as well. After the resurrection unto judgment, each person, believer and unbeliever alike, “will be judged according to his works” (Rev. 20:13). Part of God’s judgment is that He “will repay each person according to what they have done” (Rom. 2:6). Our original sin condemns us to death, and our actual sins condemn us before God.
But there is hope to be found in Christ, which we will discuss in part two.
Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 342-362.
Henri Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1997), 18.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1938), 251.
For another biblical discussion of this distinction, see 1 John 1:8-10. Note the difference between John’s use of “sin” and “sins” throughout the passage; the first to denote “original sin” and the second to denote “actual sins.”
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), II,I,8.