An earlier version of this essay was published as “The Belgic Confession- Article 15: Sin,” Christian Observer 173.24 (December, 1, 1995). rev. 29 January 2008
As we understand the gospel, a proper doctrine of sin is central to the gospel message. To a large extent the way we think about sin and its effects determines what we think Jesus came to do. If, to quote to quote the good old Puritan rhyme, ‘in Adam’s fall, sinned we all’ then Jesus came to actually save sinners. However, if we merely imitate Adam, then it might be said that Jesus came only to set a good example.
This has been perhaps the most persistent question facing the church since the late 300’s. At the Council of Carthage (411) the Pelagians were accused of teaching that, even after the fall, one is born as Adam before the fall, innocent, holy and righteous. Furthermore, the Pelagians argued, that the question of original sin was outside the Creed and thus not a matter of Catholic truth. To his credit, Augustine disagreed quite strongly! In its doctrine of original sin the Belgic sides resolutely with the Bishop of Hippo against “des pelagiens.” Because the Pelagians rejected the legal/moral connection between Adam and us, they also rejected the notion that sin is transmitted. Hence the Augustinian and Reformed emphasis on the transmission of sin from Adam to us. de Bres, like the WCF (6.3), and like the Heidelberg Catechism (Questions 58,60, 126), was careful to condition the doctrine of the natural transmission of sin with the biblical doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin (“it is not imputed to the children of God”; quoique toutefois il ne soit point impute a condamnation aux enfants de Dieu). The use of the language of imputation grounds this article firmly in Romans 5 and makes clear the legal/spiritual nature of Adam’s sin.
Another way of expressing legal-moral-spiritual link between Adam and ourselves is to describe it as a “federal” relationship. In his response to the Pelagians (De peccato originali ) Augustine turned first to the necessity of baptism for the remission of sins, which of course, the Pelagians denied. Whatever difficulties we have with Augustine on baptism&emdash;indeed the Belgic is at pains to note “[n]or is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism” (et n’est pas aboli meme par le bapteme>&emdash;we heartily endorse his turn to the case of the “Two Men,” Adam and Christ (The Anti-Pelagian Writings of Saint Augustine, vol., 2, trans. P. Holmes (Edinburgh, 1874), 70-80.)
What Augustine understood, and the Reformed Churches enshrined in the Belgic Confession, is that our redemption depended upon Christ fulfilling his role as the Second Adam. Because of our legal-spiritual union with Adam, we as well as Adam, were plunged into sin and death. Thus we needed another, sinless, Divine-Human Adam, to obey where Adam did not and to pay the penalty for his and our disobedience. Because Adam was in a covenant of works before the fall, and unbelieving sinners remain in a covenant or works after the fall, and Christ is said to have fulfilled the covenant of works for the elect, Arminian, modern evangelical, and neo-orthodox (Barthian) theologians have charged federalism with being legalistic. However, this charge depends upon a universalist notion of grace. They also ignore the fact that Reformed federalism is simply a restatement of the Protestant Law/Gospel distinction.
Though the “covenant of works” idea is not found by that name in the Belgic, this same Federal framework formed the basis of the doctrine of the covenant of works as expressed in WCF 7. In distinction from the Lutheran view, Reformed federal theology thought of this covenant as an arrangement which determined the future blessedness or cursedness of humanity. The goal of God’s covenant with Adam was eternal fellowship between God and man and the covenant was God’s means to this end. There should be little doubt that, when it used the expression “commandment of life” in Art. 14, the confession was teaching the substance of the doctrine of the covenant of works as distinct from the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is based on the principle: “Do and live.” The covenant of grace is based upon the principle, “Christ has done for his people, believe and live.” In the covenant of works, we are each individually responsible to provide perfect righteousness. In the covenant of grace we are covered by Christ’s perfect righteousness received through true faith (see articles 22-24) in Christ alone.
As Adam represented all humanity, Christ represented all redeemed humanity. What we inherited in the second Adam (Christ) was “rather the full realization of what the first Adam would have achieved for us had remained unfallen and been confirmed in his state.” [Geerhardus Vos, “Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” Redemptive History and Biblical Theology: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, trans. and ed., Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg, 1980), 244.)
It is also helpful to remember that the Confession was written in view of the Council of Trent, which had on 13 January 1547 cursed Protestants for their doctrine of justification. In its place, Trent insisted on the medieval scheme of justification by grace and cooperation with grace. According to Rome, God justifies those who are actually righteous in themselves by grace and cooperation with grace. In short, the Roman communion has made canonical the Galatian heresy.
However the Augustinian-Protestant doctrine of sin was too profoundly rooted in the Reformed Christology and the Protestant doctrine of justification to be tempted by this renewed semi-Pelagianism. Where the medieval and Roman churches denied the effect of sin (total depravity) the Reformed churches, following Luther’s reading of the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians from 1513-17) came to see that the effect of original sin is radical. Sin corrupts every human faculty (intellect, will, affections) and therefore every human act. Our minds are darkened by sin, our wills are bent by it, and therefore we love darkness rather than light.
Grace is only significant to those who need it. Grace is only radical to those who are radically sinful. Otherwise, as in all moralist schemes, grace becomes a mere aid to help the wounded help themselves. We confess grace to be the radical remedy for sinners because we confess sin to be a radical, death-dealing, transgression of God’s law in which all humans are necessarily, federally, and naturally implicated. For more on this article see Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).