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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




This is a dark subject, and, withal, one which is treated at some length in the Standards. The Catechisms especially give large space to it, for at this point they set forth the entire doctrine of sin which they teach. The Confession, as already indicated, treats of the fall and its effects upon man before the covenant of works is described. In a single brief chapter the teachings of the Standards in reference to the dark, sad fact of sin will be gathered up in an orderly way. It will be noted that this exposition connects itself closely with the conclusion of the last chapter.

I. Three General Introductory Remarks.

It may be of some advantage in grasping the doctrine of the Standards in regard to sin to have some general explanatory remarks made concerning three important points. This is now done at the outset.

1. The Standards evidently assume that the race of mankind is bound up with our first parents in some close and intimate way. This connection, however it be understood or explained, is assumed by the Standards to be a great and basal fact in their doctrine of sin. The race was in some sense in Adam, sinned in him, and fell with him in his sin. He was the root from whence the race sprang, and under the covenant he was also the legal head of the race. The covenant was made with Adam for himself and his posterity, so that he was a public or representative person in this relation. Then, when Adam sinned, the race which was bound up in him sinned in and fell with him, and so it lost all that was in prospect by the covenant. This is the basis of the imputation of the guilt of Adamís sin to his posterity. This race connection is the first important point to keep in mind.

2. The precise nature of sin as held by the Standards needs to be understood. The definition of the Shorter Catechism, with an addition from the Larger, gives a full view of their doctrine of sin. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature. This is very comprehensive. On the positive side it calls all transgression of Godís law sin, and on the negative side it points out what men are ready to forget, that defect, omission, or lack of conformity to what Godís law requires is sin also, and brings men into condemnation just as surely. For a man to fail to love God and his neighbor is sin, just as truly as murder or blasphemy, though there may be differences in the degree of guilt incurred thereby. It must also be carefully kept in mind that the notion of sin implied in the Standards includes all those states of mind and dispositions of heart which are not in harmony with the will of God. These are also of the nature of sin, and incur guilt. This is the second important point to be observed.

3. The distinction between guilt and depravity must also be clearly conceived. This is of the utmost importance in interpreting the Standards. Guilt is legal liability to punishment due on account of sin. Depravity is moral and spiritual defilement of the nature. Guilt springs from the relation of the agent to the law and its penalty. Depravity arises out of the relation of the defilement of sin to the nature of the agent. These two things always go together, though they are quite distinct aspects of the same thing. Guilt may be said to rest on the agent, and depravity to abide in him. The doctrine of sin involves both.

The importance of this distinction lies in the fact that guilt is imputable, but depravity is not; and that depravity descends by heredity, while guilt does not. In a word, guilt, as liability to punishment, may be imputed or reckoned from one to another, while depravity, or spiritual defilement, is inherited or communicated from one generation to another. Depravity, or the corruption of the nature, is often, or, as the Catechism says commonly, called original sin. It is hereditary sin, native corruption, inbred or birth sin. Now, in the case of Adam's sin in his covenant relation, the guilt of his sin, and thereby its penalty or liability to punishment, was imputed or reckoned to his posterity, but the corruption of his whole nature, which as spiritual death is part of the penalty, is conveyed from generation to generation by hereditary descent. This is the third point of an introductory nature, and perhaps it is the most important of the three. The way is now prepared for the discussion of the doctrine of original sin contained in the Standards.

II. The Doctrine of Original Sin Exhibited in the Standards. The three remarks just made pave the way for the intelligent presentation of this doctrine. It must always be kept in mind that original sin in its wide sense includes both guilt and depravity. In this sense it includes the whole state of sin in which men, descended from Adam, are born. In its narrower sense it denotes hereditary depravity as distinguished from imputed guilt. The usage of the Standards is not quite uniform in regard to this matter, though it is necessary to take the wider sense of the term original sin in order to embrace all that the Standards teach upon the subject. In a word, original sin in the Standards really includes every evil and disability, legal and spiritual, which has come upon the race through its natural and covenant relation with Adam, who sinned and fell, and carried the race with him into apostasy. But some analysis must now be made of this state.

1. All men are in an estate of sin. This is the teaching of the Scripture and the verdict of experience. This is a somewhat general statement of the state into which the fall brought all mankind. The Confession calls it a death in sin. There are several factors which the Catechisms and the Confession both emphasize as entering into that sinful condition into which men are born.

First, There is the guilt of Adamís sin. This came upon the race by imputation, and on account of Adamís failure to keep the covenant of works. Men became liable to punishment and are born under penalty. In some way the whole race has become involved in the penal disability which came upon Adam. The Catechisms mention this element of guilt first of all, which favors the theory of immediate imputation.

Secondly, Comes the loss of original righteousness. As has been seen, man was created with this as part of his original religious endowment, and in this, in part, consisted the image of God. With the loss of original righteousness the image of God was effaced, and the divine spiritual likeness in man disappeared. Thus man lost that which allied him to God, and the basis of communion between man and God was destroyed. Then came the sad estrangement between them which history reveals. In this way manís chief divine ornament was broken and cast to the ground when man lost his original concreated righteousness.

Thirdly, The corruption or spiritual defilement of the whole nature followed. This corruption of the nature is original sin in the narrow sense, and it is what is sometimes called spiritual death. Man is thereby dead in sin, and insensible to anything spiritually good. In this state manís spiritual nature is wholly defiled. This means that all the powers and parts of both soul and body are thus defiled. The mind is darkened, the affections are polluted, the conscience is perverted, and the will has become helpless to choose that which is holy. The body, too, has felt the corrupting effects of sin, and, above all, the balance between the soul and body, between the lower and the higher powers of manís nature, has been destroyed. The practical result of all this is that man, as the Confession and Larger Catechism both teach, is utterly indisposed to the good, and so all his desires are averse to it. Further, man is helpless to do anything good, and hence moral and spiritual inability has smitten him. Still further, man is also made opposite to all good, and is thereby at open enmity with God and not subject to his law. And, to crown all, the Standards teach that man is wholly inclined to all evil, which simply means that the whole bent of his disposition and activity is away from God, and towards evil. The love of God is not in him, and the love of evil is in his heart. This inclination is also said to be a continual one. It is thus a fixed bent and habit, which needs a radical revolution to set right. This dark picture drawn by the Standards is true to Scripture, and the experience of man uniformly confirms it.

Fourthly, Out of this sinful, corrupt nature all actual transgressions flow. Both Catechisms and Confession agree in saying that all actual transgressions proceed from this perverted and polluted nature. Of course, if the source of voluntary action be the nature and disposition, and if that nature be depraved and opposed to all good, then it necessarily follows that actual sinning will be the result. The tree is known by its fruits. The tree of fallen humanity is corrupt and inclined to evil, hence its fruitage of voluntary acts is sure to be sinful. Actual transgression is the self-expression of a sinful nature. In like manner, the fact that all men, if left to themselves, go astray, and without exception become guilty of actual sin, is positive proof that the nature is corrupted, and the disposition perverted. Sinful self -expression proves a sinful nature.

2. Men, as sinful in and through Adam, are in an estate of misery. This fact is emphasized in the Catechisms. This miserable condition is the inevitable result of the sin of Adam, and part of the imputed penalty of that sin. Here, also, there are several particulars to be noted.

First, The displeasure, or wrath and curse of God, rests upon man. This evil comes in connection with the loss of communion with God, which gave such peace and joy to the soul of man in his unfallen state. When this communion was broken, the smile of God was turned into a frown. A sense of the displeasure of that God, whose favor is so necessary to the comfort of the soul, filled the heart of man with fear and alarm. This brought sore misery to man. To be without God is to be without hope in the world. This brought a desolation to the soul of man which is sad beyond all description.

Secondly, Man became liable to all miseries in this life. Here very many things might be said, but the statement must be briefly made. Pain and sickness, disappointment and misfortune, grief and sorrow are all to be thought of in this connection. The burden which sin lays upon the body, and the wounds which it makes in the soul, are all to be traced to the same source. Then the curse which was passed upon the ground for manís sake comes in to make his lot all the more miserable, as he toils for his daily bread in the sweat of his face. The believer, of course, feels the burden of this in a measure, though he has a well-spring of consolation to support him at all times. But the man still in sin must endure all the misery without any support or comfort in it. All the miseries of this life make up a painful category of ills which pertain to the lot of man in his sinful estate.

Thirdly, The bondage of Satan is next to be noted. This important factor is mentioned in the Larger Catechism only, but the Scriptures often teach that man by reason of the fall has lost his true liberty and become the bond-slave of Satan. By nature men are the children of darkness and of wrath. In this state they are led captive by Satan at his will. By the fall, therefore, men have in some sense passed under the dominion of Satan, and his cruel bondage rests upon them as a painful part of their sinful estate. It would, of course, be going too far to say, as some ancient divines did, that man had so passed under the power of Satan that the atonement was a ransom-price paid to Satan for the redemption of the elect. Still, in some sense men by the fall have become the servants of sin, and the bond-servants of Satan. This galling yoke greatly increases the misery of the race.

Fourthly, Death itself and the pains of hell are mentioned last. Both of these facts cause much fear and trembling in the heart of man. Death is dreaded because it ushers man into his eternal state, and launches him on his everlasting destiny. The torments of hell, to be further described under the next head, even in anticipation render man's condition most miserable. Then the actual realization of this must be ten times worse. Had man not sinned, death, as we now understand it, would not likely have been experienced; and hell, so far as man is concerned, would have had no meaning at all. Still, it would not necessarily follow from this that all the members of the human race would always have remained alive upon the earth. This might have been the case, but it is more likely that the transition known as death would not be the dark and dreadful thing it now is, but would have been a happy translation to the heavenly estate, for which the earthly career, long or short, was a suitable preparation. There would have been no fear in looking forward to this transition, and no misery would attend its actual experience.

3. Men in this state of sin and misery are in a condition of guilt. Many passages of these Standards, as they reproduce the teaching of the Scriptures, must be understood as asserting that all men by nature are exposed to the wrath of God and the penalty of sin. By guilt, as already explained, is meant liability to punishment or exposure to suffering on account of sin. This guilt rests upon all men when they are born; and when actual transgression is committed and remains unforgiven the guilt becomes all the greater. Every sin, says the Confession, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, does in the nature of the case bring guilt upon the sinner. He is thereby bound over to the wrath of God, and the curse of the law, and so made liable to death, temporal, spiritual, and eternal. The Larger Catechism says that, by reason of their sinful estate, men are made justly liable to all punishments in this world and in that which is to come. Such passages of the Standards clearly show that they teach that man by nature is in a guilty state before God, and so exposed to the penalty of sin. They also show that the penalty which rests upon them is death. This term must be here taken in its deep penal significance, wherein the notion of separation is fundamental. Temporal death is separation of soul and body, spiritual death is separation between God and the soul, and eternal death is perpetual separation of man from God. This awful threefold penalty sums up everything under it.

Under this general head the Larger Catechism states some additional particulars which must now be set down in order.

First, There are certain punishments which come upon men in this life because of their guilty state. These are said to be of two classes, and very dreadful in their nature.

In the first place, there are those which are inward in their nature. Here there are several factors. Blindness of mind is one of these. This is really judicial blindness of the understanding in spiritual things. A reprobate sense, which may be taken to mean an utter insensibility to God and spiritual things, is also mentioned. Then strong delusions, or fixed self-deceptions of some sort, hardness of heart, which is in part judicial and in part the result of habit, horror of conscience as a sense of danger in the soul, and vile affections which cling to some object degraded and degrading, make up the remaining factors noted in this Catechism.

In the second place, there are punishments which are outward in their nature. They are such as these: Godís curse resting upon the creatures on account of the sin of man, the ground bringing forth briars and nettles before him, and all other evils which come upon men in their bodies, names, estates, relations, and employments, culminating in death itself. This dreadful list of penal inffictions, inward and outward, is the heritage of the race on account of the guilty state into which it has been brought by means of sin.

Secondly, There are also certain punishments in the life to come, mentioned in the Larger Catechism. Everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God is properly mentioned first. In the world to come, the lost shall not be beyond the dominion of God, but they shall be forever shut out from the comfortable presence of God, and excluded from communion with him. In some respects this will be one of the most awful things in future punishment. Then there shall be endured most grievous torments in soul and body without intermission forever. This is a dreadful statement, but not more so than the assertions of the Scripture texts quoted in its support. Both body and soul will be the seat of the torment, and it shall be constant and unremitting. It is said to be in hell-fire. The Standards here simply use Scripture language, and they no more mean literal physical fire than do the Scripture passages denote this. Denying the presence of literal fire does not lessen the intensity of the torment, but perhaps deepens it. In any case, the torment will be spiritual in its nature, and suited to an endless and immortal existence. The question of the endlessness of the punishment will come up later on in the exposition, so that nothing further need be added now.

4. Another important question remains. It relates to the precise nature of the relation between Adam and his posterity in the matter of sin and guilt. The special point which now emerges refers to the way in which guilt and depravity come upon the race, in, through or from Adam. The Shorter Catechism simply says that the race sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression. The Larger Catechism says that original sin, by which it evidently means only the corruption of the nature, is conveyed from the first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so that all proceeding from them in that way are conceived and born in sin. The Confession states the matter thus: Our first parents, being the root of all mankind, the guilt of their sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature was conveyed to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary generation. It would thus appear that the Shorter Catechism simply states the fact that the race sinned and fell in Adam, the Larger Catechism deals only with the transmission of depravity by hereditary descent, while the Confession treats of the whole subject of guilt and depravity. According to the statement of the Confession, the guilt of the sin of Adam was imputed, and the corruption of his nature was conveyed by ordinary generation. It would thus appear that the Confession clearly teaches the doctrine of imputation; and, from the order in which the factors of guilt and depravity are mentioned, there is much in favor of the view of immediate imputation. The legal guilt of Adamís sin was imputed or reckoned to Adam and his posterity. This imputed guilt as liability to punishment brought penalty. That penalty in part was to be born with a corrupt or depraved nature, and this is simply spiritual death viewed as the penal result of Adamís sin. Guilt passes upon all men first, depravity comes next as part of that guilt. Again, it is seen that guilt is imputed, and that depravity is inherited. This is the doctrine of the Standards, and it is undoubtedly the best philosophy of the facts. If depravity is held to come first in the logical order, then it can only be an arbitrary infliction without any just ground; but if guilt is held to come first logically, then depravity stands as part of the penalty infficted on just covenant grounds, unless the justice of the covenant arrangement be denied altogether. It is proper to add that, in the experience of men, guilt and depravity are bound up together, so that they are not to be separated in time. The order is only a logical one, and yet it has its significance.

5. The last point for this chapter relates to a topic which fully emerges later on when sanctification is explained. Still, as the Confession alludes to it here, what it says must be set down to make the discussion complete. The point raised has reference to the remains of the corrupt nature which exists in the regenerate. This is not cast out all at once, but it continues to subsist along with the new regenerate nature. Through Christ it is pardoned and mortified. The regenerate believing man is justified, and this places him in an abiding state of acceptance with God, through the merits of Christ. As the believer lives in this state of grace, his sinful deeds are pardoned, and the corrupt nature itself, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is mortified, crucified and subdued more and more, until it is finally conquered at death. And it is expressly added that this old sinful nature, and all its motions or activities, are truly and properly sin. This statement cuts the roots of Plymouthism on the one hand, and leaves no ground for entire sanctification in this life on the other. At this point, again, the wisdom and caution of the Standards are abundantly evident.

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