Does the Believer Have One Nature or Two? (Part 7)

Problems with the One-Nature View

Properly delineated, the two-nature view can accurately and correctly represent the Bible’s teaching on regeneration and sanctification, but so can the one-nature view, if it is properly delineated. An advantage for the two-nature view—and thus a minor difficulty for the one-nature view—is that the two-nature view more easily describes the believer’s struggle with sin. As we have previously observed, one-nature advocates usually end up using two-nature terminology even though they disavow the term nature. A potential and much more serious problem for the one-nature view can arise if that one nature is not carefully defined. For instance, Warfield says: “For the new nature which God gives us is not an absolutely new somewhat, alien to our personality, inserted into us, but our old nature itself remade.”1 Thus Warfield can call the believer’s one nature, the new nature. But, of course, Warfield is careful to explain that something old remains in that new nature.

Unfortunately, sometimes, those who argue for the one-nature position have been unable to correctly express it. A well-known example of someone who has misunderstood one-nature terminology is John MacArthur, Jr. By mixing elements of the Chaferian view of the two natures while at the same time denying the two-nature view, MacArthur has sketched out a picture of the believer’s struggle with sin which is theologically problematic. As was previously noted, MacArthur denies that the believer has two natures: “No matter how radical our outer transformation at the time of salvation may have been for the better, it is difficult to comprehend that we no longer have the fallen sin nature and that our new nature is actually divine.”2 Thus, right away MacArthur has presented us and himself with a dilemma. If the believer has only one nature, and that nature is “divine,” then how do we account for the believer’s sinning? We get a glimpse of MacArthur’s solution when he says: “Although sin is not the product of our new self, we’re still bound to some degree by the body we dwell in.”3 Apparently, we are to understand that since we no longer have a fallen nature but only one new divine nature, which cannot sin, the believer’s sinning must be due to his physical body. This becomes clearer:

As every mature Christian learns, the more he grows in Christ, the more he becomes aware of sin in his life. In many places, Paul uses the terms body and flesh to refer to sinful propensities that are intertwined with physical weaknesses and pleasures…. New birth in Christ brings death to the sinful self, but it does not bring death to the temporal flesh and its corrupted inclinations until the future glorification. Obviously, a Christian’s body is potentially good and is intended to do only good things, else Paul would not have commanded believers to present their bodies to God as “a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1). It can respond to the new holy disposition, but does not always do so.4

We can only assume that the body’s failure to “respond to the new holy disposition” is due to some failure (sin) in the body.

But if we had any doubts that the believer’s sinfulness is to be located in the body we only have to read a little further:

Because a believer is a new creature in Christ, his immortal soul is forever beyond sin’s reach. The only remaining beachhead where sin can attack a Christian is in his mortal body. One day that body will be glorified and forever be out of sin’s reach, but in the meanwhile it is still mortal, that is, subject to corruption and death. It still has lusts—because the brain and the thinking processes are part of the mortal body…. [God] does not warn about sin reigning in our souls or our spirits, but only about its reigning in our bodies, because that is the only place in a Christian where sin can operate.5

MacArthur’s argument is perfectly logical, if we accept his premise. Since the believer’s “immortal soul is forever beyond sin’s reach”—after all “sin is not the product of our new self” and “our new nature is actually divine”—there remains only one location left for sin to dwell—the body with its “brain” and “thinking processes.” Sin is not to be located in the believer’s immaterial being, his soul or spirit, but only in the physical body. But all this assumes MacArthur’s premise, that the believer’s immaterial part, his soul and spirit, is sinless. This is far afield from orthodox theology, but it is in perfect agreement with the radical dualism of the Greek philosophical tradition, which viewed the body as inherently evil. To be fair, MacArthur disavows any connection with that tradition,6 but, unfortunately, his denials cannot overturn his clear statements to the contrary.

We might ask ourselves how MacArthur could have wandered so far from the way of orthodox theology. Here one can only speculate, but if we read enough of MacArthur on this subject, it soon becomes clear how indebted he is to the teaching of John Murray on the old-man/new-man contrast, to which we have previously referred.7 Murray correctly demonstrates, as we have previously explained, that the old-man/new-man contrast is not the same as the old-nature/new-nature contrast, but that the old man is the unregenerate person as a whole, while the new man is the regenerate person as a whole. It is this understanding of the old man/new man that appears to be behind MacArthur’s thinking:

The old man, the old self, is the unregenerate person. He is not part righteous and part sinful, but totally sinful and without the slightest potential within himself for becoming righteous and pleasing to God. The new man, on the other hand, is the regenerate person. He is made pleasing to God through Jesus Christ and his new nature is entirely godly and righteous.8

What MacArthur has apparently failed to grasp from Murray is that although Murray said “the believer is a new man, a new creation,” he went on to add that “he is a new man not yet made perfect. Sin dwells in him, and he still commits sin.”9 And, more importantly, when Murray said “sin dwells in him,” he meant the believer’s immaterial being, not his body.10 The believer is a new man in whom sin dwells, not in his body but in every aspect of his immaterial being.

But perhaps there is another source for MacArthur’s view of the sinful body. After all, does not Paul himself speak of “our body of sin” (Rom 6:6) and “putting to death the deeds of the body?” (Rom 8:13). Orthodox theology has always rejected any interpretation of these statements which would suggest that sin resides in the corporeal. There are two ways in which Paul’s language might be explained. If, on the one hand, Paul does in fact mean the physical body in these verses, then the genitive modifier (“of sin”) would not mean that the body is inherently sinful but “that the body is particularly susceptible to, and easily dominated by, sin.”11 This would seem to be Ladd’s explanation:

The body is not only weak and mortal but also an instrument of the flesh. Sin and death do not, however, reside in corporeality itself or in the natural body but in the flesh. Since sin can reign in the mortal body (Rom 6:12), the body viewed as the instrumentality of sin can be called a sinful body (Rom 6:6); and therefore the person indwelt by the Spirit must put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13). This, however, is not mortification of the body, itself, but of its sinful acts.12

Another possibility, not unrelated to the first, is that Paul is using the word body (σῶμα) metaphorically to refer to the whole person, a figure of speech called synecdoche—“a part for a whole.” This clearly seems to be the case in Romans 6:12–13, where Paul tells his readers, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body” and “do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin,” but, on the contrary, “present yourselves to God.” In these verses “yourselves” is equated with “body” (cf. also Rom 12:1–2). Thus it is the person who indwells the body who is sinful, not the body itself. Whichever way we may view Paul’s language, it is clear that the Bible does not teach that the body is inherently evil but that sin resides in man’s immaterial being, not his physical; yet the body is where we commonly see the outworkings of sin.

However MacArthur arrived at his view, the “good-natured believer” as he calls it in one place, it is clearly out of step with orthodox theology and a proper understanding of the one-nature view.

Conclusion

I have sought to demonstrate that it is perfectly valid to speak of the believer as having two natures—old and new—as long as the term nature is understood to refer to a complex of attributes, a set of characteristics, or disposition. These natures are not substantive entities and do not act. But the believer himself can be viewed as acting from the perspective of his old or new nature—his disposition may be toward sin or holiness. While some two-nature advocates have used two-nature terminology to present a view of sanctification which is inherently defective, the fault lies with their deficient theology, not with two-nature terminology itself. Two-nature terminology combined with a proper understanding of regeneration and sanctification accurately represents the believer’s struggle with sin as presented in Scripture.

Notes

1 Review of He That Is Spiritual, p. 215.

2 John F. MacArthur, Jr., Romans, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991, 1994), 1:334.

3 “The Good-Natured Believer,” p. 20.

4 Romans, 1:325–26.

5 Ibid., 1:337.

6 Ibid., 1:386.

7 Murray’s discussion of the old-man/new-man contrast in Principles of Conduct is cited by MacArthur in Romans, 1: 324 and “The Good-Natured Believer,” p. 20.

8 Romans, 1:318.

9 Principles of Conduct, p. 219.

10 Cf. his Romans, 1:221, n. 11.

11 Moo, Romans, p. 375.

12 George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. and ed. Donald A Hagner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 508.

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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apward's picture

I genuinely liked this article (series of articles). I’ve been studying this issue on my own for some time now, and I’m glad that someone has addressed this issue. My only objection with the way the article was written is that it seemed to be designed as a defense for using the phrase “two natures.” I agree with the article that using that phrase can be correct, if by saying “two natures” what you mean is that a Christian has an internal struggle between the spirit and the flesh, obedience and disobedience, following Christ and being selfish. If that’s what you mean by saying that a Christian has two natures, then I would agree with you. However, as the article points out, that is not how the Bible uses the term “nature.” Even if Eph. 2:3 and II Peter 1:4 uses the word “nature” in a similar way, they don’t indicate that the believer has 2 natures simultaneously. Eph. 2:3 even seems to indicate the contrary.

Therefore, while I don’t think it’s wrong to use the phrase “two natures” when defined correctly, it remains at best confusing. And it is clearly not the most accurate way to describe a Christian.

I was hoping that the author would encourage his readers not to use the phrase “2 natures” and to use language that more accurately reflects the Biblical terms and descriptions. Instead, the author basically concludes by saying that it’s okay to use the phrase. I wish he had concluded by giving examples of how to more clearly and accurately communicate God’s word. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've also found the series quite helpful, though I'm still not sure what JMac's view actually is. We're left to infer a kind of 'sin resides in the physical body view' from various statements, but I'm pretty sure I've seen other teaching from him that doesn't point in that direction.

I'm also almost positive I've seen the 'sin resides in the physical body only' view in Luther's thought somewhere, though I can't recall where at the moment. If I find it, I'll link.

I was hoping that the author would encourage his readers not to use the phrase “2 natures” and to use language that more accurately reflects the Biblical terms and descriptions. Instead, the author basically concludes by saying that it’s okay to use the phrase. I wish he had concluded by giving examples of how to more clearly and accurately communicate God’s word.

I thought it was pretty clear in part 1 or 2 that the situation we have is similar to what we have with the two natures of the person of Christ. Scripture also doesn't use "two natures" in reference to Him, but the truth is complex enough that we need some kind of reasonably handy terminology to summarize it. So also w/the changed-yet-still-sinful character of believers, Scripture describes it in a variety of ways and also leaves us to infer a few things, so... we need a term. We've all pretty much accepted "Trinity" for the same reason.

But so far, every shorthand I've seen is prone to one sort of confusion or another. That's probably not avoidable. Preachers and teachers just have to be diligent to fully understand and then fully explain.

apward's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

So also w/the changed-yet-still-sinful character of believers, Scripture describes it in a variety of ways and also leaves us to infer a few things, so... we need a term. We've all pretty much accepted "Trinity" for the same reason.

But so far, every shorthand I've seen is prone to one sort of confusion or another. That's probably not avoidable. Preachers and teachers just have to be diligent to fully understand and then fully explain.

Aaron, I mostly agree with you, but there is one significant difference. The term "Trinity" is shorthand for a complex theological idea, but the Bible doesn't use that same term with a different definition. Unlike the term "Trinity," the Bible does use the term "nature" and it uses it in a different manner than in describing the internal struggle within a regenerate Christian. That is why I call it confusing. Not simply because it is shorthand for a complex idea, but because it uses an actual Biblical term in a different manner than the way the Bible uses it. I'm not objecting to using a shorthand phrase to describe a complex theological idea; I object because the term "nature" already describes a different theological idea given in the Bible.

So I agree with the theological idea and I agree with the use of a shortened title for that idea. But I disagree with using a previously defined Biblical term to describe a different theological idea. That is inherently confusing.

I am also not very familiar with MacArthur's position on this issue. I've listened to several of his sermons and read some of his books, and I agree with him on many points, but I don't remember hearing or reading his views on this. If this article accurately portrays MacArthur's perspective (and I have no reason to doubt it) then I would disagree with MacArthur on this issue. I think that when Paul refers to the "flesh" he is not talking about the physical body, but is using it as a metaphor for selfish desires. As James 4:1 says, "... your desires that battle within you." I've also heard several of the abuses of the "2 nature" view that the author covered. That's why I'm glad the author wrote this article. But I'd exhort people to use more accurate and less confusing terms.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Found that bit in Luther that had me thinking "Platonic dualism... or a gnostic tinge.. or something?"

The source is Luther's "On the Freedom of a Christian." I am not up to speed on the historical context but it seems to have been aimed at pope Leo X. The whole document is quite interesting.

Let us examine the subject on a deeper and less simple principle. Man is composed of a twofold nature, a spiritual and a bodily. As regards the spiritual nature, which they name the soul, he is called the spiritual, inward, new man; as regards the bodily nature, which they name the flesh, he is called the fleshly, outward, old man. The Apostle speaks of this: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is relieved day by day." (2 Cor. iv. 16.) The result of this diversity is, that in the Scriptures opposing statements are made concerning the same man; the fact being that in the same man these two men are opposed to one another; the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. (Gal. v. 17.)

We first approach the subject of the inward man, that we may see by what means a man becomes justified, free, and a true Christian; that is, a spiritual, new, and inward man. It is certain that absolutely none among outward things, under whatever name they may be reckoned, has any weight in producing a state of justification and Christian liberty, nor, on the other hand an unjustified state and one of slavery. This can be shown by an easy course of argument.

What can it profit the soul, that the body should be in good condition, free, and full of life; that it should eat, drink, and act according to its pleasure; when even the most impious slaves of every kind of vice are prosperous in these matters ? Again, what harm can ill-health, bondage, hunger, thirst, or any other outward evil, do to the soul, when even the most pious of men, and the freest in the purity of their conscience are harassed by these things? Neither of these states of things has to do with the liberty or the slavery of the soul.

This would have to  be compared with other places Luther writes on this topic, of course... to get a better idea of what he means. But he seems to locate the believer's struggle with sin as a soul vs. body struggle.

About "nature" as a term... 

I can see the argument that it's confusing. The word appears in English NT about a dozen times in ESV, NKJV, KJV and others. About 39 times in NIV ('84)!

A quick scan suggests to me that the NT itself uses the term different ways, so it would be hard to sustain the idea that we can't use it in different ways well in our teaching and preaching. But as a question of what is most helpful to hearers...   yes, there may well be better ways to put it.

What do you recommend?

apward's picture

Well, one of the great things about preaching is that we don’t have to limit ourselves to using one term. If we are preaching through Romans 7 we can describe the idea 6 different ways to get our point across (which is really what Paul does too, he states the idea several times in several different ways).

But let’s say we are just trying to replace the following phrase in our theological repertoire: “Christians have 2 conflicting natures - the old and the new.”

Let me first say that I have prayerfully considered this, but I readily acknowledge that I am correctable in what I say and do.

What I would say instead is that, “the Christian life is marked by constant struggle between 2 conflicting desires – to obey God and to be selfish.”

 

I also like what Kaiser, Davids, Bruce, and Brauch say in Hard Saying of the Bible, “When Paul, therefore, contrast a ‘fleshly’ with a ‘spiritual’ way of living, he is not speaking about two distinct parts of the total self, but about two possible life-orientations of that total self” (p. 554).

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

No doubt, the situation can be expressed a variety of ways even in a single sermon. Where that starts to become inadequate though, is in the overall teaching context of a ministry. In a strong teaching ministry, it'll be a reality that we allude to pretty frequently, so ... a key term or two that stands in for the doctrine is powerful.

I guess if I back away and analyze what my own habit has been, I have not usually used "two natures" terminology either. Generally, I've spoken in terms of the believer's ongoing struggle with sin/not-yet-complete transformation. I think I've used "sinful nature" at times in that context, or occasionally "the flesh." In any case, the terms have to be carefully defined and I think that careful, repeated definition is where the solution lies.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I spoke about this issue recently during a Sunday School lesson on grieving the Holy Spirit. I keyed in on the various commands to "mortify" the deeds of the body. I also spoke about the progressive sanctification (2 Cor 3:18).

Hodge made the point that “a man raised from the dead may be and long continue to be, in a very feeble, diseased, and suffering state,” (Systematic, 3:220).  Just because we've been raised to spiritual life doesn't mean we don't need to get healthy! There is a great deal of truth to that. 

In my sermon, I specifically emphasized that just because the “old man” has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), that doesn’t mean he’s down for the count yet! The person we used to be does have a mortal wound, but he’ll take a while to die yet. Meanwhile, he’s still lurking around the dark corners of our hearts and minds, and he’s still dangerous. We need to help him die faster by “mortifying” him or putting him to death – you can think of our old person as somebody who has a mortal wound and will certainly die eventually, but in the meantime we need to help him die by putting more bullets into him each and every day.

This certainly isn't theologically precise terminology, but it gets the point across. Somewhere, I picked up an aversion to describing the "new nature vs. old nature." I very much prefer to use "old person vs new person." 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

Tyler,

I’m not sure you can read Romans 6, as an example, and get that our old man didn’t completely die.  Our old self was crucified with Christ, we died with Christ – did Christ receive only a mortal wound?  The whole point is that who we were in Adam, our old man, died.  The issue isn’t that we still have the old man running around but that we still have this flesh, or body of sin, or sinful desires that need to be mortified (which we can do because we are a new man, alive in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit).

TylerR's picture

Editor

It's easy for this kind of discussion to drift between positional and progressive sanctification, even unintentionally. 

  • Positionally, we certainly are crucified with Christ, born again, justified, etc. 
  • Progressively, we are commanded to live up to this status as adopted children of God

You wrote:

The issue isn’t that we still have the old man running around but that we still have this flesh, or body of sin, or sinful desires that need to be mortified 

I take you to mean that the problem isn't the old "person," but the old "nature." Perhaps I ought to take this one on the chin - should our theological vocabulary be refined to, perhaps, this:

  • The terms "old person vs. new person" ought only to refer to positional sanctification and justification
  • The terms "old nature vs. new nature" ought only to refer to progressive sanctification and present struggle with sin 

I hadn't thought of that before, but it may be more precise language that clears up the waters, so to speak.

Thoughts? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

TylerR wrote:
I take you to mean that the problem isn't the old "person," but the old "nature." Perhaps I ought to take this one on the chin - should our theological vocabulary be refined to, perhaps, this:

  • The terms "old person vs. new person" ought only to refer to positional sanctification and justification
  • The terms "old nature vs. new nature" ought only to refer to progressive sanctification and present struggle with sin 

If you are going to retain the two-nature terminology, then I think that is a better way of putting it.

However, having read through Comb’s article again and reading the associated comments, I think I side with the idea that the two-nature terminology is confusing, and probably best to avoid as well, even if it doesn’t have to be used incorrectly.  Instead of saying that a believer has an old nature and new nature, I think it is more helpful to say that our new nature includes both sinful and righteous inclinations, whereas our old nature, without the Holy Spirit or being regenerated, had no such propensity towards righteousness.

Here is how I think I would categorize things (just off the top of my head, so I’m welcome to any suggestions for improvement):

I. Divine Nature

II. Human Nature

A. Uncorrupted Human Nature

B. Corrupted Human Nature

                1. Depraved (old) Human Nature (spiritually dead with only sinful inclinations)

                2. Regenerated  (new) Human Nature (spiritually alive with both sinful and righteous inclinations)

 

Each member of the Godhead possesses a divine nature.

Each human, including the incarnated Son, processes a human nature.

The human nature is not inherently sinful – pre-fall Adam, Jesus, and glorified saints have a human nature uncorrupted by sin

When Adam fell, he and his natural-born descendants inherited a corrupt human nature.  This corrupted human nature is either (1) totally depraved – all those in Adam or (2) regenerated -- all those in Christ.

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