Summary: The third in a series of messages on the complete sufficiency of the Gospel.
The shocking and liberating revelation of the new self really happens when we can explain why we still struggle with sin. Some theologians and Christian authors have resorted to creative and often impressive mental gymnastics in their attempts to reconcile these two scriptural ideas: (1) the old self is dead, but (2) we still sin.
Many have resorted to the idea that the old self is only positionally dead or is progressively dying over time. But these notions are a result of intellectual creativity rather than active inquiry into God’s Word. There is no scriptural basis for declaring the death of our old self to be positional or progressive.
The same epistles that claim Jesus solved our behavior problem by dying on the cross and taking our sins away also state that Jesus solved our identity problem by giving us a new heart, a new spirit, and God’s Spirit. We accept forgiveness as actual, Jesus’ own death as actual, heaven as actual, and Jesus’ return as actual. We don’t have the right to relegate the death of our old self to the realm of the positional or the progressive.
Romans 6, for example, should be read in the same way we read the rest of the epistle--in a literal sense. Of course, if this is true, then we must find some real answers to the following question: If the death of my old self is literal, actual, and final, why then do I still end up sinning?
Before we continue, I want you to ponder an important question: If we find a satisfactory answer to why we still struggle with sin, will you then agree that your old self is dead, buried, and gone? Will you agree that no portion of your old self is still present within you? My heart’s desire is that you know the purity of who you are as a new creation, and that at the same time you are able to explain your ongoing struggle with sin. If we grasp these two realities, we’ll be equipped to approach daily life and temptation as God intended.
We will start with the premise that knowing the source of temptation is valuable in resisting temptation. If you’ve ever tried to resist your own desires, you know how difficult resisting can be. For example, in an effort to avoid the pain of unreciprocated love, you try not to love someone. Still, your heart cries out for them. You can’t just pretend that your love doesn’t exist. Or you want to lose weight, and you try to resist your appetite for a favorite treat.
If resisting sin means saying no to what we truly desire, then our quest for victory over temptation will fail. But fortunately this isn’t the picture that God paints for us. Instead, he reveals an entity called the flesh that works to prevent us from doing what we truly desire.
Right away, we must differentiate the term flesh from the term sinful nature. The Greek word used in the original manuscripts is sarx, which is literally translated as "flesh." This is how sarx is translated in the New American Standard Bible and in many other English translations. However, one popular English translation, the New International Version, translates sarx by using the phrase sinful nature instead (putting flesh in the text note).
The phrase sinful nature can lead to inaccurate and harmful ideas about the new heart, mind, and spirit that we have in Christ. There’s nothing within the Greek word sarx that connotes "sinful" or "nature." The NIV rendition is an expansion of the term.
The NIV is a wonderful English translation that makes ideas accessible to the average reader. In nearly all cases, there’s no harm done as translators expound on the Greek to make the English as accurate, clear, and readable as possible. But in this particular case, the attempt to make God’s Word more understandable has actually led to some misunderstanding.
As a result, many Christians today believe that their constant, ongoing struggle is with the sinful nature and, more precisely, their sinful nature. It’s not much of a stretch to go from (1) I have a sinful nature to (2) I am a sinner by nature to (3) The most natural thing for me to do is sin. Then we wrongly conclude that who we are (our nature) at the very core is sinful, when in fact the Scriptures teach just the opposite. We are now partakers of God’s divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)!
Our struggle as Christians is against something called the flesh, not against our own nature. The whole point of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has made each of us who believe into a new person. The old has gone, and the new has come. To deny this or to water it down is to miss the potency of the message altogether.