Born sinners?

by K.W. Leslie, 27 May 2021

So I discussed original sin—the human self-preservation instinct, distorted into an innate self-centeredness which means we’re inevitably gonna sin. It’s just how we’re wired. Unlike Jesus, who has a built-in divine nature which way predates him becoming human, which makes his first instinct to never sin… our first instincts work the other way.

Thing is, many other Christians don’t describe original sin this way. At all.

Most Christians are of course Pelagian, and think there is no such thing as human depravity and original sin. They figure humans are born blank slates, and could choose to be good as well as evil. God created us good, Ge 1.31 so they figure our natural tendency is towards good… and society messes us up, so blame it.

And then there are dark Christians who go to another extreme: They think original sin means we’re born evil. Born sinners. They don’t figure we’re merely born with selfish and sinful tendencies; we’re born with all the sins of Adam and Eve and humanity already on us. We’re born cursed. We’re already guilty of sin, and every newborn baby fully deserves the death penalty.

Wait, what?

Psalm 51.5 KJV
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Lamentations 5.7 KJV
Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities.

Think of it this way: Say you were born to poor parents, not wealthy ones. They have no money, which means you gotta suffer the consequences of their lack of money. You gotta live with their inability to buy you comforts, or even basic necessities. They can’t afford nutritious foods; you gotta eat ramen every day, and grow shorter than average, with low bone density, and maybe scurvy. They can’t afford an orthodontist; you’re gonna have an overbite, and bad teeth, and grow up ugly. Meanwhile the rich kids down the street are going to nice prep schools, and someday expensive universities, which’ll get ’em well-paying jobs… so they can pass their family wealth down to their own children.

Is this fair? Well, wealthy people will claim it’s entirely fair: Your parents are poor because they aren’t clever enough. And if you’re not clever enough, you’ll remain poor too. Use those brains! Pull yourself out of the quicksand by your own bootstraps!

But enough about caste systems and social Darwinism. You see the general idea: The folks who insist we’re born sinners, think of “sinner” as our caste. It’s not what we do; it’s what we are. It’s the caste we’re born into. Nobody escapes it; nobody gets born into a non-sinner caste. Doesn’t matter if you manage to go a few years without ever violating any of God’s commands: If you’re born a sinner, you’re invariably gonna muck it up eventually. Because you’re a sinner.

Um… what about Jesus? Wasn’t he born into our caste?

And here’s where the idea of being born a sinner, collapses. Except those folks who believe it, refuse to admit its collapse: Jesus, they insist, is an exception. Somehow:

  • He’s a special creation of God, instead of the biological product of two people doin’ it.
  • He’s the genetic descendant of a woman, instead of a man and his toxic, defective, Adam-descended Y chromosome.
  • He has the Holy Spirit in him so strongly, the Spirit blocked any potential sin nature from being formed in him.
  • He has a divine nature and a human nature, but because the divine nature is way stronger than the human nature, every time the human nature felt like sinning, the divine nature slapped it around and said, “B---h we’re doing it my way,” and left it cowering in a corner of room, sobbing.

Yeah, that last one was a little dark. But I am talking about a dark Christian theory, y’know. It has dark ramifications. If we’re all dirty sinners since the instant we were created, it means there’s nothing worthy in us for Jesus to redeem. He has to make something good in us, from scratch. But until he does that, we deserve nothing but horror, fear, and death—which implies it’s okay to treat our fellow humans like that. It’s okay to let them suffer. It’s okay to abandon them to their doom. Don’t feel compassion, nor feel bad for people, because they’re doomed, or they’re on their way to ruin: They’re only getting what they deserve, ’cause they totally deserve to stoke the fires of hell.

It’s a very pessimistic and apathetic view of humanity, and doesn’t reflect at all what God feels for us. But that’s not surprising; dark Christians tend to be grace-deficient.

Rejecting Pelagianism a little too hard.

Humans are creatures of extremes. So you remember we have the Pelagian extreme of “humans are inherently good”; now I’m talking about the dark Christian extreme of “humans are inherently evil.” It’s kind of a clapback to Pelagianism. But it goes way too far.

These folks wanna make it crystal clear our sins don’t come from without, but within. They don’t want anyone to get the idea maybe, maybe, if circumstances are just right, we might avoid sin entirely, grow up entirely innocent, and not actually need for Jesus to save us. Nobody goes around Jesus to get to the Father, Jn 14.6 so they wanna eliminate any remote possibility any person could be born who doesn’t need Jesus. And if you’re born a sinner, you’re not just born with a selfish nature, which’ll eventually get you to sin: You’re evil. And doomed. And need Jesus.

Pelagians already hate the idea we’re born messed up; they especially hate the idea we’re born sinners. I gotta admit I’m not a fan of the idea either. I don’t think there’s enough in the scriptures to solidly support the idea. We’re definitely depraved and corrupt, but pre-condemned as sinners? Born worthy of death and hell?

One of the more popular proof texts comes from taking the Psalms literally. King David ben Jesse wrote a little something about what a dirty sinner he was, and folks figure he wasn’t just speaking in hyperbole: They imagine this is a factual, accurate description of humanity’s sin problem. Take it away Dave:

Psalm 51.3-6 NLT
3 For I recognize my rebellion;
it haunts me day and night.
4 Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
and your judgment against me is just.
5 For I was born a sinner—
yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
6 But you desire honesty from the womb,
teaching me wisdom even there.

The NLT pulls no punches, and renders verse 5 עָו֥וֹןבְּ חוֹלָ֑לְתִּי/be-avón kholálti as “I was born a sinner,” even though it’s more properly rendered, “I was shaped by evil” (KJV “I was shapen in iniquity”). But the context, in the same verse, is David stating he was conceived in sin.

In most cultures (including ours) “conceived in sin” means conceived to unwed parents. Bible commentators tend to presume David can’t mean that. But note the bible never tells us about David’s birth. We first meet him when the LORD sent Samuel ben Elkanah—the previous ruler of the nation of Israel; he’s not only a prophet—to anoint the son of Jesse ben Obed as Israel’s next king. Jesse presented his seven sons to Samuel… and not David, his eighth and youngest son. David was off “tending the sheep,” 1Sa 16.11 and Jesse never bothered to have him fetched ’cause the prophet was visiting. But shepherding is not a good-enough reason for his absence. It implies something’s a little off. David’s being overlooked at best, deliberately hidden at worst.

So… did Jesse recognize David as a proper son? Or was there something inappropriate, even illegitimate, about his parentage? Did David have the same mother as the others? What was that relationship all about? The bible tells us nothing… but then again there’s this psalm, where David says he “was shapen in iniquity.” Was David’s parents’ relationship kosher at the time?

I admit all of the above is pure speculation. But it’s more legitimate speculation than presuming David is trying to say humanity is born sinful.

Yes, we humans are all born with a nature bent towards sin. As Paul put it, we’re τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς/tékna fýsei orghís, “children with an angry nature.” Ep 2.3 Problem is, Christians keep assuming the orghís, “anger,” refers to God’s anger; that when the KJV calls us “the children of wrath” it means we’re born doomed. Pre-condemned to God’s wrath. Because we’re born sinners.

But if you wanna see what humanity really is, and really can be, we’re meant to look to Jesus. Same, really, as we’re meant to look to Jesus about everything.

“But Jesus is a special exception.”

Jesus didn’t sin. He 4.15, 2Co 5.21, 1Pe 2.22, 1Jn 3.5 Since that’s the case, he clearly wasn’t born a sinner. He had a human nature, ’cause he’s human, but Christians believe he wasn’t born with a depraved human nature. ’Cause how else could he defeat sin his entire life? He’s an obvious exception to the saying, “All have sinned.” Ro 3.23, 5.12

So… what makes him this exception? Honestly, the scriptures never nail it down. Historically, Christians have presumed it has to do with his having no biological father, ’cause he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Lk 1.34-35 His Y chromosome didn’t pass down from Adam; it was created special. Still human; still “the Son of Man.” But not with a fallen human nature. Not with human depravity. Sinless.

Okay, but there’s still his mom’s fallen human nature to contend with, right? Well, Roman Catholics got this covered: They claim Mary wasn’t born a sinner. It’s what they call the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception: In order to protect Jesus from the taint of sin and human depravity, Mary was specially created so the sins of her parents never passed down to her. She was conceived immaculate. She never sinned. Her womb was the only sin-free place on earth for Jesus to be conceived.

Evangelicals tend to not believe in this doctrine—or incorrectly think “immaculate conception” refers to Jesus, and think it means he was conceived without sex. Nope; it’s about Mary being sinless same as Jesus. And it’s about protecting Jesus and his mom from the taint of original sin. And from being born sinners.

But Evangelicals don’t wanna claim Mary was sinless. She’s a great saint, an outstanding example of faith—and to be fair the bible has no stories of her sinning. But sinless is something we solely wanna describe Jesus as. Besides, the Immaculate Conception idea isn’t in the bible; it’s a pop-culture Catholic idea which leaked into Catholic doctrine and was formalized by Pope Pius 9 in 1854. Further, does Jesus need to have a sin-free mother before he could be born? As demonstrated by his regular willingness to hang out with sinners, sin doesn’t freak him out as much as Christians imagine. He’s mightier, and more sin-resistant, than that.

Protestants tend to figure Jesus’s divinity made it easy for him to ignore sin, resist temptation, yet still be totally human. Sin is so contrary to who Jesus is as God; and humans don’t have to sin, so it’s not like Jesus denied his humanity by resisting any selfish options he might’ve had. So what made Jesus a special exception? Simple: He’s not just human. He’s also God.

So do we need to talk about inherited human nature, the human tendency towards selfishness and corruption, Adam’s genes, immaculate conceptions, and other such theories? Not really. But you know how people like to overcomplicate things. Theologians do it too.

The only thing which does throw a serious monkeywrench into how Jesus can be sinless, is this idea of humans being born sinners. It makes us pre-condemned to die for our sins. But if Jesus is legitimately human, it’d make him pre-condemned to die for his sins… but he had no sins. So… nope; it doesn’t work. At all.

Like I said at the beginning: Humans aren’t born sinners, but selfish, and the selfishness turns us into sinners. Was Jesus born selfish? Sure. But here’s the funny thing about God’s selfishness: What he selfishly wants more than anything is to love people. And since love doesn’t seek its own way, 1Co 13.5 God’s “selfishness,” if we can even properly call it that, is never gonna do evil. It can’t.

Jesus is what happens when we live by God’s nature instead of our selfish human nature. We’re called to live like him. With the Spirit’s help, we can. So let’s.