Over the past few weeks in our study of the book of Ephesians several people have asked me questions about whether or not our old sin nature is fully eradicated when we become Christians, or if we still have part of it with us until we go to heaven? This is a good question because the answer sets our expectations regarding our struggle with sin. Our doctrinal statement about sin states: “The sin nature, we believe, is never eradicated, even for those who are born into the family of God, but it remains until the end of life.”
So the short answer to this question is, that while our salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives brakes our bondage to sin and empowers us to obey God rather than to sin, we will always wrestle with the part of our sin nature that remains in our flesh until we go to heaven. This is why it is so important for us to pursue God passionately, because it is our pursuit of God that leads us away from sin. If we allow ourselves to drift, the sin nature that remains in our flesh is ever ready to pull us into sin. Some of the passages that show us this are Galatians 5:16-26; 1 John 1:8-10 and Romans 7:14-23. Below are some comments from theologians about these passages that I think are helpful.
Comments on Galatians 5:16-25 by John Stott in, “The Cross of Christ”, p. 348-349
It is essential to see this text (as indeed every text) in its context. Paul in Galatians 5 is concerned with the meaning of moral freedom. He declares that it is not self-indulgence but self-control, not serving ourselves but serving each other in love (v.13). Behind this alternative is the inner conflict of which all Christian people are conscious. The apostle calls the protagonists “the flesh” (our fallen nature with which we are born) and “the Spirit” (the Holy Spirit himself who indwells us when we are born again). In verses 16-18 he describes the contest between the two, because the desires of the flesh and of the Spirit are contrary to each other. …
How then can we ensure that the desires of the Spirit predominate over the desires of the flesh? Paul replies that it depends on the attitude which we adopt to each. According to verse 24 we are to “crucify” the flesh, with its evil passions and desires. According to verse 25 we are to “live by” and “keep in step with” the Spirit.
My concern in this chapter is with verse 24, because of its assertion that those who belong to Christ have “crucified” their flesh or sinful nature. It is an astonishing metaphor. For crucifixion was a horrible, brutal form of execution. Yet it illustrates graphically what our attitude to our fallen nature is to be. We are not to coddle or cuddle it, not to pamper or spoil it, not to give it any encouragement or even toleration. Instead, we are to be ruthlessly fierce in rejecting it, together with its desires. Paul is elaborating the teaching of Jesus about “taking up the cross” and following him. He is telling us what happens when we reach the place of execution: the actual crucifixion takes place. Luther writes that Christ’s people nail their flesh to the cross, “so that although the flesh be yet alive, yet can it not perform that which it would do, forasmuch as it is bound both hand and foot, and fast nailed to the cross.”[Martin Luther, Epistle to the Galatians, p.527] And if we are not ready to crucify ourselves in this decisive manner, we shall soon find that instead we are “crucifying the Son of God all over again.” The essence of apostasy is “changing sides from that of the Crucified to that of the crucifiers.”
The crucifixions of Galatians 2:20 and 5:24 refer to two quite different things, as mentioned in an earlier chapter. The first says that we have been crucified with Christ (it has happened to us as a result of our union with Christ), and the second that the people of Christ have themselves taken action to crucify their old nature. The first speaks of our freedom from the condemnation of the law by sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, the second of our freedom from the power of the flesh by ensuring its crucifixion. These two, namely to have been crucified with Christ (passive) and to have crucified the flesh (active), must not be confused.
Comments on Galatians 5:16-25 by R.C.H. Lenski in, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians, p. 282-283.
“The old nature in us wants things that are contrary to the new, and vice versa. The two natures in us thus lie in constant conflict with each other. They are not opposites that as such live far apart, each following what it craves; they lie face to face, in constant clashing. … In the believer the spirit does indeed, dominate; he has crucified the flesh. … Regeneration renews, liberates, frees the will. The spirit = the liberated will. This liberated will is still hampered by the flesh which ever seeks to obtain control again in order to usurp the throne.”
Comments on Galatians 5:16-25 by Charles Hodge in, Systematic Theology p. 472
“Galatians 5:16-26 recognizes the fact that Christians are imperfectly sanctified and that in them the renewing principle, the Spirit as the source of spiritual life, is in conflict with the flesh, the remains of their corrupt nature.”
Comments on 1 John 1:8-10 from Lewis Sperry Chafer in, He That Is Spiritual, Chapter 6, “Walk in the Spirit”, pp.96-133
There is abundant Biblical testimony to the fact that the “flesh”, the “old man”, or “sin” are the sources of evil, and are the possession of the child of God so long as he remains in this earthly body. He has a blessed “treasure” in the possession of the “new man” indwelling him; but he has this treasure “in an earthen vessel.” The earthen vessel is the “body of our humiliation” (2 Cor. 4:7; Philippians 3:21) . . . Though born of God and possessing a new divine nature, the weakness of the flesh and the dispositions of the sin-nature abide until the final change from earth to heaven.
In 1 John 1:8,10 we have clear warning against any presumption concerning sin. First, Christians are warned against saying that they have no sin nature: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This is distinctly concerning the sin nature of the Christian and has no application whatever to the unsaved. It is addressed to believers, and to all believers. It will not do to suppose that reference is made in the passage to some unfortunate, unenlightened, or unsanctified class of Christians. There is no class distinction here. It is the testimony of the Spirit of God with reference to every born-again person. For any such to say that he has no sin nature means that the person is self-deceived and the truth is not in him. This passage is evidently intended for “correction” to those Christians who are claiming to be free from the sin nature and who may have made themselves believe that they are free. … The source of sin is, then, the sin nature rather than the new divine nature.
Comments on Romans 7:14-23 by Stuart Briscoe in his commentary on Romans, p. 149
The believer who holds the law of God in high regard will, like Paul, find himself in something of a battle. One part of him will give assent to the goodness of the law, but another part of him will rebel against it. In response to the principles of God outlined in the law, one part of the believer will aspire to great deeds, but another part will pull him back from achieving them. Challenged by the law to be done with lesser things, the believer may resolve to change his ways only to find that, like the dog which returns to its vomit, he goes back to do again the things he loathes. Paul, in three great cycles establishes this to be his own experience and draws some important conclusions. First, the law is good; second, he is bad. (To use the words of the Lord Jesus, he finds that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”) Third, he attributes his failure to the presence of sin dwelling in his members.
Comments on Romans 7:14-23 by John Calvin in Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.10. Believers are still sinners.
[Paul] is discussing the Christian struggle (more briefly touched in Galatians [ch.5:17]), which believers constantly feel in themselves in the conflict between flesh and spirit. But the Spirit comes, not from nature, but speaking of these regenerated, because when he had said that no good dwelt in him, he adds the explanation that he is referring to his flesh [Romans 7:20]. What does he mean by this correction: “In me, that is, in my flesh” [Romans 7:18]? It is as if he were speaking in this way: “Good does not dwell in me of myself, for nothing good is to be found in my flesh.” Hence follows that form of an excuse: “I myself do not do evil, but sin that dwells in me” [Romans 7:20]. This excuse applies only to the regenerate who tend toward good with the chief part of their soul. Now the conclusion appended clearly explains this whole matter: “For I delight in the law . . . according to the inner man, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind” [Romans 7:22-23]. Who would have such strife in himself but a man who, regenerated by the Spirit of God, bears the remains of his flesh about with him?”