Original Sin and Counseling

The Bible speaks of sin in two different forms. Each category is part of a larger theology of sin that helps us understand both ourselves and the world. A christian theology of sin must do justice to both the categories of original sin and actual sin. We begin looking particularly at the doctrine of Original Sin, and stressing the importance of understanding this doctrine in order to adequately respond to and treat the issue of actual sin. Biblical Counselors, in particular, need to understand the doctrine of Original Sin or we will fail to help people adequately address the symptoms of their heart.

It’s easy to speak of actual sins, but it is important to start with the theological foundation of human sinfulness: original sin. Original sin refers to the inherited sinful nature that has been passed down to all men since Adam first sinned. This sin nature leaves man in a state of sinfulness that will result in works of sin, and ultimately death (Rom. 6:23).

The Bible teaches us that we are sinners not primarily because we sin, but rather we sin because we are already sinners. We have a sin nature which predisposes us towards sinful acts.The Bible teaches us that we are al sinners by virtue of our being born spiritual heirs of Adam. Scriptures teaches us this through three different means: (1) verses on the comprehensiveness of sin; (2) verses on the inherent nature of sin; (3) verses on the permanence of sin. Let’s look at each set of verses briefly.

The Comprehensiveness of Sin

A number of passages point to the comprehensiveness of sin in terms of its universality. So, on the one hand, we learn that sin has impacted everyone every where. Paul says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), that there is “none is righteous” (Rom. 3:10). Sin has infected all of us since Adam. Paul makes this profound point in his discussion of the relationship between sin and the law in Romans 5. We read:

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— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet 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. (Rom. 5:12-14)

Paul states that without the law to identify specific acts of sin then sin cannot be counted. Yet, death is a consequences of sin and death reigned from Adam up to Moses (the giver of the law). Paul’s point, then, is that sin had its hold in all of us apart from any specific moral violations. The presence of death even before the giving of the law evidences that sin was still at work in all of us. Sin has spread to all men, as is evidenced by the fact that all men will experience death. We have all turned away from God (Isa. 53:6).

The Inherent Nature of Sin

The Scriptures also speak plainly to our being born in sin. David, in the Old Testament, humbly confesses to the reality that he was born in sin (Ps. 51:5; Ps. 58:3). Paul tells us in the New Testament that we are “by nature, children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), meaning we are under God’s judgment for sin. John echoes that sentiment by stating that apart from faith in Christ’s intervention the wrath of God “remains” on us, meaning it is already present and our natural starting place (John 3:36).

Sin dwells in us and is our natural starting place as people. In fact, Paul utilizes the language of “flesh” and “body” to describe our natural state of sin. We have “sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), a “body of sin” (Rom. 6:6), and an “earthly nature” that produces sin (Col. 3:5). We are born sinners and will remain in a state of sin apart from God’s gracious work to redeem us.

The Permanence of Sin

Finally, the Scriptures point to our inability to overcome this sin nature. It is such a part of us that to get rid of our sinfulness is compared to a leopard changing its spots, or a person changing his ethnicity (Jer. 13:23). Like these unalterable facts of reality we cannot change our sinfulness. Paul states plainly that only Christ can free us from this body of sin and death (Rom. 7:24). That is because we must be born of the Spirit, not simply born of the flesh (John 3:5), for “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). It is only in Christ that we can be made into a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). There is no amount of good works that can change this sin nature, no amount of pious activity, no amount of self-reform. Unless we believe in Christ we will all die in our sins (John 8:24). Sin is a permanent problem, only Christ can alter that reality.

This state of original sin matters immensely for our understanding of the doctrine of sin. Without an awareness of the root of our disease we will attempt to treat only the symptoms and surface level manifestations. There is much, much work that must be done at that level, and too strong a divide between these categories of sin will leave us theologically and ethically anemic. Yet, we must start at the foundation to make a real and lasting difference in our own lives and the lives of others. 

Biblical Counselors must know theology because it shapes the way we approach problems and people. If we fail to grasp the gravity of Original Sin we will seek to modify behavior. Behavior must be altered, but without understanding the roots of our sin problem we will teach people either to hide their sin better or trade it in for more acceptable forms of sin. It is like teaching an abusive man techniques to control his anger, or to communicate carefully. He may learn to be more polite in his control and manipulation, but the abuse in his heart still resides. We must understand the reality of Original Sin as we seek to help others, especially non-Christians. Behavioral modification may do them some good, but it will do nothing to help them address the fundamental state of their heart and the destructive future that awaits them. Doctrine matters for counseling, and this doctrine in particular matters for addressing problems.

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