Metcalf’s Definition of Original Sin in Response to Sam Harris

R.C Metcalf has written a counterpoint to Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  In this article, I will only address Metcalf’s presentation of original sin within his counterpoint, not his entire rebuttal to Harris’ open letter.  Metcalf introduces the Christian doctrine of original sin into his rebuttal as a way of pointing out that mankind is by nature prone to sin as a way of illustrating that we have a greater problem than just needing to be concerned about the promotion of morality as a way to increase human happiness and lessen suffering.  Metcalf understands that we need a full restoration of humanity, a solution that only God can provide.  Moving forward in this paper I will focus on evaluating Metcalf’s description of original sin and his method of persuading Harris to accept original sin. I will make this evaluation on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions, which I believe to be an accurate exposition of the teachings of Scripture*.

First, I want to address Metcalf’s description of original sin.  Metcalf writes, “We are not all born with the burden of Adam’s specific sin pressing down upon us.”  On the contrary, we are all born, even conceived, in a state of guilt having inherited a sinful nature that comes from Adam’s specific sin.  Article I of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord states, “As a result of Satan’s seduction through the fall, human beings, in accord with God’s judgment and sentence, have as their punishment lost the original righteousness with which they were created” (Kolb, p. 536.27).  This punishment is defined in the same article as such: “The punishment and penalty for original sin, which God laid upon Adam’s children and upon original sin, is death, eternal damnation, and also “other corporal” and spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries, “the tyranny and domination of the devil”’ (Kolb, p. 534.13).  As such, “this inherited defect is guilt, which causes us all to stand in God’s disfavor and to be “children of wrath by nature” because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as the Apostle testifies in Romans 5[:12]” (Kolb, p. 533.9).

Second, Metcalf expresses that original sin is “an inherent tendency toward sinful behavior; a sense of selfishness that yields a desire to promote our own personal happiness.” Metcalf’s use of the word tendency lessens the severity of our sinful disease that invades all of our humanity. He even closes this section by stating that we have the capacity to do good, it’s just that “we do not have the capacity to only do good; we must also sin.” This is another point in which Metcalf is in error, since the inherited defect of guilt in original sin is not just a “tendency toward sinful behavior.”  This defect places us all in a state of total depravity, so that we by nature cannot approach God or do anything to please him in any way apart from God’s work in us to produce any goodness.  Original sin is not just the tendency for us to sin; it is the cause of our sin.  The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in Article II explains that we have only two options concerning our relationship to God due to Original Sin: “For our weak nature, because it cannot fear, love, or believe in God, seeks and loves carnal things; it either despises the judgment of God in its complacency or hates it in its terror” (Kolb 115.24).  In other words, we are bound to sin and are incapable of doing good by God’s standard.  To be accurate, we can speak of our doing good by the standards placed upon us by our society or culture, but not by the standards of God.  This is another flaw in Metcalf’s description of original sin – there is no clear definition of morality, most importantly there is no clear standard for absolute, universal morality.

Third, I want to address Metcalf’s approach to convincing Harris of the reality of original sin.  From Harris’ open letter, he assumes that Harris won’t accept the words of the Apostle Paul on this issue, so he adopts the approach of speaking of evolutionary theory and his perception of evidences of selfishness in all of us from birth.  This is the wrong approach to convincing someone of original sin.  Metcalf is trying to reason with Harris using observations of our human experience to bring him into a recognition of original sin, however, reason alone cannot lead to a knowledge of original sin.  In Article I of the Third Part of the Articles of the Smalcald Articles of the Lutheran Confessions, it is confessed, “This inherited sin has caused such a deep, evil corruption of nature that reason does not comprehend it; rather, it must be believed on the basis of the revelation in the Scriptures (Ps. 51[:5] and Romans 5[:12]; Exod. 33[:20]; Gen. 3[:6ff.])” (Kolb p. 311.3).  Understanding original sin is not optional, because our view of the cross is directly related to our view of sin.  Article II of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains this point stating that “we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (Kolb, p. 117.33).  Despite Metcalf’s assumption that Harris won’t accept Paul’s words, those words are exactly what Metcalf must share and what Harris must hear in order to be convicted of sin so as to receive the only true solution to our predicament of suffering – the sweetness of the Gospel message received in saving faith.

Finally, knowing that it is through the revelation of God in Scripture that one can alone come to the knowledge of both sin and God’s saving grace, one must opt to defend the truthfulness of this doctrine through the use of Scripture.  This is not done by convincing people that everyone is selfish from birth through anecdotes of crying infants… the truthfulness of this doctrine is defended by defending the truthfulness of Scripture by pointing people to the reality of the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ is not raised, then the Christian faith is a lie.”  We do not have to trust that Scripture is the Word of God by its description of itself apart from other evidence as Harris suggests Christians and all religious adherents do of their sacred texts.  Christians can approach the New Testament Gospels as historical documents.  We can see that their text has been reliably transmitted to us today.  We can see that they are internally consistent and that their authors intend to convey factual information that they claim to have seen firsthand or that they are relaying the testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses.  We can see that there are no competing testimonies from the first century, and that the Jews and Romans who both had the motive and the means to disprove the testimonies of the Gospel writers and the apostles could not produce the bones of Jesus.  The best that they could do was persecute the apostles and the other believers in an attempt to shut them up!  Such persecutions were unable to stop them from speaking their witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.  They had no earthly reason to fabricate this message – to lie – especially under such physical and emotionally distress of physical death. We can trust their testimonies and thus the words of Christ they record for us in which he affirmed the Old Testament Scriptures to be the Word of God and gave his seal of approval on the teachings of the apostles that were to come (the New Testament Scriptures).  We can then trust that the Scriptures are the Word of God and thus believe the revelation of Original Sin that can be known from Scripture alone.

* For Bible verses on Original Sin please watch my video: “Scripture Verses for Original Sin”

Book of Concord quotes from the following translation:

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000)

Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation

Metcalf’s Counterpoint

Published by

Andy Wrasman

I live in St. Louis with my wife and two young kids. I am a seminary student at Concordia Seminary. I've written a book called, Contradict - They Can't All Be True. Be sure to visit my other website: https://www.contradictmovement.org.

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