The purpose of the previous post, ‘Understanding Sin’ (http://wp.me/p1gDan-10X) was not to heap shame upon an already guilty conscience but to call attention to how the Bible actually speaks of sin. While I appreciate the Saints by Nature movement’s focus on identity and holiness, it appears there is a genuine lack of systematic and biblical theology applied to much of their doctrine. Particular texts of scripture are often used as proof texts at the expense of numerous other clear passages; a practice that in my view leads to significant error in their theology that is debatable and at times dangerous.
This post and the few following will seek to explore where I believe the Saints by Nature theology misses the mark. If you are reading this and are a part of this movement, please know it is my desire to represent your view accurately and to speak the truth in love.
What the ‘Saints By Nature’ Teach?
The Saints by Nature theology teaches that at conversion a Christian receives a new nature. This new nature is wholly righteous and without darkness or sin from within. The old sinful self has been put to death and Christ has once and for all perfected them in and with righteousness. Two common cited scriptures are…
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17
‘14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.’ Hebrews 10:14
If a believer does sin, which they would affirm is possible but should not be the norm; it cannot be due to an inclination from within the person. Rather sin must come from without. It is often stated that sin is an entity outside a person tempting them to believe falsehoods which therefore lead a person to choose to sin.
The biblical illustration often referred to is of Adam and Eve in the garden. The argument made is that Adam and Eve had a perfect nature, unadulterated by sin and therefore their sin did not come from within them. Rather sin came from without through external temptation in the form of a lie from the serpent (Gen. 3). Accordingly at the point of conversion, a Christian receives a new nature, a righteous nature, unadulterated by sin like Adam and Eve. Thus in the same way our first parents sin came from without so too the Christian’s sin comes from without.
What the Bible Teaches?
The best way to develop a Biblical doctrine is to consider how a theme is introduced, how it is further developed throughout the biblical narrative and how it is eventually culminated. It is essential that you explore all that the Bible says and to consider how it all fits together. This will help reduce the margin for error. With this in mind let’s explore what the Bible says.
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve were tempted to believe a lie. A seed of doubt was placed in their mind through the form of a question, ‘Did God actually say?’ (Gen. 3:1). Rather than combating that doubt with the truth of God’s word, they entertained the lie that God’s word is not true, his motives not trustworthy and his character not all together good. Thus they sin. They disobey God’s good instruction to not eat the fruit of the tree. Jesus on the other hand, modelled in His temptation in wilderness (Matt. 4; Lk. 4) how Adam and Eve should have responded, when unlike Adam and Eve, He resisted the lies and temptation of the devil holding firm to the truth of God’s word. Thus I affirm that a significant component of discipleship is to fight the enemy’s lies with God’s truth, particularly the truth of who He is and what He has done and the truth of who we are in Him.
This is not all that the Genesis narrative reveals however. For the story also connects eve’s sin to her desires. Before they eat of the fruit the text states that Eve,
‘…saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise’ (Gen.3:6).
What does this mean? Outside of Jesus, the key proof text used to demonstrate what a righteous nature looks like apart from sin, just doesn’t hold true upon further inspection. The story does not teach that Adam and Eve’s sin came from without; it in fact reveals that it absolutely came from within. Before Eve ever sinned with her hands by eating the fruit from the tree, she was deceived and believed a lie in her mind and coveted within her heart.
Additionally I do not believe that the bible makes such a distinction between the head and the heart as this movement appears to make. From the outset of the biblical narrative, sin is introduced as something relating to the head, the heart and the hands. Our whole being needs to be redeemed and renewed. Our human facets are intertwined, not separate entities that do not relate to the each other. Consequently, this movement appropriates the new nature to the heart only. They appear to believe that while the heart is made fully righteous and therefore unable to be corrupted, the mind can be corrupted with sinful thoughts. But if the new nature were fully realised in every way then why would our mind need renewing at all? Surely a new creation is one of heart and mind? If the new nature comes with a wholly righteous heart with no sin or darkness then so too the mind right? After all Jesus’ command to love God is to love him with, ‘all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matt 22:37). Jesus was not trying to make a distinction between the mind and the heart. Rather he used a form of parallelism to make an overwhelming point as the psalmists often do (See Ps. 46:1 as an example). We are to love God at all times, in all ways and with all our being. To love God with your mind and not your heart is to fall short and not to love God.
The Bible just doesn’t make the separation rather it consistently speaks in a way that intrinsically links the human mind and heart, the spirit, soul and body etc
“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts Mark 7:21
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Matt. 12:34
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel… I will put my law into their minds and write them on their hearts.’ Heb. 8:10
4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? Matt. 9:4
“…and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ 1 Thess. 5:23
“… let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2 Cor. 7:1
Therefore I believe this to be an unbiblical and unnecessary distinction
Now lets return to the Genesis story.
In the very next chapter of Genesis (Gen. 4) Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Able, are introduced in the form of a family squabble. Cain was jealous and angry with his brother and God warned Cain about sin.
‘7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it…” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done?’ Genesis 4:7;10
Sin is described more or less as a beast, not outside of Cain but inside. There is a clear wrestle of desire within. And in verse 10 God does not hold some external entity named ‘IT’ responsible for deceiving Cain, rather it is Cain himself that is held responsible (what have you done?) Sin came from within Cain’s heart and mind and led him to sin with his hands in the form of murdering his own brother (Gen. 4:8).
Throughout scripture sin is described as an internal problem of the heart and mind and an external action of the hands and people are held responsible for both. The Bible repeatedly states that God knows the heart and mind and he judges both (1 Kings 8:39; Ps. 44:21; Lk. 16:15; Jn. 2:25; Acts 15:8). You most likely have heard how Jeremiah put it.
‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind…” Jeremiah 17:9-10
The Saints by Nature promoters will interject here and state that this is true of an unregenerate person. But the regenerate Christian with their new nature does not desire sin from within. Yet a quick sweep of New Testament scripture reveals that this view just does not stack up. Let us consider five texts all of which are directed at believing Christians that are new creations possessing a new nature.
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. Galatians 5:17
Some of the passions and desires, ‘things…’ Christians ‘…want to do’ are of the flesh. Though Satan and the demonic are very real, sin itself is not an external disembodied entity ‘out there’ trying to trip you up (e.g: the devil made me do it). Passions & desires are internal constructs to humanity, not external.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:13
Again, Paul’s audience here is Christians (see Romans 8:1-3). We are no longer under condemnation (8:1) AND we who have received the Spirit are to put to death the deeds of the body. We are to put to death the deeds of the body not in order to get saved, but because we are already saved. The fruit of a genuinely regenerated heart and mind is new affections and new thoughts that overcome the old by the power of the Spirit.
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, & sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. James 1:14-16
Not only is sin seen as something flowing from the inside-out, so too temptation.
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:12-13
The warning here is given to ‘brothers,’ so again the context is Christians. What is the source of sin’s deceitfulness? Verse 12 (3:12) shows us that it flows from the unbelieving heart. The deceitfulness of sin is not ‘out there’, but rather inside of us (see again James 1:14).
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God… Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:1, 5).
Notice that Christians, those ‘raised with Christ’ are to put to death that which is ‘earthly in’ them. How can this be possible if there is no darkness or sin at all within the believer? As you can see from just a few passages within the New Testament sin appears to remain some sort of problem that continues to exist inside of the believer, one that the New Testament also says is a ‘new creation…the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).
In Conclusion, the notion that sin is an entity outside of a believing Christian, or that their is absolutely no sin or darkness within the heart and mind of a Christian possessing a new nature, is simply not consistent with the full sweep of scripture. In the next post we’ll explore why this is incredibly important to the Christian life and experience.