Shorter Catechism Qs. 18 & 19
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.
Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.
“as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one;” (Romans 3:10 ESV)
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:10, 23 ESV)
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
What is sin? Many people think sin is just bad behavior. The problem, of course, is that we all too easily define good and bad not according to God’s Word, but according to social conventions and trends. For example, paper or plastic? A SUV or a hybrid? You might think now that they are silly and inconsequential examples. And you are right. But are we so far away from the day when these things will define for us righteousness and sin? I think not. A people that will not live according to God’s Word will live according to the most silly nonsense.
But why are we like that? It is because sin is more than bad behavior. Sin is indeed what we do or do not do that is contrary to God’s Law. But sin is also a condition, the dispositions of our hearts, which in the language of the Shorter Catechism is called the “estate.” That is, our behaviors are what they are because our hearts are sinful. The fruit is bad because the root is bad. Our behaviors don’t conform to God’s word because our hearts are set against God in enmity and opposition.
But how did creatures made in God’s image become so corrupt? In the last lesson we learned that mankind’s covenantal solidarity with Adam made us also guilty in his disobedience to God. One man sinned, and all fell. One man disobeyed, and death came to all. As the image of the holy and righteous God was corrupted in Adam because of his sin, so the image of God was likewise corrupted in all of Adam’s descendants. That is what Paul means what he says we were “by nature children of wrath.”
That is to say our problem before God is more than bad behavior. Behavior can be modified, perhaps through positive or negative reinforcement. In many churches this takes the form of what is called “moralism.” Moralism is the failure to understand that sin is more than bad behavior, that it is the corruption of the heart. And starting with this defective understanding of sin, redemption from sin consists in trying to modify the sinful lifestyle. This, of course, is often taught using scriptural language and concepts such as holiness and sanctification. Holiness and sanctification are certainly biblical and genuine fruits of living faith. But the failure of moralism is the failure to believe there is only one remedy for the corruption of the heart. And that is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
The Gospel addresses the heart, and then through and by it, our behavior. It is the work of God’s sovereign grace which takes the children of wrath and makes them into the children of God. The Spirit of God takes the sinful and corrupt heart and regenerates it. He takes the heart dead in sin and makes it come alive to God. And only as the result of this sovereign grace sinners are able to hear the Gospel and believe. Conversion therefore is the work of God’s grace brought about by the preaching of the Gospel.
In the same vein sanctification is also the work of God’s grace brought about by the preaching of the Gospel. It is, after all, the good tree that bears good fruit. That is why the Gospel of Jesus crucified and resurrected is not only for the conversion of the unbeliever, but for the growing in grace of the believer. So pay attention the next time you hear the preaching of the Gospel! It is the beginning, the middle, and end of your standing with the holy and righteous God. If ever you find yourself at a church where God and Bible are consistently taught without centering on the death and resurrection of Jesus, know for certain you are in a moralistic church, not a gospel preaching church. If the sermons you hear are always more about what believers should do rather than what Christ has done, you are in a moralistic church. If so, run away as fast and far as you can. Find yourself a gospel preaching church. Moralism will slowly drain energy and vitality of your spiritual life as it will hide Christ from you. It will be, soon or later, the death of your joy in Christ.