Rev. G. H. Kersten


Original Sin

Actual Sin

Punishment of Sin


Original Sin

We distinguish between original sin and actual sin. The latter we commit with our own acts in thoughts, words, and deeds. Original sin is the sin imputed to us in Adam, and in which all Adam’s posterity are conceived and born. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps. 51:5) “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.” (Job 14:4) “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) See also Rom. 5:12-19.

Adam’s sin of breaking the covenant is imputed to all his posterity, according to God’s righteous judgment, since Adam represented all of them in the Covenant of Works. Whoever denies this imputation must also deny the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the elect. As the imputation of Adam’s sin is by covenant relationship, so also is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the elect, because He, as the second Adam represents them in the Covenant of Grace. The imputation of Adam’s sin does not take place only because he is the father of us all. All men are indeed out of Adam, but if that were the basis of the imputation of sin then not only all sins of Adam would be imputed to his posterity, but also the sins of Eve, since she is the mother of us all, indeed, then all the sins of all our forefathers would become ours. Paul teaches, however, that by one man and by one sin death has come into the world. Therefore one sin is imputed to his descendents, namely, the one he committed as head of the Covenant of Works. In that sin all sinned. After breaking the covenant, Adam no longer acted as the representative of his posterity although he still was their father.

Since Adam was the head of the covenant, he did not sin for himself alone. The Mennonites and the Arminians, following the steps of the Pelagians, teach that Adam’s eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil did not affect his posterity. They deny the Covenant of Works. No less do the Modernists err in this matter. They do not see that sin originated in the fall, and deny that it is hereditary, but consider it as a necessary defect that must be conquered gradually.

God’s Word, however teaches that all have sinned in that one sin in breaking the Covenant of Works. This is also evident in its consequences. “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23) Death is not natural. It is God’s judgment upon sin. Now then, little children also die, and therefore must have sin when they have not yet done any good or evil. In that state they have only the inherited sin of Adam, that is, original sin. This offence comes upon all men to condemnation. (Rom. 5:15, 16, 17, 18) “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15:22)

Hence original sin is imputed. It is in the first place guilt, that is, liability to punishment for Adam’s sin.

Moreover, original sin is pollution, inherent corruption, that we inherit from our parents, and that is extended over the entire man. This pollution of sin is called:

  1. Flesh, “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” (John 3:6)
  2. The old man, “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” (Eph. 4:22)
  3. Covetousness, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” (Rom. 7:7)
  4. Filthiness, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit.” (II Cor. 7:1)
  5. Being dead in trespasses and sins, “And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1)
  6. A darkened understanding, “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” (Eph. 4:18) “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Cor. 2:14)
  7. A missing of God’s image, and coming short of the glory of God, “Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips.” (Rom. 3:13) “For I know that in me, (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (Rom. 7:18)

The pollution of sin cleaves to us from the time of our conception. “And (Adam) begat a son in his own likeness, after his image.” (Gen. 5:3) “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) “For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps. 5 1:5)

It is the vile fountain of all our actions “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)

“Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” (James 3:11)

The Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Socinians, many Mennonites, and the Arminians deny original sin. They also deny that children enter the world entirely polluted by sin. Children are born in the same state in which Adam was created, according to these erring spirits, that is, a state of ignorant innocence. Sin is committed only by imitation. We have already shown that sin comes by imputation, and the pollution of sin is the necessary result. This must be stressed. The imputation of sin is not mediate, but immediate. Those who speak of mediate imputation reject the Covenant of Works and teach that guilt is the result of the pollution of sin.

Man, however, does not become guilty before God because of his innate corruption, but on the contrary, by the imputation of Adam’s sin, man from whom God has justly withheld His image is born in sin. Whoever would reverse this order must place the righteousness of God in the background, and will deny the imputation of the guilt of Adam’s sin. Man is not only a partaker of Adam’s sin insomuch as his sin is transmitted in his family, but God’s Word teaches us that we all have sinned in Adam, and come short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)

Those who teach “heredity” will not speak even of the pollution of sin in order to make man free from guilt and responsibility. Men speak of a born thief, a born murderer, etc., in whom the inborn passions find expression, since he is a product of his ancestors. This would not make man guilty, nor make man responsible for his actions, and therefore does not demand punishment, but rather, improvement and training in institutions. Man would thus be an instrument without a will. Fundamentally this doctrine of heredity is heathenish. But it is remarkable that in it we see that man can reject the Word of God, but the corruption of sin in which all men are born cannot be denied.

Further we would remark that all men have original sin, also Mary. Rome excludes Mary from original sin, and thereby wants to explain the holy birth of Christ. However, Rome is not able to explain how Mary came into the world without original sin. Nor can this be, for Mary magnifies Christ as her Savior, which would be impossible if she were sinless. Mary also was conceived and born in sin. Her salvation lay in Him who was born of her.

Christ only was without sin, without original, and without actual sin because He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and so was born outside of the broken Covenant of Works. The guilt and pollution of Adam’s sin was not imputed to Him, except as Surety. He took upon Himself the flesh and blood of Mary. And still He was that Holy One that was born of Mary, Who was to be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

By original sin, therefore, everyone is guilty before God, entirely corrupt, incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all wickedness. “Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23) The understanding of fallen man is entirely darkened, and his will is inclined only to evil. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Rom. 8:6, 7)

Guilty man has sunken away in such a state of misery that he is unable not to sin. He is hateful, the one hating the other. “Living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3)

By nature we are prone to hate God and our neighbor. Only common grace still restrains Adam’s race from breaking out into sin altogether, otherwise the world could not stand any longer. And the world must remain until the last of the elect is gathered in (Neth. Conf. Art. 15; Heid. Cat. Quest. 5-8; Canons of Dort III, IV).

Actual Sin

Actual sin is the fruit of original sin. Out of a bitter fountain only bitter water springs. Out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, etc. (Mark 7:21-23) Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, etc. (Gal. 5:19-21)

We commit sins with thoughts, words, and deeds. Although our thoughts are not expressed in words or deeds, they still make us guilty before God. “An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief.” (Prov. 6:18)

Even without the actual and voluntary permission of the will of man, sin makes a man guilty before God. Lot’s sin with his daughters was incest, although he committed it unconsciously in his drunkenness; as well as Paul’s persecution of God’s people made him acknowledge that he was the chief of sinners, although he had done it in ignorance. The apostle also teaches that sin does not only exist in deeds, but covetousness is also sin. The Romish Church denies this, but Paul writes in Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.” (Rom. 7:7)

Covetousness is the womb of sinful actions. “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin.” (James 1:15)

The sins of ignorance are many. “Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in Thy presence, and Thou hast taught in our streets. But He shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are. Depart from Me, all ye workers of iniquity.” (Luke 13:26, 27)

And although the guilt of sin is taken away in Christ, still sin also in God’s people remains sin. It is the transgression of the law. (1 John 3:4) Even the most holy saint can never please God in this life outside of Christ, for only in Him all the elect are made perfect.

In the very first place, everything depends upon the state of man’s heart. Neither Cain, nor his offering were accepted, because Cain’s heart was evil, while Abel pleased the Lord, and therefore also his offering.

The revelation of sin is also in words, of which Christ speaks in Matt. 12:36: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”

God’s law forbids sinful words in the third commandment, concerning the blasphemy of the Name of God, and in the ninth commandment, concerning bearing false witness. “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.” (Psalm 34:13) “I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue.” (Psalm 39:1) “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” (Psalm 142:3)

In the third place, man commits sin with his actions, large and small. There is a doing of things that are wrong. (Rom. 1:28) There is a winking with the eyes, a speaking with the feet, and a teaching with the fingers. (Prov. 6:13) One day Christ shall say: “Depart from Me, all ye workers of iniquity.”

Sin is either sin of omission, or sin of commission. In essence it makes no difference. Sin is sin, and every sin is condemnable before God. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17) There James says the sin of omission is also sin, and sin is damnable. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (Gal. 3:10)

Nevertheless, there is a difference in committing sins. The Lord Jesus refers to that when He says, “He that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin.” Also the punishment of sin shall differ, for it shall be just. But there are no sins pardonable in themselves. Rome teaches that there are pardonable sins by which men do not lose grace, and unpardonable sins by which grace is indeed lost. To prove it they appeal to Matthew 5:22: “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” In these words, however, the Lord Jesus does not at all speak of forgivable sins. On the contrary, He teaches the greatness of sins, also of those which men think small. In itself each sin merits death and is unforgivable. Only on the ground of Christ’s complete satisfaction can and does God forgive sins, excepting one sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost. For the sin against the Holy Spirit there is no forgiveness. Christ speaks of this sin in Matthew 12:31, 32: “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

Also in Hebrews 6:4-6 Paul speaks of the unforgivable sin, saying, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame.”

In the third place, John speaks of this abomination of unrighteousness in I John 5:16b, “There is a sin unto death: I do not say he shall pray for it.”

God often allows the devil to attack God’s people by accusing them that they have committed this sin. He tries by doing so to bring them to despair, for he knows very well that the Word of God sheds no special light upon this sin, and that it is easier to say what it is not than what it is.

The Lord Jesus spoke of it when in their satanic hatred they reproached Him that He cast out devils by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. Expressly and intentionally the Pharisees spoke their hateful blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Although they knew better, although they were enlightened, (Heb. 6:4-6) they blasphemed this work of the Holy Spirit as if it were the work of the devil. Thus they were doing the work of the devil. This sin is a surrender to Satan. There is no repentance. Sorrow over sin is excluded. The fact that these assaulted souls grieve day and night is a proof that they have not committed this sin. This hellish sin must be distinguished from grieving and resisting the Holy Spirit of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 4 and in I Thessalonians 5, against which he admonishes the churches. However the sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. The Word of God does not say this because the righteousness of Christ would be insufficient, but because this sin causes the utmost hardening, and it has not pleased God to subject His elect to it, nor to redeem any who have committed it. Whoever sins against the Holy Spirit, sins unto death.

The Punishment of Sin

God cannot let sin go unpunished. Socinus may assert that God need not punish sin, and can forgive without receiving satisfaction, but that only shows how far the foolishness of this heretic has gone. Because of his perfectly holy and righteous Essence God must necessarily punish sin. God would not be God if He allowed sin to go unpunished. Now the punishment of sin is death, as God threatened in Genesis 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” And thus Paul writes in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” See also Ezek. 18:20.

No other punishment can follow sin, for sin is a severing from God. If a tree is cut off from its roots it must die. How much more must man die if he tears himself loose from God.

Death is not the destruction of man who was created for eternity. In contrast to life in perfect eternal glory, death is being in eternal destruction and perdition in thick darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

God did not immediately execute this judgment completely. Although the sentence is pronounced and immediately executed in man’s spiritual death, yet God still grants a temporal life, and eternal death comes to the soul only when men die, and to both body and soul in judgment day. This manner of executing the judgment of death is according to God’s good pleasure so that Adam would have a generation out of which God could draw His own unto life eternal, and could punish the reprobate according to His righteousness.

Thus we distinguish three kinds of death:

a. Spiritual death is the separation from God’s favor, and banishment from His communion. By nature man is without God in the world, a slave of sin; bearing only fruit unto death. This spiritual state of death does not mean, as the Lutherans hold, that men became as stocks and blocks. He remained man, also after his fall, a rational moral being, but with an understanding that was darkened, and with a will that was perverse, incapable of any good, and inclined to all evil. The dead man works, but only to evil, and to his own destruction. As death works through to complete destruction and decomposition, so spiritual death continues unto eternal perdition. “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” (Eph. 2:1)

Against the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians, who ascribe to man a free or weakened will after the fall, and hold that sin is committed only by imitation, and against the Socinian, who denies entirely all imputation of the sin of Adam, and the necessity of punishment, God’s Word clearly speaks of the miserable state of man, in which he already is by the fall of Adam. He is spiritually dead, cut off from God’s favor, incapable of any good, and prone to all evil. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23)

God’s Word often speaks of this punishment of sin. To this spiritual death belongs the following:

  1. Man lost God’s image which can only be restored in the elect by restoring grace. (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24)
  2. As a consequence of sin, Adam and Eve felt that they were naked. (Gen. 3:7, 10) Before the fall they were not ashamed, but after eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their evil conscience filled them with shame before God and each other, and made them see their nakedness.
  3. Terror in the conscience. In the glorious state of rectitude there was no fear nor terror. Even the speaking of the serpent did not scare Eve. But immediately after sin entered the heart of man, he was filled with a slavish fear of God. His conscience condemned him; he hid himself when he heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. “I heard Thy voice,” Adam said, “and I was afraid.” He was filled with fear for punishment, and fear to meet God. An accusing conscience is a consequence of sin.
  4. Expulsion from Paradise. “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden,” Moses tells us in Gen. 3:23, and this being sent away is related to what we read in verse 22: “Behold, the man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever. . . .”

In these words God pictures man in the state in which he thought he would come when he gave ear to the word of the devil: “as one of Us,” knowing good and evil, his own lord and master, separated from and independent of God. It is a description of the deep state of misery into which man has plunged himself. Hence we do not understand these words as mockery, but as a description of the terrible reality of fallen man. Moreover, the use of the tree of life is cut off. In his terrible defiance man would still reach for that tree. And that tree sealed the promises of life. However, the tree of life itself could not give eternal life.

No tree, but only God, can give eternal life. But by sealing the promises, the tree of life bound God to give life to him who used the promise aright. However, it was now impossible to use the promise aright. The promise of life was abrogated. Therefore God also cut off the misuse of the pledge of the promise. An angel with a drawn sword kept the way to the tree of life. As those who use the Lord’s Supper unworthily eat and drink damnation to themselves, so fallen man was not permitted to eat of the tree of life. The words God spoke, “And now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever,” refer to the sealing significance of the tree of life. Fallen man could no longer remain in a glorious paradise. On the cursed earth he would bear the pains of sin throughout his entire life. Thus the Covenant of Works was broken, paradise was closed, and man was denied the use of the divine seal.

Satan was allowed to make man foolish, and to make him believe that eating of the tree of life would give him life, but God cut off the way. Salvation is not out of works, but out of Christ by grace. The broken Covenant of Works places us under the curse, which can only be removed by Christ in the Covenant of Grace. The Lord spoke to Adam and Eve of that Covenant of Grace, promising them the Mediator of the covenant, who, as the Seed of the woman would bruise Satan’s head. Adam and Eve were saved by faith in the Mediator. Adam testified of that faith when he called the name of his wife Eve, that is, the mother of all living. Adam could only call her this because by faith he saw that the promised seed would come from her. And Eve gloried in Christ at Cain’s birth, saying, “I have gotten a man from the LORD.” Eve was not mistaken here. How could she be? Can there be mistakes in faith? Where then is the firm ground of faith? It seems to us that Eve did not glory in the thought that Cain was the promised Seed of the woman. A worse mistake could not have been possible. But Eve gloried by faith in Christ by Whom she had brought forth a seed, from whom one day the promised Mediator would be born.

Not by works, but by Christ, both Adam and Eve shall be saved. The Covenant of Works is broken in its power to justify a person before God. The fall of Adam is the fall of the whole human race; the fall from the glorious height in which God created man, and unto which he could attain in eternity, into the depth of a threefold death.

Nevertheless, fallen man did not become a devil. Also in the spiritually dead sinner there are a few remains of God’s image in a wider sense, of which our Netherlands Confession of Faith speaks in Article 14, as being sufficient to leave man without excuse, and consists of the innate knowledge of God. “For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20) Conscience is the vice regent of fallen men, and has knowledge and is a witness of the justice of God. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts accusing or else excusing one another.” (Rom. 2:14, 15)

Consequently the redemption of the elect is not an entirely new creation, but a re-creation; an enlightening of the darkened understanding and a renewing of the perverse will, unto eternal life.

b. Temporal death is the separation of soul and body. By the union of these man became a living soul; (Gen. 2:7) at their separation death enters the body. Death is destructive and causes the body to return to the dust, while the soul immediately goes to the place of the damned. The rich man opened his eyes in hell. It is appointed unto men once to die. (Heb. 9:27) None can redeem another from death. (Ps. 49) This death is not natural. In the state of rectitude temporal death did not exist. Contrary to what the Pelagians teach, man, with the image of God, was immortal. Paul speaks very emphatically in Rom. 6:23: “The wages of sin is death,” and that includes also temporal death.

In connection with the judgment of death, all kinds of afflictions and sicknesses come upon all of us, spiritual and physical, personal and general punishments. “The whole world lieth in wickedness.” (I John 5:19) In Gal. 1:4 Paul speaks of “This present evil world,” the devil is the prince of this world (John 12:3 1) and the god of this world who blinds the eyes of them that believe not. (II Cor. 4:4) Satan’s assaults, his devices and revelations are becoming more violent. At the time appointed by God Satan shall reveal himself in the man of sin, but Christ shall destroy him and crush him under his feet. (II Thess. 4:8-11)

c. At that time the judgment shall be passed by God to its fullest extent in eternal death, that is, suffering eternal punishment in soul and body in hell, where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die. Of this eternally endless judgment Christ spoke in Matt.10:28, “Rather fear Him Who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matt. 25:46) He placed eternal punishment in contrast to eternal life.

Both the old and the new spirits of error, that deny eternal judgment are condemned by the unmistakable statements of Scripture. “Man goeth to his long home.” (Eccles. 12) “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the Judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) The old Socinian would have nothing of eternal punishment, and the new sects, such as the Adventists and Russellites teach that there shall be an annihilation instead of eternal punishment. But God’s Word speaks repeatedly of eternal pain, eternal perdition, and eternal judgment. It is true, the word eternal in Scripture does not always mean endless, but the argument derived from this objection to oppose the doctrine of eternal death makes no sense. The institutions of the Old Covenant are spoken of as eternal or everlasting ordinances, for example, that of the Passover in Ex. 12:14-17, and also that of the servant whose ear was to be bored through to his master’s doorpost, it was said “He shall serve him forever.” This relative significance of the word forever or eternal does not apply to the endless state of man. If there were no eternal fire, there would not be eternal glory either. According to the righteous judgment of God, man is sentenced to eternal death. No lesser punishment can follow upon breaking the Covenant of Works and persevering in sin against God. Also in hell the condemned in the company of the devils shall continue endlessly in their sinning and blaspheming of God day and night. Truly, God is righteous in executing upon man the sentence of the threefold death which is the punishment of sin.

This article is taken from Reformed Dogmatics: A Systematic Treatment of Reformed Doctrine by Rev. G. H. Kersten, Volume I, pp. 219-230. It was presented for publication by the Netherlands Reformed book and Publishing Committee and printed by (Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI, 1980)

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