Historical Controversy over Sin

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In the fifth century, Augustine challenged the views of the British monk Pelagius, who saw sin basically as an outward act transgressing the law and regarded man as free to sin or desist from sin. Appealing to the witness of Scripture, Augustine maintained that sin incapacitates man from doing the good, and because we are born as sinners we lack the power to do the good. Yet because we willfully choose the bad over the good, we must be held accountable for our sin. Augustine gave the illustration of a man who by abstaining from food necessary for health so weakened himself that he could no longer eat. Though still a human being, created to maintain his health by eating, he was no longer able to do so. Similarly, by the historical event of the fall, all humanity has become incapable of that movement toward God, the very life for which it was created.

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Pelagius held that one could raise oneself by one's own efforts toward God, and therefore grace is the reward for human virtue. Augustine countered that man is helpless to do the good until grace falls upon him, and when grace is thus given he is irresistibly moved toward God and the good.

At the time of the Reformation, Luther powerfully reaffirmed the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of the bondage of the will against Erasmus, who maintained that man still has the capacity to do the right, though he needs the aid of grace if he is to come to salvation. Luther saw man as totally bound to the powers of darkness, sin, death, and the devil. What he most needs is to be delivered from spiritual slavery rather than inspired to heroic action.

In our own century, the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner on human freedom is another example of the division in the church through the ages on this question. Though firmly convinced that man is a sinner who can be saved only by the unmerited grace of God as revealed and conveyed in Jesus Christ, Emil Brunner nonetheless referred to an "addressability" in man, a "capacity for revelation," that enables man to apprehend the gospel and to respond to its offer. For Barth, not even a capacity for God remains within our fallen nature; therefore, we must be given not only faith but also the condition to receive faith. In this view, there is no point of contact between the gospel and sinful humanity. Brunner vehemently disagreed, contending that there would then be no use in preaching.

Barth argued that the Spirit must create this point of contact before we can believe and obey. In contrast to Brunner he affirmed the total depravity of man; yet he did not believe that human nature is so defaced that it no longer reflects the glory of God. In his later writings, Barth contended that sin is alien to human nature rather than belonging to this nature. Nonetheless, he continued to affirm that every part of our nature in infected by the contagion of sin, and this renders us totally unable to come to God on our own.

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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