We sometimes speak about our sinful nature. Which of course we have. The law of sin uses our flesh to further its aims (Rom 7:25). Yet one possible liability with using the phrase “sinful nature” entails what Paul Dirks recently described as a competition of opposing natures.
I would add that the phrase sinful nature implies that sin has a substantial nature. In other words, it would mean that sinful natures have a created existence because the only things that exist are those created by God. God did not create sin, and therefore it is impossible for sin to have substantial existence. Rather, sin only corrupts God’s good creation like rust on metal. It is not a thing but a corrosion of things.
A better way to speak of the power of sin comes directly out of Paul. He speaks of the flesh* and its passions and desires. By using such language, we can speak accurately about sin and also discover concrete ways to defeat sin since we will know what it is.
Speaking of a sinful nature as such can often obscure sin’s real power by making it sound like a dualistic force that we have to fight in a battle like in the ancient teaching of Manichaeism.
That is not the case. And here is why.
Paul writes, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). Here, the apostle speaks about “living in the flesh” (that is, before the Spirit comes). He notes that when “sinful passions” encounter God’s standards for life, they entice us to choose evil over good.
It is worth pausing here for a moment to consider what a human person is, or else it will become almost impossible to grasp what Paul here means. At the most basic level, body and soul unite together in a human person. We have flesh, bones, nerves, and reflexes in our flesh. We have a mind, consciousness, and will in our soul. Yet since body and soul unite irreducibly in a human person, our whole person shares in both body and soul.
We can recognize a certain kind of hierarchy here, however. If we hunger, we can deny ourselves by our minds and wills. It may be hard to resist the experience of hunger, caused by hormones in our bodies, but we can.
The harmonious agreement of body and soul, however, fell into disarray when two humans decided to gain the attribute of choice between good and evil—to be like God. Through eating of the tree of good and evil, Adam and Eve did gain the ability to know both. They gained a new freedom, but that freedom only led to corruption and death and misery. God exiled them from the tree of life so that they would enter into death.
Since death never means the cessation of life, but only the cessation of one mode of existence into another, death in Genesis meant something like corruption (cf. 1 Cor 15:42). It meant separation from the tree of life, from divine life itself. Hence, eternal life in Jesus Christ restores to us what Adam lost (e.g., John 17:3).
All that to say, our wills can now choose evil—we gained the so-called gnomic will. And through gaining, we have lost much. Since the seeming cause of our ability to choose good and evil lies in our corrupt flesh with its passions, we really have gained by loss.
In short, our flesh lives in corruption which means a state of death (Eph 2:1, 3). The ability to choose evil over good means that humans, when confronted with the law of God, have the choice and the desire to disobey. Now, we need to understand the passions and desires of the flesh for a fuller understanding of the human person and our relationship with sin.
Passions and Desires
Paul uses two words for the passions of the flesh. The first word is pasxein, and it signals that passions afflict us—it also means suffering. The second word is epithumia, which refers to our desires. Both words have a neutral sense but often associate with sin because the passions and desires within our flesh prefer evil over good. We can thank Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve for this.
In Romans 1, Paul provides a threefold description of sin through echoing the Genesis 3 Fall story. First, he shows how mankind turned away from God and so their hearts become darkened and reason turned futile (Rom 1:21). God therefore gave them over to their heart’s epithumiais (desire; 1:24). He adds that God also handed them over to “dishonorable passions” (1:26).
In the same verse, he notes that such passions are contrary to nature. This is because God did not create us to have a gnomic will that could choose between good and evil. Rather, we gained that as a loss through Adam’s Fall.
In sum, humankind reasons futilely, lacks light in their hearts, and enjoys desires and passions that conflict with God’s law.
When Paul later speaks about human existence and again echoes Genesis 3, he explains, “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). In Romans 7:8, Paul uses epithumia to communicate the idea of “coveting.” He explains, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness [epithumian]. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.”
When Satan tempted Eve, telling her that she would be like God knowing good from evil, she did not know what she was getting into. We not only know evil from good, but we also have passions and desires that want evil. When we see laws like, “do not eat from the tree,” then we covet the tree. Goodness awakens our flesh’s passions and desires, creating all sorts of covetousness in us.
Our only hope is to be renewed, recreated back into that image from which we originally derived. So Christ came, the Image of God, to mend what was torn and to redeem what was fallen. Christians, therefore, receive illumination of mind and can overcome passions and desires.
The Spirit renews our minds (Rom 12:1–2; Eph 4:23) by giving us the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Through the renewed mind, we can make war with our flesh (1 Pet 1:13–14).
Thus, Paul says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom 6:12–13). Sin’s passions want mortal bodies to enter into deep corruption. Paul says, “Do not do that!”
He shortly thereafter clarifies the nature of the war: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom 7:22–23). Paul here associates his “inner being” with “the law of my mind (nous).” In contrast, the law of sin dwells in his members (body parts). That law of sin includes passions, desires, and so on.
Hence, while there is a war, we have adequate weapons to win. The Spirit has renewed our minds by giving us the mind of Christ (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:16). Hence, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).The key here is to mortify the passions and desires of the flesh because “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Gal 5:17).
Elsewhere, Paul adds extra specificity for how to walk in the Spirit. In Ephesians 4, he associates learning Christ with particular actions: “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (22–24). The new self is renewed in mind (nous) by the Holy Spirit’s work of creating the “new man” in Christ Jesus.
From the Spirit’s work in the mind, we mortify the flesh. Paul explains, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:3–5). Elsewhere, he says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5).
Notice that controlling the body and killing what is earthly pictures our sanctification. That is, our mortal bodies or flesh carry within them various desires and passions. We must use our sanctified mind to control or reign in our bodily urges in order to grow in our sanctification.
Peter perhaps provides the clearest call to war, using the weapon of the mind against the passions. He tells Christans to “gird up the loins of your mind’ (1 Pet 1:13). Why? So that they would not act as disobedient children by being conformed to their former “ignorance of your desires (epithumiais).” Here, ignorances means a sort of mindlessness under the control of the desires of our flesh.
Such a life under control of the desires lacks a “girded mind” that can subdue that lies in the flesh. In this sense, Paul can say, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
Having described in brief the human person and its relationship to the flesh and its desires and passions, we need to ask how this makes a difference. And it does make a difference.
First, it shows that sin lies in our flesh, specifically in the prompts of passion or the locus of desires. While both passion and desire can be neutral or even good, when we encounter the choice between good and evil (our tree of good and evil), our passions elicit desires for evil. Hence, now we can understand concretely how most personal sin happens.
Second, now we can understand how to make war with sin. It begins in the mind. The Spirit informs us of what is good and right. Hence, when we encounter our tree moment, we will have passions and desires flare up. But God has taught us the way of righteousness. So we know what is right. We can dissuade our flesh from sin through our mind.
Third, we will still sin. That is because we have yet to discipline our bodies to create habits of righteousness. In Paul’s language, if we live in the Spirit, we must walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:25). Walking implies repetition as well as following a way of life. That means practicing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). Goodness does not come by fiat, but rather by the gradual habit of righteousness on the basis of the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts.
Fourth, we are irreducibly composed of body and soul. Hence, when our body suffers through pain, bad diet, lack of sleep, we endanger ourselves. We give the passions and desires footholds in which they can overcome our will power and mind. Hence, we must balance our body with our soul in order to combat sin. Self-disciple, discipling the body in Paul’s words, indeed does work.
A sort of mystical internalism cannot adequately battle the flesh. The Spirit does work in us by recreating us. But that inward change affects our outward person. They are correlated, albeit the inner-person or that principle of the mind holds the reins of the passions and desires. Or it should. But human bodies work through habit and practice, and so we need both to decide to use our minds to order our days and months and then act on it.
If so, we can have victory over our flesh. As Paul says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16).
*Some Bible translations translate “flesh” by “sinful nature.” I am talking about the concept of flesh here and disagree with that translational decision.