Semper Reformanda, Pt. 2

Last month I introduced a correspondence written to a dear friend of mine in which I labor to lovingly but biblically explain why my conscience prohibited me from attending his ordination to the Catholic priesthood. In light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I hope to serve you by way of a comparative analysis between the Biblical and Roman Catholic doctrines of man and justification. Read the first installment here. 


It is appropriate to start, as they say, “at the very beginning.” Before one can answer the question “How can man be saved?”, one must first answer the question “What is man that he needs saving?” Naturally, one’s understanding of man’s nature will determine how and to what extent he needs to be redeemed. By what and whose authority can we formulate these doctrines?  

            You believe that the “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture” (CCC.80) [1] operate in tandem to transmit God’s revelation to the church and the world. These two modes, oral and written, share one common and divine source and therefore no contradiction exists nor can exist between them, for there is no disagreement or division in the mind of God. If, therefore, there is no clash between Sacred Tradition and Scripture, as you claim, you will permit me to ground my reasoning in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which we both affirm to be “what [they] really [are], the Word of God” (CCC.104), wherein “the divinely revealed realities... have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (CCC. 105). Let the ships of our imaginations, traditions, and preferences run aground upon the great rock of God’s Word as we labor to have the mind of Christ.

            So, X, as a surgeon of the soul, what is your diagnosis of the human condition? What is man? How does the Bible describe the condition of man before and after the Fall? Genesis explains that the creation of man was the pinnacle of God’s creation: “then the LORD God formed the man of the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). Adam’s creation was like none other, for Adam alone was made from the dirt of the ground by the very hands of God. It was as if God, so intimately invested in the design, got His fingers dirty in the fashioning of man’s frame.   

            Adam was sublimely singular, distinct from the rest of creation, for God imbued him with a rational soul. That soul served as the organ of divine intimacy by which Adam and his descendants could commune with God. The soul is also the fountain from which morality, volition, and rationality flow forth.[2] Thus, the unique design of Adam’s body and soul set Adam and his descendants apart from the rest of creation, for “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Our first parents bore the untainted image and crystal clear reflection of God, and before the Fall they enjoyed sinless communion with the Triune God beneath the canopy of Eden’s timbers, for “God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

            Thomas Boston, an 18th century Scottish minister explained, “man was made right (agreeable to the nature of God, whose work is perfect) without any imperfection, corruption, or principle of corruption, in his body or soul.”[3] Such was our first father who possessed and exercised “true knowledge, and was the true interpreter of reality.  He had true righteousness, which was more than just the absence of sin.  It involved a holy conformity to the Divine Will.  He was holy in the purity of his character.”[4]  Adams’ holiness and perfect obedience were utterly natural to him and not something “superadded as a supernatural endowment.”[5]    

             But Adam, being left to the freedom of his own will, failed God’s probationary trial by sinning against God in his eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Consequently, Adam fell from the estate of total innocence, blessedness, and life in which he was created into an estate of total sin, misery, and death. He who was made without flaw or blemish and savored the Father’s radiant approbation was now irreparably broken. As God is a God of infinite, eternal, and unchangeable purity and holiness, Adam and the race he represented were banished from God’s presence for the guilt of their sin and the corruption of their natures. Our first parents learned the hard way that God always keeps his promises, for on the day they ate they surely died an immediate and total spiritual death and introduced the horrors of physical death and decay to a deathless world. Their once perfect communion degenerated to embittered estrangement. 

            But what are the effects of Adam’s first sin on the rest of mankind? In his letter to the Romans, Paul explained, “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). The first covenant, the Covenant of Works, was made with Adam and with his posterity--all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation. Thus, when Adam sinned and fell, all mankind fell with him. The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains, “The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it” (WSC 18).  

            The French Reformer John Calvin explained the transmission of Adam’s corruption from one generation to the next, saying, “when Adam was despoiled, human nature was left naked and destitute... when he was infected with sin, contagion crept into human nature. Hence, rotten branches came forth from a rotten root, which transmitted their rottenness to the other twigs sprouting from them.”[6]  Even David recognized the relationship between the sinful works of his hand and the totally corrupt nature that was his from the moment of his conception: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Like David, we sin because we are sinners by nature. Calvin explained further, “Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul... Our nature is not only destitute and empty of good, but so fertile and fruitful of every evil that it cannot be idle.”[7]     

            The Bible declares that, “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart is only evil continually (Genesis 6:5).” The mind and the conscience of the natural man are wholly defiled, lacking any purity (Titus 1:15). Paul described the natural condition of fallen man as being “dead in sin and trespasses...the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1,3). The Apostle’s consummate articulation of the universality of sin and the total corruption of the human nature is found in his letter to the Romans:

“As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes’” (Romans 3:10-18).

The natural condition of fallen man is therefore one of spiritual death, ignorance, inability, unwillingness, and hostility.  

-To Be Continued-


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 31.

[2] James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 225-226.

[3] Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (Banner of Truth Trust: B, 1964 (1989)), 38.

[4] Morton H. Smith, Systematic Theology (2 Volume Set) (Greenville, SC: Greenville Seminary Press, 1994), 241.

 [5] Thornwell, The Collected Writings, 228-229.

[6]  John Calvin, The Library of Christian Classics, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, II.1:7, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 250.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 251.