The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most significant teaching documents in the Reformed Faith. This year marks the 450th anniversary of its publication. (For some background and the entire document, check this out.) It’s divided into questions and answers for each week (Lord’s Day), and throughout this year I’ll try to offer some brief reflections. Here it is for this past Sunday:
LORD’S DAY 3
Q. 6. Did God create man evil and perverse like this?
A. No. On the contrary, God created man good and in His image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that He might rightly know God his Creator, love him with his whole heart, and live with him in eternal blessedness, praising and glorifying him.
Q. 7. Where, then does this corruption of human nature come from?
A. From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: whereby our human life is so poisoned that we are all conceived and born in the state of sin.
Q. 8. But are we so perverted that we are altogether unable to do good and prone to do evil?
A. Yes, unless we are born again through the Spirit of God.
This set of questions reveals two very important concepts: God is not the author of sin, and sin is more pervasively tragic than we may realize.
God created all things, and they were good, but his pronouncement upon his created image-bearers was that they were “very good” (Genesis 1:31). At least until they rebelled against what God had said, opened the door to welcome sin into the world, and ushered in death in with it. Paul put it like this, “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” (Romans 5:12).
God did not create man sinful, but the sin into which man fell is thorough and pervasive. It has corrupted our faculties and enslaved us. We are born into sin (Psalm 51:5), and it stains even our most seemingly righteous acts (Isaiah 64:6). As the catechism says, we are unable to do good until we are born again. Not ‘good’ in the eyes of others, but good in the eyes of God, who looks past the outward appearance into the real motives and attitudes of our heart (1 Samuel 16:7).
This is what the Reformed mean by the phrase “total depravity”. The Lutheran understanding of this leans more towards the idea that to be totally depraved is to be as bad as we possibly could be. The Reformed view, however, intensifies the tragedy by understanding that even in our sin we are still created in the image of God, but that this image is stained, corrupted, and shattered. Calvin famously used the image of a shattered mirror that now reflects a distorted image.
Because we have been shown how beautiful the image should have been, we see how tragic it has become. The catechism takes time to teach how thorough and heinous the problem is, because it is only then that we can see how majestic and gracious the solution is. If sin was just a spiritual headache, then grace would just be spiritual aspirin, and we would not marvel forever at what God has done.
But sin is a much bigger and deeper problem than that. It has ruined the only thing in all creation that God declared to be “very good”.
That’s our fault. That’s what we did.
But God did something about it–and that’s where the catechism heads next.