What is original sin? The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides us with a helpful definition:
Q.18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate [i.e. condition] into which man fell? A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.
So according to the Shorter Catechism, original sin refers to the sinful condition or state that all mankind fell into in Adam’s first sin the garden of Eden. And it basically consists in three (3) things:
- The Guilt of Adam’s First Sin
- The Want (or Lack) of Original Righteousness
- The Corruption of Our Whole Nature
First, the guilt of Adam’s first sin. Adam was not only the first sinner, but also the first representative (federal head) of the entire human race. So when he sinned and fell, he did so not only for himself, but on our behalf as well. And the proof is in the result – we are all sinners, and we all die (Romans 5:12-21). We all sinned in Adam; we all fell in Adam, just as if we had ourselves partaken of the forbidden fruit. That is what Paul is talking about when he says that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:18, ESV, italics mine). Outside of Christ all of humanity shares in the guilt of Adam’s first sin.
Second, the want (or lack) of original righteousness. Too often we conceive of righteousness in merely negative terms, as if it consisted only in refraining from transgressing God’s law. That is really only half of the story. True righteousness consists also in the positive fulfilling of God’s law, the actual doing of His will. Adam was originally created as a righteous man. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it,
Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably [i.e. subject to change], so that he might fall from it (9.2).
And fall from it he did. And we all in him as well. That is why, as Paul says in Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.”
Third, original sin also involves the corruption of our whole nature. Every faculty of our nature was corrupted, so that we became dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). Outside of Christ we all now have a natural inclination toward evil and away from God. It is from this corruption of our nature that “all actual transgressions” proceed (Q.18, above). In other words, we are not just sinners because we sin, but rather we sin because we are sinners. As Paul puts it in Ephesians chapter 2, outside of Christ we are all “sons of disobedience” (v.2) and “by nature children of wrath” (v.3).
Maybe you’re reading all of this and thinking to yourself that it doesn’t seem fair. Worse than that, it seems downright hopeless. That would certainly be the case if not for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:14 tells us that Adam “was a type of the one who was to come.” And that one to come in the likeness of Adam to be the representative or federal head of a new humanity. As Paul writes in Romans 5:18-19,
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
In Jesus Christ, through faith in Him, we have the cure for the curse of original sin. Where we used to share in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, in Christ we now have “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). Where we formerly had no righteousness in Adam, in Christ we now have the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ accounted to us by faith alone (Romans 1:17). And lastly, where we used to be dead in sin in Adam, we are now made alive from the dead in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5), so that we are “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We are not thereby made perfect or sinless in this life, but the Spirit of Christ within us works in us to conform us more and more unto the image of Christ.