We Confess – An Exposition & Application of the Belgic Confession Article 14: Of the Creation, Fall, and Corruption of Man

Who am I? From where have I come? Where am I going? These questions have intrigued, or haunted, the mind of man for centuries. These perennial questions are making a comeback of sorts amid Generation-X and now Net-Gen men and women in our culture. After a generation of saying “God is dead,” and “if it feels good, do it,” many young people today have become disillusioned and disenchanted with society, their families, and even themselves. The words of the 1969 Beatles song sums up their despair:

He’s a real nowhere man Sitting in his nowhere land Making all his nowhere plans For nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view Knows not where he’s going to Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

Into this culture of despair and meaninglessness, we as Christians have a message to speak. The answer to the question, “Who am I?” is found in where we have come from and where we are going. As human beings we were fearfully and wonderfully created in the image of God in our first parents, Adam and Eve. That wonderful image was shattered into a thousand pieces by their willful sin against God. Because this is from where we have come, we are going to a place of eternal punishment and separation from the grace and mercy of God – unless our shattered, meaningless lives are graciously recreated by Jesus Christ.

This is what we confess about our fellow man and ourselves. In this article we make the transition from what we confess about God (theology proper; Articles 1-13) to what we confess about mankind (theological anthropology; Articles 1415). Recall that in Article 12 of the Belgic Confession we made the sweeping declaration, with Scripture, that God “has created of nothing the heaven, the earth, and all creatures. God is Creator and Lord of all. Here in Article 14 the focus is narrowed to the creation of humanity in the image of God along with our subsequent “Fall” into sin, and the consequences of that sin.

The Height of Glory

The Reformed doctrine of man would make a great drama entitled, “From the height of glory to the depth of depravity.” The Confession begins with the height of our creation in saying

We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth and made and formed him after His own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.

Scripture teaches that man was the pinnacle, the “noblest” of God’s creative works that culminated on the sixth day of creation, being “crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5).

It is instructive for us to note that in Genesis 1 mankind is made in the image of God by “God” (Hebrew, Elohim), while the Psalmist reflects upon that work as the work of the “LORD” (Hebrew, Yahweh). What we confess when we say that man was made in the image of God is that we were made to be in covenant with the LORD, the covenant God.

This height of glory being made in covenant with God is seen in our creation “out of the dust of the earth.” Notice how Biblical our Confession is as it echoes the words of Genesis 2:7, “The LORD God formed the man from dust of the ground.” Whereas with everything else we read that “God said…and it was so,” with Adam we read that God actually formed him. God is here described as a master potter, intimately shaping and forming His masterpiece, as Israel said of God: “But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).

In the Image of God

This height of glory is also seen as God made humanity “after His own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy.” Here the Confession again parrots the words of Scripture in Genesis 1:26-27, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

What does it mean that man was made in the image of God (Latin, imago Dei)? The Confession says that Adam was made “good, righteous, and holy.” Why? Where do those terms come from? First, man was made good as God had declared everything that He had made, including Adam “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We also see what it meant for Adam to be made in the image of God before the Fall, from how Christ remakes us after the Fall, after redemption. In Christ, we have a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 cf. Colossians 3:10). In terms of the image of God, what Adam was, we have become.

Our Three Forms of Unity are unified in teaching this about the image of God, as the following shows:

Did God create man thus, wicked and perverse? No, but God created man good and after His own image, that is, in righteousness and true holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness, to praise and glorify Him.” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 6)

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy. (Canons of Dort III/IV, 1)

So does this mean that when Adam fell into sin, and we with him, that he lost the image of God? In standard, classic Reformed theology, the answer is yes and no. We have always distinguished ourselves from the Lutheran position by making a distinction between the image of God in two senses: broad and narrow. The broader aspect of the image of God consists of such things as the ability to think, the capacity to be religious, and the ability to exercise volition. The narrower aspect, which the Confession emphasizes, consists in what Scripture calls true righteousness, holiness, and knowledge (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10).

As a result of the Fall, Adam, and all mankind to follow, lost the narrower aspect of the image of God. The Confession says later in Article 14, “And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof” (emphasis mine). The Canons of Dort III/IV, 1 agrees with this position, saying that Adam: “forfeited these excellent gifts” (that is, the narrow image).

After the Fall, however, man still retains the broader sense in the image of God. In speaking of the tongue, James 3:9 indicates that unregenerate man is still, in some sense, in the image of God, saying, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Another article in the Canons of Dort also highlights this as we are told that

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, and natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior (CD, III/IV, 4).

… man by the fall did not cease to be a creature endowed with understanding and will, nor did sin which pervaded the whole race of mankind deprive him of the human nature…this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor take away their will and its properties… (CD, III/IV, 16).

This height of man’s original glory is seen, finally, in that he was “capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God.” Adam, as the “type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14) was completely able to keep the law of God that was given to him in the Garden. This is why since the time of St. Augustine, Christian theology has confessed that Adam was made posse pecarre et posse non pecarre, that is, possible to sin and possible not to sin. He truly had a free will in every sense of the word. What a height he stood on!



The Depths of Depravity

But how he fell! Adam, the crown of God’s creation, the only creature made in God’s image and likeness, the creature to whom God gave dominion, and the one with whom God made a covenant, broke that covenant. We continue with the words of the Confession, which says

But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life, which he had received, he transgressed …

Then what? Was there any consequence of Adam’s covenant disobedience? Did his sin effect us? Again, the Confession continues

… and by sin separated himself from God, who was his true life; having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed into darkness, as the Scriptures teaches us, saying: The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not; where St. John calls men darkness.

Notice the litany of these depths of depravity in which Adam plunged our race: separation from God (Isaiah 59:2), corruption of our whole nature (Romans 3:1018), bodily and spiritual death (Genesis 2:17; Ephesians 2:1), and darkness of understanding (Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14); as the Canons, in even darker language, say

But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and in the place thereof became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obstinate in heart and will, and impure in his affections. (Canons of Dort, III/IV, 1)

But What About “Free Will?”

As a result of this separation and all other curses, we have also lost any ability to restore this covenantal relationship between us and God. The Confession appends to the previous words of Article 14 a rejection of the errors of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, which teach that man, after the Fall, still has the ability either to save himself by his will and effort or to cooperate with grace in his salvation. Against this we confess

Therefore we reject all that is taught repugnant to this concerning the free will of man, since man is but a slave to sin, and can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. For who may presume to boast that he of himself can do any good, since Christ says: No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him? Who will glory in his own will, who understands that the mind of the flesh is enmity against God? Who can speak of his knowledge, since the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God? In short, who dares suggest any thought, since he knows that we are not sufficient of ourselves to account anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God? And therefore what the apostle says ought justly to be held sure and firm, that God worketh in us both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. For there is no understanding nor will conformable to the divine understanding and will but what Christ has wrought in man; which He teaches us, when He says: Apart from me ye can do nothing.

The consequence of the Fall is that we no longer have a free will to choose either good or bad, in relation to God, as Adam was able to do in the Garden. We see this taught in the impressive, yet by no means exhaustive, list of Scriptures that the Confession adduces to establish this truth

  1. Man is but a slave to sin (John 8:34)
  2. [Man] can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven (John 3:27)
  3. No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him (John 6:44)
  4. The mind of the flesh is enmity against God (Rom. 8:7)
  5. The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:4)
  6. We are not sufficient of ourselves to account anything as of ourselves, but that our sufficiency is of God (2 Cor. 3:5)
  7. God worketh in us both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13)
  8. Apart from me ye can do nothing (John 15:5)

So the question for us is, are unregenerate people, after the Fall, in the same position as Adam in being able to obey the law of God and to do the will of God in order to save themselves? Our answer is that of St. Augustine, who said that after the Fall, and prior to regeneration, man is non posse non pecarre, that is, not possible not to sin.

Praise be to the Lord that once He regenerates us, we are made posse non pecarre, that is, possible not to sin, as we begin to live a life of gratitude. Furthermore, praise the Lord that on the last day, we shall be made even better than Adam, non posse pecarre, that is, not possible to sin!

And this is our message to the world – that we were made in the image of God, that we have shattered ourselves into a thousands pieces by the Fall and our actual sins, but that in Christ we have been remade and that a day is coming in which we shall completely be remade and restored.

Questions for Further Study 1. Did God make a covenant with Adam before the Fall? (cf. Hos. 6:7) If so, what should this tell us about how God relates to humanity?

2. How does the understanding that even your non-Christian neighbors are still, in a sense, in the image of God, cause you treat them?

3. What does Jesus’being the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) have to do with us being remade in the image of God? (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10)

4. Why is the teaching of “free will” so dangerous to how one views their guilt, God’s grace, and their response of gratitude?

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California. (