BAPTISM AND REBIRTH
Before ascending into heaven, Christ told his disciples to go and baptize all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). The early Church often baptized whole households.[footnote]See Acts 16:14–15 and Acts 18:8.[/footnote] Today, we tend to baptize individuals. But in all cases, the ceremony is a symbol of baptism of the Spirit, which brings salvation through God’s Word.
These passages do not say whether the apostles themselves baptized children, but catacomb records show that this was indeed a practice within the first century and afterward of the early Church. Early Church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in particular were proponents of infant baptism.[footnote]W.H. Withrow. The Catacombs of Rome and Their Testimony Relative to Primitive Christianity, pp 532–533. Nelson and Phillips, 1874. This book has entered the public domain and is available at archive.org/details/cu31924074296439/page/n535. Accessed May 21, 2019.[/footnote] This is controversial in some denominational circles. Why not stick to adult baptism?
The early Church didn’t share the modern concept of the “age of accountability,” the stage at which an individual can make his own decision whether to be baptized and commit to a life of faith.
According to human understanding, we may assume that a baby is born good—made not only in God’s image but with a godly nature—only to learn evil over time. This idea may sound reasonable at first, but it is not biblical.
The Bible states that everyone is enslaved to sin and death. Little Joseph, Big Joey, and Uncle Joe have the same destiny. Age is irrelevant. All are destined to die.[footnote]See Genesis 3:19–24; Hebrews 9:27.[/footnote] Resurrection is the only hope for ultimate salvation. Baptism of the Holy Spirit represents the first step, saving us and sealing us. Resurrection is the final step.
Baptism of the Spirit happens when the Word of the gospel is delivered. No matter the age of the person being baptized, all receive the exact same gift. What happens after baptism is a different matter. Hearing the Word is our starting place, but the baptism act itself does not nurture faith or cause obedience or ensure lifelong belief. This is why there is a second command within the Great Commission. Not only is the Church supposed to baptize people, but we are also called to lead those same people into maturity—to make disciples out of new believers.
In giving the Commission, Christ didn’t include a list of instructions for the baptism ceremony; he didn’t weigh in on whether it’s better to immerse converts in water or sprinkle water on a child’s forehead. The Levitical purity laws and mikveh cleansing offered a rich history of water-based ceremonies; then came John the Baptist, who baptized with water. Each of these practices foreshadowed the baptism of the Holy Spirit.[footnote]See Acts 11:14–18.[/footnote] It is clear throughout the New Testament that the baptism of the Holy Spirit leads to salvation, while the ceremony of water baptism is merely a symbol of what God is doing in the spiritual realm.
Instead of fixating on the ceremony of baptism, the Church should focus on the ongoing mission of discipleship. Getting the Holy Spirit into someone’s life is very important, but keeping him there is just as vital. We must lead new believers in discipleship and help to keep them in the faith. Salvation comes later, but sanctification is happening today.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”
While we await eternal life, we are set apart today. God is preserving us for use in his spiritual kingdom today and the physical kingdom to follow the merger of heaven and earth.
New disciples don’t know a lot; they are spiritual infants. We must nurture them through a continual process that is realized through the delivery of the Word; we preach and teach, and they hear God’s message over time.
Should we withhold baptism until a certain point when a person is “ready”? How might we tell when a person ready? The truth is, it shouldn’t be up to us to judge the hearts of others. Our task is simply to preach, baptize, and teach; only the Holy Spirit can see into the heart.
The belief described in Mark 16:16 is ongoing and constantly engaged. In contrast, water ceremonies represent a one-time event: the baptism of the Spirit and the corresponding receipt of our new, clean heart. But despite the symbolism of drowning our old sinful nature, the flesh doesn’t stay smothered. We need daily drowning thereafter.[footnote]See Luke 9:23.[/footnote]
A major dividing line about baptism relates to the question of what is baptized: a mortal or immortal soul? If we believe in an immortal soul, we are more liable to have a “once saved, always saved” (or “once baptized, always baptized”) mentality. But if our soul is mortal, it must be continually preserved then finally saved at the resurrection. A one-time event of baptism would not be adequate.
We can experience the power of the Word through the Holy Spirit at any age. We in our flesh do not choose to pursue the Spirit, but God chooses to give himself to us; nothing we do can affect when God approaches us. Baptism is not a choice we make. It is a gift we receive from the Spirit.
Most of our debates over ceremony come down to a misunderstanding of free will as it relates to salvation in general. It is not presumptuous to baptize an infant because even adult believers must continually choose to remain in Christ. This ceremony does not ensure that the child will do so. By the same token, there should be no issue for the congregation in waiting for a family or person to be baptized if the congregation is already engaged in relaying God’s Word (and by extension God’s Spirit). Salvation doesn’t hinge on the application of water, but on the outpouring of God’s Spirit. The power of the Word will convict the person or the head of a family.
Salvation: Our Choice or God’s?
Belief is trust in God’s Word alone. Is choice the same concept as belief?
Choice can be considered a work that we must do under the flesh while belief is trust in the work of Christ. This is why the Bible focuses on words like “believe” or “confess,” not words like “choose” or “decide.”
We cannot credit our choice to believe in God for salvation through our old nature, as this would mean that we contributed toward our own salvation. We cannot produce our own righteousness or good works, not in any amount; God alone is righteous, and only God can give us righteousness.
To make a choice, we weigh the options, then select what we think is best. Since we are sinful by human nature, our old heart can only make a selfish decision. Even if we say we are choosing to follow Christ, our motivation is to win something for ourselves: eternity in heaven; happiness; an alliance with a powerful God. Whenever we make a decision or choice, no matter how good we think our intentions are, we are following our own judgment and operating under the law of the flesh.
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
We are saved by grace through the Spirit, and we must be led by the Spirit, not our human judgment. Our belief flows out of the grace we have received, not an idea we find persuasive.
The idea that we choose to become saved is generally tied to a mythological free will. According to this perspective, we in our human nature invite God to come in and clean our heart of its sin—or at least as much of it as possible. The result is a mixed nature, a merger of God and man. But this idea is not in the Bible. Our sinful nature can only be crucified, drowned, and buried––not cleaned. God does cleanse us but with the gift of a newly created heart.[footnote]See Psalm 51:10–17; Ezekiel 36:26–27.[/footnote]
Remember, we do not have a literal soul; rather, we are a soul, which is the living combination of spirit and “dust.” Our soul is not immortal, and isn’t “ours” at all. We are a soul only when alive. As a mortal soul, we need the Holy Spirit to continually work in us after our baptism to sustain us.
After baptism, discipleship and discipline kick in. We all are spiritual infants when we first receive the Holy Spirit. We need a continual outpouring of the Spirit. Everyone needs this. The very term “born again” implies that a new nature has been given to us; no matter our age or maturity, we all have the starting point.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit marks the initiation of our salvation, and the continual outpouring of the Spirit maintains our salvation. Discipleship keeps us engaged in obedience, and therefore growing in faith. The Spirit is continually engaged, the new believer must be continually engaged, and Christ commands the Church to be likewise committed to the ongoing work of teaching and training new disciples.
Due to the “now and not yet” nature of salvation, biblical verbs regarding salvation appear in a variety of tenses.
- Past tense: We were sealed at our baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Word came first. The Church gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit by relaying God’s Word. We could not baptize ourselves, but after grace came, the Church followed God’s law of institution. Nothing we did contributed to our own baptism; it was a gift from Christ through the Church.
- Present tense: We are kept, preserved, comforted, and sanctified by the continual saving work of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is a gift today.
- Future tense: We will ultimately be saved when the Spirit breathes life back into our corpse (or dust) at the resurrection. Salvation will be a gift in the future.
When we look at verb tenses within all salvation passages, we notice that there is a special focus on the future for ultimate salvation. There are also a lot of verses that speak to the present salvific effects of the Holy Spirit that keep us preserved until the resurrection. Of course, many passages speak to the past saving work of Christ. Some passages even depict all three tenses of salvation.
Ephesians 1 shows us a progression from past to present to future. Here the whole salvation process is summarized in just two verses.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
In this passage, Paul arranges many key points in the proper sequence.
- The gospel was heard; by grace, we heard the good news of the gift of eternal life.
- Faith was formed; we believed this message (through humility, not analysis).
- We were sealed with the Spirit; he is now the guarantee of our inheritance.
- We will acquire the inheritance of the promise to Abraham on the day of resurrection.
Salvation in this passage is in the future. Paul didn’t have it yet. He wasn’t totally saved.
We can’t “hear” this gospel under our old sinful nature. Wanting the matter to be settled, we will grasp for something we can do to ensure our salvation. But what is required of us is contriteness, broken-heartedness, and humility (Isaiah 66:2b); these attributes convey the correct attitude with which to hear the gospel. We need to be like a child who brings nothing to the table before God. We can’t bring our decisions, prayers, petitions, pleas, or sacrifices to God as a first step. God does invite us to call upon his name and continually confess, yet these are not singular events that establish our relationship. We are not asked to respond to “altar calls” or offer up a “sinner’s prayer.”
“For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
You are not pleased with burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
—Psalm 51:16–17, NASB
Let’s again look at infant baptism as a way to examine our attitudes regarding salvation and free will. In every case, no matter the age of the person involved, the following aspects of baptism are true:
- Baptism conveys God’s gift;
- No one can baptize himself;
- Only the Church can administer baptism;
- Baptism does not produce a perfected faith; and so
- Continual discipleship must follow.
Depending on the age of the person being baptized, she may or may not comprehend what baptism means. Obviously an infant would be oblivious, while confusion in an adolescent would be perfectly understandable—but even an adult might have some misconceptions about what is happening in the spiritual realm.
The reason some people get bent out of shape over infant baptism is reason itself. Can a person be baptized without understanding baptism? Put another way, is it acceptable to baptize now and then train and disciple the child until he is ready to confess his faith later on?
Can confession and baptism occur separately?
The Bible, the early Church Fathers, and the catacombs reveal that early Christians practiced both infant and believer’s baptism. Why should we pick one or the other? Our clear mission is to build the corporate Body of Christ by following the means he instituted. Our primary concern should not be how people in our community receive the Spirit’s baptism, but how we nurture each other in the Spirit and are united together in Christ.
As we’ve seen, many of our widely held beliefs about God and his creation do not align with Scripture. Let’s take a closer look at a few common ideas regarding our human nature that ought to be reconsidered.
- Immortal soul: the idea that we have a soul that will never die. Branching off from this concept is the idea of eternal security, or “once saved, always saved.”
- Free will to accept God: the idea that we must make a decision to follow God as a primary step of salvation. Accepting God by faith is different from making a decision to accept God through our own free will.
- Individualism: the idea that we can go look for God on our own.
When an adult is baptized, is he eternally secure? When an infant is baptized, is she eternally secure? If she becomes confirmed in the faith as an adolescent, should we consider her salvation secure at that point?
Salvation is not completed at baptism, nor at confirmation, nor at any other rite or ceremony available to the Church. Salvation is only made complete at the second advent. No graduation ceremony, no event, no single act of any person or group of people can make an individual’s salvation permanent. We can turn away and reject the gift of the Holy Spirit at any time. Free will is always present within our old nature, fully capable of rejecting God.
Free Will to Accept God
While we can use our free will to reject God, we cannot use that same will to accept Christ as savior. Under the law of flesh, we cannot choose to accept God into our heart, or else we would be able to secure our own salvation through our good actions.
Salvation requires our continual belief. We are kept secure as long as we don’t reject God or interrupt the work he is doing in us through his Spirit. Obeying his commands demonstrates that we haven’t rejected his Word or his will. God’s grace is unconditional in the sense that the whole world is offered forgiveness and salvation, but conditional in the sense that we need to believe and trust in him. Accepting his will means that we do not change, add to or take away from his plans. We leave them “as is”.
Where is the Bible passage that says we must choose God to be saved? As soon as we make salvation hinge on our own actions, we end up in the parable of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16–24). We can’t say that we like some of what the Bible has to say, then only follow the teachings we like. It is all or nothing with God. We either live by every word that comes out of his mouth, or we end up adding to his Word or taking away from it. After the ending of the parable, Christ tells us that mankind does not possess the will to do what is necessary to be saved.
“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”
We do see one passage in the Bible that describes making a choice for salvation. In Deuteronomy 30:11–20, Moses relays God’s message to his people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Verse 19 states that Israel should choose life over death. But this passage rests within the context of the Mosaic covenant. Israel needed to agree to God’s conditional terms; by stating that they would keep his laws, they would be blessed to enter the land. This teaching is not repeated in the New Testament but is for our instruction that we cannot choose life or earn eternal life. It is a gift that we can only accept by faith.
We often talk about making a choice or decision to follow Christ. But the key element of salvation is Christ choosing us, calling us. Let’s look at the apostles’ election as an example. In John 15:16–17, Christ reminds his disciples that he chose them, not the other way around.[footnote]His instruction in this verse to abide in good works relates to his earlier teaching to abide in God’s love (John 15:10). Good works flow out of God’s nature, not our own.[/footnote] People are “elected” for salvation. (After we study free will further, we’ll come back to the concept of election.)
Although individualism is a strong cultural value in our society, this is not a biblical value. God intends for us to live in Christian community, and this begins with baptism. We cannot baptize ourselves; only the Church can deliver this gift through the Word by the Holy Spirit. God’s goal is to form a larger Church body. The Church is not effective in its work for Christ when we isolate ourselves and try to operate alone.
Baptism of the Spirit is a corporate gift that an individual can reject at any time after receiving it. We can “lose” salvation by rejecting God’s methods. Comprehension of the gift may come later through discipleship, or we may grasp God’s plan of salvation on the day of our baptism. But there is no need for us to fully comprehend baptism before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As Christians, we must continually believe in God’s grace as it is poured out over time. The initial event of baptism is very important, but the Bible puts much greater focus on the ongoing process of sanctification through which the Spirit keeps us in the faith. Like baptism, the process of sanctification is carried out within Christian community, not on our own.
New Life in the Spirit
Here Paul offers us some insight into the salvation process:
“But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
So the Word comes first to enter the heart. This is a new heart in us, not a merger of the Word into our old heart.
This passage can be taken out of context, so let’s look closely. We need to understand what “believes” means, so let’s examine other appearances of this word in Romans.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
Belief itself doesn’t contain anything of intrinsic value without the power of God. We do need to believe in God and not reject him, but our belief is nothing compared to his power, which is contained in his Word.
Salvation begins when God puts a new heart within us and imbues it with the power of the Word of the Spirit (see Romans 10:8 above). The gospel is planted (or embedded) inside of us. Only then can true belief occur. It does us no good to try to believe God with our old nature. The original heart of our sinful nature either rejects God’s Word outright, or tries to change it or modify it to fit our preconceived beliefs.
When we believe in God’s gifts with our new heart, we receive the seeds of faith. This gift of faith is the beginning of justification. As Paul puts it, we are saved “through faith” in Christ.
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
A common view is that justification begins when we in our human nature become persuaded to believe in the gospel. Were this true, many Scriptures would no longer make sense. True belief is the result of God coming into our heart, not a mechanism that prompts his arrival. As we will see in Acts 15:11, Peter states that he and a new Gentile believer have each received the same grace. What matters is God’s generosity, not the relative intensity of our belief or convictions.
Is our faith in itself a gift from God? Or is our belief contributing to the primary gift, with faith sprouting from that belief? Each interpretation seems to have its own supporting passages.
Some passages describe belief as coming from our old heart. But even evil demons believe in God.[footnote]See James 2:19.[/footnote] Belief itself is not the whole message, as we can see. True belief must flow out of a contrite heart after the gift of the gospel is delivered.
We need to pay close attention to verb tenses as we seek to understand salvation in general and the faith-by-grace concept in particular. In Romans 10:8–13 (quoted above), Paul twice uses the future tense “will be saved.” This is to be expected; salvation will be made complete at the second advent when we are resurrected and welcomed into the Promised Land.
But in Romans 10:10, Paul switches to the present tense: “With the mouth one confesses and is saved.” According to this English translation, full salvation occurs in the present, which contradicts several other passages we’ve already studied. It is possible that Paul is referring to spiritual salvation, not bodily resurrection. On the other hand, a more literal rendering of this sentence would read, “With the mouth one confesses “unto salvation.” This phrase (used in such translations as the New King James Version) depicts an ongoing salvation in terms of a preservation effect. With this more literal translation, the textual conflict is resolved.
Salvation is presented in different verb-tenses in Scripture as we have seen. But we also see some movement in the understanding of salvation—not in terms of when, but for whom.
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
According to traditional understanding of the Mosaic covenant, salvation was for the people of Israel and converts to this originally Hebrew nation. Only such people could hope to receive resurrection and enter into the Promised Land.
“But we believe that we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will.”
Peter’s simple response in this second passage covers two extremely important topics.
- Salvation is in the future. Peter believes he isn’t saved yet but will be saved at the second advent. We receive the promise by grace today, but the promise is not fulfilled until the day of resurrection.
- The true Promised Land is heaven on earth. This passage doesn’t explicitly mention the Promised Land, but verse 1 sets the context with a discussion of circumcision and salvation. Circumcision is a covenant reminder of the blessings given to Abraham—in particular, that he would live eternally in the Promised Land. So Peter here declares that God is bringing Gentiles into the same covenant promise; they too will enter heaven on earth.
There are many examples in Scripture of present-tense gifts that lead to future-tense salvation verbs; that is, grace today leads to eternal life on the last day.[footnote]See Acts 11:18; Romans 6:22–23.[/footnote]
In Acts 16, Paul offers present-tense baptism and preaches future-tense salvation. Notice the jailor’s contrite heart; also see how “the word of the Lord” was the means through which he and his family came to believe.
“Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”
We are to believe in the Word of the Lord to be saved. The Word comes first; only then can we believe in God’s promise to save us in the future.
Here is a similar passage that shows how Gentiles received the same gift (Word and Spirit) as the Jewish apostles.
“‘And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way? When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”’”
These passages from Romans and Acts feature the same concepts about baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Christ’s Word was delivered; then belief in the Word enabled salvation in the future.
Present-tense verbs of salvation are also very important in that we need to be sealed today by the Holy Spirit. Throughout Scripture we encounter words like “keeps” and “preserves.” This work of preservation is ongoing. Sanctification follows justification as a process over time.
Unfortunately, a lot of people just use the past tense to describe salvation. For example, someone might say, “I was saved on June 3, 1967,” or “I was baptized on…” But salvation is an ongoing process, something we experience in the present and realize in the future.
Freedom in the Ever-Present Spirit
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
“…that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
“[W]alk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”
“The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
Job declares his life is being sustained in the present tense.
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Salvation is ongoing, a promise yet to be fulfilled.
“[F]or it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
The good works that come out of our lives are God’s doing. We cannot do the good that God desires.
“Do not quench the Spirit…. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
—1 Thessalonians 5:19, 23
The ongoing work of sanctification is carried out by the Spirit. God himself sets us apart from the world and our old sinful nature. We are not saved once, and then free to go on sinning.
The famous passage of Ephesians 2:8–9 describes how grace leads to faith. But if we put too much focus on grace, we may not read or practice verse 10. Grace enables us to join God in doing good works that were established for us long ago.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
God predestined us to do good works—to keep his law and love others. God’s election contains a general plan that he has for us all, but he also has an individual plan for each of us.
God desires to have a continued relationship with us—to “walk” with us, not just deliver a one-time gift of grace. When we are faithful in our relationship with God and our obedience to his will, the result is our sanctification.
Sanctification means to be set apart for holy use. We need to be set apart from the world and our sinful nature because the Holy Spirit now dwells in us.[footnote]See 1 Corinthians 6:19.[/footnote] Transformation is a process of steady separation.
Our human flesh is only sinful and cannot save itself. There is no conversion of the old nature, as it is considered dead, crucified, drowned, and buried.[footnote]See Mark 8:34; Romans 6:1–15; 7:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20; 5:24; 6:14; Ephesians 4:20–24; Colossians 3:9–10.[/footnote]
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
The concepts of drowning, burial, crucifixion, and denying oneself to take up the cross are all perfect analogies of what needs to happen to the old heart.
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Flesh connotes self, our sinful nature, enslavement to death and the devil.
Spirit connotes Christ, God’s nature, new birth, eternal life.
The Bible often relates concepts and entities to one other, such as death and the devil, or Christ and life. Opposing natures or concepts are only pitted against each other, never mixed—unless to demonstrate an abomination. The Bible never promotes lukewarm faith, hybrid gospels, or mixing truth with myths.[footnote]See Mark 8:33.[/footnote]
We often struggle to define our own sinful nature. We can get as far as acknowledging that Adam sinned, thus putting us under the death curse. But we resist associating our mortality with an inherent sinfulness. We were created good in the image of God, after all. Free will was meant to be a blessing, physical nature was perfect—even our dust will be resurrected someday. If all other aspects of life are good, how can we be lumped into an all-bad sinful-nature scenario?
The short answer is that even one small imperfection makes the whole lump unholy as seen in God’s eyes. The death curse is the unholy ingredient.
We need to focus on the new nature. Our new identity is life in Christ, who saved us and continues to live in us through his Spirit. But the death nature still resides within us, even though we consider it crucified with Christ and know it will be destroyed. The ceremony of baptism illustrates our hope, the water drowning our old nature as we rise to new life with our resurrected savior. We are born again with God’s Spirit. We are alive in Christ and dead to the flesh.
However, all enemies are not yet destroyed. Death no longer has its sting, but death remains.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
—1 Corinthians 15:26
We are born into sin and remain in it until we are born of the Spirit. Our sinful (mortal) nature is described by Christ in John 3:36 as wrath remaining in us.
Wrath in this case refers to the curse of death that God put on Adam and Eve and their descendants (including us).
“…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
Everyone is cursed to die.
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Did this person’s sin come upon him through his own thoughts or actions? No. All are cursed before they are born.
Since the Fall, every person starts off life in sin and remains in sin. Born into death, we must be made alive in the Spirit.
“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?’
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
We need to read the entirety of God’s Word to understand the “depths of his wisdom and knowledge.” The concept of being “consigned” or born into sin doesn’t make sense from a human perspective, yet it’s true.
On what basis does God condemn our nature? What good is our free will if we cannot choose righteousness?
Free will is not true freedom. We cannot choose whether to sin or do good, as it is our nature to sin. It is automatic. In following our nature, we cannot help but choose the sinful path (until we are born again). This is imprisonment, not freedom. The Spirit must set us free from our sinful nature and empower us to do good through God’s nature.
The freedom we have in Christ is true freedom. However, we are not free to choose sin in the Spirit, which means our new situation is the exact opposite of free will in the flesh. We can “choose” to sin under the flesh, or we can exercise our freedom in Christ to do good. God’s nature cannot produce sin, and our human nature cannot produce righteousness.
A common assumption is that God converts our old human nature by rinsing out most of the sin, allowing us to merge with the Spirit and become holy ourselves. We imagine we must choose to seek God’s forgiveness so we can go to heaven. The truth is that we first need the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) that comes by his Word. Our human mind is bound by the curse and fixated on selfish desires.
Instead of trying to choose to act righteously, we need to trust in the God who is righteous. He is the one who does good works; we were planned from the foundation of the world according to his will to be a conduit in the Spirit. With humility we submit to God’s power at work in and through us. Instead of trying to make our own good decisions, we need to follow God’s commands. His Word tells us all we need to do.
God’s Word clearly spells out his plans, instructions, laws, and commands. We have nothing to debate or decide upon. We should simply obey. Adam was designed to live by the Word of God.[footnote]See Matthew 4:4, which is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.[/footnote] We share the same design.
Human nature cannot help but believe the lies of the devil, who is the father of lies.[footnote]See John 8:44.[/footnote] His first lie convinced us to doubt God and trust in our own supposed immortality. Because of this sin, we live under the death curse.
The devil continues to tell this same lie today, but Christ’s nature binds us to eternal life and truth. Hidden in Christ who cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18), we have access to every truth necessary for life.
Christ is literally “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a)—the antidote to our curse of death and sin.
Christ is the founder of salvation (Hebrews 2:10), the source of salvation (Hebrews 5:9), and the perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Only by his gifts can faith be completed. Christ calls us to act out our faith through his Spirit; these are the good works we can participate in.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
The flesh cannot produce good works, so James is speaking here of good works done in tandem with the Spirit through his nature. He clarified in the previous chapter that everything good comes from God (James 1:17).
God’s promises to Abraham were unconditional (Genesis 12 and 15); once Abraham received God’s grace, commands followed (Genesis 17 and 22). Abraham believed in the promise, initiating his faith (Genesis 15:6), but his faith was only completed after he obediently acted out his belief (Genesis 22:1-18).
How did Abraham’s belief in God’s unconditional promises compare to him acting out his trust that God would raise Isaac from the dead? The promises God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 did not depend on Abraham making a choice to believe in God. Abraham merely received these gifts. God bore all the responsibility in the blood oath he initiated (Genesis 15:13–20). Abraham offered Isaac to God based upon his previous belief in the gifts; this completed his faith.
Our own faith begins when God reaches out to us in forgiveness. Faith is included with the gift like a hand to grab on to. If we believe the gift is true, we will act out in obedience to complete our faith according to God’s guidance. Many people stop at belief. This is making a handshake agreement only to fail to follow through. Carrying out the work fulfills the contract. But even in faithfulness, we must maintain proper perspective and humility.
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
—1 Corinthians 3:5–7
Our belief is an important step in the salvation process, but belief does not count as a work towards righteousness. Rather, Christ grants us his own righteousness and power. We get “credit” for our belief only when we trust God enough to act in faith with God’s spiritual resources. This results in our justification, completing the work of Christ.
Christ completed the universal work on the cross for all; when we believe in him, we can live through the power of his work in us.