A Question on the Sinful Nature & Free Will
January 31, 2024, 3:49 PM

Question: Hello, can you please help me understand something a little better and clarify it for me? My question is this: Since we have a sinful human nature, a fallen human nature, how are we capable of putting off the old man and putting on the new man? Is it a matter of obedience and free will?

Answer: Thank you so much for your question. This is a very important question for Christians to understand for several reasons, not the least of which is the relationship between our sanctification (our holy living) and our justification (our standing before God) and how that all connects with our assurance of salvation.

You rightfully acknowledge that we have a “sinful/fallen” human nature. This has often been referred to as Total Depravity. Due to the fall of mankind (recorded in Genesis 3), our nature is corrupt, our nature is fallen. We have fallen from a state of grace into a state of sin and misery. This is clearly taught in Romans 5:12, 18-19:

[12] Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned-- ... [18] Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. [19] For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12, 18-19 NIV)

Adam was a “federal head.” In other words, Adam was a representative of mankind in the Garden. His failure in the Garden not only led to his eventual death, but it also passed on death to all who come after him, all his progeny. We share in Adam’s guilt and inherit his corrupt nature. Theologians refer to this as Original Sin. Adam’s sin and guilt are imputed to us through natural birth. As a result, we are incapable of doing any work that would merit favor or righteousness before God (see Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-3:20, especially his “indictment” in Romans 3:9-20). God’s moral and righteous standard requires perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed; and because of our fallen, sinful nature, we are incapable of rendering the required obedience to God’s law.

Now, you provide a couple of solutions to your own question when you ask, “Is it a matter of obedience and free will?” These answers, when scrutinized under the light of Scripture, will prove to be inadequate. To begin with, this is a debate that has raged all throughout church history. The ancient church father, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), once said in his famous book, The Confessions, “Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” In other words, Augustine recognized the depravity of his fallen nature and thus prayed to God to grant him the ability to follow His commands, and then command whatever He wills. This outraged the British monk, Pelagius (354-418), who believed God would never require of man something he could not perform. Pelagius denied Original Sin and argued for a “radical” free will that stated man is inherently capable of obeying the commandments of God. Man is only “fallen” if he imitates the sin of Adam. There is no inherent guilt or corruption in mankind. Pelagius and Pelagianism were declared heretical in the Council of Carthage (418).

Since then, a quasi-mediating strain of thought called ­semi-Pelagianism has lingered in Christian theological circles. The will of man is not radically free (a la Pelagius), but it is also not radically fallen (a la Augustine). The will of man is hindered, sick, in need of assistance. This was the view adopted by the followers of Jacob Arminius (and was rejected by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in the Synod of Dort, 1618). It is also, ironically given Augustine’s influence, the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Mankind needs prevenient grace to overcome the inertia of his fall into sin, but once given this nudge of grace, man is then in the position to choose to obey God or not to obey God.

This is all well and good, but the Bible doesn’t teach semi-Pelagianism (and it certainly doesn’t teach Pelagianism). The will of man is not sick, injured, or dying. The will of man is dead (Ephesians 2:1-5). The will of man is enslaved (Romans 6:17-18). Dead man can’t respond to the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). Slaves have no freedom. Before we can respond favorably to the Law of God, we need new birth (John 3:3; Ephesians 2:5). This is the doctrine of Regeneration. We are “born again” and we are given new hearts with new desires and eagerly desire to obey God and His Law.

We still have a problem, though, and that is what Martin Luther (1483-1546) referred to as the sinner-saint reality in the believer. Though we are made alive in Christ by the Spirit through faith, we still struggle in bodies of unredeemed flesh. This sinner-saint reality is beautifully expressed in Romans 7:14-25. Paul’s argument can be summed up in one verse: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18 NIV). The sinner-saint reality is one of a desire to do what is right but lacking the power to carry it out. Hence, the prayer of Augustine, “Give what you command.”

So, what is the solution? I can’t will myself to obey in the flesh. The answer is found in Romans 8. We need Spiritual power to overcome the infirmities of the flesh. As Paul writes, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 NIV). Paul says a similar thing in Galatians 5:16: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Living according to the Spirit, walking by the Spirit is another way of saying walking by faith.

We have been justified (declared righteous before God) by grace through faith and are being sanctified (made holy) by grace through faith (Colossians 2:6; Galatians 2:20). In our justification, we have received through faith the perfect righteousness of Christ applied to us. When we stand before God, we will be judged based on Christ’s righteousness. Our Christian living in the here and now, our “putting off” and “putting on” is accomplished as we walk by faith. The Spirit grants us the power for holy living through faith, and we strive to live holy lives, knowing that the burden of the Law has been borne by Christ. The Law no longer condemns the Christian, but now serves as the guide for Christian living by faith. As Paul says, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11).

I hope this helps.

~ Pastor Carl