A Wesleyan Account of Sin and the Fall

A Wesleyan Account of Sin and the Fall

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What follows is an account of the crucial doctrine of the fall of man and woman as well as the accompanying biblical doctrine of sin. It is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024).

The Fall

77. As Wesleyans, we believe that sin is any deviation from God’s perfect character. That means that sin is fundamentally opposition to God and his good purposes for the creation. As such, sin is God’s enemy and our own. We need a robust account of sin, especially if we want a rich account of salvation. Our distinctive Wesleyan understanding of salvation as freedom from sin for a life of holiness depends on a rigorous assessment of our culpability. The depth of our sin is the problem to which the good news of salvation is addressed. Sin is a disease; Christ is our healer. The greater our awareness of the seriousness of our sin, the greater will be our appreciation for the mercies of God and the promise of wholeness.

78. God created us as an act of his perfect love to relate to him in love. Our bent toward sin is a disease that we cannot heal in our own strength. God created us and desires to bless us abundantly. We sin when we reject God’s will for us and choose to place our own desires and preferences above God’s perfect desires. This does not mean that humans are now incapable of love, or substantive relationships with one another, and with the rest of creation. Human beings have not lost the ability to know the world around them, to learn from the past and from others.

79. Human beings were originally endowed with the Image of God, but that Image has been fundamentally marred in every human creature. Having been made free in the beginning to embrace God’s perfect love, humanity chose to turn from God. As a result, sin entered the world. The world after the fall is marked by brokenness, rebellion, decay, and death. Another way to say this is that the disease of sin infects the world. In turn, every part of the creation, every creature, human institution, individual and corporate relationship, every philosophy, human reason—even our bodies, experiences, and thoughts—are themselves diseased by the sin that has been conveyed to every generation.

80. Each person born after the fall has been marked by this corruption even if the guilt of sin—after Christ’s atoning work on the cross—is no longer passed from Adam to the rest of humanity. The bent to sin is effectively conveyed to each person. For this reason, we cannot return to God, model his holiness, or be restored to the full Image of God through our intelligence, power, efforts, religiosity, or inherent nature.

81. Even our love for one another, reflecting as it does the love we have from God, is corrupted by the fall. The other-oriented, self-giving nature was replaced by bondage to a self-consumed heart. The love of husband and wife, parent and child, siblings, friends, fellow believers, and even our love for enemies—following Christ’s command—is tainted by selfishness without the grace of God transforming it. Only through the grace of God in Christ Jesus can we begin to live a life that fully embodies the Image of God. Only then will we be completely able to live the life of holy love to which God calls each person and community.

The Doctrine of Sin

82. Scripture speaks of sin both as a power to which we are captive and as actions in which we participate. That means that sin is not limited to our behavior. It’s far worse. Sin acts against us and upon us. Sin enslaves us. Apart from God’s redeeming grace in Christ, we are “sold into slavery under sin” (Rom. 7:14). And as this power stands over us, we also participate in it. We are complicit. People sin against us. We sin against other people. And we sin against God. As sinners, we are “hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7) and we “cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). We make ourselves his enemies (Rom. 5:10). Our opposition to God makes us objects of divine wrath, which is God’s measured, principled, and just opposition to everything that stands against his good purposes in creation. For this we stand guilty before God and are in need of his forgiveness.

83. Scripture also describes the twofold nature of sin. On the one hand, there are sins. These are actions that are contrary to God’s nature and his intentions for human life. These may be either intentional or unintentional. But of greater significance is sin as the corruption of human nature. This is the antagonism to God and his will with which we are born. This is the source of what Wesley called “sin rightly so-called,” that is, an intentional transgression of the known will of God.

84. Sin is universal. Everyone in the world has been subjected to sin and has participated in it. That doesn’t mean, however, that sin is essential to human existence. This becomes clear when we look to Jesus, who was “born in human likeness” and “found in human form” (Phil. 2:7). He has become like us in every way, “yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:14–18). So, if Jesus is fully human, and if Jesus never sinned, that means that sin is not an essential feature of human life. To the contrary, sin degrades and dehumanizes us. Captivity to and complicity with sin is subhuman existence. Jesus came to set us free from sin and make us fully human.

85. Jesus Christ perfectly embodies the fulfillment of God’s intentions for humanity as his divine Image-bearers. When we transgress, we fail to fulfill God’s intentions for us as bearers of his Image. To sin is to miss the mark of what it means to be fully human. The first sin occurred when the first humans were deceived and tempted by Satan. They failed to trust God. They willingly betrayed God by disobeying his command.

86. As stewards of creation, sin in humanity results in the entire creation being corrupted by sin and influenced by malevolent powers seen and unseen. We are not only sinners—we inhabit a world infected with sin. We must battle against sin within our own hearts, and we must resist unjust structures and institutions that sinful men and women have built. As Wesley put it:

“By one man’s disobedience,” as the Apostle observes . . . as many as were then in the loins of their forefather, “were made,” or constituted, “sinners:” Not only deprived of the favour of God, but also of this Image, of all virtue, righteousness, and true holiness; and sunk, partly into the image of the devil,—in pride, malice, and all other diabolical tempers; partly into the image of the brute, being fallen under the dominion of brutal passions and grovelling appetites. Hence also death entered into the world, with all his forerunners and attendants,—pain, sickness, and a whole train of uneasy, as well as unholy passions and tempers. (“God’s Love to Fallen Man”)

Sin is both individual and corporate. It affects each of us. It affects the whole world.

87. Perhaps the greatest consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin is death. Death is a result of sin, not a matter of arbitrary divine reprisal. Life is a gift from God, the I Am. God is life, and we have life only in communion with him and as a gift from him. Thus, sin breaches our relationship with our Creator, and death is the inevitable result.

88. But what is death? It is expressed both spiritually and physically. Spiritual death is separation from God as the source of life. This gives the end of present life its horror. Adam and Eve experienced spiritual death when they were exiled from the immediate presence of God. Their untroubled relationship to God died, as did their peaceful relationship to one another. But death is not only a feature of our spirituality. We are embodied creatures, and our bondage to sin also results in the death of our physical bodies. When Adam and Eve sinned, death entered the world and spread to their offspring. Cain murdered his brother Abel. Spiritual and physical death belong together. We experience spiritual death in separation from God, which ultimately leads to the death of the body. This frames the double need that is met in Jesus. He restores us to the immediate presence of God and gives us spiritual life. He makes us participants in his resurrection to restore and glorify our physical lives.

This is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


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