For centuries people have argued whether humans are born good or born evil. Some talk of the ‘innate goodness of humankind” meaning that humans are basically good at heart. But human experience would cast doubt on that theory. It is said that William Golding wrote his book “The Lord of the Flies” as a challenge to R.M. Ballantyne’s novel “The Coral Island” which painted a picture of the adventures of three boys marooned on a South Pacific island, the only survivors of a shipwreck. It was a wonderfully happy existence together on a tropical island. By contrast Golding painted a different picture of “innocent” schoolboys being marooned on an island without any adults being present. However it was not long before the ugly parts of human nature began to surface with murder eventually taking place among them.
Human nature as Jesus saw it
On one occasion some religious teachers asked Jesus a question about what makes humans impure. His answer shows that evil comes from within people, not just from their response to their external environment, “20 What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:20-23. It is interesting to see the emphasis on such behaviour as coming from out of a person, from within and from out of the heart. Interesting too to note that the list contains thoughts and attitudes as well as actions. Not only are many sins listed but they are described as being defiling in verses 20 and 23 and as being evil in verse 23.
Human nature as St Paul saw it
Though Jesus did not use the word ‘flesh” in this context, the characteristics He described correspond to those outlined by Paul in his description of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, namely “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these… .” The “flesh” here refers to unregenerate human nature or the nature humans were born with.
The characteristics of the old nature are seen here in the realms of sex [sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,], the realm of religion [idolatry, sorcery], the realm of society [enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy] and the realm of personal discipline [drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.]
There is an unfortunate over-emphasis in some church groups on the fact that believers have died with Christ and so they suggest that their sin nature no longer exists. They quote verses like those in Rom 6:6 -7 “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. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin.” The deeply disturbing aspect to this is that some boast that they no longer sin, saying that as the flesh nature is gone, then the Spirit alone has influence on them. What they fail to appreciate is that those verses have to be read in context and the verses following provide a warning to such an attitude. Paul is writing to born again believers in Rome and he warns them twice in successive verses, Rom 6:12 “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” AND Rom 6:13 “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” He obviously saw it as a possibility that believers could let sin reign in their bodies and that they could present their bodies to do evil. The encouragement he brought was that believers could have dominion over sin by the grace of God, Rom 6:14 “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace”. Even then we need to realise that “grace” is not only a reference to God’s unmerited favour but refers to God’s enabling by His Spirit. To give way to temptation means they would not be drawing upon God’s grace or help. While they kept on drawing on God’s grace and enabling, it would mean sin would not have dominion over them.
Human Nature according to the 39 Articles of the Church of England (and Anglican churches worldwide)
Article IX on Original or Birth-Sin includes these words, “Original Sin … is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated”
The last phrase reminds us that when people are born again they do not lose their old fallen nature but it remains in them for as long as they live. However its power can be overcome when they continually and habitually choose to walk by the dictates of the Holy Spirit and not according to the dictates of their old flesh nature.
The inner battle in believers
The problem of our old nature, the flesh, is that it is opposed to the Spirit of God. Gal 5:16ff. There is an inner battle in all believers for control of their lives. Either God has to be in control by His Spirit or else the old nature brings the desire to rule one’s own life. We need to decide to walk by the Spirit instead of giving way to our old nature. As Paul wrote, Gal 5:16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Gal 5:17. This verse has the one command to “walk by the Spirit” and adds the consequence of doing so, namely that one “will not gratify the desires of the flesh” as one continues to walk by the Spirit.
He describes the inner battle or conflict in the life of the believer as due to inner conflicting desires, Gal 5:17 “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Paul tells us in other places that the law is good but it cannot of itself produce goodness. It can show what is right and wrong but has no power to enable us to do the right. Only the Holy Spirit can bring that enabling. In Romans 8 he shows the relevant place of the law and the Spirit for Christian living. We fulfil the law’s requirements when live in the power of our new Spirit-given and Spirit-empowered nature rather than responding to the dictates of old flesh nature. Rom 8:3 “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”. Walking by the Spirit actually fulfils what the law has always required in terms of godly living in the will of God.
Flesh or Spirit? That is the question!
The mind is involved in living the Christian life. One has to follow the dictates of the Holy Spirit and not those of the flesh. One mind-set brings life. The other mind-set brings death as Paul goes on to describe, Rom 8:5 “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” The flesh cannot be tamed to conform to the Spirit’s desires nor can it be integrated with the spirit nature to bring about one “nicer” nature in humans.
How the victory is won in the lives of believers
Paul wrote in Philippians that the desire and the empowerment to do the will of God and fulfil His purpose for us comes from the working of the Holy Spirit within us, “work out your salvation … for God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Phil 2:12-13. Salvation is a free gift in Christ. However, having accepted that gift, believers must work out the implications of receiving that gift, in their daily living. They are to “work out” in practice what God is “working in” them by His Spirit.
How can we have victory over the impulses of our fallen nature? By allowing God to keep on filling us with His Spirit as Paul commanded in Eph 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” The verb “be filled” is actually a present [imperative] tense which means “keep on being filled.” It is also passive, meaning that we cannot fill ourselves. Only the Lord can do so as we ask Him to fill us.
The Christian life is not a once-for-all filling by the Holy Spirit. Rather it is an ongoing openness to the Lord to enable Him to keep on filling us with His Spirit. Then and only then will the fruit of the Spirit be continually manifest in and through us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” These characteristics remain as we remain open to His Spirit, as Paul describes in Gal 5:25 “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Responding moment by moment to His leading and to His empowering by His Spirit enables believers to live as they should, for Him.