Sin is a Substance—False Concept 2

A revolutionary concept, as far as then-young Christendom was concerned, was conceived in the mind of a budding theologian by the name of Augustine. After an immoral and unstructured past that included many years studying the philosophy of Manes, Augustine turned to the teachings of Christ under Ambrose, a leading scholar of that day.

Most likely searching for an explanation of his former conduct and help in understanding his present shortcomings, Augustine began to formulate the doctrine of original sin and what is commonly known today as the Federal Headship Theory. Briefly, the Federal Headship Theory states that when Adam sinned he did so in proxy for the entire world. All men born thereafter entered the world replete with a sinful nature which was and is the causative source of their sins. Thus Adam’s original sin was passed on from generation to generation—from parent to child.

Augustine, however well-intentioned he may have been, began what would become centuries of confusion and misunderstanding over the concept of sin. He taught that sin was fundamentally a physical rather than a moral problem. He even theorized that children were born in Satan’s power because:

They are born of the union of the sexes which cannot even accomplish its own honorable function without the incidence of shameful lust. [1]Augustine, Marriage and Concupiscence 2.15.

Again, it is highly probable that Augustine’s tarnished past had a strong bearing on his teaching. Today we refer to this type of person as a reactionary. Although Augustine undoubtedly reacted in the right direction to begin with, his extremes would later cause him (and the church) grave problems. He went on to teach that sexual intercourse was a venial sin (unless the motive was procreation) and the act was always shameful since it was always tinged with passion. Only Christ was born pure since conception took place apart from intercourse. [2]Ibid., 1.5,1.9,1.24,2.37,16,17 & On Original Sin 2.42. Augustine’s teaching provided the ground from which the Puritan movement would later grow.

When we analyze the situation in the Garden of Eden we see that when Adam sinned he became depraved in two ways:

  1. Morally—his soul disobeyed God
  2. Physically—his body began to fail

Augustine and subsequent theologians have, in their expounding of the doctrine of total depravity, failed to distinguish between these two types of failure.

Physical (metaphysical) depravity—This gives man the bias or the bent toward being sinful, but is not in itself sinful. In other words it is an influence to, but not a cause of sin. This depravity comes by inheritance, not choice.

Spiritual (moral) depravity—This is what we do with our situation. It involves unintelligent responses to influences and suggestions. This is sin, but it is not inherited—it comes by choice, it is created.

Men today for the most part acknowledge that it is sin when they make wrong choices. The snag is that they attribute these wrong choices to a “sinful nature” which they receive physically at birth. It is a basic fact that everything in the universe is inherently matter or inherently moral. According to the theory that subsequent to Adam’s fall, sin has inevitably been transmitted from parent to child, sin is evidently matter or substance—a physical factor. With this in mind, let’s consider the following argument:

If I have inherited this sinful nature from Adam, how is this sinful nature passed on to me? In which part of me is this sinful nature passed on? It must be passed on in the physical body somehow since moral character cannot be passed on. “Moral” has to do with choice and a choice cannot be inherited (only the results of a choice).


If a choice can be passed on, here is a question that must be answered: If two Christians have a baby, is their choice to be passed on to the baby? They are much closer to the baby genealogically than Adam and their characteristics would be the more dominant or stronger.


Many have said in desperation that sin is passed on in the blood. If this were the case, it might prove interesting to isolate some sin in a test tube. We may ask, in addition, what happens to the Christian who is involved in a serious accident and receives blood given by someone who is not a Christian? If this sinful nature is present in the donor’s blood, does the Christian who receives it take on a sinful disposition again? This theory also makes evangelism much easier. All that would be required to convert a sinner would be a simple blood transfusion, using of course the blood of a Christian. One solution might be to close down our churches and open up Christian hospitals. (Incidentally, did you ever wonder why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t allow blood transfusions?)

Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary, tells us, “Men do not now fall by their first sin; they are born fallen sons of Adam.” [3]Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes, Dunham Publishers, p.136. It is only fitting that this statement should be followed by a graduate of this same school of thought commenting on the sin of Adam and Eve: “They actually had something added to them—a sin nature. And that made them sinners. Since that awful day of infamy, all men have been born with that same, sinful nature, and that is the source of our sins.” [4]Hal Lindsay, The Liberation of Planet Earth, Zondervan, p. 49.

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the concept of causation glares at almost every turn. We must keep in mind that which is caused cannot be free, nor can it be accountable or responsible. Here again we have man in a pitiable situation deserving sympathy rather than judgment. Isaiah Berlin, in his book Historical Inevitability, concludes that Determinism means the elimination of individual responsibility:

Nobody denies that it would be stupid as well as cruel to blame me for not being taller than I am, or to regard the color of my hair or the qualities of my intellect … as being due principally to my own free choice; these attributes are as they are through no decision of mine. If I extend this category without unit, then whatever is is inevitable … to blame and praise … becomes an absurd activity. If I were convinced that although choices did affect what occurred, yet they were themselves wholly determined by factors not within the individual’s control, I should certainly not regard him as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy.

How could we have stooped and acquiesced to these ideologically and philosophical absurdities which have crept into the Church? The Word of God is to be presented in such a way that “every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Romans 3:19). If I am born with an inability to obey God, then can you conceive of a better excuse for not obeying Him? If I can’t obey God then why should I be disturbed that I’m not obeying Him? Yet the Word of God declares emphatically that all men are without excuse! This indicates that all men are responsible for their own choices, which implies they are free to make their own choices.

If I was born with an inability to do what God says, how can we justify eternal punishment with the love of God? [5]Gordon C. Olson, Sharing Your Faith, Bible Research Fellowship, Inc.

This dilemma is readily discerned by some, but the great majority try to ease the pressure and present God’s justice by viewing His intention in sending Christ to let all “off the hook” who would respond to His call. The flaw in this argument is that it destroys the aspect of grace (getting something we don’t deserve) in Christ’s advent by virtue of the fact that, according to this position, God was under obligation to send Christ to assure all men a “fair shake.”

The Federal Headship Theory, which we have briefly discussed, is an extremely widespread doctrine which is difficult to explain logically. The important factor, however, is whether or not the Bible will allow the representational theory of transmission of sin. Let’s look.

Then the word of the Lord came to me saying,


“What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel saying, ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’?


“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel any more.


“Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.


“But if a man is righteous, and practices justice and righteousness … if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord God.


“Then he may have a violent son who sheds blood … he will surely be put to death; his blood will be on his own head.


“Now behold, he has a son who has observed all his father’s sins which he committed, and observing does not do likewise … he keeps his hand from the poor, does not take interest or increase, but executes My ordinances, and walks in My statutes; he will not die for his father’s iniquity, he will surely live.


“As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what was not good among his people, behold, he will die for his iniquity.


“Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ When the son has practiced justice and righteousness, and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live.


“The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon him- self, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” Ezekiel 18:1–5, 9–10, 13–14, 17–20 (NASB)

The various biblical words used to describe human sin leave absolutely no doubt whatsoever as to sin’s true nature. We search in vain for any evidence that would indicate that sin is a substance or anything other than a wrong moral choice. We will further pursue the matter of biblical vocabulary later in this chapter.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Augustine, Marriage and Concupiscence 2.15.
2. Ibid., 1.5,1.9,1.24,2.37,16,17 & On Original Sin 2.42.
3. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Major Bible Themes, Dunham Publishers, p.136.
4. Hal Lindsay, The Liberation of Planet Earth, Zondervan, p. 49.
5. Gordon C. Olson, Sharing Your Faith, Bible Research Fellowship, Inc.