There cannot possibly be any doubt as to the position of Calvin on the doctrine of sin. Over against all Pelagianism, he maintains original guilt and also original pollution or corruption. He certainly sets forth the Scriptural doctrine that sin came into this world through the sin of Adam, the head of the human race. He speaks of the human mind or reason and of the human will, and maintains that both are completely dominated by the power of iniquity. As far as the freedom of the will is concerned, he has principally no objection to the term, provided that it be understood in the sense that the sinner does what he does voluntarily and not by constraint. And this, of course, is true. The sinner always remains a free moral agent, who sins, not because he is forced to sin, but because he walks in ways of iniquity freely, voluntarily. This, of course, establishes his responsibility. But, speaking of the freedom of the will, Calvin remarks or asks the question: but what end could it answer to decorate a thing so diminutive with a title so superb? Although not condemning the term, freedom of the will, principally, he is extremely reluctant to use it because man is always inclined to use the expression as emphasizing man’s sovereignty over his own mind and will and that the sinner is able by his innate power to incline himself to whatever he pleases. And Calvin considers this danger to be very great.
In concluding what we would say about Calvin’s doctrine of sin, we wish to submit to our readers one more quotation, II, 2, 25:
Are all our industry, perspicacity, understanding, and care so depraved, that we cannot conceive or meditate anything that is’ right in the sight of God? To us, who do not contentedly submit to be stripped of the acuteness of our reason, which we esteem our most valuable endowment, this appears too harsh; but in the estimation of the Holy Spirit, Who knows that all the thoughts of the wisest of men are vain, and Who plainly pronounces every imagination of the human heart to be only evil, such a representation is consistent with the strictest truth. If whatever our mind conceives, agitates, undertakes, and performs, be invariably evil, how can we entertain a thought of undertaking anything acceptable to God, by Whom nothing is accepted but holiness and righteousness? Thus it is evident that the reason of our mind, whithersoever it turns, is unhappily obnoxious to vanity. David was conscious to himself of this imbecility, when he prayed that understanding might be given him, to enable him rightly to learn the commandments of the Lord. For his desire to obtain a new understanding implies the total insufficiency of his own. And this he does not once, but almost ten times in one Psalm he repeats the same petition—a repetition indicating the greatness of the necessity which urges him thus to pray.
What an indictment against the natural man is this quotation of the Genevan Reformer! What a description of the reality and the power of sin! The question is asked whether all our industry, perspicacity, understanding and care are so depraved that we cannot conceive or meditate anything that is right in the sight of the Lord. And Calvin answers by saying that to us who do not contentedly submit to be stripped of the acuteness of our reason this appears too harsh, but that in the estimation of the Holy Spirit, Who knows that all the thoughts of the wisest of men are vain, and Who plainly pronounces every imagination of the human heart to be evil, such a representation is consistent with the strictest truth. And he also declares that, if whatever our mind conceives, agitates, undertakes and performs be invariably evil, we can never entertain a thought of undertaking anything acceptable to God! This is plain language. The Genevan Reformer surely maintained the power of sin in the absolute sense of the word.
ACCORDING TO THE REFORMED CONFESSIONS
We conclude our treatment of the doctrine of sin by calling attention to what our reformed symbols have to say on this subject. And we refer to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession or Thirty Seven Articles and the Canons of Dordt.
The Christian Reformed Church, in its Three Points of 1924, declared itself also with respect to the doctrine of sin. POINT II reads: “Relative to the second point, which is concerned with the restraint of sin in the life of the individual man and in the community, the Synod declares that there is such a restraint of sin according to Scripture and the Confession. This is evident from the citations from Scripture and from the Netherland Confession, Art. 13 and 36, which teach that God by the general operations of His Spirit, without renewing the heart of man, restrains the unimpeded breaking out of sin, by which human life in society remains possible; while it is also evident from the quotations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology, that from ancient times our Reformed fathers were of the same opinion.” And POINT III reads: “Relative to the third point, which is concerned with the question of civil righteousness as performed by the unregenerate, synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confessions the unregenerate, though incapable of doing any saving good, can do civil good. This is evident from the quotations from Scripture and from the Canons of Dordrecht, III, IV, 4, and from the Netherland Confession, Art. 36, which teach that God without renewing the heart so influences man that he is able to perform civil good; while it also appears from the citations from Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed Theology, that our Reformed Fathers from ancient times were of the same opinion.”
Is it not an unbelievable thing that a Church can declare itself in this vein? Surely, if a child of God understands anything at all, it is that all that he does of himself, without the renewing of the heart, is evil and only evil continually. And we must not misunderstand these statements of 1924. It is not the question whether the natural man is able to do natural good. Naturally, he may be able to do many things well. One need not be a child of God to be able to bake good bread, be a successful farmer, etc. The Third Point speaks of not being able to do any saving good, of being able to do civil good. But we should notice that the Second Point declares that sin has been restrained in the life of the individual. This means that the natural man is not wholly corrupt. Point II is therefore necessary to understand Point III. Point II is basic for Point III. And when we read in Point III that the unregenerate is able to do civil good, the meaning is that in things civil, the things of this life, the natural man is able to do many things that are good in the sight of the Lord. Was it not said in those days of 1924 that the natural man often puts to shame the child of the Lord. Now it is surely true that the child of God commits much that is evil in the sight of God. But it can never be true that the child of the world can ever put a child of God to shame. So, the meaning and implications of Points II and III are obvious. These declarations of 1924 simply teach that the natural man can do much that is pleasing to the Lord; they are a denial of the truth that man, without the renewing of the heart, is wholly dead in sins and in trespasses; they are a denial of the Scriptural truth of utter and complete depravity. And, of course, the synod was compelled to express this, once it had declared Point I. If the preaching of the gospel is to be an offer of salvation, then one must also declare that that sinner is able to accept that offer of salvation. To present the gospel as an offer of salvation and teach that the sinner is dead in sins and in trespasses would constitute a hopeless contradiction. How can anything be offered to one who is dead? How can I be sincere when offering something to one who is dead, when I know that it is impossible for him to accept it? And now we come to the question: what do our reformed symbols say about this power of sin?
First of all, we will consult our Heidelberg Catechism. As one might expect, the doctrine of sin is mentioned in the Heidelberg Catechism already in its first part which treats man’s misery. After declaring that we know our misery out of the law of God, and having answered the question what the law of God requires of us by quoting the word of Christ in Matt. 22:37-40, that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, the Catechism asks the question: “Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?” And the answer of the Heidelberger then reads: “In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” This is a very striking answer. The answer itself is striking. When we read that “we are prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor,” this, of course does not mean that we are merely inclined to hate God and the neighbor, that we do have inclinations and leanings in that direction, that we hate the Lord now and then but not always, and that this applies particularly to my attitude toward my neighbor. The Common Grace theory would have us believe that it is especially in civil things, and therefore in my relationships with my neighbor that I am able by nature to do much good in the sight of the Lord. That this is not the meaning of the Catechism is clear from Question and Answer 8 where we read that we are incapable of doing any good and are inclined to all evil. When, however, we read that we “are prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor,” then we must understand that this is the inclination of my entire nature, that we are “prone by nature” to hate the Lord and my neighbor. And my nature begins in, has its source’ in the heart. So, the meaning of the Catechism is that my entire nature is always in the-direction of the hatred of God and of the neighbor. Always, by nature, I hate the Lord and my neighbor. And this is completely in harmony with the Word as recorded in Romans 8:6-8: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So that they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Here, in Romans 8:7 we read that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God. And in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2 we read that the sinner cannot keep “these things” perfectly. What things? The things of the law of God, as stated by Christ in Matt. 22:37-40. Before we conclude this article and continue with this Lord’s Day in our following article, we would call attention to one more matter in connection with this fifth question and answer. We read that we are prone by nature to hate God and the neighbor. Notice, please, that this hating of God and of the neighbor belong together. We either love God and then also the neighbor or we hate God and then also the neighbor. It is only in the love of God that we can love the neighbor. And if we hate God it is impossible to love the neighbor. The theory of Common Grace also suffers shipwreck upon this truth. It is simply not true that, although the sinner cannot perform saving good, he is able to please the Lord in things civil. It is simply not true that, although the sinner cannot love God, he is able to love the neighbor. It is either-or.