These days there is a lot of talk about good and evil, and a great tendency to label and categorise people who act in particularly antisocial ways as being 'animals', 'inhuman' and so on. This kind of stereotyping is a cheap alternative to understanding human behaviour, and has a very chequered history, but it does beg the question of what humans are basically like anyway.
Are humans basically good or evil? When we look at our lives, and at society, it is very easy to see a lot of bad around. In our own lives, we can get to the end of our tether when we repeatedly make the same old mistakes, and can sometimes feel almost intractably compelled to commit the same old sins. It is also easy to become frustrated with our apparent inability to accept God's grace at times, or to despair over our deeply entrenched uncertainty about where we stand with God. Is this all because of our basic sinful nature? Is this an in-built problem in our make up, thanks to some guy called Adam who lived some thousands of years ago?
It is interesting that this idea has so much currency in the religious world, and dare I say it, in many subtle ways it may have some adherents in our own church as well. We also often resort to 'human nature' to explain all kinds of phenomena, from legalism to addiction. It is worth discussing some alternative ideas as to the reason for why we sin so much, why we are so often legalistic, and why we so constantly fail to feel certain about the grace and love of God. In addressing this topic, we will look at the legalism and acceptance of grace aspects first, and then see if they can lead to the tendency to become trapped in other sin.
As briefly mentioned, many people say that failing to accept grace, and failing to believe in our salvation is more a problem in human nature than in our doctrine as such. It is 'human nature' to go from one extreme to the other, to doubt, to throw the baby out with the bath water, to be self reliant, to not accept grace and so on. Of course we can see that these attitudes abound, so it is tempting to assume that it's just the way we are in our basic nature. But this paper claims that what is perceived as 'human nature' is from another angle, a function of widespread, deficient learned attitudes, or of the sum of many deficient choices, rather than necessarily an in-built, in-born or in some other way intrinsic deficiency in human nature. As we will discover, seeing ourselves as intrinsically deficient or sinful in nature can, in itself, affect our sense of certainty before God, and lead to enslavement to sin.
The terms 'the sinful nature' and 'human nature' have strong implications regarding our essential make up, but are these necessarily evident in the original Greek words used? Definitely a possible translation, and by most accounts a much better one for the Greek term sarx is actually 'the flesh' rather than 'human nature' or 'sinful nature', an option mentioned in the footnotes of most Bibles, and quite often in the translation itself. The highly literal and very respected NASB, for example, translates the term as 'the flesh'.
Why is the difference important, you may ask? The term 'The flesh' can address the choice one makes about who to rely on. Living according to 'the flesh' is choosing to rely on oneself and one's own efforts, rather than on God and his promises. Seen in this way, sarx doesn't necessarily mean an intrinsic nature, but could mean a choice instead ' albeit one that can be heavily influenced by one's surroundings.
This understanding would dovetail neatly with Old Testament examples such as when David is incited by Satan, and chooses to number his fighting men in 1 Chronicles 21, and comes to see very clearly that this was wrong. Likewise in Jeremiah 17:5, as in many other places in the Old Testament, Israel is encouraged not to choose to rely on man's strength, but to choose to rely on God's promises instead. Just as Adam and Eve were born perfect, but were affected by the influence of Satan and their choices, this idea would allow the possibility that we also are born perfect in nature (in the image of a perfect God). We are likewise affected by the influence of Satan through the world, and also our choices.
Where does this leave responsibility for sin, and the current state of world affairs? Certainly, it is not all heaped on poor Adam. Attitudes can be changed through teaching, and a major point of the good news regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus is that a way is now opened for us to be transformed in our attitude, and therefore, progressively in our lives. Choices, however, can always go one way or the other regardless of the teaching, and ultimately we are responsible for all our own choices.
So in short, I believe teachers must take responsibility for their part of this situation and teach correct attitudes, and listeners must acknowledge their responsibility to choose to change their own attitudes. One thing I don't see any justification for is to throw our hands in the air and say 'it's human nature to be legalistic and uncertain.' God calls us to believe because we can.
The idea of 'human/sinful nature' as a distinctive entity separate from our variable attitudes and choices seems to share a common heritage with the idea of original sin. This is because the 'sinful nature' is held to be the inherited human legacy of that first sin. If we look at Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, we see that this story doesn't actually support this idea. This is because the external environment of sin, legalism and uncertainty created through the first sin could pass from one generation to the next externally rather than necessarily as an inherited intrinsic nature.
What do I mean? Adam and eve are tempted externally -- by Satan. The idea of sin doesn t actually come from them first but rather from outside of them. But the idea of sin is then transferred into the general environment (let s call this the World ) as humans pass it on to each other. We see this as Eve passes the idea on to Adam and so infects his thinking with it as he simultaneously also chooses to doubt God s goodness. The world now becomes the agent of Satan in infecting each successive generation with sin as people also individually choose to doubt God s goodness and so to rely on the false hopes of the world.
As people doubt God s goodness and therefore sin they enter the consuming vortex of sin. They become insecure around God because having doubted his goodness and having openly defied him they are now scared of him and worried about where they stand. For this reason they run away from him. God is the only one who can actually provide a secure future amidst all of life s challenges so if he is off-side and far away people feel it is now totally up to them. But they don t have control so they worry and feel insecure and are driven by this to be selfish and callous about others in their struggle to survive.
They also don t have an unlimited source of love any more so they are driven to adopt love substitutes or lack of love blockers to replace the missing love or dull out the absence of it. This situation becomes addictive because these things are never unlimited and are never enough to make people feel content just as they are. They are always looking to the next fix.
All sin has this addictive quality to it if it is associated with a sense of hope of fulfilment or a sense of being loved or accepted without God or of numbing out the emotionalism and pain of rejection.
Worldly influence towards uncertainty of God s goodness and therefore worldly influence to sin is all that is required to pass this situation on from one generation to the next. This is enough to fully explain the situation we see in the world so there is no need to find anything intrinsic in human nature to explain it. This also explains how Jesus death potentially breaks the chain reaction through providing a basis for certainty despite our sin and weaknesses.
Here for once is a way of being forgiven and accepted that is dependent on God himself on his decision to forgive -- rather than on how we measure up to God s expectations.
How does the idea of human nature in itself affect certainty? The concept of an intrinsic human nature and the related concept of original sin fights against certainty because they make one feel intrinsically ashamed in a similar way that some people are made to feel intrinsically ashamed of their skin colour through racism. Another example is people feeling shame over being sexually abused as a child or being abandoned by a parent even though these things are not their fault. All of these phenomena dissociate shame from the actions of the one feeling the shame making it a false and very toxic idea of shame.
This false doctrine is actually a key reason why many people leave Christianity and convert to other religions such as Islam. The idea makes one feel that one is inherently bad through and through. This is a very deep-seated and damaging mindset and as I have learned it is also the source of many mental health issues. It is therefore many reasonable people s principal obstacle in ever accepting Christianity which is an unnecessary tragedy. Therefore to establish the case for one s certainty before God one must thoroughly address the question of human nature or the sinful nature and associated with this the doctrine of original sin. Are there any logical problems with these ideas apart from the translation issues and the initial points made so far?
It seems there are several. Firstly the sinful nature is proposed as an idea to explain our compulsive tendency to sin. If someone didn t sin there would be no reason to propose the idea in their case. We all agree that Jesus became fully human he made himself just like us (Hebrews 2:17). So in doing this did he also take on our sinful nature our compulsive tendency to sin? Of course not - he had no tendency to sin as proved by the fact that he was completely without sin. So if there was a basic part of being human that he missed out on was he made like us in every way? The Bible says he was.
He bore our sin - that much is true but he wasn t sinful in his nature he was perfect that s why he could be our perfect sacrifice. (2 Cor 5:21). But did he feel tempted to sin through the external environment he was in? Of course he did exactly as we do but he resisted (Heb 4:15). There is a good argument to say he was so empowered to do so largely because he was so certain about heaven having just come from there and so certain about God s love because he was God s only Son. This certainty would have helped him to block out the external influence of the world.
According to the idea of a sinful nature it is impossible to be both perfect in nature and also fully human. This begs the question of whether the idea really fits and whether the one exception -- Jesus -- disproves the rule. In other words the idea of a sinful nature doesn t fit both with Jesus full humanity and his total perfection. The idea of certainty versus external influence does.
The main verse used in favour of the concept of original sin (and related concepts) is in Psalm 51:5 in which King David says Surely I was sinful at birth sinful from the time my mother conceived me. This section of Scripture nestles amidst a whole range of other hyperbole that people rightly take as poetic devices to express deep feelings rather than to define doctrinal positions.
One example might be verse 7: Cleanse me with hyssop and I will be clean spoken while referring to his moral dirt of sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah. So do the people who take verse 5 literally also propose a doctrine of salvation by Hyssop? Should we all literally be drinking Hyssop or be washed in it to be saved? The endless dodgy doctrines one could glean from the imagery of the Psalms!
Another common verse touted as a justification actually argues to condemn the idea that sin passes to the next generation by birth. Romans 5:12 says that sin entered the world through Adam and death through sin. Then the next bit is interesting. And so death spread to all men because all sinned . It didn t spread to all men because all men were born but because they all made the choice to sin to doubt God s goodness to rely on the flesh instead of on God s promises.
The other main supposed Scriptural basis for this idea is in Ephesians 2:3 where Paul says All of us also lived among them at one time gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath.
Interestingly this time the word used for nature is physis which for once actually means what it is translated as nature . (This is as opposed to sarx which as mentioned actually means the flesh ). So there is more of a case for the idea of a sinful nature based on this verse. However there are still some subtleties to its meaning. Thayer s Greek Lexicon mentions several possible meanings for the word. One of these addresses the idea that something has a nature by virtue of its habitual wilful practice of an activity. In other words a criminal is not born a criminal necessarily but becomes one in nature through certain choices made over and over no doubt having also been influenced by the environment.
The sinful nature camp also have to contend with clear Scriptures that explicitly rule it out. Ezekiel 18 for example reveals Gods sentiments on trans-generation blame and finds it false.
There is another problem with this idea of a sinful nature . God separating the sin from the sinner rightly hating one while loving the other becomes a challenging operation when the sinner is intrinsically sinful when sin is in the nature rather than just being discrete acts and choices. If sin is fundamental to who we are God would have to treat the sinner and the sin together since they would be indivisible - one and the same. He would either love both sin and sinner or hate both sin and sinner together. In the first case God would not be just in the second we would be perpetually under his judgement with no way out. But it is exactly the possibility of separation between sin and sinner that makes the atonement though Jesus blood possible. Our sinful thoughts and actions were separated from us and put on Jesus.
Some might say that I am missing the point entirely. They might say Jesus died on the cross and through this crucified our intrinsic sinful nature destroying it on the cross and setting us free from its power. But if the sinful nature is our intrinsic tendency to sin and this has been destroyed this doctrine leaves such people in the difficult position of having to explain why they still have this tendency at times -- even as Christians. And this persistent contradiction would put doubts in their mind as to whether they really are saved after all further compounding the problem in the familiar vicious cycle.
If they say they no longer do sin however (as some do) then they have a problem with 1 John 1:9-10 which says they are deceiving themselves and calling God a liar. Here at the very least we see that the doctrine of the sinful nature or human nature together with the doctrine of original sin is a foothold for uncertainty and therefore for Satan. It is also historically the genesis point for a whole raft of other false doctrines that have relied on it.
For these reasons it makes much more sense to say that sin is a choice we all make because the environment we live in is strongly influential towards this and it becomes emotionally compelling because of our uncertainty. Jesus death gives us a basis for certainty through knowing that our sin is paid for up front. As we believe the addictive power of sin uncertainty and emptiness drains away. We don t actually need sin any more - we have the real thing now so we can progressively decide to discard all the substitutes as they become apparent but from a position of security and confidence.
As Christians we can set our hearts and minds on things above (Col 3:1-2) because we know for sure we will be there through Christ. We can therefore also set our minds on what the Spirit desires instead of what the flesh desires (Rom 8:5) because we have been transformed in our thinking to want heaven and the glory of God rather than earthly things (Rom 12:1-2). This is how we can have undivided devotion to the Lord and how we can be set free from the flesh. This is how we live as Christians and it is indeed a victorious and powerful life we have when we believe.
If we notice that the tendency to sin is getting the better of us we don t need to focus on some entrenched badness in nature or doubt our salvation. Rather we should believe in salvation all the more and our promised perfection in Christ more also. We should do this because the extent of our attachment to sin generally reveals the extent that our heart is not set on things above -- therefore probably the extent that we doubt or have forgotten about these things. As we remember and believe we become fulfilled to overflowing and set free from the power of sin as we become certain about and so take hold of the wonderful promises that are ours for the taking.
Let us forever abandon the idea of an intrinsic sinful nature and therefore see human beings as born good and originally good in nature. The nature of each man only becomes corrupted because of sin and uncertainty through the influence of the world and his personal choices not by virtue of his birth. Let us therefore understand that our tendency to sin and any enslavement to sin that we may perceive is only empowered by uncertainty and that there is no reason to be uncertain any more through faith in Christ.