Q. 13. Did our first parents continue in the estate wherein they were created?

A. Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God.

In our last look at the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we talked about God’s providence toward man through the act of entering into the Covenant of Works with Adam as the representative head of the human race. As we mentioned in that article, the Covenant of Works was a conditional covenant in which life was promised to Adam as long as he obeyed the stipulations of the covenant (i.e., refraining from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil).

Today’s question from the Catechism asks whether or not our first parents (Adam and Eve) were able to remain in their original created state. In other words, were Adam and Eve able to fulfill the Covenant of Works? Anybody who has even a cursory knowledge of the bible knows that the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Adam and Eve fell from grace and we find the account of the fall in Genesis 3:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:1-7)

This is precisely what the Catechism tells us when it says, “Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God.” There are two key points the Catechism makes regarding this doctrine. The first is found in the phrase, “being left to the freedom of their own will.” The Christian doctrine of free will is a tricky one, which I have written about previously. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, mankind had the necessary freedom of the will to choose whether or not to obey God prior to the fall:

Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it. (WCF, 9.2)

The point the Catechism is trying to make is that Adam and Eve bear full responsibility for their choice in the Garden. They chose to disobey God, and unlike those of us who have been born since the fall, they had the capability, the necessary freedom of the will, to choose otherwise.

This begs the following question: If God is sovereign, why is mankind responsible for the fall? This is one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith – the reconciliation between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. The thinking goes that if God is sovereign (which he is), then how can man have any freedom? For true freedom, there must be some things that are outside of God’s sovereign control (which is essentially the position of the Open Theists). How do those of us who hold a strong view of God’s sovereignty reconcile this conundrum?

I have cited the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement on this many times in defense of this position, and it would do well to cite it again:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (WCF, 3.1)

The Confession states that God ordains everything that comes to pass (complete sovereignty), yet has done so in such a manner that no “violence is offered to the will of the creatures” (complete responsibility). As I like to paraphrase this: God has not only ordained the ends, but the means as well. The means God primarily uses to accomplish his sovereign will are the choices of free, moral agents (by “free” I am referring to no external coercion). This is biblically supported by that great bible passage Genesis 50:20, in which Joseph’s brothers intended to do great evil to Joseph, but God intended what happened to be for good. This is not meant to say that God reacted to the brother’s evil and turned it into a good. Rather, the brother’s evil act was ordained by God to accomplish his sovereign will – God’s sovereignty and our free choices flow together in order to fulfill God’s eternal decrees.

The same can be said of Adam and Eve’s choice in the Garden. Adam and Eve freely chose to eat the fruit, but that act was ordained from the beginning to accomplish God’s will in creation. Maybe this doesn’t sit well with some, but it actually provides me with a source of comfort knowing that God is in control even over the bad things that happen in this world. If anything, a God who is not sovereign over creation would provide me with little or no security regarding the evil that occurs in this world. A less than sovereign God would mean there are things happening in the universe which happen outside of his control; and if that is the case, then there is no guarantee that he will be able to redeem such events for his sovereign good purposes. Oftentimes I am not able to see the ends that God is trying to achieve, but I can trust that he is working all things for his glory and our ultimate good (cf. Romans 8:28).

The second point the Catechism brings out is that in this act of disobeying God’s command in the Covenant of Works, they sinned against God. Again, the Confession says it plainly enough:

Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. (WCF, 7.1)

By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. (WCF, 7.2)

We will delve more into what precisely sin is and what the effects of this original sin had on the rest of the human race, but this act is the basis for Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12 when he writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” This rebellious act of our first parents opened the door for sin to come into God’s “very good” creation.

Again, this is an event that raises many questions for both Christians and non-Christians. Why would God go through all the ‘trouble’ to create a paradise for his image bearers and then allow for sin to come into the world and corrupt it? If God is omniscient, he must have ‘seen’ this coming. The answer is “Yes, he did.” What does the above quote from the Confession say? “This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.” The fall didn’t catch God unawares. It was something allowed by God to further his own purposes in creation; namely, the demonstration of his glory. This answer doesn’t sit well with most people. But, if you really think about it, if God is sovereign, then doesn’t he have the sovereign right to do with his creation what he sees fit?

In our next look at the Catechism, we will answer the question “What is sin?” Before closing, I want to look a little deeper at this issue of God permitting the fall for his own glory. I have fielded a number of questions that all center on this notion: “If God knew the fall was going to happen, why did he let it?” It just seems that if God was omniscient (which he is), then he could have avoided millennia of evil and suffering by stopping the fall before it happened. The typical Arminian response is that God valued a love relationship with his creation over the robotic response of humanity, and by necessity a love relationship must allow for the possibility of humanity rejecting God.

It’s a nice attempt at a response and really tries to focus on the relational aspect of our faith, but it falls short on several counts. First, it shifts the purpose of creation from God’s glory to a love relationship with humanity; in other words, it shifts the focus of creation on us. This is certainly not the position of the Catechism, which in question #7 says, “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (emphasis added). It is certainly not the position of the Confession, which states explicitly that the fall was permitted “for his own glory” (see WCF, 7.1 quoted above).

Secondly, according to the logical conclusion of the Arminian position, it is conceivable that Adam and Eve could never have sinned. The fall was based on their free will; they could have conceivably never chosen to disobey God. In other words, it is a mere coincidence that Adam and Eve did disobey God and thereby put things in motion for the divine rescue plan that culminated in the advent of Jesus Christ. This goes against much biblical teaching, not the least of which is Acts 2:23 (“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men”).

Third, the Arminian position on this really downplays the sovereignty of God, not intentionally, but it cannot be helped. Whenever you place the control of events in someone other than God, you have devalued his sovereignty. The Calvinist position is clear: God ordained the ends (the fall) as well as the means (the free choice of Adam and Eve), and this was done for the display of his own glory.

Soli Deo Gloria!