If we’ve been Christians for any length of time, eventually we come to the realization that we knowingly do things we shouldn’t do and keep on doing them even though we know better. And we also have to face the fact that we do not live up to the high standard of perfect love that Jesus set while He was on the earth. A point will come, if it hasn’t already, when we have to take an honest look at ourselves and compare our lives to that of Jesus in the gospels; we come up short. The Holy Spirit in us will not allow anything less from us, and if we don’t shut out His voice, we begin to feel a certain dissatisfaction with our lives. A right dissatisfaction, because deep inside we know that we are not right. Even though we trust in Jesus for our salvation, we know that life in the here and now is not right and we begin to look at what is wrong in ourselves. After all, without a good diagnosis of the problem, how can we expect to find the answer?
In short, the problem is sin. “Of course,” you say, “I already know that!” That much is obvious. But for most believers sin is merely an action that breaks one of God’s commands. And at one level that is true. A sinful action that breaks a divine command is called a transgression, which refers to crossing a boundary illegitimately or illegally. In other words, God’s law provides us with limits or boundaries, which we violate when we sin. But sin is more than breaking a law or an act of disobedience. It is not just an isolated act unrelated to anything we did beforehand or anything we do afterwards. Our disobedience to a single command is a symptom of the deeper problem of rebellion. Rebellion is a determined attitude to resist and act contrary to God’s will, to assert our independence and go our own way, to do our own thing, without anyone telling us what to do. Most of us can identify this attitude as particularly characteristic of adolescence, (though I am sure the present readership can only identify with this secondhand!). Eve’s act of eating the apple was a transgression of a divine command, but she was deceived and did not intend rebellion against her Creator. Adam’s sin went deeper — he was not deceived and so his choice represented a carefully determined act of self-assertion and rebellion, to go his own way and not God’s.
This fixed attitude of rebellion had an immediate spiritual consequence for Adam (and consequently for Eve as well): guilt or spiritual death. I am not speaking of guilty feelings here, though Adam and Eve may have felt guilty, but of a fact: Adam and Eve were guilty whether or not they felt guilt, in the same way that when a court pronounces the guilty verdict on a criminal, their guiltiness has nothing to do with feelings. This guilt alienated Adam and Eve from God and put up a wall of separation between God and humanity. This guilt is part of what the Bible means when it talks about sin. In fact, the Biblical word which emphasizes our guiltiness for sin is called iniquity. This guilt and separation from God has consequences that run down the generations. When you throw a large stone into the middle of a pond, ripples are created that last long after the stone has sunk to the bottom. In the same way our actions have spiritual consequences that go on and on like the ripples, even if we never see those consequences. In fact, Adam and Eve’s sin had consequences that will last until the end of human history, because everyone born from them is born a sinner and continues the cycle of sin and guilt, the cycle of iniquity.
But even iniquity does not exhaust the Biblical idea of sin. The Apostle Paul writes about sin as a power that enslaves in Romans 6-7. In Romans 3:9 he says that all humanity is under the power of sin, and in Romans 6:12 he commands us not to let sin be our masters and so enslave us. In Romans 7:15-20, Paul realizes that he is no longer the one in control of his own actions because he does what he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do what he wishes to do. In fact he goes so far as to say that it is no longer him who does the sinful deeds but the sin dwelling in him! For a long time I wondered what Paul meant that it was no longer him that was acting but the sin dwelling in him. Augustine (400 AD) understood Paul to be saying that human nature had become defective as a result of the fall and produced sin because it did not operate correctly. The human will had become twisted and evil and this was the source of human sin. When we became Christians we received the Holy Spirit who began the work of gradually renewing human nature and would eventually restore human nature to perfection when we are raised from the dead at Christ’s return. Most Christian teaching has followed Augustine’s understanding of Paul.
But it seems to me that Augustine has not taken Paul’s words seriously enough: “It is no longer I who do it but the sin dwelling in me.” It seems that Paul distinguishes “sin” from the “I” and that “sin” is not just a part of the “I” or some defect in the “I.” No, sin is a power greater than the human self which has invaded the human world (Romans 5:12) and taken over humanity from the outside. Sin is not a defect in human nature; it is a misuse and abuse of human beings by a spiritual power. In fact Paul describes sin as a spirit of slavery in Romans 8:15.
But what is this spirit that controls and operates human beings from within? Paul identifies the spirit of sin in another letter: “You were dead because of the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, when you followed the way of this world, and the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that now operates in those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:1-2). Almost all interpreters understand this as a reference to Satan. Satan is the ruler of the power of the air — what does this mean? Just as air is universal and inescapable and is the element we breathe in and out all the time, so Satan is the spirit which sinful humanity breathes as its atmosphere and air. Just as I am in the air and the air is in me, so sinful humanity is in Satan and Satan dwells in them. But wait a minute, you might object, Satan is not omnipresent like God is; he is limited in space and time. And so he is. But just as the atmosphere of the earth is one place at one time, but as far as human beings are concerned it is universal, so Satan is everywhere that human beings are, but unlike God he is not in the plants and rocks and animals and stars. Satan is not omnipresent, but everywhere he needs to be.
Satan is also described as the one who is at work in or operating in the disobedient. The phrase “at work in” or “operating in” is a translation of the Greek word energo, from which we get our word energy. Satan is the source of every motivation to sin; he is the energy or power of sin. So when Adam chose to rebel against God, he thought he was choosing to go his own way but he did not realize he was handing himself over to a power greater than himself, the serpent, Satan. In Eph. 2:3 Paul mentions that all of us once lived in the passions of our flesh, following its desires and our senses, so that we were children of wrath by nature. But “flesh” is not the source of sin; it is merely the place where the spirit of sin dwells and stirs up sinful desires to indulge our senses and pursue pleasure at the expense of what is right. It is not human nature that is the problem, but the spirit dwelling in our humanity that is the problem and that ultimately makes us children of wrath.
The apostle John also talks about the devil and sin in his first letter. In 1 John 5:18 he says that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one, and in 4:4 he says: “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” Satan is not just floating around in the atmosphere somewhere, no, he is in the world of human beings, dwelling in human hearts. In 1 John 3:8, he says that the one who sins is from the devil, which means that the one who sins has his spiritual source in the devil. If the devil is my spiritual source when I sin, that means that Satan is the source of my motivations, that he is the power operating me and causing me to do what I do. When I sin, I am participating in a spiritual reality far greater than myself. At the same time, we have to remember our part, our responsibility in all this. The devil doesn’t just make me sin against my will. On the contrary, Satan can only enslave humanity because Adam and Eve willingly trusted his word over God’s and so gave themselves over to him. And in so far as we fail to repent and take God at His word, we continue to allow Satan to run and operate us. We are fully responsible for everything that Satan does through us.
In fact, Satan’s power comes from human guilt, since, as was written above, sin includes the idea of guilt. It is our guilt before God that gives Satan his authority to continue operating us. Fortunately, however, God has a solution: Christ laid down his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; 1 John 2:2). Because the problem of guilt was dealt with decisively in the blood, Satan lost his authority over humanity, so Jesus could say: “Now shall the prince of this world be judged and cast out (John 12:31; 16:11). How did this happen? In his body, Jesus took on the spirit of sin that had invaded humanity, Satan himself, and brought it down into death, into the grace. On the Cross, Jesus was made sin, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). In the ancient world this was called an exchange curse: the animal or human being to be sacrificed would take on the curse or plague or evil that afflicted the community, who would then be delivered from it. In Leviticus 16:21-22 the scapegoat would take all the sins of Israel and bear them out into the wilderness, the place of death. So Jesus took on the curse of the spirit of sin and in exchange we received His spirit of righteousness. The prince of this world, Satan, was cast out of human hearts and bodies through the death of the body of Christ.
But this is not the end of Satan by any means. Satan continually tries to regain a foothold in our lives (Eph. 4:27) and attempts to operate us from the outside and once again produce his sins through us. First through temptation he gets us to disobey God, and then attempts to hold us through our guiltiness. Satan is the accuser of the brothers (Rev. 12:10). I am not speaking about guilty feelings here, though Satan may use them as well, but rather about our objective guilt before God when we sin. Until we confess our sin and repent, we remain in our guilty state and Satan continues to operate us. It is only when the blood is applied that we are freed from Satan’s continuing power over us. That is why the sacrificial death of Jesus is so important. In Revelation 12:11, John says that we overcome him “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of our testimony.” By confessing our sins and repenting of them and placing them under the blood of Christ, Satan loses the authority to accuse us and establish any lasting foothold in our lives. The word of our testimony is our faith that this is so and that now another spiritual power has come to live His life through us, namely Christ Himself, if only we take this truth for ourselves: “For it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). The Son of God keeps us from sinning if we just trust in His faithfulness to keep us.
In the Christian world there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the terms “flesh” and “sin,” especially as Paul uses them in his letters. In fact the misunderstanding of these words has had serious consequences for believers for the past millennium and a half. The church, both Protestant and Catholic, has taken the position that we have an independent human nature that has been corrupted or made defective by Adam’s original sin, and that Satan was only the tempter in the garden. The truth that humans are not self-operating and never will be, and that Satan is the true source of every sin, not just Adam’s, has been lost.
So what about the word “flesh?” Does the “flesh” refer to independent human nature? Paul says that the “flesh” is in conflict with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), so does that mean we have a sinful human nature?
The Greek word sarx or “flesh” is one of the most difficult words to translate in Paul’s writings. Most translations just use the word flesh without further explanation because it is so difficult to understand just what Paul means. Even the apostle Peter claims that there are some things which Paul has written that are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16).The NIV translators, however, decided to translate the word as “sinful nature,” implying that human beings have an independent human nature that is sinful and that leads them to sin against God.
But I believe this is a seriously inaccurate interpretation of what Paul means. Sarx or “flesh” in its most basic sense refers to the soft parts of the body as opposed to the bones. The New Testament only uses the word once in that sense, when the risen Jesus says to the disciples that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have (Luke 24:39). More often “flesh” refers to the human body. A man and woman become one flesh or body in marriage (Matt. 19:5-6). Paul writes about continuing to live in the flesh rather than departing to be with Christ because it is spiritually better for the Philippians that he continue to remain in the body (Phil. 1:20-24). In this neutral sense, the word “flesh” is interchangeable with the word for body. In Galatians 2:20, Paul writes “the life I live in the flesh” and once again he is referring to the life he lives while in the mortal body.
Sometimes “flesh” refers to human beings generally or to what we have in common with other human beings. Paul, speaking to Jewish believers, calls Abraham our “forefather according to the flesh” (Rom.
4:1). Paul calls his fellow Jews his “flesh” in Romans 11:14. Jesus himself is descended from David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3), and is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14), that is, the eternal Son came down from heaven and became a human being. Sometimes Scripture will speak of “all flesh,” meaning all human beings. God promised to pour out His Spirit upon all flesh (Acts 2:17), that is all human beings, and Paul declares that all flesh (or all humanity) shall not be justified or made right with God by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20).
Flesh can also be used in two negative senses. “Flesh” can mean humanity in contrast to God. Whereas God is powerful and immortal Spirit, humanity is weak, powerless and mortal. Consequently, human beings should not put their trust in human beings and their resources but in God. Isaiah declares that the Egyptians and their horses are mere flesh and not God, not Spirit, and that they ultimately perish, being mortal, and so Israel should not trust in the earthly help of Egypt against Babylon, but in God’s power to save them (Isaiah 31:3). Isaiah also says that all flesh is like the grass that withers, whereas God’s word stands forever (40:6-8). In the same way Jesus declares to the disciples in Gethsemane they could not stay awake even an hour to pray with him because although their spirit was willing, the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).We human beings do not possess within ourselves the power to resist temptation.
But it is Paul who sometimes uses the term in the most negative sense of all. Flesh is in conflict with Spirit (Gal. 2:20). He says that he is fleshly, sold as a slave to sin (Rom. 7:14), that nothing good dwells in his flesh (7:18), that those who are in the flesh cannot please God (8:8), and that when we were in the flesh, sinful passions were at work in our body that ultimately lead to death (7:5). Because Paul uses the past tense here, “when we were in the flesh,” he is referring to our spiritual condition prior to our receiving Christ. “Flesh,” therefore refers to the sinful condition of human beings outside of and apart from being joined to Jesus Christ in their spirits. The NIV translation unfortunately understands flesh here as a sinful human nature or human nature corrupted by a spiritual sin principle dwelling within it. In this view we are self-operating human beings with a nature that is defective in some way that results in sins or sinful actions. Supposedly believers are gradually being cured of this defectiveness or corruption as they go through the process of sanctification and become more “like” Christ. Paul, however, teaches that believers have died to sin (Rom 6), which would be impossible if they still had a sinful nature or a sin principle dwelling within them.
There is another possible interpretation of what Paul means by flesh in these contexts. Flesh certainly may mean “human nature,” but not in the sense of a human spiritual nature. Flesh is our human body and soul with all its capacities, appetites, desires, emotions and passions. Flesh is human bodily nature. When it is used in a negative sense, it is our human bodily nature as indwelt and misused by the spirit of sin. It is this indwelling spirit which makes the flesh sinful. It is not that our human spirit has been made defective by sin (the way that a piece of iron is corrupted or made defective by rusting). Instead our flesh or human body is indwelt by the spirit of sin which misuses and twists our bodily members, appetites and desires. Sin is not some defect in human nature or even worse an evil human spiritual nature, but a spirit, as Paul actually states in Rom. 8:15: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery (to sin) so as to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ).” So flesh refers to the human body and soul, to the appetites, desires, passions, and emotions of the body as enslaved and operated by the spirit of sin (see Rom. 6:12, 7:5, Gal. 5:24; Eph. 2:2-3).
What or who is this spirit of sin? It is not part of our humanity, but dwells within the human body (Rom. 7:15-20). Paul identifies this spirit for us in Eph. 2:2: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit which is now at work in the children of disobedience.” Most scholars recognize this as a reference to Satan. It is Satan who is the spirit of sin and who expresses his nature in the sins of human beings. It is he who misuses and twists the normal appetites and desires of our bodies in disobedience to and rebellion against God’s law. John too says that those who do sin are from the devil (1 John 3:8). F. F. Bruce, the well-known British evangelical scholar, writes in his commentary that this means that those who sin have their spiritual source in the devil. So the origin of all sins (and not just Adam’s!) is in the devil himself and not in a defective or corrupted human nature. Sin is the spirit of Satan indwelling the human body, twisting and misusing its appetites and desires, and expressing his rebellion in sinful actions.
But when Jesus died on the Cross, he became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), and God broke the power of Satan in his flesh or body on the Cross (Rom. 8:3). Jesus was never joined to Satan in his spirit, since Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21), but the body of Christ was given over to the spirit of sin, which indwelt Christ’s body for a time on the Cross. God condemned this spirit in Jesus’ flesh, breaking Satan’s hold over the human race. This is the bodily aspect of the atonement, in contrast to the blood that bought forgiveness of sins. The blood dealt with sins, but his body was the means by which God dealt with the spirit of sin that was the source of those sins.
So how did the church get this wrong?
When did it go wrong? It really all goes back to St. Augustine. Augustine is probably the most influential theologian and biblical interpreter in the history of Christianity. The entire Western Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, are deeply influenced by Augustine and his view of human nature, sin and salvation. He is perhaps best known for his defense of the idea that salvation is by God’s grace alone and that human works contribute nothing to our salvation (Martin Luther in the Reformation was actually just repeating St. Augustine on this point, since Luther had been a monk in the Augustinian order).The British monk Pelagius had argued that human beings were able to keep God’s law with some help by the Spirit of God. All that human beings needed to do was repent. Augustine responded: No, human beings are completely incapable of obeying God because Adam’s original sin has infected human nature and made us incapable of obeying God without dramatic divine intervention. Augustine was right that salvation was not by human works but by God’s grace alone, but wrong in his understanding of sin and human nature.
In fact before St. Augustine’s time, the early church believed that “Sin” in Romans 7 did not refer to some mysterious sin principle or sin nature but to Satan himself. Didymus the Blind, who wrote in Egypt in the fourth century, said: “it is the devil who dwells in sinners and does the evil through them, just as Christ works the good in believers.” Another important theologian, Basil of Caesarea, known for his important work on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit, calls the devil “sin itself,” when interpreting Romans. Another church father of the fourth century, Methodius, also interpreting Romans 7, says: “But the devil, whom he calls sin, because he is the author of sin, taking occasion by the commandment to deceive me into disobedience, deceived and slew me. By such a choice I am sold to the devil, fallen under sin, the law of the devil according to the lust which dwells in the flesh.” Irenaeus, one of the earliest Christian theologians and bishop of Lyon (185 AD), writes that Adam became a vessel in Satan’s possession. I could quote additional early church writers, but I think these suffice to show that something changed in the way that sin in Romans 7 was understood. In my doctoral dissertation I have traced this change to St. Augustine. In fact, in the eastern part of the church, Augustine had no influence on their understanding of sin and human nature, and so to this day, the understanding of sin as a reference to the spirit of Satan is still an influential and important interpretation in Eastern Orthodox theology.
So why did Augustine introduce a new understanding of sin and human nature? Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine had been a follower of the Manicheans, a religious group that believed there were two equal deities in eternal conflict, a good deity of light and a bad deity of darkness and evil. The evil deity was not a creation of the good deity, but equal in power and origin. All human sin was the result of and was caused by this evil deity. In contrast, in the Christian view Satan is a spirit created by God in time and is not a deity equal to God in power and attributes (though he may think he is), and is only a rebel against the one true God.
When Augustine became Christian, he reacted against the Manichean religion he had once followed and rejected the view that Satan continued to be the source of all human sin even after Adam’s sin and reduced him to only beginning the process. In other words, Satan corrupted human nature, which became independently sinful, but Satan did not continue to dwell in humanity, as the other church fathers taught. Augustine was right to reject the teachings of the Manicheans, but went too far in the other direction. Instead of understanding sin as the spirit of Satan, he reinterpreted sin as a corruption of human nature, as a defect in our humanity that caused the will to function incorrectly and pursue what God had forbidden. Sin in his view is like rust that corrodes iron. Rusted iron is defective and not as strong as pure iron, so sin has weakened and corrupted human nature so that it doesn’t perform as God created it. Unfortunately, the Western half of the church (which became the Roman Catholics and later the Protestants) followed Augustine’s teaching about original sin and human nature.
Contrary to what Augustine and the entire Catholic and Protestant traditions have taught, sin is not the corruption of an independently operating human nature, but the enslaving spirit of Satan. Humans do not operate themselves, since Paul says that we are either operated by the spirit of sin which indwells us, “it is no longer I but sin” (Rom. 7:17, 20), or we are operated by the spirit of Christ, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). So when is it just me? Never. There is no independently operating human self or nature in the New Testament. So does this abolish our free will? By no means, recognizing what we do not control enables us to recognize what is within our control: we have the choice to take God at His word and trust Him, or we can continue to trust Satan’s deception that we autonomously run our own lives. The choice and the consequences are ours: but why would we continue to trust one whose aim is theft and destruction instead of the One who loves us and has predestined us to share in His own glory?
One of our deepest longings as human beings is for peace. But what exactly is peace? Most often we think of “peace” as peace of mind and freedom from worry and anxiety, a state of tranquility and serenity. But because human beings are not complete in themselves, because we have needs, concerns and cares of every kind weigh heavily down upon us. We wonder if we are going to make enough money this month to pay the bills; we wonder if others will like us or reject us, we wonder if our car will start up in the winter; we worry about our children: are they safe; are we raising them properly?
Concerns like these continually intrude and disrupt any kind of inner peace we seek to have. Moreover, we constantly wonder; “Are we making the right decisions in life? Should I have taken that job? Should I move to another area? Should I marry this person or not? Weighing up our options, we realize that there are good points to various alternatives, and we have difficulty making up our minds. we feel we are of two or more minds about these matters, and this internal division plagues and may even paralyze us. And in these little details of life it seems that the Bible does not give us direct and clear guidance. To be at peace with oneself would mean a freedom from anxiety or worry about our lives, a confidence that we were making the right decisions according to God’s will. In short, having peace would mean freedom from this internal state of disharmony and division within ourselves. It is this peace that Paul refers to in Phil 4:6-7: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Peace not only refers to a state of internal harmony, but also to a state of harmony with other human beings. But peace is not merely the absence of conflict between people, but a condition of wholeness, prosperity and well-being, as the Hebrew word shalom signifies. The prophet Zechariah describes peace in this way: “For there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit, the ground shall give its produce, and the skies shall give their dew” (8:12). And when the Messiah comes, He will be the Prince of Peace and bring justice and righteousness (Isa 9:6-7). In this context justice and righteousness are not merely individual qualities, rather the whole of human society will be characterized by God’s justice, for He sent the Messiah “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa 61:1). In other words, peace represents the ideal condition of humanity, in which needs of all are met perfectly and completely and there are no lacks, where God provides an endless and infinite supply of all that is necessary for life. After all, isn’t it the fear that one might not get what one wants or needs that produces so much conflict among humans? So peace is more than a mere absence of war, but a situation in which the well-being of every person is taken into account and provided for. Just because our country may not officially be at war with other countries does not mean that we have peace in the biblical sense. As long as there is injustice, as long as there is oppression, poverty, disease, and homelessness, as long as there is sin, there is no peace in our countries. But if we have the God of peace within us (Phil 4:9) and fix our faith firmly upon this biblical truth, then we can enjoy His peace in the midst of the chaos and conflict that rages around us in the world.
Everyday we hear of these conflicts in the news, whether in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics, or between India and Pakistan, in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Some of the most devastating wars in human history have been fought in the past one hundred years and the invention of nuclear weapons, and though they may have ended the Second World War, they now loom over us threatening the human race with mass destruction. Although the United States, Russia, China and other nuclear powers have exercised restraint over the past fifty-seven years since the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, one need only remember September 11th to realize that there are terrorists who would use such weapons had they the opportunity. The more “advanced” our civilization becomes, the more peace seems to elude us. But even within American society, peace seems to evade us. We are perhaps the most litigious society in the world: when we do not get our way, we go to court and sue. Conflict appears to be a way of life for the human race.
Conflict and war between peoples, between communities, between individuals—what is the source of conflict and how do we resolve it? The world’s answer is that “we’re all basically good people and we just need to compromise.” But compromise is only enlightened self-interest—if I give a little here, then I will get some of what I want at least—it is only settling for less than what I really want. But real peace is not of human making, and nothing we do will ever bring it about. We do not have it in ourselves to bring about peace in ourselves individually let alone in situations of world conflict. The most we can accomplish is a temporary cessation of hostilities.
When we live from a spirit of self-for-self, automatically we are in conflict with anyone and everyone around us, because the danger is always present that we won’t get what we want or need. As James says in his letter, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your desires that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder” (James 4:1-2). Self-for-self Satan-operated people cannot be at peace in themselves or with each other because the very fact that we all seek our own good means that we will inevitably come into conflict. Even when we appear to be concerned about the good of everyone, we come into conflict over what is best for all concerned and break out into open conflict over our ideals. The philosophy of communism was ultimately rooted in Karl Marx’s desire to improve the conditions and life of the ordinary workingman in 19th century European society. But the lofty ideals did not and could not be translated into real life because Marx did not take into account the sinfulness of human beings and the fact that apart from Christ we are all operated by Satan (Eph 2:2). Because human beings rarely agree on anything, communist “peace” could only be enforced through brutal totalitarian regimes. A handful of people dictated what was best for the vast majority of the people. Inevitably, however, because they themselves were self-for-self Satan-operated people, the leaders did not pursue what was best for all, but only what was best for themselves, at everyone else’s expense. Communism failed to bring about a harmonious society of peace because it relied not upon God, but upon human strength and power to achieve its aims. But self-reliance is really a manifestation of the spirit of Satan.
The Al-Qaeda and the radical Muslims are really no different than the Communists, at least in one respect. They too pursue a vision of a perfect society, a traditional Islamic society. Many Muslims find Western culture extremely threatening and disruptive to their traditional way of life, which they believe God has commanded them to live, especially the sexual immorality that pervades the West and the freedom that we give to women. These Muslims find Western society so threatening that they view American culture as Satanic, and in some respects, they have a point. Our culture has departed from God’s standards, though I think that traditional Islamic culture is just as Satanic, particularly in its oppression of women. The radicals, however, go further than the traditional Muslims: in their zeal to produce a purified Islamic society they are willing to annihilate and kill anyone and any culture that opposes them, and unlike the Communists, they believe that God is on their side. They are willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve their ideals. But they are deceived by Satan in their willingness to murder innocent people to achieve their goal of a purified society. In the end they too do not rely upon the Father of our Lord Jesus to bring about peace, but rather on their own efforts to exterminate all who oppose their vision of a pure Islamic society. Only God has the right to exercise final judgment upon other human beings, and He does not share that prerogative with us. Peace, justice, perfection, and any other ideal cannot be brought about by force or self-effort, since in reality, all self-effort is Satan.
So all human ideals fail because we are operated by that spirit of self-effort and self-for-self, Satan himself. Because his spirit is in rebellion against God, disharmony and conflict are his essential nature, which he produces in all those he indwells and operates. Satan is not only the cause of conflict between groups of people, but the cause of internal disharmony and conflict as well. Paul speaks of this conflict in Romans 7:14-25, in which he did not do what he wanted, but did the evil he hated, because of sin (that is, the spirit of Satan) dwelling in him. And if Satan is the source of all conflict, then the only answer is not compromise, but in being delivered from his spirit and being indwelt by a new spirit, namely the Spirit of Christ.
So peace is not attained by human strength or effort: peace is a person, Jesus himself, the Prince of Peace (Isa 6:9). Paul says that Jesus Christ Himself is our peace (Eph 2:14). But what exactly does it mean to say that peace is a person? Now it is clear that Jesus Christ through his death brought about peace with God by dying in our place on the cross and saved us from God’s wrath (Rom 5:1, 9). By his death we were reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:17-20; Eph 2:15-16), and so we have peace with God. Jesus’ death caused a cessation of hostilities between humanity and God, at least on God’s side, though it is still up to us whether we will cease our hostility to God by accepting his gospel and receiving his Son into our hearts. But that being said, Paul says that Jesus Christ Himself is our peace, not merely that He gives us or offers us peace. How is this possible? True peace can only be established when every aspect of our lives is brought under God’s control (and entirely out of Satan’s control). But we cannot achieve this by our own self-effort, which is really just Satan, after all. We cannot bring ourselves under God’s control; if we could do that, we could keep the whole of God’s law by our own efforts, clearly an impossibility according to Rom 7:14-25. Instead we must trust another (Christ Himself) to take over and deliver us from the slavery and wretchedness that Satan brings about in us. If we truly and fully realized that the God of the universe had come down and entered into our lives to live his life through us, we would have the answer to all our worries, anxieties, moments of indecision. An infinite supply is present within us as our answer to every situation if we but acknowledge this as the one true fact of our lives! Instead, we look at the outer circumstances as if they were the reality and not inward to the supply. This is why we as Christians fail to enjoy the peace which is ours in Christ, or rather the peace which is Christ Himself. It is only when we look at life from the eternal dimension of Christ within us and not at our circumstances that we can enjoy peace (see 2 Cor 4:16). So Jesus is our peace because He personally comes to dwell in us and to live His life through us completely and perfectly if we trust Him to do so. Obviously, there remains the human element of faith; we are not simply possessed by Christ apart from our choice. We can trust Christ to produce his perfect obedience through us (see Col 1:28), and to deliver us from the internal division and disharmony that Paul describes in Romans 7. As Isaiah says: “Those of steadfast mind You keep in peace—in peace because they trust in You” (Isa 26:3). Jesus Christ is our peace because He is the One who lives His life through us.
Christ is not only the peace within us, He also is the peace between people and between groups of people. In Eph 2:14, Jesus is the peace between Jews and Gentiles, who had formerly been hostile to each other. But now because of the atoning death of Jesus and the Spirit of Christ dwelling in them, the two groups are one and the dividing wall between them is broken down. The two groups are not one because they sat down at a meeting table and conducted negotiations and talks and both groups finally agreed to give a little and compromise. Nor did they suddenly come to some kind of outward external agreement. The unity is brought about by the One Spirit which dwells in them, the One Person who lives through them all and is the true Person within them. As Paul says in Colossians 3:11: “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Christ is not only in all, like some kind of added appendage to our real selves; rather He is the real self, the real person within us, and we are only vessels of Him, all expressing Him. This is the real basis of peace within ourselves and with others. The hope of the world is not negotiating tables and United Nations mediators and peacekeepers (though they do serve a temporal purpose), but Christ living in and through all people. There can only be peace when the divisions between people are eliminated, and this can only happen when Satan’s deception of independent self is exposed. A world full of so-called independent selves all pursuing their own “independent” goals and purposes cannot but result in conflict and disharmony. Only when we realize that there is truly only One Person reflected in many different forms, can this conflict be overcome. Paul calls us to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, because as one body we were called to peace (Col 3:15). One body means one person, of whom we are all individually expressions. When we realize this, we have the truth that set us free, as Jesus says in John 8:32. Only in Christ will there ever be peace on earth.
In our society it is common to hear people say that they act or are a certain way because of their genes, because of the way they were raised, because they didn’t have the privileges that others had, because their father was an alcoholic or because of some other traumatic event in their childhood. While all these things may be factors that influence our behavior in the present, such a view conflicts with two scriptural teachings: God’s sovereignty and our free will. God’s sovereignty means that God is in charge of the universe He created, so that nothing happens without His consent. It does not mean that He is the cause of all things, especially not evil, but that evil events and suffering happen to us because He allows them to occur for His purposes and chooses not to intervene to prevent them. In this sense, then, everything that happens in our lives—every situation—is His perfect circumstance for us.
Free will, on the other hand, is our freedom to respond to our Creator with faith in his goodness towards us, or with unbelief and distrust. This freedom is without coercion and without our choice being predetermined, whether by God, Satan, or by our childhood or biology. It is our freedom that distinguishes us from animals. At first glance, however, God’s sovereign control and our free will appear to contradict each other. This is just an apparent paradox, however, stemming from our faulty understanding of what free will is.
Freedom or free choice is at the core of our personhood, as my friend Brian Coatney has written. Why is this so? What makes us persons is our capacity to have meaningful relationships with other persons, and especially with God, the One Person in the Universe. Our relationships with others are meaningful because they are moral. I don’t mean as opposed to immoral, but rather that personal relationships always have a moral quality to them; I can either treat another person rightly or wrongly, with love or in callous and selfish disregard for their welfare. So whatever way I treat another person, a moral quality to the relationship is always present, whether good or evil. We are inherently moral beings, as well as inherently relational beings, even if we are morally wrong and selfish. Right and wrong, good and evil, righteousness and sin are facts of human life: God created us this way because He Himself is a moral and relational being. After all, we are made in His image (Gen 1:26-27).
When God placed Adam in the garden, the first thing He did was to give Adam the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), for it was through this tree that humanity would become aware of themselves as moral beings. The knowledge of good and evil was a good thing, and humanity would acquire this knowledge either by obeying or disobeying God, by trusting or distrusting God’s word: by trusting God they would be choosing the good and rejecting the evil, and by distrusting, they would be choosing evil and rejecting good. Through this choice Adam and Eve would be exercising the personhood, which up until then was only a potential, a possibility. After giving Adam the command, He created a woman to be a helper to him (Gen 2:18), another person with whom he could be in relationship. Thus, from creation God created us to be moral beings who personally relate to other moral beings. We have the capacity to choose between right and wrong. Without this choice, we would not be moral beings, and therefore we would not be persons, and God could not hold us responsible for our lives. We would be nothing more than animals with a higher capacity to reason and we would be unaware of the moral quality of the effects our actions have on others. We would not have to answer to God for anything, because we would lack the awareness that our actions were right or wrong.
Someday all of us will stand before God and give an account of our lives on this earth: “It is appointed for humanity to die once and then to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).At that time God will expose the secrets of our hearts and Christ will judge us all (Rom 2:16). So it is extremely important that we understand on what basis we will be judged, on what grounds God will hold us accountable. Very simply, we will be judged by our obedience or disobedience to what God has revealed to us. Since God has made Himself known in some form to all human beings, everyone is without excuse for their sin (Rom 1:20). Nevertheless, each of us has a choice to trust or distrust God. This choice must not be coerced or predetermined in anyway, since unless the choice is free, we cannot be held responsible for our actions.
But Scripture never uses the phrases “free will” or “free choice.” How do we know that we have such thing? In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to the people of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life” (Deut 30:19-20). God does not set before people two alternatives and then predetermine what choice they will make. It would be a mockery for God to command the people to choose when He knew very well they could not. Moreover, Elijah commanded the people to choose and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). Elijah obviously believed the people were capable of making a choice to follow the Lord. In Genesis 2 and 3, God placed the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden precisely in order to give human beings a choice: He commanded them not to eat of this tree (Gen 2:17), and placed the serpent in the garden to be the mouthpiece of Satan to tempt them. Without the tree and without Satan, Adam and Eve and all humanity would have lived in paradise forever—but not as full persons. God wanted them to confront good and evil and make a choice. God did not predetermine the choice, although He knew beforehand which way they would choose. Free will was built into our humanity from the Garden of Eden.
But if God gave everyone free will, how can He maintain control over His universe? How can He work all things together for our good (Rom 8:28) unless He is in control of everything that happens not only in our lives individually, but in the whole world? How can God mean for good what human beings (and Satan through them) intend for evil? Think of it, six billion people in the world, all of them with a free will—it seems like there would be nothing but chaos with all those conflicting wills! In giving His creation free choice, did God surrender control of His universe to them? Surely not, for then how could Jesus be crucified at the hands of evil men according to God’s definite plan and foreknowledge unless He was in control of human events (Acts 2:23)? God was not waiting around for the opponents of Jesus to make up their minds whether they were going to crucify Jesus. The plan for Jesus to die for the sins of the world was not Plan B, since the lamb was slain from before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8).
That means that whatever human beings choose, their choices cannot disrupt the plan of God for His universe. God is sovereign over His universe: though evil truly exists in the world, nevertheless it cannot disrupt God’s plan and control over His universe. Whatever evil exists in the universe, God turns and uses it to accomplish His goals. So though the devil intends to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10), it is God who created the destroyer to do His work (Isa 54:16).We should take great comfort in this fact, since it means that absolutely nothing can stop God’s loving plans for His people. As Paul says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Rom 8:39).
So God is sovereign over all that exists and all that happens. This includes all events of nature—from the tiniest atomic reaction to hurricanes and tornadoes to the formation of stars and planets. God’s sovereignty also includes everything that happens in the human world, from the least important, such as a chance meeting with a stranger I will never meet again in my life, to the most significant— such as when we received Christ as our Lord and Savior.
But there are really no insignificant happenings in our lives, since God is behind each and every event, even if He is not the direct cause of it. Even if someone is treating us in a cruel and selfish manner, God wills us to have the experience and intends some kind of good through it; otherwise, God would not be in control of our lives and evil could take God by surprise. But God knows and declares the end from the beginning (Isa 46:10), since He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Rev 21:6; 22:13). God doesn’t simply react and use the evil for good, as if the evil stumped Him and He had to think for a few minutes about what to do. No, God intended the evil thing to occur. He intended for us to go through the pain, but always and only out of His good and loving purposes.
On the other hand, if God is in total control of His universe, what room is there for free choice? After all, if my choice is truly free, then God does not coerce or control it in any way; otherwise, it would not be a genuine choice. God would be making my choice for me. If everyone can do exactly what they like, how can God be sovereign?
But wait, that’s just the problem—how we define free will. Most people, including Christians, understand “free will” to mean the freedom to do whatever we choose: to control our actions, to decide what we are going to do in the next moment. But this sounds more like a definition of independent self rather than a definition of free will. I suggest that the real reason that most people and even most theologians have difficulty reconciling free will with God’s Sovereignty is that they operate from the view that they are independent selves who control their own actions. But Scripture is quite clear: we are either slaves to sin or to righteousness (Rom 6), and are operated either by the Spirit of Christ (Col 1:29, Gal 2:20) or by the Spirit of Satan (Eph 2:2. 1 John 4:4).
The choices we make about what to do next or how to react to a situation are never directly under our control at all, but the product of a spirit who operates and motivates us from within. When we were unbelievers (or if as believers) we enter into sin, it is Satan who is acting through us, making decisions through us, even perceiving our situation and other people through us. When we are obedient to God, it is Christ who is living, planning, perceiving our situation through us. Where then is our free choice? Our choice is simply this: we choose to obey or disobey, to take God at His word, or to disbelieve Him and trust what Satan tells us. This fundamental choice determines which spirit operates us and controls our actions.
That is why our free choice never threatens the sovereignty of God: God ultimately controls everything we do, since even Satan can only do through us what God permits him to do and ultimately intends him to do, though with a far different purpose in mind. The only real—though totally free—choice we have is to determine whether we will be vessels of Christ or of Satan. As Paul has said, “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim 2:20-21). We can be vessels of honor or of dishonor, of Christ or of Satan. We may not control what these two spirits do through us, but we are responsible for the consequences, since it is our choice that determined which spirit operated us. That is why God can hold us accountable for our actions, even though we do not directly control those actions: our free choice determined which spirit is expressed in our actions.
So our free will and God’s sovereign control over His universe are really not in conflict. When we realize that we are not independent selves, but vessels operated by one of two spirits, we can see that our free choice is not the ability to control our actions, but our fundamental response of trust or lack of trust in God. Free will is a central doctrine of the Christian faith, for without free will, we could not be held responsible for our actions, and God’s judgment would be a mockery. On the other hand, unless God were sovereign, His promises could not be trusted, for He would lack sufficient control over His universe to ensure that their fulfillment. Fortunately for us, God is both sovereign and entirely loving in giving humanity the same freedom that He Himself possesses.
A common belief of many Christians is that we have two natures, an old nature which fights or is in conflict with the new nature. The continuing existence of an old nature would explain why most if not all Christians struggle with sin. We’ve probably all heard the old analogy that our “two natures” are like two hungry dogs: If we feed the old nasty vicious dog, then that nature will become more powerful, but if we feed the new “dog” or nature and try to be loving, then that “dog” or nature will dominate. The idea here is that there is a split in the self, one part desiring the good, and the other part delighting in sin and self-seeking. Nevertheless, this is not Paul’s point of view.
Paul refers to the old and new man three times: Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22- 24, and Colossians 3:9-10. In Romans, Paul is saying that when Jesus died on the cross, our old humanity was crucified with him. Now when someone is crucified, he doesn’t hang around for very long, a couple of days at most. Crucifixion provided a definite end to one’s life: so whatever the old man is or was, it has met a definitive end in the cross. This is not merely “positional truth,” as some Bible teachers claim: it is actually true and is the basis of why Paul can say that we have died to sin. In Colossians 3:9, Paul writes that we have put off the old man with its practices, an event in our past. It is something we have already done, so we should not have to worry about the old man, whatever it is.
But then in Ephesians 4:22, Paul says that we still need to “put off the old man according to our previous way of life, corrupted and deluded by deceitful desire” (Eph 4:22). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? Have we “put off” the old man or not? But we need to pay closer attention to Paul’s words: “according to our previous way of life.” What we need to do is to stop living as if we were still the old person we used to be. Stop living according to your old way of life! The Greek word anthropos, does not refer to an internal spiritual nature, but to a person, a human being. It is the kind of person we used to be. In order to make it mean “old nature,” we must read into it a conception of human nature made defective by the fall that ultimately derives from St. Augustine, as I explain in another place. The glaring difficulty with Augustine’s view of the old man is this: if we continue to have an old nature that is sinful, then how was the old nature crucified on the cross (Rom 6:6)? So the phrases old man and new man do not mean that we have two human natures: the terms refer not to natures inside us, but to the kind of people we were before and after our initial expression of faith in Christ.
Paul has a different understanding of “human nature.” We don’t possess our own independent self-operating human nature, whether old or new, or good or bad. We need to redefine “human nature” to refer to our bodies, souls and spirits as vessels indwelt by one of two spirits, Christ or Satan (see Eph. 2:2; Rom. 7:7, 20, 8:9-11, 2 Cor. 4:7; Gal. 2:20; 2 Tim. 2:20-21). In Augustine’s view, human nature is self-operating but defective, injured by the fall, and that is why it sins. In Paul’s and John’s view, our humanity is not self-operating, and we sin because the spirit of sin is operating in our members (Eph. 2:2, Rom. 7:17-20), and we are really doing the desires of our father the devil (John 8:44). So the “old man” refers to the kind of person we were when we had the spirit of Satan indwelling us. The new man is ourselves, as indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. What we believe about old and new man comes down to our conception of human nature: do we have an independent self-operating human nature that is defective and sinful or is our humanity indwelt by one of two spirits, and therefore not self-operating? I believe the second is the teaching of the New Testament.
So Sin is the spirit of Satan indwelling the flesh, or human bodily nature. I also explained there that the “flesh” is not a spiritual nature, but our human body and soul with all their capacities, appetites, desires, emotions, and passions. The problem with the flesh is not that it is inherently defective or flawed, but that it is indwelt by the spirit of sin, namely Satan. Satan indwells our members and misuses us, twisting the desires and appetites of our bodies to express his rebellion against God. The problem is much more serious than a mere flaw or defect: we have been captured and enslaved by a power greater than ourselves
On the other hand, because we have been captured and enslaved by the devil, the solution is simpler. If our humanity is defective, then I just have to live with it, at least in this lifetime. But if Satan has entered in and taken over, then the possibility exists that he can be expelled and that we can be delivered. And this is in fact the case: “Now the ruler of this world is cast out” (John 12:31). The Greek word for “cast out” is the language of exorcism: when Jesus casts out demons, the same Greek word is used (see Matt 12:28, “If by the Spirit of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you”).
Jesus accomplished this exorcism of Satan on the cross for us: “He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Christ took upon himself the spirit of sin in his own body when he died on the cross, in order that His Spirit of righteousness might dwell inside us in place of Satan. This “exchange” of Christ in place of Satan becomes real for us personally when we receive Christ by believing in him. In the early church, this confession of faith was always associated with baptism. There was no “sinner’s prayer” and no one spoke of “praying to accept Christ.” Instead, you confessed your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and in his resurrection from the dead and were baptized. A major part of the early ritual of baptism was the exorcism of Satan from the person receiving Christ. In later times the church softened this to a renunciation or rejection of the devil and his works that the believer made during their confession of faith, though Luther himself included exorcism as part of baptism.
So when we initially receive Christ, Satan is cast out. Paul says that those who have been baptized into the death of Christ have died to sin, that is, to the indwelling spirit of Satan (Rom 6:3-6). As a result, we are no longer enslaved by the devil, and no longer have to carry out his desires (John 8:34 and 44).
Now one might say: the Gospel of John says that the devil is cast out of the world, but doesn’t say he is cast out of people! True enough, but what is the world? Jesus is not saying that Satan is being cast out of rocks or trees, or that he used to float in the air somewhere. Satan is a spirit: he doesn’t dwell in material things. No, the world is humanity in rebellion against God: it is humanity that Satan inhabits and rules over! After all, where else would Satan be, except in people? Satan is not in hell, nor is he the king of hell, as popular myth has it: Satan won’t be thrown into the lake of fire until the final judgment (Rev 20:10). So when we first confess our faith in Christ, Satan is cast out of our spirits. Satan does continue to have access to our flesh in order to tempt us, since we have not yet received our resurrection bodies: “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23).
But even though Satan continues to attack believers, we should consider ourselves truly dead to his power because the person we once were has been crucified with Christ (Rom 6:2-11). We are no longer the person who was indwelt by the devil. The devil may attempt to regain a foothold (Eph 4:27) and so operate us from the outside, but we should not allow him to deceive us that we really have an old human nature that must be changed or improved. Our humanity is not the problem; it is the spirit operating in us that is the problem. Christ dealt with the persons that we once were by crucifying the old humanity to the cross (Rom. 6:6). When we believed in Christ, we became a new creation (2 Cor 5:17): we have put on the new man, who is Christ Himself! (Col 3:10, see Rom 13:14). But we are a new person not because we have a new human nature of some kind alongside an old nature, but because we are indwelt by a new spirit— and that is the only thing that has really changed.