J4C - How Sinful Are We?

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How Sinful are We?

Question: In your biblical plan of salvation, you said that original sin has corrupted our nature, whereas I was taught that our nature is wounded. I think this is a key issue.

Answer: Yes, this is a crucial doctrine and the implications are wide-ranging. We would agree that every person is a sinner: Jews or Gentiles "are all under sin. As it is written: There is none righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:9,10). But, just how sinful are we? Are we merely wounded but still capable of moral and spiritual good, or has sin infected and corrupted every aspect of our being? Do we still have the spiritual ability in us to reach out to God? A wrong diagnosis of our spiritual condition has disastrous consequences because we'll end up applying an inadequate treatment.

Nicholas: This is indeed a very key issue because Catholics and Protestants see Original Sin very differently, and this key difference affects how each side understands salvation. 

Catholics believe that man's original state consisted in human nature united to the supreme gift, Sanctifying Grace. This Grace is essentially the very Life of God living in our souls and this Grace is added to human nature, it raises up human nature to a deified (God like) state, but this is not to be confused with any sort of pantheism (that God is creation rather than separate and distinct from creation). This is a super-natural state (literally 'above nature') which means all our actions are raised to a super-natural level, whatever good works we do according to our nature as humans are raised to a super-naturally good level by Sanctifying Grace. For us to be in a genuine relationship with God (adopted children), our relationship and actions must rise to the super-natural level, and this is only done through Sanctifying Grace in our souls. When Adam sinned, he forfeited this Sanctifying Grace, and as a result fell out of his special relationship with God and fell to a purely natural state. Because Sanctifying Grace was a special gift, God was not unjust in withholding it from Adam's descendants (all men), and thus Original Sin for Catholics is essentially being born lacking Sanctifying Grace in our souls. Human nature itself is uncorrupted, it is only stripped of sanctifying grace. We are subject to inner temptations (called concupiscence), but that is not equivalent with sin itself.

Protestants see Original Sin very differently, and that is primarily due to the fact they reject the notion of Sanctifying Grace. For Protestants, man's original state was one of only a perfectly sound human nature. Thus, unlike the Catholic understanding, when Adam fell his human nature was not stripped of a special gift, but rather human nature itself became corrupt, like an apple turned rotten. This corrupt human nature is what is passed on to all men, and this is the essence of Original Sin for Protestants. When God sees this 'rotten apple' nature He is displeased and cannot accept that person in His sight, nor can he accept any of their works which are now tainted by sin/rot.

Catholics reject the Protestant understanding for multiple reasons, including the fact it does not harmonize with Scripture and introduces what is in effect an evil nature (but the Truth is God cannot be the author of creating evil natures). See my big Justification Article (esp Chapter 1) for more info.

So, what does the Bible say about us? How does God look upon our heart? He says: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26).

The gravity of our condition can be seen by God's description of our heart. He says that our heart is stony; it is insensitive and hard. Furthermore, God does not merely cure it. The heart has been so badly wounded that it cannot sustain life. "I will take away the stony heart," God tells his people. It is hopeless, it has to be removed and changed with a new one. "I will give you an heart of flesh." Nothing short of a spiritual transplantation will do.

Nicholas: Dr. Mizzi has to be careful here, for the above description is figurative. Our heart (spiritually) is not actually removed and thrown away and replaced by another one. Rather it means God will turn that lost soul away from their stubbornness and make them supernaturally alive. 

Or consider the following scriptures: "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world...even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved...And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him..." (Ephesians 2:1,2,5 and Colossians 2:13)

Nicholas: Notice the description here, we are spiritually dead and made spiritually alive again by God's grace in us. A soul lacking Sanctifying Grace is spiritually dead while one with this Grace is spiritually (supernaturally) alive. The corrupt human nature of Protestantism cannot adequately explain this notion of being spiritually resurrected. That is not to say Protestants reject this description, only that their theological position on corrupt human nature cannot explain it.  

Wounded? Yes, and more, much more than that! We were mortally wounded by sin. We are by nature dead in sins. We can't be helped by taking some medicines and by a little spiritual assistance along the way. As a paediatrician, I have seen many sick children. As long as the child is alive, we do everything possible to help him recover. However, if the child dies, medicines are useless and we cannot do anything more. The situation is - humanly speaking - hopeless.

We would never appreciate the sinfulness of our hearts, or the greatness of God's salvation, until we realize that we're not merely wounded by sin. We are spiritually dead. We need something more than help. We need life. And that, God alone can give.

Nicholas: While a Catholic would agree with what Dr. Mizzi has said, Catholics understand this very differently than Dr. Mizzi's Protestant position does (for the reasons given earlier).

Sometimes it is said that by his sacrifice on the cross, the risen Christ redeemed the whole world, meaning that he opened the door of heaven. He made it possible for us to be saved, but now it up to us to get up and walk through that open gate. Frankly, I think that's an incomplete and inaccurate picture. For, knowing how the Bible describes our spiritual condition, it would be like Jesus removing the stone in front of Lazarus' tomb and saying, "I have done my part; I opened the door. Now it's up to Lazarus to come out if he so desires."

Jesus had to do something more. He had to give life to the corpse and only then could Lazarus come out! It is the same with us who are dead in sin. We have no natural desire to come to Christ for salvation. Left to ourselves we simply rot in our sins. It is only if the Father draws us to Him, do we come to the Saviour. Jesus said: "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day...Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father" (John 6:44,65). For our salvation, we are completely dependent on the grace of God.

Nicholas: Again, a Catholic would agree with these words, but for very different reasons than what Dr. Mizzi thinks. In fact, for Catholics justification is precisely about God raising our souls from the dead, where as for Protestants it is a legal-courtroom event, which is something very different.

It has been my experience that most Catholic and Protestant apologetics sources fail to recognize the key differences in how Catholics and Protestants view Original Sin, and as a result end up talking past eachother and misunderstanding eachother. This distinction must be kept in mind for it also plays a central role in how each side understands salvation.