How do Christians learn doctrine? Hopefully, they learn it in church. But, how should a church teach doctrine? Should you pass around copies of systematic theology texts, announce a new and “exciting” Sunday School series, and dig out some extra chairs for the sell-out crowd that is sure to come?
Well, that is one way to do it. Another way is to teach basic doctrine by using the creeds and confessions. Or, better yet – use your local church’s statement of faith.
- They’re short and manageable
- They’re comprehensive
- They’ve stood the test of time
- They’re not as intimidating as Louis Berkhof
Towards that end, this little series is a brief exposition of each article of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith. Like many confessions, it packs a whole lot into a short paragraph. Today, I’m covering Article 3 – Of the Fall of Man:
We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.
What It Means . . .
Here are my thoughts:
We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker;
God created man in His image. Theologians have spent a lot of time puzzling over what on earth this means. The confession sums it up nicely – Adam and Eve were created in holiness. They were perfect. They were “very good,” (Gen 1:31). In short, God made Adam and Eve more than a bit like Himself. They were “created in holiness,” in the sense that His “marks of resemblance” were impressed upon them at creation.
Adam and Eve were created “upright,” (Ecc 7:29). They had every advantage, every incentive and every reason to love their Creator. They were not morally “neutral.” They were positively holy, and were under the loving and just law of God, their Maker.
This sounds like pious “churchy talk,” but it simply means that Adam and Eve were happy living in God’s creation, under His rules. Obedient children love their parents, and don’t look at the “rules of the house” as some sinister burden to be borne until “freedom” comes. The law was God’s, therefore the law was good, and so Adam and Eve were made in a state of holiness to live and thrive under that law.
But, that holiness was untested. What would Adam and Eve do when temptation struck?
but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state;
They decided to rebel. There is no nice way to put this. They broke God’s law. They broke the rules of the house. They did it on purpose. They wanted to do it. They planned to do it. They did it. They were guilty. To be blunt, Adam and Eve became criminals. By way of their “voluntary” sin, they “fell from that holy and happy state.”
Again, this original arrangement which God declared “very good” (and He would know, wouldn’t He!?) was not a state of malicious slavery. They were happy. Life was perfect. They knew precisely what they could do, and exactly what they could not do. But, they chose rebellion. They chose treason. They chose death.
in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice
Adam and Eve’s sin broke the mold. This first couple, the prototype, ruined themselves and thus brought ruin and damnation on the entire creation. Here is an office analogy – they are the original document defaced with pen, and all copies (i.e. descendants) bear their marks. Adam and Eve became sinners, and they passed this status along to all their descendants – all the way to you and I today. They are the poisonous root which produced poisonous people. Everybody is now born as a child of wrath (Eph 2:3), actively hating God and rebelling against His law, His Son, and the Good News He suffered and bled and died to bring.
People are not forced to be sinners. They were made sinners by Adam and Eve, who broke that perfect mold so long ago, and each man, women, boy and girl voluntarily and enthusiastically acts on and proves this status as soon as they’re able.
being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God
Because of what Adam and Eve did, they poisoned themselves with the infection and festering sore of sin. Their status changed from “holiness” to “sinfulness.” That poison was passed on, generation to generation. The result is that we are not holy anymore. Adam and Eve ruined us, and we each do our very best to continue that ruin by the way we live, what we think, what we do, and what we wish we could do.
God is holy, and we cannot ever be holy in our own power. That was all over long ago. There is no bridge which can be built, no ladder which can be ordered and no escape pod which can safely transport us off this doomed ship. You are not good enough for God. There is nothing you can ever do to be good enough. You are doomed. You are a criminal, and you are “void of that holiness required by the law of God.”
positively inclined to evil
You want to do evil. You want to be a criminal. You want to cut the cords which bind you to the Father and Son’s authority, jurisdiction and power. You do not want God. You do not want Jesus. You do not want salvation. You do not want anything but more rebellion.
This means nobody “cries out to God” unless the Holy Spirit is already calling that person to salvation. People don’t like the Gospel. People don’t want the Gospel. People don’t want Jesus and His Good News. It is a fundamentally counter-cultural message.
This world is under the power and influence of Satan, and the Gospel brings light into that darkness. Cockroaches don’t like darkness – they flee from it. We are born sinners, criminals, traitors, “sovereign citizens” in rebellion against the King. We are cockroaches who flee from the Gospel. God, in His grace, changes some of our minds and draws us to the light, saving us despite ourselves.
and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin
We deserve to be punished. This escapes most people, even many Christians. God owes you nothing. He doesn’t owe you mercy, love, grace or kindness. He owes you nothing at all. He should crush you, like man crushes a spider. You deserve to be crushed. You deserve to be punished. You have broken God’s laws, and we all know criminals deserve an appropriate punishment. Because we’re all born as sinners:
- not by constraint but by choice,
- utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God
- positively inclined to evil
we deserve to suffer the just and appropriate punishment for our crimes. You choose to reject God every day. You are not good enough for God. You want to do evil, and you act on those desires every day. You deserve the worst punishment possible.
without defense or excuse
You have no excuse. God exists. He has made Himself known by His creation, and by His own moral law which is written on your heart. You are still made in His image, and reflect His own character and qualities. He has given us a sacred Book, in which are hidden all the treasures of heavenly wisdom.
- It tells you about yourself.
- It tells you about God’s holiness, and about his love.
- It tells about His mercy.
- It tells about Jesus; the perfect substitutionary life he led, and the penal substitutionary death He died.
- It tells about His resurrection and triumph over the power of Satan, and the curses of sin and death.
- It tells you that Jesus was seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses, and ascended back to the Father’s side.
- It tells you that He is coming again, to judge the living and the dead – the righteous to everlasting life, and the unjust to everlasting damnation.
Now that Jesus has come and His work was finished so very long ago, you no longer have any pretense of an excuse. You no longer have any cloak for your sin. You are without defense or excuse.
This is the truth about man. This is who you are. This is why the Jesus came – to save you from yourself, in spite of yourself.
Questions for Study and Reflection – answers must be defended from Scripture!
- What does it mean that “man was created in holiness?”
- What does it mean to be created in the “image of God?”
- What does it mean that Adam and Eve were “under the law” of their Maker, God?
- What was Adam and Eve’s “voluntary transgression?” Beyond the act itself, what was at the heart of their sin?
- What does it mean that Adam and Eve’s state before the fall was “holy and happy?”
- How did Adam and Eve’s sin impact the human race? How is their sin imputed to us?
- Why is it important that we are all sinners “not by constraint, but by choice?”
- What does it mean that we are, by nature, “utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God?”
- Why does God require holiness?
- What can a person do to become holy, to regain what was lost by Adam?
- What does it mean to be “positively inclined to evil?”
- Who decides what “evil” is, and where do you find that definition?
- How does being made in the “image of God” relate to knowing what is “good” and “evil?”
- Why are we all “under just condemnation to eternal ruin?”
- What is “just condemnation?”
- What is “eternal ruin?”
- How is it fair to say that everybody is under God’s condemnation? Is God unfair here?
- Why are we “without defense or excuse?” That is, how does God make Himself known to us so that we are all truly without excuse?
 Gen. 1:27; 1:31; Eccles. 7:29; Acts 16:26; Gen. 2:16.
 Gen. 3:6–24; Rom. 5:12.
 Rom. 5:19; John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 5:15–19; 8:7.
 Isa. 53:6; Gen. 6:12; Rom. 3:9–18.
 Eph. 2:1–3; Rom. 1:18; 1:32; 2:1–16; Gal. 3:10; Matt. 20:15.
 Ezek. 18:19, 20; Rom. 1:20; 3:19; Gal. 3:22.
 “The simple declaration of the Scripture is that man at his creation was like God,” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. [reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011], 2:96).
 See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 1.15.3.
 For the nerds who read this, I hold to a Natural Headship view of imputation.