Since the Reformation, the evangelical church has done a commendable, if inconsistent, job of communicating to Christians the truth of the righteousness of Christ being imputed to us because of Christ’s work on the cross.
Where the church has fallen woefully short is communicating to believers what actually happened to them at the new birth. We tell unbelievers that they must be born again, but then once they are, it’s as if we pretend it never happened. No one ever talks about what God did to us at the new birth.
I believe there is a reason for that. What God says happened to us at the new birth doesn’t match our theology. Specifically, it doesn’t match our belief and our teaching that believers are still inherently sinful, that we are still sinners at heart. That theology is ingrained in the evangelical church.
But it is a mistaken theology, and one that is utterly unbiblical. In this area the church as a whole has let our experience determine our theology instead of letting God’s Word determine our theology. We all experience that we still sin, so we conclude that in the depths of our being we must still be sinners. But this isn’t what God’s Word says. It doesn’t say that we are still sinners at heart. It says that we are saints, righteous new creations.
It is completely unbiblical to continue to call New Covenant believers sinners, and entirely biblical to call us righteous new creations. In this brief paper I will present the scriptural evidence for this view.
Evidence number one: What God says happened at the new birth
Hundreds of years before Christ, through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God foretold what life would be like under an entirely new arrangement with His people. We call it the New Covenant. In Ezekiel, God said that under this new arrangement,
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
God indicates that under the New Covenant, God will actually give people a new heart. He will put a new spirit within us. How would he do this?
It wasn’t until Jesus came that that was revealed. In his famous conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus explained.
“Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3b-6)
According to Jesus, at the new birth, the birth from above, the Holy Spirit actually births within us a new spirit. He is referring to a new human spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh. Human beings give birth to new human beings. Spirit gives birth to spirit. The Holy Spirit gives birth to a new human spirit within us. Just as God, through Ezekiel, said he would.
What, then, does this make those of us who have received the new birth? It makes us literally born of God.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Over and over John emphasizes this in his writings. Not only does the Gospel of John mention it four times; John’s first epistle talks of us being “born of God” another seven times. Peter mentions that we have been born again as well (1 Peter 1:23). Even James agrees, saying, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18a). Just about the only epistles which don’t talk about the new birth come from Paul, who talks about it in different, though parallel, language.
Our new birth has tremendous implications for who we truly are. In fact, it determines who we truly are. Why? Because birth always determines identity. That is true in the physical realm, and it is equally true in the spiritual realm.
The fact that we are born of God cannot help but beg the question: what exactly did God give birth to? Did he give birth to sinners, or did he give birth to righteous new creations? Did the Holy Spirit birth a new sinful spirit within us, or did he birth something within us that has his own nature? Those questions seem to answer themselves, but let’s see what the scriptures say.
Evidence number two: The indications that the new birth involved a replacement, not merely an addition
So, God birthed within us a new spirit. That means we now have our new spirit and our old spirit at the same time, doesn’t it? Well, no. The scriptures don’t indicate that at the new birth God simply added something to us. Rather, they indicate that he removed something as well. In other words, he did a heart transplant.
This is evident from the passage we read from Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Clearly, God was saying that under the New Covenant he would do a heart transplant, taking out the old heart, the old spirit, and putting in an entirely new one. After that, he says, he will then “put My Spirit within you” (37:27a). He gives us a new human spirit, then he puts his Spirit in us.
Paul agrees with this entirely as he writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
Paul doesn’t say that the old is still there, but something has been added to it. No, he says that the old has passed away. It’s gone. New things have come, such that each of us is now an entirely new creature, a new creation. Paul then immediately says, “Now all things are from God . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:18a). Everything about who we now are comes from God.
The language Paul uses concerning our co-crucifixion with Christ indicates the same thing. A transplant has occurred. The old man is gone.
Knowing this, that our old self [man] was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:6-7)
The new man has come in its place.
. . . the new self [man], which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth . . .” (Ephesians 4:24)
According to the scriptures we do not have both an old man and a new man fighting it out within us. The old man is gone. We are now the new man.
Evidence number three: The New Testament statements regarding our true identity
At various places the New Testament writers state outright that we are now righteous. At times this is clearly talking about how God imputed the righteousness of Christ to us, such as in Romans 4. At other times, however, I believe the writers are talking about not imputed righteousness, but imparted righteousness. That is, they are talking about God having given us an entirely new nature, a new spirit, that is truly righteous, just as he is.
The foremost of these is probably Ephesians 4:24, where, as we have seen, Paul says that our new man is “created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” In no way can this be said to be imputed righteousness. “Created” is not imputed. It is actually making something that is inherently righteous.
A parallel verse is 2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, which we have also looked at.
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all things are from God . . .”
Clearly this is talking about something imparted, not imputed. Being a new creature cannot be something imputed. Four verses later, Paul says,
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The context of verse 17 would indicate that this, too, is talking about imparted, not imputed. That means it is saying we actually are the righteousness of God, not that that righteousness is simply credited to us. The language of the verse itself supports this. Paul doesn’t say “that we might be declared the righteousness of God.” He says “that we might become the righteousness of God.”
Romans 5:19, I believe, presents things similarly.
For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
Paul says here that through Christ’s obedience the many will be made righteous. It doesn’t say whether this is imputed or imparted, and it could legitimately be either. But again, I think the context gives a clue. Adams’ sin didn’t positionally make us sinners. It made us real sinners. Why would we conclude here that Christ’s work only makes us positionally, and not actually, righteous?
Finally, John says:
Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” (1 John 3:7)
This verse states outright that the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous. This is difficult to interpret as only imputed righteousness. Why? First, because Jesus’s righteousness isn’t imputed. It is inherent to Him. And according to this verse we are righteous just as he is righteous. And second, this verse is talking about practicing righteousness. That’s something that John is arguing comes from a changed nature. In other words, the practice of righteousness indicates that a person is actually righteous, not that they are simply declared righteous.
Evidence number four: the language Paul never uses to describe believers
I believe that the verses cited under #3 make it clear that we are actually righteous. When we combine the verses above with the totality of language that the New Testament uses to describe believers and unbelievers, the case becomes incredibly strong that a radical change has actually taken place on the inside of us, and that we actually are righteous.
The first aspect of this is the language Paul doesn’t use to describe believers. Paul never calls us sinners. We call ourselves sinners all the time. Paul never does. You would think that if Paul considered us to still be sinners at heart, he would refer to us that way at least once. But he never does. Shouldn’t that tell us something? He certainly wrote letters to churches which were having sin issues, but not once does he ever refer to any of them as sinners. Neither does Peter. Neither does John. Or Jude. Or the writer to the Hebrews. (I’ll deal with James later.)
Only once does Paul even come close to calling us sinners: “But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be!” (Galatians 5:17). I believe that Paul here is not referring to the believer’s basic identity, but simply to outward behavior, which are two entirely different things. Why do I say that? First, because of the point he is making. He is saying, “Just because you see sin in the life of someone seeking to be justified in Christ doesn’t mean that Christ is a minister of sin.” I believe Eugene Peterson gets the essence of this verse exactly right in The Message: “Are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ therefore must ne an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous.”
And second, because Paul talks three verses later about how he was crucified with Christ, and as we have explored (and will explore more), that crucifixion and resurrection with Christ produced a radical change in our inner being.
Of course, Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:15 that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost.” But despite using the present tense, clearly Paul is talking here about his life as a sinner prior to meeting Christ, not afterward. This verse parallels 1 Corinthians 15:9, where Paul talks about how God chose him, such a horrible sinner that he would actually persecute the church of God, to manifestly demonstrate His incredible grace. I find it unlikely that God would appoint the present-tense foremost of sinners to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
So if, contrary to our practice, Paul and the other New Testament writers do not call us sinners, what do they call us? Saints. Holy ones. They refer to us that way 53 times. The volume of those references is so large that we might even conclude that God wants us to refer to ourselves that way. And think of ourselves that way. We are holy ones. Not will be one day. Are now.
Evidence number five: The language the New Testament uses to describe unbelievers and believers
This reality becomes even clearer when we consider all the language the New Testament writers use to describe believers and unbelievers. I have compiled such a list. It is not exhaustive, but it is large and indicative. Here are words and phrases the New Testament writers use to describe unbelievers:
dead in their trespasses and sins; conducting their lives according to the way of the world; living in the lusts of their flesh; indulging the lusts of the flesh and of the mind;
darkened in their understanding; having a futile mind; excluded from God’s life because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; darkness; sons of night; sons of disobedience; do not know God; separated from God; disobedient; deceived; enslaved to various lusts and pleasures; spending their lives in malice and envy; hateful; hating one another; ungodly; unrighteous; unclean; slaves of sin; God’s enemies.
Here are words and phrases the New Testament writers use to describe believers:
Saints; partakers of the divine nature; light in the Lord; sons of light; the righteousness of God; holy; blameless; made complete; perfected for all time; slaves of righteousness; sanctified; glorified; washed; created in righteousness and holiness; God’s own possession; alive to God; a fragrance of Christ to God; fellow heirs with Christ; God’s elect; redeemed; God’s children; God’s temple; reconciled to God; partakers of Christ; chosen; dearly loved; fellow citizens of heaven with all of God’s saints; joined to Christ; one spirit with Christ; a part of Christ’s body; born of God.
These lists are so utterly different that I do not believe in any way we can conclude that person A, an unbeliever, is exactly the same person as person B, a believer, except that person B is now forgiven and declared positionally righteous. No, a radical change has happened to person B. He is not in any way the same person he was before. Because of the new birth, he is a completely new creature, which is exactly what Paul says he is. He may not entirely act new, think new, or feel new, but in the depths of his being, he truly has been remade.
Evidence number six: How Paul appeals to believers concerning their behavior
At various places in his letters Paul appeals to believers to put aside fleshly sins, or to turn their back on living a life of sin. How, then, does he make this appeal? Does he appeal to them as depraved sinners who need to somehow get their acts together for God? (As if such a thing were even possible). Not at all. He never appeals to them that way. Rather, he always appeals to them as new creations in Christ who have been changed. He always says, in essence, “Why would you want to have anything to do with that anymore? That’s not even who you are now.”
Ephesians 5:1-8 is typical of all the times Paul does this.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us . . . But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.
This appeal, and all the others Paul makes like it, make no sense if believers are unchanged in their essential being. If they are unchanged, then they are simply forgiven sons of disobedience for whom it would be perfectly natural to sin. But Paul is saying the opposite. He is saying, “You aren’t that person anyone, so it makes no sense whatsoever for you to continue to live as if you are.”
Evidence number seven: How some of Paul’s statements can only make sense theologically if we were given a new, righteous spirit at our new birth.
Paul makes statements concerning the believer that only make sense if a radical change has already taken place in the depths of our being. Perhaps the primary one is his insistence that we are dead to sin.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
This emphatic statement of Paul is exceedingly difficult to make sense of if a radical change has not taken place within us, and we are still sinners at heart. How can sinners at heart in any way be said to be dead to sin?
Some teach that because we have been forgiven, we are dead to sin. But being forgiven has nothing to do with our essential relationship to sin; it has to do with God removing the consequences of that sin. Some teach that this statement means that we are to live as if we are dead to sin. There are two problems with that. First, it’s not what Paul says. And second, it doesn’t even make sense. How can we tell someone whose basic nature is to sin, to act as if they are dead to sin? They won’t do it. If it is their nature to sin, they are going to sin. Sinners are not dead to sin.
Paul gives us the real answer four verses later: “Knowing this, that our old self [man] was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with [or, made powerless], so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).
Paul makes the astounding claim that our old man, the man we were in Adam (this is the context from Romans 5:12-21), was actually crucified with Christ on the cross. Jesus wasn’t the only one who died there. Our old man died there, too. That’s exactly what Paul says. This isn’t just “positional” truth. It actually happened. How do we know? Because it had a radical, real-world effect: it freed us from sin.
This could only have happened if the relationship between our deepest inner being and sin was severed. And that is exactly what Paul says happened. Our old man was spiritually joined to sin. We were in a one-spirit union with sin. But our old man died with Christ on the cross. How? It’s a mystery. All we know is that God exists outside of time, and if says he crucified our old man on the cross, he crucified our old man on the cross. Then we were raised a new man, “created in righteousness and holiness.” This new man, our new spirit born of the Holy Spirit, is dead to sin. It is alive to God (Romans 6:11). In our inner man, our relationship with sin has been severed. It may not feel that way, and we may not have yet learned to act according to that truth, but God says it is true. A radical change has taken place within us, such that we are now dead to sin and alive to God.
Evidence number eight: Our one-spirit union with Christ.
Before he goes to the cross, Jesus prays his high priestly prayer. What, toward the end of it, does he pray for the church? That the Father would make us one with the Father and the Son.
“I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in me through their word; that they may all be one . . .” (John 17:20-21a)
And how does he define us being one?
“. . . even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us . . .” (John 17:21b)
Jesus isn’t praying here that the church might be unified. That may be an important side effect of what he is praying, but what he is praying is that, based on what Jesus is about to do at the cross, the Father would make us spiritually one with the Godhead, that just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him, so also we might be in them and they in us.
According to Paul, this is exactly what happens to a believer when he is joined to Christ:
“But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:17)
This isn’t something that is going to happen to us when we die. It has already happened. God has already joined himself to every believer in an eternal, indissoluble, one-spirit union. He and we became one spirit. So the question becomes: how could God possibly do this, become one spirit with us, if our spirit was still inherently sinful? Would a holy God permanently become one with something that is unholy? I think the answer to that is self-evident.
But what about various people in the Old Testament who had the Holy Spirit? God never became one spirit with them. The Holy Spirit came and could leave. That’s why David prays in Psalm 51, “Don’t take your Spirit from me.” This one spirit union under the New Covenant is only possible with a radical change in the depths of our inner man. That change happened at the new birth.
Evidence number nine: John’s description of the natural life of the believer
Throughout his first epistle, John is contrasting believers and unbelievers. Some of his statements are admittedly difficult to square with our experience, but what if we put our experience aside and simply let God’s Word speak for itself? Here’s what he says in chapter 3:
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:6-9, ESV)
I do not believe that we can read this and conclude that it is natural for a Christian to sin. In fact, sinning is the most unnatural thing in the world for a believer to do. Why does John say this? He ties it back to the fact that we are born of God. John is saying that if we are born of God it is our nature to live righteously. That’s what people who are born of God do. If we were still sinners at heart, this statement of John’s would make no sense at all. The most natural thing in the world for sinners to do is sin. (“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”) But John is saying, that is not at all true of us, because we have been born of God.
Evidence number ten: The last half of Romans 7
Romans 7:14-25 is commonly known as the place where Paul describes “the conflict of two natures.” That is, after all, the exact subhead the NASB has assigned to it all these years. So we would expect to find a major discrepancy here with the view that we are actually righteous new creations, right?
Well, no. In truth, this section of Romans is one of the strongest arguments for that view. But we will only see that if we put aside our theological preconceptions and look closely at what Paul actually says. So what does he say? Let’s go through it verse by verse.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. (7:14)
This is a statement of Paul’s losing struggle (at one time) against sin, not a statement of identity. How do we know? First, the word the NASB translates “of flesh” is the same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3:1, where he addresses the Corinthians and says “I’d like to speak to you as spiritual men, but I can’t. Instead, you’re still fleshly (KJV, carnal).” There, and here, Paul is using the word to describe an experience of being defeated by sin. Second, Paul says here that he is “sold into bondage to sin.” Clearly, that is a description of his experience, not his identity, because in chapter 6 he just repeatedly stated that those of us who are in Christ are dead to sin. Our true identity can’t be both dead to sin and in bondage to sin. One is a statement of identity, the other of current experience.
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. (7:15)
This is a strong statement of Paul’s identity as a righteous new creation. Why? Because he is saying that his inner man, his true self, is on God’s side. He wants to do what is right. He hates sin. If he were a sinner at heart, that statement would simply be false. Sinners don’t hate sin. They love it. They may hate its consequences, but they don’t hare sin. Paul hates sin because he is a new man, birthed by the Holy Spirit.
So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (7:17)
This is an unbelievably strong statement about the believer’s new inner man and new identity in Christ. In fact, the statement is so strong and so radical that I have never heard a Christian utter it. It’s as if Paul is erecting a huge wall. On one side of the wall is Paul, the new creation. On the other side is sin. Paul points toward the other side of the wall and says, “You see that over there? That is not me! That is not who I am! It has no part of the real me.” So strongly does he say this that he says that when he sins, it’s not even him doing it! It’s this thing in him called sin. How could Paul possibly make this claim if he were a sinner at heart? He couldn’t. It would be impossible.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; (7:18a)
Let’s skip this for a moment and circle back to it. Let me just say in passing that it becomes obvious that Paul does not link what he is calling his flesh to his true identity. Just the opposite. Paul would say the same thing about flesh that he says about sin: that is not who I am.
for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. (7:18b-19)
Once again, Paul affirms his true identity. He wants to do the good. That is because his inner man is on God’s side now. But instead in his actions he is doing the evil that he does not want. Again, that is not a statement we could make about people who are sinners at heart. Sinners at heart do the evil that they do want.
But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (7:20)
Just to make sure we don’t misunderstand, Paul repeats this utterly radical statement that he makes: “when I sin, it’s not even me doing it—it’s that thing called sin over there, which is not a part of the true me.” If it was part of the true Paul, he could not truthfully say, “It’s not me doing it.”
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. (7:21)
So Paul has defined the conflict. There is evil present in him, but he is the one who wants to do good. Where, then, is this evil located?
For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man . . . (7:22)
It’s not located in his inner man. His inner man is completely on God’s side. There, he agrees with God.
. . . but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. (7:23)
Now he has located the evil for us! It’s not in his inner man. There’s no civil war going on there. There’s no old dog and new dog fighting it out in Paul’s inner man. Rather, Paul locates the evil present in him, this law of sin, in the members of his body. He states it in the beginning of verse 23, and then, to make sure we don’t misunderstand, he states it once again at the end. Clearly, Paul is locating this law of sin, this power of sin, in the actual members of our unredeemed physical bodies. He doesn’t locate it in our inner man. He locates it in our unredeemed bodies (which, as we know, happens to include our physical brain).
This aligns perfectly with what Paul has just written in Romans 6. The law of sin, the power of sin, has been kicked out of our inner man. Our union with it has been severed. Our new man is dead to sin. But the law of sin still remains in our bodies. Paul says the same thing in slightly different words in Romans 8, where he says that “the body is dead because of sin” (8:10a). The law of sin remains in our mortal bodies. But, says Paul, “the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (8:10b)! Our new spirit is cut off from sin, and is alive to God, not by imputed righteousness (how could imputed righteousness make our spirit alive?), but by the new birth. Our spirit has God’s very own nature of righteousness.
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (7:24)
The word translated “wretched” here does not mean “depraved” (although I have certainly heard it taught that way). It means miserable due to enduring a trial. Paul is utterly miserable being defeated by the law of sin. And where, once again, does he locate this law of sin? He asks “who will set me free from the body of this death?” He locates it in the physical body. And, of course, we know the answer he gives to his question.
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:25a)
So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. (7:25b)
Paul here in Romans 7 ties his mind to his inner man. He indicates that here, and he also said in 7:23 that the law of sin was “waging war against the law of my mind.” But here he brings up the term flesh again, and says that his flesh is serving the law of sin. Clearly, Paul does not regard flesh as part of his inner man (v. 22) or the law of his mind (vv. 23 and 25). Rather, it is mixed in with the law of sin which is “in the members of my body” (v. 23).
And here, I think, we can understand why Paul chose to use this word flesh in this way, instead of, for instance, sinful nature, a phrase which Paul could have chosen to use but never does anywhere. He uses flesh because in its normal use flesh simply refers to the physical body. Paul uses that term to refer to carnality because he understands that the law of sin is now in the members of our physical bodies. So flesh is a perfectly accurate description of it. But it is not who we really are. It may be battling against us, but it is not a part of our true identity. It is on the other side of that wall. In our deepest inner beings, we are righteous new creations. Paul knew that. He knew that his inner man was on God’s side. He just hadn’t figured out how to depend on Christ to make that inner reality an experiential, outer reality yet.
Now, the question arises, is this what the struggle within us feels like? Does it feel like our inner man is completely on God’s side, so much so that when we sin it’s not even us doing it, but sin in us, and that the law of sin that we are struggling against is located in the members of our physical body? Or does it feel like there is a civil war going on in our inner man, that in the depths of our being we really are divided?
I don’t know about you, but often I would answer, “It feels like the latter.”
But Paul has just laid out for us, in considerable detail, the exact battle that is being waged. It is not a battle in our inner man, he says. It is not me against myself. It is me, the real me, the new inner man, against the law of sin in the members of my unredeemed body. That’s exactly what Paul says. The question we have to answer is: are we going to believe what God says is happening, or are we going to believe what feels like is happening? Are we going to let our experience tell us what is true, or are we going to let God tell us what is true?
Romans 7 strongly affirms that we are righteous new creations whose inner man has been created in righteousness and holiness at the new birth. Our feelings may not confirm that. Our behavior may not confirm that. Paul’s behavior wasn’t confirming that either! But God revealed to him that it was true.
As I indicated before, the church, by and large, has decided to base its theology here on our experience, not on what God actually says. “I act like a sinner, I feel like a sinner, I think like a sinner, therefore I must be a sinner.”
Meanwhile, Paul is saying, “That’s not even you doing that. It’s sin which dwells in you, in the members of your body. You are a new creation in Christ. You are not a sinner in the depths of your being. You are a righteous saint.”
Possible New Testament evidence to the contrary
These are ten primary evidences that I see that believers are no longer inherently sinful in their deepest inner being. Rather, they are righteous new creations, birthed by the Spirit of God. I think the biblical case for that is extremely strong.
The question that remains is what kind of case can be put together that the believer is still inherently sinful in his inner being. Because even if we believe the scriptures teach something strongly, often a good case can be made for the opposing view. I believe in the eternal security of the believer, but I can make a pretty good biblical case for losing one’s salvation. I think the eternal security case is stronger, but the other case can certainly be made.
The problem in this case is that it’s very difficult to even make a decent biblical case for the inherent sinfulness of the believer, which is a bit shocking given the prevalence of this teaching in evangelicalism. One would expect this view to be supported throughout the New Testament. In reality, it’s almost entirely not there.
In building an opposing case, we can’t use anything from the Old Testament. No one in the Old Testament had experienced the new birth. Likewise with the four gospels. The Book of Acts doesn’t have much theological to say about it one way or the other. Neither does Revelation. That still leaves all of the epistles, from which you would expect a decent case could be made.
But unless you come to the New Testament with a theological presupposition that the believer is inherently sinful, the case is exceedingly weak.
I scanned through all the epistles just to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything. Here are the verses that you could possibly claim support this position.
- The two verses from Paul that I discussed in Evidence #4. For reasons listed above, I don’t think these verses support the opposing case.
- Lists of fleshly sins that Christians can get caught up in, such as Galatians 5:19-20. But we have seen that Paul indicates that the flesh is not connected to our true identity.
- The admonition in Colossians 3:5-10 to put away various fleshly sins. But this passage says the old self man has already been put off and the new self put on, which means our identity has changed. We put away fleshly sins because our identity has already changed.
- The New Testament writers addressing various sin issues in the churches. But this doesn’t prove anything. No one seriously claims that Christians are sinless or that they do not struggle with sin. Romans 7 proves that. The question is what happened to the believer in his inner being at the new birth.
That’s about it, with the exception of the Book of James. In my estimation, that case is more than weak; it’s non-existent.
Thus, we are left with the book of James. James 4:8 says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Then in 5:20, he says, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
I find a case built upon these verses to be less than compelling, for these reasons.
First, James is not a deeply theological book. This doesn’t mean that it’s not God’s truth. It simply means that much deeper and more theologically complex issues tend to be dealt with elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly by Paul and John. Various books are written for certain purposes. We don’t go to Jude for our doctrine on justification by faith. I would hesitate to build my entire case on the believer’s identity in Christ on James, which was written to be a very practical series of admonitions to believers.
Second, James has already said in 1:18 that God brought us forth as first fruit. If we are inherently sinners, then what God brought forth was a group of inherent sinners.
Third, it is not entirely clear who James is even addressing in 4:8. We assume he is always addressing believers, but clearly that is not the case. In 5:1-6 he addresses “you rich” who have taken advantage of poor laborers and have “condemned and murdered the righteous person.” I am guessing the “you rich” were not believers!
In 4:8, the context shows that James is addressing people who are “adulterers (toward God)”; “an enemy of God”; and who “lust and do not have, so you commit murder.” Maybe he is addressing believers here, but if so, this is the only time in the entire New Testament when believers are spoken about in this way. I would very strongly hesitate to build a theological case on this, nor have I ever heard anyone try to do so.
As for 5:20, it again isn’t entirely clear who James is addressing. He seems to be talking about believers, but then he says that he who turns this person from the error of his way “will save his soul from death.” But the souls of believers have already been saved from death. Given the practicality of James, even if he is talking about a believer, I would be inclined to take his use of the word “sinner” to simply refer to someone who is sinning in his behavior, not a statement about Christians’ true identity in Christ. That would be consistent with both how James addresses various issues and how he seems to use language. As is clear in other sections of James, we don’t have to assume he is using words in the same way theologically that, for instance, Paul would.
Compared to the overwhelming testimony of the New Testament that the believer has a completely new identity, that is, a completely new, righteous inner man due to the new birth, I find the biblical case that we are still inherently sinners to be completely unconvincing. For believers to still be inherently sinful in their inner man, all ten of the evidences listed above have to not be saying what they clearly seem to be saying. To me, that makes an incredibly stronger case.
Fortunately, in my opinion, more and more of the church is coming to see what the scriptures actually teach on this issue, and to proclaim it. I have at least two dozen books on my shelves that would agree with the perspective presented in this paper. My favorite is Birthright by Dallas Seminary graduate and long time Multnomah professor David Needham.
Implications for the believer and the church
So if, in fact, our inner being changed at the new birth, if God did a heart transplant in us, such that we are no longer inherently sinful, but rather are righteous new creations, “created in holiness and righteousness,” what does that mean for how we look at believers and the Christian life?
It means numerous things, some of which I will list here.
First, it means we stop calling believers sinners. We stop calling ourselves sinners, and we stop calling other believers sinners. Paul never does. Why should we? We need our language to accurately reflect what the Bible actually teaches.
Second, it means we glorify God by fully acknowledging the miracle of the new birth and everything that happened there. It doesn’t honor God in the least to keep calling ourselves depraved sinners, not if God has truly changed who we are. It’s an affront to the work of Christ, because it fails to give him credit for what he has done. It’s essentially calling God a liar, because it’s saying to Him, “I realize this is what you say about me as a believer, but I know myself better than you know me. I know I am still a sinner, regardless of what you say.”
Third, it means that we fully embrace who we are as sons and daughters of God. Our acceptance, worth, and identity are not based on our performance, but on the fact that we are born children of God. We are co-heirs with Christ. We have been “qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light,” Paul says (Colossians 1:12).
Fourth, it means we continually address the new man, not the old man, who is dead and gone. This is what Paul does. He never says, “Stop sinning you wretched sinners!” Instead, he says, “You are now new creations. God gives you the grace to live like it. Why would you want to live in sin? That isn’t who you are anymore.” The Christian life is not about denying our true nature. It’s about embracing our true nature, the new one God has birthed in us. As Christians, we are not trying to become something that we are not. We are learning to live out something that we already are. That is a huge difference.
Fifth, I think it means we stop talking about two things: the sin nature and positional truth. I’ll take them one at a time. We stop talking about the sin nature because it’s simply not a biblical term. No New Testament writer uses it, and for good reason. As believers, our sin nature, the old man, was crucified on the cross with Christ. If “sin nature” means anything, it means who we are in the depths of our being, and as we have clearly seen, the New Testament teaches that who we now are in the depths of our being is not sinful. Sinning is not natural for a Christian. It may still be common, but it is not natural. The New Testament only uses the word “nature” twice. It says we were “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), but that we are now “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). If we want to talk about the word “nature,” let’s talk about those two verses.
As for “positional truth,” I find that it simply confuses people. It makes many think that, essentially, “These are truths that God considers to be true about me up there, even though I know they aren’t really true down here.” That thinking is foreign to the New Testament. God doesn’t fool himself about who we are. He doesn’t see us through a “Christ screen,” as if we are still inherently sinful, but when he looks at us, he only sees Christ. No, God sees us for exactly who we are. Let’s just say what the New Testament says. We are new creations in Christ. We are saints. We are born of God. The Spirit birthed a new spirit within us. The new man is “created in holiness and righteousness.” There’s no shortage of what the New Testament does say about us. We don’t have to keep saying things it doesn’t say about us.
Sixth, it means we stop presenting the Christian life as an inner civil war. That’s not how Paul presents it, even as he is being beaten by sin in Romans 7. He presents it as a war between our new inner being and the law of sin which is in the members of our body. That is not a civil war. It is a war against an unlawful intruder. But ultimately he doesn’t even present it that way. In Galatians 5 he presents it as a war not between us and the flesh, but between the Spirit and the flesh. That makes a huge difference. What I can’t do, and Paul couldn’t do (overcome sin in our bodily members), God can do.
Finally, it means that we are free to emphasize the incredible reality of our one-spirit relationship with Christ, which the new birth made possible. God has permanently joined himself to our spirit. We are one with him, forever. It’s a topic for another paper, but that reality is the governing reality of the entire Christian life. Paul specifically told the Colossians that the message God had commissioned him to preach was “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:24-27). That’s the real gospel. If we are not emphasizing that message, then we are failing to emphasize what Paul said God sent him to preach. Surely we should be teaching, and living, the same message. Forgiving our sins was only a necessary step toward getting us there. Christ in us is the whole thing. If God himself has come to live within us, it changes everything.