Original Sin: What Is Its Impact on Salvation?
Updated: Sep 9
This is Part 3 of a 3-part series on Original Sin: How our view of Original sin impacts our views of salvation, atonement, predestination, and free will. In earlier blogs, I examined Part 1: Original Sin: Are We Born Bad? and Part 2: Original Sin: What is the Meaning of Baptism? Today we will examine Part 3: Original Sin: What Is Its Impact on Salvation?
Disobedience Separates Us from God
For the first few hundred years of Christianity, the church did not focus on our sinful nature and our guilt; the focus was on attaining freedom from sin and salvation in Jesus. The Genesis story was often seen as an allegory showing how human disobedience separates us from God. In the 1st century, Clement of Rome, Christian Bishop, wrote about salvation requiring both a belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour and living a life of holiness. Clement discusses that our good deeds are prompted by our faith. We are justified by faith and our actions. The Bible repeatedly calls us to both faith and obedience (Matthew 19:17-19, Luke 11:28, John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, James 1:22 1 Cor 7:19).
Salvation by Faith; Obedience Demonstrates Faith
Protestant leaders have often pointed to the words that Abraham was blessed for his faith: he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3). However, Clement says that Abraham was blessed because he acted in righteousness; his faith prompted him to act. Looking again at Genesis, we see that after "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." (v. 6), Abram questioned the Lord about how he could know what God said was true. God replied by giving Abram a task, and Abram obeyed and acted (v. 7-10). His questions show his doubt; his actions show his faith. We are saved by faith, but faith requires obedience. Paul commends believers for their faith and obedience and says they will be blessed by being slaves to God, resulting in being holy and having eternal life (Romans 6:16-22). Paul puts it simply here, "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). Faith cannot be separated from having proactive, loving relationships. Faith and obedience work together to produce righteousness.
"The early Christians universally believed that works or obedience play an essential role in our salvation." —David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 57.
Author David W. Bercot explains that the early Christian belief that faith and obedience act together for our salvation and that unfaithfulness or disobedience could mean losing salvation. The early church preached that salvation was in Jesus alone and that we are saved by God's grace through our faith, and that faith shows in our loving actions. Our actions do not earn salvation but they demonstrate our faith. Immoral actions demonstrate we have become unbelievers.
Salvation for The Elect
The 5th-century theologian Augustine believed God predestines all people regarding their salvation. Augustine said that all humans are born carrying the guilt of original sin and deserve condemnation, yet for God's own pleasure, God gives grace to the elect to have salvation and never lose it. Humans can do nothing to earn salvation. The Holy Spirit acts first, moving the elect to make the faith decision and receive salvation (2 Timothy 1:9, Galatians 1:15, Ephesians 1:4-11, Eph. 2:8-10, John 6:44, 1 Peter 2:9, Luke 2:14). Augustine taught double predestination: the belief that God also elects and predestines others to damnation as their just reward. Facing the fact that many baptized as infants decide as adults not to believe, Augustine explained that God gives the elect a second gift of grace that allows them to persevere and confirm their faith as adults. This idea may be based on Jesus being the author (origin) and perfecter (finisher) of our faith, starting our faith and bringing it to maturity, completion, and perfection (Hebrews 12:2).
Salvation for the Obedient
At the time of Augustine, Pelagianism taught that God makes salvation available to all persons (1 Timothy 2:4, John 12:32, Col. 1:19-20, Philippians 2:9-11, Matthew 18:11-14, 1 John 4:14-15). Pelagius opposed the idea that God elects some and not others since God wants all people to be saved (John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9) and God does not show favouritism (Romans 2:11, Col. 3:25, Acts 10:34, Matthew 5:45).
Pelagius denied the idea that all humans are born bearing the guilt of Adam's original sin and that humans are totally depraved. He taught that babies and children are innocent until they reached an age when can be accountable for choosing to believe (John 3:16-18). Whoever rejects the Son will not see life (John 3:36) but children are too young to reject God. He said that the human tendency to sin is a free choice and that humans can and must decide to do God's will (Matthew 7:21, Luke 11:28, John 8:11, John 14:15, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
However, Pelagius may also have said that humans can do good of their own volition, without God's grace, and might earn salvation by their good works, without faith. As we all know, human goodness does not compare to God's goodness, and we cannot be good enough to earn salvation by our own power. Heavily opposed by Augustine, Pelagius was excommunicated and in AD 418 the Council of Carthage condemned him as a heretic.
Salvation by Faith and Grace
By the 16th century, the Roman Catholic church had centralized power over the church and governments in Western Europe. Some of the priests of the time protested corruption and abuses and wanted to reform the church. A few of the items Reformers opposed:
the centralized power of the Pope over religious and civil life
the idea that the church had equal authority to the Bible (Reformers believed the Bible was the ultimate authority)
the use of the Latin Vulgate Bible instead of the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures
the idea of purgatory, a place the deceased go to become purified and holy enough to go to heaven
the sale of indulgences, papers the church sold promising to give the parishioner or their loved one less time in purgatory, going more quickly to heaven
the idea that salvation was offered from or by the church (Reformers said salvation is only through faith in Jesus)
the number and the nature or meaning of sacraments
the idea that forgiveness came from the church, intercessors, or financial contributions (Reformers said forgiveness comes only by God's grace)
the hierarchy of Bishops and Popes, believing all Christians are equal before God, all may read and interpret the Bible, and that Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Master
the glorification of the church or believers, instead of the glorification of God
Protestant Reformers stated strongly that we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and because of God's grace. We do not earn salvation by our actions and are not made righteous by our good works or by the church.
Protestant Reformer Martin Luther agreed that because of the Fall, humans do not have the power or free will to accept salvation without first the Holy Spirit calling them. Salvation is based on God’s grace alone and does not depend on an individual’s response. God predestines the elect to be saved and since nothing happens outside of God's sovereign control. While Luther advocated double predestination, today's Lutherans teach single predestination, that God elects some for salvation and does not decree absolutely the salvation of the others. Today's Lutherans believe Christ’s atonement was not limited to the elect but is sufficient to save whoever believes (John 3:16), God wants all to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), yet knows and foresees that not all will be saved.
Luther believed God's elect cannot lose their salvation, God's faith perseveres, yet human sin may separate the individual from the Holy Spirit until the individual repents. Salvation can be lost if you sin, turn away from God and do not repent and turn back. Luther gave an example from King David, whose public sins of adultery, murder, and blasphemy, showed the Spirit had departed from him until he repented. Luther’s followers believed you are saved by faith, but true, genuine faith would show in your actions. Sinful actions show a loss of faith, and a loss of true faith puts your salvation at risk; repentance and turning back to God can secure your salvation.
Protestant Reformer John Calvin taught that the totally depraved nature of human beings prevents us from having the ability to accept salvation. Humans are slaves to sin and all deserve condemnation, but by grace, God calls or elects some people to be saved. Calvin used the term Unconditional Election to describe the concept that God chooses the elect for salvation, unconditional on anything we may do or think. Calvin advocated double predestination, but many of today's Calvinists do not. Calvin taught the concept of Limited Atonement: that Christ died to atone for the sins of the elect and Christ's atonement does not cover the sins of all people. Salvation is entirely based on God’s irresistible grace; God puts the elect in situations where they cannot resist God’s call.
Calvin believed the elect are saved not by their own faith, but by God’s faithfulness, and these saints (believers) are given the gift of perseverance so that their faith grows to maturity. Salvation cannot be lost, because it does not depend on our faithfulness, but on God's faithfulness. Once you are saved, you cannot lose your salvation (Romans 8:28-39, John 10:27-30, John 5:24). Even if you commit sins, through your faith in Christ, you are made to appear righteous. Human behaviour is not a means to show your faith or preserve your salvation.
Salvation by Faith that Produces Fruit
The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation, holding the Council of Trent where the Catholic church clarified its policies, addressed abuses of power, and established the doctrines of the modern Roman Catholic faith. The Church reformed its structure to enforce discipline against clergy who were corrupt and improved the regulation and education of priests. It established the Jesuit order in 1534, dedicated to reconstructing church life and teaching, to help people seek God, and to promote justice. The Church also affirmed it would continue to include the apocryphal books as part of the canon of the Bible.
The Catholic Church affirmed that salvation comes through faith, but differed from Luther by saying that true faith must show in charity, good work, acts of mercy and growing righteousness. The church taught our faith enables us to behave righteously, while Reformers taught that Christ fills us with his righteousness, making us appear spotless and perfect before God. The church taught our salvation is by God's grace and relies on our continuing obedience to God, while early Reformers taught our salvation perseveres and is eternally secure.
The Catholic Church teaches that you can lose your salvation if you commit a mortal sin (cardinal sin), which is turning away from God and therefore having no love in your heart. A mortal sin is done when a person knows a behaviour is wrong and willfully, intentionally does it anyway. Mortal sin would separate you from God’s grace until you repent of the sin and turn back to God. The Catholic church maintains a list of actions they consider to be disobedience to God that would constitute a mortal sin and put your salvation at risk unless you repent and turn back to God. Many of today's Christian Protestants mirror these views that humans who sin unrepentantly separate themselves from God and from salvation.
The Catholic Church countered Calvin's view of total human depravity, teaching that humans are only partially depraved and that we have the ability to choose to follow God. The Church affirmed that salvation is conditional on the human will to accept it, while Calvin taught that God's elect are chosen unconditionally. The Catholic Church affirmed that Jesus atoned for the sins of everyone and that all might be saved. However, Calvin taught that atonement was limited to the elect. The Church affirmed that humans are justified by actively cooperating with God's grace, and may exercise their will and resist God's grace. In contrast, Calvin said humans were passive, justified by God's irresistible grace.
While the Catholic Church enacted some positive changes, it used political and military power to form the Roman Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition and persecute Protestant reformers.
Salvation by Free Will
In the 17th century, Arminius rejected predestination and other Reformed (Calvinist) doctrines. He promoted the idea that humans have free will, and our salvation is conditional on our choice to believe. Human will and God’s grace work together to accomplish salvation.
By 1630, Arminians were tolerated and some of their ideas have been accepted by modern Protestant denominations such as Wesleyan, Methodist, Salvation Army, Anabaptists, Brethren, Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, Quakers, Foursquare, Pentecostals and some Baptists. Many of these Christians believe God calls all people to salvation and humans have free will and can effectively resist the call and reject God’s grace.
Partially Depraved, able to respond to God
Totally Depraved, unable to respond to God
Humans are depraved but God's prevenient grace restores human free will
God elects all to salvation, conditional on human acceptance; God foresees who will respond
God elects some people unconditionally to salvation, based on God's pleasure and predestination
God elects all to salvation, conditional on human exercising free will to respond
Christ died to atone for the sins of all people
Christ died to give atonement limited for the elect
Christ's death provides unlimited atonement for whosover believes
Humans can resist God's grace and turn away from God
God's grace is irresistible and the elect cannot turn away from God
Humans can resist or refuse to accept God's grace
Believers may lose salvation if they disobey God and do not repent and return to God
The salvation of the elect will persevere and they will never lose it. Later Calvinists outlined immoral actions that could put salvation at risk (show that you are not elected)
God assures our salvation but if we are unfaithful or reject God, we separate ourselves from God's salvation
Humans are not accountable for Adam's sin, only for our own
Born Guilty of Adam's original sin
The fall corrupted human nature so that we cannot do good without God's grace
Salvation by Predestination
In 1618, Calvinists voted at the Synod of Dort to condemn Arminius and his followers as heretics. The Westminster Confession of 1646 unified the Church of England and adopted many Calvinist teachings. It was approved by many Reformed, Presbyterians, Anglican and other denominations. For some, the teaching that God predetermines who will be saved has developed into a belief that God predetermines every detail in the universe.
Puritans believed in Reformed theology and felt that the Church of England had not distanced itself enough from Catholic practices. Puritans allocated less time for liturgy and more time to teaching, preaching, and education. They believed in double predestination and enforced Christian ethics, moral behaviour, and moderation to prepare for the Holy Spirit to elect them. They shared personal conversion stories to show they were one of God’s elect. After conversion, the believer was to be sanctified or blessed with piety and holy behaviour.
The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 follows both Calvinist (Reformed) and Puritan theology. It confirms God's persevering grace, but it also teaches that for the sake of your salvation, you must avoid and flee all idolatry (item 94), that all unchastity is cursed by God and we must live chaste, disciplined lives (item 108), and that God forbids all unchastity (item 109). Calvinist churches that follow the Heidelberg Catechism maintain a list to define actions that are unchaste and immoral which would put your salvation at risk unless you repent and turn back to God.
Advocates for Unlimited Atonement
In the 17th century, Amyraut promoted a four-point variation on Reformed Theology (Calvinism), rejecting the idea of Limited Atonement. Amyraldism teaches that Christ’s atonement is unlimited and sufficient for all people and that God’s desire is for the salvation of all people. It accepts Calvinist doctrines of Total depravity, unconditional election, Irresistible grace and the Perseverance of the saints. Four-point Calvinism is believed by some Congregationalists, Presbyterian and Baptist denominations.
Great Awakenings: Free Will, Puritanism and Piety
Also in the 17th century, an evangelical revival called the First Great Awakening blended Calvinist doctrine with influences from Puritanism and Piety. If God was going to elect some for salvation, there was no need to try to tell others to believe. But if humans have free will, then Christians have an obligation to obey Jesus's final command, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Paul also says that if Christ did not rise from the dead, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Corinthians 15:14). This revival focussed on a personal conviction to be saved by Jesus and a commitment to higher standards of personal morality. It established the evangelical understanding of salvation, preaching the gospel, and a personal decision to convert to Christianity and live moral lives.
In the early 19th century, there was a Second Great Awakening; a Protestant revival opposing the predestination of the elect and emphasizing the ability of individuals to make a decision for their salvation. You are saved through faith in Christ, by God’s grace, and taught to apply biblical teaching to personal behaviour. There was a movement to restore a primitive faith based on the Bible alone rather than hierarchal structures or detailed confessions of faith. Women, youth, and African Americans responded in greater numbers to the Second Great Awakening. It was widely spread by Methodist and Baptist denominations. Baptists believe salvation is by faith alone when the Holy Spirit gives a person new life. Methodists believe salvation is by God’s grace, and then through works of charity and mercy, following God’s commandments, you are given a second work of grace to allow you to mature to Christian perfection. It teaches relying on God not only for initial salvation but for completing our transformation, filling us with love and walking as Christ walked. Salvation is by God’s grace and humans cooperate with God by using their freedom for obedience to perfect their salvation through their works.
In the late 19th century, a movement called the Social Gospel came about, where believers worked to bring the kingdom of God to earth, repenting not only for individual immorality but also for immoral societal structures. They focussed on applying biblical teaching to both individual and social sins, low pay and injustice. While some in the movement believed this was a natural progression of spiritual outworking after salvation, others believed that both faith and working towards justice were components of salvation.
Where Do We Stand Today?
About a quarter of U.S. adults believe God predetermines salvation for each individual, and that God chose the people He would save before He created the world (predestination). There has been a recent increase in Calvinist beliefs, not only that God predestines our salvation or damnation, but also that God predestines the events in our world and in our lives. Now 18% say God directly influences everything. A Pew Research study shows that more than half of US adults adhere to a fatalistic philosophy, agreeing with statements that suffering makes us stronger or that everything happens for a reason. However, if you believe in predestination, then you have to believe that God allows bad things to happen or even that God preordains our trials or causes suffering for some greater purpose. It can leave a person thinking that God does not love us, fails to protect us, or intentionally judges and punishes us. Predestination lends itself to thinking that humans cannot choose to overcome their sinful desires, let go of lust and hate, and are fated to be evil.
Pew Research shows that 71% of Americans believe humans have free will to accept or reject God's salvation and a free will to act with or against God's plans. Today we have easy access to knowing the problems in the world: wars, school shootings, murder and rape. These are best explained by humans acting of their free will, selfish desires and evil natures. The majority of Americans say that suffering is a consequence of human action or the result of the way society is structured. We can believe that God loves us and walks with us through the trials. You may see that giving humans free will is God's act of love. It is God's love that allows us to choose our path, even when we make choices against what God wants us to do, and behave in ways that have harmful consequences. Jesus models how to use our free will to make good choices and to love one another. When we see suffering, those most likely to help are Black Protestants and those who regularly attend church services.
More than half of US adults believe that salvation comes only through Jesus that Jesus resurrected from the dead and that God counts a person as righteous not because of their good works but because of their faith in Christ. However, less than half of US adults consider themselves members of a church, synagogue or mosque. Back in 1937, church membership was 73 percent. Another study said that 58% of all Americans now believe that many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven. This tells us that while people may believe in Jesus, many have disaffiliated with religious institutions. They may see religious membership as belonging to a past generation or they may have unanswered doubts about church teachings. This may be part of a larger trend that younger generations have less trust in large organizations or institutions, and less confidence in religious, business, or political leaders, police officers, coaches, and elementary school principals. The majority of US adults under 30 also have low trust in the goodness of other people and are likely to see others as selfish, and exploitive: what Christians would call naturally sinful.
Throughout history, believing the elect are predestined to salvation and eternally secure has led Christians to immorality and building corrupt power hierarchies. Believing humans are naturally sinful and unable to do good, has led Christians to act entitled and even obligated to rule over other people. Each time that has happened, God has stirred up a new movement or breakaway group that teaches how to let God rule in our hearts. Revivals show faith demonstrated in works.
Today God is reviving the church through deconstruction. This is a process of an individual re-appraising their faith and the teachings of their church tradition, acknowledging doubts and questions and seeking the kingdom of God. Deconstruction is God teaching us how to have a faith that fills our hearts with love, lifts up the poor, addresses social issues, and treats one another with respect as equals. Deconstruction is asking church communities and leaders to repent of scandals and abuse, greed, oppression, and authoritarian control. Churches that listen to God, repent and obey God's commandment to love one another are most likely to stay relevant.
People are less concerned about original sin, guilt, and the need for salvation and eternal life. With a quarter of U.S. adults believing in neither heaven nor hell, their eternal salvation is not a central focus. I believe the majority is more focussed on making good choices on earth, decisions that have positive consequences here and now. While God offers salvation in the afterlife, God also offers to give us new life here and now. When God reigns in our hearts, we have new attitudes, enabling us to make good choices and empowering us to be loving in our relationships. People are more fulfilled if they believe their activity and work serve a greater purpose, not only in heaven but on earth. Let us work to see God's kingdom come, and God's will be done.
Catholics and Protestants today are largely unified that Jesus atones for our sins and we are saved by faith and by God's grace. Christians agree that faith needs to show in the way we live, but disagree on whether our behaviour impacts our salvation. While a significant group believes in the predestination of the elect for salvation, a much larger group believes that God offers salvation to all, Jesus's sacrifice atones for all people, and it is incumbent on humans to accept God's offer. A contract has three elements: an offer, consideration (payment), and acceptance. God's covenant is like a contract. God makes the offer, Jesus supplies the payment, and we close the agreement with our acceptance. However, many people today are less concerned about eternal salvation and more concerned about seeing God's kingdom on earth, seeing Christians who are less sinful and more loving.
Use the attached checklists to clarify what you think about salvation and eternal security.