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“We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will, agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death, and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God, and only retained a few remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not: where St. John calleth men darkness. Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this, concerning the free will af man, since man is but a slave to sin; and has nothing of himself, unless it is given from heaven. For who may presume to boast, that he of himself can do any good, since Christ saith, No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands, that to be carnally minded is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God? In short, who dare suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the Apostle saith ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. For there is no will nor understanding, conformable to the divine will and understanding, but what Christ hath wrought in man; which he teaches us, when he saith, Without me ye can do nothing.” 

The Belgic Confession, Article XIV


In the previous two articles on this chapter of theConfession we have treated the subjects of the creation of man out of the dust of the earth and the fact that he was created in the image of God. These subjects are stated in the opening sentence of Article XIV. It is our intention to focus on the rest of this article as it speaks of: “the fall of man, and his incapacity to perform what is truly good.” Even at this point there are several subjects which might profitably occupy our attention and be treated in several articles. Among these are the history of the fall itself as this is given in Genesis three; the controversial question of God’s sovereignty and sin; the covenant of works view; man’s depravity and the bondage of the will of man. We shall limit ourselves to a discussion of man’s “incapacity to perform what is truly good” and only briefly touch upon these other subjects. We do this because our times demand it and because one’s views on man and his depravity radically affect his views on God Himself and the gracious character of the salvation of His elect people in Christ.* 

Concerning the fall itself Article XIV makes several points. Man’s sin was voluntary. This the Creed emphasizes when it says: “he . . . willfully subjected himself to sin.” Man, in other words, was not compelled to sin against his own will and desire. Thus man is responsible for his own fall and its consequences. The Reformed faith has always been very careful to maintain this truth lest the fall be construed in such a way as to make God the author of sin. The very thought of that is blasphemy. This is also very plain from the Scriptures: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” (James 1:13-15) At the same time, neither ourConfession nor we wish to deny God’s sovereignty with respect to sin. Sin is not some eternal force along side of God. The fall of man was not some unthought of or unplanned occurrence which frustrated -God’s original purpose with creation and to which. He had to react. Scripture makes abundantly evident that God’s purpose from all eternity is to manifest His incomparable glory in Christ through His cross and resurrection; i.e., in the way of sin and grace. Though we who are mere sinful men and less than specks of dust cannot comprehend this “mystery of the gospel,” we must believe and confess it. And this too is all of grace! God created Adam in such a way that he could choose the good or the evil, and God always deals with man as a rational and willing creature, even though He retains His own sovereignty. Thus Adam sinned of his own will and brought upon himself and his posterity death and the curse of God. 

We believe too on the basis of the Word of God that man fell by the instigation of the devil. Sin had its origin .in heaven when Satan and a host of angels with him “left their first estate,” (Cf. The Epistle of Jude) Satan, in the form of a serpent, approached Eve in the Garden of Eden and tempted her. Eve gave way to “the lusts of the flesh and the lusts of the eyes and the pride of life” and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus disobeying God’s command. (Genesis 3:6) And she gave to her husband and he ate also. Thus it was that man: ” . . . willfully subjected himself to sin . . . giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life.” 

Finally, in this connection let it be understood that the record of the fall of man as presented in Genesis 3 is literal history. There was a real garden of Eden, a real woman and man, a real devil, a real serpent through which the devil spoke, and Eve ate real fruit from a real tree. If this be offensive to the sensitivities of today’s sophisticated intellectual, it can only be because he lacks God-given faith to believe the simple truth of the Bible. The warning of Peter Y. De Jong is well taken: “The story, so often represented as a myth or symbol by modern theologians, is affirmed as history by Christian believers. The whole structure of Christian theology is radically affected by whether or not we maintain the historicity of Genesis 3. Those who reject the story of the fall of necessity adopt views of the image of God in man, the nature and consequences of sin, and even the essential character of God’s grace in Christ radically different than those championed by historic Christianity. Without hesitation and compromise the church should repudiate every attempt to make the story of the fall more palatable to modem man.” (The Church’s Witness To The World, vol. 1, pp. 259-260) 

By his fall man brought upon himself and his progeny dire consequences. The Confession emphasizes this in the strongest language when it. says:. ” . . . having corrupted his whole nature . . . and being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts, which he had received from God.”. Thus, as a consequence of his sin, man corrupted his whole nature and lost the image of God, “all his excellent gifts.” That man “lost” the gifts of God’s image must be understood properly. He did not merely lose those gifts, but they were changed into their very opposites. Man’s knowledge was changed to darkness so that he can only lie about God; his righteousness was changed into unrighteousness; his holiness into corruption so that he is no longer consecrated to the service of God. Man always changes the truth into the lie, holding it under in unrighteousness. Indeed he has lost “all his excellent gifts.” In a real sense man has become the image bearer of the devil. 

A word needs to be said concerning the often disputed phrase, “and only retained a few remains thereof.” This and a similar statement in the Canons of Dordrecht are used as proof for the view of common grace. The argument is that man has retained some “remnants” of the image of God as a fruit of God’s common (not saving) grace which He bestows on mankind in general. Thus, it is said, man is still able, by God’s common grace, to do some good. He can develop culture and learning; produce many good things, etc. But this is not the teaching of the Belgic Confession. What the Creed is saying is merely that man has retained some remains of his rationality and morality. He did not become something other than a man through the fall. Man did not become an irrational beast. He is still able to know the difference between good and evil. He can still come to some knowledge of God through the things that are made. But notice that these are only “remains” or remnants, very small elements of what Adam possessed in the state of rectitude. Notice too that man retains these “remains” only in order that he may be without excuse. This is plainly the teaching of Scripture. Knowing the difference between right and wrong, knowing that there is a God; man always changes the truth into the lie; and changes the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like unto- corruptible man. (Romans 1:18ff.) Man is the enemy of God; deliberately he chooses the evil and always hates the good. He is wicked, corrupt, and perverse in all his ways; he is, in fact, dead in trespasses and sins. (Ephesians 2:1) There is no grace in all this. The message to spiritually dead, sinful man is always: “Thou art inexcusable, O man.” (Romans 2) For this reason “the wrath (not grace) of God is revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness of men.” (Romans 1:18ff.) This is clearly taught in the Canons as well:

“There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of things natural, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.” (emphasis mine, R.D.D., Canons of Dordrecht, III, IV, 4)

This is the historic, Biblical, Confessionally Reformed truth concerning the fallen, natural man. The punishment for sin is grievous. Man becomes “subject to sin.” Sin is his Lord and he is its slave. He can only serve sin in all that he does. This is the Reformed truth over against all Pelagian-free-willism. This is the doctrine of total depravity. The terrible truth of depravity is not that man is a big sinner, not that he sins all the time; but that man can do nothing but sin. He lacks the ability to do any good at all. To prove this theConfession cites the words of Jesus: “No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him,” (John 6:44); and the words of I Corinthians 2:14: ” . . . the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God.” The Confession also makes reference to Romans 8:7 which reads: “Because the carnal mind (literally: “the mind of the flesh”, R.D.D.) is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Notice that according to this text the carnal mind, the mind of the flesh is not only not subject to God’s law, but it cannot be subject to that law! (Cf. Canons III, IV, 1-3; Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. II) 

The conclusion is inevitable. No one is able to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling unless God first works in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13) Man by nature is no more able to will his own salvation than a corpse is able to rise out of its coffin. He is liable to death and curse. The message of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is and ever must be: “By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8

May God in His grace grant us the strength to hold this truth firmly for the glory of His Name. This is our only comfort in life and in death.


* Anyone interested in more intensive study of these doctrines is urged to consult: Herman Hoeksema’s Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 169-280, Reformed Free Publishing Association, Box 2006, Grand Rapids, Mich. 49506. Edward J. Young’s Genesis 3, Banner of Truth Trust, 78b Chiltern Street, London. (This is an excellent “devotional and expository” study of the third chapter of Genesis by the late professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary.)