The Doctrine of Sin, The Third Period 730-1517 A.D., Protestant Doctrine of Sin According to the Confessions

As the conclusion of our preceding article we were quoting from the article on free will as expressed in the Lutheran Confession of the Formula of Concord. We were quoting from the negative section of this article, and called attention to the strong language employed in this Lutheran creed. In this article we wish to quote two more articles from this negative section of this second article on free will.

IV. Also the teaching that, although unregenerate man, in respect of free-will, is indeed, antecedently to his regeneration, too infirm to make a beginning of his own conversion, and by his own powers to convert himself to God, and obey the law of God with all his heart; yet it the Holy Spirit, by the

preaching of the word, shall have made a beginning, and offered his grace in the word to man, that then man, by his own proper and natural powers, can, as it were, give some assistance and co-operation, though it be but slight, infirm, and languid, towards his conversion, and can apply and prepare himself unto grace, apprehend it, embrace it, and believe the gospel.

Notice, please that the Lutherans, in this article, reject the proposition that man can give any assistance towards his conversion, be it ever so slight, infirm, or languid. And, finally, in VIII we read the following:

Also, when such statements as these are used without explanation, that the will of man, before conversion, in conversion itself, and after conversion, is set against the Holy Ghost, and that the Holy Ghost is given to those who of set purpose and obstinately resist him. For God in conversion of unwilling men makes willing men, and dwells in the willing, as Augustine is wont to speak. 

But as concerns certain dicta, both of the Fathers and of certain modern doctors, such as the following: God draws, but draws a. willing man, and man’s will in conversion is not idle, but effects somewhat—we judge that these are not agreeable to the form of sound words. For these dicta are advanced for the confirming of the false opinion of the powers of the human will in the conversion of man, contrary to the doctrine which attributes that work to Divine grace alone. And therefore we judge that we ought to abstain from expressions of such sort in treating of the conversion of man to God. 

But, on the other hand, it is rightly taught that the Lord in conversion, through the drawing (that is, the movement and operation) of the Holy Spirit, of resisting and unwilling makes willing men, and that after conversion, in the daily exercises of penitence the will of man is not idle, but cooperates also with all the works of the Holy Spirit which He effects through us.

It is true that this Lutheran Confession speaks at the conclusion of this last quotation of man as he co-operates with all the works of the Holy Spirit. But, in all fairness, we should note that this Confession here is speaking of the regenerated child of God after his conversion, that it is the Holy Spirit Who makes of unwilling men willing men, and that, although this converted men does co-operate with all the works of the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit Who works and effects through him. May we understand this expression in the same sense as when the apostle Paul writes to the Philippians that it is the Lord Who works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure? In this Formula of Concord the Lutherans surely condemn the natural man and maintain the doctrine of original sin.


This Swiss confession, the last and the best of the Zwinglian family, is the work of Henry Bullinger (1504-1575), the pupil, friend, and successor of Zwingli, to whom he stands related as Beza does to Calvin. The first Helvetic Confession had been drawn up in 1536, and it owes its origin partly to the renewed efforts to bring about a union between the Lutherans and the Swiss, and partly to the papal promise of convening a General Council. Bullinger was chosen Zwingli’s successor as chief pastor at Zurich, Dec. 9, 1531, shortly after the catastrophe at Cappel (the death of Zwingli in battle), in the darkest period of the Swiss Reformation. He was one of the principal authors of the First Helvetic Confession, and the sole author of the Second. In the intervening thirty years (between the First and Second Confession) Calvin had developed his amazing energy, while Romanism had formulated its dogmas in the Council of Trent. Of Bullinger it is stated that he raised the desponding spirits, preserved and completed the work of his predecessor, and exerted, by his example and writings, a commanding influence throughout the Reformed Church inferior only to that of Calvin. He was in friendly correspondence with Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon, Laski, Beza, Cranmer, Hooper, Lady Jane Grey, and the leading Protestant divines and dignitaries of England. 

From this Second Helvetic Confession we wish to quote parts of Chapters VIII and IX, its chapters on sin and free will. We first quote from Chapter VIII, of Man’s Fall; Sin, and the Cause of Sin.

Man was from the beginning created of God after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright; but by the instigation of the serpent and his own fault, falling from the goodness and uprightness, he became subject to sin, death, and divers calamities; and such a one as he became by his fall, such are all his offspring, even subject to sin, death, and sundry calamities. 

And we take sin to be that natural corruption of man, derived or spread from our first parents unto us all, through which we, being drowned in evil concupiscence, and clean turned away from God, but prone to all evil, full of all wickedness, distrust, contempt, and hatred of God, can do no good of ourselves—no, not so much as think any.

Matt. 12:34, 35

And, what is more, even as we do grow in years, so by wicked thoughts, words, and deeds, committed against the law of God, we bring forth corrupt fruits, worthy of an evil tree; in which respect we, through our own desert, being subject to the wrath of God, are in danger of just punishment; so that we had all been cast away from God, had not Christ, the Deliverer, brought us back again. . . . 

We therefore acknowledge that original sin is in all men; we acknowledge that all other sins which spring there from are both called and are indeed sins, by what name so-ever they may be termed, whether mortal or venial, or also that which is called sin against the Holy Spirit, which is never forgiven. 

We also confess that sins are not equal,

John 5:16, 17,

although they spring from the same fountain of corruption and unbelief, but that some are more grievous than others,

Mark 3:28, 29;

even as the Lord has said, “It shall be easier for Sodom” than for the city that despises the word of the Gospel,

Matt. 10:15.

We therefore condemn all those that have taught things contrary to these; but especially Pelagius, and all the Pelagians, together with the Jovinianists, who, with the Stoics, count all sins equal. We in this matter agree fully with St. Augustine, who produced and maintained his sayings out of the Holy Scriptures.

In the rest of this article Bullinger reveals his infralapsarian tendencies, and we do not consider it necessary to quote it. We have quoted sufficiently to indicate his belief in original sin and also in its complete power over the natural man. 

Chapter IX of the Second Helvetic Confession discusses the doctrine of free will, and of man’s power and ability. From this chapter we quote the following:

Secondly, we are to consider what man was after his fall. His understanding, indeed, was not taken away from him, neither was he deprived of his will, and altogether changed into a stone or stock. Nevertheless, these things are so altered in man that they are not able to do that now which they could do before his fall. For his understanding is darkened, and his will, which before was free, is now become a servile will; for it serveth sin, not nilling, but willing—for it is called a will, and not a nill. Therefore, as touching evil or sin, man does evil, not compelled either by God or the devil, but of his own accord; and in this respect he has a most free will. But whereas we see that oftentimes the most evil deeds and counsels of man are hindered by God, that they can not attain their end, this does not take from man liberty in evil, but God by His power does prevent that which man otherwise purposed freely: as Joseph’s brethren did freely purpose to slay Joseph; but they were not able to do it, because it seemed otherwise good to God in His secret counsel . . . . 

Now, it is evident that the mind or understanding is the guide of the will; and, seeing the guide is blind, it is easy to be seen how far the will can reach. Therefore man, not as yet regenerate, has no free-will to good, no strength to perform that which is good. The Lord says in the Gospel, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin,

John 8:34.

And Paul the Apostle says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be,”

Rom. 8:7.

That Bullinger believed that the Lord, in His mercy bestowed good gifts upon men in general (which, incidentally, also Calvin taught in his Institutes), is plain from what follows in this article in man’s free will:

Furthermore, there is some understanding of earthly things remaining in man after his fall. For God has of mercy left him wit, though much differing from that which was in him before his fall. God commands us to garnish our wit, and therewithal he gives gifts and also the increase thereof. And it is a clear case that we can profit very little in all arts without the blessing of God. The Scripture, no doubt, refers all arts to God; yea, and the Gentiles also ascribe the beginning of arts to the gods, as the authors thereof.

In the rest of this article, Bullinger asks and answers the question whether the regenerate have free-will, and how far they have it. We may have opportunity in subsequent articles to call attention to Calvin’s teaching of a common grace in connection with the good gifts which the Lord bestows upon men in general. But it is plain from this chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession that the Swiss Reformers certainly believed in the utter corruption of the natural man. According to his Confession, man has no free will to good, no strength to perform that which is good. And, incidentally, this is also the teaching of John Calvin.