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John Calvin’s Institutes (ICR) > Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 5 to Book 2, Chapter 2, Section 17

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Today we will be continuing our study of the effects of Adam’s fall, that is, original sin.


5. As a result of the fall, we are all born “infected with the contagion of sin” (p. 248). The first sin resulted in a radical change to Adam and to his progeny. “This is the inherited corruption, which the church fathers termed ‘original sin’” (p. 246). Although the Scriptures clearly teach that there was a corporate aspect to the first sin, certain men have sought to diminish this doctrine. For instance, Pelagius taught that “Adam sinned only to his own loss without harming his posterity… But when it was shown by the clear testimony of Scripture that sin was transmitted from the first man to all his posterity [Romans 5:12], Pelagius quibbled that it was transmitted through imitation, not propagation. Therefore, good men (and Augustine above the rest) labored to show us that we are corrupted not by derived wickedness, but that we bear inborn defect from our mother’s womb” (p. 247).

6. Calvin proves his point by comparing Adam with Christ. The implication is this: if sin only arises through imitation of Adam, then righteousness can only be obtained through imitation of Christ. So Calvin exclaims, “What nonsense will the Pelagians chatter here? That Adam’s sin was propagated by imitation? Then does Christ’s righteousness benefit us only as an example set before us to imitate? Who can bear such sacrilege! But if it is beyond controversy that Christ’s righteousness, and thereby life, are ours by communication, it immediately follows that both were lost in Adam, only to be recovered in Christ; and that sin and death crept in through Adam, only to be abolished through Christ. These are no obscure words: ‘Many are made righteous by Christ’s obedience as by Adam’s disobedience they had been made sinners’ [Romans 5:19]. Here, then, is the relationship between the two: Adam, implicating us in his ruin, destroyed us with himself; but Christ restores us to salvation by his grace” (p.248).

7. Adam’s sin was passed onto the whole human race. “Hence, rotten branches came forth from a rotten root” (p. 250). But, this transmission does not occur physically or materially. “For the contagion does not take its origin from the substance of the flesh or soul, but because it had been so ordained by God that the first man should at one and the same time have and lose, both for himself and for his descendants, the gifts that God had bestowed upon him” (p. 250). Original sin passed on from Adam to his progeny, not simply because he is our physical father, but because he is our federal head under the covenant of works (cf. Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 2. Baker Academic, 2004, p. 586).

8. This is original sin defined: “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ [Galatians 5:19]” (p. 251). Original sin renders us guilty before God. It is not that we are guilty of Adam’s sin (contrary to Augustine’s view) but rather we are guilty because of our corrupted nature and the actual sins we commit. We are “guilty not of another’s fault but of their own” (p. 251). We are reminded about just how rampantly we sin! “For our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle” (p. 252).

9. Sin affects the whole of human nature with no part exempted. This is the doctrine of total depravity. “Corruption subsists not in one part only, but that none of the soul remains pure or untouched by that mortal disease… The whole man is overwhelmed — as by a deluge — from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin” (p. 253). This is why regeneration must involve renewal of the whole person.

10. & 11. Calvin reminds us that it is fallen nature that is corrupt owing to our sin. God, the Creator, is not to be blamed because he did not create us this way. “It is evident that the wound was inflicted through sin. We have, therefore, no reason to complain except against ourselves. Scripture has diligently noted this fact. For Ecclesiastes says: ‘This I know, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices.’ [Ecclesiastes 7:29.] Obviously, man’s ruin is to be ascribed to man alone; for he, having acquired righteousness by God’s kindness, has by his own folly sunk into vanity” (p. 254).


1. to 6. & 9. Calvin begins by explaining the importance of properly understanding the bondage of man’s will to sin. Free will is defined as “a faculty of the reason to distinguish between good and evil, a faculty of the will to choose one or the other” (p. 261). To ascribe greater power to man than he actually possesses deprives God of his honor, and does not profit man.

Calvin criticizes philosophers who teach that man has free will. The philosophers that Calvin addresses teach that human will is swayed by the reason or sense. “Reason” leads us to pursue virtue and the right way. On the other hand, “sense” is a lower impulse that draws man off into “error and delusion” by the enticement of pleasures, but can be tamed by “reason’s rod.” As such “they locate the will midway between reason and sense” and that humans have the freedom to obey reason or follow sense, “whichever it pleases” (p. 257). According to philosophy, the will is tugged back and forth. “This is the sum of the opinion of all philosophers: reason which abides in human understanding is a sufficient guide for right conduct; the will, being subject to it, is indeed incited by the senses to evil things; but since the will has free choice, it cannot be hindered from following reason as its leader in all things” (p. 258). This is the folly of philosophy.

Next Calvin criticizes many of the early church fathers for compromising too much with philosophy. Specifically, the church fathers did not clearly teach the total inability of man (1) to avoid mockery and (2) to motivate people to behave well and to avoid slothfulness. They spoke on the topic ambiguously. As a result, the doctrine of total depravity was eroded. “It came to the point that man was commonly thought to be corrupted only in his sensual part and to have a perfectly unblemished reason and a will also largely unimpaired” (p 260).

Lastly, Calvin criticizes medieval theologians for teaching the idea of “cooperation with grace” because it suggests that man can to some extent desire to do what is good. Those who teach it suggest that “we co-operate with the assisting grace of God, because it is our right either to render it ineffectual by spurning the first grace, or to confirm it by obediently following it” and further ascribe “merit” to obedience (p. 263).

7. We are reminded that “the Scripture testifies often that man is a slave to sin… Because the heart, totally imbued with the poison of sin, can emit nothing but the fruits of sin” (p. 264; fn. 36). The only way that “free will” still exists in fallen mankind is in the sense that humans are free to sin. “Man will then be spoken of as having this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion… for man [is] not to be forced to serve sin” (p. 264).

8. Augustine used the term “free will” in a limited way and meant something quite different than most of the other church fathers. The main reason that Augustine spoke of free will is so that “no one [could] dare to deny the decision of the will as to wish to excuse sin” (p. 265). In other words, no one can ever say that they were forced to sin, but must admit that they chose to sin. Still, Augustine confesses that “free will has been so enslaved that it can have no power for righteousness… What God’s grace has not freed will not be free” (p. 265). Calvin gives reluctant permission to those who wish to use the term free will in the Augustinian sense, but suggests that it is better to avoid using the term “free will” to avoid misunderstandings.

10. & 11. A high view of free will robs God of his honor. “Whoever is utterly cast down and overwhelmed by the awareness of his calamity, poverty, nakedness, and disgrace has thus advanced farthest in knowledge of himself. For there is no danger of man’s depriving himself of too much so long as he learns that in God must be recouped what he himself lacks. Yet he cannot claim for himself ever so little beyond what is rightfully his without losing himself in vain confidence and without usurping God’s honor, and thus becoming guilty of monstrous sacrilege” (p. 267). We are reminded that it is the devil’s word that exalts man (Gen. 3:5), but it is Scripture that humbles us and turns us to God (e.g., Jer. 17:5; Ps. 147:10-11; Isa. 40:29-31). We should not trust in anything apart from God.

True humility honors God. Augustine is quoted again: “Let no man flatter himself; of himself he is Satan. His blessing comes from God alone. For what do you have of your own but sin?” (p. 269). Ouch! “By God’s mercy alone we stand, since by ourselves we are nothing but evil… As our humility is his loftiness, so the confession of our humility has a ready remedy in his mercy… Laying aside the disease of self-love and ambition, by which [a man] is blinded and thinks more highly of himself than he ought [cf. Galatians 6:3], [a man should] rightly recognize himself in the faithful mirror of Scripture [cf. James 1:22-25]” (pp. 269-270).

12. The fall resulted in the corruption of mankind’s natural gifts, and the loss of their supernatural gifts. “Among these [supernatural gifts] are faith, love of God, charity toward neighbor, zeal for holiness and for righteousness” (p. 270). When these were taken away, mankind lost the qualities necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, natural gifts were corrupted but not totally eradicated. These included “soundness of mind and uprightness of heart” (the faculties which govern our reason and will). What was lost in Adam is restored in Christ by the process of regeneration.

Calvin explains how our natural gifts were affected. “Since reason, therefore, by which man distinguishes between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be completely wiped out; but it was partly weakened and partly corrupted… In man’s perverted and degenerate nature some sparks still gleam. These show him to be a rational being, differing from brute beasts, because he is endowed with understanding. Yet… it cannot come forth effectively” (p. 270). “Similarly the will, because it is inseparable from man’s nature, did not perish, but was so bound to wicked desires that it cannot strive after the right” (p. 271).

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13. to 15. Although the mind was corrupted by the fall, humans are not robbed of all reasoning. The intellect is still capable of understanding many things, and more so earthly things than those of the heavenly realm. Of “earthly things,” Calvin provides examples such as government, home economics, manual skills, liberal arts, and the sciences. Heavenly knowledge refers to the things which pertain to God and of his will.

Calvin provides examples to prove the point that no man is without the light of reason. With respect to government, humans have an inherent desire to have social order. “There exist in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order… [and a desire to be] regulated by laws… For, while men dispute among themselves about individual sections of the law, they agree on the general conception of equity… Yet the fact remains that some seed of political order has been implanted in all men” (pp. 272-273). With respect to the manual and liberal arts, men have the capability of attaining new skills. Further, men have the “energy and ability not only to learn but also to devise something new in each art or to perfect and polish what one has learned from a predecessor” (p. 273). Related to the sciences, men (though corrupted by sin) have discovered great things in the fields of medicine, mathematics, etc. Truth is still truth no matter where it is found.

God has graciously left many natural gifts to sinful humanity. We may admire many unbelievers for their natural talents as they relate to earthly matters. “We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? … Those men whom Scripture [1 Corinthians 2:14] calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior [earthly] things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good” (pp. 274-275). Imagine how much greater our intellectual powers would be if our minds were not tainted by sin!

16. Human competence derives from the Spirit of God. “We ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomever he wills, for the common good of mankind” (p. 275). God often teaches us about earthly matters through unbelievers. To refuse to learn from them would be a waste and shame. “[For] if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths” (p. 275).

Even so, we should not unreservedly admire those who only excel at earthly things. “Lest anyone think a man truly blessed when he is credited with possessing great power to comprehend truth under the elements of this world [cf. Colossians 2:8], we should at once add that all this capacity to understand, with the understanding that follows upon it, is an unstable and transitory thing in God’s sight, when a solid foundation of [heavenly] truth does not underlie it” (p. 275).

17. Reason is innate to humanity and is preserved by God’s grace. God extends “common grace” to believers and unbelievers alike. If our natural gift of reason was completely eradicated, it would be difficult to distinguish us from brute beasts, but this gift remains in us because of God’s mercy. “For if he had not spared us, our fall would have entailed the destruction of our whole nature” (p. 276). We need to acknowledge that our intellect comes from God as a gift and can be taken away. “And surely experience shows that, when those who were once especially ingenious and skilled are struck dumb, men’s minds are in God’s hand and under his will, so that he rules them at every moment. For this reason it is said: ‘He takes understanding away from the prudent [cf. Job 12:20] and makes them wander in trackless wastes’ [Job 12:24; cf. Psalm 207:40]” (p. 277). This should humble us. It is especially sobering when we witness friends, families, or colleagues who have their minds afflicted by diseases like Alzheimer’s dementia or severe neurological conditions. We are reminded that our minds are subject to corruption because of sin, and only preserved by God’s grace. We also have hope that, in Christ, what is ruined can be restored.

Next time, we will continue our study on the impact of original sin. We will learn more about how sin has corrupted human nature and its fruits.

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