Do believers in Jesus still have a sinful nature?

Q. What kind of sinful nature do you think we have that needs to be changed?

From indications that accompanied the submission of this question, I understand the word “we” to apply to followers of Jesus. Here is what I say about the subject of the “sinful nature” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters. (You can read the guide online or download it at this link.) As you will see, I do not believe that followers of Jesus still have two natures, one sinful and one redeemed. Rather, they have one redeemed nature, but they must still learn to live as people who have been transferred out of one realm into another.

Let me quote first from p. 100, where I discuss Paul’s comments about the “sinful nature” in the book of Galatians.

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To explain how people who aren’t governed by the law can still live as God intends, Paul uses the Greek term sarx (“flesh”) in a specialized sense, to refer the characteristic patterns of this “present evil age.” (The NIV
formerly translated sarx as “sinful nature” when Paul uses it in this sense. But in the 2011 update to the NIV, this was changed to “flesh” in most places.) We’ve seen Paul use the term this way earlier: In 2 Corinthians he writes, “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” and that he doesn’t “live by the standards of this world ” (in both cases, “according to sarx”).

Here in Galatians, Paul uses the term to reframe the problem he’s been addressing. All the behaviors the agitators want to control through law-keeping are actually evidence that people are still living “according to sarx,” that is, in the way characteristic of this “present evil age.” Paul says that those who commit the “acts of the flesh [sarx] . . . will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

He means that these acts aren’t characteristic of those who will inherit the kingdom of God and are already experiencing its realities. The law can’t help people overcome these behaviors, because it can’t take them out of this age. The law itself belongs to this age. The true question isn’t whether a person is depending on faith or law; it’s whether they’re living in this age or the next.

When a person trusts in Jesus, this makes them part of the coming age. Paul says at the beginning of Galatians that Jesus “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from [take us out of ] the present evil age.” However, believers won’t automatically follow the characteristic pattern of the coming age. Paul explains that the two ways of life “are in conflict with each other,” and that believers are living in the crossfire, “so . . . you are not to do whatever you want.” Paul doesn’t want the Galatians to misunderstand the way the Corinthians did and think that because they’re “spiritual,” they “have the right to do anything.” Instead, they must depend on the Spirit to guide them into the way of life characteristic of the coming age that they’re already a part of.

As we’ve seen, Paul considers the Spirit a “down payment” on everything believers will receive and experience when the coming age fully arrives. As the advance agent of that age, the Spirit can show them how to live according to its patterns. When believers do that, taking on the character qualities that Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit,” they’ll also truly fulfill the law, because “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

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And here is what I say similarly about the “sinful nature” on p. 120, as I am discussing Paul’s main argument in the book of Romans.

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Paul now steps back from his argument again, to address more anticipated objections. If people aren’t expected to keep the law, but are simply told they’re forgiven because of what Jesus has done, doesn’t this give them an incentive to sin? The more sin, the more forgiveness, right?

Paul addresses this concern from several different angles, correcting four potential misunderstandings of his message. Essentially he explains that people who put their faith in Jesus aren’t simply forgiven; they’re transferred entirely out of one realm, where they sinned by compulsion, into a new realm, where it’s natural for them to obey God.

Paul describes the difference between these realms in several ways. He portrays those under the control of sin as living in this present age and those who’ve been freed from sin as experiencing the coming age, “living a new life” and serving “in the new way of the Spirit.” He also describes the difference between these realms by contrasting life according to sarx (this is often translated as “the sinful nature”) with life in the Spirit, as he did in Galatians. He contrasts the “mind” or “inner being” that “delights in God’s law” with the “body of death” that’s a “prisoner of sin.” More generally, he speaks of being brought from “death” to “life,” or from “slavery to sin” to “slavery to righteousness.”

But no matter which image he uses, Paul’s point is the same: Believers in Jesus have been taken out of one realm and placed in another. They don’t have any more incentive to sin, and they also shouldn’t have any desire or compulsion to sin, because they’re new kinds of people, dead to the past, alive to the future, animated by the power of God’s Spirit.

All of this leads Paul to the conclusion of this first part of his main argument in Romans. His language reaches heights of eloquence as he marvels at the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer and at the love of God, which has called us and saved us and from which nothing in all creation can ever separate us.

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Thank you for your question. I hope these reflections are helpful to you.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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