What Lies Beneath Human Sinfulness? Two Contrasting Views (Fri. June 24)

The word of the day is “death.” What is at the bottom of human sinfulness? The Western church answers unequivocally, “original sin.” Attributed to Augustine (354-430 AD), this doctrine holds that the sin of Adam and Eve infected human nature with incurable sinfulness. Since the Garden, the guilt of Adam has been passed down throughout the human race. Thus, in today’s reading of Romans 15:17-6:2, we read, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin…”  (OSB Romans 5:13). Yet this answer to the origin of sin depends on the translation and the perspective that accompanies it. Today we will sketch out the Eastern counter view to the Western teaching of how the sin of Adam affected humans.

Yesterday, we read that “… just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12). That sounds plain enough. We identify the “one man” as Adam. Through him “sin entered the world and death through sin.”

Is It “Because” All Have Sinned or “In That” All Have Sinned?

However, let us look at this verse more closely. The New King James Bible translates this key passage in this way: “death spread to all men, because all have sinned. The Western doctrine of “original sin” hangs on this word, “because.” This term blames Adam and Eve, whose sinful nature we have inherited.

But the standard King James Version does not use the word “because.” It uses the “for that.” This is a more literal translation of the two-word phrase. This translation suggests that death spread to all men “for that” or “in that” all have sinned. This translation of the preposition means that human beings do not inherit the “original guilt” of Adam. They inherit the curse of death.

For Us, Sin Follows Death

A note of The Orthodox Study Bible makes this sense clear: “Which comes first death or sin? For Adam, sin came first (the original sin) and then death. But for us, it is the opposite: we inherit death and mortality, that is, “corruption” from Adam. Sin follows after that” (OSB note on Romans 5:12).

Therefore as St. Paul says, “by one man’s offense death reigned through the one (Adam)…” (OSB Romans 5:17). St. John Chrysostom says that “for that” means that all, even those who did not eat of the tree, have become mortal” (NfPf1:11, 401).

And St. Gregory Palamas comments on Romans 5:17, “Just as through one man, Adam, liability to death passed down by heredity to those born afterwards, so the grace of eternal and heavenly life passed down from the one divine and human Word to all those born again of Him (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 16, 17). Death is the result of Adam’s disobedience to the Giver of Life, and it is at the root of human sinfulness.

The curse of death corrupts all of human life with the notion that one must gain all that he can, however he can, before he dies. Or it fosters desperate attempts to gain the immortality through fame, power, accomplishment, and the accumulation of wealth, none of which is lasting. That is, death provokes humans to self-seeking sin. It provokes humans to seek immortal life apart from their Creator, the source of life.

For Reflection

Our study has explained why the Orthodox put so much emphasis on the Resurrection of Christ. By His Resurrection, the Risen Lord overcame “death by death.” Therefore, death has not more “dominion” (Romans 6:10) for Him or for those who are baptized into His death… as Paul writes, “As Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life” (OSB Romans 6:4). Death no longer reigns, and therefore sin no longer rules those who believe in Christ.

About Fr. Basil

Now retired, the Very Rev. Archpriest Basil Ross Aden has served as a parish priest, parish pastor, diocesan mission director, writer, and college teacher of New Testament and Religious Studies. He has a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the University of Chicago and has published daily devotional and stewardship materials as well as a college textbook on Religious Studies. He also has published papers and/or lectured on the Orthodox perspective on Luther and the Reformation. religious freedom, current issues of religion and society, and St. John Chrysostom. He is married to Sandra and has two sons and three grandchildren. He is still active as a priest as well as a writer of articles and materials on Orthodoxy and topics of faith and life today.

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  1. Fr. Gabriel,


    I’ve spent the last 6-7 years thinking over the ramifications of Original Sin and Guilt. I came from a Reformed background where this anthropology and its logical conclusions are front and center, so I think it’s more obvious to me how this plays out. While I haven’t followed your writings for very long, I was contented when I first read the Baptismal liturgy for the first time. Death creates fear, fear is alleviated only truly with faith and eternal life, but temporarily and foolishly with evading death through pleasure and security. Fear of death competes with fear of God. Satan exacerbates the fear of death and leads us further into psychological pathologies. His desire was that man die all along, and he seeks to kills us in every way imaginable. It is the combination of death and Satan, and how we are conditioned by them, how we participate in them, that is the Biblical and Orthodox explanation/explanatory power for human depravity. When Original Sin and Guilt take the place of death and Satan, you get a “gospel” void of Resurrection and the defeat of Satan and wind up with Penal Substitution and Election (and a host of others). You get a “deliver us from evil” and not “evil one”. I could go on at great length, but I am very convinced that reinforcing what the Gospel really is, and what it is not, is crucial for Orthodox piety to develop, and I wish to encourage others who are aware to elaborate on these themes for the benefit of the faithful. This I say with humility. To acquire love is to defeat fear in faith, to crush Satan under our feet, and without love having only fear, we remain nothing and stay slaves to those who will exploit this fear in us. Thank you for your contributions here.

    Matthew Lyon

    1. Thanks for you astute comments based on your reflections on your background of Reformed Protestantism. Yes, the distinction between Law and Gospel is the central issue and the Reformed and Lutheran agree with Orthodoxy on this emphasis. However, We can understand the difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy more clearly on this distinction if we use the concept of framework. As you note, Protestantism views the matter of Law and Gospel within the framework of Augustinian categories while Orthodox see it within the framework of overcoming death and corruption. Note that Paul’s context and framework is the controversy over the Law of Moses (circumcision) and deliverance from the Law which undergirds the Gentile mission. For the reason of these differences, we need the interpretation of the Eastern church fathers to guide us in our theology. We should read, study, and apply them without apology. God bless, Fr. Basil

      1. Fr. Basil,

        Thank you for your response. The Reformed and Lutheran doctrine of Imputation is based on Original Sin and Guilt in that – they rightly recognize that not only do we need to be seen as innocent, but we also need virtue. But for them we have an infinite lack of merit. It is worth pointing out the difference between virtue and merit. Merit, which they never questioned as a valid category, is to my mind nowhere present in the Bible since there is never a point in time that Grace does not accompany our energy, and our energy/will is a gift and is created. I would think by now that Creation Ex Nihilo would’ve cured any idea of merit as a category, but I do agree with the Fathers that it’s not good enough to be forgiven alone, but even the Thief has some virtue. The Reformed sometimes refer to this as the “double cure” that Christ effects, one in Christ being the propitiation for sins, but also that He acquires for the Elect perfect submission to the Law that He credits/imputes to them. This is just as crucial to salvation as their Penal Substitution. But here again, because they have read Law not as an ascetical path/boundary for selfless love to develop/flourish, it must be opposed to Grace since in our depraved state via OS there is no possibility of keeping the Law and any attempt to do so without a full recognition of our inability to do so, relying fully on Christ’s obedience to the Law and to the Father, renders us – not justified. And there is some truth in all this logic. We are not Pelagians after all, or semi-Pelagians. But because OS was there, Satan and death were never given the explanatory power with the misuse and abuse of our wills in fear, for human evil.

        Death and Satan stay hidden and what I am in Adam, and now culturally this has morphed into, what I am due to my psychology/neurobiology, is taken as a given leaving the true conditioners of sin and selfishness unexamined. But just as detrimental as OS is, the Original Perfection is just as detrimental and may actually come first in the order. If very good meant to become Saints was more the idea instead of entirely perfect made to keep that perfection, then when the Fall occurs, you could actually appreciate death and Satan as motivators of depravity. And the cure for that illness, would obviously entail the defeat of Satan and death and the expansion of Eden again. But, if you were perfect when you fell, you did not fall from innocence or from dignity, and so, you are utterly ruined, and Election is necessary. The logic for PSA is based on an Original Perfection and for hell as a torture chamber.

        I have recently been developing an argument I have shared with some Reformed friends of mine that if the Law were a means to love, as Jesus says the whole Law is love for God preeminently and for neighbor, and in Paul, that to go so far as martyrdom without love is a complete waste, then how could love be imputed to you? Imputation is already conceptually difficult as how can one person be obedient and virtuous for you through a “credit transfer”. But transferring love, active love, seems even more difficult. And the impetus from the entire NT and OT, to love or fail at faith/repentance/destiny, when it is so obviously something for us to acquire personally, as in the Last Judgment those who had no love fared poorly, by putting the focus of the Law on love as Jesus did, I think it makes the problem even worse for those who believe in Imputation and pit Grace against works. If the Law is the means to love/loyalty and if keeping the Law is love, without which we are nothing, then how can this be credited? That’s my short argument. And it’s more to point out the nonsensicalness of the idea. I can’t make my love someone else’s. We can share mutually in love, more like a shared bank account since they like banking analogies, than a wire-transfer.

        And here, if this is successful – and I think it needs played out over and over that fearlessness/faith/repentance/hope/love – are all basically the same things. You cannot please God unless you believe He Is, and that He is good, so trusting God means believing He is specifically good. You cannot repent to an evil god because repentance requires faith. You cannot fear something more than God without having more faith in that thing than in God. And so on.

        But if the Reformers had questioned merit, had read Paul more closely, that the main contention Paul had with the Law was keeping the distinction between the Jew and the Gentile, as this was anathema – this was the accursed “gospel” whether from angels or men – and the accursed gospel was not – failing to believe in OS and Guilt and your inability to do or will anything good – and then all the necessary doctrines that follow – then Law in its proper form, would have remained. The Reformers included the 10 Commandments in the phrase, “the works of the Law” when they should not have as again, the Law Paul is after is that which keeps the Jew and the Gentile from full integration in the Body of Christ. And so, the 10 Commandments and others, become for the person who tries to keep them without recognizing they cannot due to their Original Sin, pride and condemnation. But Jesus says that to keep the Law is love. The Reformed will speak of the Law as showing the depths of depravity such that we call on Christ, and surely this is true, but the depths of depravity are actually the absence of love/faith/repentance. If they had stuck with the most obvious theme in Scripture, that of union, they could have avoided major diversions from Christian Orthodoxy. Union with Christ, not imputation, links us with Him and His accomplishments in a familial way, in adoption for one. Union with death is broken in the Incarnation and Resurrection. Union with Satan is undone in exorcism and Baptism. Union with one another is accomplished in the overturning of Babel at Pentecost. Union with unrepented sin severs the union potentially between you and the Body as in Excommunication.

        Paul’s Apostolic understanding is that to have the Law but not keep the Law is blasphemous and leads to Gentile blasphemy. Yet, when he shows the inferiority of the Law to the Gospel, He is always careful not to mean that the Law is “sin” or bad, etc. His own experience of being “killed” by sin through the commandment not to covet, was not that the Law was bad, but that it did expose his faithlessness – but before Christ there was no real solution to the “being killed” that was lasting, 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

        It seems quite obvious to me now in Paul that when he speaks of Law or Gospel, he is so dogmatically opposed to some view of Law that makes the Gentile need to convert to Judaism, and not Christ, that he can’t help but talk about Law in a negative way under this view – because they have already denied the Gospel. Any paradigm where hanging onto the Law leads to the Gentile needing more “work” than had already been accomplished by Christ and in their repentance, leads to talking about the Law in a negative sense. But where this is not the case, as it was not the case usually before the Gentile inclusion was really being pressed as hard, as in the Gospels (though it is present surely) the Law is talked about as love. The union that Christ had with us to destroy death and make powerless the Devil, and the union we have with Him in our death with Him in Baptism, and our unity in faith and Communion of the Body of Christ, means there is no longer Jew or Greek, but One Body. Denying any of this is anti-Gospel and might be anti-Christ, as it entails a potential denial that Jesus was truly in the flesh. Christ’s being truly, in the flesh/Incarnated, is solidarity with all mankind, not the Jew only. There is a hint of a denial of Christ’s Incarnation in forcing the Gentile to become Jewish and as I write this, I’m sensing a greater connection between 1 John and Romans than I would have originally thought was there. What exactly would the Jew be saying, who had received Baptism, with the Gentile, and yet somehow the Gentile is not good enough – when they are both baptized into Christ’s Death and Resurrection? In one sense they have denied that the prophecies have been fulfilled. In another, they are making the ordinance of circumcision more primary than the death and Resurrection, being incorporated into that death and New Life. And in doing so, the downplaying of the death and Resurrection, they are not believing the Gentile to be participating truly.

        Original Sin created this whole mess. To me, since this is more and more obvious to people today after the work of N.T. Wright and others, Orthodoxy is in the unique position of saying, “We kept the faith and are keeping it still.” For Protestants, who admirably care very much about the Gospel, once they realize the Gospel was something else all along, and Orthodoxy took the care to preserve it, it is ultimately the best argument to become and to remain Orthodox. All the other “ologies” fall in place after OS is removed. The Protestant objection to the Theotokos, should automatically drop, which is ironic.

        Hope I didn’t wear on too long.

        Matthew Lyon

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