Whence then proceeds this depravity of human nature?
From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise; hence our nature is become so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3, Question 7.
Our fathers make no effort to spare us when they speak of the extent of our sins and miseries. Have you ever stopped to consider the various terms that they use in describing our present misery? In Lord’s Day II they assert that the very inclination of our nature is only to hate; to hate God and to hate everyone with whom we come in contact from day to day. That includes those whom we profess to love most dearly. In the first question of this Lord’s Day our Catechism declares that we are wicked, that is, that our motives are always purely selfish, that we love sin, and that we transgress God’s law continually with the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. No, even that language was not strong enough to suit our instructors. To that terrible indictment they added the dreadful word ‘perverse.’ We are also perverse, stubborn, rebellious in our very nature, rejecting God and His holy Word at every turn of the way, always determined to give vent to the evil passions that burn within us.
The very thought makes us shudder. Yet the saints of old did not hesitate to make these charges, even as they were led by the Holy Scriptures and the testimony of the Spirit in their hearts. The question and answer we are now discussing speaks of ‘the depravity of our human nature,’ and adds that the corruption of our nature must be traced back to the earliest moment of our existence. We are depraved, innately bad, corrupt, lewd, immoral, like an apple that may appear sound on the outside, but is rotten at the core.
Our first reaction might very well be, that this is a hard doctrine, who can believe it? Reluctantly we might be willing to grant that this is true of the scum of humanity, the drug-addicted, immoral hippies who live like swine in the mire, or of the criminals and sadists of the world. We might be inclined to brush this charge aside with a feeling that it gives us nothing more than a pessimistic outlook on humanity. We might want to plead that there surely must be a lot of good in the worst of us, and that this good should receive more emphasis. We might even raise to our defense that all this might have been true at one time, but now that grace abounds in our lives our very nature has changed and greatly improved. But our fathers know nothing of this. With Scripture as their guide they maintain that there is none that doeth good as he is by nature, no, not one. We are of ourselves prone to hate, we are wicked and perverse, we are depraved, even corrupt. Our Baptism Form urges us “to loathe and humble ourselves before God, and seek for our purification and salvation without ourselves.” We learn to say with David, “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” We understand Paul when he brands himself as the chief of sinners, and we readily acknowledge, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing.”
Whence this depravity?
Our Catechism asks, “Whence then proceeds this depravity of human nature?” To answer that question we go back to paradise; this time, not as before to marvel at the state of righteousness in which we were created, but to weep.
Two trees stood in the center of the garden of Eden. One of these was the tree of life. This tree of life gave the center of the garden an atmosphere of the Holy of Holies, where Adam and Eve experienced in a very special way intimate communion of life with God. This was a memento to them of the fact that they received their daily bread from God’s hand. It was also a constant reminder of their Sovereign Friend, Who in boundless covenant love had created them as His friend-servants. I like to think that God came and spoke to our first parents at this tree of life, and that there they kept Sabbath, somewhat as we do in church on Sunday. At the tree of life they experienced that the loving-kindness of their God was more to them than their daily food and drink.
The other tree that stood in the center of paradise was the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil. As the one tree was the Tree of Life, so this other tree was the Tree of Death. God had forbidden Adam to eat of that tree, with the warning that at the moment that he would eat of it he would surely die. Its very name told Adam that God expected implicit love and obedience from him. In covenant love to God he must persistently refuse to eat of the forbidden tree, simply because God said so. Refusing to eat he would experience the good, the blessedness of obedience, which carried away God’s approval. On the other hand, if he would reach out his hand in rebellion to God’s command, and take of the forbidden fruit, he would know evil. He would know sin, and experience the misery of God’s severe judgment upon the sinner. Adam and Eve must have understood that obedience in love was good, was a constant knowing, experiencing the goodness of God. While on the other hand, disobedience was evil, carrying with it the evil horrors of death they must have understood this, even though they could not have understood the misery that accompanies this living death throughout the generations.
Scripture gives us a clear account of the temptation, with which we are all acquainted. Certainly no one could express it better than God’s own language inGenesis 3. Anyone who believes an infallible Scripture, divinely inspired, must also believe that there was literally a Satan, a wicked, fallen angel. He must believe that Satan literally found an instrument in the serpent, which was created with a gift of speech. He must also believe that Satan spoke to Eve through the serpent, tempting her to eat of the forbidden tree, which actually stood in paradise. What impresses us, possibly even more than a literal interpretation of this entire event, is the fact that Satan is given by God access to paradise, is given the instrument of the serpent, is given opportunity to approach Eve with his temptation. The sovereign God did not merely allowthese things to happen. In fact, I am thankful to my God that He never for a moment turns His back upon the happenings of this present time, but sovereignly rules over all by His almighty providence. I am grateful that the fall was not an accident, and that there are no accidents in God’s plan of the ages, but that all things, including the fall in paradise, are a part of God’s eternal, sovereign plan of redemption to the glory of His Name. Eternally before the face of God stands Christ, by Whom all things were created, through Whom God carries out the counsel of His sovereign will, unto Whom are all things, that to God may be the glory forever. Colossians 1:13-20.
There were, as it were, three phases in Satan’s temptation of Eve. Satan chose the ready tool, the serpent, which was able to communicate with man. We have possibly a faint resemblance to this communication in the manner in which a dog now “speaks” to man. The devil chose to approach Eve, because she did not stand in the responsible position in which Adam stood over against God. She likely was also the weaker vessel. And, if Satan could win Eve to his side, he could use her to approach Adam. Eve was not surprised that the serpent spoke to her. What should have put her on her guard was the subject he wanted to discuss. Eve must have realized at once that this was no mere chit-chat about the trees of the garden. Her attention was being drawn to the forbidden tree, and she was being tempted. At this point she should have refused to discuss such a serious matter with the serpent, or at least have called her husband, but she preferred to handle this in her own way. The question appeared innocent enough. You may eat of all the trees of the garden, may you not? Yet it was a barbed question with serious implications. If not this one tree, why not? This tree also is obviously good for food. Why should God withhold this good tree from you? Is it fair?
Eve avoids mentioning the name of the tree, merely referring to it as the tree in the midst of the garden. There is a tone of resentment in her voice; she even exaggerates as she says, we may not eat of it, we may not even touch it. With a bit of hesitancy she admits that God might punish them with death. “Lest we die.”
Eve has already fallen. She has taken matters into her own hands, matters that pertained as much to her husband as to her, and she was supposed to be his helper! She had given in too much. She questions the right, the justice of God in demanding implicit obedience from her.
The second phase of the temptation must follow.
We marvel at the defiant boldness of Satan, contradicting God by saying, “Ye shall not surely die.” He makes God a liar, and Eve calmly listens to such outright blasphemy. She does not run away. She stays.
Now the devil adds insult to injury. Your God is not seeking your good as your covenant Friend. Let me tell you what is good. The wretched deceiver makes a play upon the name of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you want to know both good and evil, if you want the freedom to decide for yourself whether you will do the good or the evil, you must eat of this tree. The reason your God is keeping it from you is because He knows that the day you eat of that tree your eyes will be opened, you will be independent, even as God, to choose for yourself good or evil. Yes, the devil seems so sincere in seeking Eve’s good that she weighs his words intently.
Now follows the final step. Eve is really not so naive that she believes these lies. She knows better. She knows that she is in the wrong company, that she is being unfaithful to her God as well as to her husband. But she is ensnared. She knows no way out. For the first time the fruit of the tree has a strong appeal to her. It’s beautiful. It must be luscious. Her mouth waters, her hand reaches out. She throws caution to the wind. Let the consequences be what they may. She takes the fruit, she bites into it, and for the moment experiences that stolen waters are sweet. No sooner is she finished than she is aware of the voice of conscience, but also of the serious consequences of her offence. Never again can she love her husband in his sinless state. Their marriage has struck disaster. As a friend of Satan and as an enemy of God and of her husband she goes out to make Adam like unto her sinful self. He must become even as she, an enemy of God, wicked and perverse, depraved, corrupt to the very core of his existence, dead in sin.
Reading this sad account of the fall of our first parents, we are reminded that Satan still tempts in the very same way. He arouses in us that rebellious question, Why mayn’t I? We whimper that we are hedged in; we cannot do anything. Next arises the thought that there cannot be real harm in sinning; we can get away with it. Why not? And then the final plunge, sin is good, I must sin, I need to satisfy that deep desire within. I want that more than anything else, at least for the moment. The epistle of John speaks of the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.
Adam stood in paradise as our representative head. Our Catechism never questions for a moment that his guilt passes through the generations from father to son. Adam was also our first father, so that his depraved nature is transferred to his children in the line of generations. We hang. our heads in shame, confessing with Paul, “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). With David we say, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Lost, hopelessly lost in sin. But God came. He made the move for our redemption. He came to Adam and Eve with Christ. He called them to Him, even as we now hear the voice of Jesus calling, “Come unto Me, and I will give thee rest.”