There is no doctrine so much despised or so much needed by the modern world as the doctrine of original sin. Original sin is well summarized by the first line of a colonial New England primer: "A is for Adam. In Adam's fall, we sinned all."
According to the biblical doctrine of original sin, God made our first parents in a state of untested innocence. Although Eve sinned before Adam, God had appointed Adam to represent the whole human race. Therefore, when Adam sinned, he brought doom on all of his posterity. Just as a king or president can involve his whole country in war, so we are born into this world as enemies of God (Romans 5:10). As a judgment for Adam's sin, God withdrew His Holy Spirit from the human heart, leaving us alone.
The Bible often refers to human nature apart from God as "the flesh," and it tells us that the "deeds of the flesh" are: "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these" (Galatians 5:19-21). The Bible says that the heart is "more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick" (Jeremiah 17:9).
This, then, is the doctrine that is both despised and needed by the modern world. Moderns have got the problem all wrong, and so cannot find a solution. In the first place, moderns typically exalt "immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry and sorcery" as alternate life-styles or expressions of freedom. In the second place, they assume that the human heart is basically good. The problem is not with the heart, but with educational, economic and social inequalities. If that is the problem, then the solution is obvious. Use the power of government to erase the inequalities, and all will be well.
On the international scene, the problem between warring parties is usually assumed to be a misunderstanding of each other's values. The answer to the problem is therefore diplomacy. When enemies talk to each other, they understand each other; when they understand each other, they become friends.
Let us suppose that on Thursday of next week all inequalities and misunderstandings could be magically erased. The doctrine of original sin says that by the following Thursday the strong would have begun to oppress the weak, and fresh occasions for hatred between races and classes would already have arisen.
Certainly, it is right to help the poor. Certainly, it is right to provide a good education for all of our children. Certainly, it is right to promote dialogue between enemies. These things are right. They are just not enough.
Because the human heart is sinful, there must be sanctions as well as incentives. There must be punishments as well as praise. Governments should exercise their power to protect the weak and to balance the interests of opposing power blocks. For example, many workers are pro-union, because they believe that unions protect the little guy. Many businessmen see unions as evil. The truth is that both big business and big labor, when left to themselves, become greedy for power and profit. Both have shown themselves willing to use ungodly tactics to further their own selfish self-interests.
Therefore, the doctrine of original sin helps us to be realists. We work toward temporary and limited solutions to fundamentally intractable problems, and we thrust aside all dreams of man-made utopias because we see that our social ills have spiritual dimensions.
Finally, the doctrine of original sin sounds the death knell for all forms of self-help religion. Do we want to be better than we are? We need to be rescued by a power beyond ourselves. The Bible says that God forgives our sins when we trust in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we "receive the promise of the [Holy] Spirit through faith" (Galatians 3:14), and "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).
That is what the modern world really needs, and that is what we need as individuals. As I point out in my book The Beauty of God for a Broken World, we must understand the Bible’s teaching on sin if we want our lives to be invaded by the beauty of God.