by Bill Nugent
Those who study the Christian faith often find our doctrine of original sin very difficult to grasp. However, when original sin is properly understood it leads to great understanding of the human condition and great insight into solving human social problems.
Original sin is the concept that all human beings are born into the world as sinners. Human nature itself is fallen, imperfect and tends toward evil. Christianity alone has this low (but accurate) view of humankind.
For an example of the profound usefulness of the doctrine of original sin in solving problems related to human government we should look at the writing of the U.S. constitution. The framers of the U.S. constitution were Christian men who held to a conservative understanding of Christian doctrine. Very few of the founding fathers were Deists and none were secularists.
James Madison (1751-1836), who was greatly influential in the framing of the constitution, held no flattering view of human nature. Madison (and Washington) often appealed to a Bible passage in Jeremiah 17:9 which clearly portrays the sinfulness of the human heart. In defending his argument for the separation of powers into executive, legislative and judicial branches, Madison asserted the following: “The truth that all men, having power ought to be distrusted ….” In his Federalist Paper no. 51 he wrote“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” These statements are among many in the writings of Madison and the other founders that show that their Christian background caused them to adopt the Christian view of the sinful condition of human nature. This in turn led them to divide power into the three major branches of government. No human being was to be trusted with too much power.
Madison himself was heavily influenced by the writings of the Christian philosopher Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). Montesquieu’s overtly Christian book The Spirit of Lawsinfluenced many of America’s founding fathers. In it Montesquieu wrote “There is no liberty if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive.” (From Alvin J. SchmidtUnder the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, Zondervan, pp. 256-258.)
The doctrine of original sin, far from being an obscure theological point, had immense practical impact on the founding of America. The separation of powers is considered by many to be the very unique genius of the constitution and the reason why the American republic has so long endured.
In our own everyday lives we also must acknowledge the practical value of the doctrine of original sin. It is best summed up in the words of a minister from Wales named Arthur Burt (1912- ). Arthur said “You have to own it before you can disown it.” In other words we must admit our sinfulness if ever we are to get free of that sinful condition.
Consider these words from the First Epistle of John. If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”(I John 1:8-9 NAS). We have to admit that we are sinners and then humbly ask for God’s forgiveness based on the work of Christ who died for our sins.