Some time ago saints from Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC) in Singapore asked me to contribute to a project on writing Daily Meditations on the Belgic Confession. Although I have not written Meditations on every article of the Confession (other ministers have also contributed to this project) I thought it good to share them here
(Articles 15, 17-26 and 29-37 will follow on this blog, and later will be added to the Articles section on our website. I hope you find them useful).
Article 15 is on Original Sin, and (although there are 14 short meditations in this blogpost) you might find it helpful to read one meditation per day.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 1: Our Misery: Sinners by Nature
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh ...”
In Belgic Confession Article 15 we continue to look at the humbling truth of our sinfulness. The Bible teaches that we have sinned, which means that by committing acts of disobedience against God we have transgressed His Law and are guilty before Him. But that, to use a figure, is only the tip of the iceberg. Our sinful deeds are the bitter fruit of an even more bitter root. We are sinners by nature.
Some men today try to excuse their sins by appealing to their nature. “It is natural for me to have lustful thoughts,” they say; “I am just naturally bad tempered; I am an habitual liar, blasphemer, thief, etc. Therefore I cannot be blamed.” In today’s increasingly liberal legal system, a judge can be convinced to be lenient because a criminal “could not help” doing what he did. There are even calls to recognise certain sinful dispositions as natural and therefore good and acceptable.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. It is true that we are sinners by nature—fallen nature—but that in no way excuses our sin. It makes it worse! Habitual, incorrigible thieves belong in prison! Habitual, incorrigible sinners belong in hell! And that is humbling. As sinners, we are always trying to excuse ourselves, but God never does. God forgives sinners, not by excusing their sin, but by making satisfaction to His own justice for sin. Only when we understand how sinfully corrupt we are, will we seek God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.
According to our Confession “original sin is extended to all mankind.” Sin began with an unlawful bite from a piece of fruit. That one sin has produced thousands of years of misery, death and destruction; and it has completely ravaged the entire human race. The presence of pain, disease and suffering; the cruelty of mankind in violence, murder and war; the corruption of every good ordinance of God; and even the overturning of the whole creation can be traced back to that one terrible act of rebellion against God by Adam. When God said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”(Gen. 2:17), He meant exactly that!
The explanation for our sinful nature is our fall in Adam with the original corruption of our nature. Quite simply we are born sinners because our parents pass on to us a sinful nature, which their parents passed on to them. That corrupt line goes all the way back to Adam, our first father.
But even that does not answer the question: Why does the sin of Adam, which he committed in the Garden of Eden, affect us, so that every child is born into the world with “original sin”? Why do we have death working in us from the moment we are conceived in our mother’s womb? How is that fair? How can God punish us for something Adam did, and in which we had no part? These are important and perplexing questions. And we will answer them next time.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 2: Adam Our Federal Head
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:14: “[Adam] who was a figure of him that was to come …”
Original sin is the corruption of our nature with which we are born. Yesterday we asked the question how Adam’s sin could have such a devastating effect on us. The answer is federal headship.
A federal head is a legal representative who acts on our behalf and whose actions have a direct impact on us. If your father squanders your inheritance, you are poor because of him. If you give someone “power of attorney’ over your legal affairs, that person has the right to act as your legal representative. He may sign cheques, make investments and enter into legal contracts in your name. If he makes poor investment choices, you suffer; if he is an astute investor, you benefit. That is why it is foolish to give power of attorney to an untrustworthy man. Or take the example of world leaders. When the President of a country declares war, he plunges the whole country into war, and every man, woman and child under him suffers the consequences of that decision. Similarly, everyone reaps the benefits of a good decision by the President.
God has appointed two, and only two, federal heads. The first is Adam. He represented all mankind in the Garden of Eden. As a head, he failed. He fell into sin and brought everyone down into death with himself. But, says Paul in Romans 5:14, Adam was “a figure of him that was to come.” That second head (also called the last Adam in I Corinthians 15:45) is Jesus Christ. He represents all the elect. His obedience has a direct effect upon us.
If we do not understand federal headship we will never understand original sin.
Adam was not a private person when he acted in the Garden. He was our representative. Adam did not volunteer for the position of federal head. God created him as federal head. Nor did God ask our permission before He appointed Adam to represent us. He was appointed without our consent. In the same way, Christ became our representative on the cross without our consent. If we do not complain about the latter, why should we complain about the former? Besides we have no right to complain about God’s dealings with us which are always just: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus?” (Rom. 9:20).
But consider the representative God gave us. Adam was made in the image of God—endowed with true knowledge of God, righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). Adam was created in a covenant of friendship with God. God loved Adam and showered His love upon him. Adam delighted to serve God and enjoyed sweet fellowship with his Creator. God gave Adam every reason to obey and fair warning what would happen if he did not obey. But Adam disobeyed. And because Adam represented us, his disobedience had immediate—and devastating—consequences for us. We became sinners in him!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 3: Guilty of Adam’s Sin
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many by made righteous”
Because Adam was our federal head or legal representative, we are guilty of his sin of taking the forbidden fruit. This is not because we were physically there in the Garden—we were not even born—but because Adam sinned “for” us or on our behalf. The Belgic Confession has this in mind when it says, “Through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind …” The disobedience of Adam is that one act of disobedience in the Garden, where Adam, acting on behalf of himself and of all mankind, willfully transgressed God’s holy commandment. That act is imputed to us; we are guilty of that one act; and we are liable to punishment for that one act.
That explains, also, why we are not guilty of all of Adam’s other sins. Adam lived for 930 years and like us he sinned every day of his life. But God does not impute those sins to us. That is because Adam ceased to be our representative when he fell. Adam’s fall meant his deposition from his glorious position as head of the earthly creation; his dismissal as God’s officebearer and image bearer; and the end of his covenant relationship with God. Only by the grace of God in Christ was Adam not entirely cast off and his covenant relationship with God, although greatly marred, was restored (Gen. 3:15).
As soon as Adam sinned he became guilty. And God, as He had threatened, punished Adam with death. We think of death so often in very narrow terms. Death is the end of earthly life. But Adam lived for 930 years after he sinned. Death means more. Adam began to die as soon as he became guilty of sin. Sin and death immediately were at work in his body; and some 930 years later he finally succumbed to death and returned to the dust. But worse than physical death is spiritual death. With that death God punished Adam, and us. That death was the loss of the image of God and the corruption of Adam’s own nature. In other words, Adam became corrupt as a punishment for the guilt of his first sin! He was no longer worthy to bear the image of his Creator. And because we are guilty in Adam, we are punished with corruption too. Therefore, God is just in bringing us into the world already totally depraved.
That is Paul’s meaning in Rom. 5:19, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners …” That word “made” means legally constituted, placed into the category of, sinners. But that is only the bad news. The opposite is true, because Paul goes on to write, “so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” Christ’s obedience becomes ours in the same way in which Adam’s disobedience becomes ours—by imputation! No wonder Paul can conclude, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound!”
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 4: Original Guilt and Original Corruption
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:12: “For the wages of sin is death …”
Reformed theology distinguishes between original guilt and original corruption. Strictly speaking, original corruption is what we, and Belgic Confession Art. 15, mean by original sin. However, there is no original corruption (original sin) without original guilt.
Guilt, remember, is liability to punishment. When a court of law finds a person guilty the next step is sentencing. How will the guilty person be punished. With a fine? With a prison sentence? Imprisoned for how long? With the death penalty even? Guilt and punishment go together. There can be no punishment without guilt; and there can be no guilt without punishment. At least, that is the case when justice prevails. God is just. Therefore, He only ever punishes the guilty, never the innocent.
Perhaps you say: but did God not punish Christ, who was innocent, and forgive us, who are guilty? It is not as simple as that. In fact, what happened was this: God imputed our guilt to Christ so that He was legally (although not personally) guilty of our sins, and then (and only then) He punished His Son in our place. On the basis of what Christ did, God then imputes to us the perfect righteousness and innocence of Christ, and forgives us. All guilt is punished, one way or another. Either Christ bears the punishment on the cross, or the sinner bears the punishment in hell forever.
Adam was no exception.
Adam would never have become corrupt except he was first guilty. When Adam became guilty, God in righteous judgment took away from him the gifts with which he was created. The knowledge of love which Adam had was turned into horrible blindness of heart; the uprightness of Adam’s character was twisted into an awful perversion; and the holiness of Adam’s being was changed into corruption, impurity and vileness. As a result. Adam became totally depraved, unable to do anything good and inclined to all wickedness. In the words of Genesis 6:5, “The wickedness of [Adam] was great in the earth and every imagination of the thoughts of [Adam’s] heart was only evil continually.”
What a dreadful fall from such a great height!
The point we make with original guilt is this: God was perfectly just in inflicting such punishment on Adam. Adam’s original guilt in eating the forbidden fruit earned for him the punishment of original corruption. Adam forfeited all God’s good gifts and richly deserved the misery that came upon him. That is one of God’s most dreadful punishments: to punish sin with more sin, to give sinners over to sin. That is how God dealt with Adam.
Adam’s guilt earned for him corruption. The same is true for us. Adam’s guilt is our guilt. Therefore, we too deserve original corruption. That is why every human being who comes into this world is already guilty and already corrupt before he or she takes his or her first breath. That is why salvation is utterly impossible for man. We are, quite literally, dead on arrival, spiritually dead on arrival!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 5: The Proud Error of the Pelagians
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Proverbs 30:12-13: “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes; and yet is not washed from their filthiness. There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up!”
At the end of Belgic Confession, Article 15 our creed declares, “We reject the error of the Pelagians who assert that sin proceeds only from imitation.” Before we proceed in our discussion of original sin, it is good for us to defend the truth against this heresy. Pelagianism, named after a fourth-century British monk named Pelagius, is an ancient heresy, but a deeply rooted heresy which has plagued the church almost from the very beginning. In the middle ages, Pelagianism morphed into a less radical Semi-Pelagianism, and our Canons of Dordt charge the Arminians with “bring[ing] again out of hell the Pelagian error” (Canons II, B, 3).
Pelagianism is an outright rejection of the truth of original sin. Pelagius taught that Adam’s sin has no effect whatsoever upon the nature of man; that man did not in any sense lose the image of God; that neither Adam’s own nature nor the nature of any of his descendants was corrupted by the fall; and that every person born into the world enters it as morally neutral. In fact, taught Pelagius, every person not only must, but can, if he strives hard enough and uses the light of nature, the law of God and the good example of Christ, lead a sinless life and merit heaven for himself.
What explains the universal prevalence of sin, then? Pelagius taught that men sin because Adam gave his descendants a bad example. He argued that children sin only because they see others sin. Pelagianism is the underlying theory of many unbelievers today: they argue that if only we could make man’s environment better he would be a better person. They argue, therefore, that education, urban regeneration and other social programs are the answer to man’s moral problems. Man, they say, is basically good! No so, says the Word of God! Man is not basically good. Man is totally depraved, utterly corrupted, vile and polluted. Sin is not a matter of the environment; it is matter of the heart. Jesus said, “Make the tree good, and his fruit good” (Matt. 12:33). It is foolish, wishful thinking, to expect good fruit from a corrupt tree. And only God, by the powerful work of regenerating grace, can and does make evil trees good.
Semi-Pelagianism modified this view. Pelagianism was so obviously unbiblical that very few could hold to it, especially after Augustine had fought this heresy so vigorously. Semi-Pelagianism concedes that man’s nature has been affected by Adam’s sin—man is very far gone from original righteousness. However, Semi-Pelagianism contends that man is only sick, not dead in sin; and that man still retains the power of freewill with the ability to do good. Where Pelagianism taught that grace is useful but not necessary, Semi-Pelagianism teaches that grace is necessary but not irresistible. To be saved, say the Semi-Pelagians, man must cooperate with the grace of God, which is given to everyone as a help toward salvation. Final salvation, however, depends on man. Pelagianism teaches that salvation is entirely the work of man; Semi-Pelagianism teaches that salvation is the work of God working with man; the Bible teaches that salvation is entirely the work of God. How important it is for us to understand, and rightly to confess, our sinful nature!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 6: Original Sin Extended to All Mankind
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:12: “… and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned …”
All human beings born into this world enter it already in the state of original guilt and with original pollution (or original sin). This is because, as we have seen, Adam represented us all in the Garden of Eden when he ate the forbidden fruit. To this universal rule there is one, and only one, exception. Although this will be treated in Article 18 on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, it is necessary that we mention it here also.
Christ was not guilty of Adam’s original transgression. That guilt was not imputed to Him; and He was not punished with original pollution. There are various important reasons for the sinlessness of Christ. First, as to His Person Christ is the Eternal Son of God. It is unthinkable that the Eternal Son of God could be stained with sin. Second, in the virgin conception and birth Jesus Christ was shielded by the Holy Spirit and preserved from sin. Therefore, explains the angel Gabriel, “that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). These are good reasons why Jesus must be an exception to the rule of original sin.
But there is another more important reason, which is fundamental to the doctrine of original sin. Christ was not under the headship of Adam. When Adam sinned as our representative, he did not act as Christ’s representative. Adam represented only human persons, and Christ is not a human person. He is a divine person. Therefore God could not impute the guilt of Adam’s sin to Christ and then punish Christ with original pollution. In fact, Christ was Adam’s Representative or Federal Head.
But all other persons—being human persons—were represented by Adam, and therefore all other persons are implicated in Adam’s guilt and are consequently born totally depraved with original pollution (or original sin). No human person can escape this. Some of the details of this are difficult to understand. How does sin pass from mother or father to child? In what way exactly is this an “hereditary disease”? Suffice to say that all those who are born of a woman—except Jesus Christ—come forth from the womb already unclean. How humbling!
In 1854, pope Pius IX issued a decree declaring Mary, the mother of Jesus, to be another exception. This Roman Catholic dogma is called “The Immaculate Conception of Mary.” However, such a dogma is impossible: the Bible does not teach it; the Bible allows for only one exception, not two; and, since Mary was represented under the federal headship of Adam, she must also have both original guilt and original corruption (original sin). Mary confessed that Jesus was her Saviour, not (as Rome contends) because God, by a singular grace, kept her from falling into sin in the first place, but because God forgave her sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. Thus we do not look to Mary as a sinless fountain of grace but we look to the sinless Son of God, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) who of all mankind alone is exempt from the pollution of original sin.
The good news is that Mary’s original and actual sins—and ours—are forgiven through the atoning work of the only sinless Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 7: A Corruption of the Whole Nature
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Isaiah 1:5-6: “The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. They have not been closed, neither bound up, either mollified with ointment.”
Having seen the basis for our original sin—Adam’s federal headship—and its universality (Christ only excepted), we consider its extent. The Belgic Confession teaches that original sin is a “corruption of the whole nature.” One of the most graphic figures of corruption in the Bible is that of a leper. A leper is a mass of walking, putrid flesh. Leprosy is a disease that eats the flesh, making the leper vile. In fact, God sets forth leprosy as a picture of the vileness of sin—it makes a man unclean, unfit for fellowship with God or His church; it causes him to stink as from his wounds oozes the putrefaction of his own flesh. No wonder a leper had to stand afar off and cry out in dreadful anguish, “Unclean! Unclean!” Isaiah 1 describes Israel as a leper: from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores. Spiritually, that describes us. Every faculty of our being is corrupted by sin—totally corrupted by sin. Our heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; our mind is darkened, blinded and hardened by sin; our will is stubbornly opposed to God and to all that is good; our affections are directed toward evil; and we flee from the light because we hate the light and love darkness. Moreover, we defile everything we touch and spread corruption everywhere we go.
And this is all true before we even do anything! Sin is not simply in the deed. Before the sinner begins to conceive a sinful thought; before the sinner’s lips begin to frame a sinful word; before the sinner’s hand or foot begins to move in the direction of performing an evil deed, sin is already in the nature. To put it very bluntly, we sin in our sleep; we even sin if we are in a coma! We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.
Sometimes we are tempted to think highly of ourselves, usually because we compare ourselves against the wrong standard. When we compare ourselves with others we think that we are pretty good. But compare yourself against God’s Law; compare yourself against Adam before the fall; compare yourself against Jesus Christ!
Original sin, if rightly understood, is the end of all freewill theology. How can a man have freewill when his entire nature has been corrupted? How can a man choose good who will not come to the light because his deeds are evil (John 3:19-20)? The answer of the one who clings to the notion of freewill is that there remains some good in man even after the fall, some inclination in man toward God. Then he is like a leper who says, “Oh, but I am still a little bit clean.” Such a leper dresses himself in a white robe and for a moment appears to be respectable, but before long corruption begins to ooze out of him and the beautiful pure white robe is ruined. That is the folly of the sinner who denies his own corruption and dresses himself in his own works—only to discover that he corrupts even his best works.
A corruption of the whole nature makes salvation by human works or even by freewill utterly impossible. The answer to our depravity is not our works and not our supposed freewill, but grace: sovereign, particular, saving grace found only in Jesus Christ.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 8: A Hereditary Disease Infecting Even Infants
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 51:5: “Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me …”
Probably one of the most controversial aspects of the doctrine of original sin is that it affects even infants, newborns, even unborn children in the womb. There is no such thing, therefore, as an “innocent child.” A child may be innocent relatively speaking—he is not guilty of any crime recognisable by the state—but he is not innocent with respect to God. Reformed parents confess this when they present their children for baptism. The Form for the Administration of Baptism puts these words into the mouth of Reformed parents as they carry their infant children in their arms: “Our children are conceived and born in sin and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself.” We might not like to think of our children this way but this is exactly what the Bible explicitly teaches: “in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5); “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies” (Ps, 58:3).
There are many mysteries about children. How does God knit a child together in its mother’s womb; how does God create a new person with a body and soul; how does God breathe a soul into the body of a new person? These are mysteries we cannot fathom. We confess, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). We know that a child is a human person from the very moment of conception—and that therefore abortion is a horrible crime, the taking of a real, defenceless human life. We also know that God imputes the guilt of Adam’s sin to each human person from the moment of his conception, on the basis of which God causes the child to be born totally depraved with original sin.
Therefore, we reject the notion of “an age of accountability.” Every child is accountable for the sin of Adam and for his own original corruption not at the age of seven, eight, nine or ten years, but from the moment of conception.
There is one very compelling proof of this: babies die. Children, even unborn children, are subject to death. And if babies die, they must be guilty, because a just God could never cause the guiltless to die. Writes Paul, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression” (Rom. 5:14).
Reformed believers have hope, however, not in the “innocence” of their children, but in God’s covenant promise to save us and our elect children by His grace and mercy: “I will be your God and the God of your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant.” That is why we have comfort as our Canons of Dordt teach us, “Godly parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children, whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.”
Our children are not exempt from original sin. They receive nothing but sin from us. From God alone they receive grace.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 9: The Spread of Sin
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Matthew 23:32: “Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers!”
From tiny acorns mighty oak trees grow. A seed, which starts small, gradually over a long period of time develops into something much greater. The seed has in principle the entire oak tree contained within it—to speak in terms of modern science the DNA for the trunk, the bark, the leaves and every other part of the tree is already inside the acorn when it is planted into the ground. Something very similar is the case with original sin: the one transgression of Adam contained within it in principle all sins and transgressions committed in the history of the world; and human history is the record of the sad development of that first principle of sin.
Sin develops throughout history and even in the lives of individuals. God’s purpose with sin is that man fills up the cup of his iniquity: man must develop his sin to its full potential, so that sin can be manifested as exceedingly wicked and God can be seen as just in punishing sin. There are three cups which are being filled up. The first is the cup of iniquity. In Abraham’s day, the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full (Gen. 15:16). The second is the cup of the sufferings of God’s people, which is filled as the wicked fill their cup of iniquity (Col. 1:24; Rev. 6:11). The third is the cup of God’s wrath which will finally overflow the wicked in terrifying intensity (Rev. 14:10).
It is the folly of unbelieving evolutionary philosophy to imagine that man is improving. He may be becoming more technologically advanced, but morally he is degenerating. He was always totally depraved—ever since Adam sinned and plunged all mankind into ruin—but that depravity unfolds and expresses itself in new ways in every generation. Quite simply, humanity is developing in sin; it ripens the fruits of iniquity. Men can commit sin today in ways in which sinners of former generations never thought possible. As man develops in his technology, science and culture; and as he explores and subdues the creation under him, he does so in the service of sin. God commanded man to do this—to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth, the so-called cultural mandate—but originally man was called to do so to the glory of God. Instead, man takes the good gifts of creation and presses them into the service of sin to build for himself a kingdom in defiance to God. That defiance was first seen at the Tower of Bebel and will culminate in the coming kingdom of Antichrist.
Sin is a destructive force which has infected mankind. And yet the devil promised fulfillment, satisfaction, even happiness, in sin. Eve was deceived; Adam rebelled, and we have been developing in sin ever since. But what about “common grace”? Many teach today that God curbs sin by means of a non-saving, common “grace” which works in the hearts of men so that they do not sin as much as they could or would, and even gives them the ability to do some good in the development of a godly culture. This view is wrong: there is only one grace of God, and that is saving, particular, efficacious, irresistible grace, rooted in election and displayed on the cross. God’s restraint of sin is merely outward—it never improves man’s nature; it is never grace to the reprobate; it simply acts as a muzzle upon a rabid dog or a straitjacket upon a serial killer. Men do not commit every possible sin because of fear of punishment or lack of opportunity, not because of any operation of so-called “common grace.” Without the grace of regeneration all we do—and all we can do, and all we want to do—is sin!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 10: Original Sin Sufficient to Condemn All Mankind
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Ephesians 2:3: “ … by nature children of wrath, even as others.”
How many sins must we commit before we are worthy of hell? The answer, surprisingly, is none! We come into the world already worthy of hell. We are, as Ephesians 2:3 expresses it, “by nature children of wrath.” That is a very difficult confession, and we would not dare confess that unless we knew the forgiveness of sins. One of the great sins of the unbeliever is his refusal to confess that he is a sinner—a sinner according to the Scripture’s definition of a sinner.
But how can that be true? How can we all from birth and even from conception already be worthy of hell? The answer is that we come into the world burdened with the original guilt of Adam and infected with the “hereditary disease” of original pollution or original sin. And our Belgic Confession warns us that God does not take our original sin lightly. On the contrary, it is “so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind.” God created man upright in our first father and representative; He warned Adam about sin and sin’s terrible consequences; and He was angry when Adam sinned. Sin, even original sin, is vile and abominable in God’s sight. Words can scarcely express God’s abhorrence of sin. God speaks of it in terms of loathsomeness, of depravity, of filth; He uses some incredibly offensive words to describe it (“dung” is one of the milder words!). And for Adam—who had been created as God’s friend—to sin against God was base treachery. Had God opened up the earth to swallow Adam and Eve into hell, He would have been perfectly just.
All of us come into this world guilty of Adam’s sin. Therefore, all of us come into this world under the wrath of God with a vile and abominable nature. Our very nature is a swirling whirlpool of iniquity. The Canons of Dordt speak of “the propagation of a vicious nature” (Canons III/IV, A, 2). Therefore we ought not expect anything good to proceed from our nature. Nor should we be surprised—we should be saddened but not surprised—to see our little children sinning as soon as they are born. And as our children grow, they simply develop in sin: in selfishness, in envy, in hatred, in malice and in pride. And especially humbling for parents is that our little children develop in our own particular ways of sinning. The Form for the Administration of Baptism expresses it in these words: “And although our young children do not understand these things, we may not therefore exclude them from baptism, for as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ.”
And original sin alone, without any actual sins of our own, is enough to condemn us all!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 11: By No Means Abolished Or Done Away By Baptism
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Psalm 51:7: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
The Catechism of the (Roman) Catholic Church, published in 1994, says the following about original sin and baptism: “[Original sin] is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin—an inclination to evil that is called ‘concupiscence.’ Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (paragraph 405).
Several days ago we looked at the Pelagian error. Clearly, the Roman Catholic Church is Semi-Pelagian: it teaches, not that human nature is totally corrupted by sin, but that it is “wounded” and “deprived” of some of its powers. In the same paragraph the Catechism says, “Original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants.” Thus Rome denies both original guilt and original pollution, and, although Rome speaks of “original sin,” she denies the Scripture’s teaching on the subject.
Not surprisingly, Rome, who misdiagnoses the condition of fallen man, errs grievously in understanding the cure. Semi-Pelagian Roman Catholicism teaches salvation by the cooperation of man’s freewill with God’s grace. This grace is especially dispensed through the sacraments of the church—and in particular baptism.
According to Rome, baptism “erases original sin.” For an adult, baptism also removes all actual sins. A baptised person, then, according to Rome is basically innocent and pure before God. Total depravity is a concept utterly foreign to the Roman Catholic mind. If you have this basic view of yourself you will never see the urgency of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, the average Roman Catholic believes that (by virtue of his baptism and membership of the church which supposedly has all the means of grace) he is not good enough to go to heaven, nor bad enough to go to hell. Why? Because baptism has dealt with his sin, but he still has weaknesses and tendencies toward sin. That’s all! That is the tragic blindness caused by Semi-Pelagianism.
Our Belgic Confession vehemently rejects this error: “nor is [original sin] by any means abolished or done away by baptism.” Astutely, the Confession proves this from the fact that the baptised continue to sin. If baptism really removed original sin, then surely the sinful, depraved, corrupt nature of man would be gone, and man would no longer sin. Both Scripture and our own experience tell us that the opposite is true. A baptised person has the same sinful nature as one not baptised. He, too, is inclined to all kinds of evil. He too is by nature proud, selfish and malicious. Watch a group of children, some baptised and others not baptised, and you will see no essential difference. They are all sinners by nature and very quickly show that nature in their practice. None can deny that baptised children—even the children of Christian parents who are rightly baptised—still sin after baptism.
Baptism has no effect whatsoever on our nature. Sin is too deeply rooted in us to be removed by a few drops of water. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus Christ.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 12: The Ever Flowing Fountain of Corruption
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Isaiah 57:20: “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt”
We have within us a bubbling fountain of corruption, a spring of pollution that continually casts up filth. This means that sin is not only—or even primarily—in the deed. This is true even of Christians, for those are in mind when the Belgic Confession states that “sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain.” Since we are corrupt at our very source all our works are defiled. If the source has polluted water the streams from that fountain must also be corrupted. Even if we passed pure water through such a stream its pollution would defile any water that flowed through it. In the book of Job, Eliphaz asks, “What is man, that he should be clean; and he that is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? … How much more abominable and filthy is man which drinketh iniquity like water? (Job 15:14, 16).
It is true, of course, that Christians are regenerated by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that our sinful nature is gone; or even that it has been improved. Our sinful nature (also called the “flesh” or the “old man”) coexists with the new life of Jesus Christ (also called the “Spirit” or the “new man”) in the one person of the believer. But there can be no peaceful coexistence between these two principles. Instead, there is war. The old man of the sinful flesh struggles against the new man of Jesus Christ. This truth concerning our sinful nature explains why we are so easily attracted to wickedness; why it is a struggle for us to do good, to pray, to worship God, to read Scripture, while we find sinful pleasure well-nigh irresistible. Paul explains it this way:”I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind …” (Rom. 7:22-23) and “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal. 5:17). “The things that ye would” are the things that you want to do. We want to keep God’s commandments, but our flesh resists; and our flesh even pollutes our best works.
Therefore, since we have an active sinful nature, we must never underestimate our capacity for sin. Sinners, fallen in Adam and totally depraved by nature, are capable of every sin, even the vilest and most abominable of transgressions. And Christians, because that sinful nature remains, are still capable of the vilest of sins. Sin is deceitful. We must be constantly on our guard, watching and praying as Christ commands us.
The good news for Christians is that the old man is crucified—not eradicated but crucified—with the result that sin is no longer a ruling principle in our lives. It is an active principle; it is the source in us of all our sins; but by the grace of God sin shall not have dominion over us.
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 13: Sighing Over Our Corruption
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
Both believers and unbelievers are sinners. Both believers and unbelievers are sinful by nature. Both believers and unbelievers have original guilt and original pollution. About believers Paul writes, “We were children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). The difference, by the grace of God, is in their attitude to their sin. Unbelievers either deny their sins, seek to minimise or excuse their sins, or give themselves over to enjoy their sins. An unbeliever loves sin as a pig loves mud! We must never think that unbelievers are forced to sin against their will. They love sin; they are attracted to sin; sin is their delight; and they hate all righteousness. Paul writes about the unbelieving Gentiles that they “have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:19).
But sinners do not like the evil consequences of sin. If there was a way in which sinners could sin with impunity—without a guilty conscience; without the sense of the wrath of God; without diseases and other judgments of God; without shame or civil penalties by the state; without death; and without hell—they would gladly accept it. Those considerations restrain many unbelievers in their sin without making them one whit better in the depravity of their nature.
But it is different with the believer. By the grace of God the believer is sorry for his sin and desires to be rid of it. Sincerely, the believer desires to serve God according to the new man, but he finds himself hindered by his sinful nature. His attitude is to be humbled over his sin, over his remaining depravity and to cry out to God for grace to subdue his iniquities under him. Paul describes his own experience vividly in Romans 7, and every Christian echoes Paul’s cry because every Christian experiences the same thing. We all know the wretchedness of our own inner corruption. All of us struggle with that nature. We all have our own particular sinful inclinations—for some it is a bad temper; for others it is lust; for others it is greed. Paul did not do what he wanted to do, but did what he did not want to do (v. 15). Paul was willing to do good but he did not find the strength (v. 18). The good that Paul wanted to do, he did not do; the evil he did not want to do—and even hated—he did do! (v. 19). Wherever he turned, evil was present with him, he said (v. 21).
Paul’s attitude was the same as ours, as outlined in our Belgic Confession: he did not “rest securely in sin.” Instead, a sense of corruption made him “often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”
Is that your experience? Do you sometimes despair that you never seem to have victory over sin? Do not think that you are abnormal. The fact that you are truly sorry for your sins—which is nothing more than poverty of spirit, spiritual mourning, hungering and thirsting after righteousness and a broken and contrite spirit—shows that you are a child of God. Then believe Paul’s triumphant conclusion: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 25)!
Belgic Confession, Article 15; Day 14: Our Original Sin Graciously Pardoned
by Rev. Martyn McGeown
Romans 5:20: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”
Perhaps two weeks of meditations on the corruption of our nature is a bit depressing for some. The subject of original sin is hardly uplifting or heart-warming, is it? Go to most Christian bookstores and look at the devotional works and sin will hardly be mentioned. Certainly, no one would think of spending two weeks concentrating on the subject! But such an attitude is shortsighted and wrong. Remember our Heidelberg Catechism: it says that a knowledge of our misery—and that certainly includes our original sin—is necessary if we are “to live and die happily (Q&A 2). The subject of sin, and of original guilt and pollution in particular, is not a pleasant topic, but it is the necessary background to the Gospel.
The Belgic Confession does not tell us about our sin so that we can wallow in misery and self-pity. We insist as Reformed Christians on a thorough knowledge of sin so that we understand our need for God’s grace and are deeply thankful for it. As Jesus said, “They that are whole need not a physician but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). The doctrine of original sin, when rightly understood, drives us to despair of ourselves. We see that we are a mass of corruption; dead in sin from birth; guilty and depraved by nature; unable to do anything good and wholly inclined to all evil. We see that God is just in condemning us to eternal damnation in hell, not only for the evil deeds which we have performed but even for the very loathsomeness of our nature. And then we are ready to hear the good news of Christ.
“Notwithstanding,” says Belgic Confession, Article 15, “it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them.” God would be just to lay our original and actual sins to our charge—but He does not. God does not hold our sins against us so as to punish us for them. God, our merciful Father, does not treat us as guilty offenders and loathsome creatures in light of our sin. But neither does God sweep our sins under the carpet, as it were, and pretend that we have never sinned and have no sin. God does not hold our sins—and even our sinful nature, the source in us of all our transgressions— against us: He held them against Jesus Christ.
The Son of God came into this world laden with the guilt of our sins; burdened under the heavy weight of our iniquities. He knew the oppressive sense of God’s wrath bearing down upon Him as He walked the long and difficult way that His Father had mapped out for Him—a way which led to the cross on Calvary’s hill. Christ’s entire life, including His death, is summed up in one word by the apostle Paul in Romans 5: “obedience” (v. 19). Adam sinned; he disobeyed—and we are condemned; Christ never sinned; He obeyed for us—and we are justified and forgiven. But, remember, you cannot have Christ without Adam. That was God’s good and wise purpose. When Adam fell, he did not fall into hell, as he deserved. He fell into the arms of Christ, whom God had mercifully prepared and provided to be the Saviour (Gen. 3:15). And we fall into Christ’s arms too, we who believe on Him!