Do human beings have "sinful natures?" Do our natures change when we are born again as Christians? Will we have sinful natures until we get imperishable bodies in the resurrection? Perhaps, as some say, we Christians have two natures that war against each other. I say we never had sinful natures, properly speaking.
To solve this issue, we need to be clear at the outset about what we mean by the word “nature.” If we are confused or vague about the definition of a word, we will be confused or vague about doctrines it is used to describe.
The predominant view in the institutional church of the nature of man can be traced back to John Calvin, Augustine of Hippo, and ultimately to Plato, the Greek philosopher. This is the view that man's nature is metaphysically evil; that we must sin because "sinful" is something we are, and that our sinful actions flow of necessity out of our natures.
As I see it, “sinful nature” would be an oxymoron. The Bible describes sin as a choice1, a selfish act or intention2, a violation of law in deed or thought3, an act that is not from faith or confidence in God4. It is everywhere treated as voluntary and as properly deserving punishment5. Its cause is never attributed to anyone but the sinner himself.
“Natural” is generally understood as those attributes something possesses simply by existing6, its metaphysical attributes, by birth or innately, before any action or choice, not by use of the will, apart from the volition.
So, in strict propriety of speech, to say “sinful nature” is incongruous.7 To do so, we must redefine either “sinful” or “nature” or both. No doubt these ideas came about as a way to remove our personal responsibility and guilt for our sins, as in the Garden when they made excuses, and as described in Romans 1:18-25, how we exchange the truth for lies when we sin.
To avoid confusion, I try to use the term “nature” strictly to mean metaphysical attributes, and “character” to refer to moral attributes. And I generally qualify each with synonyms and examples. This issue is too important to allow confusion about what the Bible teaches. The core doctrines of the guiltiness of sin and the justice of God are at stake.
The notion that we are sinful by nature is tied in with the idea of original sin, and with the idea that Adam and Eve's nature changed to sinful when they sinned, and that we inherited their nature from them. This belief is itself dependent on the presupposition that one's "nature" can be sinful. It is an unbiblical doctrine based mostly on Greek philosophy (and a sloppy reading of Romans chapter five). We will consider this doctrine in another article in the future.
What Does Change When We Become Christians?
It can be confusing when we speak of people changing when they become Christians, and no longer being sinners, but saints. This doesn’t describe a change in our natures (except metaphorically, perhaps, as in “he’s a good-natured man”), but rather, a change in character or identity. If we turn from a life characterized by sinful choices, by our seeking our own self-gratification at the expense of others and against God’s laws that describe loving behavior, and turn toward a life of love and obedience to God’s commands, then we should properly be described as new beings with the new identity of “saints” and no longer as “sinners.”
This is what Jesus meant when He said we "must be born again." He explains that He alone has seen God and can speak accurately about spiritual things (the truth from God, who is spirit). He further explains that whoever believes and obeys these truths that He taught and puts their confidence in the love that God expressed through Jesus' sacrifice will be born (start receiving life or "eternal life") of the Spirit. Remember that Jesus defined eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He sent (John 17:3). Again, this is not a change in our metaphysics, or our natures, but it is a metaphor expressing what it means to come into a loving relationship with God and His Son. (Listen to my Bible study on The Metaphors of John to learn more about these concepts.)
So what about the inclination or the propensity to sin? If we have a free will, then to say “propensity” or “inclination” to sin doesn't make sense. As I understand these words, they concern themselves with the probability of a particular outcome in things that are governed by laws of force or of cause and effect: “There is a propensity toward type 2 diabetes in children with two diabetic parents.” (I have no idea if that’s true.) Or “the heat tiles on the early space shuttles showed a propensity to fall off on re-entry.” To predicate propensity of a free agent redefines “free.” To drive home this point, consider this: If Jesus was like us and could identify with our weakness, then did he have a propensity to sin, but did not sin?
We could also ask, “Is temptation a force causing us to sin, or an influence.” If it’s a force, then, by definition, it is not sin. If it is an influence, then our wills are free indeed and we make true choices, and we are truly guilty when we sin and truly righteous when we love (see 1 John 3:7-8).
I admit there seems to be a problem with my view when the human race is considered as a whole and we consider that most people sin most of the time. But if surrendering to a propensity or sinful nature view means we must scrap the definitions of words (and scrap reason along with them) and disregard Jesus’ sinlessness (and Paul’s claims to have been sanctified8), and oppose all of the clear teachings of Jesus and the apostles’ on holiness, then I will hold fast.
How To Live a Righteous Life
So, sin cannot be something existing in the nature of our physical bodies; it can only be a choice generating from our hearts or wills. And if we are tempted to be anxious, for example, we should will ourselves not to be. We will always be using our wills when we are making choices, but we needn’t be aware of our wills. We are choosing an object, anxiety or trust, for example. Or actually, we are contemplating ideas that make us anxious, or ideas that evoke trust in God. When tempted toward anxiety (or any other sin), we can flee the temptation9, or answer it10, or both.
And we should make sure we are acting on the righteous alternative as opposed to just avoiding the negative, like trusting God for our needs instead of being anxious about them; maybe pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” or thank Him that Jesus told us we are worth much more than the birds that our heavenly Father feeds. We can reason about the futility of anxiety and note, as Jesus did, that we can't, by worrying, even add an hour to our lives.
We can flee temptation by turning off the news, walking out of the room if someone is talking garbage to us, or just start thinking about something else if our thoughts are bothering us—hum a song or read a book.
We can answer temptation, like Jesus did in the wilderness, with the truth, whether speaking to people, or spirits, or to our own thoughts.
We are set free from the power of sin by putting our trust in God’s love for us—the love of the Father to sacrifice His Son, the love of the Son to suffer the crucifixion for us.
Where Does Temptation Come From?
Where Does Righteousness Come From?
We become righteous when we respond in faith (confidence or trust) to the love of God expressed in His Son's sacrifice. The truth about the love of God for us14 in which we need to trust enters through the eyes15, and through the mind, through eyewitness testimony about Jesus16, and through the truth17. We have finite minds and therefore need to be reminded, so let us encourage one another daily to trust in that truth18.
So Christians, rejoice!, because, as Paul said, "you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit."19 And you are no longer "of flesh, sold in bondage to sin."20 And as Jesus said, "if therefore the Son shall make you free [from being a slave to committing sin], you shall be free indeed."21 And rejoice that the "sinful nature" is just another Greek myth!
6It is also used as a metaphor for someone who does something so well or so much that it’s like they do it by nature, as in “He’s a natural tennis player” or “we...were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
7The New International Version renders the Greek word "sarki" as "sinful nature" in many places, but all of the accurate and literal translations render it "flesh." Paul explains his use of the term to mean "sold in bondage to sin" (Romans 7:14). He seems to contrast the life lived indulging the desires of our physical body with being governed by the truth communicated by God through the spirit. And he says that we are no longer in the flesh (Romans 8:9) if the Spirit of God dwells in us. This is also expressed in Romans 7:5 when he says "while we were in the flesh".
8Acts 24:16; Acts 20:26; 1 Corinthians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Corinthians 6:1-10; 2 Corinthians 7:2; Galatians 2:20; Galatians 6:14; Philippians 1:21; Philippians 3:17,20; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; 2 Timothy 1:3;