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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

A Commentary
on the
Shorter Catechism

Alexander Whyte

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called Original Sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

This Question deals with some of the most profound and important matters in the whole range of revealed and experimental religion. And the Answer supplies a clear, careful, and every way admirable statement of Pauline, Augustinian, and Calvinistic doctrine. In language the most scriptural and theologically exact, the guilt and corruption of Adam, and through him of all mankind, are here set forth. And the foundations are here laid deep for that noble structure of gospel truth that is soon to rise before us. The most that can be done in the notes to such a condensed mass of doctrine as this Answer contains, is to call the student's attention to the main outlines of the several doctrines here set forth, and especially to indicate where the best teaching is to be found on the profound but most personal and urgent truths here enunciated.

the guilt of Adam's first sin— "Guilt. Properly conduct which has to be atoned for, which has to be paid for. Debt, return of equivalent" (Wedgwood). "Crime, punishable offence. The original sense was probably a fine or a payment by way of recompense for a trespass; and the word is to be connected with A. S. gyld, a recompense. Both words are from the Teutonic base gald, to pay" (Skeat). But words become shaped and fitted to things; and as human life becomes enlarged and enriched, or again degraded and impoverished, so human language expands or contracts itself to life and experience. And accordingly, while guilt in the text retains all its etymological significance, yet here the further element is necessarily added of representation, suretyship, and solidarity. If there is anything fixed in theological language, it is the sense of the word guilt. And if there is anything in which Calvinists are agreed, it is in saying that when they affirm "that the guilt of Adam's sin has come upon us", they mean exposure to punishment on account of that sin. The first and commonest meaning of this word undoubtedly is that liability to punishment that follows a personal act of illegality. But all history, and literature, and experience sustain the Calvinistic use of the word. We all suffer daily through the wrong-doing of others. And often the guilt of others, of those over us, and in a place to act for us—statesmen, parents, representatives—is imputed to us in exactly the Pauline and catechetical sense. Turretine says that the union or relationship which is to serve as the ground of imputation may be threefold—natural, as between the father and his children; moral and political, as between the king and his subjects; voluntary, as among friends, and between the guilty and his substitute. The bond between Adam and his posterity is twofold— natural, as he is a father and we are his children; and political and forensic, as he was the prince and representative head of the whole human race. And Owen, in his great work On Justification, says that things that are not our own may yet be imputed to us, and that by a rule of perfect righteousness. Things done by one may be imputed to another propter relationem foederalem, because of a covenant relation between them. So the sin of Adam was and is imputed to all his posterity. And the ground of this is, that we stood in the same covenant with him, naturally and morally, who was our head and representative. For most clear, sober, and convincing discussions of this subject, let the easily accessible writings of Dr. Cunningham and Dr. Hudge be consulted. See Macpherson's Confession, chap. 6.

the want of original righteousness—The Catechism, following Scripture, here teaches that mankind have now lost that "righteousness" which as a race we were created with. We are not only a disinherited family, but we are personally depraved and demoralized. We are born in sin; we are born ssnners. The image of God is all but obliterated in us; it is altogether obliterated in its best features. Consult Answer 10 as to what we had and what we have lost.

the corruption of his whole nature— "Corruption. The state of being corrupt or putrid; the process of putrefaction; putrescence; taint. Loss of purity and integrity; depravity, wickedness" (Webster). The word is used in morals and religion in a metaphorical sense, and means moral putrescence and pollution. "If a man is able to do a right action, and does a wrong one, he is personally guilty indeed, but it cannot be said that his nature is corrupt. The passions and affections may be inconveniently strong, and so the nature be at a disadvantage; but no mere strength of the passions and affections shows the nature corrupt so long as the will retains its power. . . . The test of a sound or corrupt nature, then, is an able or an impotent will; and if a corruption of nature means anything at all, it means the loss of freewill. This was the legitimate advance that was wanted in the Western Church to complete the expression of the doctrine; and this complement it was left to St. Augustine to give" (Morley). "The corruption of human nature might be a doctrine of theology, but it was also a fact in natural history. If a naturalist could come from Jupiter or Saturn to describe the inhabitants of this earth, he would say that man alone had instincts and tendencies which were constantly leading him to courses of action injurious and fatal to himself and to the race to which he belonged. This corruption was a fact in natural history" (Duke of Argyll in the House of Lords, June 28, 1883). "Nor is it any proof to the contrary that men often excel in generosity of disposition, undertake designs apparently honourable, and put forth evidences of virtue. . . . For all such things which please us with the colour of virtue, are like wine spoiled with the flavour of the cask" (Calvin). Commenting on Zech. 14:52, Dr. Moore says: "The first element of the punishment is corruption, which is set forth by the terrible image of a living death, a fearful, anomalous state, in which the mouldy rottenness of death is combined in horrible union with the vivid, conscious sensibility of life. The soul of the sinner, in its future consciousness of sin, shall feel its loathsome corruption as vividly as now it would feel the slow putrefaction of the body that rutted piecemeal to the grave."

Accounting for the origin of this corruption of human nature, and defending his doctrines from all misunderstanding and misrepresentation, Edwards says: "I think a little attention to the nature of things will be sufficient to satisfy any impartial considerate inquirer that the absence of positive good principles, leaving the natural principles of self-love, appetite, etc., to themselves, will certainly be followed with the corruption, yea, the total corruption of the heart." For the full proof and illustration of this position see the whole of the sober and masterly chapter, Original Sin, Part 4. chap. 2.

whole nature— "There is an intense aversion to the doctrine of total depravity in some men's minds. . . . The feeling comes in some measure from a misapprehension of its true meaning. It is a term of extensity rather than intensity. It is opposed to partial depravity; to the idea that man is sinful in one moment and innocent or sinless in another; or sinful in some acts and pure in others. It affirms that he is all wrong, in all things, and all the time. It does not mean that man is as bad as the devil, or that every man is as bad as every other, or that any man is as bad as he may possibly be, or may become. But there is no limit to the universality or extent of evil in his soul. So say the Scriptures, and so says every awakened conscience" (Tayler Lewis). See the whole of the admirable note in Lange's Genesis.

"Man lay a grovelling babe upon the ground,
Polluted in the blood of his first sire,
With all his essence shattered and unsound,
And coiled around his heart a demon dire,
Which was not of his nature, but had skill
To bind and form his opening mind to ill.

"O man, strange composite of heaven and earth!
Majesty dwarfed to baseness! fragrant flower
Running to poisonous seed! and seeming worth
Choking corruption! weakness mastering power!
Who never art so near to crime and shame
As when thou hast achieved some deed of name."
Dream of Gerontius.

(See Bunyan's Divine Emblems, No. 17., "The Sinner and the Spider;" also his Grace Abounding, Par. 84.) commonly called Original Sin—This theological distinction and nomenclature is derived from Augustine, to whom the Church of Christ owes so much. Now what is original sin? The Shorter Catechism answers that it is the inherited corruption of the whole moral and spiritual nature of man. And the Larger Catechism enlarges that Answer thus: "Original sin is the corruption of man's nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to evil, and that continually." A fearful indictment to be laid against all mankind without exception; but by the confession of the ablest and best of mankind, not one whit exaggerated, or in any point opposed to actual fact and daily experience. If any reader doubts the truth of this terrible doctrine, or is staggered at the tremendous charge it lays against human nature, he is recommended to suspend his judgment till he has read the great masterpiece on this subject, Jonathan Edwards' Original Sin. Dr. Cunningham admits that it may be doubted, as a mere question of grammatical construction, whether the words, "which is commonly called Original Sin", apply only to the "corruption of his whole nature", which is the immediate antecedent, or include also the other ingredients or constituent elements of the sinfulness of the state into which man fell, which had been previously mentioned,—viz. the guilt of Adam's first sin, and the want of original righteousness,—but any ambiguity in this respect is removed in the fuller exposition given under the corresponding Question in the Larger Catechism, where it is plain that the statement made as to the common meaning of the words "original sin," applies it only to the corruption of our nature,—the inherent depravity which is the immediate source of actual transgression. "Original sin, in its full extent, consists of three parts,—the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of our whole nature. This last is commonly called original sin, as being the worst part of it"(Boston). "After the heavenly image in man was effaced, he not only himself was punished by the withdrawal of the ornaments in which man had been arrayed, —viz. wisdom, virtue, truth, justice, and holiness, and by the substitution in their place of those dire pests blindness, impotence, vanity, impurity, and unrighteousness, —but he involved his posterity also, and plunged them in the same wretchedness. This is the hereditary corruption to which early Christian writers gave the name of original sin, meaning by that term the depravation of a nature formerly good and pure" (Calvin). "The great and original principle in sin is self-love; it is the spirit, the quintessence of original sin" (Goodwin). (But see Hodge, 2. p. 144; Macpherson, Confession, 6. 1.)

"Sky lower'd, and muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completing of the mortal sin

actual transgressions— "It is important to notice that the term ‘actual' applied to sin in this connection is employed in its etymological signification to denote the sin of single choices and distinct acts, in distinction from the sin of the heart, or natural disposition which proceeds from it" (Shedd).

which proceed from it. "From within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness : all these evil things come from within and defile the man" (Our Lord, instructing His disciples). "Single out the grossest sin thou hast ever committed, which hath brought thee lowest on thy knees, and hath cost thee most sighs and sobs, which thou hast drenched and watered with most tears, and compare it with the evil disposition of thy heart and nature which was the root that cursed fruit grew on. . . . Take any poisoned root, and you will find the least piece of it hath as much strength of poison in it as all the leaves and branches. It hath not only been actually the cause of all the sins thou hast committed, but virtually, and radically, and potentially it is the seminal root of millions more even of all manner of sin thou never actedst, God restraining thee, so that thou hast seen the least parts of the villany of it" (Goodwin's Unregenerate Man's Guiltiness). All students of divinity should get this foundation book by heart.

1. At first sight, and before experience, one might well think that such a work of divine grace in the soul as the new birth implies, would eradicate and expel the corruption and bias to sin that come to us in our natural birth. And there have been, and still are, superficial and heretical schools in the Christian Church that teach this fanciful doctrine, but they teach it in the teeth of all Scripture and experience. The truth is, an unspeakable torture and wretchedness, because of indwelling and ineradicable sin, has always been a mark of the presence of a deep and evangelical work of grace in the soul.

2. "Adam, before his fall, felt, we may suppose, love, fear, hope, joy, dislike, as we do now: but then he felt them only when he ought and as he ought. . . . But, at the fall,this beautiful order and peace was broken up: the same passions remained, but their use and action were changed; they rushed into extremes, sometimes excessive, sometimes the reverse. Indignation was corrupted into wrath, self-love became selfishness, self-respect became pride, and emulation, envy and jealousy. Thus his soul became a chaos, and needed a new creation" (Newman).

3. Goodwin's Unregenerate Man's Guiltiness is a masterly treatise on the whole subject.

4. As to the "impertinence of talking of the innocent and kind actions, even of criminals themselves, surpassing their crimes in number, and of the prevailing innocence, good nature, industry, felicity, and cheerfulness of the greater part of mankind," by those who either misunderstand or deny the doctrine of Original Sin, see by all means Jonathan Edwards on Original Sin, Part 1. chap. 1. sec. 3.

5. "If we, as we come into this world, are truly sinful, and consequently miserable, he acts but a friendly part to us, who endeavours fully to discover to us our disease. Whereas, on the contrary, he acts an unfriendly part who to his utmost hides it from us: and so, in effect, does what in him lies to prevent our seeking a remedy for that which, if not remedied in time, must bring us finally to shame and everlasting contempt, and end in perfect and remediless destruction hereafter" (Edwards).


1. To whom do we owe the theological phrase Original Sin?

2. Point out the grammatical ambiguity in the Answer to Question 18; and state what Original Sin strictly denotes according to our Standards.

3. Explain the saying: In Adam the person corrupted the nature, but in his children the nature corrupts the person

4. Give the leading passages where Scripture employs the metaphor of corruption to set forth sin.

5. Exhibit some reasons why repentance and humiliation are due from us on account of original sin.

6. Explain the saying of Seneca: All vices are in all, but all are not extant in all.

7. Explain Pascal's saying: There wIll always be Pelaglans and Augustinians in the world: the first birth produces the one, the second birth produces the other.

8. Connect the third and fourth clauses of this Answer with the fourth and fifth clauses of Answer 10.

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