Does the Believer Have One Nature or Two? (Part 3)

Published as a single article in DBSJ 2 (Fall 1997): 81–103. Used by permission.

Part 2 concluded that speaking of the believer as having “two natures” is not contrary to Scripture, but that a defective theology exists that happens to also use two-nature terminology. Here, Part 3 aims to “look more carefully at the scriptural descriptions of the believer’s struggle with sin” as groundwork for examining that defective theology.

The Old Man/New Man

In Romans 6, Ephesians 4, and Colossians 3, Paul contrasts the old man with the new man, though, actually, Romans 6 speaks only of the old man. Whereas the KJV has “man” (ἄνθρωπος) in these passages, the NASB uses “self.”

Romans 6:6, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin;

Ephesians 4:20–24, But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Colossians 3:9–10, Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him

Advocates of the two-nature view have found support for their position in Paul’s description of this old man/new man contrast. The old man is equated with the old nature, and the new man with the new nature. Numerous interpreters, especially in earlier years, have understood the old-man/new-man contrast as a struggle between the believer’s two natures.1 Bavinck explains:

The spiritual struggle which the believers must conduct inside their souls has a very different character. It is not a struggle between reason and passion, but between the flesh and the spirit, between the old and the new man, between the sin which continues to dwell in the believers and the spiritual principle of life which has been planted in their hearts.2

However, there has always been a problem with this interpretation. On the one hand, the Ephesians passage would seem to support the equation of old man/new man equals old nature/new nature since there Paul does appear to speak of a present situation within the believer: he must “put off the old man” and “put on the new man.” This interpretation is probably more clearly seen in the NIV’s translation: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self,…and to put on the new self.”3 In other words, the Ephesians passage would seem to argue for the two-nature view of the believer—he has both an old man and a new man.

On the other hand, the Romans and Colossians passages make it difficult to identify the old man with the old nature since the old man is said to have been “crucified” (Rom 6:6) and to have been “laid aside” (Col 3:9), both past circumstances for the believer. If the old nature has been “crucified” and “laid aside,” how can one say the believer still has an old nature? Godet comes to the rescue by suggesting that Paul does not say our old nature was killed, only crucified—“He may exist still, but like one crucified, whose activity is paralyzed.”4 However, this is probably not Paul’s thought. As Moo wisely reminds us:

The image of crucifixion is chosen not because Paul wants to suggest that our “dying with Christ” is a preliminary action that the believer must complete by daily “dying to sin,” but because Christ’s death took the form of crucifixion. The believer who is “crucified with Christ” is as definitely and finally “dead” as a result of this action as was Christ himself after his crucifixion (as Paul stresses in v. 10: the death Christ died he died “once for all”). Of course, we must remember what this death means. This is no more a physical, or ontological, death, than is our burial with Christ (v. 4) or our “dying to sin” (v. 2). Paul’s language throughout is forensic, or positional; by God’s act, we have been placed in a new position. This position is real, for what exists in God’s sight is surely (ultimately) real, and it carries definite consequences for day-to-day living. But it is status, or power-structure, that Paul is talking about here.5

As Moo stresses, Paul’s old-man/new-man language is not ontological, but relational or positional in orientation. Paul is not describing aspects of the individual, but the person as a whole. The contrast between the old and new man does not refer to a change in nature but a change in relationship. Our old man is “what we were ‘in Adam’—the ‘man’ of the old age, who lives under the tyranny of sin and death.”6

The old man is my old unregenerate self. The new man is my new regenerate self. Thus, the believer is properly described as only a new man. While one can, as I have argued, correctly speak of a believer as having both an old and new nature; “it is,” as Murray reminds us, “no more feasible to call the believer a new man and an old man, than it is to call him a regenerate man and an unregenerate.… The believer is a new man, a new creation, but he is a new man not yet made perfect. Sin dwells in him still, and he still commits sin. He is necessarily the subject of progressive renewal.”7 Paul’s point, then, in the old-man/new-man contrast is that there has been a radical change in the believer’s relationship to sin. While the believer still sins, he is no longer a slave to sin, sin no longer reigns (Rom 6:14, 17, 18, 20)—that is the condition of the old man, the unregenerate person.

However, if this is true, and the believer is no longer an old man, but a new man, we still face a problem with the Ephesians passage, where, as we have seen, Paul seems to be commanding Christians to “put off the old man” and to “put on the new man.” How can Paul command the putting off of the old man if the old man is the old unregenerate self? The answer is that Paul is probably not giving commands in Ephesians 4:22-24; instead, he is describing a past event for the Ephesian believers, the same situation we saw in Romans and Colossians. To understand Ephesians in this way, one might look to Murray’s solution, which takes the infinitives in v. 22 (“put off,” ἀποθέσθαι) and v. 24 (“put on,” ἐνδύσασθαι ) as indicating result. Thus he translates: “But ye have not so learned Christ, if so be ye have heard him and have been taught by him as the truth is in Jesus, so that ye have put off, according to the former manner of life, the old man who is corrupted according to the lusts of deceit, and are being renewed in the spirit of your mind, and have put on the new man who after God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”8 Though Murray presents a well-reasoned grammatical case for his translation, it is probably not the best way to understand Paul’s syntax; result infinitives are not likely here. Wallace suggests they are more likely infinitives used in indirect discourse, following the verb “taught” (ἐδιδάχθητε), which could represent an indicative in the direct discourse.9 Thus we should translate: “you have been taught in him…that you have put off…the old man…and that you have put on the new man…” This is supported by the “therefore” (διό) in 4:25, which usually follows a statement of fact in order to make an application; that is, because the Ephesians have already put off the old man and have put on the new man, they should “therefore…speak truth,” etc.10

The conclusion to be drawn is that, although it has been common to equate old nature/new nature with old man/new man, this is not a correct understanding of how Paul uses the terms old man/new man. This lack of correlation does not in and of itself deny the legitimacy of the two-nature, only that the old-man/new-man contrast has a different point to make. We will now turn to two passages which do directly describe the believer’s struggle with sin.


1 E.g., Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1857), p. 259; idem, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 3:221–224; Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 2:348.

2 Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, trans. Henry Zylstra (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), p. 493.

3 This same interpretation would seem to be found in the NASB and KJV.

4 Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on Romans (reprint of 1883 ed.; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1984), p. 244. Also, C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975, 1979), 1:309.

5 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 373.

6 Ibid.

7 John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 218–19.

8 Ibid., pp. 215–16.

9 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 605.

10 For a different view of how to harmonize the Ephesians passage, see Moo, Romans, pp. 374–75.

wcombs Bio

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.

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