By death we understand not only bodily death, which all of us must once suffer on account of sins, but also eternal punishment due to our sins and corruption. For the apostle says: “Who were dead in trespasses and sins…and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy…even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1ff). Also: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).
The subject of chapter 8 of the Second Helvetic Confession (SHC) is the fall of man into sin and its consequences. The main consequence was death. That had been the warning that God attached to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, one of the two trees He had planted “in the midst of the garden” (Gen. 3:3). His word of warning had been, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Man disobeyed God, heeded the lie of the Devil, and ate of the forbidden fruit. Under the judgment of God, as the consequence for their sin, Adam and Eve died. God carried out His word. He killed man, the rebel; He executed him, for man’s sin was a capital offense.
The death that God inflicted on man affected every aspect of his being. First, that death was physical death: “By death we understand not only bodily death, which all of us must once suffer on account of sins….” Obviously, Adam and Eve did not drop dead at the foot of the tree. But thereafter they were made subject to death. From then on, they endured the misery, the pain, the sicknesses, and all the sorrows that are aspects of death and lead to death. From a certain point of view, it would have been better for man had he dropped dead the moment that he ate of the forbidden fruit. Instead, he was made to endure suffering and sorrow for some nine hundred years before finally succumbing to death. That was by far a greater judgment of God.
What the SHC makes plain is that death is the consequence of sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death is not part of the warp and woof of the universe—the natural order of things. Not at all. That is the teaching of evolution, both of atheistic evolution and of its theistic variety. They have in common that they deny the biblical account of the origin of death. The origin of death is sin. The origin of death is the judgment of God on account of man’s guilt for his sin against God. That fundamental truth every form of evolution denies. And therein, those who teach evolution demonstrate that they are opposed to the teaching of the Word of God.
This is also the reason on account of which man will never be able to conquer death. That is man’s dream. From the days of the early explorers to our day man has been in search of the fountain of youth. More than any buried treasure, this was the discovery that he hoped to make. It can be argued that, from a certain point of view, this is the main goal of all modern man’s medical and scientific endeavors. He spends endless time and millions of dollars annually in the hope of discovering the secret for overcoming death. But man will never be able to conquer death. And he will never be able to conquer death and live forever because death does not have only a natural cause; death is the judgment of God.
The rest of Scripture confirms the teaching of the opening chapters of Genesis. This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12, as cited in this paragraph of the SHC: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” He teaches the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:21, 22: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Adam, all men have died. Because of Adam’s sin, death passes upon all men. On account of the fact that Adam was the head of the entire human race, God visits the consequence of his sin upon all those of whom he is the head.
But this paragraph of the SHC is concerned not so much with physical death, as it is with spiritual and everlasting death: “By death we understand…also eternal punishment due to our sins and corruption.” Man’s spiritual death was also the consequence of his sin. On account of his sin he lost the spiritual life that he had by virtue of his creation. God took that spiritual life from him as punishment for his sin. What this means is that God punished sin with sin. And ever since the first sin, God has continued to punish sin with sin. This, in fact, is the very worst punishment of God upon the sinner, that God punishes his sin by giving him over to further sin. The sinner does not “get away” with his sin, as we often suppose, but by additional sin he increases his guilt and aggravates his final judgment.
And that is also death—everlasting death in hell. Death is separation from God, which is the awful reality of hell. Death is pain and suffering, and that too is the reality of hell. Death is the conscious experience of the judgment of God. In hell the sinner experiences the most awful judgment of God. In hell there is no hope, for the suffering of hell is endless—everlasting: “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire shall not be quenched” (Mark 9:46).
We therefore acknowledge that there is original sin in all men.
We acknowledge that all other sins which arise from it [original sin] are called and truly are sins, no matter by what name they may be called, whether mortal, venial or that which is said to be the sin against the Holy Spirit which is never forgiven (Mark 3:29; 1 John 5:16). We also confess that sins are not equal; although they arise from the same fountain of corruption and unbelief, some are more serious than others. As the Lord said, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for the city that rejects the word of the Gospel (Matt. 10:14ff; 11:20ff).
In one short sentence the SHC acknowledges the reality of original sin. Original sin is the sin of every human being in Adam. When Adam sinned, he did not sin as a private individual, but as the head and father of the whole human race. His sin was the sin of “all men,” that is, of every man. When he sinned, we all sinned in him.
Original sin consists of both original corruption and original guilt. However, it is original sin as original corruption that is on the foreground. That is plain from the fact that the article speaks of original sin “in” all men. The reference is to man’s total depravity, the sinfulness of every man by nature. This is the sinfulness “in” all men.
At the same time, original sin is the source of all man’s actual sins. “We acknowledge that all other sins which arise from it are called and truly are sins….” Our actual sins—our sins of thought, word, and deed—have their source in our original sin. The Reformers were agreed in their doctrine of original sin—agreed also in their rejection of the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin. Although Heinrich Bullinger’s statement is briefer than that of Guido de Bres’ statement in the Belgic Confession, he was in full agreement with de Bres:
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof, and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind (Art. 15).
It can be said that the Reformation restored to the church the biblical doctrine of total depravity. And fundamental to the truth of total depravity is a right understanding of the doctrine of original sin. If the Roman Catholic Church had rightly confessed the truth of original sin, she could never have invented the fiction that baptism washes away original sin in all who are baptized—never. That much was clear to the Reformers.
The Reformers also denied the Roman Catholic doctrine of actual sin, especially its distinction between mortal (deadly, sometimes capital) sins and venial sins. Prior to the Reformation, Roman Catholic theologians developed the teaching of the “seven deadly sins.” The seven deadly sins were usually identified as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. These seven deadly sins were set over against sins that were classified as “venial,” that is, forgivable. Determination of whether one had committed one of the seven deadly sins could be determined by the answers to three questions: 1) Did the act involve a grave matter? 2) Was the act committed with the full knowledge of the wrongdoing that had been done? 3) Was the act done with the full consent of the will? If all three of these questions were answered in the affirmative, the criteria for a deadly sin had been met. If any one of the three was answered in the negative, the criteria for a venial sin had been met.
The Roman Catholic Church taught that deadly sins, in distinction from venial sins, were not only more serious than venial sins but also so serious as to cause one to lose the grace of justification. The consequence for the sinner who falls into deadly sin is that he falls from grace and, thus, what the Roman Catholic doctrine of free will implied becomes explicit in the open denial of the perseverance of the saints. Without demonstrating that at this time, it should be evident that Rome’s doctrine of mortal and venial sins lies behind its unbiblical teachings of penance, the Mass, and purgatory.
The Reformers repudiated Rome’s unbiblical distinction between mortal and venial sins. They taught that all sin is mortal in the sense that every sin deserves death. At the same time, all sins are also venial, for the blood of Jesus Christ covers the guilt of the worst sins. John Calvin repudiated the Roman Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins in more than one place in the Institutes. He writes, for example, (book 3, chapter 4, paragraph 28):
At this point they [the Roman Catholic Church] take refuge in the foolish distinction that certain sins are venial, others mortal; for mortal sins a heavy satisfaction is required; venial sins can be purged by easier remedies—by the Lord’s Prayer, by the sprinkling of holy water, by the absolution afforded by the Mass. Thus they dally and play with God. Though they are always talking about venial and mortal sins, they still cannot distinguish one from the other, except that they make impiety and uncleanness of heart a venial sin. But we declare, as Scripture, the rule of righteous and unrighteous, teaches, “the wages of sin is death” [Rom. 6:23]; and “the soul that sins is worthy of death” [Ezek. 18:20]; but the sins of believers are venial, not because they do not deserve death, but because by God’s mercy “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” [Rom. 8:1], because they are not imputed, because they are wiped away by pardon [cf. Ps. 32:1–2].1
The Reformers’ rejection of the distinction between mortal and venial sins, did not lead them to reject all distinctions between sins, especially the distinction between sins that are more serious and sins that are less serious. Besides the sin against the Holy Spirit that is never forgiven, Bullinger says: “We also confess that sins are not equal; although they arise from the same fountain of corruption and unbelief, some are more serious than others.” He concludes the paragraph by citing Jesus’ warning that “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for the city that rejects the word of the Gospel,” as recorded in Matthew 10:14–15 and 11:20–24. Not the sins of the flesh, which we often account to be the worst sins, but the sin of rejection of the truth of the Word of God, especially by those who have been brought up in the church and in covenant homes, is the very worst sin. In God’s eyes, such sins against better knowledge are the most serious sins. Such as turn their backs on covenant instruction and on the church, in which they were born and baptized, will be beaten with double stripes. Their suffering in the everlasting death of hell will be the most grievous.
1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.4.28; 1:654–55.