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Living in Sin

Are we all ‘born sinners’?


Theo101

Living Faith is a declaration of faith of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
We suggest you seek out and read the passage being discussed each month.

Additional reading: How Does Jesus Save? (September 2009) and The Words We Leave Out (June 2011).


Living Faith Chapter 2.5 (Sin Separates Us from God)

“Sin is real.”
This statement was a family script with which I grew up. It framed my reading of the terrible ways humans treat each other and creation. It shaped my perspective on poverty and war, oil spills and nuclear testing, homelessness and violence. It named my own temptations to turn away from those in need, to ignore their pain, to retaliate, to seek my own acclaim and to gossip. “Sin is real.”

What is sin?
The doctrine of sin seeks to respond to the question “What’s wrong?” We look around the world and easily see that things are not as they should be. God’s rule of love is not self-evident. Suffering and pain, violence and injustice are pervasive. Something has gone terribly wrong with how God made the world to be. That multi-dimensional “something” is called “evil,” and sin is what makes it happen.

Relationships out of whack
Living Faith, like most helpful reflections on sin, emphasizes that sin is a relational term, pointing to ways relationships are out of whack from the law of love for which we are made. Listen to the relational terms that Living Faith uses to describe the effects of sin: Sin separates us; sin is not caring as we should; sin is rebellion; sin does not reflect love; sin alienates us; sin is indifference; it is untruthfulness; greed; lust; laziness; gluttony; envy; selfish anger … All these ways of describing sin’s effects demonstrate the ways love is not being lived out by humans in their relationships with other humans, in creation, and with God.

Jesus’ summary of God’s law illustrates the love-filled intention for our lives. “You shall love the Lord God with your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Love is what we are made for as creatures, dependent and inter-dependent. Love is the rule that is broken when we sin. Further, when our relationship with God is out of whack, when we ignore God and seek to be our own god, it is borne out in all our other relationships. Something other than love begins to feed our ways of relating to others. Indeed, there are many relationships in which we say we love another person, but when that love is continually undermined by fear, jealously, envy, laziness, indifference, force, pride, etc., the relationship can become permanently disfigured.

Original sin or not?
When Living Faith says “Sin is a power present in every human life, even at birth,” it is referencing, albeit in a nuanced way, the doctrine of original sin articulated by Augustine of Hippo and emphasized throughout Western Christendom. With great reason many contemporary people react against the idea of original sin and any suggestion that children are “born sinners.” How can infants be born sinners when they cannot choose to act with purpose or intention?

What is most insidious about such popularized notions of original sin is that it suggests that humans are inherently and biologically evil. It suggests that sin is the deepest truth about who we are as human beings (something Augustine and Calvin never intended even with their emphasis on human corruption). Such belief must be rejected for it undermines Christian faith in the goodness of God who created us in love and made us in God’s image. Indeed, our belovedness as God’s own creatures is the deeper truth that sin distorts. In stating it like it does, Living Faith sets the record straight. It says sin is not the essence of who we are as humans, but it is a force with which we must all contend and a situation into which we are all born.

All people fall short
In clearly stating that all people fall short (or miss the mark) of God’s standard, neither Living Faith nor the history of this doctrine seek to beat people up for not being or doing what they should be or do—as if such judgment is an end in itself. Rather, in stating it like it does, Living Faith highlights the fact that no one is better than any other in God’s eyes. We are all challenged to resist the temptation to point the finger elsewhere, to throw the first stone, to pick out the sliver in someone else’s eye before removing the plank in our own. We are all in the same boat. We all fall short and we are called to humility and compassion toward others, not self-righteousness, judgment and condemnation.

Life matters
Sin points to the fact that how we relate with each other matters. All our action and inaction has consequences, on both the small scale and large scale—consequences that often far outlive the earthly existence of perpetrators and victims. Life shows us that cycles of injustice, violence and hatred feed more cycles of injustice, violence and hatred. This is true on the small scale of family and neighbourhood relationships as well as on the large scale of nations and peoples.

In a recent study of inmates in U.S. federal prisons a question was asked: “Did you experience love from a parent or parental figure in your childhood?” Out of hundreds of respondents, only 10 answered positively. Cycles of sin, of loveless relationships, feed more cycles of sin and lovelessness.

This is the way things are when we look at the world. It is no easy task to delineate the insidious ways sin moves in human life. As Christians, however, we affirm that cycles of sin are not inevitable. In Jesus, God has revealed the power of love and forgiveness that can unhinge and reorient cycles of sin, that can bring new life out of patterns of destruction and violence, that can draw us forth to healing and wholeness and to the deeper truth of love for which we are made. The faithful response to sin is confession and repentance: turning away from what is not love and turning to love; turning away from what is not God and turning to God.

“Sin is real.” Yes, and we must contend with its terrible reality in our lives and in our world on a daily basis. It wreaks havoc and we are all implicated. There is no escaping it. But greater than sin is the One who, in the face of the most devastating effects of sin, calls us from the cross to embrace love’s possibility and the resurrection’s promise.

About the author

Rev. Dr. Pamela McCarroll is assistant professor of pastoral theology and director of theological field education at Knox College, Toronto.

One Comment

  1. avatar
    Jared Miller says:

    “How can infants be born sinners when they cannot choose to act with purpose or intention?”

    What if sin has nothing do with choice but has to do with nature? I would encourage Dr. McCarroll to spend some time around infants and toddlers not her own kin and observe their behaviour which I would contend is the very definition of originally sinful. Selfish and Egoistic, unconcerned with consequences, deceitful and prone to rash displays of anger; are these not elements and ideas essentially at odds with the ethos of Christianity? Again, it may not be popular to hear, but infants readily testify to humanity’s sin nature.

    The question might be better asked in what ways do they grow beyond it.

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