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"Go and teach all nations to observe whatsoever things I have taught you..." Matthew 28:19-20
The Two Natures
There are multitudes of Christians who genuinely want to live for God, but are constantly frustrated because they know they don’t come up to the standard they read in the Bible; and even if they can control their outward behavior, they know that their secret lives are not what they should be - all because they have not understood a simple truth.
In his first letter, John makes two statements that seem to contradict each other. First of all, he makes it clear that Christians still sin after they are saved, “If we say we have no sin”, he wrote to his Christian congregation, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That is a clear enough statement. You don’t stop sinning when you become a Christian. Paul adds his own personal testimony to John’s words: “The good that I want to do, I don’t do”, he confessed, “but the evil that I don’t want to do, I do” (Romans 7:19). Even if we stop committing gross, outward sins when we become Christians, sin is still in our inward nature - the old nature. We may not steal or commit adultery or murder - but inwardly, in our hearts, anger, covetousness and wrong desires still finger. And Jesus told us plainly that anger against our brother is the seed of murder, and a lustful look at another man’s wife is adultery in the heart. Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19. It is a formidable list: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, murders ... But these are the unchanging characteristics of the old nature. Even if we commit none of them outwardly, they are still in our hearts! We all inherit that old nature. To understand why, we need to look back to Adam.
The Two Trees
In the beginning, God gave Adam free will. But God didn’t give him a conscience. He didn’t want Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That means God didn’t want Adam to know good or evil. The only choice He gave Adam was to obey or disobey. God didn’t want him to make moral choices based on his conscience, choices based on a knowledge of what is good and what is evil. It is very important for us to realise this. Adam was meant to be free of conscience, untroubled by moral questions and decisions. But Adam ate from the tree, and from that moment he had a moral conscience; and that is why every decision that each one of us makes today is influenced by our knowledge of good and evil, by our conscience.
We inherited all of Adam’s character and nature - we are born sinners. No child is born innocent and pure. Some people dispute that, but it’s easy to prove. Do you need to teach a child how to be naughty? Are children naturally good, obedient and unselfish? Of course not! Almost the first word a child learns is “No!” Parents have to teach their child how to be good, not how to be naughty! Look at it another way. Can two sinners produce a saint? If the parents are sinful by nature, then they are not going to produce a holy child who is good by nature! They’ll produce a child with the same nature as they have. Sinners produce sinners. There’s no alternative. For that reason, there is a sense in which I don’t feel bad that I am a sinner. It’s not my fault! I was born that way. I had no choice in the matter, so it can’t be my fault. It’s Adam who is to blame. And in fact that is why Jesus died, because of one man’s transgression. “By one man sin entered the world” (Romans 5:12). We sin because Adam sinned first.
So scripture and experience tell us the same thing - we are still sinners even though we are Christians. The old nature, completely corrupt and selfish, is still with us. And God still sees our sins. He isn’t blind! He sees us exactly as we are, guilty - but this is the miracle of grace. He forgave us, He had mercy on us. Every Christian has received that forgiveness, and from now on we do not need mercy any longer, even when we sin. That may surprise you, but it’s what John says. Right after he tells us that we are deceiving ourselves d we say we are not sinners, John adds, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins”. God does not need to be merciful to us any longer. He showed one great act of mercy once and for all in Christ’s death, and now He only has to be faithful to His promise of forgiveness, and just to remember that Christ’s death was once and for all - for past, present and future sins. This all means that I am not accountable for my sins. I am a forgiven sinner. That is grace, and that is true freedom!
There is only one condition: “If we confess”. We have to admit that we are sinners. That is vital. For if we begin to say we are not sinners any more, we walk out of grace. We cut ourselves off from God’s forgiveness, because we have started to believe in our own righteousness. That’s self righteousness, the sin of the Pharisees. Even Jesus could not help them. He spent half His ministry trying to expose the Pharisees, saying to them, “You’re wonderful on the outside, you do everything right; you pray, you fast, you obey every commandment - but inside you’re filthy, unclean - you’re of your father, the devil!” Self-righteousness takes you right out of the family of God, and puts you in the family of the devil!
Now let’s return to 1 John and look at a statement that seems to be a direct contradiction to the first one. “Whoever is born of God does not commit sin: he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). So, if we say we have no sin as Christians, John says we deceive ourselves and make God a liar; but then he says that if we are born of God we cannot sin! How do we resolve this? There must be an answer. We mustn’t make the mistake of presuming that they can’t both be true, and coming down in favour of one side or the other. Truth always has two sides, like a coin. John wasn’t trying to confuse the church. In fact, John took it for granted that his readers would understand the simple truth which resolves the contradiction: that we have two natures. A Christian is a person with two completely different and distinct characters - an old nature and a new nature.
The New Nature
If the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19) are the characteristics of the old nature, the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) perfectly describes the new nature. The new nature is the character of Christ Himself! You received this new nature when you were born again - indeed, that’s what being “born again” means. A new life begins inside you, which is the new nature, which is the character of Christ. Christ cannot sin! That is why John says “Whoever is born of God ... cannot sin”. So if we have this new nature inside of us, why is it that we do not seem to naturally manifest the fruit of the Spirit - why don’t we have the character of Christ? There is a simple reason. It’s because we spend our time trying to control the old nature instead of feeding the new nature.
Non-believers spend their whole lives trying to control their old nature. Whether they want to be moral and respectable or not, they all have to control it in some measure. For example, one man would love to seduce every beautiful woman he meets - but he controls himself, in order to preserve his respectability, and so he just has his wife and one mistress. He puts a limit on his old nature. Another man cant wait for Friday night because he can get drunk again. He’d love to get drunk every night, but then he’d lose his job and wouldn’t be able to run his nice car, so he controls himself until the weekend. Someone else has a temper, but he knows that if he really blew up he might do someone some damage, so because he’s scared of ending up in prison he controls himself, even though he’s boiling with rage, and just kicks the door or yells at his wife instead. That’s how the world has to live.
But what about us as Christians? We have an alternative, a new nature, a completely different character. Sadly, however, many Christians are playing the same game as the world - trying to control their old nature, trying to be good and moral and respectable, trying to be good Christians! Someone in the church annoys us, so what do we do? We control our annoyance, because we know it’s not Christian to get angry. But that will not make you a good Christian, it will just make you a respectable hypocrite!
It may surprise you, but God doesn’t want you to learn how to control your anger or your sinful desires. He doesn’t want to give you patience and a strong will to control yourself; He wants to deal with the roots so that you don’t even feel angry or covetous. He wants to change your desires.
I’ve experienced this from both sides. For twenty years, I fell like a second-class Christian, because I was always trying to control my old nature. Nobody ever told me that my old nature was hopelessly corrupt, unchangeable, and that all I had to do was start feeding the new nature. So I always fell condemned, because I knew what I was like inside: I knew my mind was full of wrong thoughts, desires and ambitions. I was brought up as a Christian, and preachers would come to our church and talk about how we needed to be holy, and all the congregation would say “Amen!” So I presumed that I was the only one with the problems, and I daren’t talk to anyone else about them. Sometimes I wondered whether I was a Christian at all; but when I considered it I knew that God was in my life. I couldn’t deny it. But neither could I deny that I had problems. It seemed that my only alternative was to try and control myself, and to not let anyone know what I was like inside. But since I discovered about the two natures my whole life has changed. I’ve never been so free as I am today. I can accept myself as I am, and what people think of me doesn’t trouble me at all. I am what I am; I have no need to hide and be a hypocrite. If people tell me my faults, I tell them they don’t know the half! I’ve realised the truth: I have an old nature which is completely corrupt and unredeemable. It’s a corrupt tree; it can’t bring forth anything except bad fruit! But I am completely unaccountable for it! That’s why Christ died - He didn’t die to patch up my old nature, but to forgive me everything of the old, and to give me a new nature. And if the old nature is a bad tree that cannot bear good fruit, the new nature is a good tree that cannot bear bad fruit!
So now I’ve stopped trying to control my old nature. I’m not trying to be a good Christian any more! I’m not praying that God will give me a strong will to control myself. That’s not the way. If that was the way, the people with the strongest will would be the holiest Christians. But it’s the people who have the most of Christ in them that are the holiest - the ones who have fed their new nature. This is the secret of growth in the Christian life - feeding the new nature. If I want to grow, there is only one way to do it - I have to eat. Food produces growth. In order for my three-year-old son to grow, it is not necessary for me to give him a pep talk every day about the importance of growth. All I need to do is feed him, and he’ll grow automatically. And it’s the same with us. It all depends which nature we feed. If we feed the new nature and starve the old, we’ll get more of Christ in us.
The problem is that we are conditioned, from living in the world, to feeding the old and starving the new! So we have to start thinking a new way. We have to renew our minds. Holiness doesn’t come from strong will. It comes from a change of attitude, from starting to do the things that will build Christ in me. It’s not me that lives the Christian life. Only Christ can live the Christian life. If I get more of Jesus, then He lives His life through me. Holiness is a person - Jesus Christ. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not 1, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). All we have to do is crucify that old nature, and feed the new nature. The Bible also calls it “walking in the Spirit”. “Walk in the Spirit”, Paul says, “and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). You can’t walk in both natures at once. One or the other will be manifest in your life. So if you’re walking in the Spirit, feeding your new nature, you won’t have to try and resist the lusts of the flesh - you won’t even want to do them, you won’t even be thinking about them. You won’t have any moral and ethical dilemmas or problems of conscience - you just obey Christ and let Him live His life in you.
Recognising that we have two natures is the secret of freedom from condemnation, and feeding the new nature is the secret of how to begin to change and live the way God intended us to live.
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