J.I.Packer on Original Sin

Professor Packer’s essay, Doing It My Way – Are We Born Rebels?, appears in “This We Believe”, pp.43-58. The book was written to elaborate a section of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration” drafted by a number of leading evangelicals including Timothy George, John Stott, Don Carson and others and published in ‘Christianity Today’ in June 1999.

In general, the document is highly commendable. So far as sin is concerned the Statement reads as follows:
“Through the Gospel we learn that we human beings who were made for fellowship with God, are by nature – that is, ‘in Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:22) – dead in sin, unresponsive to and separated from our Maker. We are constantly twisting his truth, breaking his law, belittling his goals and standards, and offending his holiness, so that we are truly ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:9-20; Eph. 2:1-3,12).

We affirm that the Gospel diagnoses the universal human condition as one of sinful rebellion against God, which, if unchanged, will lead each person to eternal loss under God’s condemnation.

We deny any rejection of the fallenness of human nature or any assertion of the natural goodness, or divinity, of the human race.”

As it stands I have no quarrel with this, though when I read it for the first time I wondered about its interpretation. (It is admitted in the introduction to the book, p.13 n.3, that this may vary.) Regrettably Packer’s exposition of it confirmed my worst fears. What is the problem?

First, Packer is a rank Augustinian and is consequently thoroughly committed to the traditional dogma of original sin. He would have no hesitation in maintaining with the WCF, V1,3 and 4 that since the guilt of our first parents’ sin is imputed to all their posterity, they are “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil”. Indeed, on page 44 he makes the remarkable statement that “the entire human race, from the moment of each person’s conception in the womb, is offensive to God.” (*If this is so, how to we account for the NT doctrine of REconciliation? If original sin is true, men and women were never in fellowship with God as Adam was and so the ‘re’ should not appear. The obvious truth is that all babies as creatures of God enjoy embryonic or rudimentary fellowship with their Creator (cf. Job 31:15) just as Adam did in the Garden, the womb of the race. It is not until they sin like Adam and Eve that they are ‘disfellowshipped’ or alienated from him as their first forebears were (cf. Rom. 7:9f.; 9:11).)

Apart from such texts as Psalm 22:9f. and 71:6, one of the most obvious problems with this is that Jesus himself, as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38), happens to be a member of the human race. This being the case, we are led remorselessly to the conclusion that he, like Seth (Gen. 5:1-3), even though he was created as man in the image of God, was therefore offensive to God! A sentence or two later Packer maintains that the only prospect divine justice (sic!) holds out (for man as born ‘in Adam’) is of eternal repudiation by God and separation from him, and concludes that we therefore “deserve (sic!) condemnation because of the fact and fruit of our original sin” (his italics). A reasonable reaction to this, however, would surely be that there is neither justice nor desert (Rom. 4:1-8 excludes this) involved despite what both Catholics and Protestants have traditionally maintained.

Not surprisingly, Packer as a committed Anglican appeals to Article IX of the Church of England which, in dealing with original sin, alludes to (a) original righteousness, (b) the lusting of the flesh against the spirit (and/or Spirit), (c) the consequent demerit arising from this leading to God’s wrath and damnation, and (d) sinful passionate lust.

In response to this, it must be categorically denied that original righteousness ever existed on the one hand, and strongly insisted that it represents one of Augustine’s basic misunderstandings of Scripture on the other. According to the Bible, man (Adam), lacking the commandment (law), was created knowing neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22) and was therefore innocent or morally neutral. Again, according to the Bible the same holds true of all his descendants (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.; Rom. 9:11, etc.). Righteousness was not his starting point but his goal, and it was to be acquired by keeping the law (Gen. 2:17; Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 6:16; 1 John 3:7) just as sinfulness was to be acquired by breaking it (Gen. 2:17; 3:6f.; James 2:9-11; 4:17; 1 John 3:4; 5:17). As Paul, following Genesis, insisted, where there is no law, knowledge or understanding there is neither sin nor righteousness (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-8, cf. Gal. 3:19; 5:23; Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 15:56). Even Jesus as man had to acquire righteousness by keeping the law (Mt. 3:17; 19:17-19, 21; John 4:34; 8:29; 15:10) and avoid sin by not breaking it (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.).

Secondly, the lusting of the flesh against the spirit is pandemic; it characterises all mankind, including Jesus, who was created flesh (cf. Mt. 4:1-4; Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15). It is part of the human condition and is only sinful when it contravenes law (cf. Gen. 3:6; Ex. 20:14,17, etc.). The truth is that the flesh understood simply as our physicality, that part of man that emanates from the dust, is there to be mastered (cf. Gen. 4:7), subjected as part of the cultural mandate to dominion by all who are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26,28). And it is not until we fail in this that we, like Eve first then Adam, fall prey to ‘God’s wrath and damnation’.

Thirdly, the passions are also part of man’s constitution by creation, and provided they are restrained according to (the) law, they remain morally neutral (see Cranfield, p. 337; Fung, p.274). Again, it must be said that Augustine’s false views regarding ‘carnal concupiscence’, based apparently on his misunderstanding of 1 John 2:15-17, must be rejected.

Packer next tells us that original sin is a mystery (p.45). Indeed, since it lacks unequivocal exegetical support and defies the laws of logic at point after point, it can hardly be anything else. Little wonder that one writer, Bavinck, referred to it (though apparently in a more general context) as ‘the greatest riddle and cross of reason’ Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 3:2,27, quoted by Berkouwer in Man the Image of God, p.340), another as ‘insoluble’ (Young, p.47) and others as a ‘riddle’ (Berkouwer, pp.130ff.; Blocher, subtitle). While it must be acknowledged that even Scripture alludes to ‘the mystery of iniquity’ (see on this e.g. Berkouwer, p.130), this hardly relates to the dogma under discussion. Any mystery or riddle that appears, which Packer admits the Bible does not enlarge on (p.45), is of the theologians’ own making, since the reason why man is sinful is made abundantly clear – at least for those whose horizons are not dominated by Augustine. And it is surely a gross exaggeration, based presumably on a profound misunderstanding, to say (the devil’s role apart) that the first human sin defies rational explanation (p.45). On the assumption that original righteousness (see above) is a theological mare’s nest, the reason why Eve then Adam sinned is given first in Genesis 3:1-6, and, in case we missed the point, clarified by Paul in Romans 7:7ff. where he makes it evident that he himself re-enacted or recapitulated their sins in his own experience (see also Eph. 2:3; 4:22; Tit. 3:3, cf. 2 Pet. 1:4; Jas. 1:13f.; 4:1f.). In other words, he allowed, as we all do, the flesh to exercise dominion, all the more so since he was not only made in the same image as Adam (cf. Gen. 5:3; 1 Cor. 15:21f.,45-49) and not unnaturally followed his example, but also suffered the effects of his parental influence and the consequences of the conditions created by him. These made his sin inevitable (cf. Ps. 51:5; Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Rom. 5:12ff.). This scenario is constantly repeated, for whenever flesh and law collide (see espec. Rom. 7:14) sin occurs somewhere if not everywhere (Jas. 2:10, cf. Mt. 5:19). There was, of course, one exception. Even though he was entirely like the rest of humanity in the flesh, that is, in Adam (which he could not have been if he had been illegitimately exempted from original sin) and tempted at all points like his fellows, Jesus did not sin (Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22). In fact, since he kept the law and was therefore declared righteous by his heavenly Father (Mt. 3:17), in accordance with the oft-repeated promise (Gen.2:17; Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21; Luke 10:28; Rom. 2:13; 10:5, etc.) he was granted eternal life or born again (Mt. 3:16f., cf. 19:16-21).

It will be seen at once that all this is substantially different from the Augustinian framework embraced so uncritically by Professor Packer and many others. Part of the problem is, of course, the long tradition of the church. Augustinianism is learnt by rote (Isa. 29:13, RSV) and never subjected to the scrutiny it so manifestly requires. Since Romans 5 is supposed to teach the imputation of Adam’s sin, Romans 7 inevitably suffers inadequate analysis and distortion (Packer’s views on Romans 7 are set out in Keep in Step With the Spirit, pp.263ff. and again in Romans and the People of God, pp.70ff.). This brings us to the basic flaw in Packer’s thinking, his covenant theology which receives graphic expression in his introduction to H.Witsius’ The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, repr. Escondido, 1990. (See also Packer, Vol. 1, pp.9-22). This ‘federal theology’ posits an original covenant with Adam in which he was regarded as mankind’s representative and covenant head. Though historically this view has had a wide and influential impact through the WCF and the theology of Scotland in particular, it is false to Scripture where there is no reference to either Adamic headship or covenant (cf. Ridderbos, p.386). Far from being our (covenant) representative, in the Bible Adam is merely the first or archetypal and hence representative man, as Paul clearly indicates in 1 Corinthians 15 (see e.g. Fee, p.791). The very fact that we do not exercise faith in Adam as we do in Christ the second Adam gives the lie to federal theology and to the imputation of Adam’s sin in particular.

Regarding the latter, it is noticeable that the Celebration does not allude to Romans 5:12ff. as is usually done but to 1 Corinthians 15:22 where the words ‘in Adam’, absent from Romans though frequently read into it, do in fact appear. However, this verse can hardly be regarded as covenantal in light of what has been said above and hence does nothing to bolster the idea of original sin. Verse 22 is but an echo of the preceding verse, and the words ‘in Adam’ can only be reasonably interpreted in a physical sense, all the more so when they are compared with verses 45-49. To be ‘in Adam’ is to be ‘in the flesh’, and though they may indicate that such a condition is determinative insofar as they lead to sin and death, they cannot be ultimately deterministic or Jesus himself would have been implicated (cf. Rom. 5:12-21 and 8:3). There is a further problem. If it is insisted that a universal imputation is involved in the analogy, it logically requires universal salvation too (cf. Barth’s view of election on which see e.g. Brown, pp.103ff., 130ff.). But this we know to be out of harmony with what Paul, not to mention the rest of Scripture, teaches elsewhere.

It may be countered, however, that despite the lack of an explicit reference to a covenant, the Adamic arrangement, as evinced in Genesis 2:17 has all the hallmarks of one (cf. the missing allusion to covenant in 2 Samuel 7 in contrast with Psalm 89). This may be readily conceded so long as it is recognised that the putative covenant is the Mosaic law in embryonic or rudimentary form (note that the issue is one of life or death as in Deut. 30:15-20 and Jer. 21:8, for example). The point to recognise then is that ‘the covenant’ or commandment is an imposition, like circumcision and the law (cf. Deut. 4:13; Jos. 7:11) apart from faith (Gen. 17:25-27; Lev. 12:3), which has ‘genealogical continuity’ or ‘trans-generational inclusiveness’ (Deut. 29:14, Thompson, p.281, Wright, p.287), and only accomplishes its purpose for good or ill when it is personally kept or broken (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 7:10; Ezek. 18, etc.). In other words, there is no evidence at all in Scripture that either sin or righteousness can be imputed apart from faith, the condition of the Abrahamic and Christian covenants, and the only person who was ever in a position to receive Adam’s sin by faith was Jesus himself (2 Cor. 5:21, contrast Ex. 32:32f.; Ezek 14:12-14; Rom. 9:3), who alone could atone for it. With regard to the rest of us it is explicitly taught that the son cannot be punished for the sin of the father (Dt. 24:16; 2 K. 14:6; 2 Chr. 25:5; Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:2f., cf. Num. 14:3,31-33 and 32:11ff., etc.), unless complicity, repetition, participation or approval is involved (see e.g. Mt. 23:19-32; Luke 6:23,26; 11:48; John 8:44; Acts 7:51f.; 8:1; Rom. 1:32; 2 John 10f. On exceptions such as Numbers 16; Joshua 7 and 2 Samuel 21:1-9 see Wright, pp.262f.). And the Scriptural evidence for the repetition or imitation of sin against the quite gratuitous assertion of Article 1X that “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam” is massive (see e.g. 2 K. 17; John 8:38-44 and 3 John 11 to go no further).

Packer’s advocacy of original sin then is part of the Augustinian package which he admits to holding (p.45). It is debatable, however, whether Augustine ever emancipated himself from his early Manicheism before he became a Christian. One has only to examine his views on sex to realise that there is something radically wrong with his thinking (see e.g. Rist, pp.321ff., Cunliffe-Jones, pp.162ff.). It is in my view deeply regrettable that Professor Packer, who was the ‘hero’ of my early Christian years not least for his magnificent defence of the authority and inspiration of Scripture, should be so uncritically governed, contrary to Scripture, by the semi-pagan ideas of Augustine. It therefore has to be said with reluctance that it is difficult to understand how anyone reading the Bible as a whole can conclude that we are all offensive to (p.44) and rebels against our Creator God at birth (p.57), rather than from our youth (Gen. 8:21; Ps. 25:7; Job 13:26; Prov. 13:24; 22:15; 23:13f.; Jer. 3:25; 22:21; Rom. 7:9; 9:11; Gal. 4:3; 1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20; Eph. 2:3; Tit. 3:3; Heb. 5:13), even bearing in mind that sadly abused utterance of David in Psalm 51:5. (**Psalm 51:5 has been the cause of much erroneous thinking. I would briefly make the following observations:

The Jews (and the Orthodox) never derived original sin from it.

Its translation is often tendentious and is made to assert what needs to be proved.
If a legitimate literal translation is: “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (J.P.Green, cf. ESV), depending on our interpretation and the conclusions we draw, it could relate to Jesus himself. After all, Protestants deny the immaculate conception. One thing the overtly doctrinal passages of the Bible will not allow is that David was conceived sinful, for on the one hand where there is no law there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; cf. 7:7-12; 9:11) and on the other he could not be charged with his parents’ sin (Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.). If this were not so, then the God, who is presented to us as so holy as not to tempt us (Jas. 1:13), would be guilty of creating us evil (cf. Ps. 22:9f.; 71:6, etc.).

David clearly feels he has been a sinner for as long as he can remember (cf. Gen. 8:21, etc.), a sinner from his youth but not like Israel a rebel from birth (Isa. 48:8, cf. Ex. 32) and his outburst should be seen not as a basic doctrinal statement implying original sin but as an anguished expression of emotion arising from recognition of his sin (v.9, cf. Rom. 7:24) and his urgent need of a clean heart (v.10, cf. Rom.7:25a). In truth, knowing neither good nor evil (cf. Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11), David could no more be a sinner at conception than he could speak lies (Ps. 58:3, cf. Isa. 8:4) or Job could guide widows (Job 31:18)!) Such ideas pose not only acute problems of exegesis but raise theological problems which have already proved insoluble for 1600 years and will presumably remain so for ever. A more biblical conception of sin, however, which involves active transgression of known law (Rom. 2:12; 3:19f.; 7:9f.; 1 John 3:4, 5:17), dispenses with much of this and points to the fact that we all begin essentially where Adam and Eve began, that is, wholly ignorant of law and hence knowing neither good nor evil (Deut. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.; Rom. 9:11), and like them at creation blessed (Gen. 1:28,31; Mark 10:16). (Commenting on Genesis 1:22 Wenham writes (p.24): “The blessing of God is one of the great unifying themes of Genesis … God’s blessing is most obviously visible in the gift of children, as this is often coupled with ‘being fruitful and multiplying’.” It is hard indeed to harmonise this with Packer’s views. See also on verse 28, p.33. One might also draw inferences from Hos. 11:1 and Dt. 7:7f.). Like Paul we are innocent or ‘alive’ until the law, apart from which there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13; 7:1-8; 9:11; 1 Cor. 15:56, cf. Gal.5:23), makes its impression on our developing minds and proves us weak in the flesh (Rom. 7:9-11), all the more so since we have Adam (and Eve for that matter) as our sinful forebear who left us not only with a bad example but the consequences of his and his descendants’ sin (cf. Ezra 9:6f; Job 35:8 NRSV; Jer. 3:25; 7:24ff.; 11:10; Ezek. 2:3; Acts 7:51, etc.). In such a situation and against this background our own failure in our native fleshly weakness is inevitable but not fatalistically predetermined as original sin implies (Rom. 5:12ff., cf. Ex. 20:5f. 34:6f.).

In conclusion, to obviate misunderstanding other points must be made. First, it is quite erroneous to suggest, as Augustinians frequently do, that there is no explanation for sin apart from ‘sin in Adam’ or native depravity (see e.g. Hodge, ST 2, p.240; Murray, p.191). The constantly repeated cry is that we sin because we are sinners. If this is said of unself-conscious babies, it is a blatant lie. It is, however, true of those who have become sinful through personal transgression (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16; Eph. 2:3; 2 Pet. 2:19, cf. 1 Pet. 2:22). Packer himself seems to imply that any denial of our heritage of original sin insinuates a less than adequate view of sin in general (p.57). But as we have just seen, since we are all created in the image of Adam (Gen. 5:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:48f.), we follow his pattern of life under his influence and are conditioned by his sin. Consequently, our ‘fall’ is as true as his was (Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23). And one does not have to believe in original sin in order to accept total depravity.

In light of this, the need for justification and regeneration remains as great as ever, in a sense more so since our sin, far from being alien like our righteousness, is our own (Ex.32:33; 2 Sam. 24:17; Ezek.18:4,20, etc.). (Murray, in his work on imputation, p.86, tries to have it both ways!) As Scripture ever insists, sin is a work involving transgression of law (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 3:10,12; 5:19-21) on the basis of which we are justly judged (Gen. 18:25; Ps. 119:142; Rom. 2:6,9, etc.).

Secondly, the Augustinian worldview is simply false. It posits perfection at the start instead of at the end and thus puts the cart before the horse. Or to put the issue another way, it is restorationist in a way admirably expressed by Milton as Paradise Lost and Regained, an idea which in the light of the doctrine of perfection imports a basic contradiction into Scripture. But restorationism is not only Puritan, it is fundamentally and typically Old Testament in outlook. (In fairness to the Puritans it was the Puritan John Bunyan who produced The Pilgrim’s Progress.) While Ezekiel in Babylon might well look forward to restoration in earthly Jerusalem (e.g. 36:33-38), Christians who are expecting a renewed material universe purged of sin have simply got it all wrong (cf. Heb. 12:18ff.). The temporal world, which conspicuously had a beginning in time, stands in blatant contrast to the eternal God, and, as made ‘by hand’, is inherently imperfect quite apart from sin (Heb. 9:11,24). A renewed, repaired or purged earth is a repeated earth and one that, according to the theology of Hebrews, resembles the constantly repeated sacrifices of the OT priesthood; it is intrinsically imperfect or inadequate and is hence incapable of perfection (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. John 3:3-6). The Augustinian view is in open conflict with other sadly neglected, frequently misunderstood but nonetheless clear teaching of Scripture (see especially de Silva, pp.27ff.).

Thirdly, it needs to be recognised that the Augustinian antipathy to ‘Pelagianism’ (see Art. 1X) verges on the pathological. Heretic though he was, Pelagius’ stress on imitation (or, better, repetition) was unquestionably correct, though admittedly he wrongly denied any Adamic input. On the other hand, Augustine’s vindication of grace came at tremendous cost, and it is high time that this was appreciated and acknowledged. It should perhaps be added that to repudiate Augustine at various points is not necessarily to embrace Pelagianism as a whole. Personal sin requires grace every bit as much as the imputed variety is said to do.

Fourthly, Packer is correct to observe that evangelicals are at one on our lostness by nature (though he probably meant by birth) and our inability to save ourselves. He then suggests, however, that there is universal agreement on the ‘realities’ he has written about. This is hardly true. (*** Since writing the above, I have read some of the results of the latest survey of the Barna Research Group (USA) in Australia’s weekly “New Life” (7/11/02). The editor commented: ”Barna found it shocking that 74% of adults say that ‘when people are born they are neither good nor evil – they make a choice between the two as they mature’. The researchers said that 52% of evangelicals agreed with this statement.” (Interested to find out his reaction I mentioned this to our new minister, a former missionary and Bible translator. His reply was prompt and to the point: “Good. There is hope for us yet!”) Indeed, without going into further detail, Genesis 2:17, Deuteronomy 1:39, 1 Kings 3:7, Hebrews 5:13f., cf. Deuteronomy 11:26 and 30:15,19, for example, are convincing evidence that this is what the Bible, as opposed to Augustinianism, teaches. If sin by definition requires either law (Rom. 4:15) and/or knowledge (Rom. 1:20; John 15:22,24), then it follows remorselessly that babies, who know neither good nor evil, are innocent. And the sooner we rid ourselves of the notion that they are sinful at birth and offensive to God in violent contrast to Jesus (Mark 10:16) the better. (It is noticeable that while the Psalmist tells us that God loathed the adult generation in the wilderness, 95:10, he clearly did not loath their children, Num. 14:3,29-35).) There have long been voices raised questioning WCF V1, for example, but they have usually been suppressed or dismissed. However, if reformation is ever to come to the church, such voices must be given a hearing, and I for one am confident that when they are, our tradition will be seen to be in direct conflict with Scripture which does not and cannot teach the Augustinian dogma of original sin. It is exegetically, logically and theologically unsustainable. It is sometimes said or implied that to attack ideas like original sin is to resort to ‘human logic’. The problem here is, however, that we have no other logic to appeal to. The plain fact is that if we cannot apply the law of non-contradiction to false teaching as Jesus and Paul in particular did, then we are lost in incoherence and irrationality. In such a situation our only appeal will be to authority, and this will take us back willy-nilly to Romanism. While it is not illegitimate or even inadvisable to appeal to appropriate authority to bolster an argument in certain circumstances as we all do, nonetheless the Luthers (prophets) of this world must not be afraid to take their stand on Scripture alone. Sometimes this is the only way forward and failure to take it is dereliction of duty (cf. Ezek. 3). At the very least, the mere fact that the dogma in question has proved (a) an insoluble riddle to theologians; (b) a massive stumbling block to outsiders as well as to many insiders; and (c) has such devastating logical implications and ramifications (not usually perceived or at least acknowledged) in theology as a whole ought to give us pause. The truth is that at the end of the day there is an air of dogmatic desperation characterising the usual Reformed expositions of Romans in particular and, to my knowledge, their validity has never been demonstrated. The time is overdue for the Augustinian ideas which permeate them to be thoroughly and dispassionately investigated. They are a millstone round our neck and one that Scripture itself has not imposed. For why should our God, who is too holy to tempt us (Jas. 1:13), compromise himself by unjustly attributing our father’s sin to us at conception when all he had to do to achieve the intention alluded to by Paul in Romans 11:32 (cf. Gal. 3:22) was to make us flesh and impose his law on us (Rom.7:14, cf. Rom. 3:20; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11f.)? This strategy worked in the case of Adam and Eve, why not ours – all the more so considering that as children we all suffer the effect of our parents’ sin and the conditions they create (Rom. 5:12ff.; Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f.; Num. 14:18)? The biblical consensus is that while the whole congregation suffers for the sins of its forebears, it is not punished for them (Num. 16:22; 14:3,29-35; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek. 18:2f.; Rom. 14:7), unless it repeats them (Zech 1:4, cf. Num. 32;1 K. 19:4b; Neh. 13:18,26; Jer. 17:21-23, Acts 7:51f. etc.). The reality is that the radical demands of the law and the self-evident weakness of the flesh make original sin redundant (Rom. 7:7ff.; cf. Job 4:17-19; 2 Cor. 4:7).


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