“But we do not greatly wonder that persons, who suppose that some evil nature has been generated and propagated by a kind of opposing principle proper to it, refuse to admit that the cause of the creation was this, that the good God produced a good creation. For they believe that He was driven to this enterprise of creation by the urgent necessity of repulsing the evil that warred against Him, and that He mixed His good nature with the evil for the sake of restraining and conquering it; and that this nature of His, being thus shamefully polluted, and most cruelly oppressed and held captive, He labours to cleanse and deliver it, and with all His pains does not wholly succeed…” –Augustine, City of God Bk 11, Chap 22
“with how much greater reason ought we to say that God alone is the Author of all natures, since He neither uses for His work any material which was not made by Him, nor any workmen who were not also made by Him, and since, if He were, so to speak, to withdraw from created things His creative power, they would straightway relapse into the nothingness in which they were before they were created?”
–Augustine City of God, Bk 12, Chap 25
For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being… Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the WORD, S:4
“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” Jn 1:3
Small errors in wording can create great errors in thinking. The notion of Sin as a positive entity, which seems to have arisen with Wollebius in the generation after the Reformers, and come down to us in the concept of a “sinful nature” misrepresents both God and man, and leads to great error and injustice.
Doubtless many of you will be in a state of semi-shocked disbelief when I say there is no “sinful nature.” Written words, regardless of their source, take on an authority merely by being written. When they are read again and again, as they must be by a student (“disciple”) who is to be conformed to Christ, the man of Psalm 1 who meditates on and delights in Scripture day and night, words become emblazoned on the “doorposts and lintels” of the mind. Before reading reading below, you must get the following two facts into your mind:1
- The WORD of God is infallible only in its original language. Translations are not infallible.
- Translations are subject to the word choice of translators, and certain translations take a dynamic concept approach to translation. Wherever you find the phrase “sinful nature” in your Bible, it is the translator’s attempt to render the Greek word “σάρξ” (sarx=”flesh”) , while attempting to capture the nuanced meaning within its context. The original Greek is one word, which is not “sinful” nor “nature,” but “flesh.” The best explanation providing the ‘why’ for the use of “flesh” in the New Testament is that of Augustine, who explains that the failure of Adam and Eve to submit to God rendered a futility in which even their own bodies no longer submitted to their minds (City of God, Bk 14, Ch 23).
From an a-priori standpoint, positing a sinful nature distorts a sound doctrinal understanding of God. In order to make Sin an addition to man’s nature, one must either argue that God created Sin (which is blasphemy), that Sin was co-eternal with God (dualism, again blasphemy), or that Sin was created by another god, who would have to be co-eternal with God but not of the same substance (again, blasphemy). Early Church Fathers such as Athanasius, Tatian, Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine invested much time and effort in exposing the folly of this thinking (identified as gnostic dualism), and countering its destructive effects on the Body of Christ, yet their work has been largely ignored by the present visible church, despite the Reformers’ own return to early church teaching. The Church’s stance is that Sin is subtraction (corruption), not addition. It is unnatural (an undoing of human nature) not natural. It is a falling away from light and life similar to falling into a dark abyss (or the “pit” spoken of in the Psalms), not a movement towards anything of substance.
A priori, asserting “sinful nature” also distorts the doctrine of man. The assertion of a sinful nature existing apart from God is intimately linked with the assertion that man’s will also exists apart from God. Thus the rejection of sound doctrine with regard to uncorrupted human nature is inextricably tied with the rejection of sovereign election. Abandonment of these two essentials leads, in turn, to a distorted view of salvation and sanctification as merely man’s rational choice of heaven as a place, often subtly divorced from the fullness of the God who fills both heaven and earth, rather than an inclination of everything man is towards the source of his essence and life: Christ.
The Westminster Catechism tells us that the “chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” This is a teleological statement, meaning that man’s highest purpose, woven into the very fabric of his true essence, is to praise and enjoy God, to dwell Coram Deo, in God’s presence, fully present to God as God is fully present to man (“knowing as we are now known”). Such is message of the face-to-face experiences of Exodus 33-34, I Kings 19, and Christ and his disciples. These experiences represent to us man’s true natural proclivity, as essential to him as his proclivity to breathe, move, and think. For all man’s good comes from nowhere but God: “Apart from you I have no good thing.” Only those with warped minds would deny this truth.
When God, by the election of His will, regenerates the whole man, this natural proclivity is restored. Death severed man from his only source of life and joy: the Trinitarian God who is the overflowing fountain of life and light.
Being restored to life, man naturally seeks God, an inclination which is expressed in the Beatitudes if Christ as a deep hunger and thirst, Paul’s fruit of the Spirit, and over and over in the Psalms, especially Psalms 40 and 42. The saint’s desperate struggle with sin (Romans 7) is itself a sign of his unflagging desire for the God who has gifted him with the persevering faith which itself is the source of desire, a wellspring of life inside the regenerate man. This grace is answered with more grace: with the just-loving kindness of a Shepherd and a Spirit who yoke themselves to the man, leading and helping him such that, together, their cooperative work becomes a crown and a garment of righteous acts. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” and “how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The fruit of faith is itself the evidence of regeneration: the beatific detestation of sin and hunger and thirst for justice from a pure heart is a hunger and thirst for God himself. The new “heart of flesh,” filled with faith which strives to listen and obey, is undaunted by persecution, sin, and deceit, which only serve to further galvanize its hunger for God. Thus the response of Moses in the wake of sin, conflict with persecutors, and distressed mourning at Sinai: an intent hearkening after God’s words and continuing presence which inspired his desperate plea: “show me your glory!”
If man’s will serves him at all, it serves him best by pointing him toward his highest fulfillment: resting solely in the life and light which is God, revealed in Christ. For “My heart finds rest in God alone,” and so the regenerated man naturally seeks that final rest from his work in being conformed to the holy justice of a God whose “judgments are just and true.” His milk is Moses’ law, by which he distinguishes good from evil. His meat is Elijah’s call to righteousness. His rest is his indisoluble wedded-ness to Christ in body and spirit. In all three, the regenerate man demonstrates what is written in the Psalms: “the faces of those who look to you are radiant.” Just as the radiance of the transfiguration was the radiance of Moses, Elijah, and Christ, so the radiance of the regenerate man is his meditation on the Law, the Prophets, and the words of Christ. Any choice outside of this choice is no true choice at all, but merely deception–a disintegration, a “total eclipse of the heart,” and decay in the pit. The regenerate man sees these not as choices, but as the undoing of choice, for “the elect will not be deceived.”
From an a-posteriori standpoint, the assertion of a positively existing sinful nature has emboldened false teachers, their destructive doctrines, and their abusive injustices:
1) Positing a sinful nature allows false teachers to present truth other than God, subjugating God under a higher “truth.” This is how the Platonic/gnostic heresies (which subjugate God under “Being”) gained influence in the first few centuries. Empowered with “gnosis” (special knowledge), false teachers lorded it over others, forming a cult around themselves by which they manipulated and outright abused others. Their tactics frequently involved “seducing unstable women,” whom they induced to mutinously challenge sound doctrine and create general havoc in the churches, occasioning Paul’s restrictive command in I Timoth 2:12, a command aimed to keep teaching in line with sound doctrine.
2) Positing a sinful nature creates conditions in which unjust speculative suspicion becomes rampant. In the absence of sound doctrine, with no ability to test fruit, men and women fall into a “conspiracy theory” mode, ever presuming evil of one another, and failing to obey the Deuteronomical command to “investigate the matter thoroughly.”
This problem currently haunts the visible church, and is the premise by which hired hands proclaim themselves “shepherds” in order to “police” the flock in Machiavellian despotism. They suppress the truth of Scripture in sound doctrine, and indulge in the errors of Sophistry: Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism (the therapeutic “gospel”). This crushes the life out of the Church, introducing unjust, cynical skepticism of the sufficiency of God’s Word and Righteousness in the regenerate believer. If the Spirit is not adequate to teach such that saints “need no one to teach them,” then someone needs to step in and tell them what to do.
One wonders if such men have ever read the Scripture, wherein Abraham tells the rich man that if his brother does not believe the testimony of Scripture, not even a dead man raised to life will be convincing. Apparently “shepherds” and “elders” think themselves more impressive than a resurrected man. This is certainly confirmed by their underhanded subjection of the Word of God to the rules of men. The church is now, like their first century predecessors, “harassed and without a shepherd.” Those who ought to be equipped (especially through catechizing) to build up the church with the gifts God has given them, are instead alienated or silenced, paralyzing the Body of Christ.
3) Positing a sinful nature allows men with warped minds to associate that “nature” with physical traits (skin color, gender), even superficial and accidental appearance, such as material poverty and lack of worldly education. This leads to a favoritism which the Scripture unhesitatingly condemns, calling those who think thus “judges with evil thoughts.” William Harper’s pro slavery argument, with its scientific racism, is one of the most saliently detestable examples of this type of favoritism, and still has a terrible impact on the visible church and our culture even after 214 years.
Favoritism for those with “successful” business or civic leadership experience, who are often appointed as elders in defiance of Scripture’s explicit requirement that they have a thorough knowledge of sound doctrine, is another example, and one which has reduced the visible church to a salt-less pietistical facade, a “form of godliness which denies its power.” Both examples are a stiff-necked defiance of Scripture, and both merit great wrath, as James’ epistle clearly warns.