For Calvin, human beings are the noblest of all of God’s works as they are created in the image of God himself. Calvin believed that for man to properly know God we must have knowledge of ourselves. There are really only two facets of man that can be considered. Man before the fall and man after the fall. That is to say Calvin’s view on man in the condition in which he was originally created and then man’s condition since the fall of Adam.
Adam was originally created without sin and given a free will. The free will Adam possessed allowed him the choice to not sin. By definition, however, this also means that Adam had the capacity to disobey God as well and enter into sin. The prohibition from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was a test of Adam’s obedience whereby he could prove his willing obedience to God’s commands. Calvin is quick to point out that the fall of Adam was not the fault of God. Rather, the fall happened because of the conscience decision by Adam and Eve to disobey the command of God in the Garden of Eden. God is not the author of sin though He allows sin to occur. Sin, the reprobate and even Satan all play a part in the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan as Calvin understands the Scriptures.
Through the fall of Adam, the entire human race was condemned. And this condemnation was not isolated simply to the human race but to all creation as well. Calvin’s reasoning behind such a statement is simple; all of creation bears this punishment because it was for man’s use that the other creatures were made. Calvin also finds completely reasonable that Adam’s fall would also extend to all of his offspring. Since all humanity is descended from Adam, all human beings share the consequences of Adam’s original sin. In his fallen state, man no longer has the freedom of will to choose whether or not to sin.
Calvin, having established that all of humanity is afflicted with original sin also offers views on man coming to terms with his condition. Without a proper understanding of the condition of the human race and what was lost, man will not comprehend what is to be recovered from God. That proper understanding includes the sinfulness of the heart and mind of man and overall depravity of their nature. What is left of the will of man lacks the ability to turn to God without God’s grace. Calvin illustrates this in his commentary on Genesis with the story of Noah and the Ark when he suggests diligent observation that Noah had given himself completely to God. Calvin goes on to say that even when men, suggesting Christians, have done some service for God that service is often blends His word with our own feelings.
Calvin understood this fallen condition of man and called it depravity. That is not to say that Calvin thought that people could not do good things in the sight of men or even in the sight of God. Rather, these works that men might do, however good they may be, have not merit in terms of attaining salvation from God’s wrath. It is notable that this theology is not new to Calvin. Augustine stressed the idea of original sin late in the fourth century believing that all were seminally present in Adam when he sinned and therefore all sinned in him.