Herman Bavinck on Concupiscence

The following excerpts are taken from the third volume of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, wherein Bavinck elaborates on the Reformed view of sin and salvation in Christ. In these two excerpts, Bavinck makes the case that the historic Reformed position on concupiscence is that “the impure thoughts and desires (concupiscence) that arose in us prior to and apart from our will are sin. By this it meant to say, not that all desiring was sin in a psychological and philosophical sense, but that in a scriptural and theological sense concupiscence made us guilty before God.” In the first excerpt, Bavinck also argues that opposition to this Reformed position on concupiscence, such as that found in the Council of Trent, represents a semi-Pelagian view of sin.

Particularly to the point is Bavinck’s discussion on the nature of the will in the final paragraph of the second excerpt, where he quotes Augustine reflecting on Romans 7: “Even though I do not consent to lust (concupiscence) and even if I do not pursue my desires, nevertheless, I still feel desire and am personally present in that very part of me. For I am not one person in my mind and another in my flesh.”

I hope these paragraphs are as illuminating for you as they were for me.

Pelagianism was condemned by the Christian church. From the outset the church fathers assumed a certain connection between Adam’s sin and that of his descendants. Although this connection was not yet examined in detail, Adam’s trespass did bring about a great moral upheaval in his own life and that of his descendants. The nature of that moral change, however, was viewed in very diverse ways. According to semi-Pelagianism, the consequences of Adam’s fall consisted for him and his descendants, aside from death, primarily in the weakening of moral strength. Though there is actually no real original sin in the sense of guilt, there is a hereditary malady: as a result of Adam’s fall, humanity has become morally sick; the human will has been weakened and is inclined to evil. There has originated in humans a conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” that makes it impossible for a person to live without sin; but humans can will the good, and when they do, grace comes to their assistance in accomplishing it. This is the position adopted by the Greek church; and although in the West Augustine exerted strong influence, the [Western] church increasingly strayed toward semi-Pelagianism. The Council of Trent taught that though the freedom of the will had diminished, it had not been destroyed, and that concupiscence as such is not a sin. Totally in agreement with this is the opinion of Anabaptists, Zwingli, the Remonstrants, the Moravian Brethren, the Supernaturalists, and many modern theologians. All agree in believing that Adam’s fall had consequences also for his descendants, because they are physically connected with him. But the moral state that came into being in the human race as a result of Adam’s trespass is not one of sin and guilt but of weakness, lack, sickness. Original sin as such cannot damn humans and at most results in a punishment of the damned [poena damni—the pain of eternal separation from God] without a punishment of the senses (poena sensus). It is an occasion for sin, not sin itself in the true sense of the word. Since the will is in a weakened state, however, it easily yields to the temptations of the flesh; then, when the will agrees and consents to concupiscence, original sin turns into personal sin, which renders a person guilty and deserving of punishment. Materially this theory of original sin completely corresponds to the theory that sin is the product of sensuality and a remnant of humanity’s earlier animal state.

This semi-Pelagian view of original sin, however, is basically not much better than that of Pelagius and is open to the same objections. (1) It denies the character and seriousness of sin. Sin, after all, is lawlessness (ἀνομια). The state in which humans are born either corresponds to God’s law or deviates from it; it is good or evil, sinful or not sinful. There is not third category. That that state is good and agrees in all parts with God’s law, semi-Pelagians dare not assert either. Yet they do not call it sinful in the true sense of the word. So they create an intermediate state and speak of original sin as a disease, a deficiency, an illness that is not a real sin but can only be an occasion for sin. Or they separate sin and guilt and say, like Rothe and Kaftan, that though original sin is sin, it is not guilt. (2) This is impossible both ways. Sin and guilt are inseparable (Gal. 3:10; James 2:10; 1 John 5:17). If sin is lawlessness, it is punishable; and, conversely, where there is guilt and punishment, there has to be sin. Original sin, however, is such that death is its consequence (Rom. 5:14), that it makes us unworthy of the fellowship of God and his heaven (Doedes), that it is inherently impure, the occasion and source of many sins, and is presumably therefore itself sin. Otherwise God would be unjust for punishing with death, the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23), that which is no sin and does not deserve death. The law would lose its absolute validity, for there would be deviation that did not deserve punishment, fellowship with God would be withheld where there was no guilt. Between heaven and hell, good and evil, light and darkness there would come a state that was neither, a “punishment of the damned” without a “punishment of the senses.” That which engenders all sorts of sins would not itself be sinful. The tree, though good, would still bear bad fruit. The spring, though pure, would produce impure water. (3) The notion that innate sinfulness only becomes sin and guilt when the will consents to it, so far from improving the theory, makes it worse. We have to choose: either the will, as it were, stands above and outside that innate tendency, and then original sin consists in nothing but the innate sensual nature, and the entire [moral] character of sin is lost; or the will is itself more or less affected and weakened by original sin. It is rooted in the sinful nature and arises from it, and then one loses—to precisely the same degree as that to which one allows the will to be weakened—that which the theory was designed to maintain: that there is no sin without a decision of the free will.

Furthermore, even if one could conceive a will such that it existed in part or in whole outside the inborn sinful nature, it would still not in fact yield what it is intended to yield. The first decisions of that will that consent to innate concupiscence all occur in the early years when the will is still weak and powerless. No persons are aware that with those first decisions of the will, they are incurring such a guilt, that they actually did not fall and become children of wrath until then. Over against those who say this, everyone could excuse himself by saying he did not know better and could not act otherwise, that for such a weighty decision about his eternal weal or woe, he was positioned in most unfavorable circumstances. Indeed, if original sin is not sin, all other later sins, which so readily and so necessarily spring from it, cannot be sin either. Also Schleiermacher, therefore, rejected the notion that original sin cannot be guilt until it breaks out in actual sin, “for the mere circumstances that there has been no opportunity for and no outward incentive to sin cannot enhance the spiritual status of man.” (4) The semi-Pelagian theory not only does not solve the problem present here, but it does not even begin to touch it and even deliberately shuts its eyes to it. The universality of sin is a fact that also semi-Pelagians acknowledge. They reject its explanation in terms of imitation. They accept that an impure, effective, sick, sinful (though nonculpable and nonpunishable) state is anterior to sinful acts. They acknowledge that that impure, sick state, in the lives of all without distinction, leads to culpable, punishable deeds, so that the weakened free will actually means very little. Now then, how must we explain that appalling phenomenon? How can it be squared with God’s justice that, aside now from the covenant of grace, he permits all humans to be born in such a state, a state that, in any case, for children dying in infancy entails death and exclusion from his fellowship, and for all others eternal ruin? The semi-Pelagian theory fails totally to enter into the problem and contents itself with a superficial and inconsequential doctrine of free will.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, III, 90–93 (§320)

“Concupiscence” was a vague concept; it could be used equally well in a good and in a bad sense, inasmuch as natural, instinctively emerging desires, those, for example, of the hungry person for food, were, of course, not sinful. Augustine therefore sometimes spoke of concupiscence in a nonsinful sense, desire that could not do harm if only it was not met illegitimately. Scholasticism, furthermore, began gradually to distinguish between primo-primisecundo-primi, and plane deliberati desires, that is, those thoughts and desires that arise in us spontaneously before any consent of the will and are not at all sinful; those against which the will has offered resistance but by which it has been overpowered and which are venial sins; and those to which the will has consciously and fully consented and which are mortal sins. Added to this was the fact that the conception of original sin was becoming ever weaker and original sin itself viewed as wholly eradicated by baptism. What remained, concupiscence, was itself not sinful but only a “possible incentive to sin.” Rome, accordingly, decreed that the guilt and pollution of original sin was totally removed by baptism, that though concupiscence remained, it does not injure those who do not consent to it and can only be called sin “because it is of sin, and inclines to sin.”

The Reformation spoke out against that position, asserting that also the impure thoughts and desires that arose in us prior to and apart from our will are sin. By this it meant to say, not that all desiring was sin in a psychological and philosophical sense, but that in a scriptural and theological sense concupiscence made us guilty before God. And in this it was undoubtedly correct. For sin certainly began with a conscious and voluntary act of the will. But that first sinful act did not pass us by without leaving a trace; it in fact corrupted human nature and left a condition that in all respect is contrary to the law of God. So although sin originated by the will, it does now exist outside of the will and is also rooted in all the other faculties and powers of human beings, in soul and body, in the lower and the higher cognitive and conative capacities (Gen. 6:3; 8:21; Exod. 20:17; Pss. 19:13; 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 5:28; Mark 7:21; Rom. 7:7, 15–17; 8:7; Gal. 5:7; etc.) “Sin cannot exist without the will because without the will it cannot exist as it is; without the will, however, it cannot be, because without the will, what exists cannot remain.”

Lutheran and Reformed theologians, therefore, usually fought against the position that all sin was voluntary. By taking that stance, they did not at all mean, however, that there could also be sin that totally and absolutely passed by the faculty of the will. The point is to gain a correct view of the nature and operation of the will. The will, after all, is absolutely not the whole of our capacity for desire but only a special power and expression of it. In this restricted sense, the will is antecedent only to our actual sins, as James 1:15 speaks of it, but absolutely not to the sins of our state and to our involuntary sins. If the condition of being voluntary in this sense were a necessary element of sin, not only all impure thoughts and desires would cease to be sin, but almost all actual sins could be excused with the motto “To understand all is, in a way, to forgive all.” In order to maintain the innocence of concupiscence, Bellarmine, accordingly, already arrived at the statement “Not everything that is contrary to the law is sin”; the involuntary motions, though in conflict with the law, are nonetheless not sins.

However, though it is true that the voluntary element in this restricted sense is not always a constituent in the concept of sin, the sins of the human state and involuntary sins still do not totally occur apart from the will. There is not only an antecedent but also a concomitant, a consequent, and an approving will. Later, to a greater or lesser degree, the will approves of the sinfulness of our nature and takes delight in it. And also when later the will, illumined by reason, fights against it, or the born-again person can testify with Paul that he does not will the evil that he does [cf. Rom. 7:7–25], then this certainly decreases the degree of sin but does not define the nature of sin. For sin has its standard only in God’s law. Paul definitely denominates as sin the evil he does not will but nevertheless commits and so agrees that the law is good. But even then the sin that is done without having been willed does not occur totally apart from the will. For, certainly, Paul can say: “It is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells within me” [Rom. 7:17], thus drawing a contrast between his regenerate “I” and unregenerate flesh, but Augustine already rightly explained these words as follows: “Even though I do not consent to lust (concupiscence) and even if I do not pursue my desires, nevertheless, I still feel desire and am personally present in that very part of me. For I am not one person in my mind and another in my flesh. But then what am I? For I exist both in my mind and in my flesh. For the two natures are not contrary but the one human being is composed of both, inasmuch as God, the God by whom the person was made, is one.” Certainly, it is not one person who does this sin in the flesh and another who does not want this sin. In both instances it is the same person who, on the one hand, impurely pursues what is forbidden (concupiscence) and who nevertheless in the deepest part of his will turns away from it and fights it. And since a human being, also the born-again person for as long as he or she is in the flesh, always to some degree desires what is forbidden, even though he or she fights it in the restricted sense, it can be said that at the most fundamental level all sin is voluntary. There is nobody or nothing that compels the sinner to serve sin. Sin is enthroned not outside the sinner but in the sinner and guides the sinner’s thinking and desiring in its own direction. It is the sinner’s sin insofar as the sinner has made it his or her own by means of his or her various faculties and powers.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, III, 142–44 (§331)


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