Hereditary Sin, Inherited Righteousness
Psalm 51:1–12 (ESV) Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 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 you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
I am happy to use the English Standard Version (ESV) for Scripture reading at home and at church, since it is overall a very accurate translation. However, there are a handful of passages in it that are less than felicitous, including the fifth verse of the Psalm appointed for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” This translation is simply unclear, especially the second phrase. Was David’s mother “living in sin” or “participating in sin” when she conceived him? Or was David conceived “in sin,” as in, he was sinful from conception onward?
The latter, of course, is the correct sense, which is properly rendered from the Hebrew in the NIV: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The context of the Psalm also helps us get the proper meaning, since it would make no sense for David to be confessing his mother’s sin in a prayer to God that is all about how sinful and in need of cleansing he himself is. Philipp Melancthon, the great Lutheran Reformer, comments: “David does not deplore the sin of [his] mother, but his own.… There was born with me an aversion away from God and a corrupted tendency. Therefore he testifies that there is sin in human beings which they bring with them when they are born.”
Psalm 51:5 teaches about original sin, which is not a biblical term but is taught throughout Holy Scripture. Original sin is known variously as the sin of origin, root sin, hereditary sin, ancestral sin, and other formulations. This doctrine is essential for revealing our desperate need for cleansing from sin and our utter inability to achieve this ourselves. It is the sharpest teaching of the Law, which prepares us for the Gospel and gives all glory to God for our salvation through Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Of course, original sin is not a popular doctrine, since it seems so pessimistic. The romantic notion that we are all basically good, or the myth of progress that humanity is gradually getting better, is much more appealing. And dead wrong.
I think an honest look at history and human behavior provides plenty of evidence for original sin, but the sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) principle means that we must establish all doctrine from the Bible. Luther says in our the Book of Concord, “This hereditary sin is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather, it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture” (Smalcald Articles III.I.3).
Since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), the doctrine of original sin means not only that we are unable to live in a righteous way that can reconcile us with God but also that we all are headed for temporal death and would face everlasting death, were it not for Christ. But Paul goes on in that same verse, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the previous chapter, Paul had written, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18–19). This means that we have hereditary sin from Adam, but inherited righteousness from Jesus Christ by Baptism into and faith in Him. In this, David’s (and our) prayer in Psalm 51 is answered, especially the introductory verses: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”
1. All mankind fell in Adam’s fall;
One common sin infects us all.
From one to all the curse descends,
And over all God’s wrath impends.
2. Through all our pow’rs corruption creeps
And us in dreadful bondage keeps;
In guilt we draw our infant breath
And reap its fruits of woe and death.
3. From hearts depraved, to evil prone,
Flow thoughts and deeds of sin alone;
God’s image lost, the darkened soul
Seeks not nor finds its heav’nly goal.
4. But Christ, the second Adam, came
To bear our sin and woe and shame,
To be our life, our light, our way,
Our only hope, our only stay.
5. As by one man all mankind fell
And, born in sin, was doomed to hell,
So by one Man, who took our place,
We all were justified by grace.
6. We thank You, Christ; new life is ours,
New light, new hope, new strength, new pow’rs.
This grace our ev’ry way attend
Until we reach our journey’s end. Amen. (LSB 562)