The question concerning the relationship between the believer and indwelling sin is one of the most theologically difficult to navigate. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who insist that the believer is a new creature with a new nature and ought not talk about the reality of indwelling sin in his or her heart. Such teaching results in either doctrinal or functional perfectionism. On the other end of the spectrum are those who stress the prevailing presence of sin in the believer’s life in such a way that they give the sense that the regenerate are still totally depraved. This idea results in either doctrinal or functional antinomianism (i.e. lawlessness). In order to avoid falling into the snare of either of these two extremes, we must reject both errors and seek out a robustly biblical perspective on the teaching about regenerate and indwelling sin.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul gives us the doctrinal categories by which we may come to understand the relationship between the believer and the sin nature. He does so by speaking of “the old man” and “the new man,” “the flesh” and “the Spirit” and of being “under the law” and “under grace.” What has happened to believers by virtue of our union with Christ is best explained by understanding our former relation to Adam and our present relation to Christ. Scripture does this, first by way of explaining redemptive history and then by way of giving experiential implications.
The Apostle Paul first gives us the redemptive-historical structure of the old and new man in Romans 5:12-21 and in 1 Cor. 15:47-49. In Romans 5:12-21, he explains how the first man, Adam, by his disobedience brought death and condemnation to all those united to him. He then explains how the work of the last Man, Jesus Christ, effects justification and life for all those united to Him by grace through faith. In 1 Cor. 15:47-49, the Apostle sets out the eschatological implications of being in Adam and being in Christ by explaining that believers will be finally and fully conformed to the image of the heavenly man in the resurrection. By focusing on the eschatological dimension in 1 Cor. 15, Paul is not denying that something has happened to believers in union with Christ in the here and now. Rather, he is looking at the denouement.
Paul carries on the redemptive-historical Adam/Christ parallel by giving us the clearest teaching about what has happened to one who is united to Christ and raised to newness of life in Romans 6:1-14. In Romans 6:6, Paul explains that, in the death of Christ, the believer’s “old man was crucified in Him, that the body of sin may be done away with.” John Murray captured the essence of the meaning of this when he wrote:
“The old man has been put to death, just as decisively as Christ died upon the accursed tree. To suppose that the old man has been crucified and still lives or has been raised again from this death is to contradict the obvious force of the import of crucifixion.” This important point is part of the reason why I take issue with the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, when it states, “die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness.”
As Murray noted, there is a decisiveness about the death of the believer’s old man because of the once-for-all-ness of the death of Jesus. We are called to put sin to death more and more, but we do not die to sin more and more. The Apostle highlights this decisiveness in Galatians 2:20, when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones also stressed the one-for-all-ness of the death of our old man in the death of Christ, and the present reality of our being made new creatures in the risen Christ, when he said:
“This is not something that is going to happen to us. It has happened. You can’t be a Christian without it being true. It is not something that ‘ought’ to happen to us. How often is it presented like that? They say, ‘Ah, now you’ve got to die with Christ if you want this deepening of your spiritual life or this further experience.’ But, it isn’t that. It isn’t something that ought to happened to us. It has happened to us. Because we are joined to him, we were baptized and joined in his death. We died with Him. That’s the whole case. Not something that ought to happen. It is not, therefore, something that we should try to achieve in some form or shape or manner. It is something that has already taken place. The correct translation of verse 2 is, ‘How shall we that died to sin.’ It’s happened; We die to sin. And, we died when He died. That’s the whole point. We are baptized into him–so what happened to Him has happened to us. It has happened to all Christians because of their union with Him.”
In 2 Corinthians 5:16, the Apostle says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is (lit.) new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” The newness of life brought about by our union with the crucified and risen Christ is set against the eradication of the old nature of believers in the destruction of the old age. Though this passage carries with it the larger idea of “new creation” as a whole, it, nevertheless, draws a sharp contrast between the new nature of believers and their old, fleshly sin nature.
Paul ties the redemptive-historical aspect of “the old man” and “the new man” to the inevitable experiential implications in Ephesians 4:22-24 and Colossians 3:5-17. In the Ephesians 4 passage, Paul continues to use the language of “the old man” to explain that the “old self” (i.e. our original sin nature) is the source of all actual indwelling sin in the life of the believer. You are, writes Paul, 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, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). This does not contradict the teaching of Paul in Romans and Galatians where we are told that “the old man” has been crucified once-for-all on the basis of our union with Christ. J.I. Packer explains this so well when he writes:
“Regeneration makes man’s heart a battlefield, where ‘the flesh’ (the ‘old man’) tirelessly disputes the supremacy of ‘the spirit’ (the new man). The Christian cannot gratify the one without interference from the other (Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:23). Sin, from which by repentance he has formally disassociated himself, seems to take on a life of its own; Paul likens it to ‘a person, a living person, called “the old man,” with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength.” It is always at work in the heart; a temporary lull in its assaults means, not that it is dead, but that it is very much alive. ‘Sin is never less quiet, than when it seems to be most quiet; and, its waters are for the most part deep, when they are sill’ (Owen). It’s strategy is to induce a false sense of security as a prelude to a sharp attack.”
When the Apostle Paul dealt with the subject of indwelling sin in the life of the believer in Romans 7, he concluded by crying out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). The believer, though a new creature in Christ, no longer under the power of sin, and having been raised to newness of life, nevertheless is still burdened by–and continually struggles with–indwelling sin.
The members of the Westminster Assembly beautifully summed up the relationship between the believer’s ongoing war that exists inside, when they wrote:
“Sanctification is throughout, in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part does overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.2-3).
However one may seek to reconcile the biblical teaching on “the old man” and “the new man,” of this much we can be sure, those who have been united to Christ by faith are new creatures in Christ. We have been raised from death to life. Our “old man” has been crucified with Him so that we are no longer slaves of sin–but are now slaves of righteousness. Nevertheless, an irreconcilably and ongoing war exists between “the flesh” and “the Spirit”–a war that will not end until Christ comes again and brings to full fruition what He began when He gave us new hearts. When we recognize this, we cry out, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then we respond in confident assurance, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”