"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
Article 15 takes us back
to our Fall into sin as related in Genesis 3. It is true that the believer,
by God's grace and mercy, has been forgiven of original sin. Yet, in spite of
the forgiveness of sins, sin remains a very real facet of the believer's life
on earth. The child of God experiences sin as an inescapable reality of daily
life, and this bothers the child of God. DeBres has learned from Scripture that
God's forgiveness "does not mean that the believers may sleep peacefully
in their sin, but that the awareness of this corruption may make them often
groan as they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death."
WHAT IS SIN?
Sin is not simply a misdeed.
To equate sin with a misdeed is to underestimate what sin really is. Sin is
far more than making a mistake. Sin is rebellion, rebellion against God's
God-ness, rebellion against my needing to submit to Him as God. Sin is that
I don't want to do what I am meant to do; sin is that I want to do my own thing: rebellion. Sin, then, is not just an outward deed, but sin
is an attitude of the heart. My heart is sinful, rebellious against God;
my heart is the source of all my sins. Hence all my mistakes and misdeeds are
expressions of what is in my heart. Sin is pervasive; sin infiltrates
my whole being: my thoughts, my words, my deeds. No matter what I do, it is
covered with sin because of my attitude of rebellion.
WHERE DOES MY SIN COME FROM?
After David acknowledged his transgression before the Lord in his affair with Bethsheba, he asked himself where his sin came from. His words have been recorded for us in Psalm 51:5. "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me." Here David confesses that sin was present in him from the moment of his birth, yes, from the moment of his conception.
We are not to understand David to say here that sin is just one more characteristic inherited genetically from one's parents, just like one genetically inherits eye and hair colour. One cannot be held responsible for the colour of his eyes or the colour of his hair with which he was conceived. Yet the Bible definitely does hold each individual responsible for his sinfulness. Romans 5:12: "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned-". The apostle insists here that Adam sinned (and so sin entered the world), but adds straightaway that "all sinned". Here is an explanation of David's words in Ps 51:5. David was sinful from the moment of conception because he had sinned in Paradise with Adam already. So too ourselves: when Adam sinned, we all sinned. This matter of personal responsibility for sin (and being sinful) underlies the Bible's revelation concerning God's punishment upon sin. If I were not responsible for being sinful, if I could blame my parents for my being sinful (as I can trace the colour of my eyes to them), then God would not be just in punishing me for sinning. Hell would then be unjust for all but Adam and Eve.
"All sinned", says Paul. I can only conclude from that that I myself, somehow, sinned in Paradise. My sinfulness is my own responsibility. I am sinful because I am guilty of 'original sin.' The term 'original sin' is a reference to the sin described in Genesis 3, and contrasts with 'actual sins,' ie, the sinful acts we commit day by day. Romans 5:12 (quoted above) refers to original sin, and teaches that we fell into sin in Paradise. This thought is basic to the Bible's doctrine of sin and the doctrine of redemption. If I am not responsible for sin in the first place, then I am not in need of redemption either.
How then must I imagine or understand that I am responsible for the sin of Genesis 3? Two different approaches attempt to answer this question, as follows:
1) The Realist Approach reasons that I was actually present in Paradise, and appeals to a passage as Hebrews 7:1-10. This passage recalls the episode of Genesis 14, where Melchizedek received from Abraham one tenth of the booty he had acquired after defeating the four kings in battle, and argues that in effect the Levites paid tithes through Abraham. "Even Levi, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, so to speak, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him" (Hebrews 7:9,10). The Realist explanation for my involvement in the fall in Paradise says that as Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek through his being present in Abraham's loins (though born years later), so we were present in the loins of Adam when he sinned and so we partook in that act of sinning.
2) The Federalist Approach reasons that Adam was the head of the human race, and when he followed a particular course of action, the whole human race followed suit. This can be compared to a Head of State declaring war on another country. Not only is the Head of State at war with that country but his whole country is at war.
Neither of the above two approaches answer all the questions that can be raised about how I can be held responsible for an act I cannot recall (and I wasn't even born at the time!). The important point is that the Bible insists that I am responsible for being sinful. I cannot comprehend how I am personally responsible for my fall in Paradise (my sinful, limited mind cannot grasp it), but I am to admit it and confess it: my sinfulness is my own fault, I am guilty of original sin.
Since I am responsible for original sin, I am also worthy of God's wrath on sin. It would be perfectly just of God to send me to hell. Really, I deserve nothing else, because I already sinned in Genesis 3. Knowing that each person is worthy of damnation points out how great the marvel is that God does not cast all people into hell. It is God's good pleasure to save some and leave others subject to damnation. Given our own responsibility for sinfulness, it will not do for me to complain if I should find myself in hell, nor am I to complain if someone else goes to hell. Hell is justly deserved. See LD 4, Q & A 11.
At this point consideration should be given to the matter of children who die in infancy. Take for example all the victims of abortion. Can some or all of these babies, themselves victims of sin, who have not even had the opportunity to commit a sin, be sent to hell? This does indeed sound rash and harsh to our minds. However, we do well to remember that our minds are but sinful and that our feelings and emotions can stand in the way of a correct perspective on this. The issue here is, 'what does God think?' God hates sin. What is it that all people have in common? They are all totally sinful. Where do sinful people deserve to go? To hell. Where do people go unless they are saved by Christ? To hell. This is true for people of all ages, for infants as well as the elderly. Scripture says that all men sinned - and the wages of sin is death, eternal, spiritual death. I am to understand, then, that I and all people rightly deserve hell - regardless of whether or not we have committed so-called 'actual' sins. My sinful emotions may not hinder me from humbling acknowledging the sentence God rightfully may pronounce on every human being, regardless of age. Only when it is clear in my mind what I and all people by nature deserve, can I be amazed that God has actually reached out to save some. It is then that I can truly marvel at the fact that He also saved me!
THE EFFECT OF SIN
The result of the fall into sin was total depravity. The radical effect of the fall into sin is clear from what we read in Genesis 6:5 (ie, only 3 chapters after the fall into sin was related in Genesis 3): "the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Read Genesis 4 for example; shortly after Paradise, Cain, jealous and angry that the Lord respected Abel and his offering but not his, hated his brother and murdered him. The effect of the fall into sin is that the heart is changed, depraved, corrupted. Jeremiah 17:9 states the matter most graphically: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?" Mark 7:21-23 specifies some of the evil harboured within the human heart,"For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within...." There is not a single good thing left in man; he is totally depraved. This doesn't mean that all people all commit all the most radical, horrendous sins possible. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sin has so totally corrupted the human heart that, no matter what I do, it is corrupted with evil. To the human eye one sin is worse than another, but in God's eyes sin is sin.
Sin affects everything we do. Sin is all pervasive; sin touches all of life. We were not 'little innocents' at birth; even at birth we were already totally depraved and hence inclined to all evil. When our parents had us baptised, they confessed concerning us that we were "conceived and born in sin, and therefore subject to all sorts of misery, even to condemnation" (Book of Praise, p 587). There is absolutely no room for us to have an inflated opinion of what people are. God has given us the Bible so that we might know not only who God is but also what we are: sinful, totally corrupt. The Bible leaves no room for us to have positive thoughts of ourselves or of other human beings, or to think that the distance that separates God from man isn't really that great. To shrink the distance between God and man, to elevate ourselves as not being so radically sinful, involves challenging God and His revelation; it is human pride. The Bible makes it clear to me that sin is real. I sank down as low as I possibly could, and I have absolutely nothing to say to God (see Page 63, Figure 3).That man is inclined to all evil is unacceptable to society today. Long ago already, Pelagius (c. 355-c.425) taught the early church to think positively of people. According to Pelagius people are born blank, like a sheet of paper, on which one can write either purity or filth. It would therefore, he said, be possible for a child to grow up without sin (eg, on an island), if the child were not exposed to any examples of sin. Pelagians believe that "sin is only a matter of imitation" (Article 15). Pelagius' positive evaluation of mankind is attractive to sinful people; here is evidence of our sinfulness. Arminius at the time of the Synod of Dort built on the work of Pelagius. And Arminianism is highly popular in Christian circles today (see Article 16, page 72).
The Lord, though, has revealed something much different concerning our identity. To know what we are, and to know what our children are, leads us to an attitude of humility. If my sinfulness is my own fault, as a result of my own transgression in Paradise, there remains no room for me to challenge God concerning anything He does in my life. On account of my own transgression, I deserve only evil - and I readily acknowledge this humbling reality. More, to accept the reality of original sin is to open the way for marvelling at the great gift God has given in Jesus Christ. Given my depravity, this gift of salvation is indeed the great surprise of the Gospel, and it moves to hearty praise for a God of such mercy.
FORGIVEN AND RENEWED, BUT NOT YET PERFECTED
God in unfathomable mercy has given His only Son to pay for my sins, both original and actual. He has also given me the Holy Spirit and so renewed me (see Article 24). However, this does not mean that I have already been made perfect. Even today I am still corrupt and inclined to all manner of evil. Says Article 15, sin "is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source." Should I then be surprised if I would commit David's sin? No, I shouldn't be surprised at all. Dismayed, yes; but surprised, no. I shouldn't be surprised because my heart remains sinful.
Paul knew this so well. Read what he writes in his letter to the Romans in chapter 7:18,19. " For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practise." Paul writes this after his conversion; after he became a Christian. Like Paul, I can desire to do what is right, but I just do not have what it takes to do it. I am forgiven and renewed, but I am not yet made perfect. That is why Jesus taught His disciples (and so all of us) to pray for forgiveness of sins and to ask God not to lead us into temptation. Though regenerated by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we remain "so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment" (Lord's Day 52). Or, as Lord's Day 51 says it with Paul in Romans 7:24: we remain "wretched sinners". So the Heidelberg Catechism can summarise Scripture in Lord's Day 44 like this: "In this life even the holiest (think, for example, of David or Peter) have only a small beginning" of the obedience God requires. David committed adultery and Peter denied the Lord Jesus three times. They too wanted to serve the Lord, but couldn't get above sin. Nor should I think that I can do better.
This is no reason to cease struggling against sin. In Lord's Day 44 the Christian confesses that "with earnest purpose [the Christian does] begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God." Yes, I must fight sin zealously, but I must not delude myself that I can get above sin.
We do well, then, never to be surprised at sin. Sin remains in the child of God a powerful force. It will never do for me to look down at another because of the sins into which the other fell. In the face of another's sin, it is for me humbly to acknowledge that I would commit the same sin if God did not hold on to me. So there is no place for pointing a finger at another. There is place only for the humble cry: "Lord, hold on to me, for I am still so sinful and I need You" (see LD 52).
This humble attitude also moves me to accept what God says concerning what is right and what is sinful; I am too sinful to be able to judge well. This realisation makes me reach out for Scripture, seeking God's direction from His Word and asking God in prayer to show me the way.
The radical extent of
our sinfulness is something we so badly need to acknowledge. We live in a
time when not only the world, but also Christianity in general thinks positively
of the person. Evangelicalism has taken on a heavy strain of Pelagianism/Arminianism;
man (it is said) is not right down on the bottom rung, but somewhere higher
up the ladder. We do well, however, to echo the unflattering terms Scripture
uses concerning what man is, what I am. In the words of our article, "...
the awareness of this corruption may make (believers) often groan as
they eagerly wait to be delivered from this body of death." This
is what Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 15:53-57. He longs to be released
from this body of death, when the power of sin shall be totally removed. "For
this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put
on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades,
where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin
is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord
Jesus Christ." There comes a day when we will be relieved from the clutches of sin.