Having laid down the foundations of who God is and the rule of faith (Scripture is the final authority, supported by the creeds), the Thirty-Nine Articles continue with specific questions of salvation from article 9 to article 14—with article 11 on the justification of man at its center. There is a pattern here of guilt, grace, and gratitude that we should not miss as it also forms the structure of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Articles 9 and 10 examine our guilt, our actual condition before God in two aspects: our original sin and our need of atonement, and the limitations on our free will and our need of God’s grace. Then comes grace, article 11 on justification, declaring what God does for us and how we receive Christ’s work. Articles 12, 13 and 14 examine the nature of our gratitude in response. Article 12 shows the proper sphere for our works after salvation; articles 13 and 14 set the limits and illustrate the perversion of works, the one seeking independence from God that compromises his grace towards us, the other condemning the view that works can go beyond God’s requirements. Both underlining how no human being can attain to God’s commands except Christ alone.
IX—Of Original or Birth-Sin
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Article 9 begins with the point that to understand the extent one must first understand the source of Original Sin. It’s not in our nurture (copying the bad examples from our parents or others around us, tracing their way back to Adam) that shapes our tabula rasa, our “neutral” human nature. This is the false teaching of the Welsh monk Pelagius (as the Pelagians do vainly talk). The article affirms that every single person born in Adam’s race is “inclined to evil.”
Our nature is now utterly corrupted at the deepest level as a result of the fall of Adam. It is of its nature inclined to evil and continually wars against God. We are all rebels against God. We are not as we should be. Even our noblest ‘natural’ desires that are weighed in the balance of God’s righteousness are found wanting.
The article continues next with the consequence of our rebellion: "and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God's wrath and damnation." God, our creator, call us to account for our guilt in Adam and our attitudes and actions. He will not allow our rebellion to go on forever. We are judged as being very far gone from our original righteousness. His judgment is to withdraw from us, to separate us from himself, but since God is the source of life, being cut off him means death. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). We have “no hope and [are] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
The article then concludes in examining the continuing presence of original sin in the believing Christian (in them that are regenerated). When we are born again by the Holy Spirit in repentance and faith, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom. 6.14), but the presence of our sinful human nature remains. We are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:17-18). We are at war with the sinful presence that remains. Sustained by the Holy Spirit, we are moved ever deeper to the roots of our sinfulness. We are to resist submitting to our sinful desires (as the Apostle [Paul] doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin).
Our Anglican forebears began with the bad news in Article 9 “Of Original or Birth Sin” that shows how far our sinful corruption extends. And the Book of Common Prayer underlines the doctrine again and again in phrases like, "There is no health in us," God alone being "from whom all holy desires do proceed," and "We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves," or "can do no good thing without Thee." One thing that has got North American Anglicanism in the superficiality that it is in is that we have just not wanted to talk or examine this doctrine of how far the fall of man truly is. Indeed, the history of theology is a history of softening the sharp edges of Genesis 3. One only need to compare the confession in Morning and Evening Prayer of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with the confession in the Penitential Order that may preface Holy Communion Rite One in the 1979 Book of the Episcopal Church. Reformation Anglicans pray daily:
“Almighty and most merciful Father… there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders…”
American Episcopalians may pray occasionally:
Almighty and most merciful Father… But thou, O Lord…
Notice what’s missing? The modern liturgy has air brushed away what we are, even as believers! We are people who are continually dependent on God's mercy, waging continual warfare between the presence of sin that remains by our human nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 6:1-8:30). We do not want to accept how far east of Eden we are! It has been said that the greatest doctrine to come out of the sixteenth century was not the solas of grace, Christ, faith, scripture, but the doctrine of the revealed fall of man because without it you don’t even look. “And anything defective and inadequate in this respect will assuredly bear upon the question of redemption, for in our consciousness of the nature and power of sin will tend not merely to a superficial statement of the Atonement of Christ, but to the destruction of the idea of atonement itself” (W.H. Griffith-Thomas, Principles of Theology, 170).
For previous articles in this series, see:
- One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
- The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
- The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
- The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
- The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)