The Problem of EVIL and The Judgments of GOD
THEOLOGY and science have much in common. But it is far more difficult to separate fact from theory in theology than it is in science. Many a "scientist" who has fondly clung to evolution has found that the postulates of that theory are false. One of these, which was once much in vogue, was known as "the inheritance of acquired characters." That is, the experiences of the race are incorporated into our physical frames and are passed on as permanent characteristics to succeeding generations. But it is now known that such a thought is utterly without foundation.
Theology has the same theory in regard to the entrance of sin. It may be stated thus: Adam sinned and acquired a sinful nature, which has been passed down to all his posterity. In theology, sin is an "acquired character" which can be transmitted by generation. If this is so, it is the only case in all creation. It is contrary to all true science. Nature knows nothing of it. The question arises, is it really found in revelation? Or is it only another theory supported by authority and tradition? If it is true, let us have the facts!
To test the theory of acquired characters scientists have performed thousands of experiments. Plants have been taken and transformed by cultivation, by changes in soil and elevation, by heat and moisture. But all apparent deviations were found to be transient and ephemeral, for when the plant is returned to its original environment it reverts to its old self again. None of its offspring profit by its experiences. All true scientists have abandoned the theory as untenable and contrary to every known fact in nature.
Only in theology has this theory kept a unanimous following, for it is supposed that the Scriptures teach this evolutionary doctrine. We are asked to believe that a single experience, a single act of Adam, utterly altered his "nature" so radically that he transmitted the change to all his posterity. Of course, it is not necessarily false because it is contrary to nature as we know it. Science does not account for creation. And such a change in Adam can only be explained by a special creation or miracle on God's part. But theologians will be slow to accept the necessary basis of their theory, for they dread the very thought of introducing sin by means of divine interposition.
Is it not time that we followed the example of science and put our theories to the test? What is the scriptural basis for any change in man's "nature" as a result of the "fall?" Some will shudder at the very thought of doubting so sacred and orthodox a doctrine. Let them transfer their reverence from such empty shells of human supposition to the living, imperishable word of God, and their feelings will revolt at that which they now revere. We have long enough covered up the truth with sanctimonious phrases. Let us clear them aside so that we may look upon the face of God's holy word.
If theologians were at least as accurate in their terms as scientists, they would make more solid progress. The use of unsound, unscriptural words interposes an insurmountable barrier to truth. While we may not be able to confine ourselves absolutely to the minutiae of holy writ, all our keywords should be scriptural. It is useless to even consider this subject further until we have disposed of some of the phrases that falsify the facts.
We are told that mankind has a "sinful nature." It is true that the word "sinful" occurs five times in the common version of the "New Testament," but it has no equivalent in the original. Four times it is used for "sinner" (Mark 8:38; Luke 5:8; 24:7; Rom.7:13). Once it stands for "sin" (Rom.8:3). The American Revisers have corrected this mistranslation in their margin. It should read, "the flesh of sin," or "Sin's flesh," not "sinful flesh." So we never read of a "sinful nature." Why not? Is it an oversight in the word of God or an imposition on it? Away with the unscriptural words!
Man's "nature" is spoken of in Scripture. But it is not the incurably corrupt and utterly depraved thing which we have been taught. Man's corruption and depravity is not connected with his nature, but his condition. In that most terrible indictment of the human race, found in the first few chapters of Romans, the apostle never refers disparagingly to human nature. On the contrary, he tells us that the nations do by instinct (or nature--the same word) what the law demands (Rom.2:14). How can the "fallen nature" do aught in harmony with the law of God?
Man's sin is not inherent in his nature or his flesh. Unless we discard such sanctimonious but unsound catchphrases as "fallen nature," and "sinful flesh" there will be little likelihood of our eyes being opened to perceive what God has so clearly revealed, because of the veil of human tradition.
Most of the difficulties connected with this subject arise from the use, or rather abuse, of the word nature. It has such a wide scope and is so indefinite that it conveys only a hazy suggestion. We propose to confine it to the Greek word phusis, which it usually represents in our versions. We must protest against its use for genesis (James 3:6), and the use of natural for the same word (James 1:23), as well as for psuchikos, soulish (1 Cor.2:14; 15:44,44,46). Indeed if "the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God," and this natural man is the antithesis of the spiritual, as our version plainly asserts, then the only hope is in an unnatural, artificial man. It is the soulish man who is in view here. It is not a question of nature.
When we assert that Scripture does not use or suggest such phrases as "sinful nature," many will suppose that we do not believe that men sin or are sinners. Let us assure them that we hold to this with all the tenacity of which we are capable. We are not questioning these facts at all. We are investigating the word of God to find out what "sin" and "sinner" means. We have found out that a "sin" is essentially a miss, and now we are discovering, in the word of God, that a sinner is one who is wanting of the glory of God (Rom.3:23).
The opening argument of the epistle to the Romans gives us the most detailed indictment of the human race we have in the Scriptures. It brings the whole world, Jews and gentiles, before the bar of God. Human nature is spoken of three times in this portion of the epistle. In the midst of such fearful charges against human conduct, it is most instructive to inquire what attitude the spirit of God takes toward human nature. Is it "sinful," "depraved," "fallen?" Or has it retained its integrity in the midst of sin and depravity?
When mankind did not glorify or thank God He gave them over to dishonorable passions to do that which is beside nature (Rom.1:26). It is evident that such acts are not beside "sinful nature." The nature here spoken of protested against the unlawful acts. It remained true even after men had corrupted themselves. Here, in the midst of the most degrading vices, we find human nature uncontaminated. If such sinners still possess a nature which is out of line with their acts, surely they have not a "sinful nature." This is the negative side. On the positive, there is a still stronger witness.
We find a most remarkable attestation to the integrity of human nature when the apostle discusses the relation of the nations to the law. "For whenever they of the nations, having no law, may be doing by instinct [or nature] what the law demands, these, having no law, are a law to themselves, who are displaying the action of the law written in their hearts, their conscience joining its witness, and their reasonings between one another accusing or defending them, in the day when God will be judging the hidden things of humanity, according to my evangel, through Jesus Christ."
It is generally supposed that our "fallen nature" influences us to commit sin, and urges us to go contrary to our conscience and to the demands of God's law. Here we are assured that the opposite is true. The nations have no law to tell them what is right, but they have a nature which, in measure, takes the place of that holy and just law which God gave to Israel. They do what His law demands by nature. It is written, not on tablets of stone, but on their hearts. The dictates of nature are confirmed by conscience. In the judgment, men will not be excused because they have a "sinful nature," but will be condemned because they disregarded the leadings of their nature and violated their conscience.
Jews will be condemned on the basis of revealed law, which none of them were able to keep. Gentiles will be judged by the law of their nature, which none have fully observed. Perhaps it should be called instinct, but a single term is better. We have one specific example in the first epistle to the Corinthians (11:13-16). Instinct (or nature) should teach us that, if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, yet if a woman should have tresses, it is her glory. Human nature does not urge us to do wrong, but to do right. There is some alien influence which overrides the monitions of nature and of conscience.
The mere fact that nature is coupled with God's law and with conscience should be sufficient to show us that it is not the disturbing, offending factor in human conduct. It is on the side of the right. It is not sinful in its tendencies. If sufficiently followed it may lead to a high standard of morality.
The next occurrence of the word "nature," "instinct," fully confirms our previous discoveries. The apostle is now speaking to the Jew, who is resting in the rite of circumcision. He insists that the circumcision of the flesh alone is of no benefit unless it is combined with the fulfilling of the law. Indeed, if one should fulfill the law, his uncircumcision would be counted for circumcision. "And the Uncircumcision who, by instinct [or nature], are discharging the laws demands shall be judging you, who through letter and circumcision, are a transgressor of law" (Rom.2:27).
The law can be discharged by following instinct, or nature. It is evident that God's law is not unnatural, or against nature, but in harmony with it. Human nature has the elements of the law in it. If this nature were fallen, sinful, and depraved, the very opposite would be true. No one could obey his instincts without going against God's law. No one could fulfill one iota of it by heeding his instinctive tendencies.
In these passages, the word "nature" is used in its wide racial sense, which must be preserved in this discussion if we hope to attain to the truth. Other passages bring this before us. James speaks of the nature of wild beasts and flying creatures, reptilian and marine, in contrast with human nature (James 3:7). Yet there are passages in which the word nature is used in a more constricted sense, of that which comes through natural processes.
In the passage we have been considering the word is applied only to the nations, the Uncircumcision, for the Jew, in contrast to the gentile, is not left to his instincts, or nature, but is further enlightened by law. Quite the opposite thought is presented in Galatians (2:15). There the question is one of Judaizing. If the gentiles are to be made Jews by putting them under law, they would be artificial Jews, while those born within the covenant from Jewish parents, would be Jews, by nature. These two usages of the word "nature" have been confused in our minds because we have related everything to the idea of fallen, sinful human nature.
While human nature is not sinful, sin is propagated by natural means. We all inherit a nature that is violated by sin, yet we are sinners "by nature," that is, through generation, a natural process. Even thus, the nature itself is not sinful. It is merely the method, the means, the avenue used by sin. What is conveyed through or by nature must not be confused with nature.
This should enable us to understand the one passage which, more than all others, has misled us. The expression "by nature children of wrath" has been freely applied to the race, with small regard to its setting in the Scriptures or the teaching of the context. It is the Jew by nature who is a child of Indignation, even as the rest (Eph.2:3). The reference is not to human nature, but to the fact that sin comes to the Jew by the natural channels just the same as to the gentile.
All sinned or missed. And why did they sin? The answer is given forthwith. Because "they are wanting of the glory of God." For this, we have substituted, "because their nature has fallen and become sinful." But the more we search the Scriptures, the more we shall wonder at the marvelous accuracy and truthfulness of this indictment of the human race. Their sin arises from a want, not a nature. It is so necessary that we grasp the full import of the word "wanting" that we will give a full concordance of all its occurrences.
Aside from its use as subsequent (1 Tim.4:1) and subsequently (Matt.4:2, etc.), this element occurs in a verb, WANT, and two nouns, WANT-effect and WANTing, both of which signify a deficiency. The exact force of this expression can easily be seen if we note the company it keeps. It is the opposite of superabundance (2 Cor.8:14: Phil.4:12). It makes one an incumbrance (2 Cor.11:9). It is like an affliction (Heb.11:37). It is corrected by filling (1 Cor.16:17; 2 Cor.9:12; Phil.2:30), and readjustment (1 Thess.3:10).
In the later Scriptures, especially in Paul's epistles, we have the principle of sin dealt with as well as the act. "Through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death" (Rom. 5:12). That Adam sinned, or missed the mark, we have already learned. But through this, something has come which effectually makes sinners of all Adam's descendants. If it did not enter his nature or inhere in his flesh, what did it do, and how does it accomplish its fatal work?
Much may be learned from a close study of sin's effects at the first, and of the divine judgment pronounced upon it in Eden. The fact that it leads to death, and the decree that thorns and thistles are to accompany its stay, shed much light on its character.
Sin, fully consummated, is teeming forth death (James 1:15). Sin, therefore, attacks the vitality of mankind. The change was not in its constitution, but in its life. Adam began to die the moment he sinned. This is the force of "dying, thou shalt die." Since then death has been operating in all his posterity, so that the only life we know is a process of dying. Sin so lowered the vital functions in Adam's body that the aura which emanated from its intense vitality and clothed it with a glorious garment of light, faded so as to become imperceptible to human eyes and disclosed his frame, no longer effulgent with life, but dull and deathlike, naked and humiliated.
It degraded the vital functions so that they became the source of distress and disease and dissolution in death. In brief, sin made no essential change in man's nature, but greatly lowered the power of his life.
Life is the effect of spirit. A lowering of the vital force does not indicate a change in nature or flesh, but in plenitude of spirit. When God takes His spirit to Himself, all flesh perishes (Job 34:14). Sin, therefore, is a matter of spirit. The act of sin is a matter of spiritual relationship. The fact of sin is a matter of spiritual power. Like fruit plucked from a tree, Adam was severed from a vital spiritual connection with God. Such fruit begins to die the moment it is picked. Such is mankind since Adam sinned. The fruit is the same. Its nature is not changed. Its flesh is not transformed. But its vitality is ebbing away.
The judgment of God on Adam is strikingly suggestive of the true character of sin. Thorns and thistles are concomitants of man's sin and a graphic illustration of its real essence. What are thorns? They are stunted, undeveloped, rudimentary growths, undoubtedly due to the lack of sufficient vitality to develop them into proper form. There were no thorns in Eden. Nor will there be any such thing when once more the plants exult in the ideal conditions and fruitful fertility of the coming eon.
What will be done to change them? How can the rose lose its thorns and the cactus its spines? Will the Creator change their nature? Will He remove the sharp and painful lancelets that disfigure and disgrace them now? He will not alter the plant but change its environment. He will fill it with the wine of life and thorns will develop into branches and spines into leaves. The principle that produces thorns and death in plants is identical with sin, which produces degeneration and death in mankind.
What does the gospel bring? It is God's power for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom.1:16). Sin is spiritual deficiency or lack of the divine glory (Rom.3:23). The evangel supplies the missing energy. Note carefully the contrast in the fifth of Romans (verses 6-8). While we are still infirm Christ died for the sake of the irreverent. Man does not sin because that is, his nature, but because he, has lost the vital force which should sustain him. His nature might be changed ever so much or ever so often, but that would not doom him to death. Other creatures, who have a different nature, share his penalty with him, for they also share man's infirmity and humiliation.
Note some of the expressions used of sin. Both Jews and Greeks are under sin (Rom.3:9). Sin reigns (Rom.5:20; 6:12; 8:2). We were slaves of Sin (Rom.6:6; 7:16,17,20,23). Sin mastered us (Rom.6:14). With the aid of the law it makes a man go against his own will (7:17,18). We have died to it (Rom.6:10,11), are freed from it (Rom.6:18- 22; 8:2). Not one of these things can possibly be true of our nature.
Sin is essentially outside and alien to human nature. Humanity is not essentially sinful but subject to sin. Conscience is instinctive, but it is against sin. Man finds himself at the mercy of an overwhelming tide which he cannot stem, to which he yields, but which never alters the essential nature given him by God at his creation.
It is the spirit's law of life in Christ Jesus which frees us from the law of sin and death. The law of Sinai was impotent, because of human infirmity, not because of human nature. In the coming eon, men of like nature as at present, will be given power to fulfill it. We fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (not its literal enactments) because we have life. The vital force which God's spirit imparts to all who believe in Christ Jesus counteracts the weakness of sin. The spirit which gave life to the dead Christ is making its home in us. The spirit that roused Christ from the dead vitalizes our mortal bodies. The members which would weakly fall into sin are given power to perform acts of righteousness (Rom. 8:1-14).
The importance of these disclosures will be apparent to everyone who has been exercised concerning the question of their own tendency to sin, or who has wandered in one of the many quagmires which this subject recalls. Our "sinful nature" has been the victim of all sorts of theological nostrums. Efforts have been made to suppress it or eradicate it entirely, though it never had any existence! But there is no need to tamper with or eliminate our nature, for no change has taken place in it since it was given at creation. There is not a word in the divine record to show that it was radically altered by the entrance of sin. It may be devitalized, but it is not transformed.
Perhaps many who read these lines will be shocked by their rank "heresy" and will charge me with denying a variety of theological formulas which have taken the place of God's word in the minds and hearts of His saints in these degenerate days. Some may say that this denies the doctrine of "total depravity." As no one knows precisely what that doctrine is, it would be difficult to determine our guilt. As it is not mentioned in the Scriptures, it is not worth considering. It is a sample of that bane of modern theology, a form of unsound words. I believe that all men are utterly unable to save themselves from the slavery of Sin, but that Christ is able. But I refuse to make the word "depravity" a key word in this connection because it is merely a cloak to cover the lack of clear and Scriptural thinking.
It may be helpful to tell how we came to clear up this question. Quite a few years ago I read some articles in a magazine called "Things to Come" on "the new nature," and "the old nature." They perplexed me, so I studied the word "nature" in my concordance. As a result, I came to the conclusion that it was being used in an unscriptural way. I took the matter up later with my, fellow editor, V. Gelesnoff, and we agreed not to allow the word to be used in this way in the magazine. Since then it has been before me in my studies and has led me to see that it has been the cause of much confusion. We commend this course to our readers if they desire to enjoy a clear conception of the mind of God. Do away with all unscriptural expressions. Have a pattern of sound words. God honors it by giving sound thoughts.
Such phrases as "sinful nature," "natural depravity," etc., have had a distorting effect on the doctrine of human destiny. If it is human nature to sin, then mankind will need to be changed to something else if it is to be saved. This has led to the silly superstition that we will become "angels," in a mythical heaven. But God is going to subject the earth and the whole universe to human beings, with "human natures," headed by the great Man, Christ Jesus.
One of the greatest difficulties connected with the incarnation vanishes once we see that the mother of our Lord did not have a sinful "nature." If she had, no amount of sophistry could convince the honest heart that she did not impart this "nature" to her Son. To be sure, a special miracle could have kept Him free from any taint, but we have no intimation that such a miracle was necessary. We have no reason to believe that Mary was free from sin. But the power of God is the effectual corrective of sin, so that her Offspring was holy, harmless, and undefiled.
All have sinned and are wanting, or lacking (Rom.3:23). This simple statement shatters whole systems of theology, especially those held by the most earnest evangelicals. The figure of the new birth has been used to prop up the idea that man needs a new nature. Yet generation has never made any such change in fact. Why should it represent it in figure? Even resurrection does not change our human nature. Our bodies will be raised in power. They will be vivified. They will be spiritual, that is, dominated by the spirit rather than the soul, as at present. To be sure, we, who have a celestial destiny, will be changed. But the change is not in our nature.
To sum up. It is utterly unscriptural and misleading to associate sin with a change in human nature. Sin came in through a single act, and no series of acts, or even a lifetime or a number of generations can change the nature of God's creations. Sin destroys life and ends in death. A change in nature does not lead to dissolution. Hence it is that the same theology which gives man a sinful nature also endows him with eternal life in misery and sin. It denies the death-dealing effect of sin and substitutes for it life and a nature, not only miraculously given at the first, but miraculously sustained in order to suffer the infinitudes of torment. We do not care to give our opinion of a god who is so free with his miracles of damnation, when he could, with infinitely less effort, work one miracle of blessing. We do not care to inquire his object in such a course, because this is the way that madness lies--and this god is a mere myth of man's perverted imagination.
How gloriously blessed it is to know our God, Who has given us an understanding, not only of His ways and His words, but of His heart! His nature is love. Love may thrust away its object for a time, but only that it may draw it back more closely. He suffers men to be estranged from Him in order that they may be reconciled. Sin is not His tyrant, but His slave. It crushes that He may cure, It kills that He may make alive. Its function is to show God's creatures their utter dependence on His power. It gives them a wholesome horror of existence without Him. It will change them from His creatures to His friends. It will drive them into His bosom.
This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).