Reformed theology differs greatly from Dispensational theology in many respects, not the least of which is whether the believer possesses a sin nature. Holy Scripture speaks carefully and in great detail about the conflict between our sinful nature and the new nature. Some theological traditions have not always fully acknowledged the biblical distinction between the new nature and the sinful nature in the believer. When an unbeliever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, God imparts His very life and moral nature within that individual. Despite a corrupt sin nature, Christians are enabled to experience a dynamic life for Christ through the indwelling new nature. This new nature cannot sin because it is born of God (1 Jn. 3:9). However, current Reformed theology argues vigorously that the believer cannot have both a new nature and the sin nature simultaneously. This, it is assumed, introduces an untenable spiritual contradiction within the believer, which causes confusion in the Christian life. This view, called “One-Naturism”, is rapidly gaining adherents in Reformed circles and is also making inroads among those in other theological traditions. Two of the most notable non-reformed teachers to espouse this view are David C. Needham, of Multnomah School of the Bible, and popular author Neil Anderson.
The One-Nature View Defined
Among Reformed Bible teachers, the view that a Christian does not possess an old nature has rapidly become the majority view. During the last fifty years, Reformed teachers have stepped forward, ardently stressing that believers do not possess an old sinful nature. They teach that the “old self”, or “old nature”, or the “flesh” at regeneration ceases to be present in the body of the believer. The believer does not possess two natures, the old sinful nature and the new divine nature, but rather one nature received at conversion. Reformed Baptist author and preacher John MacArthur, from Panorama City, CA, writes,
“I believe it is a serious misunderstanding to think of the believer as having both an old and new nature. Believers do not have dual personalities…there is no such thing as an old nature in the believer.” (1) In another place he explains,
“At new birth a person becomes a new creature; old things have passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Cor. 5:17). It is not simply that he receives something new, but that he becomes someone new …The new nature is not added to the old nature, but replaces it . The transformed person is a completely new “I”. Biblical terminology, then, does not say that a Christian has two different natures. He has but one nature, the new nature in Christ. The old self dies and the new self lives; they do not coexist.” (2) This unorthodox view has been embraced by most current Reformed teachers and theologians. However, it must be noted that this view is of recent origin, and was not the view of the majority of Reformers from the time of the 1500’s to our present century. In our present era Reformed professor Robert Dabney taught this view in the late 1800’s and Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield espoused this view in his work Christ is Lord. Many observers trace this view’s rise in popularity back to the 1940’s to the teaching and writings of Professor John Murray (1898-1975), who was associated for many years with Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Yet we must reiterate that this view is a new view, a view that was not held by the majority of the early Reformers, nor is it held by leading Dispensational theologians. Anthony Hoekema, a respected Calvinist theologian, who holds the one-nature view, candidly concedes that this view is new and was not held by the Reformers. He writes,
“On the question of these two selves, Reformed theologians differ. Most of them, particularly those who taught and wrote some years ago, hold that the old self and the new self are distinguishable aspects of the believer. Before conversion believers had an old self; at the time of conversion, however, they put on the new self—without totally losing the old self. Older Reformed teachers, such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and William Hendriksen, held the dual nature view.” (3) This issue is not merely an academic exercise, but one in which clear, biblical thinking is needed. Right thinking in this issue will help to establish the believer concerning the doctrines of sin, sanctification of the believer, and the appropriation of our rich spiritual resources in Christ.
The Reformed Defense of the One-Nature View
Current Reformed writers are convinced that this new view is rooted in New Testament teaching. The much-debated chapter six of Romans, verses 1 through 12, are set forth as the foundation for “one-naturism”. Again Anthony Hoekema, a leading proponent of this view, explains,
“For we know that our old self was crucified with Him, so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin”(Rom. 6:6 NASB). What does Paul mean here by the “old self”? John Murray suggests that this expression designates “the person in his unity as talking about a totality: the total person enslaved by sin—what we all are by nature”. That “person enslaved by sin,” he is saying, was crucified with Christ. When Christ died on the cross, He dealt a death blow to the old self we once were. Given the meaning of “crucified,” Romans 6:6 states with unmistakable clarity that we who are in Christ, who are one with Him in His death, are no longer the old selves we once were.” (4) This view raises an important question. Does the Bible teach that our old self, that is, our old nature, has been dealt such a death blow that this nature no longer exists? Or, on the other hand, should we understand our crucifixion with Christ to be a legal judgment upon our old manner of life? These and other questions need to be asked and thoughtfully considered as we look into this important issue. Able Bible teachers have understood this “old self” that was put to death to be our old manner of life, that is, all we were before we came to Christ by faith. Bible teachers have expressed that this is the suitable view when all aspects of Bible interpretation are taken into account. Dispensationalist Dr. John Walvoord, the former President of Dallas Seminary, explaining the traditional meaning of the phrase “that our old man is crucified”, writes,
“There is some confusion with the terms “old man” and “new man”. This problem can be resolved if it is understood that “old man” and “new ” man are references not to the old or new nature, or self, but rather to the old manner of life, which is an expression of the old nature, and the new manner of life, which is an expression of the new nature.” (5)
Why Do Believers Sin?
Why do believers sin? This is the most difficult question for proponents of the “one-nature” view. However, for opponents of this One-naturism, it is one of their strongest arguments. If, as Reformed writers tell us, the old sinful nature no longer exists in a Christian and if believers have only one nature, our new nature in Christ which is not subject to sin and can’t sin—then the logical question arises in our minds: why does a believer sin? Reformed teachers explain that, although the old sinful nature no longer exists in the Christian, the ingrained patterns and habits of the old life are, nonetheless, deeply imbedded into our minds; and it is these sinful patterns which cause sin in our lives. One writer explains,
“Where does sin mount its attack to keep me from doing what I really want to do? Your flesh, that part of you which was trained to live independently of God…memories, habits, conditioned responses, and thought patterns ingrained in you. It is your responsibility to crucify the flesh by repatterning your old thoughts by allowing your mind to be renewed (Rom. 12:2).” (6) With all due respect, we must differ and suggest that this novel view as to why a Christian sins strains logic and more importantly, is at odds with Holy Scripture. Firstly, allow us to consider the unreasonableness of this view. The ingrained patterns, habits, and responses of sin that are formed in a believer may account for sin in the lives of those who come to Christ at an older age, adults who have had time for sin to form deep-seated patterns in their lives. But how do we explain the sin in the lives of those who come to faith in Christ as young children. Certainly, they have not had the same deeply ingrained sin patterns as older adults. Yet, by their own admisssion, they sin just as often, and in the same ways, as believers who come to Christ at a much older age. Furthermore, how does it explain new sins in the life of a believer as he becomes older? A person who has come to Christ at age ten, for example, does not have the ingrained patterns of drug abuse, adultery, fornication, and sexual immorality; yet in the lives of many believers who come to Christ at a young age, these sins do appear in their lives as adults. This view fails to logically explain the cause of sin in believers. This view also contradicts the testimony of Holy Scripture. What does the Bible say concerning why a believer sins? In addressing this very point, the Bible sets forth vividly the source of sin. Paul, the apostle, confesses the reason for his sin, ”...sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing” (Rom. 7:17-18). Paul further explains, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:21). What is the biblical reason for the cause of sin? We must conclude that our sinful disposition, that is our sin nature, is the reason for our sin. We sin because we are sinners possessing a sin nature.We must not deceive ourselves into thinking that sinful living is the result of mere habits and ingrained thought patterns.
Our Sin Nature Will Become Progressively Weaker
Reformed theology teaches that although the sin nature is no longer present within the believer, the “remnants of original sin” are present. These remnants are the former patterns of thinking and old sinful habits. Therefore, it is taught that as the Christian matures in Christ, the grip of these fleshly habits will become less and less. Reformed theologian John Gerstner explains,
“The Spirit of God continues to work faith in the regenerate and they therein persevere in good works, always struggling against the remnants of their original sin whose guilt is pardoned but whose power is decreasingly felt until destroyed at death.” (7) In like manner, Robert L. Dabney, the reformed theologian and former professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton, writes,
”...And if the old nature never loses any of its strength until death…if then any professed believer finds the “old man” in undiminished strength, this is proof that he has never put on the new man.” (8) Is this true? One of the best ways to examine this teaching is to examine the life of the Apostle Paul. All Christians would agree that the Apostle Paul should be held up as an example of a mature believer, one who has certainly progressed in the faith. If this doctrine of a lessening of the pull of the flesh in the experience of mature believers were true, then we would see it evident in the life of the apostle. However, the very opposite is seen, for we read in Romans, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not… I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me” (Rom. 7:18-19). The Apostle Paul clearly expresses the working of the flesh as an integral part of his Christian experience; and instead of a lessening and diminishing of the power of the sinful nature, it is seen in all its evil strength. It is pulling, tearing at the apostle in its attempts to bring him to sin. Instead of language that would indicate the simple workings of the “remnants of original sin”, old habits, and thought patterns that are lessening in this mature saint of God. We see that as a Christian progresses in maturity and spiritual growth, his old nature continues to assail him with sinful desires. The old nature can never be reformed. However, by yielding to the indwelling Spirit of God, and taking up the weapons of prayer and the Word of God, the urges of the old nature can and will be resisted. This is the true path to victory.
(1) John MacArthur, Freedom from Sin—Rom. 6-7, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1991), pp. 31-32
(2) John MacArthur, Ephesians, (Chicago, IL : Moody Press, 1987) p. 164
(3) Anthony Hoekema, Five Views on Sanctification, (Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan, 1987), p.78.
(4) Anthony Hoekema, Five Views on Sanctification, (Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan, 1987), p.79
(5) John Walvoord, Five Views on Sanctification, (Grand Rapids, MI : Zondervan, 1987), p.100-101
(6) Neil Anderson, Victory over Darkness, (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 83-84, 75, 45-46
(7) John Gerstner, Dispensationalism,Wrongly Dividing theWord of Truth, (Wolgemuth & Wyatt, Brentwood, TN, 1991), p. 147
(8) Robert L. Dabney, quoted in John MacArthur,Vanishing Conscience, (Waco, TX, Word, 1995 ), p. 219