“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?
Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, while anthropology is the doctrine of man. Where these combine is in the question of “What does the Christian look like? What sort of person is she after becoming a new creation in Christ?”
Some affirm the Christian is a new creation in a way that nothing of the old nature remains. Verses such as 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to support this. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If this is true, that nothing of the old nature, who we were in Adam, our unregenerate self remains within the believer, it does raise several questions.
- Do Christians no longer sin?
- Is there nothing within the Christian that responds to sin?
- Are we now as holy and as sanctified in our life and deeds as we will ever be?
Scripture answers each one of these questions. It is possible to proof-text one’s way to any doctrine, and thus if we rely only on 2 Cor 5:17, indeed, one can say that nothing of our Adamic self remains. But other Scriptures have something to say about this as well, and the picture is not so simple as citing this single verse implies.
The Romans Road of Christian Anthropology.
In the latter part of Romans 5, Paul has set forth the two heads, Adam and Christ, and shown that all of mankind must be under one of these two. For the one who is not born-again, there is no choice, he is in Adam. We get there by birth. But we only get under the headship of Christ by new birth. Verse 17 describes the representative way in which both Adam and Christ function in biblical anthropology “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Death reigned in Adam because all of his children were yet in him when he sinned. But because of Christ’s death, all those who come to him by faith receive the righteousness that he grants as a free gift.
In chapter 6, Paul moves from identification to mortification. That is, he speaks of what occurred when Jesus died on the cross. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Our identification (by faith) with him means we share in what happened on the cross. Here is another place where those who insist that the believer no longer has any sinful nature will point. We were crucified with him!
But if our co-crucifixion with Christ completely eradicated anything within us that could respond to sin, why does Paul go on to urge the Romans as he does? “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” v 11. If everything that belonged to Adam was done away with, why must the Romans do any reckoning, any considering at all? If it is all gone, then there is nothing within them to respond to sin anyway. What kind of death is it that Paul refers to when we were crucified with Christ?
The best way to describe what happened to the old man is that it is a judicial execution. That is, in God’s estimation we indeed died with Christ, were buried with him, and were raised with him, but we must consider these things, and act in faith upon them. Why? Because it is is a judicial death and not an actual one, there is still within us what belongs to Adam. The old man was rendered powerless, so that we need not be enslaved to sin, but by presenting ourselves to sin we can empower the old man again. Therefore, Paul exhorts them:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” v. 12
“Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” v. 13
“so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” v. 19.
Such exhortations make no sense if nothing in the believer can respond to sin anyway, if nothing remains of the old Adam.
In chapter 7, Paul goes on to talk about the 3rd step in his anthropology: emancipation.
The believer is freed from the law, and the condemnation it brought. His marriage illustration of a wife who is widowed, but then marries another shows that the believer is like one who has died. The former relationship is severed. The way, says Paul, to bear fruit for God is to recognize that it cannot come by the law. Indeed, in 6:14 he has said that the reason the Romans need not continue under the mastery of sin is because they are not under the law, but under grace. Those who do not reckon upon this, who do not realize the freedom from the law they have, will not enter into the freedom Christ’s death has brought. The law brings wrath, and the law actually aroused sin in Paul.
The rest of the New Testament confirms, through multiple exhortations, that believers should strive after holiness, but the corollary is that indulging the flesh is possible. Later in the epistle, Paul will say “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?
In the Ephesian epistle, he writes
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” 4:17
If there is only a new nature, and nothing of the old, how would it be possible for them to walk as they formerly did?
Later in this same chapter, he writes:
“assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” 4:21-23.
If the old self is utterly gone, why does Paul urge them to put it off?
The rest of the chapter is filled with exhortations to the Ephesians for them to walk in a way that accords with the new man—but it assumes the presence of the old man also. If not, then exhortation becomes superfluous.
A Distinction Without a Difference.
I believe that those who hold that the believer has no old nature whatsoever, are in fact saying the same thing as those who do believe Scripture teaches the believer does. That is, there are few people who would say that a Christian is now sinless, that there is nothing in him to respond to sin. They may call it something different, but it is the same thing. Some have referred to old habits or patterns of who we were before salvation, but this is just using different words for “old nature.” For the rare person who would insist the believer becomes sinless upon being born again, both human experience and the witness of Scripture testify against such an idea. When John writes that if we say we have no sin, we lie and do not the truth, the underlying assumption is that there is a need for forgiveness, for an advocate at God’s right hand—because we do sin, and we are not yet what we one day will be in glory!
I have interacted with those who teach this doctrine, and when I ask whether they believe the Christian is without sin, the answer is no. Of course our walk is not perfect, of course we grow in our faith. Once again, if there is room for the mortification of sin within us, if there is the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, as Paul says, then it means we are not yet perfect. Call it what you wish, you may choose to not call it the flesh or the old man, or the old nature, but unless you believe sin is completely eradicated from the Christian, you believe as I do, and as Scripture teaches: the Christian is not yet entirely holy in life.
A belief that the Christian has no old nature, nothing of Adam left is an over-realized eschatology. It is the view that the kingdom of God in its fulness and plenitude has arrived here and now, and there is nothing that remains. The presence of sin in the world, the roaring lion that Satan is, the world, the flesh, and the devil all demonstrate that this is not so.
Embracing such an over-realized eschatology will do nothing to conquer sin in practice, or to produce fruit for God. The way to change my condition, is by continually going back to my position in Christ, to dwell on the accomplishments of the cross, and yes, as Paul says, “reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God.”