19th February 2024

What’s so Original about Sin?

What’s so Original about Sin?

A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent by Kenneth Padley

Readings: Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7; Romans 5.12-19

On 30th November 1916, a grand funeral procession wove its way through the streets of Vienna. The deceased was Franz Josef, Emperor of Austro-Hungary, a colossus who once bestrode the European stage. The roads were lined with onlookers. Military bands intoned sombre dirges. Leading mourners walked behind the coffin.

Eventually the cortege arrived outside the Capuchin church where Franz Josef’s Hapsburg predecessors lay entombed. The coffin, draped in Imperial black and gold, disembarked from the massive horse-driven hearse. Lord Chamberlain Prince Montenouvo thumped ceremoniously on the church doors and demanded to be let in. From inside, the voice of the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna was heard to answer: ‘who seeks entry?’

The Lord Chamberlain announced the arrival of ‘His Majesty Franz Josef I, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; King of Jerusalem; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Krakow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania; Margrave of Moravia; Count of Habsburg and Tyrol’. And a few other titles as well. To which the Archbishop responded, ‘We know him not. Who seeks entry?’

A little abashed, the Lord Chamberlain tried again, ‘Emperor Franz Josef, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia.’ But the Archbishop was unmoved, ‘We know him not. Who seeks entry?’

Mortified, the Prince fell to his knees and entreated the portal for a third time, ‘we bear the body of Franz Josef, a sinner’. And to this the Archbishop replied, ‘him we know’. And the doors swung open to admit the procession.

This story illustrates a fundamental, levelling truth. Whatever our wealth or calling in life, we – like Franz Josef – are all sinners.

The nature and effects of sin run throughout tonight’s readings from Genesis and Romans, and they are central to this solemn season of Lent. Yet sin is not one of those subjects we hear much about nowadays, even in Church. There are, I think, at least four reasons for this.

  • Firstly, it is philosophically tricky to discuss a universal bar of morality in an age when the post-modern mindset declares that I am the centre of my own decision-making, and that only I determine what is true for me.
  • Secondly, sin is ethically conflicting: it strains against our tendency to deny our faults. When faced by accusations of error, our pride and sense of self-preservation often get the better of our duty to accept responsibility.
  • Thirdly, the word ‘sin’ is etymologically complex. The Old Testament contains many Hebrew roots which are rendered into English as ‘sin’. The most significant of these word-families connotes a sense of ‘losing the way’ or ‘missing the point’. Other roots can be variously translated as ‘to rebel’, ‘to bend’ or ‘to err’. The use of these words in the Hebrew Scriptures is very broad, encompassing both religious and secular misdemeanours. However, in English, we reserve the word ‘sin’ for offences committed against the almighty.[1] So the word ‘sin’ is not simple.
  • Finally, sin is pastorally problematic. How can the Church talk about people ‘missing the way’ or erring against God without setting up an emotionally charged framework in which we risk manipulating or even abusing the vulnerable?


As a clergyman, I find a useful way around these obstacles is, temporarily, to park the loaded language of ‘sin’ and to talk instead about ‘imperfection’. Because I reckon there are bits of all of us that we’d all like to improve. Vanity might identify those physical enhancements we’d wish for our bodies. More significantly, I have never known a person who cannot think of a part of their character which they would like to change for the better. None of us is so self-confident as to claim to be perfect.

A consideration of our imperfections like this exposes several corollaries of the Biblical concept of sin. Firstly, that there is a vast moral gulf between people and God. The difference is absolute between the One who is perfect and his creatures who are not. From this flow two further deductions: (i) that the gap created by sin cannot be bridged from our side, and (ii) that sin is universal – it is part of our inherent being; it is original to all of us.

The fourth/fifth century saint, Augustine of Hippo, was hot on original sin. He understood sin to be original because he traced it back to the flawed decision-making of Adam and Eve, which impairment he thought was transmitted through sex to all Adam’s descendants.

There is a problem here of course, because no serious theologian today considers Adam and Eve to have been historical figures. Rather, Adam is a picture story. And a metaphorical Adam cannot have produced literal children. This means that Augustine was wrong about how sinfulness is transmitted. As a result, the Church has been challenged to revisit its historically negative outlook on sex – one of Augustine’s less helpful legacies.

That said, I reckon Augustine was onto something in this idea of original sin. He didn’t get it right about the transmission mechanism, but we have demonstrated that no human is perfect. So, what we need is not to ditch original sin, just to find a better explanation for it. And I think we can do this with a model which is not sexual but economic and environmental.

Humans have infinite wants in a world of finite resources. As a result, our avaricious tendency is to grab and control as much as we can. It is this desire to control – experienced from the moment we are born – that gives rise to our inherent sinfulness. The results of this desire are manifold: greed, lust, jealousy, and a history of cumulative damage to God’s amazing planet.

St Paul knew that all are imperfect and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23) but proclaimed that God chooses to overlook the imperfections of those who, through faith, find atonement in Jesus. This is why in tonight’s reading Paul says that Jesus is like a second Adam, undoing through his cross the faults of our symbolic universal ancestor. Romans 5.15: ‘For if the many died through [Adam’s] trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.’

Had St Paul lived into the 1980s, I hope he would have appreciated ‘It’s a Sin’ by the Pet Shop Boys. This song captures for me the complexities of tonight’s theme. The singer Neil Tennant feels as though he can’t escape a cycle of guilt. ‘When I look back upon my life / It’s always with a sense of shame’. And… ‘At school they taught me how to be / So pure in thought and word and deed / They didn’t quite succeed.’

That line about thought and word and deed comes from the prayer of confession in the service of Holy Communion. Neil Tennant knew that his school had failed in its task of moral education, just as much as he himself felt guilty. But that’s St Paul’s point. Where human imperfection cannot succeed, Jesus does. Amen.


[1] TDNT 1.267f