Of man’s fall, sin, and the cause of sin: (Second Helvetic Confession, chapter 8a)

Previous article in this series: February 1, 2019, p. 208.

The fall of man

In the beginning, man was made according to the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright. But when at the instigation of the serpent and by his own fault he abandoned goodness and righteousness, he became subject to sin, death, and various calamities. And what he became by the fall, that is, subject to sin, death, and various calamities, so are all those who have descended from him.

The main subject of Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 8, is the fall of man into sin. The chapter begins, not by defending the historicity of the creation and fall of man, but by assuming man’s creation and fall. From the viewpoint of the SHC, there is no question about man’s creation by and in the image of God. Neither is there any question about man’s fall into sin. The fact that in the church today these fundamental truths are brought into question is an indication of the extent of departure from the historic Reformed faith. From the beginning, Reformed theologians like Heinrich Bullinger and Reformed confessions like the SHC took for granted the closely related truths of the creation and fall of man as recorded in Holy Scripture.

Man was created in the image and likeness of God. That image consisted of “righteousness and true holiness.” By virtue of the image of God, man was “good and upright.” Through the Fall man lost the image of God—completely. By the Fall man “abandoned good­ness and righteousness.” He did not lose the image of God in part. He did not lose the image of God in certain respects. He lost the image of God. Though still capable of bearing God’s image inasmuch as he re­mained a rational, moral creature, after the Fall he lost the image of God.

Neither did the Fall only result in the loss of the im­age of God. More than that, man became “subject to sin, death, and various calamities.” Through the Fall, the image of God was corrupted and distorted. In re­ality, fallen man was now in the image of the devil. To the unbelieving Jews of His day, Jesus said in John 8:44, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” Sons are made in the image of their father (cf. Gen. 5:3). That these unbelieving Jews have the devil as their father means that they are in the image of the devil. What was true of the unbelieving Jews is true of every man by nature.

The Fall of man was due to “the instigation of the serpent.” The serpent was the agent of the Fall, as Genesis 3 teaches and the rest of Scripture confirms. It is plain, however, that though the serpent is mentioned, the tempter was more than a snake; it was a rational, moral creature. In fact, the serpent was the instrument of the devil. He indwelt the serpent and spoke through the serpent. The rest of Scripture indicates this, as Rev­elation 12:9, “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world.”

And Eve knew it. She knew that she was talking to the devil. She knew that this serpent was no ordinary snake. It is true that the serpent before the Fall and the special curse of God was quite different from the serpent today. He may very well have had the ability to talk, though certainly not the ability to talk as an expression of thought and emotion, like men and an­gels. He may have had the ability to mimic the human voice, like a parrot, but not to use the voice to express what he was thinking or feeling. That had to have been an indication to Eve that she was talking to the devil. In addition, there is also the fact that every day, God walked and talked with Adam and Eve. He would have shared with them the fall of Satan in heaven. There can be no question that Eve knew that she was communing with God’s avowed enemy. And still she communed with him, as though he were a friend. Rather than to say, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” as Jesus did, Eve engaged in polite conversation with the devil. That made the Fall inevitable.

Although the devil was the tempter, this in no way excuses man for his rebellion and disobedience. Man is to be blamed; he is guilty. Man’s responsibility for the Fall belongs to the teaching of this first paragraph of chapter 8: “by his own fault [man] abandoned goodness and righteousness.” Man sinned and man was responsible before God for his sin. Although God had sover­eignly ordained everything, including the Fall and sin, man is the sinner and remains responsible for his sin.

From the language of the opening paragraph of Chapter 8, it is plain that the focus of the chapter is on the organic connection between Adam and the human race. This is the SHC’s main explanation of Adam’s relationship to the rest of the human race. We all “have descended from him,” Bullinger says. And so, all human beings have become “by the fall…subject to sin, death, and various calamities.” The approach of the SHC is the same as the Canons of Dordt in Heads III/IV, Article 2: “Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced a corrupt off­spring.”


By sin we understand that innate corruption of man which has been derived or propagated in us all from our first parents, by which we, immersed in perverse desires and averse to all good, are inclined to all evil. Full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt and hatred of God, we are unable to do or even to think anything good of ourselves. Moreover, even as we grow older, so by wicked thoughts, words, and deeds committed against God’s law, we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree (Matt. 12:33ff.). For this reason, by our own deserts, being subject to the wrath of God, we are liable to just punishment, so that all of us would have been cast away by God, if Christ, the Deliverer, had not brought us back.

The result of man’s sin was that he became sinful. God punished sin with sin. Because of his sin, man the sinner became subject to sin, under the righteous judgment of God against whom he had sinned. The emphasis of the second paragraph of Chapter 8 is on the sinfulness of man’s nature. Man not only does sinful deeds, speaks sinful thoughts, and thinks sinful thoughts, but man is sinful. His nature is depraved. Bullinger speaks of man’s “innate corruption.” He speaks of man as “unable to do or even to think anything good.” He not only does that which is evil, but he is “unable” to do otherwise. He is incapable of doing that which is good. And “even as we grow older,” we do not improve, but even in old age “we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree.”

Bullinger was not a young man when he wrote the SHC. He was 58 years old when he first wrote it; 60 years old when he revised it. Although he was not ex­actly elderly, he was somewhat older. He was an experi­enced, mature Christian. He knew something, not just of the temptations of the young, but of the sins to which older saints are exposed. He knew that even in old age, we have only a small beginning of the new obedience. Why is that? Why is that the universal experience of older Christians in every age and culture? The expla­nation is that sin is rooted in our nature, and no mat­ter how long we live, our depraved nature does not improve. All the older members of the church say “Amen” to Bullinger’s assertion that “even as we grow older…we bring forth corrupt fruit worthy of an evil tree.”

Closely connected to the truth of the sinfulness of man’s nature is the truth of total depravity. If, indeed, man’s sinfulness is the sinfulness of his nature, man must be totally depraved. For, if man’s nature is sinful, man is sinful—the whole man, man completely. Though implied, the SHC makes explicit its commitment to the biblical truth of total depravity.

Man is totally depraved, first of all, in the sense that the whole man is depraved. Man is depraved in all as­pects of his nature, and man is completely depraved in all aspects of his nature. We are by nature “averse to all good” and “inclined to all evil.” We are “full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt, and hatred of God.” Moreover, “we are unable to do or even to think any­thing good of ourselves.”

Man is totally depraved, in the second place, in the sense that all men are wholly sinful. The depravity of sin is universal; there are no exceptions. The entire hu­man race and every human being is sinful. This, too, is part of the biblical teaching of total depravity. The SHC speaks of “man,” that is, “mankind, all men” are sinful. It speaks of corruption that is “propagated in us all from our first parents.” Both those who are younger and those who are “older” break God’s law “by wick­ed thoughts, words, and deeds.” And “all of us would have been cast away by God if Christ, the Deliverer, had not brought us back.”

As in the first paragraph, so in the second paragraph, the emphasis is on the organic connection of the human race to Adam and Eve. Bullinger speaks of sin as “de­rived or propagated.” And he refers to Adam and Eve as “our first parents.”

Although the emphasis of the SHC is on the organic connection of the human race to Adam and Eve, the legal connection is not altogether out of view. This is appar­ent from the SHC’s reference to Adam as “man.” It says that “man was made according to the image of God” and it speaks of the “innate corruption of man.” The human race is considered as a unity, with one “man” as its head. It was not only Adam that sinned and rebelled against God; man sinned and man rebelled.

In addition, Adam and Eve were “our first parents.” Generally, parents are organically connected to their children. They are their parents’ offspring. But par­ents are also the legal and representative heads of their children. As parents, they decide and act on behalf of their children. For good or for evil, parents represent their children. Without consulting their children, they may move their family to a different part of the state or to a different country. Altogether without the consent of their children, they may change the school that they attend. Without consulting their children, they may switch their church membership or take them entirely out of the church. The seriousness of parenthood is ex­actly that parents are the legal and representative heads of their children. For good or for bad, the decisions that they make affect their children. So also were Adam and Eve the legal and representative heads of the entire hu­man race. What they did, they did on behalf of and as the representatives of the rest of the human race.

In the end, this is the explanation for the righteousness of God in punishing the whole human race on account of Adam’s sin. This is the explanation for the fact that “we are liable to [God’s] just punishment” for what Adam did. How could God punish us for a sin that we did not com­mit? How could He punish us for Adam’s transgression? What is the explanation of the fact that in God’s judgment for Adam’s sin, not only Adam, but the rest of the human race has become “subject to sin, death, and various ca­lamities?” The explanation is that Adam was the head and representative of the human race. The consequences of Adam’s sin were not only his own, but they were also visited on all his children. God is a God of justice.

And what is the remedy? In whom do we have hope? The SHC says that “all of us would have been cast away by God, if Christ, the Deliverer, had not brought us back.” Our hope is in Christ. Our hope is in Christ because He is the second Adam. Like the first Adam, He is our Head and Representative. We do not die on a cross; He died on the cross. We do not bear the infinite wrath of God; He endured the eternal wrath and curse of God. We do not satisfy God’s justice; He has satisfied God’s justice for all for whom He died. Just as Adam represented us in his disobedience, so Christ represents us in His obedience. What He has accomplished He has not accomplished for Himself alone, but for all of whom He is the Head. Just as all Adam’s posterity bear the fruit of his disobedience, so do all who are the posterity of God in Christ according to electing grace bear the fruit of His perfect obedience. That is our salvation.