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Lecture V: The Way of Man

(Art. 2c–3)

Fra quhilk honour and perfectioun, man and woman did bothe fal: the woman being deceived be the Serpent, and man obeying the voyce of the woman, both conspyring against the Soveraigne Majestie of God, who in expressed words had before threatned deith, gif they presumed to eit of the forbidden tre.


Be quhilk transgressioun, commonlie called Original sinne, wes the Image of God utterlie defaced in man, and he and his posteritie of nature become enimies to God, slaves to Sathan, and servandis unto sin. In samekle that deith everlasting hes had, and sall have power and dominioun over all that have not been, ar not, or sal not be regenerate from above: quhilk regeneratioun is wrocht be the power of the holie Gost, working in the hartes of the elect of God, ane assured faith in the promise of God, reveiled to us in his word, be quhilk faith we apprehend Christ Jesus, with the graces and benefites promised in him.


Articles 2 and 3 of our Confession contain an innovation of their own, which is at once important and instructive. According to the procedure customary in almost all ancient and modern dogmatics and followed by the other Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century, there is a special and independent doctrine of man's sin. But the Confessio Scotica has not adopted this procedure. What it has to say about Adam's fall it says in Article 2 in connection with the doctrine of the destiny appointed for man by “our God.” And what it has to say about what is called original sin appears in Article 3 as an introductory clause to the doctrine of saving faith in Jesus Christ, brought about by the Holy Spirit, a doctrine which is here directly expressed for the first time. The Scottish Confession indicates in the strongest of terms the horror of the fact that man became and is a sinner, by setting it clearly in a connection in which it is both preceded and followed by the grace of God, the Creator and Reconciler of men. But it is in this connection that it occurs. The authors of our confession manifestly wished to avoid considering even for a moment this fact of sin separately and as such. That man is against God is true and important and has to be taken seriously. But what is even truer, more important and to be taken more seriously is the other fact that God in Jesus Christ is for man. And it is only from the standpoint of the latter fact that it can be seen how true and important the former is, and how seriously it must be taken. We have reason therefore for allowing ourselves to be guided by our text and for thinking the matter out from this point of view.

In our second and third lectures we became acquainted with the Reformed doctrine of God and in the fourth with the Reformed doctrine of God and man. If there were a special Reformed doctrine of man, a special Reformed anthropology, it could in point of fact only consist in the doctrine of sin. For man in his separation from God and in his distinctive character over against God is sinful man, i.e. man who is missing his way and violating the ordinance of his existence. This missing of his way consists in the fact that he is not content with his own human glory but grasps at God's glory, in order himself to be like God—as the Bible in Genesis 3 describes it. And what he achieves by taking this way and obeying the words “eritis sicut Deus” is the loss of his own glory also. But is not the Confessio Scotica right when it refuses to consider this particular occurrence in the abstract? God would not be God if He left man to his own devices on this evil way of his, nor would He be God if man's attack on His glory were allowed to succeed and the overthrow of man's glory were allowed to become complete. If the history of man as such and by itself would go to prove that God is not God, the history of the man Jesus Christ proves that God is God. It proves that God does not will that human history should take its own course, and that, confronted with man's action and in spite of it, He does not allow this to happen. It is only too true that man goes his way, the way of Adam. But it is a great deal truer that God goes this way of man's with him, makes it His own way and thereby changes it, makes it an entirely different way. He makes the way of man's rebellion the way of His own victory, the way of destruction the way of salvation and the way of the overthrowing of His ordinance the way of its restoration. But if this is the case, then the truth of man's way can only be seen and understood if viewed from the greater truth of God's way with man. In that case there cannot be a special Reformed doctrine of man, a special anthropology, which in the nature of the case could only be a doctrine of his sin. That being so, the history of man and his sin can only be presented in the way in which we see it presented in the history of the man Jesus Christ.


We read in Luke 5, 8 that Simon Peter, when face to face with a great miracle wrought by Jesus, fell on his knees before Him and said to Him, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” What distinguishes God's true revelation from all false and alleged revelation is that it is like a sudden flash of light in a dark room, and reveals that man, though created by God for His own glory and thus himself too possessed of glory, is in himself not light but darkness. Revelation is an act of God's compassion. So it reveals the plight of man as one who needs compassion. Revelation is an act of God's condescension. So it reveals the depth to which man has sunk. Who is the man Jesus Christ? Ecce homo—there He is in the position which all the prophets and apostles point to as the real incarnation of God, in which He reveals Himself. He is a child born in a stable and laid in a manger, “for they had no room in the inn,” and in the end He is a malefactor hanged on the gallows. Thus there is one reason, and perhaps in the last resort only one reason, why the conception of a real revelation of God is alien and uncongenial to us and why we would be ready to hear of unreal revelations, but not of a true and real revelation of God. That reason is that this revelation, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, necessarily means the discovery of the darkness which is man, of the plight in which he exists and the depths to which he has sunk, and this disclosure is what sharply contradicts his creation, the glory of God and his own glory. And what we are dealing with here is not simply the discovery of man's insignificance in face of the powers of nature and history, nor is it simply the discovery of the disparity between the finite and the infinite, nor is it simply the discovery of this or that mistake or error which man commits. All these are discoveries which man can make himself, and the history of religions shows that he has in fact done so long ago. And man is wont to accompany these discoveries with complaints of every kind, but these can cease as easily as they begin. But in the present case, man is not the subject but the object of the discovery. What is discovered here is not something which he lacks but who and what he is. Here he has nothing to complain about, but complaint is made against him. And here he is accused without regard for his age or his youth, his culture or his lack of culture, his morality or his lack of morality, his piety or his godlessness—it is Adam, man, who is accused here, Adam and Eve, man and woman—as the Confessio Scotica brings out very definitely. He and she are both in the position of “conspyring against the Soveraigne Majestie of God”—and in sixteenth-century Scotland, a place where there was no lack of conspiracy, men understood with exceptional clarity what that word meant. They have both forsaken the ordinance in which they had their glory (alongside God's glory and for His glory). They have fallen away from the grace of creation in which they lived. They have rejected their vocation. They have refused God the gratitude which they owed Him. They have set themselves up as the lords of their life, as if they were Gods. Ecce homo—such is man as he is disclosed by God in His revelation. But the disclosure goes further. It now becomes clear what is the meaning and significance of his having done all this and of his having to exist as the person who has done all this. This brings us to what the old theology—and with it our Confession—calls Original Sin, the perversity in every man which follows from this perversion. For at what point can man's glory remain, when he is in rebellion against the glory of God? The very ordinance under which he as man was justified in his human nature, now becomes his judgement. “The Image of God [was] utterlie defaced in man.” Man has now become a tarnished mirror in which the glory of God can no longer be reflected. To be man means now to be an enemy of God and this means to be the destroyer of one's own proper glory. To make use of the existence, dignity and freedom given us means now that we go farther along the well-trodden by-path, in our life as a whole and in all its details, and thus become ever more deeply and completely involved in our own corruption. To be in the world now means to be lost in the midst of powers, figures and events, which, after we became men without a lord, ceased likewise to have a lord, and so to have any significance for us. To exist as God's creature means now to be subject to death and eternal death at that, to be subject to everlasting vanity which is the inevitable counterpart of the eternal efficaciousness of the ordinance which we have broken. To repeat once again, Ecce homo, such is man. And he is so beyond recovery, i.e. it is impossible for him to annul even one of these consequences of his sin. Above all it is impossible for him to undo or to make amends for his sin itself. Why can he not? The reason is that it is his sin against God. That is why the accusation brought against man in God's revelation does not merely charge him with crimes or immoralities for which he himself can and ought to make amends to the best of his ability. It charges him with being against God,—not merely of acting but of being against God and of being so in all his actions. It is this that he can neither undo nor make amends for. God's revelation in Jesus Christ tells us this unambiguously—for it consists in God Himself undoing and making amends for our being against Him and for our sin. If we believe this, it discloses to us the final horror of sin and with it the impossibility of setting ourselves free from it.


But this connection of sin and grace forbids us ever to speak of sin as if it were the first or last word. What would we know of the darkness, the plight and the depths of human life without the light of revelation which breaks through the darkness? How could man know that he had sinned against God and that he is against God, unless he knew that God is for him? How could man know that he himself can make amends for absolutely nothing, unless he knew that God Himself has made amends for the evil he does? If we know that we have sinned wantonly against God's glory and have lost our own glory, then we already know that God's glory, by proving true in the face of our rebellion, has become only so much the greater, and we know that He has not left man either to his own devices on the road which leads to the destruction of his own glory. If we know that we cannot save ourselves, we know already that we are saved by God. If we know that it is our sin and ourselves that were condemned in the criminal's death suffered by the man Jesus Christ on Calvary, then we know already that our sin is forgiven us and that we ourselves are set free from the sentence and judgement of God. If we are afraid of the wrath of God and of our reprobation, then we are already laying hold of the promise of God and of our election and already believe in God's compassion. If we confess and acknowledge, in the words of the Calvinistic prayer, “that we have, alas, gravely sinned from our youth up and to this present hour by evil thoughts, words and deeds,” then we are already in God's arms and in His bosom. For these words can only be uttered by a man who is already there. Here we share not only in our glory as men now restored to us, but far beyond this we share also in that new glory which is founded on the completely new order of grace as those who, through God's coming in Jesus Christ, have been saved, won and purchased to be called the children of God. For it is only the children of God who can testify to their sin.

What is our sin? It is what we are and what we do, in spite of which God comes to us in the man Jesus Christ, as He came then to Peter in the ship. What is our debt? It is the showing of the gratitude which God has brought about and made efficacious for all of us in the man Jesus Christ. What is our punishment? It is the infinite agony which it cost God Himself to take our place in the man Jesus Christ, in order that we would not have to suffer. Is it nothing besides? No, nothing besides. In this way alone is there real, serious and Christian knowledge of our sin, debt and punishment—it is the essence of the regeneration of man as elected in God's free grace, which the Scottish Confession describes (at the end of Article 3) as man's only salvation, that it, since it is identical with faith in Jesus Christ awakened in us by the Holy Spirit, necessitates this knowledge of our sin, guilt and punishment and precludes any other.


It remains for us expressly to set aside two misunderstandings. When we reflect on human life, no one can forbid us from forming a pessimistic—or maybe an optimistic—judgement about ourselves and mankind. We shall incline more to the former or to the latter according to our character and fortune. We shall now do the one and now the other according to the harmony or disharmony of our circumstances at the moment. But any sceptical or disparaging attitude towards human nature of which we feel convinced and consider legitimate, should not be confounded with the accusation, which according to Reformed teaching is levelled against man, and above all no attempt should be made to soften down this accusation by confounding it with such scepticism and disparagement. Christian doctrine cannot be disposed of by being called pessimism. Further, if a man permits himself to believe in the good in man and to believe that the human race is always going forward, he may do so. But he is not to confound such confidence in the progress of the human race with the promise of adoption to be God's children, which according to Reformed teaching is given to man. And even less is the promise to be confounded with such an amiable view. The Holy Spirit of God's Revelation in Jesus Christ does not wish to be confounded with any optimistic or pessimistic spirit of ours. The Holy Spirit brings His accusation against man even as viewed from the optimistic standpoint and we can thank God that His promise means to include man as viewed from the pessimistic standpoint. It is He alone, the Spirit of Jesus Christ the Son of God, who brings about the humiliation and exaltation of man, and it is He alone who shows us man in the humiliation and exaltation of which we have spoken. There can be only one relation between the Reformed teaching on sin, debt and punishment and the anthropology of the pessimists and optimists. They will be reminded by it not to forget that “man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”