Do Christians Still Have a Sin Nature?
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)|
|By Nature||Partaker of Divine Nature
2 Pet. 1:4
|In the Flesh
|By Birth||In the Spirit
|Live according to the Flesh||By Choice||Live according to the Spirit or the Flesh
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.
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.”