Sinful nature or sinful environment?


By Spencer D Gear

From where did my sinful actions come? With my parents? The evil environment around me whether at school, work, TV, radio, Internet or anywhere else in our sin-soaked society?

The Bible’s teaching on original sin (a misunderstood term) and the sinful human nature being the cause of sin, has caused much controversy down through the centuries. Evangelical theologian, Wayne Grudem, prefers to use the phrase “inherited sin” instead of “original sin” because ‘the phrase “original sin” seems so easily to be misunderstood to refer to Adam’s first sin, rather than to the sin that is ours as a result of Adam’s fall’.[1]

One of church history’s early rejections of the teaching on inherited sinful nature or original sin came from the Pelagians (followers of Pelagius, ca. AD 360-420[2]), Pelagius being engaged in controversy on the topic with St. Augustine. What did the Pelagians believe? The late Yale University church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, summarised:

“In general Pelagians differed from Augustine in denying In general Pelagians differed from Augustine in denying that the taint of Adam’s sin and the impairment of the will brought by it have been transmitted to all Adam’s de- scendants, but, in contrast, declared that each man at birth at, has the ability to choose the good. In other words, they denounced “original sin.” Some seem to have held that Adam was created mortal and that his His death was not due to his sin, that new-born children need not be baptized, for they have no original sin inherited from Adam which needs to be washed away, and that some men before and after Christ have so used their free will that they have been sinless. God’s grace, so at least some Pelagians held, is seen in giving man free will at his creation, in giving man the law as a guide to his choice, and in send- ing Jesus Christ who by his teaching and good example assists men to do good. From Augustine’s standpoint, this view made grace unnecessary and differed little from Stoic morality”.[3]

R. C. Sproul leaves no doubt about how much of the Christian church is practising Pelagian theology, in his view. He states:

“Modern Evangelicalism almost uniformly and universally teaches that in order for a person to be born again, he must first exercise faith. You have to choose to be born again. Isn’t that what you hear? In a George Barna poll, more than seventy percent of “professing evangelical Christians” in America expressed the belief that man is basically good. And more than eighty percent articulated the view that God helps those who help themselves. These positions — or let me say it negatively — neither of these positions is semi-Pelagian. They’re both Pelagian. To say that we’re basically good is the Pelagian view. I would be willing to assume that in at least thirty percent of the people who are reading this issue, and probably more, if we really examine their thinking in depth, we would find hearts that are beating Pelagianism. We’re overwhelmed with it. We’re surrounded by it. We’re immersed in it. We hear it every day. We hear it every day in the secular culture. And not only do we hear it every day in the secular culture, we hear it every day on Christian television and on Christian radio.

“In the nineteenth century, there was a preacher who became very popular in America, who wrote a book on theology, coming out of his own training in law, in which he made no bones about his Pelagianism. He rejected not only Augustinianism, but he also rejected semi-Pelagianism and stood clearly on the subject of unvarnished Pelagianism, saying in no uncertain terms, without any ambiguity, that there was no Fall and that there is no such thing as original sin. This man went on to attack viciously the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in addition to that, to repudiate as clearly and as loudly as he could the doctrine of justification by faith alone by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This man’s basic thesis was, we don’t need the imputation of the righteousness of Christ because we have the capacity in and of ourselves to become righteous. His name: Charles Finney, one of America’s most revered evangelists. Now, if Luther was correct in saying that sola fide is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, if what the reformers were saying is that justification by faith alone is an essential truth of Christianity, who also argued that the substitutionary atonement is an essential truth of Christianity; if they’re correct in their assessment that those doctrines are essential truths of Christianity, the only conclusion we can come to is that Charles Finney was not a Christian. I read his writings and I say, “I don’t see how any Christian person could write this.” And yet, he is in the Hall of Fame of Evangelical Christianity in America. He is the patron saint of twentieth-century Evangelicalism. And he is not semi-Pelagian; he is unvarnished in his Pelagianism”.[4]

Elsewhere, Sproul wrote: “Pelagianism has a death grip on the modern church”.[5]

Pelagianism is alive and well today. A contemporary Pelagian, Verticordious, wrote on Christian Forums:

“People are not born with a sinful nature, they are taught a sinful nature by other sinful people. That’s why the Bible places such an importance on parents and marriage, as they are responsible for teaching their children. If you don’t teach your children right from wrong then they’re just going to get their behavior from society. Everyone has a choice, to obey God or to not obey God. Why would be a good parent matter if you child was inherently sinful from birth? People are responsible for their own choices, which is why they are punished when they wrong choices”.[6]

Is this a biblical perspective?[7]

The Bible says through Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ESV). The NIV translates as, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me“.

Again from the Psalms, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3 NIV)

Isaiah wrote, “Well do I know how treacherous you are; you were called a rebel from birth” (48:8 NIV)

Then we have the NT. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (2:1-3 NIV).

Two important points come out of this passage:

1. Considering the Ephesian readers life before coming to Christ (which can be applied to all people before they experience salvation), Paul insists that these unsaved folks were dead in transgressions and sins and followed the world’s ways in disobedience, gratifying the cravings of the sinful nature with desires and thoughts. Surely most of us can recognise this before coming to Christ! I can!

2. From where did this sinful condition come? Paul does not say that this sinful condition was taught by other people, including parents. Paul deliberately says that we were “by nature” objects of God’s wrath. The problem did not have its initiation through sinful actions in our environment. The core cause of our sinful problems is that it is “by nature” – sinful nature.

And where did it originate? The Psalms and Isaiah are clear that it comes from conception/birth. We are rebels from birth – before any sinful environment had an influence on us.

How did we come to be rebels from conception? Some of the clearest biblical statements are in Romans 5:12, 18-19:

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…. 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” (ESV)

These verses provide not only the cause of inherited sin, one man’s [Adam’s ] transgression, but also the solution, justification and life for people “by one man’s [Jesus Christ’s] obedience” through his death on the cross.

People may object: “God is unjust for making all people sinners through Adam’s original sin”. Are you also going to object, “God is unfair in providing the God-man, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice for sin”. Remember Romans 5:19, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (ESV).

That’s my clearest, but brief, understanding of the issue from the Scriptures.



[1] Wayne Grudem 1994. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 494, note 8.

[2] E. E. Cairns 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, p. 137.

[3] K.S. Latourette 1975. A history of Christianity: To A.D. 1500, vol 1, rev ed.

New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, p. 181. Also available at: (Accessed 25 May 2011).

[4] R. C. Sproul 2001. ‘The Pelagian captivity of the church’, Modern Reformation, Vol 10, Number 3 (May/June 2001), pp. 22-29, available at: (Accessed 25 May 2011).

[5] Available at: (Accessed 25 May 2011).

[6] Verticordious #14, 24 May 2011. Christian Forums, Theology (Christian only), Christian Apologetics, “But what about those who never hear about Christ?”, available at: (Accessed 25 May 2011).

[7] The following was my response to Verticordious at OzSpen #22, 25 May 2011, available at: (Accessed 25 May 2011).


Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 13 October 2015.