Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.
Growing up as an Evangelical Protestant, I didn’t have much of a theological foundation. But if there was any doctrine that I knew well and understood, it was Original Sin: Because Adam and Eve chose to reject God and sin, we have all inherited a fallen nature, such that we have no power in ourselves to resist temptation: we do the thing we do not want to do, and the thing we want to do, we do not do (Romans 7:15). I always thought this was an essential, universal Christian understanding — the reason why we need a Savior.
The first time I encountered someone rejecting the doctrine of Original Sin, I thought it was the bizarrest thing I’d ever heard, and presumed that it must be an isolated dissenter, an overzealous Bible student carried away with his own interpretation. That was some months ago. But since then I’ve encountered Evangelical after Evangelical — whole denominations, in fact — who deny this central tenet of the Christian faith. I remain stunned and puzzled.
Historically, the denial of Original Sin has been associated with the heresy of Pelagianism. This entails that we don’t have a fallen nature — that we, in our own ability, are entirely capable of resisting temptation and avoiding sin, and we can approach God and attain to salvation on our own without the aid of His grace. If we are to believe that Adam’s sin did not result in a fallen nature for all humanity, that men today have no greater a propensity to sin than Adam in his original state, that we can choose in our own free will alone not to sin — then ultimately we are left to wonder why Jesus needed to die for us at all. Couldn’t he simply have beckoned for us to come to Him, if there were no insuperable divide between God and Man to bridge? I do not think — I sincerely hope not — that those who deny Original Sin mean to argue this. My sense is that these people fundamentally misunderstand what Original Sin means — that they don’t understand what they are rejecting.
What they actually intend to reject, I suspect, is what they understand of the Catholic Sacrament of Baptism. The people I’ve talked to who have expressed a rejection of Original Sin have spoken of it as if it were something physical or biological that needed to be physically washed away, as one would wash away dirt or a stain. It is true that we, from the Church Fathers forward, often speak of Original Sin as a “stain” or “contagion” — but this in no wise entails one of a physical or biological sort. As it so often is with sacramental theology, non-Catholics are unable to make a distinction between something being physical and something being real. I have been around in circles so many times in discussions with non-Catholics, they not grasping that something can be both spiritual and real; both symbolic and actual; both through faith and through action.
St. Peter tells us that “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21). In contrast to what I’ve often been told, Catholics do not ignore this Scripture, or any Scripture at all. We have never argued that Baptism works physically to remove physical sin from the body. Sin, both original and actual, is a spiritual affliction to the soul. St. Paul calls Baptism “the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5) and “[a cleansing by] the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26). St. Luke tells us that Baptism “[washes] away our sins” (Acts 22:16). But none of these statements means to imply that we obtain remission from sins by means of a physical washing alone. Many Protestants argue, then, that these references are symbolic, or that they don’t refer to Baptism at all. But then, why are the multiple New Testament authors so insistent on this language of a washing? Why did the earliest extrascriptural Christian writers understand, to the exclusion of any purely symbolic interpretation, that Baptism itself somehow washed away our sins?
This all goes to the very heart of why I began this series: the rejection of infant Baptism by many of the same Christians who affirm the sacramentality of Baptism (i.e. that it actually washes away sins). The reason why they do is that they also reject Original Sin. If a Christian believes in both Original Sin and the sacramentality of Baptism, he cannot in good conscience deny that Sacrament to his children.
I had planned to dig a bit deeper into Scripture with Original Sin this time, but I got sidetracked by exegesis of 1 Peter 3:21 — which turns out to be a very meaty verse for this discussion, full of exegetical controversy. So I want to devote a whole post to that verse, either next time, or after I give an exposition of Original Sin in the writings of St. Paul. Stay tuned; I’m excited about this!