Here are two verses that seem to say contradictory things about our sinful nature:
1. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, (Col 2:11)
2. So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Rm 7:25b)
Do you see the problem? In the first verse Paul says our sinful nature has been circumcised by Christ. His sinful nature is gone. But in the second verse he admits that he still has a sinful nature, one that keeps him enslaved to sin. So which is it? Do we have a sinful nature or don’t we? Better read some more scriptures:
3. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Gal 5:24)
Oh good, our sinful nature has gone. That’s a relief.
4. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Rm 13:14)
Huh? How could I gratify the desires of my sinful nature? I thought I didn’t have one anymore? Guess I still do.
5. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. (Rm 7:5)
Now Paul’s saying it’s in our past again. We were controlled. So we’re not controlled by our sinful nature anymore right? So it’s gone right?
6. Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Co 5:5)
Okay, now I’m really confused. This man, who “calls himself a brother,” still has a sinful nature. His sinful nature wasn’t circumcised by Jesus but is now about to be destroyed by Satan so he can be saved. But why would the devil want to destroy someone’s sinful nature? And why would Satan want to help someone get saved?
Isn’t this a little confusing?
There is a simple explanation for these puzzling scriptures – they are all poor translations found exclusively in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.
Now I love the NIV – it’s one of my favorite English Bibles – but its translators really tied themselves in knots when it came to writing about our so-called sinful nature. Do we have a sinful nature? We don’t. Second Peter 1:4 says we are partakers of His divine nature. In truth, the sinful nature versus new nature debate is barely mentioned in the Bible. To say you got a new nature when you were born again is like saying you got a new steering wheel when you bought a car. It’s true, but it’s only part of a larger story. When you were born again you didn’t just get a new nature, but a whole new life. You used to be dead but now you’re alive (Col 2:11). You used to be one kind of creature but now you’re another (2 Co 5:17).
So what’s going on with these six verses above? Not only are they contradictory but some of them seem to say we have something (a sinful nature) that we clearly do not have. In five of these verses (no.s 2-6), Paul is actually talking about our flesh (sarx in Greek). The word “flesh” refers to our physical bodies or our sensual nature. It’s that part of us that we would describe as natural as opposed to spiritual. Our bodies and our natural senses were given to us by God; we need them to live. Theologians who say that our flesh is inherently evil might as well say that Jesus was evil. Afterall, Jesus was the Living Word made flesh (Jn 1:14). True, Jesus wasn’t born under the curse of sin and death like we were. But He had all the same appetites we have and He was tempted in every way. He had the full flesh experience yet remained without sin (Heb 4:15).
Everything God made is good and that includes the flesh. The problems come when we walk after the flesh, when we choose to live in the inferior realm of the flesh rather than the superior realm of the spirit. The sinner has no choice in this matter – he remains in the flesh and the flesh is all he knows. But we who have been born of the spirit can choose. We can walk after the old way of the flesh or we can walk after the new way of the spirit (Rm 8:5). This is why the Bible exhorts those of us who are in the spirit to walk in the spirit (Gal 5:25). It’s saying “renew your mind and choose!” Put off the old and put on the new. There are chapters and chapters that explain this new way of life for us (e.g., Eph 4, Col 3). To choose the way of the flesh is to be, what the King Jimmy writers call, “carnal-minded.” Carnal-mindedness, for the born again spirit-filled believer, is a choice not a condition and it’s a choice that runs contrary to our new nature.
Verse 1 in the list above is a little different. In this verse the words “sinful nature” do not refer to the flesh but the “body of sin” or the “body of the sins of the flesh” that Jesus cut off you. Paul is basically saying that you were a slave to sin but you’re not anymore (see Rm 6:6). Even the NIV is perfectly clear about this: You have been “freed from sin;” “You have been set free from sin;” “You have been set free from sin” (Rm 6:7,18,22). This is wonderful news. When you were in the flesh you weren’t free to choose but now that you’re in the spirit you are!
So why do I still sin?
From time to time you’re going to sin and when you do you may wonder why you did it. If you read certain passages in the NIV you might conclude that it’s because you still possess a sinful nature. You may think that you’re hard-wired to sin and that you need to die to self. But that’s simply not true! You died already. You are not a saint with a sinful nature any more than you are a reformed sinner. Read what the Bible says about you. You are a completely new creation with new desires. We sin because we sometimes choose to walk by sight and not by faith (Rm 14:23). We may do it out of habit. We may do it out of ignorance. But when we set our minds on inferior earthly things and indulge the lusts of the flesh we are acting out of character. We are acting hypocritically by pretending to be someone we are not.
This is an important truth because so many Christians are striving to arrive at where they already are. They’re trying to improve themselves through self-denial and, in doing so, are walking hard after the flesh. They do not do what they want to do so they try harder. But they are only adding fuel to the fire. You cannot fight flesh with flesh.
The new New International Version
Perhaps in view of these issues, the good people at Zondervan recently announced an important change to the 2011 version of the NIV Bible. On page 8 of its Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation, they said, “Most occurrences of ‘sinful nature’ have become ‘flesh.’” In other words, the NIV translators have decided to use the same English word for sarx found in the King James Version and nearly every other English Bible. This is a good change and it’s already in effect. For example, if you look up Romans 13:14 on the latest version of the NIV hosted at Bible Gateway, you will find that it now says this:
“Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.”
“In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit.”
So we’ve gone from having a sinful nature to living in a sinful state. Big improvement. My earlier point bears repeating: If the flesh is inherently sinful then Jesus was sinful, but it isn’t and He wasn’t. Read the verse above again and you will see that the problem is not the flesh, but thinking about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. See that? Most of our problems originate with our unrenewed thinking, not our corruptible flesh. Jesus had all the same desires of the flesh that you and I have, yet He never sinned. Now Christ is our life (Col 3:4). This means we have the same nature as Jesus. We also inhabit the same sort of flesh that Jesus had. Consequently, we can live the same victorious life as Jesus. How? Certainly not by trying harder in the flesh. No, we live the life we’re called to by renewing our minds and learning to walk after the spirit.