The Nature and Cause of our Misery
If man is indeed in a state of misery, as the Catechism taught us last week, then the obvious question that arises is, “How did we get into this situation?” That’s relevant not just out of intellectual curiosity, but for two very important reasons. First, we need to understand how we can reconcile our creation by a good and holy God with our present state. Did God create us like this? Is this His intention for us? If so, there’s no reason to try and do anything about it. It would also call into question God’s goodness.
But the Catechism points us to the first chapters of Genesis, as well as many other statements from the Bible (note the prooftexts for question 6), to show that God created us good, in His image. That means that we bear the stamp of God’s nature, or at least we did when we were created. We reflected who He is. God’s initial plan for Adam and Eve’s creation was a glorious one. They would be kings and priests before Him, which meant they would rule the physical creation on God’s behalf, enjoying, tending and improving it, and living in fellowship and harmony with God and with each other. It would have been wonderful. Just imagine, even now, what life would be like if you woke up one morning and everything was exactly the same except nobody sinned. Nobody lied, nobody stole, nobody envied what others had. Even remaining problems like disease and natural disasters could quickly be reined in with the tremendous resources that could be diverted from war, government and waste. In that glorious state, though, God was still sovereign. It was necessary to God’s own nature that all His good gifts be enjoyed with an acknowledgement of that truth, that they came from Him. Therefore God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden to make just that point— by withholding that tree, and only that tree, from Adam and Eve, God shows them that He is sovereign. Every time they passed by the tree without eating from it, it was a bend of the knee to God’s rule.
There are a lot of questions unanswered by the Catechism that have perplexed Christianity’s best thinkers for centuries. If God is sovereign over all things, did He know that mankind’s rebellion would happen? Why did He permit the devil to enter the garden at all? Was the Fall all actually part of God’s ultimate plan, and if so, does that make God the author of sin? We do not need to answer all of these questions right now to understand the basic truth of what happened in the Garden of Eden, as Genesis 3 tells it. God made man good, but man rebelled against God by violating His law, resulting in death, which was the result God promised them if they disobeyed. That death is manifested in the breakdown of all their relationships- with God, with each other, with creation, and ultimately even with their own selves, seen immediately in their shame over their nakedness and ultimately in their physical death.
The second reason the cause of our state is important is because the nature of the problem tells us a lot about our solution. If our state is the result of God’s judicial punishment against us for our sin, then there is nothing at all we can do to reverse our state without dealing with God. We are not stronger than God and cannot reverse His judgments.
We also cannot do good works to make up for the sins which have already been committed. For one thing, there is no “balancing out” of good and evil works; good works are just what is expected. We were created to be perfect, and therefore any shortcoming of that perfect state is enough to merit God’s judgment. If I contract with my boss for eight hours of work and then slack off for three of those hours, I cannot plead the five hours that I did work as proof that I kept our contract. So too, any failure to be perfect as God created me to be is enough to earn His wrath against me. Further, the consequence of the rebellion was death, and that spiritual death makes it impossible for us to do any real good works anyway. It is our connection with God which is our life; having lost that connection, we have lost any ability to be what we are supposed to be, and therefore any ability to do works pleasing in God’s sight. God restrains our evil to some degree by His grace so that we are not as evil as we could be, but that is no credit to us. This is what the Catechism means when it says that we are “prone” to all evil— meaning that our very nature tends in the direction of all evil, and is incapable of all good. The solution to that problem must therefore come not from us but from God, as question 8 tells us—a new birth by the power of God is our only hope.