Section 3: Humanity
Digging Deeper Topic 2: What Did the Fall Do to Us?
We Inherited a Corrupt Nature
I’ve recently gotten hooked on the show The Walking Dead. On one level, it’s just a story about a zombie apocalypse (and who doesn’t love a zombie apocalypse?). On another level, however, it’s a fascinating exploration of human nature. As the characters are forced to do horrible things just to survive, you can’t help but wonder how far they can go without losing their humanity. Merle is a particularly interesting character in that respect. He’s mean. He’s racist. He’s sadistic. And he was all of those things before the zombie apocalypse. In the post-apocalyptic world, where survival is paramount, he’s become the guy who does all the dirty work. You need someone tortured? Merle’s your man. You need someone killed? Merle’s your man. He has no qualms about any of it. In fact, he seems to enjoy it.
Later on, though, the writers skillfully raise the question of whether Merle is as bad as he seems. Perhaps we can debate that question in Merle’s case. But for the most part, we want to believe people are basically good. Some of us might be a little rough around the edges, but deep down we’re all good.
As we discussed in the daily readings, the Bible paints a different picture. We may have been created good, but ever since Adam and Eve’s sin, our nature has been corrupted. As a result, we all have a tendency toward sin that wasn’t there originally.
Not everyone agrees with that, however. In the early Church, a teacher named Pelagius argued the Fall did not do anything to us. He reasoned if God commands us to do something, that means, in fairness, we have to have the ability to do what he says. If the Fall had corrupted our natures so that we now have a natural inclination to choose sin, then we would no longer have the freedom to choose to obey God.
Intuitively that makes a certain amount of sense. Yet, the Bible makes it clear that sin now has a dominating influence over all of us from birth. That’s why David says he was brought forth in iniquity (Ps. 51:5) and Paul describes us as slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6). Some might argue that’s not a fair portrayal. If we dig deep enough, can’t we find the good in everyone? The truth is, the deeper we dig, the darker it gets. Sin is now a part of our DNA.
I demonstrated that in the space of just 10 minutes the other day. As I was driving to a routine appointment at the clinic, I noticed how much the other drivers were bothering me. I was running behind, and they were in my way. My frustration turned to outright anger when I was forced to sit at a stop sign for what seemed like an eternity. The cross traffic didn’t have to stop and the passing cars were spaced just right so I didn’t have a chance to slip through. No one was driving obnoxiously slow or doing anything else wrong. But that didn’t matter. They were preventing me from getting where I needed to go. As far as I was concerned, that was sufficient to warrant my wrath.
Then, when I got to the clinic, the receptionist told me they had just installed a new computer system. As a result, they needed to re-enter all my information. That annoyed me at least as much as the cars at the stop sign. Sure, they probably had good reasons for switching to the new system. But I didn’t care. I wanted to get in and out. That’s what mattered to me. So any delay, for whatever reason, was unacceptable.
Admittedly those might seem like minor examples, but they’re telling. In each instance, my bad attitude simply arose within me as a response to my circumstances. I didn’t have time to think about how I ought to act or what other people would think. I didn’t make a conscious choice to feel a certain way. I simply bristled at the fact that people weren’t doing what I wanted them to do.
Once I was aware my anger wasn’t justified, I did have a choice to quit fuming. My initial attitude, however, was just there. It was an automatic response dictated by who am I on the inside. And it turns out I’m a self-centered jerk.
That’s why our attitudes say so much about us. Even when we’re doing the right thing on the outside, the truth is we’re still pretty messed up on the inside. I wasn’t flipping the other drivers off. I wasn’t screaming at the receptionist. The bottom line, though, was my interests were paramount, and my attitude reflected that. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m naturally pretty selfish. We all are.
It’s not that we never do good things. It’s just that we’re naturally inclined toward self-centeredness. We’re often able to resist that inclination, but it’s always there. And it taints everything we do. You may have heard the term “total depravity”. That’s what theologians mean when they say we are all totally depraved. Not that we are all as bad as we could possibly be, but that every part of us is infected by sin. It taints our thoughts, desires, actions—everything. When we make choices, we no longer start from a place of neutrality. We now have a natural inclination toward sin.
Why does the world fall apart when there’s a zombie apocalypse? Why do we have conflicts with our coworkers and spouses? Why do we refuse to do what God asks? Because we’re so focused on ourselves and what we want. As James says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have…You covet but you cannot get what you want” (James 4:1-2).
When we put our faith in Christ, it’s true the Holy Spirit is at work in us. But we still battle sin. That’s how devastating the Fall was. Even after we put our faith in Christ, sin still exerts a powerful pull on us. The bottom line is: the Fall did a number on us. We might try to deny it, but all of us—believers and unbelievers alike—are more sinful than we care to admit.
That means we have freedom to choose good in the sense that nothing outside of ourselves forces us to sin. Nevertheless, we have a decided tendency toward sin because deep down that’s what we want. God has given us the freedom to choose what we want and we choose sin because (sadly) deep down we want to sin.
We Inherited Adam’s Guilt
In the previous section, we discussed one of the effects the Fall had on us. We were created in God’s image, but ever since Adam and Eve’s sin, something has changed. We are now born with a tendency toward sin that wasn’t there before. If that were all the Fall did to us, it would be bad enough. But unfortunately, the effects of the Fall don’t stop there.
Adam’s Guilt Became Our Guilt
Take a look at Romans 5. We noted earlier that Paul’s argument in Romans 5 seems to presuppose a historical Adam. It’s important to understand, though, Paul’s main concern in that passage is to teach us something about Jesus and our need for him, not to prove Adam’s existence.
Therefore, just as sin entered the word through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many…If, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:12, 15, 17-19).
What is Paul doing in these verses? He’s making a connection between the role Adam and Jesus both play. In some sense, they both served as our representative such that their actions were treated as our actions, and as a result, the consequences that flowed from those actions also flow to us.
In the case of Adam, notice Paul says that death came to all men because all sinned. It’s possible he is simply pointing out the obvious that as matter of historical record everyone sins and as a result we all share the same fate as Adam. Death comes for everyone because at some point or another we all sin. The representative nature of Adam’s role in these verses, however, suggests that Paul has something else in mind. The passage makes a tight connection between Adam’s sin and our death and condemnation. Why? As New Testament scholar Doug Moo explains, “The sin here [in verse 12] to be attributed to the ‘all’ is to be understood…as a sin that in some manner is identical to the sin committed by Adam. Paul can therefore say both ‘all die because all sin’ and ‘all die because Adam sinned’ with no hint of conflict because the sin of Adam is the sin of all.”[i] In other words, God treats each one of us as if we had sinned right along with Adam.
This reading makes sense of the parallel between Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness. We aren’t saved from sin and death because we follow Christ’s example and commit righteous acts. We are saved because his righteousness becomes our righteousness through faith. In the same way, we aren’t condemned simply because we follow Adam’s example and disobey God, though that is a true enough description of our condition. We stand condemned because Adam served as our representative all those years ago and his actions are treated as our actions.
How Does Jesus Overcome our Guilt?
As a result of the Fall, therefore we not only inherit a corrupt nature, we also inherit Adam’s guilt.[ii] That fact plays a pivotal role in understanding what Jesus did for us, which in turn plays a pivotal role in our faith because unless we understand what he did for us, we don’t really understand what we’re trusting him for.
Take me, for instance. I grew up Catholic. So I obviously knew that Jesus died on the cross. But I thought of the cross mainly as an expression of God’s love for us. I never gave much thought to why it was an expression of love. Then in college I remember wondering whether Jesus’ death was necessary. Since I thought of the cross primarily as an expression of love, I wondered if God could have just sent us a card or a dozen roses. That would have been a lot easier. Maybe a dozen roses wouldn’t have packed the same punch, but we would have gotten the point.
It wasn’t until I was in law school that I realized the cross was more than just an expression of love. Jesus had to die on the cross in order to accomplish something very specific. We needed him to pay the penalty we owed for sin. Since the penalty for sin is death, that meant he had to die in our place. God wanted to express his love for us. But that expression had to take a specific form in order to pay the penalty we owed for sin. Up until that point, I had been trusting in my own “goodness” to gain God’s approval. Once I understood what Jesus did, though, I stopped trusting in myself and put my trust in him and what he did.
What does that have to do with Adam? Ask yourself, “Why does Jesus’ death pay our penalty?” According to Paul, Jesus’ death is able to pay our penalty because that’s the way God set it up from the beginning. “Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Rom. 5:18).
The same principle that was at work when Jesus died on the cross was at work when Adam sinned. We paid the price for Adam’s actions and we reap the benefits of Jesus’. It works that way because God “regards the human race as an organic whole.”[iii] As a result, he was able to treat the actions of both Adam and Jesus as if they were as our own.
Perhaps this analogy will help. Imagine you’re standing at the free-throw line during the NCAA tournament. You’re shooting the front end of a one and one. There’s no time left on the clock and your team’s down by one. If you miss the first, your team loses. Make them both, and your team advances. It’s that simple. Everything’s on the line, and your team’s fate is in your hands. Unfortunately, your shot clanks off the front of the rim. Game over.
You missed the shot, but your whole team lost the game. Those are the rules. As you stood there at the line, you represented your team. Your actions determined their fate. In a similar way, Adam acted as a representative for all of humanity. It didn’t work out so well, of course, because Adam sinned. But those were the rules of the game.
Is That Fair?
That seems unfair to many. Why should we pay the price for Adam’s sin? Remember though, the same rule allows us to take advantage of Christ’s death.[iv] When we put our faith in Christ, God looks at his actions as our actions. The penalty we owe for sin is death. But as our representative, Jesus was able to go to the cross and die in our place. Because he paid the penalty for our sin, God no longer has to hold us accountable. Christ’s death has been credited to our account. As a result, our debt has been paid in full.
If God set up the rules differently, our fate would be in our own hands. But that wouldn’t be a good thing. Life would essentially become a gauntlet. We would have to dodge the various obstacles and temptations of life in hopes that we could somehow be good enough to gain God’s approval and get into heaven. The problem is: God is perfectly holy. Given that, when we have to stand before him, how confident could any of us be?
We may think it was unfair of God to hold us accountable for Adam’s sin. In reality however, it was an act of love because the same principle allows us to take advantage of what Christ did for us. And we should be thankful for that. When everything’s on the line, into whose hands do you want to put your eternal fate? Your own or Jesus’?
[i] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1996), 326.
[iii] Ibid., 495.