One of the most debated questions about sin is how the sin of Adam and Eve has affected humanity. Throughout the history of Christianity, this issue has been taken two broad directions: some held to a pessimistic view of humankind in which the original sin had a major impact on human nature, and therefore human beings cannot choose good; others took an overly optimistic view of humankind, in which the original sin had only a minor impact and human beings are mostly capable of willing and choosing good. A chronological look will help us trace these directions and their development over time.
Post-Apostolic Church Fathers
According to a study by Darius Jankiewicz, the major theologians of the first five centuries of Christianity had a predominantly optimistic view about human nature and the effects of Adams’s sin. Here is a summary of their views:
- Justin the Martyr understood the curse of sin as physical death and evil as the effect of demonic activities. Humans have the freedom to choose good, and the remedy for sin is obedience to God’s law.
- Theophilus of Antioch held that human beings were created neutral with the capacity for either mortality and immortality and could achieve the latter through obedience to God’s law. Evil must be overcome through the will.
- Irenaeus of Lyon is credited with developing the incipient doctrine of original sin. In his view the sinful nature is a “state of immaturity, compounded by the sin of the first couple, and which is passed on to their posterity.” Irenaeus also believed that the perfection originally intended for humanity can be achieved through obedience so much so that if a human could just “be obedient to God for one day [she/he] could become incorruptible again.” Humans have a model of perfection in Jesus.
- Tertullian further developed the concept of original sin. He believed that the human race has been infected with the sin of Adam as, through procreation, humans transfer the soul from one to another. Like his predecessors, he taught that freedom from sin can be achieved through obedience, as well as asceticism, humiliation, and martyrdom. As God becomes pleased with a human, He “infuse[s] the soul of the offender with His re-creative grace.”
- Clement and Origen, the most prominent theologians of Alexandria, also believed in universal sinfulness but thought it was due to evil influences (especially of parents over children), not inherited tendencies. Adam’s degeneration affected his intellect, but not his will, and so humans can regain their originally intended state through exercise of their free will.
- Cyprian saw a need for children baptism because, while not guilty of Adam’s sin, they are born of him according to the flesh and need remission for the sins of their forefathers.
As is evident, the post-apostolic theologians had an optimistic anthropology with a strong conception of freedom of will and its capabilities. While corrupted by sin, humans were able, through the exercise of free will and aided by God, to lift themselves up from the degradation of sin. We can easily see how this view leads to righteousness and justification by works. The fifth-century, however, witnessed a major debate on original sin between Augustine and Pelagius–a debate that framed all theological discussion on sin and its influences on humans.
The Fifth Century Pelagius – Augustine Debate
Pelagius was a British monk who lived in Rome and decried the moral weakness of the Roman church. Pointing to the example of Christ and the law in the Old Testament, he called for higher standards of moral accountability, which he deemed possible through the exercise of the will. Pelagius’s view of human nature was extremely optimistic. He believed that human beings are born with the same nature as Adam before the fall. Their free will is not corrupted, and evil is transmitted from Adam only through example. Humans can choose to sin or not and are capable of returning to the state of sinlessness in which they are born through obedience to the Ten Commandments and by beholding Jesus’s example of perfect obedience.
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[grace is] external enlightenment provided for humanity by God through such things as the Ten Commandments and the example of Christ [and] informs people regarding their moral duties but does not assist them in performing them.
In his view, the possibility of human perfection is implied in Matthew 5:48 (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”), and
the very fact that God expects obedience is a positive proof that humans are capable of obeying God’s commandments perfectly.
The Pelagian view has become the yardstick of salvation by works.
At the other extreme, Augustine taught an overly pessimistic view of the fallen human nature, largely in reaction to Pelagius. The sin of Adam has deeply corrupted his nature and the entire human race, which inherited “guilt, complete deprivation, and a bent or tendency to evil.” This is, in a nutshell, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. Since human beings are enslaved to sin, completely depraved (their will included) and utterly incapable of choosing, they are unable to answer God’s offer of salvation.
It is evident that Augustine did not believe in free will. In fact, Augustine was the first prominent proponent of predestination, according to which salvation depends solely on God’s grace and his choice to elect some and saved them on account of God’s righteousness. Thus,
while Pelagius viewed grace as God’s mercy in revealing the true way of life to people so that they could then choose to walk a sinless life, Augustine viewed grace as the saving act of God rather than mere moral guidance. … For Augustine humanity is justified by God as an act of grace, while for Pelagius people are justified on the basis of their merits in imitating the example of Christ.
Middle-Ages and Semi-Pelagianism
After the fifth century, Christians oscillated towards one or the other of these two extreme views, with some attempts at reconciling them. One notable attempt was a system of thought broadly labeled Semi-Pelagianism. It rejected the idea that God alone is responsible for the salvation of humans, while also denying the Pelagian view that humans are born in a sinless state. Simply put, humans are born sinners, but with an inherent ability to take a step towards God with the help of divine grace. Salvation, therefore, is a process of collaboration between God and humans. The most prominent theologians of the Middle Ages advocated this view.
Gregory the Great held that, while humans are born with original sin, newborns are infused with God’s grace at baptism, which enables them to collaborate with God in his salvation. To atone for the sins committed after baptism, humans can participate in meritorious works (rituals, prayers, charity). Gregory believed that humans possessed free will even after the fall but in a weakened form. Still, even in this feeble state, the will enabled humans to participate in their process of salvation. The doctrine put forth by Gregory has not been fully developed until Aquinas, who matured it and popularized it.
Thomas Aquinas adopted the view that humans are born with a sinful nature but believed they can grow spiritually through grace. Infant baptism removes the inherited guilt of Adam, but not the evil tendencies. Humans can overcome these tendencies only as God’s grace
awaken[s] the natural tendencies toward goodness and provide[s] continuous healing for the effects of original sin.
In the Protestant theology of the reformers we see first a return to the pessimistic view of Augustine in Luther and Calvin, and then a reiteration of Semi-Pelagianism in the theology of Arminius.
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Martin Luther followed Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, subscribing to the total depravity of human nature. Humans are infected with irreparable egoism, and while conversion helps improve behavior, corruption remains inside. Human beings have no free will but are captives, slaves either to the will of God or that of Satan. In his words,
God … foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, ‘free-will’ is thrown prostrate and utterly dashed to pieces. Those, therefore, who would assert ‘free-will,’ must either deny this thunderbolt, or pretend not to see it or push it from them.
Since human beings are completely incapable of participating in their salvation, predestination automatically becomes the correct model of salvation.
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Jean Calvin shared Luther’s and Augustine’s belief in original sin and the total corruption of the will. In his widespread Institutes, he stated:
Although there is a residue of intelligence and judgment as will, a mind which is weak and darkened cannot be called sound and hole. The depravity of the will is only too well known. So, since reason, by which man discerns between good and evil and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be completely destroyed. …Because the will is inseparable from man’s nature, it did not perish, but became so bound by depraved lusts as to be incapable of worthy desires. 
No human works can be part of the process of salvation since these would limit God’s sovereignty. Instead, salvation is a result of God’s arbitrary election. Calvin became the most prominent voice of predestination-centered salvation.
A different view of salvation emerges with Jacobus Arminius, who rejected predestination and emphasized free will. His understanding of human free will is well summarized in his influential Declaration of Sentiments:
In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”
While standing in agreement with Luther and Calvin concerning the total depravity of human beings after the fall, Arminius introduced the concept of preventive (or prevenient) grace–the special influence of God through the Holy Spirit which enables the Christian to understand and respond to the gospel call. Arminius’s defined grace is three-fold, with the middle section emphasizing this prevenient aspect:
It is a gratuitous affection by which God is kindly affected towards a miserable sinner, and according to which he, in the first place, gives his Son, ‘that whosoever believers in him might have eternal life, and, afterwards, he justifies him in Christ Jesus and for his sake, and adopts him into the right of sons, unto salvation.
It is an infusion (both into the human understanding and into the will and affections,) of all those gifts of the Holy Spirit which appertain to the regeneration and renewing of man—such as faith, hope, charity, etc.; for, without these gracious gifts, man is not sufficient to think, will, or do anything that is good.
It is that perpetual assistance and continued aid of the Holy Spirit, according to which He acts upon and excites to good the man who has been already renewed, by infusing into him salutary cogitations, and by inspiring him with good desires, that he may thus actually will whatever is good; and according to which God may then will and work together with man, that man may perform whatever he wills.
As can be seen, Calvinists and Arminians differ on a major point of salvation: For Calvinists, God must “overrid[e] the will through the unconditional predestination of individuals to salvation,” while for Arminians, human-will determines who is saved and who is lost based on our response to God’s gospel call. Arminius has deeply influenced John Wesley and the development of Methodist theology, and through this Adventism, particularly through Ellen White’s Methodist upbringing.
She placed herself firmly in the Arminian camp, while rejecting the semi-Pelagianism of many of her fellow believers. In the process she took into full account the biblical teachings on total depravity, the bondage of the will, spiritual inability, and the absolute need of grace in every step of the Christian journey. Above all, she highlighted what those in the Arminian/Wesleyan sector of Protestantism called prevenient grace-the grace that comes before saving grace and frees the will so that an individual can make the grace-inspired choice to accept the saving grace of God in Christ.
 Darius W. Jankiewicz, “Sin and Human Nature: Historical Background,” in Contours of Adventist Soteriology, edited by Martin F. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018).
 Ibid. p. 96.
 Ibid., p. 97.
 George R. Knight, “The Sinful Nature and Spiritual Inability,” in Contours of Adventist Soteriology, edited by Martin F. Hanna, Darius W. Jankiewicz, and John W. Reeve (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2018), p. 166.
 Jankiewicz, “Sin and Human Nature: Historical Background,” p. 100.
 Ibid., p. 102.
 Knight, “The Sinful Nature and Spiritual Inability,” p. 167.
 Jankiewicz, “Sin and Human Nature: Historical Background,” p. 105-106.
 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), p. 38-39, sect. 9.
 John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 92.
 Jacobus Arminius, A Declaration of the Sentiments of Arminius, p. III.
 Ibid., p. IV.
 Knight, “The Sinful Nature and Spiritual Inability,” p. 168.
 Ibid., p. 171.