What is the “sinful nature”?

Q. Could you please define “sinful nature”? I am becoming more and more aware of my shortcomings and character flaws and am attempting to correct these behaviors. (I didn’t realize I was so sassy.) Are these flaws (bitterness, selfishness, directed by self-will, etc.) and defects a part of my “sinful nature”? Thank you.

First, let me say that you should actually be very encouraged by the way  you’re realizing that you’re sassy, bitter, selfish, etc. (along with the rest of us who need God’s grace and mercy each day). If we have a growing awareness of the sin in our lives, this is actually one evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work within us to make us more like Christ, and so this is also one grounds for our assurance of salvation. So be encouraged (even if paradoxically)!

As for your specific question, in recent years Bible scholars and translators have been reaching a new perspective about what the “sinful nature” actually is. Previously it was held that when a person trusted Christ for salvation, this gave them a “new nature” or “redeemed nature,” but at the same time, they still had a “sinful nature.” This was considered to be a part of them that could continue to lead them into sin.

In other words, the believer was considered to have a double nature, and so growth in Christ-likeness was considered to be a matter of strengthening the redeemed nature so that its influence would be greater than that of the sinful nature. The example was used of the Inuit man who’d become a follower of Christ and said that there were “two sled dogs” fighting with him. When he was asked, “Which one wins?” he replied, “The one that I feed.”

But more recently, especially through comprehensive studies of Paul’s teaching on the Holy Spirit such as Gordon Fee’s massive volume God’s Empowering Presence, a new view has been coming into favor. The phrase “sinful nature” was formerly used in versions such as the NIV to translate the word sarx in Paul’s writings.* But that word simply means “flesh.” Many times it’s used to describe the human body, for example, when Paul says that Jesus “appeared in the flesh” (that is, he became human). But sarx can also refer to a spiritual force or influence. However, it’s now being recognized that this is not a force inside of us that’s part of us, but rather a force outside of us that tries to make us conform to a certain way of life.

Specifically, the “flesh” tries to make us conform to the way of life that corresponds to this “present evil age,” when God’s authority is not acknowledged and so people are “directed by self-will,” as you aptly put it. To live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh is instead to follow the way of life that corresponds to the “age to come,” when God’s authority will be universally acknowledged and honored, so that people will act as Christ did, in a way that’s loving and considerate towards others, not thinking of themselves first. There’s actually an overlap between the two ages, and we’re living in that overlap now, which is why we can choose to conform our behavior either to the present age or to the coming age (which has already started to arrive).

A good way to illustrate this is to think of what happens when we as adults go back and spend several days with the family we grew up in. Many of us find that we revert unconsciously to the way we related to them while we were growing up, perhaps even taking on the “family role” we had then, even though we don’t play it any more in our own household or among our friends. This is not because there’s an active force within us that’s causing us to behave this way again. Rather, there’s an external patterning that takes effect once we get back into that context. The challenge is to recognize that this is happening and choose to behave as the person we have become, even though the social interactions may be influencing us to behave as the person we used to be.

In the same way, the “flesh” as a spiritual force is the patterning of this present age that influences us to act in sinful ways. We need to welcome the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to create new patterns that will enable us to live instead as the persons we have become in Christ. This is what Paul means when he talks about putting off your old self with its practices and putting on the new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (The language here is not that of sarx vs. Spirit, but of the old self vs. the new self, but it’s expressing the same concept.)

For me, one very encouraging aspect of this new perspective is that it shows there’s no significant part of me that will always resist God. I can surrender my entire being to God in devotion, trusting that all of me will become more and more like Christ through the Spirit’s influence. See how this difference is expressed when we translate the word sarx in a key passage in Galatians using first the old, and then the new, understandings of this term:

The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because part of you is always going to resist God].

The present way of life desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the present way of life. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because you’re still being influenced by the old patterning].

So I would encourage you to recognize that the Holy Spirit is at work within you to help you develop new patterns of life. The first step, from what you say in your question, seems to be that the Holy Spirit is helping you recognize that there are still some old patterns there that are hurtful to others and not honoring to God. But the Holy Spirit will also give you the power to adopt new patterns and not be held back by the old ones, as you choose on a daily basis to “put off the old and put on the new.” Don’t be discouraged if progress feels slow and intermittent at first; every choice you make will have a cumulative effect and you will see solid and lasting change over time. May God bless you as you seek to “walk by the Spirit and not carry out the desire of the flesh.


*For the record, in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the translators have changed almost all of the places—nearly 30 of them—where sarx was previously rendered by “sinful nature.” Here’s their explanation for those changes:

“Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body, or, the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV often rendered sarx as ‘sinful nature.’ But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx.”

You see the difference here between the older view, in which human beings, even after they have trusted Christ, have a component within them that’s known as the “sinful nature,” and the newer view, in which it’s recognized that sarx is instead an external power or influence and that we can choose whether to yield ourselves to it.

The NIV has retained the reading “sinful nature” in only two places, and in each case there’s a footnote saying, “Or flesh.” These are the two places where Paul says “my sarx,” rather than “the sarx,” which could be taken as a reference to something within him, though I think the way he uses the term sarx everywhere else in his writings suggests that he’s talking about something outside of himself in these cases as well.

Does Paul say that we need to obey all authorities, or only “duly constituted” ones?

Q. In my daily devotional time, I’m reading Romans. I read each chapter twice, once with the New International Version (NIV) and once with The Message. It seems to help my understanding. Today I read chapter 13. It didn’t help. It confused me. Verses 1-7 in the NIV don’t seem to jibe with the same verses in The Message. If I am to believe the NIV, it would seem that Martin Luther King, Jr. (to name just one) would have been violating Paul’s teaching here. But if one believes The Message, he would not have been, since this version includes qualifiers (“insofar as there is peace and order,” “duly constituted authorities”). Help.

Are leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela examples for us to follow of using civil disobedience to oppose injustice? Or were they violating Scriptural teachings?

First, let me commend you for reading the Bible daily, and for comparing two different versions as you do. This usually helps a great deal in understanding the Bible, as you’ve found. One version will say things in such a way as to bring out certain emphases, and the way another version puts them will help fill out the complete picture.

But I can see why you would have been confused in this particular instance. The NIV and The Message seem not to be saying the same thing in different ways, but actually to be saying different things. Here are some examples, with the NIV in purple and The Message in blue:

There is no authority except that which God has established.
Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order.

Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.
Live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God.

Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something.

If you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
If you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.

So what is Paul saying here: that God uses the police to keep order, or that rulers are God’s agents of wrath to bring punishment? That we must live responsibly as citizens, or that we must not rebel against authority? That God has established duly constituted, peaceful, orderly authorities, or that God has put all rulers in place?

Here we see clearly the difference between the methods behind the NIV and Message versions (although I think there’s something further going on, as I’ll discuss shortly). Every translation of the Bible requires a trade-off of some degree between reproducing the words of the original Greek or Hebrew and capturing the meaning of those original words in fluent, current English (or whatever the target language may be).

Versions such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) strive intentionally to represent the original words. The NIV is generally considered to occupy something of a middle ground between reproducing the original words and expressing their meaning in equivalent words. The Message is so far over on the “meaning” side that it’s technically a paraphrase rather than a translation: It seeks to speak in a very contemporary idiom (“the police,” for example) at the necessary cost of choosing one possible meaning of the words and losing other possibilities.

So that’s one explanation for what’s happening here. But I think there’s an additional one.

This passage in Romans provides an excellent example of why we need to “compare Scripture with Scripture” in order to arrive at the “full counsel of God.” It’s true in general that followers of Jesus can obey governing authorities and not worry about suffering at their hands so long as they don’t do wrong. (Paul probably needed to reassure the Romans of this because they lived so close to the center of power in their world, and their rulers did not acknowledge the true God; instead, they often wanted to be treated as gods themselves!)

However, in specific situations, sometimes followers of Jesus are persecuted by the government specifically because they are followers of Jesus; in other situations, they need to challenge unjust practices and laws by breaking them (as in the cases of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and others who resisted racial segregation).

We see examples of disobedience to authority at other places in the Bible. For example, when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem forbid Peter and John to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, they reply, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And in the book of Revelation, believers are warned that they must resist the spreading cult of emperor worship even at the price of their own lives if they want to be faithful to Jesus.

What I think is happening here in Romans is that The Message is drawing the “whole counsel of God” from throughout the Bible into the passage, as if Paul were saying all of it: “In general, this, but in particular cases, there are exceptions.” I believe that instead Paul was simply saying, “For where you are in place and time right now, this is how you need to live.” The vast majority of the Bible is written from that standpoint, and I think we do well in our versions of the Bible to capture, as best we can, what was said to particular people in particular times, and then encourage readers to “compare Scripture with Scripture” to arrive at more general, nuanced, and comprehensive understandings.

In other words, while it’s very helpful to compare different versions of the Bible to get the fuller meaning of a given passage, it’s also helpful and necessary to compare different passages on the same subject to get the Bible’s full counsel about it.

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

Q. Curses against God crossed my mind and this made me think I’d committed the unpardonable sin. I decided to look at the passage in the Bible about that. As I was reading it, curses once again swarmed my mind. An absolute feeling of despair came over me.  Was that the Holy Spirit leaving me?

I met with a minister and he said that the unpardonable sin was attributing the work of Jesus to Satan. I felt relieved by his words but the worry was not all gone. To this day I have not found genuine lasting peace. I don’t remember the vast majority of my thoughts, but I’m almost certain that one of those evil thoughts was me committing the unpardonable sin. I do not agree with those thoughts, but I’m afraid I allowed them to enter my mind.

I spoke with another pastor and he believes I have not committed the unpardonable sin simply because I’m worried about it. He is also convinced that God has a big plan for me. But I’m afraid God has given up on me.

It sounds to me as if you have already been getting some very good pastoral counsel, and I encourage you to take it to heart. But let me add some reassurance of my own, as a biblical scholar and a pastor myself for 20 years.

If you’re concerned that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t.

The “unpardonable sin” that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is indeed the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin “can’t be forgiven” is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit.

Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.

God does not hold us morally responsible for every thought that pops into our heads.

As human beings, we think all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons. Thoughts are suggested to us by our surroundings; by things we read, hear, and watch; by things that other people say; and, I truly believe, by spiritual forces that are trying to lead us either towards God or away from God. (More about this shortly.)

It is actually not within our power to keep thoughts from popping into our heads. So you should not consider yourself guilty of anything for “allowing” particular thoughts to enter your mind.

What truly matters is what we do with the thoughts that occur to us. And you have said yourself, “I do not agree with those thoughts” (i.e. the curses against God). To the extent that you had any moral culpability at all for those thoughts—and I don’t think you do—this constitutes repentance, and you can believe and trust God’s promise that “whoever confesses and forsakes his sins will find mercy.”

We are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and one of the main battlefields is the human mind.

From the story you’ve shared with me (which I’ve edited down here for length and confidentiality), I agree with the pastor who said that God has a big plan for your life. One reason I say this is that it appears to me that you have been under fierce spiritual attack.

Now I know we’re not supposed to see the devil under every sofa cushion. I’m very careful about what I attribute to evil spiritual forces. Anxiety can have emotional and psychological causes, and I encourage you to pursue those as appropriate. But the fact that the onslaught of dark thoughts you’ve described has deprived you of peace and the assurance of your salvation, and caused you such great anguish and trouble, says to me thatsomething additional is going on here. I’m convinced that spiritual forces are real and still operating in our world, and this appears from your description to be a case where they are having an influence.

By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus said. The “fruits” of these thoughts are so destructive, I don’t see them coming from your own mind and will. I recognize you as a person who sincerely wants to serve and please God. So I believe the thoughts are coming instead from the spiritual enemies of God, who want you to be paralyzed by false guilt and worry instead of serving God eagerly and energetically with all of the gifts and zeal that God has given you.

You need to fight back.

The best way to do that is to believe, once and for all, the Bible’s promises that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (that would be all the sin, of every kind) and that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” And in that confidence, discover your gifting and your calling and serve God with boldness, as a beloved son who has been freely forgiven and accepted in Christ.

Get out there and cause some trouble for the devil. You’ve let him cause enough trouble for you.

 

Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts?

Q. Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts regardless of whether they know Scripture or have access to it? Paul wrote to the Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But he also wrote that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they . . . show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Does that mean we are not only cognizant of the existence of God, but also without excuse concerning obeying His laws?

Does nature speak not just of a Creator, but of that Creator’s intentions for human life? (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

God did say through Jeremiah, in a passage later quoted in the letter to the Hebrews, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” But this promise was made specifically to those who would become part of the new covenant by trusting in Jesus. And in context, it refers to people not just knowing God’s laws, but obeying them willingly and eagerly, because they are being transformed within by the Holy Spirit.

The comment you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the Gentiles keeping the law is actually talking about something different. It says literally in Greek that the work of the law is written on their hearts—not the specific requirements of the law, but what it looks like to “do” (live by) the law. Paul talks immediately afterwards about the conscience bearing witness along with the heart, i.e. at the same time—not “also” or “in addition,” as many translations have it. I therefore think these two versions capture his meaning pretty well:

“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart.” (CEV)

“In their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree.” (ERV)

Similarly, when Paul writes just before this that at times Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he’s using a phrase that’s synonymous with “conscience.”

The whole point of Paul’s argument here is to respond to the claim of the  church in Rome, to which he’s writing, that the Jews have a greater right to the gospel. (“To the Jew first” seems to have been their motto.) Paul is working to transform this claim into a recognition that Jews and Gentiles have an equal need for the gospel. (“To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”)

And so, he argues, the Jews have the law, but they haven’t kept it; the Gentiles have conscience, but they haven’t followed that, either. (Most of the time, that is; they are capable of following it). Both groups have failed to follow the means of moral guidance that God has given them, and as a result, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can and must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

So in this statement about the Gentiles, Paul is basically saying that everybody has a conscience that enables them generally to know right from wrong in their hearts. If they don’t follow their conscience, they can’t plead that they didn’t know any better. They need to admit that they’ve done wrong and come to God for forgiveness and justification by grace.

In short, while everybody may not have God’s actual moral laws innately stamped on their hearts, the Bible does say here that everybody has a conscience. However, we should recognize that a given person’s conscience, and thus their sense of right and wrong, will be influenced by their own family, society, and culture. Nobody starts out with a “blank slate,” the conscience they would have simply by understanding about God through the creation.

In addition, unfortunately, it’s possible to disregard or resist our conscience to the point where it becomes hardened and is no longer a reliable source of moral guidance. As Paul puts it in a vivid phrase in his first letter to Timothy, the conscience then becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” This frightening possibility should make us all eager to maintain a tender conscience before God!

Is it too late for my loved one who has passed away?

Q. If God’s will is for us all to be in heaven and to have the full assurance of our salvation, why did He not tell me how to tell my loved one before she died how to have that? I could not tell her because I myself do not have that. The Bible says, “If it’s God’s will,” and if I know nothing else, I know that is His will. But it’s too late now because my loved one died and the Bible says a person must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior while ALIVE.

First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your loved one. And I feel that I can add, in all sincerity, “may she rest in peace,” because as I explain in this post and in this post, as a biblical scholar, I believe there are some Scriptural grounds to believe that people may have some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. For example, Paul included “death” as one the things that cannot separate us from the love of God as he described those things in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.

I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter. But I’d encourage you to think, precisely because there are these different understandings, that maybe things are not as hopeless for your loved one as they appear to you right now. And I hope that you will meet Jesus as your own Savior, Lord, and friend on this earth, and find assurance of salvation for yourself. I truly hope that there’s someone in your life who radiates the love of Christ. If you can recognize a person like that, please ask them to explain more about this to you. God bless you.

How can I show my friends that I’m not a wacko just because I’m a Christian?

Q. How do we handle the tension that comes from being truly and deeply different as Christians while simultaneously wanting to reach a culture that ​is​ ​easily put off by “strange” religious behavior and especially ​of​​ being “converted” to ​something​? ​Since religious believers are often portrayed as complete wackos, it would seem that showing people how normal most of us are would be a good step. But it makes me wonder how far is too far when it comes to trying to appear “normal.” ​

To what degree one should bring up faith or try to steer conversations in that direction in personal relationships? Is it more important to focus on living such an attractive life that people inevitably “want what we have” and ask us about our faith? Or is that even realistic?

Along the same lines, to what degree should Christians emphasize that they are “just normal people” and not “crazy cult followers”? For example, say that after work some coworkers invite you to go to a local bar for some drinks. Obviously some personal judgement is called for (how shady is this bar?), but would it be a better approach to go with the “hey, I want these people to know that Christians are normal too” approach and go grab a drink, or would it be better to make a point of emphasizing that as a Christian you don’t really feel comfortable drinking at a bar (and thereby potentially get tuned out by them in the future)?

Your question is very pertinent to the contemporary cultural and religious landscape. I recently saw a college chaplain quoted to this effect: “Given their distrust of authorities and institutions, millennials are seeking out extended experiences and real, authentic spiritual relationships before they will commit to a world view or ideology.”

In other words, nobody these days is going to be “converted” to a faith or religion simply because somebody talks to them about it. They will need to watch your experiences over a period of time first and come to some judgment about whether they agree God is in these experiences as you say. They will also need to validate the genuine quality of your relationships with them and with others. So this is not a matter of a brief “gospel presentation” over lunch or on a bus. It’s a matter of living out your life with credibility and authenticity over time, with people watching.

The practical questions you ask suggest some very good illustrations of this. If you go into a conversation with somebody not really wanting to talk about what they want to talk about, but instead looking for a chance to bring up your faith, that’s fake. Don’t do that. On the other hand, if faith would come up naturally, but you don’t mention it because you think your friend might consider you a “wacko,” that’s also fake. You’re not being yourself.

For example, suppose on a Monday somebody at work asks, “So what did you do this weekend?” If, among other things, you went to church, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning that, and even describing something interesting or inspiring that happened there. (And then you ask, “And what did you do this weekend?”)

As for going to a bar with co-workers, for me personally the question really would be, “How shady is this bar?” If the place is basically a restaurant that happens to serve beer, I wouldn’t have a problem with going there and hanging out with people from work. (Hopefully they have a good selection of draft beers on tap!) On the other hand, if the place is a near-criminal enterprise, a haven of immoral, illegal, and exploitive activities, I’d tell my co-workers, “I’d love to grab a drink with you, but I find that place kind of sketchy. Could we go to such-and-such a place instead?”

(I recognize that whether to drink alcohol at all is one of those questions about which Christians each need to develop their own convictions and be “fully convinced in their own minds.” But even if you abstain from liquor, you could still go out with your friends and order a non-alcoholic drink. If anyone asks or seems like they’re wondering, you can just explain naturally, “I don’t drink alcohol.” Many people abstain for lots of different reasons and these days it should be “no big deal.” However, if you’re a recovering alcoholic and being in a bar would be too great a temptation, then it wouldn’t be wise to go. Additionally, if the whole purpose of the outing is not to be with friends, but to get drunk, then that’s not something it would be valuable to be a part of.)

Let me stress, however, that the point of going out for a drink with co-workers is not to demonstrate to them that Christians are normal people and not crazy cult followers. The point is to go out for a drink with co-workers. In other words, your intentions need to be sincere and authentic. You can’t have a “hidden agenda.” Otherwise, you’re not really demonstrating a quality of life that others might recognize and want to find out more about.

And this brings me to your final specific question: Yes, I do think it’s realistic to believe and expect that modeling the new life God is creating inside you will make that same life attractive to others. One of my favorite stories in the gospels is about Zaccheus. To say that everybody in Jericho wanted him to repent would be an understatement. As a tax collector, he was collaborating with the Romans and enriching himself by extorting money from everyone else. All Jesus said to him was, “I want to have dinner with you.” But at that dinner, Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He knew Jesus was extending an unconditional welcome to him, he wanted to accept that welcome (he’d already braved a crowd that was likely hostile just to see Jesus), but he also recognized that a life change came with accepting the welcome.

I think these are actually exciting times for us to live in. We can speak about our faith without worrying about offending people, so long as we do so freely, openly, and naturally, because these days people are supposed to accept and respect where other people are coming from. But we also need to recognize that it’s the quality of our lives and relationships that will ultimately make that faith credible to others. And that’s a good challenge for us to embrace. As Jesus said, people have to recognize us as his followers by the fruits of our lives.