Biblical Questions

Postulating a “Sin Nature” is Necessary: A Response to Haden Clark

Unfortunately, I feel a little pressed up against the wall. On the one hand, I do not want to come across as the type of person who unnecessarily attacks another Christian’s argument just to dismantle it. And yet, one of the historic creeds of the Christian faith is that mankind in his fallen-state (post Gen 2) is said to be under the reign of a sinful nature. I realize that smacks in the face of our pride. We are free! We make real choices every day! God made me this way!

Okay I get it, from an experiential point-of-view I can see where we might draw such conclusions. No one forced me to brush my teeth, nor take a shower every day, or exercise, or work, etc. Those are things that I purposely intend to do every day, and I freely chose to do so.

No rational person denies this, but where does that leave us when Scripture tells us it is true “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Eccl 7.29)? We are told that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is no one who does good. God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psa 53.1-3; cf. Psa 14.1-7; Rom 3.10-23).

I would imagine that Haden Clark would agree that these texts validate rather than nullify his position. To be fair, after reading his post a few times this morning (1/31/19) he seems content to believe that our sinning is because we “freely choose to sin of our own accord” (final par.), not due to an inward bent towards rebellion against God (i.e. sin nature). In response, I would agree that we surely “freely choose to sin of our own accord,” it is not an act of coercion, but a result of fallen human nature. And, I would agree because of my sin “I deserve the wrath of God” as Clark readily acknowledges (final par.) If not for Christ being offered as a substitute in my place, then an eternity of separation is what I would rightly endure.

In this post, I wanted to be as brief as possible, but due to the serious nature of the subject matter I was more concerned about being thorough rather than short. This will require patience on the part of the reader. Since I did not want to misrepresent Clark’s position I used lengthy quotes that attempted to keep the context from the original in mind. Likewise, my own responses and use of the Bible is a bit lengthy in places, but again for contextual reasons.

The format that I have chosen is point-by-point, a systematic review of what Clark has written (cf. https://helpmebelieve.com/postulating-a-sin-nature-is-unnecessary/). My desire is to clarify what I believe are notable misunderstandings by Clark in regards to the Reformed theology (or even theologically conservative evangelicalism). Now I could be wrong, but the tag for “Calvinism” leads me to believe that the Reformed position is within his line of sight.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

The Syllogism

 

The first thing that is presented in Clark’s blogpost after his opening paragraph is a four-point syllogism.

  1. Human beings by nature are guilty
  2. Jesus is 100% human
  3. Therefore, Jesus is guilty.
  4. Also, therefore babies (born or unborn) are guilty.

He then writes, “The fact that Jesus was born of a virgin, or the Holy Spirit, does nothing to avoid the conclusion. As long as you affirm the two premises, the conclusion necessarily follows” (par 3). There is an underlying assumption that is carried through (premise 1) to the conclusion: sin nature equates guilt. That is not the Reformed (Calvinistic) position, let alone the historic Christian position. That is to say, I am not guilty for Adam’s sin, but my own. However, it is true that in Adam I received just condemnation as a sinner, meaning that without the grace of God I am hopelessly lost as a rebel.

The truth is that in Adam “sin entered into the world,” (Rom 5.12a), and by that corruption “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5.12b). In fact, “death reigned through that one man” (Rom 5.17), and as a result the “one trespass led to the condemnation for all men” (Rom 5.18) because of “the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom 5.19). That condemnation/judicial decree of God is separation (i.e. death/spiritual death).

Although we will look at Clark’s treatment of Gen 3 in a minute, it bears noting now that the death ushered in by Adam’s sin brought enmity between the offspring of the woman (who we know to be Christ) and the offspring of the serpent (who we know to be Satan; cf. Gen 3.15). It was only an act of God’s grace that truly covered the shame/guilty of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden (cf. Gen 3.7, 21), but the consequence of that sin is seen immediately in their being driven from the Tree of Life (cf. Gen 3.22-24) and the battle between Cain and Abel post hence (cf. Gen 4.3-16).

True the condemnation of sin passed from Adam to me (to all of his children) in that I am born a sinner, but this does not mean I am guilty for Adam’s sin. I am guilty for my own sin, as Clark does recognize. The assumption that we are just like Adam was before the fall, however, is false. We are not. Therefore, we need a savior.

Paul’s point is clear in his Roman letter that we are all born as sinners because of Adam’s rebellion. We are begat in Adam’s image. In fact, before you ever get to Roman’s 5 that is Paul’s whole argument. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” because we are born of Adam, which is why we need to be born of Christ. (cf. John 3). The distinction then is that “the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin” (Rom 5.16a) for by “the grace of god and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (Rom 5.15b). That “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5.18b) because of “the one man’s obedience…many will be made righteous” (Rom 5.19b), therefore just “as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5.21). The very idea of Jesus needing to substitute Adam in order to justify fallen men lends to the correct understanding that we are sinners by nature.1

Don’t stop with what Paul says in Romans 5.12-21, but continue on through the entire document. For he spells out very plainly the fact that human beings have another nature at work which opposes God on every point. So much so that he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7.24-26). If man were created without a sin nature, how can Paul identify this “law of sin” (Rom 7.26) “waging war against the law of my mind” (Rom 7.23), even though his “delight” was found “in the law of God, in [his] inner being?” (Rom 7.22). A war that the natural man does not encounter, because before the redeeming work of Christ begins the person merely born of Adam is in utter rebellion against God (Rom 8.7-8).

Premise 2 is also false in that it is incomplete. Jesus is not only 100% human, but 100% God. Unlike the rest of humanity (save Adam), Jesus of Nazareth is born of God. He is born from above. One of the keynote doctrines of the Christian faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin not by natural means, but supernatural means—via the Holy Spirit. Though Adam might rightly be referred to as a type of Christ to come he was just a human being, nothing more. In order for Jesus to atone (cover by means of justification) for the sins of His people, He needed to be more than just a mere man.2

One man dying for another man might offer that one-man life as a substitute for his, but not many. The Bible tells us that Jesus died for many, not just one. His blood was poured out for many. Jesus was not merely a man, for in him the fullness of deity dwelt (cf. Heb 1.3).3 Unlike other men who have never seen the face of the Father, Jesus has and He revealed the Father to His people (cf. John 1.18; Luke 10.21-22). Unlike Adam, Jesus is the preexistent one, the eternal Living Word that was with God in the beginning—that is before creation—as all things were made through Him, by Him and for Him (cf. John 1.1-3; Col 1.15-18).

Because Jesus was God in the flesh (John 1.14) His nature was markedly different than the rest of mankind in that He had a dual nature. Unlike other people Jesus disposition was to love God and neighbor perfectly, upholding every facet of God’s Law and therefore living a perfect life (nothing could be added to it) as He did all He was created (in a humanly sense) to do. Unlike the children of Adam, Jesus was the exact imprint of the radiance of God’s glory and because of His supernatural birth He was not only created without sin being God in the flesh He could not sin. Therefore, what Clark posits in #3 as conclusion 1 is false.

Granted postulate 4 (conclusion 2) is a bit more difficult to tackle. From a biblical standpoint all the children of Adam are born as covenant breakers. But it is not a question of whether or not we are sinners in Adam that determines our eternal fate, but whether or not Christ died for us on the cross. If He took our place, then regardless of how much or how little life we lived (in the womb or outside of it) matters little, for the justice and mercy of God is applied where He deems it right (cf. Gen 18.25).

Whether or not this was intention, the argument presented in the syllogism is a strawman in so far as categories are not properly understood or rightly defined, and then subsequently knocked down.

Good, not God

 

In Clark’s second section he introduces an argument that I find much agreement in. For instance, he says “We often hear people say that Adam was perfect, or that the conditions in the Garden were perfect…this may be misleading” (par. 7).

Agreed. A better way of understanding the nature of things is how God describes them. People in their zeal to return to that pristine time in comparison with our own often use “perfect” as the word to describe things. However, God declares seven times that His creation is good; the seventh time after completing His creative work He calls it “very good” (Gen 1.31). It is in this case that we ought to view Ecclesiastes 7:29. Man was created good or upright. I think we would do well to notice the past tense stressed in the sentence as a comparison with what man is now, but good/upright is the correct way to see things.

And so, when Clark defines the good state of man in the beginning as “lack[ing] nothing” he is absolutely right. All of man’s needs were met. He had been created with many good gifts both externally (in creation outside of himself) and internally (his inner being). Likewise, a proper way of viewing God is one who “lacks nothing” as Clark points out.

The only confusing statement that I find by Clark in this section is the last sentence of par. 8. Here he says, “Adam was good, not God.” I want to say that Clark is striving to show the distinction between God (the Creator) man (the creature). I’ll let him speak on that for himself, but I would only add that Adam was good because God made him so, because God can only make good things. That is to say Adam’s goodness was a byproduct of God’s goodness. After the Fall, something changed in the state of things. For when man is later compared with God by the Lord, Jesus declares that “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10.18). A very strong universal categorical statement levied at a man who assumed that he was essentially good (cf. Mark 10.20).

Necessary Conditions

 

I want to let Clark introduce what he believes to be the “real kicker” against the idea of an imputed sinful nature via Adam to all his progeny.

He writes, “In the condition that God determined to be good, Adam was already capable of sin. The necessary conditions for sinning are (1) freewill and (2) an imperfect nature. Perhaps, we should add the element of temptation as a necessary condition also” (par 9).

Response: (1) Yes, absolutely right that Adam was capable of sinning. (2) Right, because Adam was capable of sinning, he had the freedom to rebel against God’s commandment (cf. Gen 2.15-17). The second part of number two is correct if what is meant by “imperfect nature” is that unlike God, man is a creature. A finite being cannot possess perfection on the level that God as infinite does. (3) Well, in order to sin, which is an act of rebellion against the law of God, temptation is a necessary condition. I do think it would be better to define the term as “tested” for that is what we see take place in Genesis 3. The serpent tests the resolve of Eve, who tests the statement of both the serpent and God as instructed by her husband, and Adam tested the Word of God against what the serpent had said and the evidence he saw when he watching his wife bite from the fruit. Other than that, I see nothing necessarily wrong with these statements.

However, the conclusion that Clark draws from this line of reasoning is a bit perplexing.

He writes, “The idea of a sinful nature being imputed to every human being from Adam, has a fundamental problem. Adam sinned without such a nature. The sin nature is taught to be a consequence of Adam’s sin. But Adam’s sin comes first. He did not have a ‘sin nature’. At the very least,” Clarke argues, “this means a ‘sin nature’ is not necessary for a person to sin…This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exists, but it does mean it isn’t necessary” (par 10).

Response: This is a red-herring. It has already been granted by both sides of the argument (those who argue for and those who argue against a sin-nature) that at the very least Adam was capable of sinning in the beginning at creation. No one argues against this position. For Adam a “sin nature” was not necessary for him to sin against his Creator. He was made upright and was afforded the opportunity to love God with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength and his neighbor (yes, this means his wife) as himself or not to.

The biblical doctrine on the sinful nature of man—i.e. his depravity or radical corruption—is the consequence of Adam’s sin. The doctrine teaches that unlike him we are born into this world sinners. That is to say with a disposition towards sinning against our maker. This was the inheritance that Adam purchased for his offspring. The consequence of Adam’s sin is cursed children (and creation in general). No one worth their salt argues that a “sin nature” is necessary to sin, but it is the current state of things.

Who says? Let us look at the list of witness that have been offered to us:

  • David testifies of himself, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psa 51.5).
  • David testifies of fallen men, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ears” (Psa 58.3-4).
  • Job likewise speaks of the state of man at birth, “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?” (Job 15.14; cf. 14.4; 25.4-6).
  • We’ve seen Paul in Romans, but now in Ephesians? “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins…carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2.1, 3). When were we dead? At birth? At 2? At 12? Paul says we were thus “by nature” just like every child of Adam.
  • Jeremiah offers a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer concerning man’s condition, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spot? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13.23).
  • Solomon admits, “Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Eccl 9.3).
  • The very thing the Lord declared of Noah’s generation, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6.5; cf. 8.21).
  • Again, through Isaiah the prophet, “For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously, and that from before birth you were called a rebel” (Isa 48.8).

Clark’s Closing Remarks…

 

In the end Clark recommends that we don’t say that human nature is “guilty [or] shameful.” Why? Because he does “not for a second…believe human nature is of its very nature guilty” (closing par). He is willing to grant that “humanity is imperfect. [But] if this is a crime, we are not to blame” (closing par). I’m sorry Clark, but you are wrong.

Humanity is not just “imperfect,” human nature is sinful, and the desires of our heart are found to be in opposition to God and this is shameful. As sinners we bear the guilt of our sins. Lest we deny what the Bible teaches we must all agree “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl 7.20).

On this Haddon Clark and I agree. We are all sinners, and we are all in need of Jesus Christ. Without Him we will be justly condemned for the sin we freely chose.

Wait a Minute, Not Quite Done…

 

But before I go I want to present the testimony of the One we both call Lord and Savior. I’m not a “red-letter” Christian. I believe it is foolhardy and a grievous error to pit Christ’s words in the N. T. over and against what is written in the rest of Scripture. All of the Bible is Christ’s Word. Yet, just to be clear we ought to see what He has to say on the matter to those who assume they are God’s people and yet reject the truth recorded in other parts of God’s Word because they reason it can’t be so.

More importantly, what Jesus says here ties directly back into what is found in the early chapter of Genesis.

Jesus tells those would be disciples, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8.31-32). His audience is incredulous, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?” (John 8.33). Listen to Jesus’ response and pay attention to his flow of thought:

  • Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8.34). All are sinners; therefore, all are slaves to sin? At what point does this reality come? If we compare it with the rest of Scripture, sin is what we are born into…not something we grow into.
  • The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (John 8.35). The slave is not guaranteed an inheritance, other than the inheritance of being eternally cast out, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
  • So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8.36). If the Son does not, then you will remain a slave to sin. Unless there is a change of position (i.e. nature), then the current condition will remain the same.

Of course, the Jews vehemently deny this (cf. John 8.39), but denying the truth does not nullify the truth. Jesus goes on to explain that they desire to do the will of their father the devil who has no truth in him, since he was a liar and murder from the beginning (John 8.44). This the Lord says is an outpouring of the devil’s character (i.e. nature). In the same vain in a different place Jesus explains that it is the heart that is exceedingly wicked from which all sin comes. This is the result of the Fall, although it must be granted that our transgressions are not like Adam’s (Rom 5.14), because we are not like Adam in the sense of being free to choose good or evil.

Here’s the thing, Haddon Clark doesn’t believe in a sinful nature being imputed to us as Adam’s offspring because he “doesn’t see it in the text” (par 1). Besides the fact that Paul does say we have all become sinners because of Adam’s act of disobedience in Romans 5:12-214. So, let’s take that logic to its conclusion in other areas. Where does the Bible say that man has “freewill?” Where does the Bible teach that man is free to do good or evil post-fall? This is often assumed or inferred, but what does Scripture say about the heart of man, and where does it say explicitly that it is free?

In short, the argument presented by Clark is not based upon biblical truth, but a philosophical position that he holds dear (freewill). To say that man is a slave to a sinful nature smacks in the face of our pride. But we are called to submit to what is revealed in God’s Word and build our philosophy on it, not the other way around. His syllogism is based on faulty premisses and therefore what he sets up to reject is a type of strawman argument. In saying this, I am not saying that Haddon Clark is not a Christian, nor am I labeling him a heretic. However, it behooves me to point out that the belief that man is free from bondage to sin (i.e. a sin-nature) after the Fall is the same sort of heresy (non-orthodox teaching) that Pelagius taught and was rightly condemned in the 5th century.5

My hope and prayer is that Clark will reevaluate his position in light of what Scripture teaches, rather than what he presupposes.

ENDNOTES:

 

1 If man were born without an inward inclination towards sinning, then it would follow that some may not need Christ’s atoning death in order to be saved. What do they need to be saved of, if they have not sinned? If I am capable of freely choosing not to sin, then it is possible that I might never sin. In this case Christ’s death is pointless at least for those individuals. But the Bible argues that His death was necessary and determined before creation.

2 To reduce Jesus to the level of a mere human being is to equate him in a manner in which various cults/religions do today. I am not saying that is what Clark’s position is, but premise 2 is false in the way it is written.

3 One of the points that the writer of the Hebrews drives home to his audience is that the Lord is distinct from all other created things. He is greater than angels (Heb 1.4-13), greater than Moses (Heb 3.1-6), greater than Abraham (Heb 6.13-20; cf. John 8.58), greater than the High Priest (Heb 7.11-28), in Him we find a greater rest than in Canaan (Heb 4.1-11), His blood is greater than the blood of bulls and goats (Heb 9.11-10.18), He is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12.2).

4 Speaking on Pauls’ argument John Wesley (an Arminian) understands the implications of Adam’s sin in the garden. He writes, “As by one man—Adam; who is mentioned, and not Eve, as being the representative of mankind. Sin entered into the world—Actual sin, and its consequence, a sinful nature. And death—with all its attendants. It [death] entered the world when it [sin] entered into being; for till then it [death] did not exist. By sin—Namely, by one man. In that—So the word is used also, 2Cor V, 4. All sinned—In Adam. These words assign the reason why death came upon all men; infants themselves not excepted, in that all sinned.” John Wesley, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible: New Testament (Christian Classics Ethereal Library), notes on Rom 5:12, loc 504, Adobe Digital Editions. Emphasis Added.

5 Meaning the style of argument presented by Clark is not new, but old. Pelagius argued in a similar fashion, although like Clark I do not necessarily believe that Pelagius did so with malintent. However, Pelagius’ refusal to allow correction to flow from Scripture is where his greatest error came.

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