Baptism not only washes away personal sins, but also forgives original sin. It forgives original sin both in adults who are baptized and “in tiny infants who have not yet committed personal sin” (CCC 405). The Church does not teach that infants are full of personal sin, but the Church does teach that all humans – even tiny infants – are afflicted with a certain inherited condition called original sin. The thought of infants being full of sin disturbs many people, so original sin calls for a careful explanation. How shall we understand it?
The answer comes in a story. Once upon a time, when God created the first human beings, he created them with a common nature – human nature. But God always had more in store for humanity than for us to live merely as human beings in this world. From all eternity, God wanted us to enjoy his own uncreated Life beyond all the powers of our nature. He planned to share with us his divine Life by grace, and he planned to share it with us right from the first moment of the creation of humanity. So, when he created our first parents, Adam and Eve, he created them with sanctifying grace already in their souls from the first moment of their existence.
Thanks to that original grace, Adam and Eve inwardly lived something of the Life of God in a manner far surpassing all the powers of human nature. They enjoyed a personal relationship with God – a friendship with God that is otherwise impossible for human beings apart from grace. They enjoyed the indwelling of God in the depths of their hearts and a life of communication with him. They had a certain order and equilibrium in all their passions, and in their inner life all was at peace. They had an amazing awareness of God shining out in creation all around them. They also enjoyed the special privilege of immortality. All of this was due to the original grace they received from God.
If Adam and Eve had not sinned, had they never eaten from the tree, they would have transmitted that original grace and all of its benefits to their posterity. Their offspring would have received from them the grace of their special relationship with God, their awareness of his indwelling, their interior harmony and peace, their knowledge of God shining out in creation, and the privilege of immortality. When Adam and Eve sinned, however, they lost the original grace. They no longer walked in it, and could no longer transmit it to posterity. Consequently, all human beings ever since have been conceived and born without that original grace or its benefits. Original sin is precisely this lack or deprivation of the original grace that God gave to humanity. From the first moment of conception, something deep is missing from the human soul – something that God meant human beings to receive.
From the first moment of conception, something deep is missing from the human soul – something that God meant human beings to receive.
Original sin is inherited in the sense that we do not receive the original grace of Adam and Eve that we were supposed to have received through procreation. The lack or deprivation of that grace has serious repercussions for our overall well-being. On account of being conceived and born without the original grace, human nature is afflicted with multiple wounds and disorderly tendencies. Instead of a sense of the presence of God dwelling in our hearts and shining out all around us, fallen humanity tends to live “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). Instead of emotional equilibrium and inner peace, fallen humanity is afflicted with many layers of disordered thoughts and passions. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (Ja. 4:1). Instead of a loving relationship with God, human beings instead have a tendency toward personal sins. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:40).
Original sin was a personal sin in the first human beings, but not in anyone else. Everyone else, however, is touched in a certain way by the effects of that first sin of the first human beings. For as a result of that first free and personal sin of Adam and Eve, the rest of humanity is conceived without the original grace and is afflicted with various wounds. Due to the fallen condition of our nature, each of us has a tendency to commit personal sins of our own. Original sin, therefore, is more like an inherited pathological condition. It is the original global pandemic. It is a calamity of world-historical magnitude. It permeates our world – forming and influencing all human affairs to no small extent. It is one major source of our whole collective experience of the problem of evil over the course of all human history. It was the whole phenomenon of sin on display in the world that prompted Saint John to say: “the whole world is under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19).
The only antidote to sin is grace. Baptism touches the issue of original sin and instantly floods the soul with divine grace. In so doing, it addresses the lack or deprivation of the original grace that afflicts us all since the days of Adam. Baptism does not, however, give us the same grace Adam and Eve once enjoyed before the fall. Amazingly, it gives us a new and better grace.
Baptism does not, however, give us the same grace Adam and Eve once enjoyed before the fall. Amazingly, it gives us a new and better grace.
The grace of Adam was great, but it was not the grace of Jesus Christ. Baptism gives us the grace of Jesus Christ and conforms us to him. The Garden of Eden was great, but it was not heaven. Baptism plants a seed in our souls, not from the Garden of Eden, but from the gardens of heaven. The first Adam, after all, was but a prefiguration of Jesus Christ, and the Garden of Eden was but a prefiguration of the world to come in the heavenly places. Jesus Christ is the eternal High Priest of the good things that have come to us now (Heb. 9:11), and the good things that have come to us are genuinely new.
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). By his grace we know, love, and enjoy things of which Adam and Eve knew nothing even before the fall. For even before the fall, when Adam and Eve still lived in the original grace, they were not explicitly aware of the three divine persons – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first humans knew nothing of the face of Jesus Christ or his sacred heart beating with Love. They never received the Eucharist. Such things have been reserved for us – the children of the last days. It has been granted to us by the grace of Jesus Christ to know and love and enjoy such things in our hearts as we walk the pathways home to the heavenly places.
Father James Dominic Brent, O.P. is a Dominican Friar who lives and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Several of his homilies, spiritual conferences, interviews, and radio spots can be found on his personal Soundcloud site. He frequently lectures for the Thomistic Institute and appears on Aquinas 101.
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