At the end of our preceding article, we quoted the fifth canon or chapter of the Council of Trent of its fifth session, held June 17, 1546, setting forth its decrees concerning original sin. In this fifth canon the Council asserts that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ conferred in baptism, the guilt of original sin is remitted, and everything is removed which has the true and proper nature of sin. It is admitted that concupiscence remains in the baptized, against which believers are to contend, but it is declared that this concupiscence, although sometimes (as is admitted) called sin by the Apostle, is not truly and properly sin in the regenerated. 

This is all that the Council teaches under the caption of original sin. It also declared that it does not intend its decisions to apply to the Virgin Mary. Whether she was the subject of original sin, as the Dominicans, after Thomas Aquinas, maintained, or whether she was immaculately conceived, as zealously asserted by the Franciscans after Duns Scotus, the Council leaves undecided. 

However, in the sixth session when treating of justification (i.e., regeneration and sanctification), the Council decides several points, which go to determine the view its members took of the nature of original sin. Quoting Hodge, Vol. II, 176-177, we read:

In the canons adopted in that session, it is among other things, declared: (1.) That men cannot without divine grace through Jesus Christ, by their own works, i.e., works performed in their own strength, be justified before God. (2.) That grace is not given simply to render good works more easy. (3.) That men cannot believe, hope, love, or repent so as to secure regenerating grace without the preventing grace of God. (4.) Men can cooperate with this preventing grace, can assent to, or reject it. (when Rome speaks here of “preventing grace,” it means the grace of God that precedes, goes before—H.V.) (5.) Men have not lost their ability to good or evil by the fall. (6.) All works done before regeneration are not sinful. 

From all this it appears that while the Council of Trent rejected the Pelagian doctrine of man’s plenary ability since the fall, and the Semi-Pelagian doctrine that men can begin the work of reformation and conversion; it no less clearly condemns the Augustinian doctrine of the entire inability of man to do anything spiritually good, whereby he may prepare or dispose himself for conversion, or merit the regenerating grace of God.

Hodge asks the question, “What was the true doctrine of the Church of Rome as to original sin,?” and he answers that this remained in doubt as much after the decisions of this Council as it had been before: Each party interpreted its canons according to their own views. The Synod had decided that all men are born infected with original sin; but whether that sin consisted simply in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, or in the want of original righteousness, or in concupiscence, is left undecided. 

Some of the older Protestants generally regarded the canons of the Council of Trent as designed to obscure the subject, and held that the .real Doctrine of the Church involved the denial of any original sin in the sense of sin, subjective or inherent. If it be true that nothing is of the nature of sin, except voluntary action, or what proceeds from it, how can there then be any inherent or innate sin? As infants are not “knowing and willing” in the sense of moral agents, they cannot have sin. Secondly, another reason urged in favor of the position that the Church of Rome denied original sin, is drawn from what that Church teaches on original righteousness. If original righteousness be a supernatural gift, not belonging to man’s original creation, then its loss leaves him in the state in which he came from the hands of his Maker. 

On the other hand, however, it may be urged that the Church does maintain the doctrine of original sin. Concerning this Hodge has the following, Vol. II, 179-180:

(1.) That the Council of Trent expressly declares against the Pelagian doctrine, that Adam’s sin injured only himself, and asserts that our whole nature, soul, and body, was thereby changed for the worse. (2.) They assert that we derived from Adam not merely a mortal nature, but sin which is the death of the soul. (3.) That new-born infants need baptism for the remission of sin, and that what is removed in the baptism of infants. (4.) The Roman Catechism teaches that we are born in sin,” that we are oppressed with corruption of nature, and that the virus of sin penetrates to the very bones. This last passage does not refer expressly to original sin, but to the state of men generally as sinners. Nevertheless, it indicates the view taken by the Roman Church as to the present condition of human nature. (5.) Bellarmin is often quoted to prove that Romanists make original sin merely the loss of original righteousness. 

From all this it appears that although the doctrine of the Roman Church is neither logical nor self consistent, it is nevertheless true that that Church does teach the doctrine of original sin, in the sense of a sinful corruption of nature, or of innate, hereditary sinfulness. It is also to be observed that all parties in the Roman Church, before and after the Council of Trent, however much they differed in other points, united in teaching the imputation of Adam’s sin; i.e., that for that sin the sentence of condemnation passed upon all men.


What is sin? Is it merely a lack, a defect? Is sin merely the loss of original righteousness, which would imply that Adam, when he sinned, simply lost this extra gift of his original righteousness and therefore was left in the state in which he came from the hands of his Maker? Is darkness simply the absence of light; is a dead man merely one who is not alive? Does the speaking of the he simply imply that one does not speak the truth? What is the Protestant conception of sin? What do the Reformed and Protestant symbols or confessions say of it? 

Concerning this Hodge says the following, Vol. II, 180-181:

The Protestant Churches at the time of the Reformation did not attempt to determine the nature of sin philosophically. They regarded it neither as a necessary limitation; nor as a negation of being; nor as the indispensable condition of virtue; nor as having its seat in man’s sensuous nature; nor as consisting in selfishness alone; nor as being, like pain, a mere state of consciousness, and not an evil in the sight of God. Founding their doctrine on their moral and religious consciousness and upon the Word of God, they declared sin to be the transgression of, or want of conformity to the divine law. In this definition all classes of theologians, Lutheran and Reformed, agree. 

It is included in these definitions, (1.) That sin is a specific evil, differing from all other forms of evil. (2.) That sin stands related to law. The two are correlative, so that where there is not law, there is no sin. (3.) That the law to which sin is thus related, is not merely the law of reason, or of conscience, or of expediency, but the law of God. (4.) That sin consists essentially in the want of conformity on the part of a rational creature, to the nature or law of God. (5.) That it includes guilt and moral pollution.

Sin is a specific evil. We know this from our own consciousness. If born blind, we cannot know light. If born deaf, we can have no idea of what hearing is. Every man by virtue of his being a moral creature, and because he is a sinner, has in his own consciousness the knowledge of sin. He knows when he is not what he ought to be, when he does what he ought not to do, or neglects to do what ought to be done. And, failing in these things, he is chargeable with sin. He knows that sin is not merely a limitation of his nature, not merely a subjective state of his own mind; he knows that it is not only something which is unwise, or derogatory to his own dignity, or simply inexpedient because it is hurtful to his own interests or injurious to the welfare of others. He knows that sin has a specific character of its own, and that it includes both guilt and pollution. 

A second element in our consciousness of sin is that it is related to law. This lies in the nature of the case. The word, ought, is a very prominent word in our lives. This word necessarily implies the idea of law. The word “ought” would otherwise have no meaning. To say we ought, is to say that we are bound; that we are under authority of some kind. Sometimes the word “law” is used in the sense of a controlling power, as when the Apostle declares that he has a law in his members warring against the law of his mind. But very often the word “law” is used in the Scriptures as referring to that which binds, a command of one in authority. It is in the latter sense that the word is used, when we say that sin stands in relation to law. 

Thirdly, the law here is the law of God. There are those who claim that this law, to which we are subject, is the law of our own reason or of the higher powers of the soul. Man, then, is responsible to himself. He is bound to subject his life to his reason and conscience. This, however is obviously nonsense. In that case, man would be a law unto himself. This surely seems to be characteristic of our present lawless age. If this were true, then there would be no guilt. Then man would never be sinning against anyone outside of himself. Then there would be no guilt, no punishment, simply because there would be none to visit such punishment upon the sinner. The Scriptures, however, are very clear in this matter. The law, to which man is subject, is the law of God. God is the living God, and He alone. He is the Personal God, and this means that He is eternally and perfectly conscious of Himself. God knows Himself, is consciously the living God, and maintains Himself as that alone living God. This alone determines and prescribes man’s moral and ethical conduct. He must subject himself to that law of the Lord, must serve and love the Lord with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. How vividly the apostle sets forth this truth in his epistle to the Romans! Speaking there of the heathen world and of men whom God had given over to a reprobate mind, he asserts that they not only knew God, but also His righteous judgments, that they who commit sin were worthy of death; this surely means that they were rightfully subject to the authority, and inevitably exposed to the wrath and indignation of the living God. Sin is related to law, and this law is surely the law of the alone living God.