Plan of salvation/Original sin

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Mormon perspectives regarding original sin

Summary: Why don't Latter-day Saints believe the doctrine of "original sin" like the rest of Christianity? Do Mormons believe that the Fall of Adam was a "fortunate event?" Is the Church wrong to teach that little children are free from the taint of original sin?

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Question: What to Latter-day Saints believe regarding the concept of "original sin"?

Latter-day Saints believe that "original sin" as commonly understood in many branches of western Christianity was not a doctrine taught by the Bible, Jesus, or the apostles

The Second Article of Faith states that "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression." There is a form of "original sin" in LDS theology, but it is a matter that has been resolved through the atonement of Christ:

And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden. Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world. (Moses 6:53-54, emphasis added.)

Thus, LDS theology explicitly rejects the idea that Adam's "original sin" results in a condemnation of the entire human race. Efforts to insist that all of humanity is thereby tainted, all desires are corrupted, or all infants are damned without baptism are untrue. Because of temptation and the instinctive desires of physical bodies, human beings wrestle with the desire to sin (Matthew 26:41; Mosiah 3:19), but Adam's actions in the Garden of Eden have no bearing on this.

As Wilford Woodruff taught:

What is called the original sin was atoned for through the death of Christ irrespective of any action on the part of man; also man's individual sin was atoned for by the same sacrifice, but on condition of his obedience to the Gospel plan of salvation when proclaimed in his hearing.” [1]

Concluded Elaine Pagels:

Astonishingly, Augustine’s radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of Western Christians the consensus of the first three centuries of Christian tradition. [2]

Original sin is the innovation. It is a post-biblical novelty without scriptural support.

Given that the doctrine is explicitly repudiated by modern revelation, the Saints feel no need to accept it.

Clearly, any effort to exclude the Church from Christendom because they reject original sin must also exclude several hundred million Eastern Orthodox and Anabaptists. Clearly, such a standard would be nonsensical.


Question: Is original sin a biblical doctrine?

Many authors have noted that the modern doctrine of "original sin" is at variance with much of both the Old and New Testament

James Barr wrote:

Our ideas about the origin of evil have an effect on our ideas about humanity and its potentialities and limitations in the present-day world” (59-60)...

For the traditional Christian conception of the origins of evil, the dominant passages are in St. Paul [Rom 5.12; 5.18; I Cor 15.21-22, 47, 49]….

The most noticeable thing about them is the stress they throw upon the disobedience of Adam…. Its effect was instant and completely catastrophic. There is no matter of degree or development. The slightest sin was total and universal in its effect: sin, it seems, completely, and not partially, altered man’s relation to God…. Later theologians worked out, on this basis, the doctrine of original sin” (60-1).

“All this has been the familiar and traditional Christian position. It is so familiar, so deeply implanted in our traditions, that it comes as something of a surprise to realize that it is after all a rather rare emphasis within the New Testament itself; and, in particular, it is an emphasis that seems to be lacking from the teaching of Jesus himself….

There is no doctrine of original sin to be found in Jesus’ teaching…. And, if it is not in Jesus’ teaching, it is equally absent from many other parts of the New Testament…. It is intrinsically Pauline” (61-2).

“Nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible is the disobedience of Adam and Eve cited as explanation for sin or evil in the world. This reference…simply does not occur…. The Old Testament, far from taking the universal sinfulness of man as an obvious and ineluctable fact, seems rather, taken as a whole, to insist upon the possibility of avoiding sin” (67).

“The main Jewish tradition, as we know it since the Middle Ages, has refused to accept any sort of doctrine of original sin…. Moral problems are serious choices for the Jew, and they are serious choices because one has freedom to sin or not to sin. There is indeed the idea of the two yesers, formations or inclinations, the good and the bad, both of which are implanted in man and between which he has to choose…. Adam, like the other men of the first beginnings, was often regarded with admiration: he was a very great man. As Ben Sira put it, looking back over the worthies of the Bible who should be remembered: ‘Shem and Seth were honored among men but Adam is above every living being in the creation’ [Ecclesiasticus 49.16]” ;(68). “all this then raises the serious question: was St. Paul really at all right in his understanding the story of Adam and Eve as the cataclysmic entrance of sin and death?” (69). [3]

A better question may be, is the understanding of St. Paul adopted by the western Christian tradition actually correct? Where did this reading of Paul come from? Why would "Paul's" conception of original sin vary so profoundly from both the Jewish and New Testament tradition?

Interestingly, it all starts with one man, well after the death of Jesus and the apostles—Augustine of Hippo.


Question: What is the origin of the doctrine of original sin?

There is no evidence that the doctrine existed before Augustine

One non-LDS author observed:

The idea of ‘original sin’ has been so commonly identified with traditional Christianity that the rejection of the one has seemed to imply a rejection of the other. It is supposedly an unquestioned assumption of Christian soteriology. In truth, the teaching that all...men are guilty of Adam’s sin, that each person must pay the penalty for, as Augustine declared (De corrept. et grat., 28), is really the product of his legalistic and Neo-platonic imagination. No scholarly work, whether treating the Scriptures or the Fathers, has demonstrated…that the idea of ‘original sin’ belongs to ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3) or ever existed before Augustine. The same may be said for his theories of Grace and Predestination which accompany it, all of which are the result of his ‘Neo-platonic world-view’ [quoting G. Nygren, ‘The Augustinian Conception of Grace,’ Studia Patristica 2 (1955): 260]. Many of his contemporaries opposed him [and] … were scandalized by his lack of traditionalism—and not without justification” (39). [4]

We learn, then, that:

  • there is no evidence that the doctrine existed before Augustine
  • Augustine's view drew on his legal training, and his background in Greek Neo-Platonism.
  • there was great opposition to Augustine's views, because his concept of "original sin" was not the traditional Christian teaching, but a drastic novelty.
  • Augustine's novel view of original sin led to alteration in other doctrine, such as his ideas on Grace and Predestination.

Augustine's mistranslation

Part of Augustine's error can be explained by the fact that he did not read or speak Greek. He was forced, then, to rely on Latin translations of both the scriptures and the writings of other early Christians.

As Azkoul goes on to observe:

The moralist problem concerning the transmission of guilt and death to the descendants of Adam which preoccupied Augustine made a traditional reading of the verse [Romans 5:12] impossible. He not only abused it, but the entire witness of St. Paul with its Hebraic background. Unfortunately, the Bishop of Hippo [i.e., Augustine] did not know Greek and depended on the Latin translation of the New Testament. It was Ambrosiaster who provided, perhaps unwittingly, with Romans 5.12 as a proof-text” (42). The Latin text was rendered: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin, so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned.’ The correct translation from the Greek reads: ‘Wherefore, as by one man sin entered the world and through sin death; on account of death all have sinned’ (42-3). Neither Origen [whom Augustine read: CD xi. 23] or Ambrosiaster gave voice to the doctrine of ‘original sin.’…. Quite simply, then, Augustine strayed from the truth, the Apostolic Tradition, and any attempt to justify his innovations by an appeal to some questionable principle of historical interpretation—‘doctrinal development’—will not help“. [5]

On the need for infant baptism

Of the consequences of Augustine's mistake, Stephen Duffy writes:

“his [Augustine’s] interpretation [of Romans 5.12], mistaken as it was, and deriving from the erroneous Old Latin version, would play a crucial role in the development of the later doctrine of original sin.” Ambrosiaster, the name given to an anonymous late fourth century commentator on the writings of Paul “does not seem [to think that] we are punished for Adam’s sin, but for our own: ‘…We are not made guilty by the fact of birth, but by evil deeds’ [On Romans 5.12-14; Questions on the Old and New Testaments 21f]” (63)...

“While granting that the tragic fall-out from Adam’s sin has contaminated all, Greek Christianity negates any transmission of guilt from Adam to his posterity. And the Eastern anthropology is in general more optimistic than that of the West. The two Gregories [Nyssa and Nazianzus] and Chrysostom maintain that the newborn are free from sin and so they are unperturbed about children dying without baptism….

Gregory of Nyssa, e.g., asserts that sin is congenital and that even Christ’s humanity was prone to sin [hamartetiken]” (63). Didymus the blind (ca. 313-398), last head of the famous catechetical school of Alexandria, speaks of the sin of Adam in virtue of which all are under sin, which is transmitted, it seems, by the sexual union of their parents. This involuntary, hereditary sin calls for purification not punishment [On 2 Corinthians 4.17 and Against the Manichaeans 8]” (64). “All this falls short of the classical Augustinian doctrine of original sin but key elements of that doctrine were already taking shape, especially in the West” (64). [6]

LDS readers see this as clear evidence of the apostasy impacting Christian doctrine—the loss of the apostles led Augustine and others to try to resolve difficult issues. Augustine was influenced by his culture, his practice of law, and his philosophical neo-platonism. These led him and others to gradually alter Christian doctrine, and yet these alterations would snowball. Augustine's adoption of original sin led, logically, to the need to baptize infants—an idea totally at variance with earlier Christian practice and doctrine.

Effect on ideas of grace and predestination

One error (Augustine's view of original sin) led to other alterations to Christian doctrine, which previous generations would have found incomprehensible:

According to Augustine, ‘original sin’ precluded any human cooperation with the divine Grace…. The human will is powerless to choose the good by virtue of the evil inherited from Adam. Unable to choose, he must be drawn irresistibly to God by grace. Original sin and predestination are both innovations without support in the Tradition of the Church. [7]

Azkoul then translates from G.F. Wiggers, Versuch einer pragmatischen Darstellung des Augustinisimus und Pelagianismus (Hamburg 1821: 448):

“In reference to predestination the Fathers before Augustine were entirely at variance with him and in agreement with Pelagius…. No ecclesiastical author had ever yet explained the Epistle to the Romans (e.g., Rom. 5.12) as Augustine had…. It was only by a doubtful inference, too, that he appealed to Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, etc….’” [8]


Question: Is the concept of "original sin" part of all Christian theology?

Original sin is not part of all Christian theology

Many western Christians assume that "original sin" is a core part of Christian theology. While this may be true for theologies descended from Augustine's innovation, it is not true of Christianity as a whole.

For example, the Eastern Orthodox have quite a different view:

“In the Eastern patristic tradition …this experience is different from the Western, more legalistic, post-Augustinian, medieval conception of ‘original sin’ which makes every human guilty of the sin committed by Adam in paradise” (471). In the Eastern tradition “salvation is not only a liberation from death and sin; it is also the restoration of the original human destiny, which consists in being the ‘image of God’…. Humanity finds its ultimate destiny in communion with God, that is, in theosis, or deification” (472). [9]

And:

“The East did not accept Augustine’s notion of original sin and saw its consequence not as guilt but as mortality. Guilt is only acquitted through the personal exercise of the free will, through personal sin” (356). [10]

Other denominations also rejected Augustine's alteration to the doctrine. This author is a Mennonite theologian:

“Anabaptists insisted that Jesus’ atonement had canceled Original Sin’s guilt and restored children everywhere to an initial state of grace. Infant baptism, then, was no longer needed to wash away this sin. Anabaptists thus viewed humankind not as a massa perditionis but as initially graced” (86). [11]


Question: Does the Book of Mormon contradict the Bible regarding when are children capable of sin?

"Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them...."
Moroni 8:8
"Anyone who thinks that children under age eight cannot sin has not visited the classrooms of today's schools."
—Walter Martin [12]

The critics' claim requires us to accept the morally repulsive idea that God condemns little babies or children to eternal torment for something that is no fault of their own

  • The Bible is claimed to contradict the Book of Mormon teaching that children cannot sin under eight years of age.
  • The Bible is claimed to place sin at the point of conception.
  • Walter Martin writes, "Anyone who thinks that children under age eight cannot sin has not visited the classrooms of today's schools." [13]

If the critics' position is accepted, then we must agree that:

  • children are guilty of sin from the moment they are born
  • anyone who sins and does not accept Jesus in the manner which He prescribed must be damned
  • those who are damned suffer in hell for all eternity

Thus, the critics' claim requires us to accept the morally repulsive idea that God condemns little babies or children to eternal torment for something that is no fault of their own (being born) simply because they have not yet done something which they cannot yet do (accept Jesus).

(It should be noted that moral responsibility for sin is not an all-or-nothing thing in LDS theology. After age eight, LDS scripture says that "power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me" [DC 29:47, italics added]. Full moral responsibility is developed on a continuum.)

The critics' scriptures

The critics use the following scriptures as "evidence" that sin occurs at conception and that children under age eight are guilty of sin:

  • Scripture #1: Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: 13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. 15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. (Romans 5:12-15)
  • Scripture #2 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Romans 3:10-12)
  • Scripture #3: Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5)

Response to the critics' reading of scripture

Scripture #1: This scripture teaches only that Adam sinned and brought the fall upon all humanity. The LDS agree with this doctrine—but deny that this means that infants and children are damned. Without the atonement of Christ, all would be damned and lost forever as the Book of Mormon teaches:

8 O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
9 And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.
10 O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit. (2 Nephi 9:8-10)

But, thanks to the grace of Christ (as Paul emphasizes in Romans 5), no one is damned for Adam's sins.

'Scripture #2: This teaches that all are sinners, and none can merit God's presence. The Latter-day Saints agree—the Book of Mormon teaches this doctrine clearly:

And now remember, my son, if it were not for the plan of redemption, (laying it aside) as soon as they were dead their souls were miserable, being cut off from the presence of the Lord. And now, there was no means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience....And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence. And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also. (Alma 42:11-12,14-15).

All 'are sinners, and all are damned without the atonement of Christ. But, thanks to the atonement of Christ, mercy is offered. And, the Latter-day Saints believe that this mercy includes mercy extended to little children and other innocents who cannot willfully sin. Without the atonement, even they would not be saved:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins (Mosiah 3:16).

So, the critics have provided an accurate state of affairs—IF there was no atonement of Christ.

Scripture #3: The critics wish to make this scripture into an affirmation that the act of conception places original sin upon a newborn child.

This understanding of original sin was not taught in the early Christian church; it is a later innovation.

Main article: Original sin

The Psalm cited goes on to say that "thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Psalms 51:16-17).

So, God desires a repentant heart and spirit—yet, what if a baby or child cannot yet provide this because they are not capable of moral thought or genuine repentance? Are we to conclude that they are damned forever?

The critics miss several vital scriptures about Christ's attitude toward little children

In their haste to condemn children as damnable sinners from the moment of conception or birth, the critics miss several vital scriptures about Christ's attitude toward them:

  • Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3).
  • Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:13-14).
  • And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
  • And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God (Luke 18:15-16).

It seems perverse to argue that Jesus' clear love of little children, and his holding them up as an example to believers, is evidence that they are damned from the moment of their conception. That the critics' reading of scripture must lead them to ignore the clear import of these passages ought to strike them as irrefutable evidence that their thinking has gone badly astray.

=The Book of Mormon teaches the same view of little children as Jesus does

The Book of Mormon teaches the same view of little children as Jesus does:

  • And even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins....the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy; but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent....none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent (Mosiah 3:16,18,21).
  • And little children also have eternal life (Mosiah 15:25).
  • Jesus blesses the little children (3 Nephi 17:).

Martin's rather snide aside completely misses the whole thrust of LDS doctrine on this topic. The Latter-day Saints do not believe that those under eight cannot do wrong, or that they do not make wrong choices which violate the will of God. Clearly, many can and do.

LDS doctrine, however, holds simply that in an act of universal grace, Christ has declared that no one who sins before age eight will be held accountable for their crimes. Thus, when LDS scripture says that little children "cannot sin," this means that the acts which they do are not considered as sin, are not due to Satan's tempting influence, and have no impact on their standing before God. Without Christ's atonement, such acts would assuredly be sins, but by His grace they are not.

It is telling that sectarian anti-Mormon critics—who are often quick to attack the Latter-day Saints for "neglecting" the doctrine of Christ's grace—also criticize Latter-day Saint theology for extending that same grace universally to infants and children.

FairMormon believes that the words of the Book of Mormon provide a fitting rebuke for the ungodly and repulsive doctrine of a child's guilt before God. (In In the Book of Mormon, to accept Christ is to be baptized, so this concept is inserted parenthetically.)

And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism [accepting Christ]. Behold, baptism [accepting Christ] is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins. But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism [accepting Christ]! Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism [accepting Christ], these must have gone to an endless hell. Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism [need to accept Christ to be saved] is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism [accepting Christ], and the other must perish because he hath no baptism....Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy. And he that saith that little children need baptism [to accept Christ to be saved] denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption. Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment–seat of Christ. For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism [or accepting Christ] availeth nothing—But [this teaching] is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit....(Moroni 8:11-15,19-23).


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Wilford Woodruff, "Fulfillment of Ancient Prophesy," in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 1:344. [Discourse given on Sept 1, 1889.]
  2. Elaine Pagels, “The Politics of Paradise: Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis 1-3 versus that of John Chrysostom,” Harvard Theological Review 78 (1985): 68.
  3. James Barr, “The Authority of Scripture. The Book of Genesis and the Origin of Evil in Jewish and Christian Tradition,” in Christian Authority: Essays in Honor of Henry Chadwick, ed. G.R. Evans (Oxford, 1988), 59-75. Italics added; citations from pages as indicated.
  4. Michael Azkoul, “Peccatum Originale: The Pelagian Controversy,” Patristic and Byzantine Review 3 (1984): 39.
  5. Azkoul, 43.
  6. Stephen J. Duffy, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1993), 62-63.
  7. Azkoul, 40.
  8. Azkoul, 51, note 5.
  9. John Meyendorff, “Theosis in the Eastern Christian Tradition,” in Christian Spirituality III: Post Reformation and Modern, edited by Louis Dupre and Don Saliers, (New York, 1989), 470-476.
  10. Paul Meyendorff, “Liturgy and Spirituality I: Eastern Liturgical Theology”, in Christian Spirituality I: Origins, ed. B. McGinn and J. Meyendorff, New York 1985: 350-363.
  11. Thomas Finger, “Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: Some Unexpected Similarities,’ Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31 (1994): 67-91.
  12. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Revised) (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 206. ( Index of claims )
  13. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults (Revised) (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 206. ( Index of claims )


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims