The Doctrine of Sin, The Second Period—250-730 A.D., The Pelagian Controversy, The Augustinian System

In our preceding article, we called attention, in connection with Augustine’s conception of sin, that this renowned church father, among other things, maintained that man’s freedom of choice applies only to Adam as before the fall; since his fall, man no longer has this freedom of choice, to be able to choose the good. Before we call attention to Augustine’s conception of the fall of man and its consequences, as set forth by Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, we must note that whereof Augustine speaks most frequently and most fondly. Vol. III, 823:

Finally Augustine speaks most frequently and most fondly of the highest freedom, the free self-decision or self-determination of the will towards the good and holy, the blessed freedom of the children of God; which still includes, it is true, in this earthly life, the possibility of sinning, but becomes in heaven the image of the divine freedom, a felix necessitas boni, and cannot, because it will not, sin. It is the exact opposite of the dura necessitas mali in the state of sin. It is not a faculty possessed in common by all rational minds, but the highest stage of moral development, confined to true Christians. This freedom Augustine finds expressed in that word of our Lord: “If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” It does not dispense with grace, but is generated by it; the more grace, the more freedom. The will is free in proportion as it is healthy, and healthy in proportion as it moves in the element of its true life, in God, and obeys Him of its own spontaneous impulse. To serve God is the true freedom.

In these words Augustine champions the Scriptural truth of the true freedom, true only of the people of God. Freedom of the will, the freedom to be able to do both, to choose the good and the evil, was applicable only to Adam while in the state of rectitude. Since the entrance of sin into the world, man lost this freedom of the will. The natural man is free only to do the evil, and the child of God is free only to do the good. This ability to choose the good is true here only in principle, but afterwards in heavenly perfection. 


Augustine’s conception of the fall of Adam differs radically from that of Pelagius. Pelagius, as we noted when we called attention to his conception of sin, destitute of all idea of the organic wholeness of the race or of human nature, viewed Adam merely as an isolated individual; he gave him no representative place, and therefore his acts no bearing beyond himself., The Scriptures are surely plain on this point. We read in Romans 5:12: “Wherefore, as by one in an sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Augustine’s conception of the fall of man is, we understand, so much deeper and more profound. Concerning this, Philip Schaff writes:

To understand Augustine’s doctrine of the fall of man, we must remember, first of all, that he starts with the idea of the organic unity of the human race, and with the profound parallel of Paul between the first and the second Adam; that he views the first man not merely as an individual, but at the same time as the progenitor and representative of the whole race, standing to natural mankind in the same relation as that of Christ to redeemed and regenerate mankind. The history of the fall, recorded in a manner at once profound and childlike in the third chapter of Genesis, has, therefore, universal significance. In Adam human nature fell, and therefore all, who have inherited that nature from him, who were in him as the fruit in the germ, and who have grown up, as it were, one person with him. 

But Augustine did not stop with the very just idea of an organic connection of the human race, and of the sin of Adam with original sin; he also supposed a sort of pre-existence of all the posterity of Adam in himself, so that they actually and personally sinned in him, though not, indeed, with individual consciousness. Since we were, at the time of the fall, “in lumbis Adami,” the sin of Adam is “jure seminationis et gernimationis,” our sin and guilt, and physical death is a penalty even upon infant children, as if: was a penalty upon Adam. The posterity of Adam therefore suffer punishment not for the sin of another, but for the sin which they themselves committed in Adam. This view, as we shall see farther on, Augustine founds upon a false interpretation of

Romans 5:12.

When dealing with the problem of sin and the depravity of the human race, we are always confronted by the question as to the conception and birth of each individual child, particularly of the soul. We cannot at this time enter into a detailed discussion of this problem. But concerning this question, Rev. H. Hoeksema in his explanation of Lord’s Day III, Vol. I, 154, writes as follows:

In the past: there were three explanations of this problem. The first is known as the theory of pre-existentianism, and held that all the souls were actually created in Adam, and that therefore, all human individuals really sinned in our first: father and in him became corrupt. This appears to have been the view of Augustine, a view that was really based on a mistaken explanation of

Rom. 5:12:

“for that all have sinned.” He interpreted that clause in the sense that is given to it in the Dutch translation: “in welken allen gezondigd hebben.” But this cannot possibly be the correct rendering of the original. It: does not justify the translation “in whom all have sinned,” but very definitely must be rendered: “for that” or “because all have sinned.” But this theory never found much support among theologians, as might be expected. Apart from the fact that it finds no support in Scripture, it meets with too many difficulties and is really an impossible philosophical conception.

Two other explanations have been given of this problem. They are known as traducianism and creationism. Rev. Hoeksema also calls attentions to these “explanations” in his work on the Heidelberg Catechism. And Schaff states, in the quotation we quoted from his history of the Christian Church, that Augustine also supposed a sort of pre-existence of all the posterity of Adam in himself, basing it upon a faulty interpretation of Rom. 5:12

Following upon this, Schaff calls attention to Augustine’s view of the fall of Adam, and he writes:

The original state of man included the possibility of sinning, and this was the imperfection of that state. This possibility became reality. Why it should have been realized, is incomprehensible; since evil never has, like good, a sufficient reason. It is irrationality itself. Augustine fixes an immense gulf between the primitive state and the state of sin. But when thought has accomplished this adventurous leap, it finds his system coherent throughout.

Augustine then sets forth that Adam did not fall with temptation from another. The essence of the sin of Adam consisted not in the eating of the fruit; for this was in itself neither wrong nor harmful; but indisobedience to the command of God. And he declares that the root of sin was pride, self-seeking, the craving of the will to forsake God. Hereupon Schaff writes the following:

The fall of Adam appears the greater, and the more worthy of punishment, if we consider, first, the height he occupied, the divine image in which he was created; then, the simplicity of the commandment, and ease of obeying it, in, the abundance of all manner of fruits in paradise; and finally, the sanction of the most terrible punishment from his Creator and greatest Benefactor.

Thus Augustine goes behind the appearance to the substance; below the surface to the deeper truth. He does not stop with the outward act, but looks chiefly at the disposition which lies at its root.

Schaff’s presentation of Augustine’s conception of the consequences of sin is, we believe, very informative and instructive:

The CONSEQUENCES of the primal sin, both for Adam and for his posterity, are, in Augustine’s view, comprehensive and terrible in proportion to the heinousness of the sin itself. And all these consequences are at the same time punishments from the righteous God, who has, by one and the same law, joined reward with obedience and penalty with sin. They are all comprehended under death, in its widest sense; as Paul says: “The wages of sin is death”; and in

Gen. 2:17

we are to understand the threatened death, all evil both to body and to soul. 

Augustine particularizes the consequences of sin under seven heads; the first four being negative, the others positive: 

1. Loss of the freedom of choice, which consisted in a positive inclination and love to the good, with the implied possibility of sin. In place of this freedom has come the hard necessity of sinning, bondage to evil. “The will, which, aided by grace, would have become a source of good, became to Adam, in his apostasy from God, a source of evil.” 

2. Obstruction of knowledge. Man was originally able to learn everything easily, without labor, and to understand everything aright. But now the mind is beclouded, and knowledge can be acquired and imparted only in the sweat of the face. 

3. Loss of the grace of God. which enabled man to perform the good which his freedom willed, and to persevere therein. By not: willing, man forfeited his ability, and now, though he would do good, he cannot. (this probably does not mean that Augustine actually taught that man, in his sin, would do good.—H.V.) 

4. Loss of paradise. The earth now lies under the curse of God: it brings forth thorns and thistles, and in the sweat of his face man must eat his bread.

Concerning this “loss of Paradise,” Rev. Hoeksema writes in his Dogmatics that there is certainly an act of salvation in man’s expulsion from paradise. After noting that the words, “man is become like one of us,” must not be understood as irony, he writes:

And the rest of the text in verse 22 certainly implies that by continued contact with and eating of the tree of life the earthly life of Adam and Eve would have been perpetuated even in their fallen state. There is, therefore, certainly an act of salvation in man’s expulsion from paradise. Eating of the tree would have resulted in a perpetuation of the state of death. In Christ, however, Who is the resurrection and the life, temporal death is become the servant of the elect, to open a passage into eternal life and glory.