Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 17
In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” (New England Primer, 14). This famous line of Benjamin’s Harris’ 1690 New England Primer expresses the basic Christian belief that Adam’s sin had dreadful consequences for the rest of us. We need to meditate upon this regularly. I know it is not popular, I know it is not good for your self-esteem, and I know it doesn’t make you feel comfortable, but we must do it. Why? We need to do this because Scripture makes frequent mention of sin. We need to do this because it humbles our pride and exalts the grace of God. We need to do this because it actually benefits our souls by making us open vessels for the Lord to work within us.
In dealing with sin, we reach a transition point in the Larger Catechism. Questions and answers 1–20 explained the nature of and works of God in creation and providence. In questions and answers 21–29 it focuses on the nature of human sin.
The first point we learn about in questions and answers 21–23 is Adam’s sin. We read in Genesis 3:1–7 the root cause of Adam’s sin lay in the wrong exercise of his own free will (Q&A 21). We read the means of Adam’s sin in the crafty instigation and temptation of Satan (3:1–4; Q&A 21). We read the nature of Adam’s sin as a transgressing of the commandment of God in eating the forbidden fruit (3:5–6 cf. 2:17; Q&A 21). It’s this last point that Paul especially dwells upon in Romans 5:12–21. There he gives us an inspired theological reflection upon the events of Genesis 3. Notice that Paul speaks of the nature of Adam’s sin as being threefold.
First, the reality of Adam’s sin was disobedience. Paul speaks of Adam’s sin being a “trespass” (5:15, 16, 17, 18). When we read the word “trespass” we may think of a fence that says, “No Trespassing.” This means you are not permitted to go beyond this boundary. What’s important to know is that if you do, it is not an innocent overstepping; it is a conscious decision. As Paul describes Adam’s trespass, it is “disobedience” (v. 19).
Second, the response of God to Adam’s sin was condemnation. Paul says that God judged Adam after his trespass (5:16). What did this judgment mean? It meant condemnation—the execution of the threat God had made earlier (5:16, 18).
Third, the result of Adam’s sin was death. Paul says “many died through one man’s trespass” (5:15) and that “death reigned through the one man” (5:17). Because of this, the Catechism uses the historic language to describe Adam’s sin: he “thereby fell from the estate of innocency” (Q&A 21). And what a fall it was for him, for his wife, Eve, and for us.
This leads to the second point we learn in Genesis 3 and Romans 5, which is our sorrow. Note well the link between Adam and us. Paul says, “Sin came into the world through one man” (5:12); “many died through one man’s trespass” (5:15); “death reigned through that one man” (5:17); “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (5:18); “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (5:19). Adam brought disobedience, therefore condemnation, and therefore death to all humanity to come. Because of him, we are born disobedient. Because of him we are born under condemnation. Because of him we are born already preparing for death. Because of him, we are “brought…into an estate of sin and misery” (Q&A 23). What a sorrowful state we are in!
The question we need answered is why? Why did Adam’s sin bring us such sorrow? Why did his trespass bring sin to us? Why did his disobedience bring condemnation to us? Why did his sin bring death to us? Why does Paul say all of this came “through the one man?” The reason is that God created Adam to be a representative. What he would do or would not do would have effects upon everyone else to come. This is why the Catechism says “the covenant [of life” was “made with Adam as a public person.” This meant that he was created in covenant with God “not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation” (Q&A 22).
So what is the benefit of spending any time meditating on Adam’s situation in the Garden and his subsequent sin? Behind all the details we see the fingerprint of our all wise, all gracious God. For just when the devil thought he had caused the irreparable ruin of our race, God’s master plan was already set in motion. You see Paul embeds a mysterious phrase in the midst of his meditation on Adam, whom he says was “a type of the one to come” (5:14). We may read that and say, “Wonderful, Adam was a foreshadowing of Jesus.” Then we go on a wonderful redemptive historical journey through Scripture to see this. This is true. But I want you to see the “aha” moment that will make you say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom. 11:33) Even before the fall, God had so purposed that Adam was already a type of the one to come. In being a representative the plan of our salvation was already in place. If Adam obeyed, we’d be in glory; if Adam disobeyed, the means of our entering glory was already established.
We affirm that in Adam’s fall, we sinned all. But we also affirm that Jesus’ obedience overturns Adam’s disobedience. We affirm that Jesus’ justification overturns Adam’s condemnation. We affirm that Jesus’ life overturns Adam’s death. Adam: your disobedience, condemnation, and death pale in comparison to the obedience, justification, and life of Jesus! And so we sing:
Man’s work faileth,
He is all our righteousness;
He, our Savior,
Set us free from dire distress.
Through his merit
Light and peace and happiness.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
The New-England Primer: A Reprint of the Earliest Known Edition, with Many Facsimiles and Reproductions, and an Historical Introduction, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1899).