Sinful Nature, Justification, Sanctification and the Spirit

One commonly hears Christians talking about their ‘sinful nature’. Over recent years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this language, even though I appreciate the reality of what the language is generally being used to refer to. The problem is that such a way of speaking lacks biblical warrant. Christians are not to think of themselves as those with a fallen nature, but as those who have died to Sin.

Such a way of speaking about our nature is a description of our nature as it appears to sight. The Scripture, I believe, speaks differently. For the Scripture our true nature is found in Christ. Whilst Christians certainly sin, when they do so they are living in conflict with their essential nature. Sin, whilst undoubtedly present in our lives, is a very much an alien and ‘unnatural’ presence (despite this language, I hold to a harmatology of privation).

The NT, I am convinced, speaks of the true nature of the Christian as being found in Christ and apprehended by faith. I cannot know who I really am by sight. Sight tells me that I am a sinner. Faith tells me that my true nature is what God has declared me to be in justification — ‘righteous’. Our true life and nature is something that cannot be grasped by sight; it is hidden with Christ in God, to be revealed with Christ in His appearing (Colossians 3:3-4).

We should be careful of speaking of Christians as ‘sinners’ (a point that I first learned from Norman Shepherd). This is simply not the language of the Scripture. By speaking of ourselves as ‘sinners’ we reinforce the idea that sin is natural to us and to be expected and lived with as a tragic inevitability. Refusing to speak of ourselves as sinners is not a refusal to admit the fact that we commit (and will never, in this present life, finally cease to commit) sins. Rather, it is a refusal to say that we commit sins as ‘sinners’; we commit sins as adopted children of the Father, who are declared by Him to be ‘righteous’, whatever we might normally think ourselves to be.

Whilst I am opposed to notions of Christian perfection that come from the Holiness movement, there is something to be said in their favour, namely that they unsettle the fatalistic acceptance of continuing sin in our lives that can be fostered by thinking of ourselves as sinners by nature. Whilst I do not believe that we will ever be free of sin in this life, I do not believe that a defeatist attitude is warranted. In the Christian’s life Sin is fighting a losing battle. Whilst the battle against Sin cannot be finally won until our bodies are resurrected, we should not think of ourselves as being in bondage to it and doomed to constant defeat by it. We should expect progressive victory. The way that we talk about and think about ourselves can powerfully affect us in this area.

I also believe that there is an element of the doctrine of justification that is often lost sight of here. God’s declaration that we are ‘righteous’ is no mere ‘legal fiction’. In declaring us to be ‘righteous’, God makes us new people, re-symbolizing us. It is a transformative declaration. In seeking to identity the reason why such a judgment can be according to truth I don’t think that we can claim that it is without reference to any personal moral status of ours. This, it seems to me, has been the failing of many Protestants.

What we must recognize is that the justice of God’s declaration of justification is founded in part upon the promise of personal sanctification (or, more properly, what we have traditionally called ‘sanctification’; biblically ‘sanctification’ has more of a priestly meaning). God is just to declare us righteous, because our true life is in Christ. Our justification arises out of His justification — His resurrection. However, the fact that our true life is in Christ is not a fact that is revealed to our sight in the present. God’s declaration of justification has in sight a reality that will only become fully apparent to our sight with the appearance of Christ and the completion of our sanctification. God’s declaration of us to be righteous is just because when we see Christ we will be like Him, not as individuals detached from Him, but as those re-formed within Him, as those who have received their life from outside of themselves.

Such an understanding of justification has a number of benefits. It can clarify the place of works in justification. The Bible clearly teaches a final justification according to works. How do we account for this? I believe that the answer is to be found in the recognition that we are declared righteous in Christ, because our life is hidden in Him and His life is lived out in us. Christ’s justification becomes ours, because His resurrected life becomes ours. The Christian apprehends His true life outside of himself by faith. The righteous works of the believer are the outworking of the life of Christ in him. In justifying us according to works on the last day, God is not justifying us on the basis of autonomous (or even grace-assisted) moral effort on our part, but on the basis of the fact that Christ is our true life, a life that is manifested in our righteous works. The life of Christ that our works manifest is the ground of our justification. This life is not created by our works, but is manifested to the sight by our works.

The relationship between initial and future justification is made clearer. In initial justification the focus is on faith because our true life cannot be grasped by our sight. In future justification the true life of Christ, which was initially apprehended only by faith, is also seen to be revealed in our righteous works (which are also the fruits of our faith). The basis of our justification has not changed. The basis has always been the life of Christ. This life is not something that we work up within ourselves by moral exertion. Rather, it is something that we apprehend by faith from outside of ourselves. It is crucial to recognize that we must apprehend the life of Christ as our life. As we do so, this life will form us and produce righteous works in us.

A final thing that is brought to the fore in such an understanding of justification is the role of the Holy Spirit. God declares us righteous on the basis of our possession of the life of Christ. We do not possess this life in its fullness, but only as we have been given a measure of the Spirit as a down-payment. As Paul claims, ‘we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.’ Our possession of the Spirit and His ongoing work in our lives is an essential aspect of justification, as we see in Romans 8:1-4. We have not yet been completely set to rights, but have been given a foretaste and guarantee of our share in the life of the resurrected (read ‘justified’) Lord by the Spirit.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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23 Responses to Sinful Nature, Justification, Sanctification and the Spirit

  1. John says:

    Hi, Im from Melbourne Oz.
    I much prefer these essays on the nature of Real God and what we are as human beings.

    1. http://www.dabase.net/dht7.htm
    2. http://www.dabase.net/unique.htm
    3. http://www.dabase.net/twoarmc.htm
    4. http://www.dabase.net/rgcbpobk.htm

  2. Patrik says:

    Good post, it is very important to keep the “down payment” aspect of redemption in mind, otherwise the protestant way of looking at salvation becomes incomprehensible.

    I wrote a post on sin a while back that you may find interesting.

  3. Paul Baxter says:

    In high-school SS class, the youth director did a two week deal on “are we ‘saints’ or ‘sinners'”? He started just by asking the class for a hand vote. I was the sole vote for “saints”.

    My feeling about the matter, as you explain at considerable length, is that the NT does NOT describe believers as “sinners” except in the past tense, so far as I can recall. If someone can show me otherwise I’ll be happy to reconsider.

  4. Bill says:

    I doubt that thinking of ourselves as being sinful by nature necessarily fosters a “fatalistic acceptance of continuing sin in our lives” or creates a defeatist attitude.

    Speaking of ourselves as sinners is not a denial that we have been remade in Christ, but recognition that our true life cannot be grasped by our sight and that our new self has been formed solely by God in Christ. Speaking of our sinful nature is to recognize that “we do not possess this life in its fullness, but only as we have been given a measure of the Spirit as a down-payment.” Between initial and future justification (now) as adopted children we still sin. This is born out of who we once were not out of new people we truly are in Christ. Thus, speaking of our sinful nature as Christians is an explanation of why our sight does not match our known future with God of which Christ is the basis. The “sinful nature” is only a way of saying, as you concluded, “We have not yet been completely set to rights . . .”

    In my experience speaking of the “sinful nature” of man only resulted in defeatism or fatalism when it was not properly taught. Whatever language one uses, “not yet been completely set to rights” or the “sinful nature, it seems that the cause of fatalism or defeatism when faced with the sin of a Christian is not born out of the language but out of incomplete teaching about what it means.

    Namely this teaching would lack the second part of your concluding statement: “. . . but have been given a foretaste and guarantee of our share in the life of the resurrected (read ‘justified’) Lord by the Spirit.”

    If we want to deal with such fatalism or defeatism it seems better to highlight both sides of your concluding statement – to note that in the present we are both saint and sinner – not to reject all language of a sinful nature.

  5. Al says:

    Bill,

    I believe that the language that we employ is very important. Refusing to speak of ourselves as ‘sinners’ shapes our self-understanding. It also challenges us to live by faith, to refuse to accept the judgment of sight as having any real priority in our thinking.

    Where do you see biblical justification for speaking of ourselves as ‘sinners’ or as possessing a ‘sinful nature’? I believe that this way of speaking runs contrary to the biblical way of speaking. It seems to me that saying that Christians have a ‘sinful nature’ or are ‘sinners’ flies in the face of what Paul tells us to do in Romans 6:11.

  6. Byron says:

    Amen on saints not sinners. Thanks for this post on an important topic.

  7. Bilbo Boggins says:

    Folk, this post is a great example of the truth that once you depart from the faith, the path to insanity is a very short one.

  8. Pingback: Pontifications

  9. Al Kimel says:

    Al, your article reminded me of a book that I read back in the early ’80s: Birthright by David Needham. It’s been so long ago since I read it, I don’t remember hardly anything at all about it, but recall enough to believe that he would be sympathetic to your argument (I think).

  10. Al says:

    Al,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I will see if I can find Needham’s book in the university library when I return to St. Andrews.

  11. Bill says:

    Al,

    I have not said that the language we use is unimportant. I mean to say that in this case the problem we see (fatalism, defeatism, denial of our true reality in Christ) is not a necessary product of the language you are criticizing. We could use the language of “a sinful nature within us” or “not yet been completely set to rights” to explain how our sight does not fully match our true reality in Christ; but, with either language someone could fall into fatalism and defeatism if they isolate that language from the rest of Christian doctrine. The problem in either case is not the language but isolating it from the rest of the story.

    I am not missing the point that you do think the “sinful nature” language is the problem. I expect you will tell me that the “sinful nature” language produces the isolation from the rest of the story. Yet, I do not see how it would.

    In Romans 7 Paul speaks of “sin that dwells within me” and “sin that dwells in my members” that wages war against his “inner being”. Another way to describe this could be a “sinful nature” that is within us. Here Paul also says “I do not do what I want” and “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Also, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” All of this is read in light of being dead to sin in Romans 6:11. Paul does not reject all language of “sin that dwells within me” in order to say that “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” He holds both together to describe both what we see of sin as adopted children and our true reality in the body of Christ. We both sin and are saints.

    So, if one uses the language of “sinful nature” to describe what Paul is speaking about here and does not isolate it from the rest of Paul’s teaching about our true selves I do not think that the language itself is a problem. The problem remains the wrongful amplification of the language and I do not see how we blame that on the language itself in this case.

    Please do not think that I am disagreeing with the bulk of what you are saying or that I do not think language is of great importance.

  12. Al says:

    Bill,

    Thanks for your comments, and your clarification. As I pointed out at the beginning of my post, I am not denying that which people generally use the language of ‘sinful nature’ to refer to.

    What I am arguing is that to think of our nature as being sinful is fundamentally unscriptural. To say that we struggle with sin in our lives is one thing; to say that we have sinful natures is another. It is my conviction that the vast majority of those who use such language have lost sight of a very important biblical tension as a result. Whilst I do struggle with sin in my life, my true nature is not a sinful one.

    I believe that this cannot be reduced to a matter of emphasis. It is a matter of self-perception and identification. To identify myself as a person with a sinful nature who is declared to be righteous by God (in a judgment that does not change what I am by nature, although it will be accompanied by sanctification) is a very different thing from identifying myself as a person whose nature is found in Christ and is no longer a sinful one, but who struggles with sin. The first position presents sin as a ‘natural’ presence in our lives. The second position presents it as profoundly unnatural and running contrary to what we really are. The latter language will lead us to have a very different attitude about sin in our life than the other. The difference here is a substantial one, not merely one of emphasis.

    As for Romans 7, I do not believe that it is referring to the Christian or present day unbeliever. It is referring to the old covenant Jewish believer. The change being referred to is a redemptive historical change. A number of recent commentators and NT theologians have arrived at this conclusion in recent years.

    Quite apart from anything else, Romans 7 is at odds with Romans 6 and 8 if it is read to be referring to the present day Christian or non-Christian. Peter Leithart has a helpful treatment of the subject here. The whole point of Romans 8:1-4 is that the sinful nature has been dealt with decisively in the death of Christ and the work of the Spirit. The Christian no longer has a sinful nature, although he still wrestles with sin in his life.

  13. I am wondering why grace needs to come to us from the outside? This seems to imply some kind of extrinsicism, that grace is somehow alien to us. This seems strange to me given the imago dei and that Christ is the image of God.

    If grace comes to us from the outside, this seems to imply that humanity is a kind of tool or instrument for divinity. That will have serious distorting implications for Christology. Divinity is not united to humanity in instrumental terms but hypostatically.

    Moreover, I think it is inconsistent to maintain on the one hand the emphasis on our union with Christ and participation in his life and that grace is extrinsic.

  14. Al says:

    Perry,

    I don’t think that there needs to be any problem here. My belief is that our true life is one that is apprehended outside of ourselves, but yet is most essential to us. My position is similar to that of Luther which the Pontificator posted on here.

  15. Al,
    Al,

    That leaves the quesiton of its problematic status untouched. Simply listing Luther as an advocate doesn’t remove it. As I noted before, I can’t see how such a position is consistent with a Chalcedonian Christology.

  16. Bill says:

    Al

    Thanks for your replies. I think you and I are on the same page more than I at first suspected. Also, thanks for your posts in general. They are continually helpful.

  17. Bill says:

    Al,

    Thank you for your responses. I think we are on the same page more than my way of asking question reveals at times. Also, thanks for your posts. They prove continually helpful.

  18. Jeff S. says:

    Al,

    If your sin is not due to being a sinner, then why do you sin?

  19. Al says:

    Jeff,

    I apologize for my delay in responding.

    Sin can still exercise a powerful attraction for my ‘flesh’ or ‘mortal body’. Whilst I have been decisively freed from the rule of Sin and the solidarity of death formed in Adam, prior to the final resurrection my flesh is still weak and whilst I am freed from the rule of Sin through participation in the death of Christ, I am still drawn to sin through my flesh, which is yet to be perfected.

    There is a tension between the flesh and the Spirit in the Christian’s life. However, flesh and Spirit are not equal and opposites. The Christian’s true nature is now that given by the Spirit, even though he continues to struggle daily with his flesh and will do until he dies.

    For the unregenerate, sin rules in the condition of death, dominating his whole existence and determining his nature. For the Christian sin is still at work, but it is more like a disease that afflicts us as living beings. It no longer is determinative of our nature and identity. It is also a disease that we should expect to gradually (albeit often painfully) recover from and also a disease that we will one day be fully delivered from.

  20. Jeff S. says:

    Thanks for the response, Al.

    You might guess that my follow-up question is what exactly is the “flesh”? Do you limit it to the physical body?

  21. Al says:

    Jeff,

    I wouldn’t limit the ‘flesh’ to the physical body. The flesh is that within us which is subject to moral corruption and draws us into sin. This affects us on all sorts of levels of our being. Nor would I limit the flesh to something within us. The flesh is a corrupt realm that we daily operate within and still have connections in. However, we no longer belong to the realm. This is the point that I am trying to make: We still live in the flesh, but we are no longer of the flesh; we are of the Spirit.

    This is why I find the language of ‘sinful nature’ inappropriate. The fact that we are ‘in the world’ (in the apostle John’s sense) profoundly affects our behaviour in many negative ways. However, we need to always remember that we no longer are ‘of the world’.

  22. Jeff S. says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Al.

    I like your description and of the flesh and it steers clear of the gnosticism of folks like Needham (mentioned above) and his followers such as Bill Gillham (Lifetime Guarentee) who, if I remember correctly, divide man up into his various parts with the flesh being this earthly physical corrupt body, which is in essence not really “me”, according to their view. To be sure, there is a connection between the flesh and our corrupt physical bodies, but the extent to which they take things seems to absolve us of any responsibility since it is not the real “me” (ie in Christ) that continues to sin.

    At some point, I would like to see you expand on your view of the flesh and the struggle with the Spirit, and importantly, how it relates to our sanctification. I am thinking in terms of reckoning that the old man is dead and how a full realization of this influences our walk.

  23. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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