non posse non peccare (HC4)


When God created the first man and woman, they were created with the ability to keep God’s law and because they were free, they were also able to not keep God’s law. Adam was our representative, meaning that he represented all who came after him and when he sinned he took all future humans with him into sin in the same way an anchor takes its chain (not fastened to the ship)  in to the sea when dropped. This is hard to understand by many today who think they live independent lives. Whatever people believe, the evidence of our fall into sin with Adam is found in our thoughts, words and actions.

The questions

Questions nine, ten and eleven (“But doesn’t God do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?, Will God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? and But isn’t God also merciful?”) of the Heidelberg Catechism address that God is not unjust to judge us for our sin. God is merciful, but he is also just and so the question is formed, how can God be both just and merciful to those who have sinned against him?

Problem stated

Human beings, because of Adam’s disobedience, are no longer able to keep God’s law, they are not able not to sin (non posse non peccare). When God made man he created him with the ability to not sin (posse non peccare) and able to sin (posse peccare) but not sinful. After Adam’s disobedience he was not only able to sin but unable to not sin. This is the same for all those who are born after Adam, for we are corrupted from conception. Therefore, does God do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?

By what standard

Should God’s law and commands change so as to accommodate fallen man? To put this another way, since we cannot keep God’s law and God knows this, what point is being made by the law of God remaining? Should God’s standard remain the same or should it accommodate our sinfulness? Removing the law of God doesn’t remove the sinfulness of man, reducing the standard of the law creates nothing more than a race to the bottom. In the same way Adam’s disobedience is revealed by God’s law, so is ours. Removing the standard would mean that nothing could be judged as either good or bad. It’s easy to look qualified before the test, “[the] one who puts his armour on should not boast like the one who takes it off” (1 Kings 20:11). From the very beginning of creation God expects those he created to keep his law and while it’s true that we cannot, this speaks to our inability rather than makes God out to be unjust.

Our ability to keep God’s law was robbed from us because of our union with the first man who represented all who came after him. When he fell he took us with him, “therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Can we live without facing the judgement of God? No, because we are sinful and have not kept the law of God “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of his law by doing them…” (Deut 27:26).

A world of sinful symmetry

Without any reference to the law of God the people in the world turn to a sinful symmetry to address what people deem to be fair (according to their standard). Imagine a child who takes two biscuits out of the biscuit tin, having been told that this must not happen. But, the child takes two biscuits and his sister also takes two at a later time only to be caught by her mother. The mother explains that she has done something that she was told not to do, the little girls defence is that her brother did it earlier in the day. The sister is looking for symmetry, for what is fair, but both have broken the rule given by their mother. Should the mother ignore her own rule for the purpose of doing what is fair according to her children? To do this would be to do nothing more than affirm a sinful symmetry.

Is there hope

There is hope because God is merciful, but God is also just. The justice of God demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with supreme penalty – eternal punishment of body and soul. How then can God be both just and justly judge sinners and save those who have sinned against him? The answer is found, though I am getting ahead of the Catechism here, but the answer is found in Christ who represents those who have sinned against God, “therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5:18), only Christ is able to accomplish this justification because Christ alone is righteous.


By Daniel Ralph

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