Position

The position and identity of the believer is not only a core teaching of Freedom in Christ, but of the Gospel as well. Because of their significance, we have provided some more detailed articles on these issues. For an in-depth study of these vital truths, read God’s Power at Work in You by Dr. Neil T. Anderson and Dr. Robert Saucy.

The Nature of the Flesh and its Dynamic in the Believer’s Life

By Dr. Robert Saucy
[Distinguished Professor of SystematicTheology,
Talbot School of Theology; B.A., Westmont College;
Th.M, Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary]

Scripture speaks of the “flesh” in relation to the unbeliever and the believer. The exact meaning and especially its relation to the believer have evoked considerable discussion among biblical students. Questions have also been raised about these issues in some of the materials of Freedom in Christ. What exactly is the nature of the “flesh” and how does it relate to the believer “in Christ”?

I. The nature of the “flesh.”

The word “flesh” has several uses in Scripture including the material part of our being, i. e., our body. However, it is also used in an ethical sense for the human being himself apart from God. In general “flesh” denotes the weakness of man when compared to God who is Spirit. The use of “flesh” in the ethical sense therefore signifies the moral weakness of a person apart from God. Such a person is enslaved to the power of sin. The “flesh” thus is that propensity to live apart from God as one’s own god which in biblical terms is living under the domination of sin. (For a fuller treatment of this ethical meaning of flesh including its relationship to the unbeliever and the Christian, see Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, pp. 312-22).

Frequently in Freedom in Christ materials the flesh in this ethical sense is described as “learned” or “conditioned” behavior. The flesh is said to be that aspect of me which was programmed by attitudes and behavior that were characteristic of life apart from God under the domination of sin. The question is raised as to whether this is an adequate understanding of the flesh, and whether it does not suggest that the solution to the flesh is simply reprogramming.

1. In the first place, talking about the dynamic of the flesh as it functions in human life is simply a practical way of saying that the person lives in a certain way that is characterized by attitudes and actions. That these attitudes and actions are related to what the person thinks and believes in his heart is clearly the teaching of Scripture. Sometimes the person is not even aware of the underlying beliefs that motivate his attitude and behavior. One either lives on the basis of truth or lies. Since living apart from God as one’s own god is the root of all lies, a life lived in the flesh or according to the flesh is a life lived on the basis of lies.

Scripture also suggests that the lies of the flesh that dominated the person before salvation are related to the environment in which one lived. While it is true that the way of living for those apart from God entails an underlying belief and attitude that one is his own god, it also involves beliefs, attitudes, and actions that are in the person’s environment and are enculturated into the person as he lives in the culture and accepts its values. Thus it is not improper to speak of being influenced by one’s environment.

The apostle speaks of those who walked according to “the course of this world,” that is the worldly system about them which is in opposition to God and represents thoughts and values that are opposed to Him (Eph. 2:2). People have also inherited a “futile way of life” from their forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18). This statement appears to say more than that they simply inherited a sin nature. They also inherited a “way of life,” that is the values and beliefs by which they lived as expressive of the sin nature. And these values and beliefs were enculturated into them by their “forefathers.”

2. To look at the flesh as characteristic ways of thinking that develop out of separation from God in no way intends to deny that the separation from God was not itself sin or rebellion against God stemming from pride and unbelief. It is simply looking at the effects of this sin in the practical ways in which it reveals itself in life and can be countered with God’s truth. The reason that the person apart from God programs himself with these lies and consequent sinful actions is because of a fundamental choice to be his own god, i.e., a prideful rebellion against the true God. Thus flesh is at its root bent toward sin.

A note in The Common Made Holy gives this clarifying explanation regarding the illustration of the flesh as a programmed computer: “This illustration . . . is not intended to deny that we are all born with a bent away from God. We have a clean slate only as far as information from outside. But we are born with a program that structures the input during our developmental years into habits and patterns of living for self independently of God” (p. 393, n. 2 under Chapter Eight).

3. Finally, to speak of the flesh as that aspect of us that is programmed with lies that produce sinful attitudes and actions is not to suggest that the flesh is neutral and can be reprogrammed. The flesh, which speaks of a person apart from God, includes the bent that receives the lies. Thus the flesh includes both the underlying inclination to the lie because of rebellious pride as well as the lies that have been inculcated into the mind and consequently influence the attitude and activity of the person.

Perhaps it would be helpful to add to the illustration of the flesh as a programmed computer the thought that the operating system of the computer has a serious virus in it. This virus causes the programming system to process all information from the sinful perspective of life apart from God. In other words, it attempts to make sense out of everything without including God. Thus the information programmed (i.e., thoughts, values, world views) is skewed and is in reality lies because the flesh includes the disordered operating system itself that is bent with the lie that man can have true life without God. It is thus the flesh with its lying virus and consequent fleshly lies that motivate and dominate our attitudes and consequent behavior.

To reject the lie is therefore not simply to reprogram the flesh; it is to reject the flesh itself. As fallen humans, we need more than different thoughts, we need a new operating system as well, i.e., one that is bent with faith toward God and his truth. What is reprogrammed then is not the flesh, but the mind or the reasoning capacity which can be dominated either by the flesh or the Spirit

Utilizing the computer illustration again, one could say that the mind is the hardware and software program which can be used either by a good operating system or by an operating system corrupted by the virus of sin, i.e., the flesh. In order for the mind to function as God created it, the virus of the flesh with its manifestations (thoughts and behavior) which are in opposition to God must be crucified.

In coming to salvation, the believer “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). This was done in principle, as John Stott explains: “When we came to Jesus Christ, we repented. We ‘crucified’ everything we knew to be wrong. We took our old self-centered nature, with all its sinful passions and desires, and nailed it to the cross. And this repentance of ours was decisive, as decisive as a crucifixion” (The Message of Galatians [London: Intervarsity Press, l968], p. 151).

The meaning and experience of this decisive crucifixion of the flesh in the believer’s life is briefly explained in the following fromThe Common Made Holy: “. . . the reality of our actions is experienced only in accord with the faith in which it is done. As Stott says, we crucified ‘everything we knew to be wrong.’ And it might be added that we did it with all the faith that we had at the time. But our faith (which in reality includes knowledge), while sincere and genuine, was not yet mature and complete. As Scripture says, we are born again as babies, alive and designed to grow (see 1 Peter 2:2). We grow as we appropriate more and more of Christ’s life by the power of the Spirit. And as we grow, the reality of what we did totally in principle—namely, crucify the flesh and its old self-centered influence‚ becomes increasingly more real in our experience” (p. 315).

Involved in the exercise of faith is the need to continually reaffirm the crucifixion of the flesh and its works. As Jesus taught, the believer must “take up his cross daily” (Lu. 9:23; cf. also Rom. 8:13).

II. Dealing with the flesh through reprogramming the mind.

If as explained above, the flesh is more than its lying thoughts and attitudes, but includes the corrupt lying operating system itself, how does one go about dealing with the flesh? How does one change from living under the domination of the flesh and the power of sin to living under the domination of the Spirit of God in holiness? Is it adequate in dealing with the flesh to recognize and deny the lies of the flesh and focus on God’s truth so that we can live in that truth?

In answering these questions it is important to note that Scripture does not simply talk about the power of sin, but also how sin expresses itself to enslave us. Beginning with the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 we see that the way that sin manifests itself and captures men and women is through the lie. Adam and Eve fell because they chose to believe the lie of Satan. In explaining why his enemies sought to kill him, Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Even as the death of mankind came from the lie in the case of Adam and Eve, so the murderous desire of Christ’s enemies came from Satan whose is fundamentally a liar and thus a murderer.

It is doubtful that anyone deliberately and knowingly chooses to hurt himself (cf. Eph. 5:29). Therefore in order for one to sin he must believe (consciously or not) that he is gaining something which is in some way beneficial to him. Thus Scripture teaches that the real disease of the sinful heart is its deceitfulness (Jer. 17:9; for the deceitfulness of sin see also Rom. 7:11; Eph. 4:22; 2 Thess. 2:10; Heb. 3:13). Sin takes shape to exert its power in human life through the lie.

The power of sin in the lie is seen in the corresponding biblical teaching of the relationship of the power and life of God to his word of truth. Scripture does not simply talk about receiving life or the power of life, but also about how it is imparted to us and that is through God’s truth. The life and power of God are linked to his word in such a way that to receive the truth of God’s word is to receive God’s life and power (cf. Jesus’ statement: “. . . the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (Jn. 6:63). One of the key ways (if not the key way), therefore, in which the battle between sin/death and righteousness/life is waged is between the lie and the truth. The enemies of Christ sought to kill him because they would not receive the truth of his words (Jn. 8:40, 45).

Receiving the truth of God in the gospel, including who we are “in Christ” as a result of his work, is, in fact, receiving the dynamic life of God. To receive the truth is, therefore, not only a change of thinking. It is the reception of the power of God to defeat and put to death the power of sin that reigns through the lie. This is why Scripture continually talks about the mind in relation to salvation and sanctification. To sin is to have a mind that is deceived (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 4:1). Salvation and Christian growth comes through the renewing of the mind and thoughts with the truth of God (Rom. 12:3; cf. Jn. 8:32; Jn. 17:15).

In summary, both the power of God and the power of sin are communicated and have their effect as we receive the truth or lie into our heart. Focusing on God’s truth and denying Satan’s lies is therefore not simply a “reprogramming” of our minds, nor is it a failure to deal with the deepest sinful power of the flesh. It is, in fact, God’s way in which the underlying power of sin is overcome by the power and life of God. (For a more complete discussion of the lie and truth in the matter of sanctification, see Unleashing God’s Power in You, chapter 7, “Transformed by the Renewing of the Mind,” and chapter 8, “The Truth Shall Set You Free”.)

The Importance of the Christian’s Identity in Sanctification

by Dr. Mark Saucy (B.A., Biola University; M.Div., Talbot School of Theology; Ph.D. Fuller Theological Seminary)

The Christian’s knowledge of his or her identity in Christ is a distinctive element of the biblical teaching on sanctification.  The particular emphasis on this truth in the presentation of Freedom in Christ Ministries (FIC), elicits three questions in regard to the exact role the believer’s identity in Christ has for Christian sanctification: 1. Just how important for Christian sanctification is the understanding and focus upon one’s own identity? 2. Does focus on the identity of the believer minimize the focus on Christ or God in sanctification? 3. Does emphasis on one’s identity in Christ reduce sanctification to a matter of mere wishful thinking or a kind of Christianized ‘positive thinking’?

1. Identity and the Process of Sanctification

The dynamic of the believer’s participation in and experience of sanctification are founded upon two profound truths of biblical salvation.  The first truth concerns the unique provisions for human salvation accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Without the concrete demonstration of divine love in Christ there is no means of the creation being reconciled to the Creator (Col 1:19-20).  The Christ-event is the center and sum of all God’s work (Eph 1:9-10) as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).  The second profound truth is the union the believer has with Christ by faith.  By means of faith the believer is incorporated into Christ, made a member of his body and united with Him and in this way enjoys all the blessings wrought by the life death and resurrection of Jesus (Ro 3:23 ff.; Gal 2:16 ff.).  Thus, it is only “in Christ” that one is saved and enjoys all of the spiritual blessings of salvation (Eph 1:3) including election (Eph 1:4), redemption and forgiveness (Eph 1:7), justification (Gal 2:17), sanctification (1 Cor 1:2) and regeneration (2 Cor 5:17, in Christ the believer is a new creature).  So comprehensive and intimate is the faith union between Christ and the Christian that Scripture speaks of it as the new defining category of the believer’s existence.  Christ is the believer’s life (Col 3:4).  By faith the believer’s life becomes “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).  It can be illustrated by the one-fleshed union of marriage with Christ (Eph 5:31-32).  Paul expresses this truth for himself saying that “it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

When taken together the objective work of Christ and the believer’s union with Him by faith identify both the fundamental ‘tension’ of sanctification as well as the biblical orientation toward resolution of that tension.  The tension of sanctification is simply that the believer’s realization of Christ’s death and resurrection and the union with Christ still needs to be “worked out” or “made complete” in their daily lives (Phil 2:12-13).  For all Christians there is a gap between what is true of them “in Christ” and how they in fact live.  The process of sanctification involves the divinely appointed means of eliminating this gap.  The fact of the gap also indicates that the fundamental nature of sanctification is in a real sense a matter of the Christian becoming who he or she already is.  Theologian Sinclair Ferguson thus defines sanctification as “the consistent practical outworking of what it means to belong to the new creation in Christ” (Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality, ed. Donald L. Alexander [IVP, 1988]; cf. also James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, [Eerdmans, 1998], 630-631).

When defined in these terms, that sanctification is the process of becoming who you already are in Christ, it is not difficult to see the priority in sanctification of knowing and affirming by faith one’s identity.  That such a conclusion is in fact the biblical position, and not the addition of some new ‘essential’ to faith, is demonstrable from five streams of NT evidence.  First, in the NT the call to holiness always flows out of the Christian’s constituted status in Christ.  NT exhortations to Christian behavior take the form of “Live out who you are!” This is the “since-therefore” formula we see that is so characteristic of the apostle Paul’s ethical admonitions.  For example, since the Romans are “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” they should not allow sin to reign in their mortal bodies (Ro 6:11-12).  Since the Corinthian believers are the dwelling of God, they are to “come out and be separate” from unbelievers in their behavior (2 Cor 6:16-17).  Since they are sons and daughters of God, they therefore should cleanse themselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit (2 Cor 6:18-7: 1).  Since the Corinthians “are in fact unleavened,” they therefore must “clean out the old leaven” of immorality from their midst (1 Cor 5:7).  Since Christ is the Colossians’ life, they therefore are to consider the members of their earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, etc. (Col 3:4-5).  Since the old man is laid aside the Colossians cannot therefore lie to one another (Col 3:9).  Since the Galatians are free in Christ, they therefore must keep standing firm and not be subject again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1) or turn their freedom into an opportunity for the flesh (5:13).  On and on the instances may be multiplied justifying the statement that “the ‘new creation’ is what makes possible a walk ‘in newness of life'” (cf. Ro 6:4; Dunn, Theology of Paul, 630).

Second, it is on the basis of Christians’ identity in Christ that Paul corrects the two enemies of true sanctification that are legalism and worldliness.  Legalistic injunctions as ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ Paul tells the Colossians are of no value against fleshly indulgence, and the apostle marvels that those who have died with Christ in his death could submit themselves to such decrees (Colossians 2:20-23).  The medicine for the flesh follows in the context in the form of a reminder from the apostle’s hand about the Colossians’ identity.  They have died with Christ (3:3) and been raised up with him (3:1); their life is hidden in Him and He is their life (3:3, 4).  Therefore they are to set their mind on things that are appropriate to such ones as they are (3:2).  They are to count as so their union with Christ in death and resurrection and so move their will against fleshly deeds (3:5).  Conversely, believers are not to live ‘so as without law’ and commit every kind of sin because they are under grace.  Why? Because sin is not fitting to the new creature who lives in union with Christ.  This is the whole point of Paul’s question in Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” His answer comes from the fact of the believer’s identity as one united to Christ in His death: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?…  therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death… so that we too might walk in newness of life” (Ro 6:3-4).  The immoralities of the Corinthian Church are met by the same strategy.  Paul asks how it is that they can engage in sexual immorality as Christians united to the Lord through his Spirit: “Flee immorality… or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor 6:18-19).  Again, it is the believer’s constituted identity in Christ that is the base of operations against the deeds of the flesh.

Third, the exhortation to the Corinthians highlights the apostolic teaching that progress in sanctification is enhanced or retarded in direct proportion to believers’ knowledge and deep reflection on who they are as new creatures in Christ.  Because this is key for the human sanctification, the apostle is keen that his readers ‘know’ about their participation in Christ’s death (Ro 6:3, 6, 9) and resurrection and that they ‘reckon’ themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Ro 6:11).  As Ferguson says, “it is the dawning of this perspective which is the foundation for all practical sanctification…  That is why so much of the New Testament’s response to pastoral and personal problems in the early church was: ‘Do you not know what is true of you in Christ?’ (Rom 6:3, 16; 7:1; 1 Cor 3:16; 5:6; 6:2-3, 9, 14, 19; 9:13, 24).  Live by the Spirit’s power in a manner that is consistent with that!” (Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” 60).

Fourth, the apostolic desire that Christians know what is true of them in Christ is reiterated by the way Paul prays for his readers.  Both of the apostle’s great prayers in Ephesians, for example, petition the Father that believer’s might grasp deeply what is true of them as Christians.  In the first prayer it is specifically that they might know what is the hope of their calling, the riches of their inheritance and God’s incomparably great power for them who believe (Eph 1:18).  In his comments on this prayer NT scholar Don Carson writes, We need to know who we are, as God sees us.  Paul wants us to appreciate the value that God places on us, not because we are intrinsically worthy but because we have been identified with Christ.  We have been chosen in Christ; his righteousness has been reckoned ours; our destiny is to be joint-heirs with him.  If we maintain this vision before our eyes of who we are — nothing less than God’s inheritance! — we will be concerned to live in line with this unimaginably high calling (D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers [Baker, 1992], 176-177).

So also the petition of the second prayer (Eph 3:14-19) is that believers might be strengthened with power in the inner man to apprehend by faith the reality of Christ’s union with them so may know the extent of His love for them.  Again the apostle’s concern is that believers know something about themselves in their new life now that they are related to Christ.

Fifth, as the prayer of Ephesians alludes, the Christian life is the life of faith because it is by faith that Christ dwells in us (Eph 3:17-18).  Without faith God cannot be pleased (Heb 11:6), and so the righteous one will live by faith (Ro 1:17; cf. Hab 2:4).  In regards to sanctification faith is ultimately the means by which sin is not allowed to dominate the Christian.  ‘Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Ro 14:23). But in what does one exercise faith? Quite clearly for the Christian the answer must be that we must have faith in God, or faith in all that God in Christ is for us.  It means receiving as real the truths about the objective provision of salvation in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as the truth of our own subjective incorporation into that saving event through our union with Christ.  For sanctification the particular importance of exercising faith in the subjective moment of one’s new identity with Christ is indicated in theologian John Murray’s observation, that when Paul is dealing with the newness of life which identifies the believer what is thrust into the foreground is not the fact that Christ died and rose against for believers [the objective moment] (though this aspect is not by any means suppressed or overlooked), but rather the fact that believers died and rose again with Christ (John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics [Eerdmans, 1957], 207; italics his).

Thus, we see that while faith must include that Christ died and rose for us, for the process of sanctification it is absolutely necessary that faith go the next step and grasp the fact of these events as they are appropriated to the believer because of his or her union with Christ.  This is identity, and Murray’s words show us the primacy that identity has within the faith-dynamic of sanctification (for more on this see Neil T. Anderson and Robert Saucy, The Common Made Holy: Being Conformed to the Image of God [Harvest House, 1997], 269).

2. Premium on Self — Minimum on Christ?

Some may raise the objection that an emphasis on one’s identity for living the abundant Christian life veers recklessly into the unhealthy and unbiblical ‘me-ism’ and self-centeredness found in much popular teaching of self-esteem and positive self-image.  The objection is suspicious that in such an emphasis on the believer’s identity God and Christ are pushed to the sidelines as the believer chiefly focuses on himself.  The fundamental response which at once separates the biblical concept of the believer’s identity from all worldly teaching in this area is that the Christian’s identity is always an identity in Christ.  Unlike the pop-psychology which teaches people to esteem themselves as they are apart from Christ (a notion that is flawed at the outset because until a person is united with Christ there is really nothing there morally to esteem), Christian identity is always and only identity qualified in terms of the believer’s union with Christ.  It is only because of Christ that the benefits of salvation accrue to the believer.  Recognizing who we really are in Christ, therefore, places Christ at the center of the believer’s thought and life and is no morbid egoism.  Far from taking our focus off of Christ it leads us to increased gratitude for what Christ has done for us and dependence on Christ in daily life.  Holding Christ at the center of the Christian life has always been the desire of FIC (cf. Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, 257-264 and especially the illustration on p. 262).

But even “in Christ” should the Christian be thinking so much about himself — even this way? First, as noted above, in Christ the Christian’s true self-perception is never just self-perception.  All of our life is hidden in Christ and derives from Him.  Christ’s person and work is the very heart of the Christian’s self perception.  Second, as we saw under the first question, Paul and his commentators indicate that it is critical for believers to constantly remind themselves of their relationship to Christ.  This point is also forcefully pressed by John Stott in regards to the teaching on sanctification in Romans six.  Stating that the “necessity of remembering who we are” is the way “Paul brings his high theology down to the level of practical everyday experience,” Stott continues his summary:

We are one with Christ (1-14), and we are slaves of God (15-23).  We became united to Christ by baptism and enslaved to God by the self-surrender of conversion.  But whether we emphasize baptism or faith, the point is the same.  Being united to Christ, we are ‘dead to sin but alive to God’ (11), and being enslaved to God we are ipso facto committed to obedience (16), pledged to ‘the total belongingness, the total obligation, the total commitment and the total accountability which characterize the life under grace’…  So, in practice we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are.  We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves questions: ‘Don’t you know? Don’t you know the meaning of your conversion and baptism? Don’t you know that you have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection? Don’t you know that you have been enslaved to God and have committed yourself to his obedience? Don’t you know these things? Don’t you know who you are?’ We must go on pressing ourselves with such questions, until we reply to ourselves: ‘Yes, I do know who I am, a new person in Christ, and by the grace of God I shall live accordingly'” (John Stott, Romans: God’s Good News for the World [IVP, 1994], 187; emphasis ours).

Properly understood and practiced, the Christian’s focus on their identity in Christ is in fact Christ-centered and critical to sanctification.

3. Christian Positive Thinking?

The priority of knowing and focusing on one’s true identity in Christ has also given rise to the charge of being a thinly veiled Christian version of positive thinking.  Can sanctification be reduced to a matter of just thinking often enough of who one is in Christ?  Obviously if the understanding of identity in Christ is limited to only a forensic or positional change in relation to God then the answer must be no.  Like the secularist positive thinker there is no real power or root of change in this kind of identity to produce Christian growth no matter what the mental exertion.  But thankfully this is not the complete biblical picture of what has happened to the believer who has come to be “in Christ. ”  Certainly in union with Christ there is a forensic change of position before God that is truly wonderful.  In Christ we are clothed with His righteousness, no longer under condemnation, and no longer alienated from God.  But the story does not end there.  ‘In Christ’, as we noted above, the believer is also a new creature (2 Cor 5:17).  God has not only changed our status or given us a new relationship, in Christ he also made us new.  We have been “born again” (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:3,23) and given a “new heart” (cf. Ezek 11:19; 3:26; cf. also Deut 30:5,6).  Having a new heart is the clearest indication that there has been a real change in the person himself, not just his position or status.  The “heart” is the center of the person; it is in fact the real person.  “As water reflects a face, so a man’s heart reflects the man” (Prov 27:19).  God looks at the heart to know the person (1 Sam 16:7; cf. 1 Pet 3:4, lit. “the inner person of the heart”).  A change of heart, thus means a change of the deepest core of our being, the place, according to Scripture, of our deepest thought, emotions, and willing that drive our life (cf. Prov 4:23, our heart is the “wellspring” of our life).  For a fuller discussion of the new person, especially the change of heart and its ignificance, see Anderson and Saucy, The Common Made Holy, 77-100.

In the change of heart a new root of life is created in the believer giving him a completely new orientation of life.  The deepest core of the believer now seeks God whereas before it was in bondage to sin and sought only to preserve its own godhood.  It is here in the knowledge of this new propensity of the heart, in the new deepest desires, that growth may begin and be nourished.  Think about it for a moment…  if all that has happened to us in salvation is forgiveness of sins and freedom from condemnation, but we are still fundamentally sinners at our core, oriented to sin in our deepest desires, how can we grow?  The command of God for holiness comes to us from outside and we cannot respond to it.  No amount of positive thinking can help this.  But when the believer knows his full identity, that he himself is right now alive with the life of Christ, that his deepest being longs for God, God’s Word, fellowship with God’s people along with the other means of growth, there is new hope of power for victory over sin in life, new hope for actual growth in obedience that positive thinking cannot provide.

This is not to omit the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification — only to affirm that His work should not be seen as foreign to our deepest orientation as new creatures.  He is the creator of the new heart with its new appetites and desires (John 3:3-8).  It is the new heart that He continues to direct and energize the change in growth in sanctification (Phil 2:13).  Sanctification is ultimately His work, — a work in which He bears witness to the new heart: “You are God’s child” (Ro 8:16; Gal 4:6).  Regenerated in Christ, the Spirit’s testimony resonates deeply and moves the Christian because his new heart hears the Spirit’s witness and leading as being in perfect concert with its own deepest inclinations, propensities, longings and orientation for growth.  In Christ the the Christian cries out, “Yes, I am God’s child!,” and knows this sonship as no imputed, forensic, or alien reality only. Regenerated and surging with Christ’s life the Christian is thereby drawn and moved from within to cooperate with the Spirit for growth.  This kind of identity, one that recognizes the believer’s own actual heart regeneration in Christ, is an understanding of identity that far surpasses awareness of a mere change in position or relationship.  It is an understanding of identity that is a real source of encouragement, comfort, and vitality for change and growth far beyond what any amount of positive thinking may provide.

“Sinners” Who Are Forgiven or “Saints” Who Sin?

-Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995) 400-12
Dr. Robert L. Saucy
[Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology,
Talbot School of Theology; B.A., Westmont College;
Th.M, Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary]

The question of the true identity of the Christian has been the topic of discussion for some time. Although not directly framed as a question of identity, the issues of self-love, self-esteem, and self-worth all relate in some way to the question, “Who am I?” This question has been posed more sharply in the alternatives, “Am I as a Christian basically a sinner who is forgiven, or a saint who sins?”

The first of these alternatives may be associated with what Warfield favorably termed “miserable-sinner Christianity.”1 He referred to it this way because similar terminology runs through Protestant confessional formulas and catechisms.2 Luther’s Short Catechism, for example, teaches the believer to say, “I, miserable sinner, confess myself before God guilty of all manner of sins.” A Lutheran Confession of Sin reads:

I, poor sinful man, confess to God, the Almighty, my Creator and Redeemer, that I not only have sinned in thoughts, words and deeds, but also was conceived and born in sin, and so all my nature and being is deserving of punishment and condemnation before His righteousness. Therefore I flee to His gratuitous mercy and seek and beseech His grace. Lord, be merciful to me, miserable sinner.

A similar expression is found in the prayers of the Church of England. After acknowledging sinfulness and declaring that “there is no health in us,” the prayer closes with the petition, “But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.” One of the most rhetorical expressions of the concept of “miserable-sinner Christianity” is given by the Scottish minister, Alexander Whyte, in his work Bunyan Characters.

Our guilt is so great that we dare not think of it. It crushes our minds with a perfect stupor of horror, when for a moment we try to imagine a day of judgment when we shall be judged for all the deeds that we have done in the body. Heart-beat after heart-beat, breath after breath, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and all full of sin; all nothing but sin from our mother’s womb to our grave.3

It would be wrong to take such a statement as necessarily signifying “miserable Christianity” rather than “miserable-sinner Christianity.” Many of those who confessed their situation in this way knew how to flee to the grace of God and find the joy of forgiveness. But such statements would also seem to color the self-understanding of believers as to their basic nature.

An example of the alternative understanding of Christian identity as a “saint who sins” is a statement by Neil Anderson in one of his popular books.

Many Christians refer to themselves as sinners saved by grace. But are you really a sinner? Is that your scriptural identity? Not at all. God doesn’t call you a sinner; He calls you a saint—a holy one. Why not identity yourself for who you really are: a saint who occasionally sins?4

If the word “occasionally” is excluded from Anderson’s statement, there is truth in both alternatives of the question. Believers are sinners in that they continue to sin, but Scripture also refers to them as saints. Believers therefore are sinners who by God’s grace are forgiven, and they are saints who sin.

Thus in a sense Christians have a kind of double identity. But this does not mean they are schizophrenic or multiple persons. Each believer is one person, one ego or “I”.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 2:20). There was only one “I” and one Paul throughout this transition. The question of the believer’s identity is therefore the question of the identity of that ego or “I.” And it would seem that that identity must be related to the actual nature and behavior of that ego. If the nature and activity of the person is primarily sinful, then it is difficult not to see his core identity as a “sinner.” On the other hand if the believer’s nature and activity is primarily holy, then that person’s real identity is that of a “saint.”

The Believer’s Positive Identity

Consideration of the scriptural description of the believer and his activity obviously reveals a mixture of sin and holiness. But when the focus is on the actual description of the person’s identity, the picture is decidedly positive. Even in the Old Testament, believers are described as living with a heart of integrity, soundness, and uprightness (e.g., 1 Kings 8:61; 9:4 {1 Kgs 9:4}; Pss. 78:72 {Ps 78:72}; 119:7 {Ps 119:7}). This of course does not mean that they were sinless or unaware of their sin. But they had a heart and life that was fundamentally devoted to God. Turning to the New Testament, Christians are frequently addressed as “saints” (e.g., Acts 9:32; Eph 1:1; Col 1:2). This surely has reference to their status in Christ, but other descriptions reveal that it also denotes something about their nature. Believers in the Lord are “sons” and “children of God” which, along with speaking of position or status, also depicts something of the nature of believers who are now oriented toward righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:2 {1 John 3:2}). Those in Christ are also called “light” (Eph 5:8) and “sons of light” (1 Thess 5:5), which means “they are characterized by light” as a result of the “transformation that takes place when anyone believes.”5

The believer is part of the “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). He has put off the “old man” and put on the “new man” (Col 3:9-10; cf. Rom 6:6). This transition refers to the believer’s transference from the old corporate humanity under the headship of Adam to the new humanity with Christ as Head. But it also has reference to a change in the individual.Pointing to the imagery used of putting off and putting on clothing, Lincoln rightly explains that this “change of clothing imagery signifies an exchange of identities, and the concepts of the old and the new persons reinforce this.”7 Since the appellation “new man” also has reference to the individual, the descriptions of it as “created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24) and “being renewed according to the image of the One who created him” (Col 3:10) both have reference to the individual believer. Thus Bruce says, “The new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ.”8 Putting off the old man and putting on the new are related to the teaching of the believer’s death and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:4-6).9 In codeath and coresurrection the individual’s identity is radically changed. The old “I” dies and the new “I” rises in newness of life (Gal 2:20).

These descriptions of the Christian clearly indicate a positive identity and refer not only to status but also to the nature of the believer. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that the apostolic exhortation to new ethical behavior is made directly on the basis of the believer’s new identity. The apostles were not grounding their hope for a new behavior simply on a new position or status, but on a new nature which can produce new actions. True, these actions are due to the life of God in the believer and are called “the fruit of the Spirit.” But at the same time they are the product of the believer even as the fruit of the vine is the fruit of the branches (John 15:2-5,16). The exhortations to new ethical life are based on the principle Jesus taught that “good fruit” is borne by “good trees” (Matt 7:17). The nature as well as the identity of the believer is therefore seen as primarily “good.”

These descriptions of the believer point in the direction of the root identity of the Christian as “a saint who sins,” rather than “a sinner who is saved.” But that is not the whole of the matter. Practical experience as well as biblical teaching still relate the believer to sin. Consideration of the identity of the believer therefore cannot avoid discussion of his relationship to sin.

The Believer’s Relation to Sin

Believers Still Sin

It is not difficult to convince most believers from Scripture as well as from experience that sin is still a part of their existence. They sometimes act carnally (1 Cor 3:1-3). The promise of continual cleansing of sin as they walk in the light (1 John 1:7) as well as the present tense used for the confession of sins (1:9 {1 John 1:9}) suggest that sin is continually present with believers. To say “we have no sin,” John wrote, is self-deception and impossible for believers (1:8 {1 John 1:8}). Although the personal identity of the believer is in Christ, and thus in the new man which is being transformed into His image, the manner of life of the old man remains a part of the believer’s experience. This is why Paul directed believers to put off the practices of the old man (Eph 4:22; Col 3:8-9).

Calvin’s statement of what Christians ought to be should convince any believer that he or she has not attained sinlessness. “Since all the capacities of our soul ought to be so filled with the love of God,” he said, “it is certain that this precept [to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind] is not fulfilled by those who can either retain in the heart a slight inclination or admit to the mind any thought at all that would lead them away from the love of God into vanity.”10 “There remains in a regenerate man a moldering cinder of evil, from which desires continually leap forth to allure and spur him to commit sin.”11

Does this true but rather bleak perspective make the identity of the believer a “sinner” as well as a “saint” so that he or she is actually both? Interestingly, although the New Testament gives extensive evidence that believers sin, it never clearly identifies believers as “sinners.” Paul’s reference to himself in which he declared, “I am foremost” of sinners is often raised to the contrary (1 Tim 1:15). Guthrie’s comment on Paul’s assertion is illustrative of a common understanding of Paul’s statement and what should be true of all believers. “Paul never got away from the fact that Christian salvation was intended for sinners, and the more he increased his grasp of the magnitude of God’s grace, the more he deepened the consciousness of his own naturally sinful state, until he could write of whom I am chief (pro,tos).”12

Despite the use of the present tense by the apostle, several things make it preferable to see his description of himself as “the foremost of sinners” as a reference to his preconversion activity as an opponent of the gospel. First, the reference to himself as “sinner” is in support of the statement that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (v. 15 {1 Tim 1:15}). The reference to “the ungodly and sinners” a few verses earlier (v. 9 {1 Tim 1:9}) along with the other New Testament uses of the term “sinners” for those who are outside of salvation13 shows that he was referring to “sinners” whom Christ came to save rather than believers who yet sinned.

Second, Paul’s reference to himself as a “sinner” is followed by the statement, “And yet I found [past tense] mercy” (v. 16 {1 Tim 1:16}), clearly pointing to the past occasion of his conversion. Paul was grateful for God’s mercy toward him, “the foremost of sinners.” A similar present evaluation of himself based on the past is seen when the apostle wrote, “I am [present tense] the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor

15:9). Because of his past action, Paul considered himself unworthy of what he presently was by God’s grace and mercy, an apostle who was “not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; cf. 12:11 {2 Cor 12:11}).

Declaring that he was “the foremost of sinners,” the apostle also declared that Christ had strengthened him for the ministry, having considered him “faithful” or “trustworthy” for it, to which He had called him (1 Tim 1:2). As Knight concludes, “Paul regards this classification of himself as `foremost of sinners’ as still valid (eijmi, present tense); though he is fully forgiven, regarded as faithful, and put into service, he is still the notorious opponent who is so received.”14 Thus the apostle was not applying the appellation “sinner” to himself as a believer, but rather in remembrance of what he was before Christ took hold of him.

James’ reference to turning “a sinner” from the error of his ways is also best seen as bringing someone into salvation rather than restoring a genuine believer to repentance (James 5:19-20).

Though the erring one is described as one “among you,” the

resultant outcome of saving the soul of the turned “sinner” from “death,” which is most likely spiritual death, suggests that the person was not a Christian.15 Scripture surely teaches that unbelievers can be “among” the saints (cf. 1 John 2:19).

This is not to say that in the Scriptures believers did not see themselves as sinful. Confrontation with the righteousness and holiness of God frequently brought deep acknowledgment of an individual’s own sinful condition. Peter’s recognition of himself before the Lord as a “sinful man” is not uncommon among the saints (Luke 5:8; cf. Gen 18:27; Job 42:6; Isa 6:5; Dan 9:4-20). The believer is sinful, but Scripture does not seem to define his identity as a “sinner.”

Believers Are Opposed to Sin

Instead of being identified as a “sinner,” the real person or “I” of the believer is opposed to sin. Before salvation the “I” or the “ego” of the believer, like the “I” of all “sinners,” was in radical rebellion against the true God. Now the “I” of the believer is on God’s side seeking to mortify the rebellion that is still present in the believer. Several truths combine to teach this new identity of the believer and his change of nature.

First, death and resurrection with Christ severed the believer from sin. The believer’s participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is a way in which Paul expressed the change that takes place when one becomes a Christian. According to the most extensive explanation of this truth in Romans 6, the primary significance of this transaction is the change of dominions over the believer. Christ’s death and resurrection signify (a) death to the old age of sin and its dominion and (b) resurrection to a new sphere ruled by God. These objective realities take place in Christ as the Head of the new humanity much like His actions as the Head of the corporate “new man.”16 But also like the transfer from the “old” to the “new” man, Christ’s death and resurrection apply subjectively to the person of the believer who participates with Him.

In Rom 6 Paul is not simply concerned with the two dominions, but with the decisive transfer of the believer from the one dominion to the other. The believers were enslaved to sin, but now they stand under a new master. This change has taken place through dying with Christ…. Dying with Christ means dying to the powers of the old aeon and entry into a new life under a new power.17

The believers’ union with Christ in His death and resurrection transforms them not just legally but also personally. As the person’s

“I” previously had a nature that willingly chose to serve sin, now he or she is a new “I” who willingly chooses God. Paul’s testimony was that having been crucified with Christ, he now lived in such union with Him that his “I” could hardly be separated, not just legally but morally. Paul’s “I” was willingly united with Christ, who continually and willingly obeyed the Father’s will. As Bonar said, “The cross, then, makes us decided men. It brings both our hearts and our wills to the side of God.”18

Second, the transformation of the believer in the change of dominions over him through dying and rising with Christ is further seen in the biblical concept of having a “new heart.” As Jewett explains, “A characteristic of the heart as the center of man is its inherent openness to outside impulses, its directionality, its propensity to give itself to a master and to live towards some desired goal.”19 This characteristic stems from the fact that Christians as finite persons can live only in “radical dependence on otherness.”20

Most significantly, as Jewett noted, what the heart takes in becomes its master, stamping the heart with its character. What truly determines the heart and consequently the person is therefore the nature of the desire of the heart. After defining the heart as “our center, our prefunctional root, ” Kreeft adds, “at this center we decide the meaning of our lives, for our deepest desires constitute ourselves, decide our identity.”21

According to Scripture the deepest desire of the believer has been changed. This truth is seen in the apostle’s words to the Galatians: “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, `Abba! Father!'” (4:6 {Gal 4:6}). The cry, “Abba! Father!” is typical of a son and represents the believer’s most basic relationship with God. This cry is determined by the presence of the Spirit who brings Christ the Son into the center of one’s personality to live within his or her heart. “The center of man is thus his heart; the heart’s intentionality [or desire] is determined by the power which rules it. In the case of Christian[s], the direction of the heart’s intentionality is determined by Christ’s Spirit.”22

The desire or intentionality of the human heart is in reality its love. As Augustine noted, love is what moves an individual. A person goes where his love moves him. His identity is determined by his love. The identity of the believer is thus a person who basically loves God rather than sin.

The presence of sin in the life of the believer indicates that remnants of the old disordered love of self remain. But those remnants now stand at the periphery of the real core of the person who is redeemed, God-oriented, and thus bent toward righteousness in his nature. “God begins his good work in us, therefore, by arousing love and desire and zeal for righteousness in our hearts; or, to speak more correctly, by bending, forming, and directing, our hearts to righteousness.”23

This core of the new person is often not evident in conscious life, but it is nevertheless the dominating aspect of his being. As Delitzsch notes, there is a kind of will of nature that is basically self-consciously unreflected. This deep will of nature precedes the conscious actions of the person. The will of the believer has been changed through regeneration despite the fact that remnants of the old life still remain and continue to express themselves. The action of regeneration is directed not so much to “our occasional will, as to the substance of our will,

i.e. to the nature and essence of our spiritual being.”24 Thus the regenerate individual in the depth of his heart is changed; he has a nature oriented toward God. Although the person can still sin, this sin is related to a more surface level of his being which can still act contrary to the real person of the heart. But these surface actions do not change the real nature of the heart and thus the person’s identity. The relationship of the real core nature of the human heart to its more surface activities is seen in Pedersen’s discussion of the “soul” or what is perhaps better termed the heart.

It [the soul] is partly an entirety in itself and partly forms an entirety with others. What entireties it is merged in, depends upon the constant interchange of life.

Every time the soul merges into a new entirety, new centres of action are formed in it; but they are created by temporary situations, only lie on the surface and quickly disappear. There are other entireties to which the soul belongs, and which live in it with quite a different depth and firmness, because they make the very nucleus of the soul. Thus there may be a difference between the momentary and the stable points of gravity in the soul. But none of the momentary centres of action can ever annul or counteract those which lie deeper.

The deepest-lying contents of the soul are, it is true, always there, but they do not always make themselves equally felt.25

This understanding of the human heart helps explain the practice of sin in the believer’s life as well as the “good” in the life of the unbelieving sinner. The true nature of the person does not always express itself fully in actual life. But the basic identity of the individual is still there, and in the case of the believer it is positive.

Third, this same truth is seen in the positive nature of the ego or “I” of Romans 7:14-25. Paul’s description of the “I” in this passage suggests that it refers to someone who has experienced the regenerative grace of God. Also this person is viewed in relation to the law of God apart from the empowerment of the Spirit of God. It could thus have reference to a Christian living according to the flesh in his own strength,26 or more probably to the experience of the pious Jew living under the Mosaic Law viewed from a Christian perspective.27

Of interest in this passage is the description of the “I” which is solidly on God’s side. If what is said of this “I” or ego could refer to a pious Jew living under the Old Covenant, how much more would it be fitting for the believer of the New Covenant as part of the new creation through union with Christ. Considering the actions of the “I,” all three dimensions normally seen as constituting personhood, that is, thought, emotion, and will, are all oriented toward God and His righteous law. Regarding the element of thought, the apostle wrote in 7:15 {Rom 7:15}, “For that which I am doing, I do not understand,” or perhaps better with Cranfield, “I do not acknowledge” or “approve.”28 In other words his thinking was opposed to his action of sin. This is also seen in verse 25 {Rom 7:25}: “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but with my flesh the law of sin.”

His emotion is likewise seen to be on God’s side in opposition to sin. “I am doing the very thing I hate” (v. 15 {Rom 7:15}). As Dunn puts it, “he wholly detests and abhors what he does.”29 If hatred is the opposite of love, then his love is directed toward righteousness. A further expression of emotion is indicated in verse 22 {Rom 7:22}. “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.”

Also his will or volition is for God and against sin. “What I want [or `will,’ qevlw] to do,” Paul wrote, “I do not do. I have the desire [qevlein] to do what is good” (vv. 15,18 {Rom 7}, NIV). The verb qevlein is used seven times in the passage, the last when he described himself as “the one who wishes to do good” (v. 21 {Rom 7:21}).

These descriptions of the personal attributes of the “I” clearly define it as one with a positive nature. But more than this, the apostle went so far as to absolve, as it were, the “I” from sinning: “if I do the very thing I do not wish to do no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me” (vv. 16-17 {Rom 7}; cf. the same thought in v. 20 {Rom 7:20}).

Since the same passage clearly shows the “I” as the subject of sinful actions as well as being opposed to sin, the apostle was not trying to evade the personal responsibility of the “I” in sin. But when the “I” is related to sin, it is never described in terms of the functions of personhood. There are no equal statements of thought, emotion, and will on the side of sin. Paul did not say, “I want to do the will of God, but I also want to sin.” Nor did he say, “I love the law of God, but I also love sin.” Thus the “I” that is positively oriented toward God is the person in the deepest sense of his personhood or identity. He is the “I” of the “inner man” (v. 22 {Rom 7:22}), the “I” that is the subject of the “mind” (v. 25 {Rom 7:25}).

The assertion that it is no longer “I” but sin that actually does the sinning is similar to other apparently contradictory statements of the apostle when he was referring to the dominating power that mastered him: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live” (Gal 2:20); “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10; cf. Matt 10:20). In these statements Paul was not intending to disavow responsibility, but to affirm the existence in himself of a power that exercised a dominating influence on him. The real person of the believer willingly assents to this dominating power, but in the case of sin as in Romans 7 the real “I” opposes it and can thus be set against it. Here the ego or real “I” in the believer is viewed as so opposed to sin that they can be isolated from each other. And the actual committing of sin, instead of being the action of the ego can be regarded as the action of the sin that enslaves the ego contrary to its will. As Delitzsch says, “the Ego is no longer one with sin-it is free from it; sin resides in such a man still, only as a foreign power.”30

Romans 7 thus presents the real person of the believer as positive. To be sure, he commits sin both in thought and act but he also does righteousness. Sin and righteousness, however, do not characterize the real person of the believer in the same way. The believer is capable of experiencing a double servitude expressed in the apostle’s words, “on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (v. 25 {Rom 7:25}).31 But as this statement, along with the entire passage, indicates, the real person of the believer willingly serves God.

The description of the believer in Romans 7 thus fits the same picture of the believer seen in the teaching of his death and resurrection with Christ and his new heart. The Christian has been radically changed in his relationship to sin and righteousness from what he was before salvation. And this change is more than simply positional or judicial consisting in the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of righteousness. It includes a radical change of nature. The Christian is a new person. He has a new heart which is the real identity of the person.

Conclusion

The full picture of the believer’s relationship to sin and righteousness is obviously beyond the scope of this study. But when the question of his identity is posed-is the Christian a saved sinner or a saint who sins?-the Scriptures seem to point to the latter.

There is truth in the following explanation of so-called “miserable-sinner Christianity” expressed by Luther:

A Christian is at the same time a sinner and a saint; he is at once bad and good. For in our own person we are in sin,

and in our own name we are sinners. But Christ brings us another name in which there is forgiveness of sin, so that for His sake our sin is forgiven and done away. Both then are true. There are sins and yet there are no sins. thou standest there for God not in thy name but in Christ’s name; thou dost adorn thyself with grace and righteousness although in thine own eyes and in thine own person, thou art a miserable sinner.32

Christians are sinners who are forgiven. But there is more to it than that. They are regenerated persons whose root core has been changed. They are forgiven, but also their heart-the spring of their life and their true identity-is new.

To confess as present-day Anglicans do33 that “there is no health in us” or that “all my nature and being is deserving of punishment,” as also stated in the old German Lutheran confession, is contrary to the biblical picture of the believer.

All the apostles’ ethical imperatives are addressed to

believers on the premise that their natures are now on God’s side and have a new ability to obey God. The very assumption that Christians should grow demonstrates a belief that the positive dominates over the negative in their being. For a Christian to grow, there must be a stronger inclination toward God than toward sin.

Although the terminology “miserable sinner” does not adequately define the true identity of the believer, several

truths at the heart of so-called “miserable-sinner Christianity” must be retained even when viewing the believer as a “saint who sins.”

First, despite the truth that the believer’s heart and thus his or her identity have been transformed to an orientation toward God and His righteousness, one’s acceptance before God is only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. One’s salvation is complete in Christ’s righteousness alone.

Second, the believer who sins must experience misery over sin. If a persons’ affections have truly been changed so that he or she is now on God’s side, then that one must hate sin and experience a godly sorrow over what grieves and wounds the One who loves believers deeply. Fisher’s description of sorrow over sin should be the experience of all believers.

When faith hath bathed a man’s heart in the blood of Christ, it is so mollified that it generally dissolves into tears of godly sorrow; so that if Christ turn and look upon him, O then, with Peter he goes out and weeps bitterly. And this is true gospel mourning; this is right evangelical repenting.34

Third, even though God in His grace has created in believers

the germ of a new nature which gives them a new identity, their focus in life must be not on themselves, but on Christ. Dying and rising with Christ means the end of self-trust. Therefore, even though they are new persons, their source of life and growth is not in their own identity but in Christ. Their focus must be on Him and not on their own new identity. In Him they are new creatures (2 Cor 5:17).

_______________________________

1 Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, Perfectionism, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, l931), 1:113-301.

2 Ibid, 115. The following quotations expressing the “miserable-sinner” concept are cited by Warfield (ibid., 118-19, 123).

3 Cited by Warfield (ibid., 128).

4 Neil Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness (Ventura, CA; Regal, 1990), 44-45. The word “occasionally” should be omitted from Anderson’s statement as he has indicated to this writer in personal conversation that it was not his intention to include this word.

5 Leon Morris, The First {1 Thess} and Second {2 Thess} Epistles to the Thessalonians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 155.

6 Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 190-91; and Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1990), 287.

7 Lincoln, Ephesians, 285.

8 E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 273. O’Brien similarly says that in addition to a reference to the new corporate humanity, the “new man” designates “the new nature which the Colossians had put on and which was continually being renewed” (Colossians, Philemon, 190).

9 Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ (Berlin:Töpelmann, 1967), 52; and A. Van Roon, The Authenticity of Ephesians (Leiden: Brill, 1974), 336-37.

10 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.11; cf. 3.12.1.

11 Ibid., 3.3.10.

12 Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles (London: Tyndale, 1957), 65 (italics his).

13 Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “aJmartwloj”,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:327-28; and George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 101.

14 Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, 102.

15 Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 200.

16 “When Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ, he is referring to Christ’s death and resurrection as eschatological events. As such, they concern the old and new aeons. Through this death and resurrection the believers are freed from the old aeon and the new aeon is founded…. Because the existence of all within an aeon is based upon and determined by the founding events, the whole of the aeon shares in these events” (Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ, 39). On the similar significance of dying and rising with Christ and stripping off the old man and putting on the new, see ibid., 52.

17 Ibid., 21.

18 Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness (New York: Carter & Bros., 1865), 108 (italics his).

19 Robert Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 313. John Laidlaw describes the heart as “the work-place for the personal appropriation and assimilation of every influence” (The Bible Doctrine of Man [Edinburgh: Clark, 1895], 122).

20 Andrew Tallon, “A Response to Fr. Dulles,” in Theology and Discovery: Essays in Honor of Karl Rahner, ed. William J. Kelly (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980), 37.

21 Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), 45.

22 Jewett, Paul’s Anthropological Terms, 322-23.

23 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.3.6.

24 Franz Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology (reprint, Grand Rapids; Baker, 1966), 416.

25 Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 1:166.

26 James D. B. Dunn, “Romans 7:14-25 in the Theology of Paul,”Theologische Zeitschrift 31 (September-October, 1975): 257-73.

27 For a brief sketch of this latter interpretation, see N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 196-200.

28 C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, International Critical Commentary, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1975), 1:358-59.

29 James D. B. Dunn, Romans 1-8 {Rom 8}, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 389.

30 Delitzsch, A System of Biblical Psychology, 438. Delitzsch gives a helpful description of the interaction between the believing ego opposed to sin and the power of sin. Referring to the sin of unchastity, he says sin “is possible only when the might of temptation succeeds either in overmastering, or even in interesting, the Ego of the man. At times there are mingled in the range of man’s thoughts impure thoughts which he acknowledges as not less thought by his Ego than the pure ones which it opposed to them in order to dislodge them. Sometimes temptation succeeds in drawing in the man’s Ego into itself; but in the midst of the sinful act, the man draws it back from it, full of loathing for it. Sometimes, moreover, the Ego, in order to complete the sinful act unrestrainedly, is voluntarily absorbed into unconsciousness, and does not until after its completion return in horror to recollection of itself; and the spirit with shame becomes conscious of its having been veiled by its own responsibility” (ibid.).

31 J. Knox Chamblin, Paul and the Self (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 173-74.

32 Martin Luther, Werke, Erlangen ed., 2.197; cited by Warfield, Perfectionism, 1:116.

33 J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1984), 123.

34 Fisher, Marrow of Divinity, cited by Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness, 72.

Do Christians Still Have a Sin Nature?

by

Dr. Neil T. Anderson

Adapted From: God’s Power at Work in You, co-authored by Dr. Robert Saucy and Dr. Neil T. Anderson, Harvest House.

Are Christians sinners or are they saints? Or both? Whether a Christian has two natures is not an easy question to answer, which is evidenced by the fact that conservative theologians don’t perfectly agree.  They do agree that Christians sin, but how or why is explained differently.  Part of the problem is semantic and can be cleared up by defining terms.  Reconciling divergent theological positions and perspectives on reality (i.e., worldview) is the more difficult problem to resolve.

Old Man, Nature and Flesh

The biblical terms old man (or old self), nature and flesh can carelessly be used interchangeably when they need to be clearly distinguished.  The Bible says we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) and “. . . were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3).  In other words, we were born physically alive, but spiritually dead.  We had neither the presence of God in our lives nor the knowledge of His ways.  Consequently, we all lived independent of God.  This independence is one of the chief characteristics of the flesh.  According to Paul, “The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another” (Gal. 5:17).  They are in opposition because the Holy Spirit, like Jesus, will not operate independent of our heavenly Father, while that is the chief characteristic of the flesh.

Such is the state of fallen humanity — sinful by nature and spiritually dead (i.e., separated from God).  Fallen humanity had no other choice than to find their identity in their natural existence and determine their purpose and meaning in life independent of God.  In addition, the heart, which is the center of our being, “is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9).  Paul says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  Fallen humanity lives”in the flesh” and “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8).  We were depraved.  Every aspect of our being was corrupted.

The Whole Gospel

The good news is that Christ came to change all that.  However, the gospel we most hear sounds like this: “Jesus is the Messiah who came to die for our sins, and if we will put our trust in Him, we will be forgiven of our sins and when we die, we will get to go to Heaven.” What is wrong with that?

At best it is only a third of the gospel; and it gives the impression that eternal life is something we get when we physically die! If you were going to save a dead man, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, he would only die again.  To save the dead person, you would have to do two things.  First, you would have to cure the disease that caused him to die.  The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death . . .” (Rom. 6:23a).  So Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins.  Is that the whole gospel? Absolutely not! Thank God for Good Friday, but it was Christ’s resurrection that gave us life.  We need to finish the previous verse: “. . . but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23b).  Eternal life is not something we get when we die.  In fact, if you don’t have eternal (spiritual) life before you physically die, you will have nothing but hell to look forward to.  John says, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 Jn. 5:12).

Sin has separated us from God, so we use the cross as a bridge diagram to present the gospel.  But when we cross the bridge, are we the same person we were before? We will likely perceive ourselves to be nothing more than forgiven sinners instead of redeemed saints is we leave the resurrection out of our gospel presentations.  What Adam and Eve lost in the fall was life (i.e. spiritual life) and Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).

As a result of the fall, Satan became the rebel holder of authority on planet earth.  Even Jesus referred to Satan as the ruler of this world (Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  The defeat of Satan is the third part of the gospel and the one most overlooked the western church.  “The Son of God appeared for this purpose to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).  This part of the gospel is just as critical since “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19).  Believers need to know that they are now children of God (Jn. 1:12) who are forgiven and spiritually alive in Christ (Col. 2:13), and they also need to know that they have authority over the kingdom of darkness because they are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6).

Freedom in Christ ministries has been helping Christians find their freedom in Christ by guiding them through a repentance process that helps them resolve their personal and spiritual conflicts.  It has been our observation that every struggling and defeated Christian had one thing in common — none of them knew who they were in Christ and they didn’t understand what it meant to be a child of God.  Why not? Paul writes, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba Father’” (Gal. 4:6).  But they had no awareness of that.  If the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16), why weren’t they sensing His presence? Many question their salvation since they don’t sense any spiritual confirmation.  They did sense His presence, however, if they successfully resolved their personal and spiritual conflicts through genuine repentance and faith in God.

Alive and Free in Christ

Being spiritually alive in Christ is the major theme of Paul’s theology, which is reflected in the following verse: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every city” (1 Cor. 4:17, emphasis added).  According to Paul, every believer is identified with Christ:

In His death Rom. 6:3; Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1-3
In His burial Rom. 6:4
In His resurrection Rom. 6:5, 8, 11
In His life Rom. 5:10,11
In His power Eph. 1:19,20
In His inheritance Rom. 8:16,17; Eph. 1:11-18

Positionally, several things changed at salvation.  First, God transferred us from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13).  Second, we are no longer in the flesh; we are in the Spirit and in Christ.  “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9).  Paul equates the idea of being “in the flesh” with being “in Adam.” “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22, emphasis added).  This positional change can be shown as follows:

In Adam In Christ
Old Man (Self) By Ancestry New Man (Self)
Sin Nature
Eph. 2:1-3
By Nature Partaker of Divine Nature
2 Pet. 1:4
In the Flesh
Rom. 8:8
By Birth In the Spirit
Rom. 8:9
Live according to the Flesh By Choice Live according to the Spirit or the Flesh
Gal. 5:16-18

The Bible also says we are a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), which has effected our nature, the very core of our inner being.  Paul says, “You were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8).  So then why do Christians still sin and what has been retained of our old and sinful nature? Perhaps an illustration will help.  In Arizona, city parks and boulevards are decorated with ornamental orange trees, which are a much hardier stock than the trees which produce the sweet oranges we eat.  Because they can survive colder temperatures, they are used for rootstock.

The ornamental orange is allowed to grow to a certain height, then it is cut off, and a new life (such as a navel orange) is grafted in.  Everything that grows above the graft takes on the new nature of the sweet orange.  Everything below the graft retains the physical characteristics of the ornamental orange.  There is only one tree when it is fully-grown.  The physical growth of the tree is still dependent upon the roots that go deep into the soil for water and nutrition.  What grows above the graft takes on the nature of that which was grafted in to the root stock.

Nobody looks at a grove of navel oranges and says, “Actually that is just a grove of root stock! ” They would call them navel orange trees because they would identify the trees by their fruit.  Jesus said, “So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20).  That is how we should identify one another.  Paul says, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).  In other words, we are not supposed to recognize Christians for who they were in Adam, but for who they now are in Christ.  That is why the Bible does not identify believers as sinners, but instead they are identified as saints.

In the King James version of the Bible, believers are called “saints,” “holy ones,” or “righteous ones” more than 240 times.  In contrast, unbelievers are called “sinners” over 330 times.  Clearly, the term “saint” is used in Scripture to refer to the believer and “sinner” is used in reference to the unbeliever.  Although the New Testament gives ample evidence that a believer is capable of sinning, it never clearly identifies the believer as a “sinner.” It is a mystery to me why we insist on calling Christians sinners, but then discipline them if they don’t act like saints.  People cannot consistently behave in a way that is inconsistent with what they believe about themselves.  We live according to who we really are and born-again believers are children of God.  Understanding this is a critical part of our sanctification according to John: “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. . . . Beloved, now we are children of God . . . And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:1-3).

Two Natures or One?

Let me draw another observation from the tree illustration.  How would you define the nature of the tree? Would it have two natures? It depends upon whether you are talking about the whole tree—which does have two natures (rootstock and navel)—or just the part of the tree that grows above the graft (the new creation) that has just one nature (navel).  This is somewhat of a semantic problem.  When Paul talks about the new “I,” is he talking about who he was before in combination with who he is now, or is he referring to the new creation in Christ?

Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires a relationship with God who is the fountain of spiritual life, a relationship that brings a new seed or root of life.  As in nature, unless there is some seed or root of life within an organism, no growth can take place.  Unless there is a seed of life within the believer, i.e., some core spiritual life, growth is impossible.  There is nothing to grow.  That is why Paul’s theology is all based on our position in Christ.  “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him . . .” (Col. 2:6,7a).  That is why the Christian message must be based on who we are in Christ.  In order to grow, believers must first be firmly rooted in Christ.  In order to grow and bear fruit, Christians, their marriages, and their ministries must all be spiritually centered in Christ.

The New Birth

Recall that Adam and Eve were born both physically and spiritually alive.  Because of sin, they died spiritually.  They were separated from God.  From that time on, everybody is born physically alive, but spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1).  Paul says that everyone in that state is a natural man who cannot discern the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14).  Like an ornamental orange, he may look good, but they cannot bear any fruit that isn’t bitter.  The fruit will only drop to the ground and bring forth more natural stock that will only appear to look good for a season.

According to Scripture, the center of the person is the heart, which has the capacities to think, feel and choose.  In our natural state “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jer. 17:9).  It is deceitful because it was born that way and has been conditioned from the time of birth by the deceitfulness of a fallen world, rather than by the truth of God’s Word. According to Proverbs 4:23, the heart is the “wellspring of life” in which wickedness must not be allowed to take root.  For instance, that is why we are to forgive from the heart and not allow a root of bitterness to spring up by which many will be defiled.

A New Heart and a New Spirit

One of the greatest prophecies concerning our salvation is given in Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove from you a heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” The new covenant under which every Christian lives says, “I will put My laws in their hearts” (Heb. 10:16).  Jesus came that we might have life, and the believer receives that spiritual life at the moment of salvation.  “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12).  In other words, “To all the ornamental oranges that will choose to put their trust in God and believe His Word, they shall be navel oranges.” The moment you were grafted into the vine, you were sanctified or set apart as a child of God.  “You are already clean” (Jn. 15:3), and you shall continue to be sanctified as He prunes you so that you may grow and bear fruit.  You are now alive in Christ, which is the foundation and source for the spiritual growth.  In fact, the believer is described as a new creation with a new life that has new desires and a new direction.

The same thought is captured in Paul’s testimony: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).  Paul says I died, but I live, obviously a new and different person (cf. also Col. 3:1-3).  In other words, my old ornamental tree has been cut off; I no longer live as an ornamental orange, but I now live as a new navel orange.  We as Christians have a new identity and it comes from who we are in Christ, not who we were in Adam.

A New Man

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17).  It is also possible to translate “he is a new creation” as “there is a new creation.” What Paul is teaching in this statement is that through His death and resurrection, Christ has effected a new creation in which finally all things—including all of creation, the earth and the heavens—will be made new (Rev. 21:1; cf. Is. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13).  The believer who has died and now lives “in Christ” (cf. vv. 14-15) is part of this new creation.

Parallel to the concept of being a new creation is the teaching that the believer has put on the “new self” (Col. 3:9), or more literally the “new man.” The new man at times refers both to the new individual (i.e., “self”) in Christ, as well as the new humanity or the humanity of the new creation united in Christ as its Head.  F. F. Bruce says, “The new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ.”

What does it mean to be a “new man?” Does it mean that every aspect of the believer is new in reality? We still look the same physically, and we still have many of the same thoughts, feelings and experiences.  Picture, for instance, the ornamental orange tree that has just had a tiny new stem grafted into it.  Because so much appears to be the same, we are sometimes taught that our “newness” refers only to our position in Christ.  They would say that the newness is only what we have seen in relation to our position of righteousness and holiness in justification and positional sanctification.  There is no real change in us until we are finally transformed in glorification.  That would be like teaching justification without regeneration (we are forgiven, but there is no new life).  If we are still ornamental orange trees, how can we be expected to bear naval oranges? We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves to grow accordingly.

New Things Have Come

Despite the fact that every believer at times lives according to the old self, like Paul, they still are new persons—new in relationship to God and new in themselves.  The change that takes place in us when we come to Christ involves two dimensions.  First, we have a new Master.  As mortals, we have no choice but to live under a spiritual power, either our heavenly Father or the god of this world.  At salvation, the believer in Christ experiences a change in the power that dominates life.  Second, there is an actual change in the “nature” of believers, so that the propensities of his life or the deepest desires of their hearts is now oriented toward God, rather than toward self and sin.

A New Master

Since we are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, we have become a new person and part of the new humanity.  In this change, we have come under a new power of dominion in our life.  Nowhere is this expressed more clearly than in Romans 6:5-7: “If we have been united with Him . . . in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” “Old self” in this passage is literally “old man.” The “old man” in relation to the believer has been crucified in Christ and he has put on the “new man” (Col. 3:10).

The biblical teaching of the “new man” also has a corporate sense, meaning a collective mankind, i.e., the “old humanity” related to Adam, and the new humanity is related to Christ.  The latter is the “new man” created in Christ (Eph. 2:15).  This corporate sense is evident when Paul speaks of the “new man” as a place or sphere “in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised . . .” (Col. 3:10).  The individual person or “self,” however, is not excluded from this corporate sense.  For all people exist and have their identity in one of these two “men.” They either belong to the “old humanity” and are dominated by its characteristics or they are regenerate and belong to the “new humanity” and are under its domination.

Saved and Sanctified by Faith

Again, we need to understand that this is a reality that has already taken place.  Paul says, “our old self was crucified” (past tense).  We try and try to put the old man to death and we can’t do it.  Why not? Because he is already dead! You cannot do for yourself what Christ has already done for you.  Because many Christians are not living the abundant life, they incorrectly reason “what experience has to happen in order for this to be true?” The only thing that had to happen in order for that to be true, happened nearly two thousand years ago, and the only way you can enter into that experience is by faith.

A dear pastor who heard of our ministry asked for an appointment.  He said, “I have struggled for twenty-two years in ministry, and I finally think I know what the answer is.  I my devotion time I read, ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).  That’s it, isn’t it?” I assured him it was.  Then he asked, “How do I do that?” I suggested that he read the passage just a little bit slower.  For twenty-two years he has been desperately trying to become somebody he already is, and so do many other believers.  It is not what we do that determines who we are; it is who we are that determines what we do.  We don’t labor in the vineyard hoping that God may someday love us.  God loves us and that is why we labor in the vineyard.  We don’t serve God with the hope that God may someday accept us.  We are already accepted in the Beloved; that is why we serve Him.

We must learn to accept what God says is true and live accordingly by faith.  When we do it works out in our experience.  If we try to make what God says is true by our experience, we will never get there.  Paul points out the futility of that thinking in Galatians 3:2: “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” We are saved by faith, and we walk or live by faith.  We have been sanctified by faith, and we are being sanctified by faith and by faith alone.  We are neither saved nor sanctified by how we behave, but by how we believe.

The Three Tenses of Salvation and Sanctification

Salvation for the believer is past (Eph. 2:8; 2 Tim. 1:8,9), present (1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:5), and future tense (Rom. 5:9,10; Heb. 9:28).  In other words, we have been saved, we are being saved, and someday we shall fully be saved from the wrath that is to come.  I believe that Scripture teaches that we have the assurance of that salvation now.  John writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13).  And Paul says, “Having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13,14).

Sanctification also occurs in Scripture in past (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:19; Acts 20:32), present (Rom. 6:22; 2 Cor. 7:1), and future tense (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Thess. 3:12,13).  In other words, we have been sanctified, we are being sanctified, and some day we shall fully be sanctified.  The sanctifying process begins at new birth and continues on to our final glorification.  Past-tense sanctification has commonly been called positional sanctification.  Present-tense sanctification has been commonly called progressive or experiential sanctification.  The tendency by some is to understand past-tense sanctification as just positional truth, and then proceed to live as though it really isn’t true.  The consequences are tragic.  These people will spend the rest of their lives trying to become somebody they already are.  Positional sanctification is real truth.  We are not trying to become children of God; we are children of God who are becoming like Christ.  Progressive sanctification is the process of working out our salvation by faith, that which God has already worked in.  It is the process of conforming to His image.

Focusing on past-tense sanctification at the expense of progressive sanctification can also lead to serious errors, such as the concept of sinless perfection.  This is nothing more than a denial of sin.  “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). It is important to realize that “having sin” and “being sin” are two totally different concepts.  The other extreme, that of focusing on progressive sanctification at the expense of positional sanctification, leads to a denial of who we really are.

In Summary

Has the sinful nature been eradicated at the time of the new birth? One cannot answer yes or no without defining terms.  If someone asked, “Do you believe that the old man is dead?” the answer is yes.  We are no longer in Adam; we are spiritually alive in Christ.  If someone asked, “Do you believe that Christians no longer sin and cannot walk or live according to the flesh?” The answer is no.  The Christian retains the flesh, which the editors of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible have chosen to interpret as “old nature,” and even at times, “sin nature.” This has created some semantic problems when discussing the nature or natures of a Christian.

If someone asked, “Do we believe that we have a new nature?” I would answer yes, because God has given me a new heart and my inner man is oriented toward God.  I have become a partaker of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), and “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Rom. 7:22).  If they asked, “Are we a sinner or a saint?” I would joyfully respond, “I believe we are saints by the grace of God, and we intend to live our lives as His children in the way He intended us to live by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t forget that our entire being was morally corrupt before we came to Christ.  Our minds were oriented to live independently of God and the desires of our flesh are in opposition to the Spirit of God.  The flesh (old nature, NIV) has to be crucified by the believer and this is something we have to do on a daily basis.  There is no such thing as instant maturity.  It will take us the rest of our lives to renew our minds and conform to the image of God.  The seed that was sown in us by God is only a beginning.  Being a child of God and being free in Christ is positional truth.  But how many are living like children of God, and how many are living free in Christ? Nobody can fix our past, but I believe that by the grace of God we can all be free from it.

Balancing the Indicative and the Imperative

The greatest tension in the New Testament is between the indicative (what God has already done and what is already true about us) and the imperative (what remains to be done as we respond to God by faith and obedience in the power of the Holy Spirit).  That tension can be seen in verses like Romans 6:6: “Knowing this that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” You have to know and believe positional truth in order to successfully progress in your sanctification.  Positional sanctification is the basis for our progressive sanctification.

The balance between the indicative and the imperative is about equal in Scripture, but I have not observed that balance being taught in our churches.  We seem to focus more on the imperatives, i.e. instructing believers what they must do instead of balancing that with what God has already done.  Many people attend evangelical churches for years and never hear enough positional truth to understand that they are children of God who are alive and free in Christ.  Many have never repented of their old ways or resolved their personal and spiritual conflicts.  Consequently, they are not maturing and the best messages from the pulpit are going right over their heads.  Paul wrote, “I gave you milk to drink and not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly.  For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not walking like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:2,3).

We need to help Christians realize the incredible identity and position they have in Christ, and then help them repent of their own ways so that they can live a liberated life “in Christ.”

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