Sam Allberry

Original Sin Can Make Us Compassionate

What’s the most unusual holiday tradition in your family? One of the more unusual ones in mine is to eat haggis for breakfast the day after Christmas. As if the culinary onslaught the day before wasn’t enough, here we are, barely minutes into the morning, ingesting offal, suet, and oats (with a fried egg on top).

It may not be a common tradition, but it is a telling one. It’s one of the few tangible reminders that my family has Scottish roots. At some point in the early twentieth century, the family made its way down from north of the border, and ever since we’ve all found ourselves being born in southeast England. It wasn’t a decision I was involved in, obviously. And given the choice, I’d probably have preferred to grow up around the rugged hills of Galloway with a lilting Scottish accent.

The fact is, much of our lives is shaped by decisions made by our forebears. The choices of previous family members have determined many details of our lives even before we’ve begun deciding anything. It’s not always comfortable to think about (we prefer to think we are masters of our own lives), but it’s incontrovertibly true. We find our lives to be, in many ways, the product of other people’s choices.

And what’s true of our physical family is also true of our spiritual family. One of my Scottish forebears made a decision, and ever since, successive generations have been born rooting for the wrong side when watching Braveheart. And one of my spiritual forebears made a decision that has meant we all were born very far from home.

Corruption in the Family Tree

The apostle Paul summarizes the defining moment this way:

Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

The first part describes what happened historically: through one man disobeying God, sin entered what had been a pristine world. The second part helps us see what was happening theologically: all of us sinned. Paul is not just saying that Adam kicked off a trend, like that ice-bucket challenge a few years back, where someone started it off and eventually everyone ended up doing it. No, Paul is saying something more profound and tragic:

By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners. (Romans 5:19)

By Adam’s act, all of us are constituted sinners. His sin made us sinners. Not just in status, but in our very nature. We’re not born neutral, and then discover sin and consequently become sinners. We’re born sinners, and that’s why we sin. We can’t do otherwise. This is the doctrine of original sin, and it often gets bad press.

Gift of Original Sin?

The doctrine of original sin goes against so much of our instinctive Western individualism. It can feel unfair. But just as my eating fried sheep’s offal every late December is tangible evidence of my family background, so too the propensity of all of us to sin is evidence of where we come from. Original sin might be a hard doctrine to accept, but it’s one of the easiest to prove. There are around 7.7 billion pieces of evidence for it walking around the planet today.

“Original sin might be a hard doctrine to accept, but it’s one of the easiest to prove.”

If, however, we deeply accept what the Bible tells us, the doctrine can transform us for the better. Most importantly, we will cherish what Christ has done for us all the more. This is Paul’s purpose in Romans 5 — to show how Adam’s actions are a photonegative of Christ’s. We were in Adam, made sinners through what he did. But by God’s grace we are now in Christ, made righteous through what he has done.

When I first became a Christian, I was barely aware of how deeply rooted sin was in my life. The more I’ve come to appreciate this, the more I’ve realized just how much Jesus achieved on the cross.

Seeing Others Through Adam

But original sin hasn’t just deepened my appreciation for the cross; it’s changed how I see other people. Properly understood, it should make us more compassionate. The very part of this we often find difficult — our helplessness through Adam — can soften our hearts to one another.

Adam’s sin makes all who succeed him sinners by nature. The presence of sin in our lives is inevitable. We can’t help it. It doesn’t mean we’re not responsible, or that there aren’t consequences for our sin, or that God isn’t right to condemn and punish it, but it shows just how helpless we all are apart from Christ. We’re sinners and can’t be otherwise. When we see another lost person sin, we’re watching them be the only thing they know how to be. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but it makes it all the more understandable. We can’t snap ourselves out of this. We can only be reborn out of it.

This shapes how we see all of humanity, even at its ugliest. It explains the world to us, showing us how even with unprecedented wealth, education, and technology, we can’t seem to get our act together as a species. We may be cleverer, healthier, and cleaner, but we’re not better. We see the ongoing pattern of sin, that inherent Adamness, repeating itself in each new generation. No human advances will get us out of this.

This doesn’t mean we don’t do what we can to encourage social reform or pursue justice. God’s common grace means there are ways we can restrain aspects of our sinfulness. We rejoice over efforts to abolish trafficking, racial discrimination, and abortion. But we do so knowing the deeper issue hasn’t been resolved: sin is native to us, and sinners are going to sin.

How Original Sin Warms a Heart

How does original sin make us more compassionate? We see opportunities in nearly every area of life. For instance, parents, this doctrine teaches us that your child’s sinfulness isn’t just the result of your imperfections as a parent. Even if, somehow, you’d made all the right parenting choices at every moment along the way, your child would still be a sinner.

“The doctrine of original sin makes the gospel all the more urgent, and all the more precious.”

I’m not a parent, but I encounter plenty of sinners. A pushy driver cuts me up in busy traffic: fine — it’s just a sinner being a sinner; no need to get upset. My wallet gets stolen: I’ll cancel my cards and make whatever arrangements need to be made, but I’ll also pray for the thief — he or she needs the new heart only Jesus can give. I meet someone with highly complex issues that has made him or her hard work to be around — I’ll do what I can to understand what’s going on under the surface, but I can feel assured that I already know what’s most deeply needed.

Every person I meet, no matter how different from me culturally or ethnically or economically — this lens of original sin helps me to understand what that person most needs deep down. However bewildering another culture may be to me, the underlying superstructure of the human heart is the same. Our birth certificates may state that we were born in London or Peshawar or Madrid or São Paulo. But spiritually, we’re all born in Adam.

The best-raised child will still be fallen. The most advanced human civilization will be no less sinful than the least. It makes the gospel all the more urgent, and all the more precious. Every human I set eyes on today (including the one in the mirror) has the same ultimate need and helplessness. By nature, we’re all descendants of Adam, whatever is on the menu for our post-Christmas breakfast.

I Trust Them with My Sins: Four Ways to Welcome Confession

It’s not a long drive — just thirty minutes — but it’s an intense one. I’m always a strange mixture of anxious and excited. It’s normally a Monday afternoon, and my destination is a place the three of us call “The Wardrobe.”

The three of us are Ray Ortlund, T. J. Tims, and myself. And “The Wardrobe” is what we call Ray’s new study, not because it’s in any way cramped, but because for the three of us it represents a gateway into a better world. Monday afternoon is when the three of us typically get together to pray and catch up, and specifically to confess our sins.

The New Testament repeatedly shows us the need to be transparent with one another. John urges us to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7), James to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16). The former charge appeals to us: we all like the idea of living in transparency. It’s what excites me as I drive to Ray’s house. But the former comes as a result of the latter — in other words, walking in the light comes as we confess our sins. That’s the part I always feel a little anxious about. Transparency can’t happen without confession. We need to practice James 5:16 in order to enjoy 1 John 1:7.

Doorway to the Light

Being honest about our sins requires being honest not just with God, but with one another. We might think this latter dimension would be the easier of the two: if we’ve already come clean to God, surely it’s no big deal to come clean to each other? But I find the opposite to be the case. God already knows the worst about me. I’m never admitting something he doesn’t already know about — more fully than I do. But with Ray and T. J., that’s not the case. I can really lose face by confessing my sins to them.

There are other reasons we can find confession to another person difficult. Being open makes us vulnerable. At times in the past, I’ve risked some openness with someone and been met with a blank stare, or a really insensitive response. Sometimes it’s hard to know if we want to risk transparency. But we’re actually missing out if we don’t. Both John and James show us the benefits:

If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

Real, deep fellowship is birthed through this kind of honesty. James even says there is healing that takes place. The very act of confessing our sins, and entrusting them to the knowledge of believing friends, is already doing something in us. It pours health and light into the broken and darkened places of our hearts.

How to Hear Another’s Sins

I’ve found this fellowship, healing, and light in my times with Ray and T. J. All three of us are in some form of full-time pastoral ministry, which I know can be isolating for many pastors. But I’ve never felt so deeply known by others before. It’s embarrassing to confess what I must confess, for sure. But it is also liberating. I don’t have to pretend. I’m not sitting on something, wondering if it’s going to be discovered. They truly know the worst about me (and I about them!), and it makes our continued affection for each other all the more precious.

I’ve been trying to think through how we got here — what marks of these two men have helped me be so open with them.

Be Unshockable

Neither Ray nor T. J. has collapsed in shock when I’ve confessed something to them. I think it’s because they know their own hearts well enough. When we know our own depravity, it’s hard to be surprised at someone else’s.

“When we know our own depravity, it’s hard to be surprised at someone else’s.”

I think this is why Paul describes himself as “the foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). I doubt he’s suggesting that, out of all people, he has the greatest capacity or worst track record when it comes to sin. When someone is aware of just how messed up his own heart is, it can be hard to imagine there’s someone else out there who is more messed up.

If we’re unshockable — because we know how sinful and depraved we are — we make it much easier for others to confess. If I share a particularly distressing sin, and you respond in surprised disgust, I’ll think twice about admitting anything like that to you (or perhaps anyone) ever again. But if you respond with a measure of understanding, knowing your own heart to be prone to sin (even if in different ways), I find it much easier for me to be honest with you next time.

Be Reciprocal

It is hard to be transparent with someone if they’re never really transparent with us. Between Christian friends, building trust requires sufficient mutuality. It’s hard to keep bearing our souls if the other person remains closed. We do have different personalities and experiences, so we won’t all naturally open up with one another to the same extent. But all the same, honesty begets honesty. Someone else’s transparency makes it easier for us to be transparent, and vice versa.

“Honesty begets honesty.”

Ray and T. J. have always been open with me. They’ve never hesitated to entrust me with their struggles. Their example makes it so much easier for me to do the same.

Be a Good Listener

Once, I shared with Ray about a particularly distressing sin of mine. He carefully listened before asking one or two searching questions, making sure he had as full a picture of the situation as he could, and making sure I was giving him the whole story and not holding back important details. And his loving listening made the counsel he gave me all the more deep and insightful.

If you want to invite another’s honesty, learn to listen well. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). We are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).

Listening well also means remembering well. We don’t serve each other well if, after someone has disclosed something significant, we quickly forget what it was and how it had affected him. Remembering his struggles is part of how we bear his burdens. Only then can we care well for him by following up and doing all we can to encourage him to repent well and keep fighting.

Be a Friend

Lastly, it takes time to cultivate the trusted, confidential, deep fellowship that fosters this kind of mutual transparency — this walking in the light together. Occasionally, we might find ourselves experiencing a moment of glorious, transparent light-walking with a believer we hardly know. But those moments tend to be rare. What we all really need are committed brothers or sisters walking alongside us for the long haul — not just a drive-by confession here and there.

What we’re really talking about here is true friendship. Paul tells us to “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Honesty, encouragement, faithfulness, and loving rebuke when necessary — these are traits we find in our friendship with Christ. The greatest way to foster transparency with one another is to cultivate in us Christ’s heart for one another.

This is what I have experienced with my true friends, Ray and T. J. It is what makes our Monday meetings in “The Wardrobe” a gateway into a better world — a world where we walk openly in the light of the Light.

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