Question 21:

You claim that every person is born afflicted with original sin. Let us assume for now that that this is correct. In Jesus, reparation came about for the sins of all or Jesus paid the ransom fee for the sins of all people. By the way: What happens here to the responsibility of the individual? Be that as it may: if Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has paid for all sins, will all children who are born now still be born with original sin? If yes, then what use is Jesus [as redeemer] actually?


Answer: The reader should first read once more the introductory text to theme 3: “Cross, Sin and Redemption”, part III and IV carefully.

The question contains three main points, which I want to address here in three stages.

a. Regarding the reality and the term original sin

The Bible’s fundamental position in interpreting history in the light of faith in God is: God did not want the world to be, and did not create it, in the way that we encounter it in tangible form. He wanted and wants life and not death; he detests injustice, violence and lies. He does not want people to suffer; he wants people’s happiness in companionship with him. To emphasise Gods original will and original plan, the Bible tells the Story of Paradise (Gen 2:8.15-17).

The core of the paradise story, just as the teaching on the origins of humanity, is not a paleontological but a statement made from the point of view of faith and therefore a theological statement: God created humanity not only good but very good; moreover, he allowed humanity to share in his life.

The testimony regarding paradise and the origins of man are not important in themselves. They merely present the background so that we can now properly understand the current state of humanity: as a condition of estrangement which God did not want and did not create. Therefore, where does evil come from?

Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin" (Rom 5:12). That is the succinct conclusion of the apostle Paul. It summarises what is graphically reported in the story of the fall of man in the first pages of the Bible (see Gen 3:1-24).

The Bible does not tell just this one story of the fall from grace. This one story starts an avalanche of further stories of sin, in which the social dimension of sin is made apparent. (Read, for example, the story of Cain’s murder of Abel and the resulting vicious circle of guilt and revenge between people (Gen 4). Likewise the story of chaos erupting in the Flood (Gen 6) and the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11).

In the New Testament Paul takes up the stories of sin in the Book of Genesis. Here he puts the first Adam in relation to the second, new Adam, Jesus Christ (see: Rom 5:12,14,15,17).

These texts go beyond the testimony in the Old Testament. Only through Jesus Christ is the universality and radicalness of sin opened up to us; it reveals our true situation in salvation as well as in calamity. Only now is the universality of the power of sin established that rules over humanity as the power of death. However, the perception of the universality of sin is only the negative side of the coin of the universality of salvation in Jesus Christ. Since we know that salvation is given to all in Jesus Christ, we can recognise that there is calamity outside of Jesus Christ. Thus, the testimony of sin has no independent significance. It exemplifies the universality and the ebullience of salvation that Jesus Christ has brought. The bedeviled and hopeless situation of humanity is encompassed by the greater hope and the certainty that we are granted salvation in Jesus Christ.

An initial problem for today’s generation to correctly understand this lesson is that many scientists today teach that, at the beginning of history, there was not only one couple (monogenism), but that human life formed in several places simultaneously in the process of evolution (polygenism or even polyphyletism). The meaning of Church teaching is preserved, however, when it is maintained that humanity, which forms one entity, rejected Gods offer of salvation already at its beginning and that the resulting calamity is a universal reality from which no one can free themselves by their own efforts. If this belief is maintained, then the question of monogenism or polygenism is a purely scientific one, which is to be resolved by scholars based on current scientific methods. It is not a question of faith, however.

A second problem concerns the approach towards understanding the teaching on original sin. For many, the term original sin is a contradiction since original sin is defined as the state of sin that characterises all human beings as a result of Adam’s fall. In other words, we inherit sin. Yet the word inheritance means to take over something that we have not earned for ourselves but gain from our ancestry. Sin, however, is a personal deed for which we are responsible. This seems to lead to a dilemma: either we have taken over sin as an inheritance, in which case it is not a sin; or it is sin in which case the word original has no place here.

The problems are solved when we relinquish this individualistic view of humanity that is behind this objection and focus on the solidarity of humanity: No one begins at the beginning, no one starts at point zero. Everyone, in their deepest self, is formed by his or her own life story, family history, and people, culture, yes, even the whole of humanity. In this way, everyone finds themselves in a situation that is defined by sin. We are born into a society that is dominated by egotism, prejudice, injustice and untruth. That influences us not only by external bad example, but determines our reality. For no one lives only for himself; everything that we are, we are together with others. Thus, universal sinfulness is in us all, we each have it. There is, therefore, a web of mutual entanglement and a universal solidarity in sin from which no individual can free himself. This is also true particularly for young children. They are personally blameless; however, their lives exist only in the form of sharing in the lives of adults, especially their parents. Therefore, they are even more interwoven into adult history than adults.

According to Catholic teaching, original sin thus exists in the universal calamity of people and of humanity (read: Rom 7:15, 17-19, 22-24).

The teaching concerning the universality of sin has a multiple practical significance. It says: everyone is a sinner. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 Jn 1:10). This teaching destroys the illusion that we create for ourselves and leads us to no longer evade our sin, to trivialise it and to always look for a scapegoat in others, in the environment, our common inheritance, our disposition. However, the teaching on original sin also tells us that we must be careful about whom we make directly responsible for personal sin and must not hastily determine sin and judge others. Ultimately, only God sees into the heart of each person. However, he does not want to judge but only to forgive. Only in the knowledge of forgiveness is it possible to confess sins. For this reason, we point out once more that reality out-trumps the universality of sin, which is cast into the shadows through the light of faith, the universality of salvation, which was proclaimed through the entire long history of the Old Testament and was finally realised in Jesus Christ. The most important function of the teaching on original sin is to point to Gods forgiving and healing love, which is offered to us in Jesus Christ.

b. Gods will for salvation and Jesus’s death for sin on our behalf

Jesus’s scandalous death on the cross was, to the Jews, Gods judgement, yes, a curse (see: Gal 3:13). The Romans regarded it as dishonour and, as not a few witnesses state, grounds for contempt and ridicule. Paul writes in 1 Cor 1:22-23: For Jews demand signs and Greeks demand wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

It was therefore a difficult task for the early Christians to properly understand this scandal of the cross. However, in remembering Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper and in the light of Jesus’s resurrection through God they came to fully realise that this so shocking death of Jesus was brought about, on the first historical level by peoples lack of faith and their enmity, but behind that stood God’s will, Gods plan for salvation, yes, Gods love. The early Christians recognised a divine must (see Mk 8:31; Lk 24:7, 26, 44) in Jesus’s suffering and death that is already prefigured in the Old Testament. Thus, it was already stated in the earliest traditions of the Old Testament that already existed in Paul’s community, when he converted, that Jesus Christ had died for us as Scripture said (see 1 Cor 15:3). In the light of the Suffering Servants fourth song in the Book of Isaiah (see Isa 52:13-53:12), Paul can recognise in Jesus’s death Gods unfathomable love that does not spare even his own son but instead offered him for us (see Rom 8:32, 39; Jn 3:16), in order to reconcile the world with himself in Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor 5:18 -19): The cross is the ultimate expression of the self-emptying love of God. Thus it reveals to us the nature of God and the meaning of true love.

Behold, My servant will prosper,

He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.

Just as many were astonished at you, My people,

So His appearance was marred more than any man

And His form more than the sons of men.

Thus He will sprinkle many nations,

Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him;

For what had not been told them they will see,

And what they had not heard they will understand.

Who has believed our message?

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,

And like a root out of parched ground;

He has no stately form or majesty

That we should look upon Him,

Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.

He was despised and forsaken of men,

A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;

And like one from whom men hide their face

He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely our grief He Himself bore,

And our sorrows He carried;

Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,

And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,

Each of us has turned to his own way;

But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all

To fall on Him.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,

Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,

And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,

So He did not open His mouth.

By oppression and judgment He was taken away;

And as for His generation, who considered

That He was cut off out of the land of the living

For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?

His grave was assigned with wicked men,

Yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence,

Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

But the LORD was pleased

To crush Him, putting Him to grief;

If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,

He will see His offspring,

He will prolong His days,

And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

As a result of the anguish of His soul,

He will see it and be satisfied;

By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many,

As He will bear their iniquities.

Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,

And He will divide the booty with the strong;

Because He poured out Himself to death,

And was numbered with the transgressors;

Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,

And interceded for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

Jesus’s devotion through God is Jesus’s answer as his own obedient devotion (that is the original meaning of the word islam as a verbal noun) to the will of the father for us. This interpretation of Jesus’s death as devoting his life on behalf leads us into the innermost core of the witness of the New Testament.

The notion of representation seizes on a basic human reality, namely, the solidarity of all people. The Bible takes up this theme and in a new way makes it a fundamental law of the entire history of salvation. Adam acts as a representative of all humanity and establishes the solidarity of all humanity in sinfulness, Abraham is called as the blessing for all generations (see Gen 12:3), Israel as the light of all people (see Isaiah 42:6). Holy Scripture concretises this idea through the idea of vicarious suffering, which is already found in the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53:4-5,12).

The notion of representation, which is so central to the Bible, is particularly suitable to make clear in our faith how Jesus’ death could signify salvation for us. The consequence of human solidarity in sinfulness was the solidarity of all in the fate of death. This demonstrates above all humanitys lack of salvation and its hopeless situation. Now that Jesus Christ, the fullness of life, expresses solidarity with us in death, he makes his death as the foundation of the new solidarity. His death now becomes the source of new life for all those who were under the fate of death.

The interpretation of Jesus’s death as suffering and death on our behalf is the quintessence of Jesus himself. This is also shown in the very old word (I don’t understand what you mean by old word): Mk 10:45.

Another very difficult concept for many to understand today is the Biblical notion of Jesus’s death as sacrifice. If we want to understand the deeper meaning of the notion of sacrifice, then we must be clear that sacrifice does not primarily depend on external sacrifices. The sacrificial offerings brought are meaningful only as a sign of personal sacrifice; this inner bearing must express itself freely and in physical form. With Jesus the personal sacrifice of self is fully united with the sacrificial offering; he is the sacrificial offering and the sacrificial priest in one. Thus, his sacrifice was the perfect sacrifice, the fulfilment of all other sacrifices that were merely a shadow of this one sacrifice made for once and for all (Heb 9:11-28). For this reason the Letter to the Hebrews can state that this sacrifice does not concern external objects but the self-sacrifice of Jesus in obedience to the Father (see Heb 10:5-10). Through this complete sacrifice on our behalf, humanity that is alienated from God is now fully reconciled with God once more. Thus, through his unique sacrifice, Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity (see 1 Tim 2:5).

The imagery of redemption, exoneration and deliverance are tied to this idea.

All these manifold images and statements are, in principle, about one and the same theme. They want to proclaim, in ever new ways, Gods obliging and saving love, which Jesus gained for us, once and for all, through his obedience and through his sacrifice, in order to bring peace between God and humanity, as well as between all people. Thus, the Letter to the Ephesians can say, “For he is our peace” (Eph 2:14). In him all alienation, which the sins between God and all humanity, between all people and in people themselves, have caused are once again healed and reconciled. Thus, the cross of the non-violent Prophet and Messiah Jesus of Nazareth ultimately is a sign of the triumph of God over all powers and forces hostile to humanity. It is the sign of hope.

c. Personal responsibility for salvation

No one is redeemed against their will. The salvation that God s infinite love offers through his son in the Holy Spirit wants to be accepted in free will. The freely accepted gift of Gods healing and redeeming love, ultimately of God, the Holy Spirit himself, sets in motion a lifelong healing process. By the power of the Holy Spirit, that is, by God’s mercy, by performing good works, a person can achieve inner spiritual growth. However, grace can also be lost through sin and is always granted anew through true conversion. Thus, a Christian’s entire life is a battle with the temptation to forget God again, to disobey his will. In this sense, a Christians life is a constant turning towards and returning to God. This always requires renewal and deepening. However, even when we have done everything, we still remain worthless slaves (see. Lk 17:10).

d. The good news of salvation applies fundamentally to all people

God wants all people to be saved and to attain knowledge of truth (1 Tim 2:4). He does not want the sinner to die but for the sinner to convert and remain alive (see Ezechiel 33:11; 2 Pet 3:9). This universality of Gods will for salvation was emphasised once again at the Second Vatican Council:

“Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium = The Light of Nations, 16).

The fact that God speaks to each and every person also confirms naturally that God accepts and takes seriously each person as a person. That is why he wants each person’s freely given response and acceptance. Yes, in his love, God makes the realisation of his will for salvation dependant on our freedom. That means that we can also fall short of salvation through our sin.

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J. Prof. Dr. T. Specker,
Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

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