by Al Maxey
Issue #851 -- August 22, 2022
Even from birth the wicked go astray; from
the womb they are wayward and speak lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a serpent.
Psalm 58:3-4 (NIV)
"We believe that through the disobedience of Adam original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and a hereditary disease, wherein even infants in their mother's womb are infected" [The Belgic Confession, Article 15]. "The Belgic Confession" was produced in 1561 in the area known to us today as the Netherlands and Belgium. Its primary author was a prominent pastor of the Reformed Church, as well as a noted theologian and reformer, named Guido de Brès (1522-1567), who was also a student of John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Fetuses and newborns were viewed as not only "infected" with this "hereditary disease," but were considered eternally damned from the moment of their first breath, which was one of the more controversial tenets of the doctrine that would come to be known as "Total Hereditary Depravity." Some even referred to newborn babies as "little rattlesnakes, born with fang and venom intact."
Within the Canons of Dordt (a document produced by a synod of the Reformed Church held in the Netherlands in 1618-1619; a document designed to "articulate Calvinistic beliefs in direct rebuttal of Arminianism") we find the following statement of belief: "Man, after the fall, begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt offspring. Hence, all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, but by the propagation of a vicious nature" [3rd and 4th Heads of Doctrine, Article #2]. It came to be an accepted belief by many, therefore, that all men "are born in sin, children of the devil; totally depraved." Thus, one is sinful by virtue of birth (it is hereditary), rather than by willful rebellion against God. If it is true that infants are born depraved, and thus in a lost condition, it only follows that something must be done to facilitate their salvation. This led to the creation of the doctrine of "infant regeneration," which led to the practice of baptizing infants. Admittedly, this is a woefully brief and incomplete look at the doctrine of hereditary depravity, especially with respect to its impact on both the unborn and newborn, yet it does bring to our attention the belief of many Christians throughout the ages that we humans are "born in sin," and that even while in the womb we are in possession of a sinful nature that renders us unfit for eternal salvation. For more on this, see my Study of TULIP Theology.
Where, one might wonder, does such a teaching come from, and why would we regard the unborn and newborn as worthy of God's righteous wrath? These are important questions, and they have been discussed and debated for many centuries. It is clearly beyond the scope of this present Reflections to present a thorough explanation of the origins of this doctrine and its effect upon the church throughout the Christian era. Instead, I want to examine just a few passages in the Bible that those who embrace this belief appeal to for validation of their view of infant depravity. Do those passages actually teach what some claim they teach? Perhaps the "crown jewel" of this doctrine, and the primary prooftext, is what David wrote in Psalm 51:5. This particular psalm is a "contrite sinner's prayer for pardon," and the background to it is the account of King David's adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11). It is a plea unto God for mercy and cleansing. "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, and Thee only, I have sinned, and have done evil in Thy sight" (Psalm 51:2-4, NASB). In verse 5, we find David seemingly attributing his sin to his sinful nature: a nature with which he was born. Notice some of the translations of this statement by David:
If one accepts the wording of these translations, and a great many do, it most certainly suggests that David was a sinner, and that he was guilty before the Lord God, from the moment his mother got pregnant with him. It was thus, according to this view, a state of depravity that was entirely hereditary in nature. Egg and sperm, fang and venom, merged within the womb, and the result was a deadly little viper. There are a number of Bible scholars and commentators who believe this is the intent of this text. "David here confesses his hereditary sin as the root of his actual sin. The declaration moves backwards from his birth to conception, consequently it penetrates even to the most remote point of life's beginning" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pt. 2, p. 136]. "The fact of congenital depravity is stated not only here (Psalm 51:5), but also in Job 14:4" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 8, p. 394]. Job 14:4 reads, "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!" (NKJV). If all men are impure and unclean before God in their thoughts and actions, can such a corrupt being produce one from out of itself who is absolutely pure and clean? The answer is assumed to be NO. Thus, "David, like all men, was sinful from the first moment of conception, flesh born of flesh, filled with all the corruption of mankind, all transgressions in thought, word, and deed being the result of the natural state" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The OT, vol. 2, p. 112]. Paul spoke of our human/fleshly nature, and of the fact that we indulge these desires of the flesh far too frequently, thus being "by nature children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3). Indeed, all men are under the power of this sinful nature, and "there is none righteous, not even one ... there is none who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:10, 12), "for ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). When Paul took a good look at himself, he confessed "nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" (Romans 7:18). He longs to do what is right in God's sight; he longs to be more holy and righteous in thought and deed; yet he fails time and again. "Wretched man that I am!" (Romans 7:24).
Paul, like King David, mourned the inherent corruptness and sinfulness of his fleshly nature, just as they each were grieved by the power this nature held over their attitudes and actions. It is easy to see, then, why sincere believers, who likewise struggle with their fleshly nature, find some solace in the teaching that this is all congenital, hereditary, and the fault of Adam, whose original sin is now passed on to all of humanity until the end of time. Thus, it's his fault; "I was born that way" ... "it's on him, not me!" We can shift the blame somewhat ... or so we think. Paul hints at this in Romans 7:20-21 - "If I am doing the very thing I do not wish, then I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good." "I'm a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members" (vs. 23). Yes, we all (you and I) have a problem: there is a life-and-death struggle going on in each of us. Our human nature, which is an integral part of our very being, which is being progressively formed within the womb from the time of conception on, is a nature that is prone to episodes of fallenness with respect to the expectations of God Almighty. "The proneness to sin with its guilt and its corruption is propagated from parents to their children" [Keil & Delitzsch, p. 137]. The apostle Paul deals with this extensively in Romans 5, not only discussing our fallen human nature, but also the consequence of sin: death ("through one man ... death spread to all men" - verse 12). "By the one man's offense death reigned through the one" (verse 17). "By one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (verse 19). It is not that all men are personally guilty of the same sin Adam committed, but that by virtue of that same nature, which is prone to self-willed and self-gratifying acts, we too disobeyed and thus sinned (regardless of the nature of that sin). "Death reigned ... even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam" (verse 14).
Well, that is indeed one major theory as to the meaning of King David's statement in Psalm 51:5, and there is much both in and outside of the Scriptures that does seem to give this view validation. It has been embraced and proclaimed by some very respected theologians down through the ages, and those understandings shouldn't be dismissed lightly. On the other hand, that particular verse in Psalm 51 can be legitimately translated a completely different way, and there are many versions of the Bible that do so. Consider the following:
Those who embrace this understanding of the statement in Psalm 51:5, believe that the sin was not attributed to the baby in the womb, but rather to the mother who conceived and gave birth to it. Thus, nothing is being declared, they say, with regard to "original sin" or the "sinful nature" of a fetus from the moment of conception. Rather, the focus is on the act of conceiving itself, which is a fleshly act motivated by a strong fleshly desire. The product of that act (the baby), if the act itself was motivated by lust or committed during an illicit union, could be said to be "conceived in sin" and "born in sin," yet through no fault of its own. Drs. Keil and Delitzsch point out that "the choice of the verb" in the text, which is somewhat debated by scholars, "decides the question whether" by this word "is meant the guilt and sin of the child or of the parents. The term means 'to burn with desire,' and has reference to that, in coitus, which partakes of the animal" nature [Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, pt. 2, p. 137]. "The later rabbis, combining this verse with the mystery hanging over the origin and name of David's mother, represent him as born in adultery. The word rendered 'conceived' is certainly one generally used of animal desire" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 161]. There is no evidence, however, that David's mother conceived him through an act of sexual immorality or adultery; nor is there any evidence that she conceived him during her menstrual cycle, which the Jews of that time found abhorrent, and which was contrary to the Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:18).
There are difficulties with both views. The first view has generated heated debate for centuries, for it suggests that all men, from the very moment of conception are "totally depraved" and thus "eternally damned" by virtue of sharing in the guilt of Adam's "original sin." Thus, even while in the womb, a fetus is burdened with the guilt of the sin committed by Adam. Yet, there are passages that clearly state a contrary truth. "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deuteronomy 24:16). "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself" (Ezekiel 18:20). Although all men possess a fallen nature, and thus share in that reality, no person bears the guilt of another man simply by virtue of heredity. A baby isn't born guilty of the sin of any person who lived before him/her. We do share a common fleshly nature, and also the consequences of giving in to that nature, which is physical death, but guilt is the result of our own surrender to that fallen nature, NOT as a result of another's surrender to that nature. The second view has the difficulty of suggesting David seeks to place the blame for his own sin upon his mother and/or upon a hereditary total depravity acquired at his conception. Both David and Paul accepted the reality of a fallen nature with which they struggled daily, yet each of these men placed the guilt for their sins wholly upon themselves, and themselves alone! Yes, flesh is born of flesh; ALL of us struggle with our fleshly nature; but sin, and the guilt and consequences that come from sin, are our own. "Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (James 1:14-15).
Our human nature is indeed hereditary; we are all prone to sin as a result. Yet, sin is a personal choice. We can rise above that fallen nature (though at best we do so imperfectively), or we can give in to it. Like both David and Paul (Romans 7), we fall victim to the power of this fallen nature daily, and it is distressing for those who truly seek to comply with God's will. We see ourselves doing the very things we hate, and then doing them over and over! This is our struggle, and it is one common to us all. This is one of the areas where Arminianism and Calvinism part company. "Calvinists hold that Adam's sin was immediately imputed to the whole race, with the result that not only is the entire human family totally depraved, but it is also guilty of Adam's sin. The Arminian view, however, declares that the primary effect of Adam's sin on the human race was to give man a proneness to sin without implying guilt" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1594]. I concur largely with the Arminian view, as did many of the key founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement. "The views of Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and their associates reflected a profound philosophical debt to the British Empiricist John Locke and to Scottish Common Sense Realism. Generally speaking, the early standard-bearers of the Stone-Campbell Movement presupposed the Enlightenment doctrine of the autonomous and self-reflecting transcendental self. In their thinking, the human self might well be influenced by the environmental legacy of sin, but it was hardly 'totally depraved' ... Thomas Campbell retained the term 'depravity,' but not total depravity, while Alexander Campbell spoke of a 'sin of nature,' but not original sin. Robert Milligan spoke of 'total depravity,' but only in terms of personal (actual) sin, not an inherited Adamic guilt. ... Sin itself was existential, realized in actions, not an infection in human nature" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 29-30].
I think the English theologian John Wesley (1703-1791) was right when he summed up King David's intent in Psalm 51:5 this way: "Upon a review of my heart, I find that this heinous crime was the proper fruit of my vile nature, which, ever was, and still is, ready to commit ten thousand sins, as occasion offers" [Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Yes, we are prone to sin because of our fleshly nature, but as free-will agents our sin is by choice. The blame for our sin falls at our feet, not at Adam's. "People are born with a propensity to sin, but this fact does not excuse us" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. As previously noted, these competing theories have been debated for centuries. "What then is the answer to the dilemma? A possible answer is the fact that the Jewish mind had no problem in admitting two mutually exclusive ideas into the same system of thought. Any idea that humanity inherits a sinful nature must be coupled with the corollary that every person is indeed responsible for his/her choice of sin" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 1281]. I agree with this completely. I am prone to sin by nature, but it is when I actually surrender to that fallen nature that, whether by weakness or by willfulness, sin actually occurs. I daily struggle with self; I daily "miss the mark" of our holy Father's expectations for me; my fallenness and wretchedness is ever before me! Like the publican in the Lord's parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), I realize only too well who and what I am, and thus the depth of my need. "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner'" (vs. 13). God's grace is seen in action when Jesus said, "I tell you, this man went to his house justified" (vs. 14). "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin" (Romans 7:25). "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1), for He has provided us deliverance from the bondage of our fleshly nature (vs. 2ff). Now that is truly Good News!
From a Reader in Michigan:
Dear Al, I am writing to you because I would like to purchase your two CD set titled "The Book of Revelation: An In-Depth Reflective Study." Enclosed is my check for this material. Thank you!
From a Minister in Florida:
Good Morning, Al. First, as always, I appreciate your commitment to Truth and your resolve to stand your ground with such passion. I just turned 78, and I've been teaching, preaching, counseling, and have been a resident missionary both with the Church of Christ and with the Independent Christian Church. I presently serve as a chaplain and preach fulltime. In most cases, only a musical keyboard separated the two above groups, and both have very similar issues on which you have enumerated in your article "Pretending to be CofC: A Reflective Response to Robert" (Reflections #850). My initial teaching and training, for which I am forever grateful, instructed me on how to study and instilled within me a love for learning, along with some traditional and doctrinal biases that I've taken the liberty of rejecting over the past 50 years. I still have many unanswered questions and much to learn, but fear I might not live long enough to learn all that I would like. I was not raised in the Restoration Movement tradition, so that really helped me to question some of our presuppositions.
From a Reader in Georgia:
There is one consistent characteristic of individuals who are distressed by any opposition to their point of view: they begin to attack the person with whom they differ, rather than the position with which they differ. It does not require ungodly behavior in order to present one's own position. We are told to always be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). We are not to disparage those with whom we disagree, so when someone begins such an attack, they are very poorly representing their own position and the person of Jesus whom they claim to worship. It's also a subtle admission that they believe they are losing the debate. Sad.
From a Reader in Virginia:
As always, your Reflections are so thought-provoking. This one especially ("Pretending to be CofC"), as many of them are, is eloquent with respect to the difference between believers who differ in some way/ways and actual "false teachers." I don't remember where I recently saw something else that said it in a most interesting way (maybe it was from you): "All God's children do not have to be identical twins." We may differ in our understandings, but we must not differ in love for the Lord and in desire to love all our brethren. Thank you, Al, for all you do.
From a Reader in the United Kingdom:
"Pretending to be CofC" is a very good study, brother. Thank you. We hope to read further expositions of yours in the future!
From a Minister in Ukraine:
Dear Brother Al, Greetings from -----, Ukraine. I hope and pray you have been doing well, and that our dear Lord continues to bestow His blessings upon you and your loved ones. Thank you so much for your Reflections articles. We here were especially encouraged by the one about your unity meeting: "A Memorable Unity Assembly" (Reflections #849). We have been doing well too, for which we praise God, and we thank you for your prayers on our behalf. May the Lord's richest blessings be upon you and your family. We love you, Al, and thank our dear Lord for you!
From a Minister in Indiana:
Thank you, Al, for your article in response to my questions to you concerning water baptism ("Baptism Hath Enslaved Me: The Tyranny of an Elevated Tradition" - Reflections #847). It was an excellent read and cleared up many questions I had concerning an article you wrote in response to my earlier questions to you about the Lutheran view of water baptism ("Baptized in Order to Believe: The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's View of Baptism: The Sometime Sacrament" - Reflections #818). I've always appreciated your Reflections ministry. It is always refreshing to see someone with an open mind putting to the test the old Church of Christ traditions we've been taught for so long! Thank you!
From an Author in Texas:
I'm sure you have heard of Max Lucado. When he moved his congregation to a new location, he renamed it "The Church at Oak Hills" in deference to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:12 regarding the "of Christ" schism. If I understand it rightly, Paul always referred to a particular congregation of believers by its location, and never by some distinguishing title. Some of the saints in Corinth were distinguishing themselves from other saints by assigning a distinguishing name to themselves (of Paul ... of Apollos ... of Cephas ... of Christ). If I understand it, Paul was condemning the practice of assigning titles to congregations that led to them becoming distinct from one another. If you think I am wrong on this, please let me know. Thanks, Al.
From a Reader in Texas:
Al, thank you once again for a thought-provoking Reflections ("Pretending to be CofC"). From the beginning of time, we have wanted to define the particulars of "What must I myself do to be saved?", and I believe God continues to shake His head, having told us repeatedly, "I have already saved you!!" Just my opinion, but I currently fully believe that we are born into a "saved" state already when we come from our mother's womb. As we grow and learn to make choices, we decide either to follow goodness or evil. All men have some knowledge of Deity (even if not of His name) from all that has been created by Him (Romans 1:19ff). We then make a choice to follow after Him or turn away from Him. If my understanding is correct, then man's only real choice is to leave His Family (thus losing salvation), rather than his choice being how do I get admitted into His Family (thus gaining salvation). For me, at this time, the only real question is: Did Jesus fully pay the price for our forgiveness, forgiving all of our failures to be perfectly obedient, or not? Soldier on, brother!
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