This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 9 states:
IX. Of Original or Birth-sin
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
This is our presentation of the doctrine of Original Sin. Original Sin is a doctrine often neglected today in many churches, but remains largely uncontroversial among various Christian traditions and denominations. A few variations of it do exist, but, in keeping with the majority of The 39 Articles, this Article sets out the doctrine at its basic level without chasing too far down any rabbit trails.
The problem with the human race is that we are sinners, that much is obvious. The doctrine of original sin teaches us that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. As fallen people, we have what the Scriptures call a “sin nature,” or a “desire of the flesh” in opposition to the “desire of the spirit.” It is this universal condition that causes us to sin. To reverse this order, and say we are sinners because we sin, is to fall into the ancient of heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius was an early Christian teacher who overemphasized the goodness of creation, and eventually came to insist that people are sinners because they learned from the bad example of Adam. If we would just follow the good example of Jesus, Pelagius said, we would not sin. Ultimately this proved an impossible teaching, both in everyday life and in accord with the writings of Scripture – we sin because of “the fault and corruption of the Nature” within us, and we are “very far gone from original righteousness” such that our hearts are “inclined to evil” and our lesh “lusteth always contrary to the spirit.” As the great penitential psalm puts it, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5).
The result of this sin nature is that “in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” Even before we were old enough to sin, our hearts were evil and inclined against the Lord. “The innocence of youth” is an expression we use to speak of how young children are unaware of so many of the world’s evils; but it is just an expression: even the smallest child is a sinner and a rebel against our Creator.
As Article 9 goes on to describe, this sin nature also remains a continuing problem even for “them that are regenerated” – baptized believers. Even still, we have the phronema sarkos, which is a Greek phrase found in Romans 8:6, 7, and 27. This can be translated as “lust of the flesh” or “desire of the flesh” or “will of the flesh,” or even “that which the flesh sets its eyes upon.” Simply put, Christians still sin, and we still love sinning. Article 9 here also makes a reference to Romans 8:1 when it points out that “there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized.” This is Gospel – good news – and it’s both important and necessary that we understand this: even though we are sinners, and we still sin, the gift of union with Christ takes away our just and rightful condemnation.
There is one final practical observation that can be derived from the last sentence of Article 9. It makes a point of emphasizing that even though we are no longer under the death sentence for our sins, we still have both the lust of the flesh and concupiscence. Concupiscence is a term used differently by different Christian traditions; here it refers to the fallen desires of the human will, which are described here to have “of itself the nature of sin.” Thus, even as Christians, forgiven and in God’s good graces, we must recognize that we continue to sin and besmirch the name of our Lord, and must continually repent of those sins.