What We Believe (9): The Wages of Sin

This is the ninth in a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading, What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp of Hudsonville, Michigan, deaLs with “The Fall” in this article.

What Is Sin?”

“Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of. the law of God.” This is the 14th question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The text referred to in this connection is 1 John 3:4, “Whosoever committeth sin trangresseth also the law; for sin is the transgression of the law.”

Which important distinction do we make regarding sin?

We speak of original sin and actual sins. Original sin is the sin we inherit from Adam, the result of his breaking the covenant of works. Actual sins are the sins we commit in thoughts, words and deeds. As the answer of the Catechism quoted above indicates, these sins can be either by omission or commission. We sin in not doing what the law requires as well as in doing what it forbids. This is clearly taught in James 4:17, “To him therefore that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” The tenth commandment teaches that actual sins are not only words and deeds, but even the thoughts and desires of the heart, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains, “That not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any of God‘s commandments should ever arise in my heart. Rather, with all my heart I should always hate sin and take pleasure in whatever is right” (Answer 113).

What are the two elements of original sin?

Guilt and pollution. Guilt means liability to punishment, deserving the penalty of the breaking of God‘s commandment. Adam was not only the father of us all, but also our covenant representative. We are not guilty of all his sins, but only for the sin committed in the Garden of Eden, in eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is because of this sin that death came upon all men, because all sinned in Adam (Romans 5: 12ff). The so-called “realistic” explanation of original sin explains our guilt in terms of the fact that we, all the members of the human race yet to be born, were in Adam; in his sin, human nature sinned. Rather than this explanation, Reformed theologians prefer the covenantal explanation, viewing Adam as our representative who acted for all mankind. As punishment for this sin we are all born in spiritual pollution, in a condition the Bible describes as being dead in sins and trespasses. This condition is one of total inability and total depravity.

What is meant by total depravity?

Total depravity is not the same as absolute depravity. Our English word depravity comes from the Latin de, meaning thoroughly, and pravus, meaning crooked. Synonyms for “depravity” are “wicked,” “corrupt,”sinful” (full of sin). The devil and his angels are completely and absolutely depraved, they are as bad as they can possibly be and are beyond redemption. But when we speak of men as being totally depraved we mean that the whole of human nature is corrupted by sin. Some would claim that man’s reason is still good, or others that he still has a free will; still others find the cause of human sinfulness in the body, and distinguish between man‘s so-called higher and lower natures. The Bible, however, finds the seat of sin in the heart, we read in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt: who can know it?” Jesus also speaks of the heart as the source of all kinds of sin (Matt. 15:19, 20). Because of God‘s common grace the sinfulness of our hearts does not express itself fully; people are restrained by public opinion, government and fear of the consequences. People can still do so-called natural good (e.g., being a good parent), or civil good (e.g., obeying the laws of the land). Man still has a conscience and some sense of right and wrong (cf. Romans 2:14, 15). But we are totally unable to please God by doing spiritually good works. To do these works sinners dead in sin must be born again by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3, 5). J. Dwight Pentecost has well said: “his doctrine (total depravity) has suffered from many misconceptions, for the average person would define total depravity by saying that it means that man is as bad as he can be. We know many men who are good men, kind men, generous men, men who contribute much in the home and in the community. Rather, the doctrine of depravity says that man is as bad off as he can be. There is a vast difference between being as bad as he can be, and being as bad off as he can be. The doctrine of depravity has to do, not with man‘s estimation of man, but rather with God’s estimation of man.” (Things Which Become Sound Doctrine, pp. 9, 10.)

Why is it important that we confess our total depravity and inability?

As the Heidelberg Catechism teaches, in order to have the right understanding of the way of salvation, we first of all need to know “how great my sin and misery are” (Answer 2).

This is also the approach of the apostle Paul in Romans. He shows in chapters 1:18–3:20 that all under sin and “there is none righteous, no not one” (3;9, 10).

Pelagianism teaches that man has still a free will and can chose to do the will of God; Semipelagianism considers man as sick and weak, but able to contribute something towards his salvation. But the gospel is that since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, God has revealed a righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe, and we are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3:22–24).

What other forms of death are the wages of sin?

In addition to spiritual death, or total depravity, the Bible speaks of death in the sense of the separation of body and soul, or physical death. Some believe that there was no death at all before the fall, but there was death in the sense that Jesus used the word in John 12:24, and in that men and animals had to kill plants in order to eat them. However, it is plain from Genesis 3 and Romans 5;12ff that death for men is the result of sin. The third form of death is eternal punishment in hell, called in Revelation 20:14, “the second death, even the lake of fire.” Full discussion of death in these two forms belongs under the locus of eschatology or the doctrine of the last things, but the fact that sinners are destined to spend eternity in everlasting separation from God is a reality that resulted from the fall, and a consequence of our being born in sin.

Did Adam’s fall have other consequences? 

Yes, as we read in Genesis 3:9–21 the fall effected the relationship of men and women, bringing discord not only in the home, but in society in general; it resulted in God’s curse on the ground and man‘s work becoming burdensome; death entered in the form of sickness and pain. We are living in an abnormal world and human nature is perverted as a punishment for sin, revealing God’s wrath (Romans 1:18ff). All of creation was subjected to vanity, and groans in travail waiting to be delivered from the bondage of corruption. Accordingly redemption in Christ is a cosmic renewal, the “regeneration of all things.” Complete salvation will come with Christ’s return and the new heavens and earth wherein righteousness will dwell forever. “And He that sitteth on the throne said, Behold I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).