The Eradication of the Sinful Nature
In dealing with such a matter as "the eradication of the sinful nature," we need to carefully define our terms. Different expressions can mean different things to different people. Consequently, some of the contests have been foolishly fought in the dark!
The word "nature" is seldom used in the New Testament, and if we look at the wide variety of definitions given in the dictionary for our English word, we may appreciate the reason for a lot of misunderstanding.
We have seen how the apostle Paul uses the expressions "flesh," "members," "flesh of sin," "body of sin," etc., in Romans 6, 7 and 8. And many translators render them simply as "sinful nature" (see also Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 373). It is possible to fall off truth's straight and narrow road on two different sides when we deal with understanding the sinful nature of a Christian man.
1. It is wrong to think that the "flesh" (sinful nature) simply means the bodily organs or bodily urges. Paul declares that sin dwells in this "flesh," or in these "members." Sin is not in our bloodstream or liver. Or as Wesley derisively said, it is not in our toenails. If sin dwelt in our bodily organs, then the body itself would be evil. Whereas the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 6:19), Paul said that no good thing dwelt in his flesh (Rom. 7:18). It was the ancient Greeks who thought that matter was evil. They regarded the body as the evil prison house of the soul. Then the church of medieval times, being based on the thinking of the Grecian philosophers, influenced people to flagellate their "evil" bodies. In the past we could clearly see the folly of equating "sinful nature" with bodily organs.
2. It is also wrong to try to isolate the sinful nature from the body. It is impossible to make this dichotomy of "sinful nature" and "body." When we read Romans 6, 7 and 8, Paul writes in the true Hebrew way of dealing with man as an entire entity.
Luther followed Paul, and declared that "flesh" meant the whole man as he is in his natural state without the Spirit. Luther did this more forcefully than most of the other Reformers because he rejected the popular Greek idea of the immortal soul.
Although all the Reformers were agreed that the sinful nature remained, most of them clung to the error of the immortal soul. It was John Wesley who carried the Greek dualism of the body and soul to its logical end. He clearly perceived that the body itself was not sinful. So he concluded that sin must only be in this metaphysical entity called the soul. He concluded that the complete eradication of human sinfulness could be accomplished quite apart from the change of the body at the last day. Hence he developed the Methodist doctrine of "second-blessing perfectionism."
Without detracting from Wesley's great contribution under God, the historic facts must be clearly stated. In this area, Wesley's doctrine was an aberration from the truth of the Reformation. The logical end of Greek dualism (with its corollary of the immortal soul) is the error of human perfectionism, the attempt to fulfill life and history apart from the total redemption of the entire man at the last day (see Eph. 1:14).
When one tries to grapple with the perfection of the human nature itself, the whole subject of man's nature is extremely tricky. We make difficult distinctions such as 1.) propensities of physical nature and propensities of the heart, 2.) legal inheritance and biological inheritance, 3.) where the physical side starts and ends, and where the spiritual side starts and ends; 4.) physical, mental and moral faculties as distinct from the soul itslef; 5.) then there are the reason, will, emotions and conscience, as well as the imaginations.
After gathering and organizing an immense amount of material on the nature of man, we find wisdom in Ellen White's statement, "Human beings cannot explain themselves. . . ." —Medical Ministry, p. 92. Or, like Spurgeon, I say, "All that I know you could put in a lady's thimble. And you could then put her finger in there too." If anyone asks me what is "mind," I will tell him, "Never mind."
Luther took the right road here all right, but not John Wesley. In his Journal (p. 452) he records a conversation with Spangenberg, who said: "The old creature or old man remains with us till the day of our death." Wesley then asked him, "Is there then corruption in your heart?" Spangenberg answered him in the true Reformation paradox, "In the heart of my old man there is, but not in the heart of my new man."
That is a profound and wise answer. On this point, Wesley could not reconcile the truth of the Reformation with Greek dualism. He compromised the former to maintain the latter. But it is too late in the day for us to make the same mistake.
As one looks back upon many of these areas of study, research and discussion, we think, "What a lot of traps for young players." Yet the whole path of life is the same. No one will ever make it but for the grace of God. "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy." Rom. 9:16.
It will be evident to the reader that we believe that, in at least one sense, the sinful nature will not be eradicated until the whole man is totally redeemed. Not without reason do the New Testament writers speak of the coming of Christ as the "day of redemption," a day when He will bring salvation unto them that earnestly look for Him (Eph. 1:14; Heb. 9:28). Peter exhorts us to "hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:13.
Some of our readers might be ready with a whole barrage of E. G. White statements which speak of pulling out sins by the roots, eradication of self, not retaining one sinful propensity, etc., etc. Another, just as convinced, may also be ready with other statements which speak of subduing, repressing and keeping under the evil tendencies of our nature. And we have read enough church history on this subject to see how the "Eradicationists" and the "Suppressionists" have often been locked in earnest and foolish combat without proving anything except that their own sinful nature was not too well suppressed and certainly not eradicated. Sometimes the words of the poet who wrote about the "Six Blind Men and the Elephant," are right:
"So these men from Industan
Disputed loud and long;
And each was partly in the right,
And partly in the wrong."
Sin and sinfulness and evil propensities can now be eradicated from God's people in the sense that they are not to be a ruling, controlling principle in the heart. "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body," says the apostle (Rom. 6:12). The "law of sin" certainly remains "in my members," for "in my flesh dwelleth. no good thing" (Rom. 7:23, 18). The evil tendencies of our nature must be utterly expelled from being a ruling principle over us. God freely provides the power that we may be more than conquerors over inbred sin. A Christian is not to be enslaved by any hereditary or cultivated tendency to wrong. And anyone who is at all familiar with the Spirit of Prophecy, knows that this is the plain truth without my having to provide quotations.
At the same time, we must be clear that this "eradication" does not mean making the sinful nature nonexistent. The holy prophets and apostles "confessed the sinfulness of their nature." —Acts of the Apostles, p. 561. "Paul was ever on the watch lest evil propensities should get the better of him. He guarded well his appetites and passions and evil propensities. "—SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1089. In this sense, the evil of our nature must be "subdued" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 304; Desire of Ages, p. 429), "repressed" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 423; Ibid., vol. 4, p. 538) and "overcome" (Ibid., vol. 9, p. 23). We should have no illusions about this being as easy as a picnic. It is very hard work. Paul warns that we shall enter the kingdom only "through much tribulation." And there is no respite until Jesus comes.
"There are hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil that must be overcome. . There is no end to the warfare this side of eternity.,, —Counsels to Teachers, p. 20.
"From the cross to the crown there is earnest work to be done. There is wrestling with inbred sin; there is warfare against outward wrong."—Review and Herald, Nov. 29, 1887.
"The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh." Gal. 5:17. We are Christians so long as we keep repenting and fighting. We may sometimes be knocked down, but we need never be knocked out. The Lord does not count us out even if we lose a round. We count Him out only if we cease to repent and fight. That we are faulty does not disqualify us from being God's children. That we are grappling with our faults, calling on God for help, proves that we are His children. And so long as we faint not, He will never cast us off. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong." God's view of an overcomer is so different from ours. The humble believer may not appear a great conqueror. It was not Jacob the strong wrestler who prevailed; rather, it was the broken-hearted suppliant helplessly wounded in the hollow of his thigh.
Martin Luther said, "May God of His mercy preserve me from a church in which there are none but saints. I desire to dwell with the humble, the feeble, the sick, who know and feel their sins, and who groan and cry continually to God from the bottom of their hearts to obtain His consolation and support."—Great Controversy, p. 191. And when God counts up the conquerors, lo, here they are.