Published as a single article in DBSJ 2 (Fall 1997): 81–103. Used by permission.
In recent times the popular radio preacher and author, John MacArthur, has attacked the idea of two natures in the believer. He says at one point: “If you are a Christian, it’s a serious misunderstanding to think of yourself as having both an old and new nature. We do not have a dual personality!”1 Similar attacks have come from a number of others. J. I. Packer says: “A widespread but misleading line of teaching tells us that Christians have two natures: an old one and a new one.”2 John Gerstner labels the two-nature viewpoint “Antinomianism.”3 Are these attacks justified? Is it unbiblical to speak of two natures within the believer? This essay purposes to tackle the issue.
I should begin by stating that I do think there is a sense in which the believer can properly be said to have two natures, and yet there is also a sense in which the believer can properly be said to have one nature. Whether the believer can more correctly be described as having one nature or two is partly a matter of semantics—a difference in the usage of the term nature. Those who insist that a believer has only one nature are using the term nature differently from the two-nature proponents. But, as I will demonstrate, more important than the issue of the semantics of one or two-nature terminology, there lies below the surface of this debate a serious disagreement regarding the character of regeneration and sanctification within the believer. Those who argue against two natures in the believer usually do so because they view most of the two-nature proponents as having a defective understanding of these two doctrines, which is merely reflected in their two-nature terminology. Thus, it is important to note at the outset that the debate between one or two natures has both semantic and substantive elements of disagreement. Both of these areas will now be explored.
Meaning of Nature
We might begin our discussion by looking at the word nature. It is important to note that the meaning of the term nature as it is used in the debate over one or two natures in the believer is primarily a theological issue, not one of scriptural usage. Thus we observe that neither the KJV nor the NASB, for instance, ever use the terms old nature, sinful nature, or new nature. This does not necessarily invalidate the legitimacy of these terms since, as we are well aware, it sometimes behooves us to use a term to describe a theological teaching of Scripture even though the term itself is not found therein—the well-known example being, of course, the term Trinity.
It is not exactly true that Scripture never uses nature in the sense we are discussing. Here I have reference to the Greek term φύσις, commonly translated “nature,” which is used fourteen times in the NT. On two of those occasions, it may, in fact, be used in a sense similar to the way nature is used in the debate at hand. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says: “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”4 Though the meaning of the phrase “by nature children of wrath” is debated, at least some commentators understand “nature” to mean “sinful human nature.”5 Also, in 2 Peter 1:4 we are told that God “has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them [we] might become partakers of the divine nature.” “Partakers of the divine nature” could be understood to refer to the Christian’s “new nature.”6 However, neither of these verses can ultimately settle the debate at hand, for, as we will later observe, some who argue for one nature would admit that an individual can be said to have an old nature or a new nature, but they do not allow that the Bible ever refers to both these natures in the saved person.7
It should also be noted that the term nature is used in both the RSV and NRSV in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (NRSV). Here it might seem the Bible does refer to two natures in the believer. However, “outer nature” and “inner nature” are literally “outer man” (ὁ ἔξω ἄνθρωπος) and “inner man” (ὁ ἔσω). These terms may be contrasting Paul’s outward physical life (“outer man”) with his inward spiritual life (“inner man”),8 though this is debated. What is certain is that no one is claiming they are to be equated with the old or new natures and thus have no bearing on the present debate. Nature is also found in the RSV’s translation of Colossians 3:9–10, “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Here, however, “old nature” and “new nature” are literally “old man” (τὸν παλαιὸν ἄνθρωπον) and “new man” (τὸν νέον).9 However, in this case the terms “old man,” “new man” in Colossians 3:9–10 (as well as Rom 6:6 and Eph 4:22, 24) have often been identified with old and new natures, respectively. Therefore, we must necessarily discuss these three passages more carefully later in this paper. Finally, we should note that the phrase “sinful nature” is found numerous times in the NIV; however, this is not φύσις, but σάρξ (flesh). We will later examine the appropriateness of this translation and its relevance to the question of one or two natures.
1 “The Good-Natured Believer,” Masterpiece (March–April 1990): 18
2 Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1992), p. 83.
3 John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, 1991), p. 143.
4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB, 1988.
5 E.g., Homer A. Kent, Jr., Ephesians: The Glory of the Church, Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 35; Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), p. 99.
6 D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1989), p. 48; Renald E. Showers, “The New Nature” (Th.D. dissertation, Grace Theological Seminary, 1975), pp. 86–88.
7 E.g., B. B. Warfield, review of He That Is Spiritual, by Lewis S. Chafer, in Princeton Theological Review 17 (April 1919), reprinted in Michael Horton, ed., Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), p. 215.
8 Homer A. Kent, Jr., A Heart Opened Wide: Studies in 2 Corinthians (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1982), p. 76.
9 The NRSV has replaced “old nature,” “new nature” with “old self,” “new self.”
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.