How Dead is Dead?

How Dead is Dead?

The Doctrine of the Original Sin in the Writings of Philipp Melanchthon

According to apostle Paul, “mankind is dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph.2:1-2) Some interpret this passage as if God has to give life sovereignly to spiritually dead before they can come to faith or even understand the Gospel because a dead man cannot believe. Therefore, regeneration must precede faith. Is it true that without understanding or believing anything about God or Christ, the elect could be made spiritually alive by a sovereign act of God without any desire or cooperation on their part? Are the dead always dead? Is it appropriate to compare physical and spiritual deaths? If all people are dead in their sins, how can they believe? Do they have to be saved before they can be saved? [Hunt 16]

Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), the intellectual leader of the Protestant Reformation, tried to answer these questions in his writings. In the final edition of Loci Communes rerum theologicarum (1543), Melanchthon presented his moderate doctrine of original sin and predestination.

His earlier views on this issue were different. From Melanchthon’s correspondence with John Calvin, it is evident that he has not warmed up toward Calvin’s view on predestination. [Vance 67] W.Cunningham writes that Melanchthon led Lutheran churches “to abandon the Calvinism of their master, and even contributed eventually to the spread of Arminianism among the Reformed churches.” [Cunningham 345] Only later theological writings present Melanchthon’s more mature and crystalized views. They contain the doctrine of synergism (cooperation between God and man). [Gololob 180]

Melanchthon’s views on original sin crystallized during his disputes with early Lutheran controversies, such as the Antinomian Controversy, the Majoristic Controversy, the Osiandrian Controversy, and the Synergist Controversy. [Gritsch 86-90] Melanchthon began to deviate from Luther’s original teachings, including the question of free will. Luther never doubted that a man could fall away from grace. He also never doubted the universal nature of the atonement of Christ. [Gololob 181] Luther always respected Melanchthon’s views. He consented to have Melanchthon write the Augsburg Confession and approved it without hesitation. He said: “I know nothing to improve or change it [the work of Melanchthon], nor would this be appropriate since I cannot step so softly and quietly.” [Gritsch 45]

In 1530, Melanchthon edited the Augsburg Confession, intended as a joint declaration of Luther and Melanchthon. [Thiselton 165] Article II dealt with the Original Sin. It declares, “Our churches also teach that since the fall of Adam, all men… are born in sin. That is to say, they are without fear of God, are without trust in God, and are concupiscent.” [Tappert 29]

Following the clear sense of the term in the Scriptures, Melanchthon understands original sin as “something culpable and condemned by God unless there is forgiveness,” or “the lack of original righteousness which is required to be present in us.” [Melanchthon, The Chief Theological Topics: Loci 71-72] Melanchthon calls the original sin “the immense weakness with which we are born.” [Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans 24] Here is his more detailed definition of the original sin: “Original sin is the lack of original righteousness, that is, there is in those who are born of the seed of man a loss of the light in mind and a turning of the will away from God and a stubbornness of the heart so that they cannot truly obey the law of God, following the fall of Adam, on account of which corruption men are born guilty and the children of wrath, that is, condemned by God unless there be forgiveness.” [Melanchthon, Loci 72-73]

Original sin totally struck human nature: “Where is original sin? In the soul and in the sentient powers and their organs, because in the mind is darkness, in the will is a turning away from God, a disordered and fickle love of ourselves, a corrupt inclination, and in the heart a stubbornness against the right judgment of the mind.” [Ibid 77]

Original sin for Melanchthon is our “natural weakness” because, without this corruption, man would have a “clearer and firmer knowledge of God,” and in his nature, “the light would shine more brightly… But now the nature of man is under the oppression of the disease of our origin.” [Melanchthon, Loci 57] In the Commentary on Romans, he writes: “What is original sin? Original sin is guilt or imputation… It is also the corruption of human nature, which followed the fall of Adam. Because of it, human nature is not able truly to obey the law of God, but has defects and lust against the Law of God.” [Melanchthon, Romans 132-133]

Melanchthon defines original sin as the “darkness in the mind,” that is, “the human mind does not have an enlightened understanding and a firm commitment to divine providence, divine admonitions and promises.” [Melanchthon, Loci 48]

Although Melanchthon clearly formulated the negative impact of original sin on human nature, he believed that man has a “certain ability” to respond to God’s call. Original sin weakened and distorted the human will but did not destroy it. Melanchthon writes: “Thus original sin is the corruption and disorder of certain elements of man… Man as the subject remains and, in that subject, there is some kind of disorder.” [Ibid] Original sin brought corruption and disorder of “certain elements” of man, but not the whole essence of man.

Melanchthon taught that Jesus Christ came to “heal” this “wound” of our nature: “He sent His Son to assuage this wrath and to heal the wound in our nature.” [Ibid] Melanchthon doesn’t say “raise from the dead,” but “heal” the wound. He did not see original sin as spiritual death and did not consider a non-regenerated man as absolutely spiritually dead. On the contrary, Melanchthon believed that it was inappropriate to compare physical death with spiritual death. If a person is spiritually dead, he/she cannot believe in Jesus Christ as his/her Savior. If physically dead people cannot believe, they also cannot sin. Spiritual death cannot be equated with physical death. If all people are dead in trespasses and in sins, how can they believe? According to this idea, God has to give life sovereignly to spiritually dead before they can believe or even understand the Gospel. God must give man faith so that he can believe, and only then is man able to respond to the Gospel through this God-given faith. Therefore, regeneration must precede faith. A man must be regenerated before he is saved. “It seems like having to get saved before you can get saved!” [Hunt 16]

Melanchthon writes: “There is a great weakness in the human race… But yet among these detriments, there remains some happiness, some freedom.” [Melanchthon, Loci 58-59] Following the teachings of the apostles, he says: “Apostolic Scripture attributes to man, even now after fall, a certain liberty of choosing.” [Ibid 50] Melanchthon claims that after the fall, man still has “a certain freedom of choice” and calls original sin “our human weakness.” Our will is “weak,” but not dead. [Ibid 51, 56] Melanchthon continues: “Free choice is the name given to the faculty or power of the will to choose and seek those things which have been shown it, or to reject them. This faculty or ability in our nature in its perfect state was far greater, but now it has been hindered in many different ways.” [Ibid 57]

According to Melanchthon, an unregenerate person has the ability to choose, that is, a spiritually dead person has “some choice, that is, some freedom,” but “this freedom is greatly hindered by two causes: the weakness with which we are born, and the devil.” [Ibid 58] This freedom is weak and distorted. A person is not dead but has a certain ability to hear and respond to the voice of God. Man is able to express his need for salvation.

Melanchthon considered that this human ability is sufficient in relation to the synergism between God and man (in the business of his salvation). “Since the promise is universal and since in God there are no conflicting wills, it is necessary that there is some cause within us for the difference as to why Saul is rejected and David received, that is, there must be a different action on the part of the two men.” [Ibid 63] Original sin did not destroy all spiritual abilities of man but only struck them with disease and made them weak. “Even though there is a great weakness, yet there is still some freedom in the will.” [Ibid] Thus, a person is not completely spiritually dead but can cooperate with God. Although this human part is relatively weak, God cannot save a person without voluntary human participation.

As a student of Aristotle, Melanchthon used his ideas while formulating his theology. In the debates about the ability of a person to respond to the voice of God, Melanchthon used Aristotle’s view on free will. In his writings, Aristotle recognized free will and advocated for cooperation between man and God. It could be seen through Aristotle’s argument about “four causes” — material cause, efficient cause, formal cause, and final cause. [Aristotle 533] The “four causes” are the answers that Aristotle gives to four questions regarding the changes in the working of nature: What is it going to be made of? Who made it? What is it that is being made? Why is it being made? [Adler 39-40]

The difference between these causes is seen through the work of a shoemaker. In order to produce shoes, the shoemaker needs: leather (material cause), human effort (efficient cause), product design (formal cause), and the purpose (final cause). Without them, the production of shoes cannot take place. A shoemaker applies effort to produce shoes from the leather according to his planned design to fulfill the need of footwear. Since a person, who can be considered as the material cause (leather) does not perceive the effort of an effective cause passively: “the will is most certainly not merely a passive observer.” [Mildenberger 159] He/she participates in the work of a “shoemaker.” The will of the human being who is the subject of the action is also involved in the action.” [Ibid 158]

Melanchthon saw this human ability as a building material in the hands of God. He argued that God does not in any way save a sinner as if it is an object about to be destroyed. A sinner who has “some freedom” can express his personal attitude to what God does in his life: “the will is not idle but assents weakly.” [Melanchthon, Loci 61] The will is not dead, and it does not need to be resurrected, but only to be healed. He uses David’s response to Nathan’s accusation as an example: “Nor does the conversion of David take place in the way that a stone might be turned into a fig. But the free choice did something in David. When he heard the rebuke and the promise, he willingly and freely made his confession. His will did something, when he comforted himself with [Nathan’s] statement, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” (2Sam.12:13). When he tried to comfort himself, he was helped by the Holy Spirit in accord with the statement of Paul, “The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” (Rom.1:16), to him who does not resist, that is, who does not despise the promise but assents to it and believes it.” [Ibid 62]

In the 2nd ed. of Loci, Melanchthon expressed a similar idea: “God draws, but draws him who is willing… and the will is not a statue, and that spiritual emotion is not impressed upon it as though it were a statue…” [Fry 852] He asserts: “If this infusion of qualities were to be expected without any action on our part, as the enthusiasts and the Manichaeans imagine, there would be no need for the ministry of the Gospel, there would be no struggle in our souls. But God has instituted the ministry so that His voice might be received, so that our mind might think about the promise and cling to it and that we might contend against our rebelliousness, and that the Holy Spirit at the same time might be efficacious in us.” [Melanchthon, Loci 39]

At the same time, Melanchthon cautions against reliance upon this freedom: “Therefore, though there is some liberty or freedom of choice, yet we at the same time must consider the impediments so that we learn to set aside our self-confidence and see our help from God.” [Ibid 64] Melanchthon did not claim that man has enough freedom to turn to God independently. He argued that the Scripture clearly says that “men do not have the freedom of overcoming this depravity, which is born within us, or of overcoming death. This great and extraordinary wickedness of the human race is observed when the freedom of the will is diminished. For the will cannot cast out the depravity which is born in us.” [Ibid 59] It is for this reason that we need Christ who “takes away sin and death and restores human nature,” because “the will is captive and not free to remove death and the depravity of human nature.” The will needs to be healed.

Melanchthon speaks of the influence of the Holy Spirit on the will of a man weakened by original sin: “The human will without the Holy Spirit cannot produce the spiritual desires which God demands, namely, a true fear of God, a true confidence in the mercy of God, true love for God, patience, and courage in afflictions and at the approach of death.” [Ibid 60] Melanchthon stresses the importance of the participation of the Holy Spirit: “But now in the state of weakness… desires to follow the law of God are not aroused without the power of the Holy Spirit.” Based on this work of the Holy Spirit, a person is able to respond to God’s call: “Even though there is a great weakness, yet there is still some freedom in the will since it is indeed already being aided by the Holy Spirit and can do something in preventing outward falls into sin.” [Ibid 63]

In his theological reflections, Melanchthon concluded that an unregenerated person is not completely spiritually dead. He believed that a person can exercise certain freedom of choice. Although man’s will is corrupted and suppressed after the fall, he can still desire and seek God and respond to His call. Melanchthon states that “the free choice in man is the ability to apply oneself toward grace (facultas appiicandi se ad gratiam).” [Ibid xxiii] He quotes some of the Church Fathers: “The ancients said that good works arose out of preceding grace and an assenting will. Basil says, “Only want to, and God has preceded you.” God has previously turned us, calls, warns, and helps us, but we should see to it that we do not resist Him. For it is manifest that sin arises out of us and not by the will of God. Chrysostom says, “He who draws, draws the willing.”’ [Ibid 61]

Melanchthon did not come to these views right away. As a result of his theological reflections, he agreed with Erasmus (Luther’s antagonist). [Ibid xxiii] In 1535, Melanchthon changed his mind in favor of the conditional synergism of John Cassian, modernizing it somewhat. Cassian taught that man could cooperate with the grace of God even in the matter of deserving his salvation. Melanchthon believed that man can receive salvation by faith only as a gift. Melanchthon’s opinion resembles a typically semi-Pelagian position with one peculiarity — a person’s will cannot deserve salvation in any way, as Pelagius mistakenly believed, but can only accept it as a gift. [Gololob 190] In other words, Melanchthon taught that preliminary (preparatory) grace cooperates with a good part of a person’s will since the latter is not completely dead but partially damaged. I would argue that applying the “semi-Pelagian” cliché to Melanchthon is inappropriate, as he disagrees with Pelagius on many points.


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Pavel Nesmiyanov (M.Div., Gateway Seminary) ministers at the Revival Church (Vancouver, WA).

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