The Nature of a Christian Man
Having dealt with the principle of justification by grace, by blood and by faith in Romans 3, 4 and 5, the apostle goes on to describe the nature of a Christian man in Romans 6, 7 and 8. The fact that the justified believer receives the Spirit into his life and, with the Spirit, love, joy and peace (Rom. 5:1-5), does not mean the new life is insulated from a conflict with inward and outward evil. Peace does not mean absence of conflict. It means peace in the midst of war (" . . . we glory in tribulations. . . . "—see Rom. 5:1-3). Paul goes on to show the real source of tribulation. A man's foe is of his own household. He shaves him every morning.
Whereas an unbeliever has one nature, which is called "flesh," the Christian has two natures —"flesh" and "spirit." Conversion is not the last trump of victory, but is the first trumpet call to a life-long conflict.
"For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Gal. 5:17.
It is important that we understand what Paul means by "flesh." He does not just mean the bodily organs. As Luther points out (and as every sound theologian agrees), "flesh" in this Pauline context means the whole man in his natural state. Jesus said, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." John 3:6. Anything that is not of and by the Spirit of God is "flesh." For this reason, the carnal mind is called "flesh" (Rom. 8:7, 8). Other translators render the word as "sinful nature" or "evil nature" (see Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 373). In Romans 6 to 8, Paul uses a variety of expressions to describe this evil nature:
old man ....................... Rom. 6:6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him,
body of sin....................Rom. 6:6 that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
carnal...........................Rom. 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
flesh.............................Rom. 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.
members.......................Rom. 7:23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
body of this death..... .... Rom. 7:24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
flesh..............................Rom. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
sinful flesh.....................Rom. 8:3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
carnal mind....................Rom. 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
flesh..............................Rom. 8:12, 13 ... we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. 13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die:
This flesh is called "sinful flesh"; this body is called "sinful body"; and this man is called "old man." Sin dwells here, and no good thing dwells here (Rom. 7:18). This nature is wicked and always will be wicked. It remains evil when the believer is converted, and is just as evil at the end of his Christian pilgrimage as at the beginning.
We must not interpret Paul in the fashion or thinking of Greek dualism. The Greeks always thought of man in the dualistic terms of body and soul, which were thought to be two separate and distinct entities. Not so with the Hebrews. They always thought of man as he is in the unity of body and soul—body, the visible man, and soul, the whole living being. Paul thinks and speaks in Biblical terms.
Therefore, if the question is asked whether a Christian is a saint or a sinner, the only proper answer is the famous formula of Luther—simul justus et pecator (at the same time righteous and sinful). The holy prophets and apostles always confessed the sinfulness of their nature (Acts of the Apostles, p. 561), yet at the same time they were obedient servants of God.
Between the flesh and the spirit there is always implacable conflict. Character is formed in the midst of this conflict. The believer feels the prompting of sin in the flesh, but he, by the aid of God's Spirit, obeys the injunction, "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body." Rom. 6:12. Yet, like an evil shadow, it is always with him. "When I would do good," he cries, "evil is present with me." Rom. 7:21. In view of the holiness of Christ, his very deeds are seen as tainted by human sinfulness. Alluding to Romans 7:22, Ellen White says:
" . . . he who is truly seeking for holiness of heart and life delights in the law of God, and mourns only that he falls so far short of meeting its requirements. "—Sanctified Life, p. 81.
This is what caused the apostle to cry out, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Rom. 7:24. By faith in what God has done in Christ, the believer may know he is free in the merciful reckoning of God, but he is not delivered from the painful conflict and struggle with the flesh until this life shall end. In the next chapter, Paul says, "We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body." Rom. 8:23.
This is why Paul would not claim perfection as his own possession. He considered it his by faith in Christ, but not by empirical reality. In Philippians he declares plainly that he expects to attain to the state of perfection at the last day: "If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect. . . ." Phil. 3:11, 12. Clearly, he uses "the resurrection of the dead" and "perfect" in apposition.
This is in harmony with what the apostle teaches in Hebrews. This book teaches both a present and a future perfection. The perfection presently possible is by faith in the blood of the cross (Heb. 10:14). Through faith in Christ's finished work, sins may be perfectly forgiven, the conscience may be cleansed from all condemnation. We may stand complete, cleansed and perfect in the blood of Jesus Christ. But the book of Hebrews does not teach a here-and-now perfectionism by the Spirit's work in us. The worthies died in faith without having attained to this perfection. " . . . [they] received not the promise" " . . . that only in company with us should they reach their perfection." Heb. 11:39, 40, N.E.B.
So all of God's children realize that final promise together.