Here is part 4 of an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. The essay is being published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click on a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here.
addressing the christian life
By Dr. Gary Deddo
How does what we have addressed so far in this series inform our understanding of the Christian life? In this part of the essay, we’ll seek to answer that question in a biblically faithful way that aligns with and clarifies GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian vision. In doing so, we’ll address a related question: Why do believers often struggle with temptation and sometimes fall into sin?
It’s about relationship and becoming
We begin with the reminder that all humanity was created for a relationship of union and communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit. Rather than fixed, determined beings, we humans are becoming beings, created to become primarily in and through relationship with the Triune God. We thus understand that the Christian life is a becoming life—becoming, in Christ and by the Spirit, who we truly are in Christ.
A journey of transformation
Our becoming through relationship is a life-long journey of growing up in Christ. We participate in this process of transformation, renewal and maturation through our relationship with the Triune God. Though the New Testament is decidedly optimistic about the ultimate destination of this journey, it indicates that different people begin at different points and move forward at different rates. Though it is not possible to pinpoint anyone’s exact location on the journey, there are indicators along the way that God is faithful to his promise to “sanctify” us “through and through” with Christ’s own sanctity (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23-24). He has promised to complete the good work that he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6).
God’s work, complete in Jesus Christ
From start to finish, our salvation is God’s work of grace—one that is complete in Christ. Jesus is our whole salvation—the Source of our wisdom (especially about God), our righteousness (justification) and our sanctification (transformation) (1 Cor. 1:30 NRSV). We are not justified by grace then sanctified by our works. We do not “qualify” for any aspect of our salvation, which in all its “parts” (including sanctification) is a work of grace of the whole God: Father, Son and Spirit.
The Christian life is thus about living in dependence upon the Triune God of grace, and as we’ll see, it has largely to do with the work the Holy Spirit does to unite us to and conform us to Christ through what we’ve addressed previously in this essay as the “spiritual union.” It is through this union (our relationship with God) that we have access to and are able to possess all the blessings of grace. We trust Jesus to give us these blessings through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Moved by the Spirit, we receive these blessings through repentance and faith. Though never earned or deserved, we receive them deliberately, using whatever capacities we have at our disposal (capacities that differ from person to person). Because our transformation (sanctification, maturation, growth) is God’s gracious work in us, it follows God’s timetable, and God is not anxious or impatient about the pace.
Living by the Spirit “between the times”
To understand the Christian life, we must account for the New Testament teaching that, as believers, we do not yet have the fullness of the Holy Spirit. As we receive and respond to the Spirit, living in fellowship with the Spirit, we must regularly be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). In this life we are given the “first fruits” (Rom. 8:23) or “deposit” (Eph. 1:14, also translated “down payment” or “earnest”) of the Spirit, having been “sealed” (Eph. 4:30) for a greater future with the Spirit yet to be unsealed. We thus understand that our relationship with the Spirit is not fixed, static, mechanical or impersonal. It is dynamic and personal.
Perhaps the most illuminating image in the New Testament that speaks to this is that we are told that an “inheritance” has been “stored up” for us (Eph. 1:18; Col. 1:5; Col. 3:24). Thus we understand that we cannot, in the here and now, participate, through the Spirit, in the fullness of all that Christ has accomplished for us. We can grow toward that fullness, we can be transformed, we can mature, we can go deeper, but we will not, until we are glorified, “arrive.” Though we should expect and be hopeful about our growth, we should not expect to experience (participate in) in this life, the fullness of Christ’s perfection (all his holiness). To say that is not to diminish our potential for growth—we will always have access to the source of fullness, the completeness of Christ, by the Spirit, even if we never reach that fullness before we are glorified.
There are obstacles of various kinds to our transformation. That is because Christ has not yet returned and so we live “between the times” in what the Bible calls “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). We await the fullness of the kingdom of God and the gift of our glorified bodies. We have yet to “put on immortality,” and so we still “groan” (2 Cor. 5:4). Nevertheless, we press on! Despite the obstacles in our path, we “strive to enter” God’s “rest” (Heb. 4:11). As we journey forward, we resist the devil and flee temptation (James 4:7-9). Rather than using our freedom to fall back into slavery, we put off ways inconsistent with God’s grace and purposes for human life. We die to our old ways, considering ourselves “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11). We live in ways that indicate all the worthiness of Jesus Christ himself. We live as if joined (united) to Christ, for, indeed we are!
What we have said so far is generally accepted by Christians, yet there are some terminological issues that need to be addressed as we seek to clarify how we in GCI teach and preach on this important topic of living the Christian life “between the times.”
Our identity as believers
In clarifying the terminology related to the Christian life, we need to return to what we’ve already said in the earlier parts of this essay concerning our identity as believers. We belong to God, body and spirit. We were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). Jesus is our Lord and Savior and there is no other. He alone has eternal life for us. He is the fullness of life. We are adopted into his family to be his sons and daughters and live as members of his family (Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). We are his people, Christ’s body, the church (1 Cor. 12:27). As such, by the personal, particular ministry of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ and live in communion with him daily.
In that spiritual union and communion, Christ, by the Spirit, shares with us all that he has for us, and by the Spirit we are freed and enabled to begin receiving what he has completed for us. That is who we are! But how do we remind ourselves and encourage each other of that identity as we struggle with temptation, as we, despite our identity in Christ, succumb to sinful deeds, words and thoughts?
No dual identity
In a few places in the KJV, the New Testament speaks of an old man and a new man (Rom. 6:6 KJV; Eph. 4:22-24 KJV; Col. 3:9-10 KJV). Unfortunately, some Christians wrongly interpret these pairings as meaning that all people (or at least all Christians) have within themselves two opposing identities (persons or wills). Lacking a critical understanding of these verses, they mistakenly take this anthropological dualism to be the Bible’s explanation of why Christians struggle with temptation to sin. In doing so, they embrace an idea that conflicts with the New Testament’s insistent, overwhelming proclamation of a singular renewed self—a singular identity that believers have as a gift of the Holy Spirit who unites them to Christ. In embracing this dualism, they are adopting an idea that arose in Greek mythology, spread into existential philosophy, and from there into some schools of modern psychology. The idea is seen today in popular contemporary culture, as in cartoons showing a person with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering dueling messages into the person’s ears.
The false idea of humans having two competing wills/identities has been adopted by certain theologies, relying largely on ill-informed interpretations of the aforementioned New Testament old man-new man pairings. This mistake has been made because a dualistic view of human nature seems to explain the inner battle experienced by believers, particularly as it relates to the temptation to sin. This inner battle can feel like two opposing forces at work—two selves or persons (or perhaps two wills) at war. Certain Bible translators, embracing this dualism, have selected the word “man” (KJV) or “self” (NIV) in translating the aforementioned verses. Some Christian preachers and counselors have adopted this dualism, viewing it as a helpful way to explain why believers struggle with temptation. However, this dualistic explanation for a believer’s struggle with sin is in error—it cannot be upheld biblically and must be rejected because we do not want to build a theology of the Christian life on a concept that undermines our trust and hope in our identity in Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit in us.
Scripture does not address the issue of temptation and sin in a believer’s life by positing two internal aspects or parts of a person, or the idea of an internally divided person. Instead, Scripture refers to a struggle that persons have with that which is external (alien) to human being and nature, but one that does encroach and work within the person. In the New Testament, that external influence is called sin or the power of sin. The New Testament goes on to encourage (and expect) believers to resist sin as part of their journey of transformation. The biblical exhortations to resist temptation do not call into question our singular identity or Christ’s completed work. In fact, our identity in Christ serves as the basis for continuing to resist temptation.
A singular identity (Romans 7)
While we must be realistic about our weaknesses and struggles as believers, we must do so without calling into question our identity—the truth of who we are in Christ. Unfortunately, some promote an understanding of the Christian life that seems to make that mistake. Examples are those theological formulations that speak of the Christian (a person who is in union and communion with Christ) as having two selves (or two natures or two subjectivities). These two selves are portrayed as being in unresolvable conflict with one another. While such a view may avoid stirring up false guilt or shame (since nothing can be done about this inner conflict in their experience), it offers what amounts to a counsel of despair. With this viewpoint, little or no change in the inner battle can be hoped for—it’s part of the human condition. When union with Christ and his objective work are viewed in a way that pulls them apart from our personal involvement (thus setting up a dualism), any hope of experiencing that participation in the finished work of Christ here and now is ruled out. That mistaken view posits the idea that we have one identity in Christ, but not one that we are able to experience—we can only experience a dual, conflicted identity—two split selves or subjectivities.
According to some versions of this mistaken theology, Jesus Christ remains at a distance from our experience, but accomplishes things for us that we can’t join in on. Our subjective experience is thereby split apart from Christ’s objective work done on our behalf. We’re caught between a single objective identity on the one side and a dual subjective identity that apparently cannot be resolved, on the other. According to this mistaken view, this duality in us cannot be resolved in this life since it is built in, intrinsic to us.
This mistaken view of humanity contrasts starkly with formulations that, being faithful to Scripture, speak of one self, one nature, one subjectivity in tension with something that is alien to the self or our nature, namely, the power of sin or evil. That “something” we find ourselves in tension with is not essential to our humanity. It is not intrinsic to or built into human nature. No matter how seemingly influential or how strong a pull this sinful power has, it is alien to us as believers. This is what Scripture (particularly the New Testament) teaches and we should stick closely to the biblical language and patterns of thought in our interpretations and syntheses, not losing sight of the larger truth that we are in union with Christ, who has our whole salvation complete in him and in which we share (participate) by the Holy Spirit.
We should affirm a single identity of the Christian and not a dual identity, even if it might seem that way in an individual’s experience. We should avoid speaking as if our experience of opposition with the power of sin involves two equals of the same strength and determination. Whatever is resistant to our living in Christ is not an equal to Christ and the Spirit at work in us. Instead, the opposing forces are radically unequal.
The most faithful way to speak of this tension between us and what tempts us in the Christian life is to follow what Paul says in Romans 7, which is foundational to this topic. Rom. 7:16-17 puts it this way: “If I do what I do not want to do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” Note that Paul is free to differentiate between himself, “I…me…not myself” and the sin working within him. The internal tension or opposition that Paul experiences is not between two selves (persons, subjects), but opposition between the “I…me”—between the person of Paul and the sin (presented as a force) working within and against him. What opposes him, what influences him, what pulls him off base, what tempts him, is not himself (or an alternate false self) but something other than himself. In other words, Paul maintains his singular identity even while admitting that he sometimes does what he does not want to do. Paul takes responsibility for sinning—he does not divide his identity (who he is) into two persons or two subjectivities. Rather, there is something in him that is not him. This alien power tempts him, leading him to sin—to do what he (as a believer) does not want to do.
This way of thinking is not isolated to a few verses in Romans 7, though the repetition of certain key phrases there gives significant interpretive weight to this understanding that Christians have one person and one nature, not two. Paul is sorting through his experience for the sake of his listeners. All that he writes earlier in Romans 6 and 7 leads up to his conclusion just quoted. Paul has various names for what is tempting him, for the alien thing at work in him. In Romans 7, he identifies that power or influence as “sin,” showing how sin “seizing an opportunity… deceived me” and so “killed me.” He then speaks of being “sold into slavery under sin” and refers to sin as an “evil” that “lies close at hand.” According to Paul, sin is a “law” (principle or power) that is “at war with the law of my mind” (Rom. 7:11-23 NRSV).
Only one identity
Paul’s emphasis on the power of sin and his conclusion concerning his experience with it, lends strong weight to not understanding our life “between the times” in terms of a battle between two selves or even between two natures (which we’ll address below). The unity of identity of the human person is further backed up by how Paul ministers to those he is writing to—by how he addresses the dilemma of believers experiencing temptation and falling into sin. He appeals to the fact of who they now are (their identity in Christ) as the basis upon which they are to be hopeful and thus continue to resist temptation. That singular identity is based on who Jesus is and what he has done for them. On that basis, he is confident that Christ will deliver them (Rom. 7:25), knowing that they have been set free from the “law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) through what God accomplished in Christ—that which the old covenant could not accomplish (Rom. 8:3-4). On the basis of who Jesus is and what he has done for us, Paul, in Romans 8, addresses his readers (Christians) as people who have a singular identity. In particular, he exhorts them to:
- “walk [live] according to the Spirit” not “according to the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:4-5)
- set their minds “on the Spirit” which brings life and peace and not “on the flesh [sarx]” as those who, in contrast, are “in the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:6)
- view themselves as “in the Spirit” and “indwelt by the Spirit” not “in the flesh [sarx]” (Rom. 8:9)
- understand that Christ is “in” them and that they have “spirits” that “are alive because of [Christ’s] righteousness” (Rom. 8:10)
- understand that they are indwelt by the Spirit of the Father, who raised the Son from the dead and whose Spirit dwells in them (said two times in Rom. 8:11)
- understand that they are “not in the flesh” and are “not debtors to the flesh” (Rom. 8:12) but are “led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14)
- understand that they have “received the Spirit of sonship,” not slavery—they are “children of God” and so “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” so that they will be, in the end, “glorified with [Christ]” (Rom. 8:14-17)
As these and other verses attest, the basis on which to live the Christian life is a singular coherent identity, not a dual one. This understanding serves as the truth behind every exhortation given to believers in the New Testament. It is on the basis of who they are (as one person) in union with Christ that they resist temptation and participate in the life of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
A common human nature in transition
But why or how does sin and the power of sin have continuing influence in the life of a believer? If we have a singular identity (self), how is it that we are vulnerable to sin and the power of sin? The answer seems to lie in the fact that individual human persons are understood in the New Testament as having a common (shared) human nature that is not yet perfected, strong and complete. In theological terms, we can say that our human nature (although in communication with Christ by the Spirit) is in the process of being sanctified and is not yet glorified in us. Our human nature is thus in a dynamic transition as we live out our lives “between the times” in daily relationship with God through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
In Christ the transformation of our corporate human nature, at the head of humanity, is completed, fulfilled. But now, in our individual selves, we participate in what is completed in Christ by the Holy Spirit from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3: 18). What is completed in Christ is ongoing in us while we are living between the times. So we are “being transformed”—sanctified by sharing in the Spirit in Christ’s completed work of sanctifying our human nature.
The New Testament speaks as if human persons have a nature. Persons have a common or corporate nature, but persons are not simply this nature. The New Testament distinguishes between the individual person (the “I”) and their common human nature. Our shared human nature renders Christians vulnerable to temptation and sin. In our current state “between the times” (living in the present evil age before our death and before Christ’s return and our glorification), our common nature has remaining weakness—ones that sin and the power of sin take advantage of. As Paul says, sin “finds opportunity.” We share in human nature, and because of that, we are in transition—in a state of becoming, of being sanctified, transformed, maturing. In this transition time, we are tempted and we sin.
The explanation for our struggle is not that we have a divided self (man/person). Instead, the explanation is that we have a nature that is in transition, which the power of sin can take advantage of. The tension we experience is not between two “parts” within us, but between us (our persons) with our natures in transition and an alien and externally sourced power of sin. We experience this tension “within,” but that is not because the self is divided into two, but because the power of evil can address us at a deep and internal level even after the completed work of Christ. This explanation seems to best sum up our current already-but-not-yet situation and is the New Testament’s understanding of why persons who acknowledge their total allegiance and dependence upon Jesus Christ in repentance and faith can still be tempted and commit sin.
What then shall we do?
How then do we deal with a nature in transition, making us susceptible to temptation and sin? The biblical answer (and admonition) is that we “fight the fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). We are not to be passive, regarding ourselves as helpless victims. Instead, when we sin, we are, with hope and determination, and by the power of the Spirit, to take these steps:
- Confess the truth to God and repent. We offer our sin up to God for destruction, thanking God that one day we will see this temptation no more and no longer fall into its trap. By confessing and repenting, we are trusting God to be forgiving, and we receive (not earn) God’s forgiveness and so are restored. God is happy to receive this confession and renew our communion with him.
- Realign our thinking and resist sin. As the New Testament states (especially Paul’s writings) based on who we are in Christ and our present and ongoing daily relationship to him by the Spirit, we are to take some initiative for what should have the greater influence upon us and our not-yet-fully-participating human natures. By the grace of God we can begin to align our thoughts, choices, actions and attitudes toward the future of our human natures already transformed in Christ. We can begin to resist the influences that play upon what is passing away or “former” of our human nature. There is one human nature but, we can say, it can face in two directions. The power of sin would have us living in the past, according to what is passing away. But Jesus Christ and the Spirit would have us, with them, align ourselves toward the future that is there for us in Christ—our inheritance laid up for us (Eph. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:4). We participate with the Word and Spirit’s moving us in the direction they are taking us, and that involves trusting that Christ is at work in us by his Spirit. He who began a good work in us will, indeed, bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6).
- Surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit. Rather than surrendering to the power of sin, we are to surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit within, in hope of the inheritance completed and laid up for us in Christ. We are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is,” setting our minds “on things that are above, not things on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). This translates into action so that we “put to death what is earthly”—those practices in which we “once walked.” We are to “put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” different actions and attitudes (Col. 3:12-14).
Notice how Paul is calling forth a new pattern of living. He points out several times that believers “have put off the old nature [anthropos] with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9-10, RSV). Paul then offers hope: “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4, RSV).
But this hope of the future is not a basis for passivity or hopelessness. It is the basis for Paul’s exhortations to “put to death” (Col. 3:5) “put away” (Col. 3:8) and “put on” thoughts and actions corresponding to who we are in Christ (Col. 3:12, 14). Paul regards this as a process being worked out on the basis of Christ’s completed work: “which is being renewed” (the present participle “being renewed” indicates continuing action, Col. 3:10).
This pattern, which sets forth both the basis and the outworking of it in our lives, is consistent throughout the New Testament. The completed work of Christ is the foundation for our acting on it as we trust in Christ and the foundation he has laid. That is why Calvin emphasized that our whole salvation is complete in Christ, not just part of it. Calvin did so not to encourage passivity and hopelessness, but rather to encourage hopeful, joyful and deliberate participation here and now. Paul put it this way: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness [justification] and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). All this is done for us—not so that we do nothing, but so that we might live into it, grow up into it, participate or share in it starting here and now.
After pointing out in Eph. 3:20 the “power at work within us,” Paul goes on in Eph. 4:1-16 to exhort us to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (RSV). We show the value of all that Christ has done and who he is as we are “built up” as his body, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood [humanity], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” But “rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” Paul continues by speaking of our human nature (anthropos), exhorting believers to
put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:22, 24 RSV)
Because of the finished and completed work of Christ, we are to exert ourselves in hope of it. Paul recognizes that we are involved in a process—which we might liken to a journey—the result of our trust relationship with Christ who has finished his work for us.
Though these passages depict two incompatible patterns of life, there is no sense that these represent two principles internal to us. There is no sense here of a split self, person or nature. Paul is speaking of two paths our human nature can travel, and exhorting us to make the right choice. Jesus Christ is taking us in only one of these directions, and we are called to participate with him in journeying in that direction—the one he has trod and has set out for us to travel in fellowship with him, receiving from him daily by the Holy Spirit.
In Romans 6 Paul brings up for a third time in his writings the idea of an old nature (anthropos). He says it is being “crucified” with Christ so that the “sinful body” might be destroyed and we might “no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). On that basis, Paul gives exhortations, not to passivity, but to active participation. He tells his readers to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). On the basis of who they are in Christ, Paul, hopeful of the outcome, exhorts them with these words:
Let not sin…reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as [those] who have been brought from the dead to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you. (Rom. 6:12-14)
In Romans 7 and 8, Paul goes on to more explicitly show that the tension or opposition lies not between two (divided) selves, persons or natures. He makes his point by bringing to our attention the essential, ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 7 he is clear that it is “sin” or the “power of sin” at work in him that tempts and kills him (Rom. 7:8-11). He sums it up in Rom. 7:17: “So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me, that is, in my flesh [still fallen and weak human nature]. In Rom. 7:20 he reiterates that understanding: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” In Romans 8, Paul spells out most comprehensively the implications for our daily lives:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:1-17, NRSV)
The opposition revealed here is between us and sin (or the power of sin). It is not between multiple selves or parts of a divided self. As humans, we are not stuck in a hopeless unresolvable existential bind—our participation is not a matter of acquiescing to the power of sin as it plays upon the weakness of our human nature still in transition. Rather, it is a matter of deliberately and hopefully siding with Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit by exerting our lives in the direction that the Spirit wants to take us, to share more fully in the new human nature that Christ has for us. Paul addresses his readers as persons, exhorting them to direct their natures in the direction that Christ has opened up for them and in which they by the Spirit can share. As believers (those in union and communion with God, in Christ, by the Spirit) we can do this only because of our singular identity of being those who belong to Jesus Christ and who live in and by his word and Spirit.
So this is Paul’s description of the dynamics of the Christian life—our life here and now “between the times.” This is what our spiritual union with Christ looks like as it is lived out. We live out our spiritual union with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit on the basis of Christ’s completed and finished work. By his Holy Spirit at work in us, we align ourselves (our own persons) with Christ and against the power of sin that is opposed to us and to God’s intention for us that has been worked out already in Christ’s human nature.
Sin attempts to take advantage of our human nature that is in transition on this side of glorification. Through the weakness of our human nature, sin attempts to lead us in a direction away from Christ instead of moving in the direction that Christ by the Spirit has opened up to us. But through the revelation of Christ and what he has accomplished for us in our human nature, the deceit of sin is exposed. We have a single identity in fellowship with Christ. Though not yet completed in us, the future of our fully sanctified and glorified human nature is complete in him.
Because the full transformation of our natures has been completed in Christ in every dimension (justification, sanctification, glorification), we can deliberately and purposefully begin receiving some of those benefits of Christ’s completed work here and now. Because the Holy Spirit is now at work in us in a way and at a level far deeper than the power of sin can reach, we can participate in our sanctification by faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the whole God.
Christ’s completed work does not result in leading us to passivity or a hopeless bind. Instead, it leads us to repentance and faith and so to an increased capacity to actively receive from God by the Spirit all that Christ has accomplished for us. The fact that we find ourselves living in a time of transition, of becoming, in no way calls into question the singular identity given us by God’s gift of grace, namely that we are his, and all that he has for us is ours in him.
Here is additional detail related to the issues addressed above.
- The old and new nature
Paul speaks of the “old” nature (anthropos) three times and of “new” nature (anthropos) two times, pairing them twice (Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22, 24). In the third incidence of “old nature” (anthropos) the contrasting idea of newness is brought up, but what is “new” is not “nature” (Rom. 6:6). Doesn’t this way of speaking mean there are two simultaneously existing natures? In short, the answer is no. To explain, we need to understand what exactly is meant by the biblical contrast of old and new in reference to our human nature. There is a contrast here, but not one that affirms the idea of the existence of two natures existing simultaneously in one person, nor one that affirms the idea of the existence of a divided self (two selves, persons, or wills). Old and new describe something about a single human nature that we share here and now between the times. The qualifications of old and new indicate two opposite directions our human nature, in this time of transition, can be directed or guided.
Anthropos, is qualified by Paul in these three passages as being old, which means it is from the ancient past, original or even worn out. New indicates a different quality of that nature—renewed, but not brand new or never before existing. To think of the new nature as being brand new would necessitate thinking that humanity has been given a separate, entirely different kind of human nature created out of nothing (ex nihilo), and then inserted into human existence alongside the old. But that is not the case. That Jesus is said to be “born of a woman,” “under the law” (Gal. 4:4) is to say that he is of human lineage like us, thus indicating that in assuming our human nature, Jesus has fulfilled the promise of coming from the seed of Eve. The New Testament gives no justification for thinking that a second human entity (nature) has been created by God through Christ or by the Spirit—one that is ontologically separated from the first kind of human nature that we possess by birth. Old and new do not indicate two natures. Rather, they characterize one nature in two contrasting ways.
If an absolutely new nature had been created, then there would be no need and no sense for the Son of God to become incarnate or to transform anything. In that case, God would simply create an absolutely new human nature and substitute it for the one we possess. Taking new in such an absolute sense eliminates the need and thus the rationale for the Incarnation, which involves the hypostatic union by which the eternal Son of God assumed our human nature. Without the Incarnation and the hypostatic union, there would have been no redemption of human nature. Instead, the old would simply have been cast off and a new, completely different version of human nature substituted. These theological objections to the idea of a dual nature are significant, conclusive and vitally important. The idea that there are two selves or two natures in the believer at war with one another undermines the nature and significance of the Incarnation and atonement—this is a very serious matter.
The word new is not the only way the New Testament talks about the outcome of the work of Christ on our human nature. It also speaks about our one (human) nature being regenerated (palingenesis), renewed (anakainao—as in Titus 3:4-7), or “reheaded up” (anakephalaiosis as in Eph. 1:10). These words indicate continuity between the old and the new nature. The old nature is not cast aside to be substituted by another brand new version. Instead, the old nature is renewed. Speaking of old and new natures is a metaphor, while speaking of a renewed or regenerated nature is a more literal description. Human nature is not literally old or literally brand new. Rather, certain characteristics of the original nature are fading into the past and will one day be entirely gone because that nature is being renewed, restored, newly conformed to Christ’s perfect humanity, thus possessing different (new) characteristics, namely those of the resurrected (sanctified) life. The idea is that there is one human nature that is being transformed—not one newly created nature being substituted entirely for an old one (thus positing the existence of two natures).
There are many passages that speak of the nature of the Christian life being like this: growing (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 1:10; 1 Pet. 2:2), transforming (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18), becoming conformed (Rom. 8:29), maturing (Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:28; James 1:4), becoming blameless (Phil. 2:15), being sanctified (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23), pressing/running forward (Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 12:1; 1 Cor. 9:26), leaving behind (Heb. 12:1). These all assume a continuity, not a duality of natures (selves, persons, subjectivities, wills).
In accordance with what Paul says in Romans 7, we should think of the transformation of the old nature in such a way that that those characteristics that make it subject to temptation and thus prone to being taken advantage of by sin and the power of sin, are being done away. This old nature is being renewed—a renewal that can be experienced in an anticipatory way in this “between the times” as we participate by the Spirit in Christ’s perfected human nature, looking forward to the day of our glorification when our nature will be perfect and we no longer will be subject to temptation and sin.
The concept of two co-existing natures residing in a single individual is shown even more clearly to be wrong in the Colossians 3 passage, which contrasts old and dead not with new but with resurrected life. Death and resurrected (eternal) life cannot be literally grasped as being simultaneously true of one individual or of two separate realities in tension. Thus, there is no reason to conclude that Paul is thinking about humans as having two literal, co-existing natures.
Unfortunately, several New Testament verses (in some English translations) have given the impression to some that there are two different natures at work in us. But that impression is erroneous, based on false inferences behind loose English translations of the Greek word sarx, which in some versions of the Bible is translated sinful nature (Rom. 7:18, 25; 8:3, 4-13; Gal. 5:17; 6:8; Col. 2:11; 1 Cor. 3:3; Eph. 2:3). Though sarx can legitimately be translated as nature, adding the qualifier sinful, which is not in the text, gives to some the impression that there is also a righteous or holy nature existing side-by-side this sinful nature (though such coexistence is never stated in these passages).
Most English translations do not make the mistake of translating sarx as sinful nature. Instead, they translate it flesh. This closer, and in context preferred, translation does not as readily suggest that there is another kind of flesh (nature) coexisting with this one. When placed in immediate context, there is simply one kind of nature, which is called sarx (flesh).
This is not to deny that the flesh is prone to sin, and so is sinful in that sense. Romans 8 indicates that the flesh we bear is the “flesh of sin”—this is the flesh (nature) that Christ assumed in order to overcome it on our behalf. However, the translation sinful nature seems to leave for some an erroneous impression that the word flesh does not. When we stick with the translation flesh and then see what it is contrasted with, in every passage where a contrast is made, there is no impression left of two natures co-existing in one person. In every instance, flesh is not contrasted with some other kind of flesh (like old flesh with new). Instead, the contrast is with the Holy Spirit. What is being shown to be in opposition in these verses is flesh and Spirit, not one kind of flesh with another kind of flesh.
- The nature of the opposition
If the idea of two persons (selves/subjects/subjectivities) is ruled out, does the New Testament account for why believers fall into temptation and sin by teaching that we have two natures that exist in opposition—one waring against the other? The answer is again no, as we’ll see by noting Rom. 7:5, Rom. 7:18 and Rom. 8:13, where humans are said to be “in the flesh” or living “according to the flesh” without using the terms nature or sinful nature. In these verses, flesh is contrasted not with a different or new flesh, but with the Holy Spirit. We find the same thing in 13 other New Testament passages that speak of this contrast or tension.
The understanding throughout is that the single person (agent, self) is either under the influence of the (sinful) human nature that is old in the sense of passing away, or is under the influence, guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit (who is renewing our nature into the likeness of Jesus’ glorified human nature). While the word sinful is not present in any of these passages except when speaking of the flesh that Christ assumed, the fact that he is said to have taken on the “flesh of sin” (Rom. 8:3) means that being sinful can be attributed to our flesh. But even in connection with Christ assuming sinful flesh, the contrast is not made with another opposing co-existing flesh. Rather, Christ assumed our human nature, our sinful flesh, “so that we might have the mind of the Spirit that is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). The contrast is still between the sinful flesh and the Spirit, not between two kinds of flesh co-existing in opposition.
In Romans 7 Paul also speaks about our flesh both before (Rom. 7:5) and in the middle (Rom. 7:18) of sorting out how to think about his experience of wrestling with temptation and failing. After announcing his conclusion that it is sin that dwells in him, he says (for the first time): “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Here he distinguishes between himself and his flesh, his nature. But this sin that dwells in him, that is not him, dwells in his flesh, that is, in his human nature. The power of sin takes advantage of or finds opportunity in his flesh (Rom. 7:5, 18). Paul distinguishes between himself, his nature and the power of sin, or simply sin, and that is consistent with all the passages we have surveyed. The opposition he experiences is not between a divided person or two selves or even between an old and new nature. It is sin and the power of sin that is in opposition to him and takes advantage of his fallen human nature, his flesh, his mortal body.
Looking back then, the metaphorical sequence of time in those other three verses (old vs new) is meant to allow for a difference that has to do with the change in the character of the single nature of flesh, not with the distinction of two co-existing natures. There is no ontological duality in humanity of either two selves/subjects/persons or of two opposing human natures.
- Only one human nature
Though some Christians (including some theologians) embrace a divided person (man) or nature theory, it should now be clear that that this theory has little, if any, biblical support. New and old do not describe two separate entities in opposition— instead they describe the one human nature that can now in each person be prompted to move in two opposing directions. One direction is “passing away” or is a “former” pattern of living. It is old in that sense—made obsolete, worn out, even though there is still a way in which it is operative. But Christ has opened the door to a new future of human nature completed in him for us.
As T.F. Torrance often stated, Christ, on our behalf, has put human nature on a whole new basis. Human nature has a whole new future that moves in the opposite direction from where it formerly was headed under the power of sin. By the Spirit, we can begin here and now to benefit from that new direction—that new future held out for us in Christ. By the Holy Spirit we can resist the old direction that leads to final death. By the ministry of the Spirit, we can turn and use our natures in a new way, headed in a new direction towards the new future Christ has for us.
This participation by the Spirit in the redirection of our nature according to its renewal in Christ involves a process, a journey. We cannot and will not reach the end or goal (telos) in this life, which already is complete in Christ. However, the Bible teaches that we are to expect some manifestation of that renewal in our lives “between the times.” While we cannot predict the rate and cannot locate the exact extent of our progress, we are meant to be hopeful and optimistic about some transformation in our becoming conformed to Christ. But because the working of the Holy Spirit is personal, individual and dynamic and spans a lifetime, the exact pattern and pace will be individualized—it is a “custom” ministry that does not allow for straight-line predictability. However, the overall pattern of the journey will be one that Calvin described as mortification that leads to vivification, dying with Christ and being raised up with Christ. It will involve repentance and renewal in faith, hope and love, and it never leads in the direction of self-righteousness or self-justification.
Because, as believers, the power of sin is still somewhat operative in our lives, our spiritual union will involve facing opposition to the progress and manifestations of the Spirit’s renewal. This situation, which is related to the weakness of our human nature, calls for engaging in the “fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). There will be setbacks. We will need to confess our sin and failings. But that should not undermine our hope or our efforts to follow Christ and trust in his working in our lives by his word and Spirit. It is a fight worth fighting!
The journey of transformation involves the fight of maintaining faith in the completed working of Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit so that by our spiritual union we, as God enables, can share in the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us in his hypostatic union in our place and on our behalf.
- The meaning of anthropos
There are two words in the New Testament that mean the common nature shared by all human beings: phusis and anthropos. These both can and should in some contexts be translated human nature. The word anthropos usually indicates characteristics shared among a class or group of persons. Anthropos describes what makes human beings the same, human. It includes men and women. As such, anthropos could often be translated humanity or humankind, or as we have said, human nature. What Paul describes as old or new is human nature, not an individual self, person or man.
In contrast, the New Testament refers to individual persons, or personal entities primarily by using the word aner, translated most often a man. Aner indicates an individual human being, usually male, but the plural may sometimes include females—some particular individual who is human, that is, a person who shares in the common human nature (anthropos). The use of I (ego), as we saw Paul doing in Romans 7, also indicates an individual person. And finally, the New Testament indicates a unique individual by the words soul or spirit (psuche or pneuma). An individual person (ego, aner, psuche) is a created being and is mortal, yet unique. These three Greek words indicate the central core of who an individual person is. They are used to indicate a particular human being, not what human beings have in common, not their human nature (anthropos).
No human person can be separated from their nature, even though an individual, a subject or self, is not reducible to their nature. Human nature is what we have in common, one with another. Our persons are joined to our natures, but our personhood (I, soul, spirit, subjectivity) is what makes us different from one another—not interchangeable with one another—it is what makes us unique and irreplaceable, one of a kind. The two are distinct but inseparable. Consequently, in some cases the best translation of anthropos would be human nature, which in context means human nature in transition and so prone to sin, or still able to sin. In no case is there good reason to translate anthropos as self.
In Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22-24, old and new are contrasted by translating anthropos as self (NIV) or man (KJV). This mistranslation leads to the false understanding that two selves or persons somehow co-exist alongside each other, either as a divided person or as a person who is internally divided into two separate and opposing parts—the old self (man) and the new self (man). But as we have seen, anthropos does not mean an individual self or an individual human (human being, person, subject). Anthropos is a reference to what human persons have in common, whereas ego (I), aner (a man), and psuche (soul) are used in the New Testament to convey the meaning of distinct individuals or personal entities and thus are rightly translated self or man. There can be multiples of these distinct, separate selves (but not multiple natures) that can co-exist in opposition, since individual selves are external to one another, but human nature is not, since it is what all human have in common.
It does seem that when Paul couples anthropos with old and new, he is, in a way, personifying human nature (anthropos). However, by mistranslating anthropos as man or self, what is meant to be taken metaphorically (as a personification of the generic, shared human nature) is turned into a description of an individual person or self. Such mistranslation or misinterpretation of a personification reverses what is meant. What is particular and individual (self, person/man) becomes substituted for what is generic and common among all human beings. But that’s the rub. There is no literal man or self there, alongside another subject, person, self.
What is characterized as old and new is what all human beings have in common, not what makes them individual persons, selves, subjects, agents. Anthropos does not mean a literal self, a literal human subject (an “I”). So we are not being told in these verses that there are two selves, or two persons. Translations that indicate otherwise are in error and are misleading. A more accurate translation would be that all human persons share a human nature that can be headed in two directions, towards what is passing away or is obsolete, or what is new and is being renewed.
Col. 3:9-10 and Eph. 4:22-24 do not say that the human nature being described as old and new are in tension with one another, or struggling against one another. There is a tension and opposition going on that is being addressed in the larger contexts, but it nowhere indicates that there is a tension between old and new natures. The struggle is actually between the person (with their human nature they have in common with all other humans) and an alien party, namely, sin or the power of sin. Every place Paul speaks of our nature being old and new, there is no mention of a tension between them. Everywhere he does mention a tension, it is between a person with their fallen nature (most often sarx or flesh) and sin and the power of sin.
The theological idea of a divided self or of a self that is experiencing an internal division, seems to depend on a conflation of passages that speak of opposition and tension in a person’s life (e.g., Romans 7) with passages that talk about human nature that has a past that was heading in one direction and now has a future in Christ, heading in the opposite direction (Col. 3:9-10; Eph. 4:22-24). This conflation, which is unwarranted, violates the meaning of the words used in each context and confuses two different points being made in those two different contexts.
The words for self, person or individual are not used in any explanation of why Christians are tempted and sin. Rather, human nature (anthropos) is used in such discussions to explain it, and in those contexts the reason given is that sin is able to take advantage of the lingering weakness of our human nature on this side of our death and resurrection. That is why Paul, in those explanations, addresses our subjects, our I’s, our deepest self, our subjecthood, with their single identity, and exhorts us to side with Christ and the Spirit and thereby direct our human nature to act in a way that points towards its new future created in the image of Christ and held for us as our inheritance. Paul is thinking of a single subject with a single identity that can direct and express its life by means of a single common human nature which, at this point in time, can be made to head in two different directions, only one of which aligns with our new identity in Christ and thus with the movement of the Holy Spirit.
- The meaning of flesh and body
Other words besides anthropos are used in the New Testament to explain why we can still sin (and thus need to repent and confess and receive forgiveness) although we have a new identity in union with Christ. Those words are flesh (sarx) and body (soma). They are used synonymously with human nature (anthropos) and are sometimes translated nature. Individual human persons with their singular identities are said to have flesh (sarx) and bodies (soma) and to have or share a common humanity (anthropos). All three of these words can be translated common human nature.
The New Testament declares that the power of sin takes advantage of the weakness of human nature, of human flesh (corrupted human nature) and of our mortal (subject to death) “bodily” natures. In that regard, it should be noted that flesh and body do not mean in the New Testament simply being physical, having flesh and bones. They represent human creatures who have “corrupted” natures that are subject to death and prone to sinning.
Having bodies or flesh is not evil in and of itself. They were created good. But our creaturely natures have been corrupted and therefore need to be renewed from the bottom up by God’s grace and intervention through Christ and his assumption of our human nature, flesh or bodies, for sanctification and glorification in him and ultimately in us. This is how Jesus’ incarnation is described in the New Testament. He is said to assume our human nature, our flesh and our mortal body. These are synonymous descriptions. And what he assumed, he sanctified. What was crucified was raised up for us, in our place and on our behalf.
When speaking of flesh (sarx) or body (soma), mistranslation does not occur since it makes no sense to think of them being multiple, divided or set in opposition to one another, flesh against flesh or body against body. Given that anthropos means a common human nature, and that sarx and soma are synonymous with it, anthropos should be translated in a way consistent with sarx and soma. Such consistency rules out the idea that what is being spoken of (fallen human nature) is a divided self (two selves) or an individual person who has some kind of internal division involving two simultaneously existing natures in opposition to one another.
The New Testament authors address those who are believing and who have been incorporated into Christ (are in union with Christ) as having a single identity. They are who they are and who they are becoming in relationship to Jesus Christ. The identity of believers comes from their relationship with Christ and not from their human nature. The believer who (by definition) is united to Christ has a human nature that is in transition from when it was alienated from God to what it is in Christ, sanctified and redeemed. On the basis of that identity given by grace, the believer is to side with the Spirit so that their weak human nature is not controlled by sin, which attempts to take advantage of its lingering weakness and turn it away from the direction Christ is taking it.
For people who have their identity in Christ, though sin is not necessary, is possible due to the weakness of their human nature. This means that believers, to receive forgiveness and so be rid of guilt and shame, need to confess and repent when they sin. But they do so as those who belong to Jesus Christ, who has promised never to leave or forsake them. They do so on the basis of the sure hope of their eventual total participation by the Spirit in who they truly are in Christ—fully sanctified and glorified children of God.