The Distinctions and Effects of Original and Actual Sin


Dr. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, defines sin as “any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” Dr. Millard Erickson, in his Christian Theology, defines sin as “any evil action or evil motive that is in opposition to God. Simply stated, sin is failure to let God be God and placing something or someone in God’s rightful place of supremacy.” He also stated some terms that emphasize the results of sin, namely: (1) agitation or restlessness; (2) evil or badness; (3) guilt; and (4) trouble and further classifies the results of sin as to how it affects our relationship to God, on the sinner, and our relationship to other humans. Moreover, according to Dr. J. Rodman Williams, author of Renewal Theology, sin results in futility of both mind and action; as guilt and punishment; and separation, estrangement and bondage.

Personally, I noticed that there are a lot of people, most notably the unregenerate, who have a warped sense of morality and reason. This is especially true when it comes to the things of God. I suppose this is indeed one of the results of the sinful nature that we have inherited from Adam.

Dr. Williams differentiated Original Sin from actual sin, while Dr. Grudem prefers the term “Inherited Sin” instead of the more traditional nomenclature Original Sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, God imputed to the entire human race the sin of Adam. As Romans 5:18-19 provides, to wit: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” This is what Original or Inherited Sin is. Original sin then refers to the guilt and tendency to sin with which we are born (Grudem, p. 495). That is why King David declares, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). Dr. Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology, posits that “original sin” is called as such because (1) it is derived from the original root of the human race; (2) it is present in the life of every individual from the time of his birth, and therefore cannot be regarded as the result of imitation; and (3) it is the inward root of all the actual sins that defile the life of man (p. 244).

On the other hand, actual sins are those which one commits personally.  A lot of people, especially non-Christians, would object to the doctrine of Original Sin because to them, it seems so unjust that God would impute the sin of one man to the entire human race. However, they should also realize that even without this inherited sin, we would have all personally and actually sinned ourselves. Dr. Williams puts it in point when he said that “it is not just that the first man and woman sinned, but likewise do all those who follow them.” As quoted by Dr. Williams, Ecclesiastes 7:20 declares, “Surely, there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Moreover, the apostle Paul says to the church in Rome, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).

This reminds me that just earlier this month, Catholics all over the world celebrated the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Contrary to what most people think, the said feast is not a commemoration of the conception of Jesus by Mary but of the allegedly sinless conception of Mary herself. Catholics believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived by her mother St. Anne, free from the stain of original sin, not unlike Jesus Christ. Obviously, not being God incarnate like Jesus, this Catholic doctrine goes against what Sacred Scripture generally teaches as discussed above. Yet, Catholic apologists and theologians would say that this is possible as there were certain persons whom Scripture describes as sinless or righteous such as Noah and Job (Gen. 6:9; Job 1:8; 2:3). In this regard, it is vital for us to realize that albeit the Bible pictures Noah and Job as righteous persons, they are not exceptions to the inherited sin of mankind. Noah became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent (Gen. 9:20) and Job was called by God a “faultfinder” or “one who contends with the Almighty,” necessitating him to repent in dust and ashes.

Still on the flipside again, Dr. Grudem states that it is certainly possible for God to bring regeneration to an infant even before he or she is born. This was true of John the Baptist, for the angel Gabriel, before John was born, said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). We might say that John the Baptist was “born again” before he was born! It is clear therefore that God is able to save infants in an unusual way, apart from their hearing and understanding the gospel, by bringing regeneration to them very early, sometimes even before birth. This regeneration, Dr. Grudem stresses, is also probably followed at once by a nascent, intuitive awareness of God and trust in Him at an extremely early age, but this is something we simply cannot understand. See also the case of David’s first son with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:23.

I would say that the above statements by Dr. Grudem are in full accord with what the Catholic Church teaches through the proclamation of Pope Pius IX in 1954:

“The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of the Almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin” (CCC No. 491-492).

Paragraph No. 492 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church further states that—

The “splendor of an entirely unique holiness” by which Mary is “enriched from the first instant of her conception” comes wholly from Christ: she is “redeemed, in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son”.136 The Father blessed Mary more than any other created person “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” and chose her “in Christ before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless before him in love”.

In consideration of the foregoing explanation regarding the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, I would now say that notwithstanding my being Evangelical, the same is neither totally unbiblical nor impossible.

To be sure, being a sinner does not only mean that one actually and personally commits sinful acts but also that in our very nature as fallen creatures, our own disposition or state of being is itself sinful. But praise be to God our Father who has sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take the penalty for our sin and enable us to have everlasting life with God (John 3:16)! This is the Good News of our salvation.