Are There One or Two Natures in the Christian?

But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. (Romans 7.23)

A pivotal issue is before us, seen in the question: ‘Are there one or two natures in the Christian?’ The idea of two ­natures is, of course, only a portrayal or model or representation. Human nature is not a visible organ like a heart or a kidney that may be examined by medical scientists. It is invisible to us and mysterious, but to consider it as divided into two conflicting parts is scriptural, enabling believers to see themselves corrupted by sin, yet at the same time substantially renewed by the converting power of God.

The great men of the Reformation unhesitatingly said that there were two conflicting conditions within believers. Luther and Calvin were clear. The Puritans, overwhelmingly, also affirmed two ‘principles’ within. The Puritan 17th-century confessions of faith, the Westminster and the Baptist Confession and the Savoy Declaration, all reflect two natures. John Owen penned the supreme presentation of two natures in his 1667 book ­Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers. This was always the mainstream position.

In the United States, notable teachers in the Presbyterian tradition, crowned by Charles Hodge, identified two opposing principles of action in the Christian. On a different theological flank, C I Scofield drew the same conclusion, supporting two natures.

There were some notable exceptions among American thinkers such as Robert Dabney who argued for one nature, and some have claimed B B Warfield also, but this is disputed and unlikely.

In the year 1879 C H Spurgeon preached a mighty sermon that typified his lifelong teaching on this subject: The Dual Nature and the Duel Within (Romans 7.23).

The one-nature view grows

In the 1940s John Murray in Westminster Seminary began to contend for a one-nature view, sowing a seed that others followed. In Britain, ­Martyn Lloyd-Jones opted for one nature, but powerfully taught the Christian warfare using the two-nature concept. A W Pink, whose works were so influential in the ‘reformed revival’, taught the two-nature model.

J I Packer contended for one, and with the passage of time this has become quite fashionable among Calvinists. More recently John MacArthur in the USA began teaching one nature very stridently, although his version is unusual and somewhat illogical.

The old view of two natures nevertheless continues in pulpits everywhere, and in leading popular commentaries (such as those of William Hendriksen, who closely follows the reformed tradition).

Why did the Reformers and the Puritans go for two ‘dispositions’ or the two-nature model? What is the difference between the two positions? We must say initially that sometimes it does not make a lot of difference, because many of those who teach one nature still emphasise (rather strangely) the presence of residual sin indwelling the believer. In real terms they are not far away, almost affirming the two-nature position they seem unhappy with. But it is a very great shame to abandon the two-nature concept because it is so powerful and helpful in the pursuit of holiness.

Luther once exclaimed, ‘Original sin after regeneration, is like a wound that begins to heal…though it still runs and is sore. So original sin remains in Christians until they die, yet itself is mortified and continually dying. Its head is crushed in pieces so that it cannot condemn us’ (Table Talk CCLVI).

The traditional teaching flowing from the Reformation is that conversion gives the Christian a new nature, but the old (although broken) remains within. How do we define nature? It is a bundle of characteristics. The old ‘you’ was a set of characteristics woven into your being. These included disrespect toward God. You were inclined to disobedience and unbelief. You loved many sins, and your hopes and aspirations were for yourself and this world. These were all part of your disposition and your direction.

The old nature dethroned

At conversion a new set of characteristics and attributes was planted in you, especially love for God, a heart for him, a concern to please him, and a deep awareness of his authority. A longing for righteousness also flooded in, along with a desire for God’s Word and for your heavenly home.

But what about the old characteristics? They did not vanish altogether, but continued within you in weakened, shadowy form, for so say the texts, as we shall see. By conversion the old was dethroned and in a measure displaced. Some say it is now a secondary or regressive nature, superseded, but there.

Luther suggests the germ of an intriguing illustration. Since conversion, we are like a ship with two captains. There is a new captain, a godly man with a godly heart, but the old captain is still on board. He is kept below, confined, in limited quarters. He cannot direct the ship, or should not, but security is slack, and every now and then he gets out and roams around and starts issuing new route instructions. Soon he gets listened to and his wicked ideas are put into motion.

Louis Berkhof speaks of the old disposition of the believer as the old structure of sin, which is gradually torn down, and a new structure erected in its place. ‘Thank God,’ he cries, ‘the gradual erection of the new building need not wait until the old one is completely demolished…it is like the airing of a house filled with pestiferous odours. As the old air is drawn out, the new rushes in.’

The two-nature view accounts for ‘indwelling sin’, as the Puritans called it, or ‘residual sin’. You are a convert, you love the things of God, but you have to account for the sin tendency within, that suddenly cries out for expression.

Critics of this view, such as Dr John MacArthur, protest that this makes Christians ‘schizophrenics’. But you cannot dismiss the old nature with a simple jibe. For one thing, it is in the Word of God, and for another, we are often in this very divided moral condition, when the old nature gets loose and momentarily shouts louder than the predominant new nature. A great part of sanctification is to be aware of this, to recognise it, and to contend with it, keeping the old locked up and silent. Lose this concept, and we lose precious understanding for sanctification.

So the old view is valuable and helpful in the daily battle against sin. I am two ‘me’s. I am the converted person, and yet I have a residual old nature. This writer remembers Dr William Hendriksen, the renowned commentator, saying in the Tabernacle over 40 years ago, ‘I was a sinner; I will one day be a saint; but right now I am a sinner-saint.’ The two-nature figure helps us to understand our condition.

‘Sold under sin’

Conversion brings a new set of characteristics, a new set of attributes, a new inclination, a new disposition, a new direction, but the old is still there, enfeebled but troublesome.

Turning to the Scriptures, we naturally look first at Romans 7.14, ‘For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.’ It shocks us when we read this, for it is none other than the apostle Paul who says, ‘I am carnal.’ To our eyes the holy apostle, so used of God, should not say he is carnal, ‘sold under sin’.

These words lead some people to think that Paul is speaking of himself before his conversion, when a proud Pharisee. But he is undoubtedly speaking of himself as a Christian. Surely only a true Christian can say (verse 22), ‘For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.’ The ­reality is that the more holy a person is, the more that person sees residual sin in all its sinfulness and exclaims, ‘I am carnal, sold under sin.’

Source of the transgression

The apostle then proves his point, saying, ‘For that which I do I allow not.’ He is not talking about his total life, but is saying there were things he did that he never planned, and never wanted to happen, and even guarded against, but he fell and offended the Lord.

But then comes the explanation (verse 17): ‘Now then it is no more I that do it [the saved lover of the Lord], but sin that dwelleth in me.’ It is the sin nature. Paul takes full responsibility for its actions, but recognises the source of the transgression.

The apostle states (verse 18) – ‘For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing.’ He is referring to his sinful nature, not his literal body. Dr MacArthur thinks that by ‘flesh’ Paul means here his bodily flesh, as though Paul had the sin in his bodily flesh, but not in his nature. But Paul refers to his sinful nature, the old person that must be mortified, silenced, contained, and kept out of action.

Only the old nature could be meant when Paul says (verses 20-21), ‘Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.’ This is in spite of the ­presence of a new nature and disposition. Paul feels that he is a divided person, saying, ‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (verses 22-24). Christ, of course, is his deliverer and helper.

The new nature puts a new disposition, a new direction, within me, but the old pulls in the opposite direction. It remains in my being, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity, if I let it, to the law or rule of sin.

‘Sin,’ said Luther, ‘is like a man’s beard, which though shaved off today so that his chin is smooth, grows again by tomorrow morning. As long as he lives, growth of his beard will not stop. But we must resist it and ever cut off its growth.’

Subdued progressively

In Romans 8.1 Paul goes on to say, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.’ The old is already defeated legally because Christ has died for my sins. It cannot now bring me into condemnation. But it has to be subdued progressively and purged from our lives, by the power of the Spirit. Paul proceeds in this chapter to speak of putting to death the deeds of the body.

Those who teach the one-nature position usually appeal to Romans 6.6 where Paul writes: ‘Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.’ This verse, they think, means that the old nature was destroyed by Christ’s atoning work on Calvary, so it has gone. If converted, we do not have it any more. But if this is true, how do we account for our ongoing sin? How do we explain various wrong desires that arise within us? Where is the ‘seat’ of our continuing sin tendency?

There is another problem in Romans 6.6 for the one-nature position. Is the text speaking literally or legally when it says the ‘old man is crucified’ with Christ? Does it mean that our old nature was literally crucified on Calvary? The Reformers and Puritans said, ‘No’. Some Calvinists today say, ‘Yes’. To us, it is obviously a legal statement. Our old nature was destroyed at Calvary in the sense that Christ the Lord paid our penalty and so destroyed the condemnation and consequences of sin. He also struck a fatal blow at the dominion of our sin. He did not, however, entirely take away our sinful human nature, but imposed a superior, better nature, so displacing and dethroning the old. The dominion of sin is no longer inevitable for us.

We are all bound to say, ‘I certainly possess here inside me a sinful nature. I have not walked as I should have walked, or controlled it as I should, but have allowed it to express itself. But I thank God it will not be able to condemn me, and that its inevitable dominion over me has been broken.’

In Romans 6.6 Paul employs a deeply interesting word, saying, ‘Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.’ The Greek word translated ‘destroyed’ literally means that the body of sin might be rendered useless or inactive, and this, we believe, is a gradual, progressive process.

We expect a very great change and a giant step to righteousness at conversion, but then the process of sanctification goes on to the end of our earthly journey.

The language of progress is in all the sanctification passages of the New Testament. In Ephesians 4.20-24 Paul says – ‘But ye have not so learned Christ…that ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts…and that ye put on the new man.’ The apostle here almost uses the terms old and new nature. Surely these are what he is referring to.

Old nature still there

Old-nature, new-nature language is used again in Galatians 5.16: ‘This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.’ The lust of the flesh or the old nature is evidently still there. Paul amplifies this in a very graphic way, saying – ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.’ What a statement this is! Our old nature lusts against the Spirit. Paul does not say that it lusts against the new nature, rather against the Spirit, but it is almost the same thing. It was the work of the Spirit to give us a new nature, and it is he that dwells within us to nourish it and sustain it. He moves our conscience whenever we go wrong and impresses upon us our spiritual duties.

The apostle shows that the flesh (the old nature) and the work of the Spirit are ‘contrary’ the one to the other, so that we cannot do the things that we otherwise would do, things proposed by the old nature. The new and the old present a struggle, a battle, a crisis of conscience. In some shape or form this battle is experienced every day of our lives, unless we are in a backslidden state.

In recent years there has arisen among evangelicals a deeply heretical movement which would never have been allowed if the concepts of two natures and indwelling sin had been kept in mind. The heresy is the so-called ‘Gay Christian movement’. There are several particularly conspicuous Anglican clergymen, supposedly evangelical, who are vocal in the promotion of this movement, and find acceptance in major Christian conferences.

They convince unwary Christians that it is acceptable to indulge same-sex desires and thoughts, and to nourish and enjoy them, and they justify this with a form of one-nature thinking. I do not suggest for a moment that all one-nature teachers would approve of their line of argument, but it shows up a fatal weakness of the one-nature view.

‘Gay Christian’ proponents claim that conversion gives them an entirely new nature, the old having completely gone. This being so, they think if they have same-sex thoughts, these do not represent their ‘real’ person, the person they have become. Therefore they cannot be regarded as their personal sinful thoughts. They would only become sinful if expressed in an outward sexual act.

These teachers (and many other shallow ‘evangelicals’ who support their views) seem to think that while same-sex attraction is only in the thought life, it is not evil. But this is absurd and dangerous thinking, even outrageous. They have ­obviously never considered texts such as ­Matthew 5.28, where the Lord condemns improper sexual desire in the heart. Nor are they familiar with classics such as John Owen’s Indwelling Sin in Believers, or any other example of Reformation or Puritan literature.

We have also come across believers whose understanding of the one-nature view has led them to focus the mind on sins of the body, as though these are all we have to resist. The ‘flesh’ has suggested to them adultery or violence, and other sins performed with the body, and these believers have not taken account of such things as selfish ambition or pride, or deceit or other sins of the mind, because these do not seem to involve the flesh.

We can do nothing better than to conclude with the relevant paragraphs of the Baptist Confession, 1689 (chapter 13, paras 2 and 3). Having defined sanctification and spoken of the destruction of the ­dominion of sin, the Confession proceeds:

2. This sanctification extends throughout the whole person,7 yet it ­remains imperfect [or incomplete] in this life. Some remnants of corruption live on in every part,8 and from this arises a continuous war between irreconcilable parties – the flesh lusting [vehement] against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.9

3. In this war, although the remaining corruption for a time may greatly prevail [predominate],10 yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part overcomes.11 And so the saints grow in grace, perfecting [moving ­towards the accomplishing of] holiness in the fear of God; pressing after a heavenly life in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in his Word, has prescribed to them.12

7 1 Thess 5.23
8 Rom 7.18 & 23
9 Gal 5.17; 1 Pet 2.11
10 Rom 7.23
11 Rom 6.14
12 Eph 4.15-16; 2 Cor 3.18; 7.1

Home » Are There One or Two Natures in the Christian?