Why Does the Saved Man Sin? – Review of Romans 6-7
Pastor Mark Hardy November 4, 2012
When I was a boy I remember being taught in Sunday School that as a Christian my “old nature” was likened to a black dog and my “new nature” to a white dog. Both dogs were in constant conflict within me. And whatever dog I fed the most would be the one that would win and control my life. Therefore, I couldn’t understand why no matter how much I read my Bible I still sinned.
Although the analogy of the black dog and the white dog is a well-meaning attempt to try to explain the concept of the old and new natures in the believer, I believe it misses the mark and is misleading. My desire this morning is to clarify what these terms really mean and to see how they should be understood in Romans 6 and 7.
We will be answering six questions to help us understand more clearly what theologians call the “old nature” and the “new nature.” The first question is this:
I. What is the Meaning of the word Nature?
A. A major part of the wide-spread confusion and contradiction regarding the “old nature” and the “new nature” is with how the term “nature” is defined.
1. Since the Bible never uses the term “nature” (phusis) in the same way that theologians do, it is crucial that we understand what the term means. As we will see, the biggest confusion centers around the word being wrongly defined as a substance or entity inside a person.
2. Charles R. Smith gives a good example of this confusion when he states, “Hodge, the author of what is perhaps the most imitated of theology texts, aware that only an objective entity can act, concluded that in defining ‘nature’ the ‘idea of substance is a necessary one’ (Systematic Theology, II, 387). This makes sense, of course, only if one has already concluded that a ‘nature’ can and does act and is therefore, in the case of humans, morally responsible. But the Bible never speaks of a nature as acting. In later discussion Hodge insists that regeneration is regeneration of the already existing person and does not consist of any ‘change in the substance of the soul’ (III, 32) nor is it the impartation of a new substance, he says; yet he rightly refers to the change as the receiving of ‘a new nature or new heart’ (III, 35), thus fortunately contradicting his definition of nature as substance.” (pg. 19)
3. Whereas those who are Reformed in their theology have, in general, followed the pattern of Hodge, Smith says, “Dispensationalists have generally followed Hodge in wrongly defining nature as a substance. . . . But unlike Hodge, “…unfortunately, they have almost always consistently applied the concept of substance to the new nature as well so that it is viewed as a new substance or entity which exists in the believer alongside the old nature.”
4. Therefore, if nature is a substance or entity this is why commentators often speak about the conflict between the old and the new natures, especially in Romans 7, as a struggle between two different people within us: The “unrenewed self” and the “renewed self,” the “false self” and the “true or real self,” the “lower self” and the “higher self,” “Dr. Jeckle” and “Mr. Hyde,” and the “black dog” and the “white dog.”
5. However, since a “nature” is not a person it has no moral responsibility. A nature can’t sin, only a person can sin!
6. We saw this in Romans 7:25b when Paul declared, “So then, 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.”
7. He emphatically identified himself, “I myself,” as the responsible agent in both. He made no distinction between himself and his sin or “flesh.” He was both the “willing me” and the “failing me.”
8. Therefore, when Paul sinned it was him who sinned not something separate from himself. There were not two Paul’s or two selves, but only one Paul, who, because of his salvation was divided or split in two opposing directions.
9. Smith goes on to say, “When ‘nature’ is viewed as a morally accountable entity (or person) this can also cause great confusion in understanding the person of our Lord. The affirmation that Christ has two natures should not be allowed to lead one to the conclusion that part of Him could sin and part could not, or that He was two persons, or that He had two wills. . . . When we describe the Person of Christ as involving ‘two natures in one person’ this is a valid use of the term. We do not mean that He is comprised of two entities but that He possesses that set of characteristics which is essential for Him to be both truly human and truly God. . . .He has a human nature. He has a divine nature. How may we better describe Him than by referring to these two natures as united in one person?” (pp. 20-21)
B. Therefore, except when the term “nature” is used for the material world or universe, it does not designate a substance or a person and has no moral responsibility. So what is a proper definition of the word?
1. Reformed Theologian J.O. Buswell said it best, “A person is a non-material substantive entity, and is not to be confused with a nature. A nature is not a part of a person in the substantive sense. A nature is a complex of attributes, and is not to be confused with a substantive entity.” (Systematic Theology, II, pg. 52)
2. By “complex of attributes” Buswell means the inherent or essential qualities or characteristics that belong to a person. In other words, a nature is not a person but the set of attributes, qualities, or characteristics of that person.
3. In his book The New Nature, Renald Showers uses the term “disposition” to describe nature. A “disposition” is the prevailing tendency, inclination, or mindset of a person that directs his conduct.
4. The great majority of confusions and contradictions concerning the meaning of the word “nature” are immediately eliminated when it is properly defined as not a substantive entity or person, but rather as the inherent attributes, qualities, characteristics, or disposition belonging to a person. This is the definition we’ll be using as we answer the other questions.
5. The second question to help us understand what theologians call the “old nature” and the “new nature” is this:
II. Is the old and new Self distinct from the old and new Nature?
A. The Bible speaks of an “old self” and a “new self” but what are these? Are they the same or different from the “old nature” and the “new nature?”
1. C.E.B. Cranfield says that the “old self” or “old man” is “the whole of our fallen human nature, the whole self in its fallenness.” (pg. 309)
2. And Douglas Moo states, “The ‘old self’ is what we were ‘in Adam’—the ‘man’ of the old age, who lives under the tyranny of sin and death.” (pg. 373-374)
3. Therefore, the “old self” refers to the unregenerate sinner in Adam under sin and death and characterized by the old nature or disposition. The “new self” or “new man” is the complete opposite.
4. It refers to the regenerate sinner in Christ under grace and life and characterized by the new nature or disposition.
5. Now there are two basic views as to the relationship between the old and new self and the old and new nature. The first basic view says that the “old self” is distinct from the “old nature” and the “new self” is distinct from the “new nature.”
6. Personally, I believe this view is correct. However, this view includes two groups of believers: The first group holds to what is called “the One-Nature View.”
7. They correctly say that at salvation the “old self” is replaced by the “new self,” but they wrongly conclude that the “old nature” is replaced by the “new nature,” thus the “new self” has only one “new nature.” The problem here is that this view either falls into the error of “complete sanctification” or “sinless perfection,” which is contrary to Scripture (Jam. 3:2; 1 Jn. 1:8, 10) or they somehow separate sin from the believer himself—when I sin it’s not the “real” me (e.g. MacArthur, Needham).
8. The second group involves some who hold to what is called “the Two-Nature View.” They believe that while the “old self” is replaced by the “new self” at salvation, the “old nature” continues on and a “new nature” is added. In other words, the believer is a “new self” who has both an “old nature” and a “new nature.”
9. The second basic view says that the “old nature” is synonymous with the “old self.” Others holding to the Two-Nature View have equated the “old nature” with the “old self” and have viewed both as continuing on after salvation, with the “new self” and the “new nature” being added.
10. Now examining what the Bible has to say, there are some difficulties with both of these views. Concerning the first view, Romans 6:6 and Colossians 3:9 do speak of the crucifixion of the “old self” that results in a once-for-all “real” death of the “old self” whereby the believer no longer exists as an unbeliever.
11. The “old self” is replaced by the “new self.” However, the command in Ephesians 4:22 to “lay aside the old self” suggests that this “real” death is not something automatically accomplished at the moment of salvation. It is difficult to view the “old self” as dead at salvation when he still exists after salvation.
12. Concerning the second view, to equate the “old nature” with the “old self” has more difficulties because it goes against the clear teaching of Romans 6:6 and Colossians 3:9 and makes the crucifixion of the “old self” not a reality.
13. I believe the best view is to see at salvation the “old self” is replaced by the “new self” that now has a “new nature,” but the believer still struggles with the lingering characteristics of the “old nature.”
14. The third question is this:
III. What Exactly is the old Nature?
A. Prior to the fall of man, Adam was characterized by or possessed a holy nature or disposition that was favorably oriented toward God.
1. Adam fellowshipped with God and willingly accepted and obeyed His commands. And yet, his holy disposition was “unconfirmed” since it had been given him by God and had never been challenged.
2. Therefore, when Adam rebelled against God by eating of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:1-6), his holy disposition toward God became thoroughly confirmed in an unholy disposition of enmity against God and His will (Rom. 8:7).
3. It is this enmity toward God that is the essence of what theologians call the “old nature” or the “sin nature.” This sinful disposition is not the unregenerate heart, but it is the master of that heart and makes it wicked and corrupt (Jere. 17:9; Mk. 7:20-23).
4. As a result of Adam’s great spiritual change, every part of his being was affected and he became a slave to sin. This is what we call “total depravity.”
5. With the only exception of Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14), every human being since the fall has been born into the position of slave to the tyrant master of sin or the “old nature,” as we saw in Romans 6:16-20. Since the nature or disposition that God gives a person at the time of regeneration is called “new,” it is proper to call the sin nature with which we are born the “old nature.”
6. Now throughout Romans 6 and 7 the biblical terms that can be applied to the “old nature” or disposition are many: sin, sin that dwells in me, flesh, the principle of evil, a different law, and law of sin. These all describe the “old nature,” which is characterized by selfishness and rebellious independence from God and His will.
7. I think the Lutheran statement of faith (i.e. Formula of Concord) says it well, “Since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lusts and propensity; that we all by disposition and nature inherit from Adam such a heart, feeling, and thought as are, according to their highest powers and the light reason, naturally inclined and disposed directly contrary to God and His chief commandments, yea, that they are enmity against God, especially as regards divine and spiritual things.” (Showers pg. 18)
8. This is the “old nature.” But what happens to it when a person is saved? We see this in the fourth question, which is this:
IV. Has the old Nature been Eradicated?
A. Simply put, the answer is “No!”
1. As we saw in Romans 6 (vv. 2, 7, 11, 14), positionally we as believers are no longer the “old self” in Adam—the penalty of sin is paid, the power of sin is broken whereby we have died to sin and are no longer its slave, and we are a “new self” in Christ. However, we still have a significant amount of Adam in us.
2. Whereas at salvation or regeneration we received a “new nature” or disposition, this did not replace or change the “old nature” or disposition. As we saw in Romans 7:14-25, the old nature remains throughout our lifetime, until we are finally with the Lord and delivered from the very presence of sin forever.
3. Therefore, we as believers are in a constant struggle with sin. Paul said that believers cannot experience freedom from the controlling power of the old nature by the Law or by self-effort.
4. And to try to do so, will always end in frustration, defeat, and captivity to sin. Paul said in Romans 7:23 that his sin nature is continually “…waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
5. This is why the saved man sins! If the old nature were no longer present in believers as a powerful force, the various commands that we saw in Romans 6:11-13 and 19 would not be necessary.
6. This also includes the command in Ephesians 4:22 to continue to “lay aside” or “put off” the lingering characteristics or remnants or hangover of the “old self,” in our daily lives. And if the old nature was not still active in the believer, then the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, described in Galatians 5:17, would not take place.
7. It is an incontestable fact that every believer still struggles with sin in their daily lives. Therefore, this side of heaven the old nature is not and cannot be eradicated.
8. The fifth question to help us understand what theologians call the “old nature” and the “new nature” is this:
V. What Exactly is the new Nature?
A. At the moment of salvation, not only do believers cease forever to be an “old self” in Adam and lose their position as slaves to the old nature, but in Christ we become a “new self” and are given a “new nature” or disposition by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
1. Whereas this new nature is not the new self, it is in the new self. This is what Peter meant in 2 Peter 1:4 when he said that believers are “…partakers of the divine nature.”
2. The new nature is that set of characteristics or disposition that is favorably oriented toward God and His will and enables us to live godly lives. The hardened condition of our previous unregenerate heart is now removed.
3. Renald Showers says, “The new nature is the confirmed new disposition, consisting of the law of God in the heart, which God places inside a human being through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 41)
4. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof said it like this, “Regeneration consists in the implanting of the principle of the new spiritual life in man, in a radical change of the governing disposition of the soul, which, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, gives birth to a life that moves in a Godward direction. In principle this change affects the whole man.” (Showers pg. 49)
5. We saw this change in Romans 6 and 7. It is only because of the new nature that believers can “walk in newness of life” (6:4), “hate evil” (7:15, 19), “desire to do good” (7:18-19, 21), “agree” and “joyfully concur with the Law” (7:16, 22), be deeply grieved over his sin (7:24a), long for deliverance (7:24b), and serve the law of God with the mind (7:25b).
6. Now as Christians the deepest longing of our regenerate hearts is to know, love, obey, and enjoy God. That is what is most true about us, although when in sin we are not in touch with that reality.
7. And all of this is because of the New Covenant inaugurated by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-28). We already saw this back in Romans 5 (vv. 5b-8), where because of the New Covenant believers have the four provisions of: a new purity, a new identity, a new disposition, and a new power.
8. However, as transforming as the new nature is to now truly desire to love and obey God and to be more like Christ, the new nature is not enough to overcome the power of the old nature. It is only by the new power of the indwelling Holy Spirit as we live in dependence on Him that we can experience victory over the old nature. This is what we will begin to look at next time in Romans 8.
9. The sixth question is this:
VI. What View is best—two Natures or one?
A. Now within the framework of defining the word “nature” as not a substantive entity or person, but rather as the inherent attributes, qualities, characteristics, or disposition belonging to a person, is it best to describe believers as having one nature or two?
1. I like what Charles Smith says about both views. First he states, “…the one-nature view is appropriate as long as it is not allowed to imply that our old attributes have all been eradicated. In this approach, the ‘new nature’ refers to that set of characteristics which describes the believer as he now exists, with both good and bad characteristics. This terminology may sound awkward to one who is accustomed to the two-nature terminology, but it nevertheless fits the biblical data quite well in that it views believers as new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17) with a new nature (2 Pet. 1:4), yet still plagued by personal sinful lusts and inclinations (Rom. 7; Gal. 5; Jam. 1:14; 1 Pet. 2:11; 1 Jn. 1:8; etc.). (pg. 21)
2. Whenever I have referred to the one-nature view in previous messages this is what I meant. Chuck goes on to say, “It is important also to note that it is perfectly proper to speak of the (single) nature of Jesus as the God-Man. In so doing one would cite all those characteristics which are true of Him as the unique God-Man. Similarity, it is legitimate to refer to the nature of a believer by citing all those attributes which are true of him, whether his by Adamic inheritance or by the regenerative act of God.” (pg. 21)
3. Second, Smith states, “Likewise, the two-nature view properly fits the same biblical data—as long as the term ‘nature’ is not viewed as a separate entity or substance. It can be very helpful to refer to our ‘old nature’ as still existing since we are still plagued by these characteristics. In this approach the ‘new nature’ refers only to that set of attributes (aspirations, ambitions, capacities, desires, motivations) imparted at regeneration. This terminology may sound awkward to one who is accustomed to the one-nature terminology but it provides a helpful label for distinguishing those characteristics which are ours by Adamic inheritance from those which are ours by regeneration. It is important to insist upon the validity of employing two-nature terminology in describing the believer since orthodox theology has traditionally used two-nature terminology in describing the person of our Lord.” (pg. 21)
4. So having said this, which view is best? I believe Chuck says it best when he concludes, “It depends upon what one is trying to say. We must be able to speak of the changed nature of the believer and describe his nature in view of all that he is. We must also be able to separately envision that set of character qualities which is ours by nature and that set of qualities which results from the divine work in our hearts. We may appropriately use either or both approaches—as long as we avoid the dangers which have been cited.”
I close with a quote from Renald Showers, “Although the believer is a new self with a new moral outlook, he is not morally perfect as God is perfect. Because he still possesses the sinful disposition, he continues to be susceptible to its evil influence. For this reason he must go through a process of growth, being motivated by the new disposition and empowered by the Holy Spirit and winning one victory after another over the sinful disposition, until he is perfectly conformed to the image of God and Christ when he sees Christ.” (pg. 126)
This is what the normal Christian life is all about. But we must never become complacent with sin but keep on battling it in the Spirit’s power and growing to become more like Christ, to the glory of God.