Leadership Development in Local Church Revitalization: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Further Research

by Bart L. Denny This article identifies a gap in the existing literature concerning leadership development in the context of local church revitalization. The article further suggests how existing leadership and leadership development theories could be applied to church revitalization and proposes further investigation and research areas. Observers and practitioners in the field of church revitalization unequivocally make the case that for a local church to reverse its decline, the pastor must develop a new generation of leaders (Clifton, 2016; Davis, 2017; Henard, 2021; Rainer, 2020; Stetzer & Dodson, 2021). The extant literature links the decline of churches to a lack of leadership and identifies renewed leadership as a vital component of church revitalization. However, little has been written, theoretically or practically, about the process of leadership development as it applies to local church revitalization. Moreover, little empirical verification supports church revitalizat

Original Sin: Inherited Corruption or Inherited Guilt? (and Why It Matters)

by Bart L. Denny, Ph.D., Th.M.

Maybe you’ve heard the term “original sin.” You might be surprised to learn that there is considerable debate about precisely what the phrase “original sin” entails.

Christians hear the term original sin and have differing conceptions of it. Reading the Bible, I have always understood original sin to mean what I more often heard described as a “sin nature,” an invariable propensity to sin inherited from our first father, Adam. Except for Jesus Christ, the God-man, all have sinned, and none can help but sin. All flavors of orthodox Christianity have accepted that humankind inherits a sinful nature and that no human can attain sinless perfection in this life. This sinful nature, because it has come down through Adam, might be considered “inherited corruption.” One of the consequences of this inherited corruption is the eventual physical death of all human beings.

But I never recognized that this understanding of original sin, common among Baptists, Arminians of all stripes, and the Eastern Orthodox, to name a few, is not the unanimous consensus of Western Christianity. I do believe, however, that this view of the human’s sinful nature as an inherited corruption is not only the biblical teaching on the matter. It is how the entire church would have described the nature of sin for nearly its first four centuries.

Original Sin: An Augustinian Formulation

What many in Western Christianity hold as original sin is the invention of Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century. As Harwood states, Augustine’s “theology influenced both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions profoundly.”[1] The Augustinian concept of original sin entails more than inherited corruption or an inherited sinful nature, although that is undoubtedly part of his formulation. In Augustine’s mind—and in that of many in Western Christianity—original sin entails “inherited guilt.” Grudem, who holds to this Augustinian view (as do many Christians in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition), believes that the Bible teaches, “(E)ven before birth children have a guilty standing before God and a sinful nature that not only gives them a tendency to sin but also causes God to view them as ‘sinners.’”[2] In the Augustinian view of original sin, we are born guilty of Adam’s sin and worthy of punishment. However, somehow (and I have trouble wrapping my head around this part), we will be judged only based on our own personal sins. An interesting point for consideration here is that the Eastern Orthodox church has never held the view that original sin means inherited guilt.

Augustine, and nearly all Western theologians since (including Grudem), base this idea of inherited guilt on what I (and many others more astute than me) hold as a faulty exegesis of Romans 5:12-21.[3] It’s clear here that the Apostle Paul teaches that all humans inherit an Adamic sinful nature (or inherited corruption, if you like). However, nothing about that text mandates that we inherit the guilt for Adam’s sin. Instead, as the Bible teaches (and to be fair, this is what most who hold to inherited guilt actually teach), God judges humans based on the sins they commit. As Romans 3:23 says, “(A)ll have sinned.” The ultimate result of that sin is death (Romans 6:23) and, without Christ, an eternal judgment separated from God in Hell.

Why does it matter? Reason one: Infant mortality

I completely understand your frustration if this sounds academic and more like an exercise in tripping over theological mouse turds. Ultimately, we all sin and need a savior, so what’s the point?

Well, the sticking point comes when we speak of infant mortality. Countless people across history have died, either in the womb or in their first few years of life. Babies have not yet attained cognitive ability. While they inherit a sinful nature and quickly learn to do sinful things—as any parent will attest—they have yet to know right from wrong.

If we hold to the Augustinian view of original sin—that is, that we inherit guilt from Adam—then we must wonder what happens to those who die in infancy. More bluntly: Do infants who die go to Hell? The church has struggled over this question since Augustine’s formulation. Yes, we might wish the Bible had a little more to say on the subject. But I sense that the Bible’s relative silence is because, before Augustine, there was no problem in the church’s mind. Given the much higher rates of infant mortality in the Roman era compared to modernity, I cannot imagine the church never thought about the fate of babies before Augustine. God judged people on their own personal sins, and babies, not knowing right from wrong, went to Heaven if they died. There was no problem before Augustine.

To be fair to those who hold to a view of inherited guilt, most teach that those who die in infancy, through the atoning work of Christ on the cross, go to Heaven. And I can agree with that to a point. Again, I agree that when a baby dies, they go to Heaven based on Christ’s atonement. Still, I fail to see where those who believe in inherited guilt have a biblical leg to stand on when offering comfort to parents who have lost an infant—if, indeed, original sin includes inherited guilt.

The Synod of Dort (1618-1619), which affirmed the Calvinist soteriological system against the Arminian Remonstrants, said that the elect need not worry about the fate of their children lost in infancy. Presumably, the children of the elect are also elected. So where does the Bible say that the children of the elect are also elect? Experience tells us that not everyone raised in a Christian home continues to walk in the Christian faith. And if children of the elect are born elect, but run off the path, offering no evidence of Christian faith, have they become un-elect? That runs counter to the "perseverance of the saints." Likewise, does that mean that the children of unbelievers inherit their parents’ “reprobate” status? What if one parent was a believer and the other was not? Well, maybe it’s just a matter of those babies who were among the elect anyway will go to Heaven? Where does the Bible talk about salvation for anyone who hasn’t believed in the Gospel? And then, that starts to drag us into the fate of all those who have never heard the Gospel—a worthy conversation, and one for which I believe I have satisfactory answers, but not one for which I have the space in this post.

You can easily see why, in response to ideas popularized by Augustine, the Western church developed the idea of infant baptism to wash away original sin—as much as this practice seems without biblical warrant. Given the strong possibility a child might not make it out of infancy, it probably seemed to Christian parents who would have longed to see their deceased children again that it was better to be safe than sorry.

With John Calvin, many would say it’s better not to delve too deep into the mysterious things that God keeps to his own counsel. But I don’t think we need to consign to mystery those things God has clearly said in his Word—especially when we have invented both the problem and the solution. At this point, I am sure some readers—armed with favorite scriptural proof texts—will quote the Apostle Paul, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Romans 9:20). And then they’ll call me a semi-Pelagian, maybe even a Pelagian—which I’m most certainly not.[4] But see, here’s the thing, the way I see it, I’m talking back not to God but to man, who’s got some presuppositions that cause him to make God say things that God never said. I’m pretty sure I’m talking back to Augustine (and those, perhaps most notably, Calvin, who followed).[5]

I want to be careful not to emphasize one attribute of God over another. But I think that’s what the idea of original sin (inherited guilt) does. God is just and holy, but He is merciful, too. He’s all benevolent. He is love. Instinctively, even those who hold to this unbiblical doctrine of original sin can’t worship a God who would send a baby to Hell. God’s character is essential—and it’s good. God does what’s good—and it’s not good just because God does it (to paraphrase Richard Nixon, who famously told David Frost, “If the President does it, it’s not illegal). 

Why does it matter? Reason Two: Inherited guilt makes the sinner a victim

Throughout its pages, the Bible depicts humanity as openly, willingly, and freely rebelling against God and calls on people to repent. The Bible says we are responsible for our sins, culpable in our wrongdoing against God. But, if God judges humans guilty of Adam’s sin, fresh out of the womb (or even before birth), seeing them as victims can be relatively easy.

Of course, the Augustinian notion of original sin comports well with his ideas on double predestination, elaborated upon later by Calvin, Beza, and others, which effectively says that God creates some people to damn them. From before the foundation of the world, God not just permitted the fall of Adam into sin but decreed it an absolute certainty. Adam’s fall—again, not just allowed, but decreed by God—would render the entire human race guilty of Adam’s sin, totally unable to do anything of spiritual good, and damned to Hell just for being conceived. From there, God would arbitrarily elect to save some of them and (either passively or actively) leave the rest of humanity reprobate. Again, this decree of reprobation has no reason apparent to any human. Instead, it is something God keeps to His own counsel. Evidently, God creates some people just to damn them. And yet, God is love. Forgive me, but to borrow from the late Adrian Rogers, I hope I never meet that kind of God in a dark alley. If one adopts Augustine’s view of God, it’s easy to see human beings as victims.

In short, the Augustinian concept of original sin makes God a monster and lessens individual human responsibility for sin.

What to do? Sound biblical exegesis

Bible is our inerrant, authoritative, and divinely inspired guide for faith and practice. I believe the Bible says what it means and means what it says. Where the Bible speaks, we can be sure. And where it is silent, we should be careful not to assign authority to our speculations. We must avoid imposing onto Scriptures meanings that would have been alien to the original, divinely inspired men who wrote them.

All, if not all, of the New Testament authors were Jews (with Luke being the possible exception). And Judaism seems to know nothing of inherited guilt. The Apostle Paul, in particular, receives credit for this Augustinian doctrine of inherited guilt. Paul was a learned Jew. But almost certainly, the concept of inherited guilt is not something he would have picked up in his years at the feet of the great Rabbi Gamaliel. Jesus was a Jew, too, as you probably knew, and never taught anything that, by a straightforward reading, suggests that he talked about guilt for sin in any way but a personal, individual manner.

While it is helpful—essential even—to realize how Christians through the centuries have grappled with issues of the faith, we must be careful to return to the Scripture continually. Properly used, our traditions and theological systems can be valuable tools for studying God’s Word and living it out in our daily walk with Christ. However, if our only tool is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. We must be careful to read Scripture without the presuppositions that impose meaning that the original authors never intended.

Augustine’s idea of inherited guilt creates a problem that doesn’t exist in Scripture and then attempts to solve it with a lot of philosophizing and Scripture-twisting. Get rid of the problem of inherited guilt—while understanding the Bible does teach that humans inherit a sinful nature from Adam—and you eliminate theological issues that don’t exist in the first place.

The Gospel calls to inherently, naturally sinful people who can understand its words. God speaks in the preaching of the Gospel. In the preaching of the Gospel, God himself, in His grace, speaks to people who know right from wrong yet remain enslaved to sin. And as the Word of God speaks to men, His Holy Spirit gracefully works in people’s hearts, telling them they need a savior.

We all bring baggage when we read the Bible. Many people today holding to Augustinian original sin (and Augustinian double predestination) take enormous pride in their “sound biblical exegesis.” They remain convinced that their hermeneutic—their interpretation of the Bible—represents what the Bible definitively teaches. I am confident they are engaged in eisegesis (reading into the Bible their own meanings) with an Augustinian lens. Indeed, the more I study Augustine, the more convinced I become that some of his ideas came from presuppositions preceding his Christian life—assumptions that he never fully divested himself of.

It is not because I am questioning the Bible but because I am attempting to be faithful to its teachings that I question the Augustinian interpretation. No, I’m not kicking against the goads of God’s Word. I’m insisting that we not hold to concepts the Bible doesn’t teach and that its original writers wouldn’t have recognized. Those authors said what they meant and meant what they said. And I don’t think anyone coming in with no preconceptions, and reading in the straightforward manner I believe the authors (human and divine) intended, would interpret the Bible as saying humans inherit Adam’s guilt. An inherited sinful nature, yes. Inherited guilt as an infant? No.

Proper views of soteriology and biblical anthropology demand we set aside Augustine’s concept of original sin with its notion of inherited guilt.

[1] Adam Harwood, Christian Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Systematic (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022).

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 629.

[3] Augustine, who didn’t speak much Greek, seems to have used a Latin translation of Romans 5:12 that was in error. A proper translation of Romans 5:12 reads, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned." Apparently, the Latin translation to which Augustine had access (Jerome's more accurate Vulgate was still a work in progress) gives an erroneous rendering, which would be translated as "in him" instead of "because." So the erroneous ideas is that death came because all have sinned in Adam, rather than death coming to all because all have sinned. See Adam Harwood, The Spiritual Condition of Infants: A Biblical-Historical Survey and Systematic Proposal (Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011). While our English translations do not contain this error, it is interesting that so many in the Western church still hold tightly to Augustine’s doctrine.

[4] Of course, I’m fairly certain from my reading that the “arch-heretic” (as Sproul called him) Pelagius did not hold to even half of the things that are called Pelagian. And no, I don’t agree with Pelagius’s teachings that humans could be sinless, that they were not even born with a sinless nature. Pelagius certainly underestimated the extent of the problem of sin and held to a less-than-biblical anthropology. But Augustine and other opponents smeared Pelagius hard—and little of what Pelagius wrote survives to counter that. We should remember that, since the victors always write the histories, we have a very skewed account of Pelagius.

[5] The admittedly brilliant Augustine was exposed to numerous worldviews including Manicheanism (a syncretic religion that included ideas from Christianity and a variety of other philosophies and religions, including some very gnostic ideas), and Neo-Platonism. I think this gave him a view of matter as inherently sinful. Indeed, some brands of Gnosticism held that Jesus only appeared to be in the flesh. Augustine appears, especially, to have held some very strange ideas about marital, procreative sex, turning even God’s beautiful gift of married sexual intercourse into something very dirty and sinful—again, more a reflection of his own life experience than the biblical teaching. Augustine converted to Christianity and eschewed Manicheanism and Neo-Platonism, but I don’t think he ever fully unpacked his intellectual suitcase.


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