The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 2: Original Sin?

For Part 1, click here: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 1: God is a Trinity of Persons?

The doctrine of Original Sin is another faulty foundation of faith alone that predates Protestantism. Like the Trinity of Persons, it is an old Catholic doctrine that was not rejected by the Protestant reformers, but was incorporated into their sola fide theology.

In fact, Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564), the primary founders of Protestantism, doubled down the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin, turning it into something even more non-Biblical.

2. We are born with Original Sin from Adam, and are guilty from birth?

In its earlier Catholic formulation, the doctrine of “Original Sin” was mostly somewhat confusing because its name implies that we inherit sin itself from Adam and Eve—who sinned against God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God had forbidden. But if you actually delve into the doctrine as Catholics hold to it, the belief is that we merely inherited a “fallen nature,” and a strong tendency to sin.

And yet, in the end it has the same effect as believing that we are born guilty of sin.


Because the fallen state into which we are born means that our default destination is not heaven, but hell. In other words, we are born in a state of damnation, and will automatically be damned to hell if we are not given the sacraments of the church such as baptism, confession, and the Lord’s Supper.

This “damned from birth” idea was the facet of Original Sin that Luther and Calvin drew upon in formulating their doctrines of justification by faith alone. Luther and Calvin took the doctrine even further than the Catholic church did, saying that we inherit actual sin and guilt from Adam, so that we are indeed damned to hell from birth, and can be saved only by faith in Christ. However, even in Protestantism baptism still seems to be a stopgap measure so that infants and children who die when they are not yet old enough to believe in Jesus don’t have to go to eternal hell.

The passage most commonly quoted to support this “guilty from birth” idea is Psalm 51:5. Modern translations often read something like this:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5, New International Version)

But that’s not at all what the original Hebrew says. Here is the old standard translation:

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5, King James Version)

And a very literal (and rather old-fashioned) translation:

Lo, in iniquity I have been brought forth, And in sin doth my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5, Young’s Literal Translation)

The verse is not talking about the sinful state of the newborn infant. It is talking about the sinful state of the mother when the baby was conceived—and by extension, the sinful state of both of the baby’s parents, and of the society into which the baby is born.

In other words, Psalm 51:5 is saying that this infant (the author of the Psalm) was born of sinful parents into a sinful world. (For a good article on Psalm 51:5 and Original Sin, with additional references, see: “Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage,” by Wayne Jackson, in The Christian Courier.)

In fact, the Bible specifically denies that sin and guilt are inherited by children from their parents:

The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. . . .

Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own. (Ezekiel 18:1–4, 19–20)

This passage makes it very clear that according to God’s laws children will not be punished for the sins of their parents. Yes, children may be harmed due to the sins of their parents, as stated in the Ten Commandments themselves:

For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:5, King James Version)

We do inherit tendencies toward the same sins that our parents committed. And we do experience pain due to our parents’ sins both because we were raised in their atmosphere and because we commonly have to struggle against the same destructive patterns ourselves. But we are not held guilty of any sin that our parents committed. Only of the sins we commit ourselves. The Bible is crystal clear about this. And the doctrine of Original Sin, especially as promulgated by Protestants, is dead wrong.

Adam and Eve were simply the first people who sinned. Yes we all do inherit a tendency to sin due to our parents’ and ancestors’ sins. But we become guilty of sin only when we ourselves sin—which, unfortunately, we all do. Paul was explaining this when he wrote:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned . . . (Romans 5:12, italics added)

Our spiritual death does not come from Adam’s sin, but from our own sin. This is the plain teaching of the Bible.

And yet, the doctrine of justification by faith alone requires us to be born guilty, condemned, and damned to eternal hell. This is necessary for that doctrine’s assertion that believing that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins is the only way we can be saved from our inborn sinful state, and go to heaven.

After the false doctrine of the Trinity of Persons, the false, anti-Biblical doctrine of Original Sin is the second faulty foundation of faith alone.

For Part 3, click here: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 3: It’s Impossible to Satisfy God?

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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13 comments on “The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 2: Original Sin?
  1. Rami says:

    Hi Lee, is Swedenborg speaking spiritually or psychologically when he holds that the tendency to sin is inherited from our parents, with the more dominant sins being inherited from the father? I can certainly understand this from a psychological perspective, especially as it relates to more traditional societies, but if there’s also a spiritual component to it, how does our tendency to sin become spiritually transmitted to us?

    Also, what’s the relationship between this inherited tendency and the fact that we are imperfect? I’m a little unclear on whether orthodox theology holds that we were perfect until The Fall, or if we are imperfect by design, but it seems our tendency to sin would arise from our imperfection (or what orthodoxy might refer to as our corrupted nature) whether it was inherited or not. Is there some kind of dynamic relationship between our natural imperfection and our inherited tendency to sin? Is being imperfect and having a tendency to sin the same thing, or is ‘imperfect’ a state of neutrality without this inherited tendency?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      This is a big subject, and really deserves its own article. But here’s the “short” version, as I see it:

      First, as I understand Swedenborg’s teachings about human nature, there is no clear line between “spiritual” and “psychological.” The psychological either is the spiritual or it is part of the spiritual.

      Another way of saying this is that the human mind is not contained in or a function of or identical to the physical organ of the brain, but is a spiritual entity that inhabits and interacts with the brain and body during our lifetime in our physical body here on earth.

      So Swedenborg is speaking both spiritually and psychologically when he speaks of inherited tendencies to sin.

      As to the “inherited” part, that’s a little fuzzy. Keep in mind that Gregor Mendel didn’t come along and found the science of genetics until the next century after Swedenborg wrote his theology. So “inherited” did not have the technical meaning that it does today.

      In fact, Swedenborg’s theory that our more dominant spiritual characteristics, including our more dominant tendencies to sin, come from our father is based on an earlier, Aristotelian theory of “genetics” which held that our soul comes from our father, and our body from our mother. In light of today’s knowledge that we receive nearly equal genetic information from both parents, Aristotle’s theory really can’t be sustained anymore, and Swedenborg’s adoption of it must be re-thought.

      More to the current point, when Swedenborg speaks of inherited tendencies toward sin, it almost certainly does not equate to what we today think of as genetic inheritance, since today’s concept of genetics didn’t exist in Swedenborg’s day. Rather, it probably combines both what we today think of as traits passed on genetically and what we think of as environmental factors. In other words, it probably means both nature and nurture, to use the terms of today’s big debate.

      To put it more plainly, it probably includes both tendencies inherited from our parents’ souls through what might be called “spiritual genetics,” and tendencies and habits developed under the influence of being raised in the environment of our parents’ character, words, and actions.

      I’ll respond to your other set of questions in a separate comment.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Rami,

      Though I’m by no means an expert on the finer points of orthodox Christian theology, my understanding is that it holds that Adam was originally created perfect, and that imperfection entered when Adam (and Eve) disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil contrary to God’s explicit commandment. At that point, evil, sin, and imperfection entered into human life, and from there was transmitted to all of Adam and Eve’s descendants—i.e., to the entire human race.

      Swedenborg’s theory generally agrees with this, except that as pointed out in the above article, he rejected the idea that we inherit actual sin and guilt, but rather that we are born with tendencies toward sin. But more than that, he did say that we inherit evil in the sense that our natural disposition from birth is to be wrapped up in and primarily focused on ourselves and our own pleasure, comfort, possessions, and power. And this, he says, we must grow out of through the process of “regeneration,” or spiritual rebirth.

      So in one sense even according to Swedenborg we actually are born evil, because we are born primarily focused on self-love and love of earthly things.

      And yet, we are also born entirely innocent, in that we have no intention of committing evil. It’s just our natural, inborn state to be focused on self and the physical world. For more on this, see: “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?” and “Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind.”

      I would add that since we are born innocent, our default destination at birth is not hell, as is commonly believed in traditional Christianity, but heaven. Swedenborg says that all infants and children who die before reaching self-responsible adulthood go to heaven.

      According to Swedenborg, the earliest people, who lived before the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, were not born into evil, but were actually born inherently unselfish and loving. But due to the Fall (which was a collective event of early human culture, represented symbolically by the figures of Adam and Eve), we are now born self-centered, with the need to be reborn, or regenerated.

      This whole situation does get more complex when we look at it more closely. And Swedenborg’s theological writings do contain at least the germs of a more complex theory of human origins, and the origins of human imperfection.

      For example, Swedenborg speaks of the first truly human beings as having developed to that state—a process he indicates is symbolized by the seven days of creation in Genesis 1:1–2:3. However, since he (uniquely) interprets that particular section of the Bible as applied to our individual spiritual rebirth, rather than applying it either to our collective spiritual life as a race or as applying to Jesus’ inner process of “glorification” during his lifetime on earth (which are the levels of meaning on which nearly all the rest of his Bible interpretations are focused), Swedenborg gives us only a few tantalizing clues about how the Creation story might apply to our earliest development as a race from our pre-human state into a state of actual humanity.

      Of course, Charles Darwin also didn’t come along until the century after Swedenborg wrote his theological works, so Swedenborg did not have the theory of evolution to draw on in expounding on our early development into a human race. So perhaps it’s just as well that he didn’t get too specific about that, or we Swedenborgians would have yet another little mess to clean up due to the limited science of Swedenborg’s day. 😉

      I don’t know if this entirely answers your question, but I hope it at least throws some light on it.

  2. Hey Lee,

    Hope you are well. Interesting comments about Original Sin. You obviously know church history a lot better than I do, but my experience in evangelical circles has been a little different. At least in my understanding, it’s not so much that we inherit Adam’s guilt and are therefore under the condemnation of Hell: It’s that we inherit his sinful tendency and therefore we commit sins (as you believe). However, there is a popular belief that a sin against an infinitely holy god is worthy of an infinite punishment (hell). I have read Anselm was the theologian who developed this belief. So basically in evangelical thought, you are under the threat of hell because you yourself have committed sins against an infinitely holy God, which requires an infinite punishment, which Jesus paid for you. Of course, we’ve talked about the various objections to this concept, but I just wanted to share about my experience.


    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment, and for your well-wishes.

      The funny thing is, although what I’ve described in this article is the doctrine as formulated by Luther and Calvin, it tends to get softened and moved closer to the truth by the time it actually reaches Protestant laypeople. The truth seems to have its own way of asserting itself when Christian preaching reaches the ears of ordinary Christians. Not always, mind you, but often enough that I have to believe God is in there working to get the truth to as many people as possible despite the false dogmas of the various Christian sects.

      Yes, we have Anselm to blame for laying the foundations for the penal substitution doctrine invented five hundred years later by Luther and Calvin. You may be interested in the first and by far most solid answer to this question on Christianity StackExchange: “What was Anselm’s biblical basis for his theory of atonement by satisfaction?” In a nutshell, the answer says that Anselm largely avoided basing his Satisfaction theory of atonement on the Bible, basing it on “logic” (my quotes) instead, and only occasionally throwing in a few obligatory Bible passages.

      The reality is that neither Anselm’s Satisfaction theory nor Luther’s and Calvin’s Penal Substitution theory has any real basis in the Bible at all.

      More specifically, the idea that our finite sins against God require infinite punishment is just plain silly. And it’s certainly not stated anywhere in the Bible. The Bible is all about punishments being proportional to the sin committed. An infinite punishment for a finite sin would be utterly contrary to the most basic principles of justice, and especially of divine justice.

      Further, as I’ll point out in Part 5 of this series, the idea that a relatively brief, even if excruciatingly painful, death “pays the penalty” for our sins when the actual (supposed) penalty is eternal torture in hell makes no sense whatsoever.

      The whole theory is not only totally non-Biblical, but completely nonsensical and entirely unjust.

  3. Tony says:

    hi lee

    I read in wiki that adam is representative of pure intellect and eve is our body could you clear this up for me cos I am not sure what this is supposed to mean exactly?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      Can you provide me a link to where it says this?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Tony,

          Thanks. Swedenborg interprets the symbolism of Adam and Eve somewhat differently. But his interpretation of the serpent is similar. The serpent, he says, represents reliance on external, physical, sensory information instead of on spiritual information and inspiration from within. And Adam and Eve, who represent a whole early human culture, were turning toward wanting to believe things based on their own experience in the world rather than in reliance upon inspiration and understanding from God that comes from within. That is the significance of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The word “knowledge” there means knowledge in the sense of knowledge gained by experience.

          To provide a full exegesis of Adam and Eve would require a blog post of its own. But here and here are two comments of mine that may help.

          Swedenborg does provide a commentary on the book of Genesis, including these early chapters. If you want it straight from the horse’s mouth, you’d need to get hold of Secrets of Heaven volume 1, and read the commentary there.

  4. Are we genetically predisposed to sin? Is the tendency to sin in our DNA?

    • Lee says:

      Hi WorldQuestioner,

      In our physical DNA, no. Perhaps in our spiritual DNA. However, our physical body does tend to lead us toward focusing on physical pleasures, and on the money and power that gets us those physical pleasures. So although our physical body is not evil, nor is physical pleasure evil, if we allow ourselves to get too focused on our physical body, it can turn us toward evil and sin.

  5. I could see how original sin would be a foundation for faith alone, but I didn’t the doctrine of trinity would be a foundation for faith alone.

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