Are Men Born Sinners?

by Alfred T. Overstreet    

Chapter 6



How could it be possible for the doctrine of original sin to persist so long if it were false? Would not God long ago have purged his church from such an error? No, God permits men to cling to darkness and error for as long as they will. The Dark Ages and the visible church are a sad testimony to that fact. The church should have been a light to the world, but instead it was filled with darkness, superstition, and error; a heathen doctrine of purgatory; an unbiblical papacy and priesthood with its priestly rituals; the selling and buying of indulgences for sin; the worship of Mary, saints, pictures, images, and relics; the ascribing of magical powers to water, to sacred words, to signs and places, to amulets and relics, and to certain rites and ceremonies; works of penance for forgiveness of sins; and water baptism for the remission of sins. Darkness, superstition, and error reigned in the church, and when a little light did spring up, it was resisted and put down as heresy. Throughout the Dark Ages, the church sanctioned and protected the grossest kinds of superstitions and errors. And God permitted this superstition and error to exist and continue in the visible church for well over a thousand years.

I have already referred to the church's stubborn rejection of truth in the forgoing chapter, and it bears repeating in connection with this chapter. Copernicus and Galileo brought to the church the truth that the earth was not the center of the universe and was not without motion, and that the sun did not go around the earth, but that the earth rotated on its axis and went around the sun. However, the church had believed and taught for well over a thousand years that the earth stood still, and that the sun went around the earth. So they rejected the truth that these men taught and persisted in their long-held error.

Then Martin Luther stood up against the ecclesiastical corruption and false teachings of the church. He wanted reformation in the church, but the church rejected the light that Martin Luther tried to bring to it and Luther was forced to work for reform outside the Catholic Church. So God permitted the church to go on in its error. The idea that God will not permit false doctrine to exist in the church is just not true and is repudiated by both church history and the Bible.

It is regrettable that Martin Luther did not perceive all the errors that existed in the Catholic Church. For he, along with Calvin, still believed in the dogma of original sin, and he, as well as Calvin, still believed that the earth stood still and that the sun went around the earth every 24 hours.

Martin Luther called Copernicus an 'upstart astrologer' and a 'fool who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy.' Calvin thundered: 'Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?' Do not Scriptures say that Joshua commanded the sun and not the earth to stand still? That the sun runs from one end of the heavens to the other?

So while Martin Luther and Calvin both rejected many of the errors of the Catholic Church, they also both still clung to some of its errors. Why? Because of their ignorance.

Both Calvin and Martin Luther were completely ignorant about astronomy. They did not think they were ignorant. They professed to know much more about it than Copernicus. They thought that their false views were true because they were supported by long-held tradition, and they could quote Scripture texts to support them. And Christians today also think that the doctrine of original sin is true because it is supported by long-held tradition, and they can quote proof-texts from the Bible to prove it. Because of their ignorance, they will stand with righteous indignation against those who declare the dogma of original sin to be false, just like Calvin and Luther, because of their ignorance, stood with righteous indignation against the truth as taught by Copernicus.

There is grave ignorance among Christians respecting the doctrine of original sin. Most Christians would have to admit that they are completely ignorant about the following facts:

1. That the doctrine of original sin is a historical doctrine. It became a doctrine of the Catholic Church in the 5th century A.D.

2. That it has evolved as a doctrine and that it had its roots in a heathen philosophy.

3. That it is really only a theory, and further, that there is not one, but several contradicting theories of original sin.

4. That there is grave disagreement among the theologians who support the different theories of original sin, and that they are all able to prove each other's theories to be false.

5. That, although the doctrine of original sin was foisted on the church by Augustine, much of the credit for the acceptance of the doctrine must go to the changing winds of church politics and power. Not only the doctrine of original sin, but several other doctrines of the church see-sawed back and forth in their acceptance or rejection according to the caprices of politics, power, and influence of the state and church.

6. Most Christians are ignorant of the fact that Pelagius and Celestus were inadvertently a great help to Augustine in foisting his doctrine of original sin on the church. In fact, without their role, it may never have taken hold in the church. Pelagius and Celestus withstood Augustine's views on original sin, natural inability, and a necessitated will. But in rejecting original sin, they had to teach that infants are without sin, which meant that there was no need of infant baptism. Churchmen at that time were strongly prejudiced for infant baptism, so the implication involved in a denial of original sin (that there was no need for infant baptism) shocked them, raising opposition to the teachings of Pelagius and Celestus and making Augustine's doctrine of original sin, natural inability, a necessitated will, and irresistible grace much more palatable. Although the position of Celestus on the lack of a need for infant baptism was Scriptural; nevertheless, the churchmen's strong prejudice for infant baptism caused the controversy to erupt. And this point in which Celestus and Pelagius were right drew much more attention in the controversy than several other points in which Celestus and Pelagius decidedly took unscriptural positions. Therefore, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin was not made a dogma of the Catholic Church because of its truth or merits, but because Pelagianism rejected infant baptism and was in gross error in its denial of the need of a special divine grace if men are to be saved and delivered from sin. Pelagius and Celestus held such ridiculously unbiblical views of sin and of man's ability to obey God without grace that it was actually easy for Augustine to show that their views were false. Thus the rejection by Celestus and Pelagius of infant baptism, and their rejection of the need for a special divine grace if men are to be saved and delivered from sin captured all the attention of the churchmen's minds and diverted their attention from the absurdities of the original sin doctrine as taught by Augustine.

7. Most Christians are ignorant of exactly what Augustine taught as the doctrine of original sin, as well as what Cocceius, Placeus, and Arminius taught as their doctrines of original sin. If they were told exactly what Augustine taught, they would be shocked and would refuse to believe it.

8. Most Christians are ignorant of the fact that the doctrine of original sin is a patently unbiblical doctrine. It directly contradicts scores of Biblical texts and both the spirit and the letter of all the fundamental doctrines of the Bible.

9. Most Christians are ignorant of the fact that it is both morally and physically impossible to be born a sinner.

10. And finally, most Christians would have to admit that they are ignorant of the shocking teachings and implications that grow out of the doctrine of original sin. For instance, the teachings that God creates sinners, that infants who die go to hell, and the logical implication that if all men are born sinners, then Jesus himself was born a sinner.

The fact is that Christians are woefully ignorant of the origin and evil nature of this doctrine, and it is this ignorance that protects and perpetuates it. There are several factors that work together to make this ignorance possible. I will name five.

First, the spirit of the new Christian is receptive. He does not have a spirit of debate about things he may not understand. New Christians naturally tend to accept everything they are taught as gospel truth because they have a pliable and teachable spirit. They may not understand this new doctrine, and they may question its justice; nevertheless, their receptive and teachable spirit prevents them from objecting and arguing about it. They are not prone to question or reject authority. Their pliable and teachable spirit makes them receptive even to a doctrine that contradicts their convictions of justice.

Second, the doctrine of original sin is made believable to the new Christian because of proof-texts from the Bible. He does not know that these proof-texts are taken out of context or misinterpreted. He probably has little knowledge of the Bible and deep trust in those who teach him. Add to this his love of God and his trust in God's Word, so that when proof-texts from the Bible are given in support of the doctrine of original sin, the question is settled for him if the Bible teaches it, then it has to be so.

Third, once confirmed in a belief it is almost impossible to change that belief. Who has not experienced or observed how Christians, once taught to believe a certain way, are strongly prejudiced for the view they have first been taught? An illustration of this is the blind zeal with which Christians of different denominations will argue over doctrinal differences. A Baptist is not likely to give a fair hearing to Pentecostal doctrine. Neither is a Pentecostal likely to give a fair hearing to Baptist doctrine. To change the beliefs of one who has once been indoctrinated is almost impossible. He may be in error, but he is prejudiced against every argument that he hears. This prejudice against any teaching that contradicts what we have already been taught protects and perpetuates any error that we may hold.

Fourth, the very fact that the doctrine of original sin is almost universally believed and that it has been believed for so long tends strongly to perpetuate it. Universal adherence to error throws up an almost impenetrable barrier against light and truth when they are offered. Moreover, universal adherence to error presents an almost overwhelming restraint to the person who would defect and stand alone against the masses to speak for truth. There is a feeling of safety and assurance in numbers. No one likes to stand alone. It is because of this that, even in the church, universal adherence to error has had an overwhelming tendency to perpetuate itself. Add to this the entrenched ignorance and superstition that truth must expose before it can be received and embraced as truth.

Fifth, a deficient ministry helps to perpetuate ignorance and error among Christians. Ministers are certainly more blameworthy than laypeople for ignorance, superstition, and prejudicial beliefs, because their very calling is to preach and teach the truth to others. But often there is a conceit among ministers that does not exist among laypeople. Because they are ministers, they feel they do not need to be taught, and they resist more firmly than laypeople any idea that they might be in error. A true Christian spirit, and a spirit that would be in accord with their responsibility to preach the truth would, it seems, cause them to hear the arguments and to investigate the question until they might be sure of either the truth or falseness of the original sin dogma. But, sadly, there is generally such a prejudiced opinion and such self-satisfaction that ministers do not investigate, and they continue to perpetuate a false doctrine in the church of Jesus Christ.

The idea is erroneous that, if the doctrine of original sin were false, God would long ago have purged it from his church. Martin Luther could easily have said the same thing about the errors that existed in the Catholic Church. These were errors that had been universally believed and practiced in the church for well over a thousand years. Martin Luther knew they were errors and unbiblical practices, and he cried out against them and was finally used by God to bring light and truth to the church, where before there had been darkness, superstition, and error.

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