Larry Kirkpatrick

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What is the New Theology, part 5: Is Sin Choice or Nature?

The New Theology teaches that the primary problem that the gospel is meant to deal with is not human choice but human nature. “Sin” is made firstly a matter of our nature. One way this is sometimes said is that, “You are not a sinner because you sin; you sin because you are a sinner.”

The problem, according to the New Theology, is not what we end with, but what we begin with. The character at last developed in one’s life, is less significant, while the equipment we are born with, concerning which we have exercised no personal choice, is made most significant. Built into the core of the New Theology is an antipathy to issues concerning freewill, and an exalting of the significance of aspects of the human situation concerning which we can do nothing. In sharp contrast, the messenger of the Lord says,

Pure religion has to do with the will. The will is the governing power in the nature of man, bringing all the other faculties under its sway. The will is not the taste or the inclination, but it is the deciding power which works in the children of men unto obedience to God or unto disobedience (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 513).

The Bible warns,

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness (Romans 6:16-18).

According to Paul, we have a choice: To whom “ye” yield yourselves servants to obey. If we can choose whom we yield ourselves servants to obey, then it follows that we also can obey. Notice here that those who “were” servants of sin, but who “have obeyed” have been “made free from sin.” The point is, according to Scripture, you can become a servant of righteousness—here and now; something truly impossible if our fallen human nature inevitably rules, if inevitably we “sin because we are sinners.”

One recent presenter of this viewpoint seemed to derive from Isaiah 6:5 that when Isaiah saw God and said he was “undone,” he was teaching that man has a natural, carnal nature that needs to be cleansed but really cannot be cleansed. The presenter, however, stopped short of explaining how Isaiah could still retain this sin nature in the light of Isaiah 6:6, 7 which reads:

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

His iniquity and sin was taken away and purged. None remained.

The same presenter briefly quotes Romans 5:12, 18 and 19 as evidence that we are made sinners, or apparently born sinners, on the basis of what Adam has done. But in 5:12 this presenter does not linger at the last phrase of that verse which contradicts his viewpoint (“for [or “because”] that all have sinned.”) Why has death passed upon all men? Because they have personally sinned. This point is passed over in silence.

Nor do Romans 5:18 and 19 help the New Theology case. Nineteen says that “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” A more accurate translation of “many were made,” is “many constituted.” The key question here is, exactly how did the sin of one man, Adam, constitute all others “sinners”?

Was it by transmission of guilt? Ezekiel chapter 18 rules out the guilt option (see verses 4, 11, 13, 14, 17, 19, 20, 24, 26, 31). In the Bible we never find guilt passed on from father to son apart from a personal choice by the son to participate in the father’s sin. Few indeed present the straightforward statement given in the passage Romans 5:12 itself, demonstrating that it is by personal choice that we join Adam in becoming sinners. One is constituted a sinner by joining himself in solidarity in the sin of another by his own choice. Read again Ezekiel 18:14 19, 24, 20, 26.

Indeed, Ellen White concurs with Scripture:

Sin is the sinner’s individual act. Before sin exists in the heart, the consent of the will must be given, and as soon as it is given, sin is triumphant, and hell rejoices. But there is no excuse for sin, either big or little (Signs of the Times, December 18, 1893).

There is no excuse for sin, large or small, but some have made it fashionable to talk of “sin” and “sins,” or of “big S” sin and “little s” sin, the “big S” sin being the bad nature that we have with its guilt, and the “little s” sin being our choices to sin. But in making this distinction, they effectively teach that there is an excuse for “big S” sin, because that is our nature, and by extension, since that is really the source also of all of our “little s” sins, those too can be excused. But inspiration actually says, “there is no excuse for sin, either big or little.”

The nature we have does not excuse us from obedience. Listen:

There are many who in their hearts murmur against God. They say, ‘We inherit the fallen nature of Adam, and are not responsible for our natural imperfections.’ They find fault with God’s requirements, and claim that He demands what they have no power to give. Satan made the same complaint in heaven, but such thoughts dishonor God (Signs of the Times, August 29, 1892).
It is inevitable that children should suffer from the consequences of parental wrongdoing, but they are not punished for the parents’ guilt, except as they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however, that children walk in the steps of their parents. By inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the father’s sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and debased morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted as a legacy from father to son, to the third and fourth generation. This fearful truth should have a solemn power to restrain men from following a course of sin (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 306).

Sin is the sinner’s individual act and free will is the central issue. We are not powerless. Guilt is only punished when actual—“as they participate in” the sins of “the parents.” “[B]y inheritance and example” becoming “partakers of the father’s sins” means that “wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and debased morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy,” are transmitted from father to son.

We are born sinful but not sinners. There is a tremendous difference, for the correct position points us to Christ only who can change us, the incorrect to a false christ who refuses to.

The terminology “sinful” and “sinner” must be carefully understood. The English suffix “-ful” is identified as including the meanings “full of,” “characterized by,” “tending to,” and “able to,” or “as much as will fill.”1 Obviously, since sin is a manifestation of choice and not a substance, “sinful” must carry the primary meaning of “tending to” in its biblical usage. Men are no more born “full of sin” than they are born “full of” righteousness. Men are not born “full of” pre-decisions; they are born full of possibilities.

They are born, according to explicit statements of inspiration with “inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong-doing” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 330), “inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong” (Councils on Health, p. 440; Ministry of Healing, p. 175), “inherited and cultivated tendencies to evil” (The Desire of Ages, p. 296), “the inherited tendencies to evil” (Mind, Character, and Personality, p. 32), “to perpetuate in their posterity the inherited evil tendencies of their drunken fathers” (Review and Herald, May 8, 1894). (Obviously the portions of these statements mentioning “cultivated” sins have reference to the fleshly habits or propensities we build up on top of the fallen nature by choices made to follow our tendencies.)

A “sinner,” of course, is a noun with the “-er” suffix, a person who sins. Here is the problem with saying that men are “born sinners”; it indicates that men are born incapable of choosing anything but to sin, that choice is not the problem.

Inspiration helps us understand, and very pointedly, that the actual baseline issue is free will.

There can be no excuse for our living in alienation from God. You may claim much leniency because of your human nature, of your temptations and trials, and seek to excuse yourself for sin because of inherited tendencies, but Christ gave Himself in behalf of humanity, and there is no reason for failure. Christ bore temptations such as you will never be called upon to bear. He suffered as you will never suffer. He knew all your griefs, He has carried your sorrows. He has made it possible for you to be an overcomer. Do not say it is impossible for you to overcome. Do not say, ‘It is my nature to do thus and so, and I cannot do otherwise. I have inherited weaknesses that make me powerless before temptation’ (Signs of the Times, June 18, 1899).
If men would practice the attributes of God, they would not have the painful consciousness of transmitting wrong tendencies and traits of character to their children, to be reproduced in their children, thus communicating the evils that might have been repressed (Manuscript Releases, vol. 3, p. 363).
The experience of Adam is a constant warning and reproof to us. We are not to turn aside from the word of God under any circumstances; but the Lord compels obedience from no one. He gives the human agent all the help that he requires to be an overcomer, but leaves him free to place himself, with his inherited and cultivated tendencies, under the control and guidance of the Holy Spirit, or to follow his own imaginations which are only evil, and that continually. He leaves him free to choose his associates from the pure and the righteous, or from among others. He compels no one to obey Him (Manuscript Releases, vol. 4, p. 198).

Clearly the fallen human nature we inherit offers us no escape or excuse. Clearly by the correct exercise of free will, complete overcoming is a divine gift to us. Clearly the evils of the fallen human nature can be repressed. Clearly we are given all the help we need to place ourselves under the control and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The other option? To be ruled continuously by evil imaginations left unsuppressed in the sinful nature we are born with. Jesus inherited these very tendencies, but throughout His life repressed them and was guided and controlled by the Holy Spirit by His own choice. So it may be with us.

We may say we are born sinful so long as we understand that we are talking about being born with inherited tendencies to wrong, wrong-doing, evil, etc. and so long as we understand that we are not born sinners, a non sequitur (a non-logical conclusion). The very theory of our being “born sinners” blurs free choice with what we cannot choose. We become sinners when we willfully choose to sin, not a moment before. Before that we are sinful, and sinners in potential only. Once we have sinned, it can accurately be said that we are sinners. But just as we had no choice about being born male or female, we had no choice about being born with inherited tendencies. We are not born guilty or pre-condemned. Our choices determine whether we will be corrupted or cured, for

The divine nature, combined with the human, made Him [Jesus] capable of yielding to Satan’s temptations. Here the test to Christ was far greater than that of Adam and Eve, for Christ took our nature, fallen but not corrupted, and would not be corrupted unless He received the words of Satan in the place of the words of God. To suppose He was not capable of yielding to temptation places Him where He cannot be a perfect example for man, and the force and the power of this part of Christ’s humiliation, which is the most eventful, is no instruction or help to human beings (Manuscript Releases, vol. 16, p. 182).

All boils down to the underlying great controversy issue of free will. This is why the New Theology is antithetical to Seventh-day Adventist teachings, which are built upon the foundational Bible concepts of free will and transformation.

Put simply, when we allow that “we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners,” we are bringing into Adventism from outside of Adventism, an idea that attacks the very core of our faith. So far as theological underpinnings go, free will is among the most absolutely central issues.

There is a reason why Ellen White wrote, “The only definition we find in the Bible for sin is that ‘sin is the transgression of the law’ (1 John 3:4). (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 320). And there is a reason why she says that,

It is Satan’s constant effort to misrepresent the character of God, the nature of sin, and the real issues at stake in the great controversy. His sophistry lessens the obligation of the divine law and gives men license to sin. At the same time he causes them to cherish false conceptions of God so that they regard Him with fear and hate rather than with love. The cruelty inherent in his own character is attributed to the Creator; it is embodied in systems of religion and expressed in modes of worship (The Great Controversy, p. 569).

Unfortunately, the advocate of the New Theology almost inevitably, has a misconception of the nature of sin. Fortunately, an awareness of this will—in very practical manner—help you detect the New Theology. We will continue in What is the New Theology Part 6: The Humanity of Christ—Is It Prefall, Synthetic, or Postfall?


  1. Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, (Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, CA, 2001).


Internet 2004-10-08