Part One 9. Human Nature

The Problem of EVIL and The Judgments of GOD

IN God's Word human nature is good. In evangelical theology, it is bad, very bad. This is one of those terms which even greatly enlightened teachers of the Bible have altered utterly from its scriptural significance, so that "natural" has become a synonym for sinful. Subtly and subconsciously this seriously affects their expositions of the Bible and has a very strong tendency to turn the path of the saints into the direction of asceticism. The extreme result in some of the most earnest souls is an unnatural life, rather than a supernatural one. They fear every instinctive impulse, and every inherent emotion, as from a sinful source. The effect is an artificial existence, constrained and "religious," lacking some of the spontaneous and exultant joy, or the unleashed liberty which is ours in His Beloved.

But some will say, "Then you do not believe that there is nothing good in man! You think there is something in him which does not need salvation!" By such speeches which are based on evangelical phrases rather than on the Scriptures, much truth can be condemned. For instance, let us use the same argument concerning the human conscience. Is conscience good, or is it bad? Men are convicted by their consciences (John 8:9). If the conscience were sinful, it certainly would not do this. Paul appeals to his conscience (Rom.2:15; 9:1). Of what value is this if it is altogether bad? We are to hold faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:9). To be sure, there can be a defiled conscience and an evil conscience, but these condemn a man, and are indisputable evidence that his conscience is not on the side of sin. The inference from the theological theory of total depravity, that everything that pertains to man is radically wrong, is not true as to conscience. Neither is it true as to his nature. These are both against sin. In sinning conscience is suppressed. That which is unnatural is sinful.

The proper way to discover the place which human nature plays in our lives is not to reason it from the evangelical creeds, but to ponder its usage in the Scriptures. As usual, we are led astray by our accepted versions. Nature is used also of generating or lineage genesis, (James 3:6). Naturally is also a mistranslation of genuinely solicitous, (Phil.2:20). Natural is the rendering of three words, genesis generating or "inherited," (James 1:23) and psuchikos, soulish, besides the correct term, phusikos, natural (Rom.1:26,27; 2 Peter 2:12). It is the alteration of soulish into natural which has caused most of the misapprehension as to human nature. Hence it will be worthwhile to examine its occurrences quite closely. If the reader will correct the references already given and the following, in his Bible, it will help to clear up the confusion the Authorized Version has created.

In the first two passages, the reader beholds four of the particularly unfortunate mistranslations in the Authorized Version. It is difficult to conceive of the confusion they have created and still cause among humble and hungry hearts, desirous of pleasing God. They are a snare in their path, a stone of stumbling to their feet. Here natural is set against spiritual, and, as a consequence, the spirituality of many is unnatural, strained, and artificial. Spirituality should not be merely an exterior semblance, but a deep inward instinct. It should become our natural mode of life. There is no reference whatever to our human nature in these texts. They refer solely to the soul. Psuchˆ means soul, and this is the adjective soulish. And it does not refer merely to the possession of a soul. All men, even the most spiritual, have consciousness and sensation, which is soul, but they are not necessarily sensual on that account. A soulish man is under the sway of his senses, his appetites. His physical pleasures dominate his life. That is not natural, it is unnatural.

We are distinctly told that sensuality is beside nature (Rom.1:26). It is not natural to pander to our appetites beyond that which is instinctive. But the instinct which was placed in us at creation was not then sinful and does not become such without becoming unnatural. It is a grave mistake to say that the natural or instinctive man does not receive God's spirit, even if it is in the Bible. God has not said it. He has said quite a little which is contrary to it. As trifling as such a "loose" rendering may seem to some, it has deflected the saints into bewildering byways. It is impossible for them to ignore their nature or instinct entirely. When they are hungry they wish to eat, even if it is "natural." If they are thirsty they drink. They follow their instinct (or nature) in avoiding extremes of heat or cold and in making provision for themselves and their loved ones. It is only because our instinct is subconscious that we do not realize how constantly we are dependent upon it. No amount of spirituality will lead us to go contrary to nature.

What the soul is, we have set forth fully elsewhere, but a fresh study from another standpoint may be helpful. Soul is physical sensation, not spiritual life, for which it is usually mistaken. A soulish man likes the pleasures produced by eating and drinking and all other agreeable and delightful sensations, rather than the intangible experiences of the spirit. These do not appeal to him. But the mere fact of having a soul does not imply the lack of spirituality. Man has both, a spirit and a soul, that is, he has life and sensation. Yet the body is strongly inclined to follow its feelings. It is soulish at present. But the tyranny of the soul is a temporary condition, due to man's mortality. Had Adam been created immortal, so that he could not die, the life-giving spirit would have so dominated his actions that he would not have sinned. Thus will it be with all mankind, when they are vivified.

It is the sensual man (to quote the Authorized Version), or one who is soulish, who does not receive the things of God's spirit. How many times has this passage been hurled against me to prove that patient exploration and systematic study of the Scriptures, being the methods of a "natural" man, will never enable me to apprehend God's Word! I thank God for the testimony that I am not unnatural. It is often very difficult to go against nature, or instinct, for it is largely subconscious, but the soul should be well under control. If we allow physical pleasure to dominate our life, then we are soulish, and in no state to receive spiritual revelations.

Now for the positive proof. We beg our readers to carefully consider the following passages, all in which the word phusis, nature, occurs. The quotations are usually too short to give the full context. It will help if the reader will turn to each passage and weigh the context carefully. In such a study it has been laid down that success lies largely in seizing a key passage, one which is as literal as possible, and one which clearly exhibits the particular point to be determined. For this, we recommend an exhaustive study of the usage of this term in the early chapters of Romans. The first two occurrences, we contend, completely contradict the current theological conception of human nature. We feel very keenly that it is impossible to continue using the term in its usually accepted sense, as "sinful nature," without causing endless confusion, and humbly supplicate our readers, especially those who write and speak, to probe the problem thoroughly:

Not only is nature allied with law, but it accords with conscience. This is important. A "bad" conscience is really a good one. Conscience may be stifled or seared or go unheeded, but it never sides with sin. However callous a conscience may become, what is still sensitive is against sin. A conscience may be weak, but the little strength left to it will not stand with sin. But it is not necessary to labor this point, for I know of none who attribute sin to this faculty. Even those who insist on total depravity would make an exception here. So also they should do in regard to human nature, for conscience seconds only what is instinctive in humanity.

The fact that nature is in line with law is confirmed in the next quotation (Rom.2:27). The Jew had the law and was admitted to that exclusive class called the Circumcision. He certainly should have fulfilled the law which was given to him. Yet he transgressed. They will be judged by the Uncircumcision, who had no law other than the instinct or nature common to all humanity. It was this that enabled some to discharge the law's demands, and maintain its just requirements, in some measure. A sinful nature would be utterly impotent before the law. Instinct is more potent in this regard than exhortation. It is easier to subconsciously fall in line with divine law than to yield a voluntary and intelligent obedience.

In the eleventh of Romans, we have evidence of peculiar value as to the significance of the word nature, and natural. It shows clearly that it is by no means the opposite of spiritual. To be sure, the natural boughs, which were not spared (verse 21), were unbelievers, yet those which will be grafted in again will be believers. It is most unnatural to graft a wild scion into a cultivated tree. Even this was not a sin in the spiritual sphere. How much further removed from lawlessness will be the grafting in of the natural boughs back into their own olive tree?

A remarkable passage now claims attention. Paul actually appeals to the teaching of nature to support divine revelation. This would be unthinkable if nature were sinful. Instinct teaches us that there is a difference between the sexes, and this should be maintained in outward appearance. What is the glory of one is the dishonor of the other. Our present point does not depend on the interpretation of this passage. All that is necessary is to see Paul's approval of the teaching of nature or instinct. Such language is utterly out of line with present-day presentations, in which the natural is never appealed to for confirmation of truth. The fact that nature called for a covering, would probably be a good argument against the custom in these degenerate days.

The next passage (Gal. 2:15) is very striking. "We, who are Jews by nature, and not sinners..." Jewish nature, as well as the wider human nature, is not sinful in itself. Here it is put in contrast with sinners. Let us insert the evangelical idea that nature is of necessity evil, and we would read of Jews by [sinful] nature, and not sinners. Let us skip to a similar statement in Ephesians, which deals with the same fact. There the Jews are, by nature, children of Indignation (2:3). The Jew had much more than instinct, or nature. He had the law to direct his steps. Here, however, the apostle wishes to exclude his prerogatives. In this grace, the Jew must stand on the same level as the gentile. As in Galatians, "by nature" has no hint of sin. I was once fond of quoting this to the effect that I, personally, was by nature, a child of wrath, even as the rest of mankind, and I based my idea of a sinful nature upon it. God, in His grace, has forgiven this offense.

God has a nature (Gal. 4:8). Idols do not partake of the divine nature. He is Spirit. Idols are not. He has revealed Himself through a living Image, His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Idols reveal themselves through dead caricatures. The Galatians were slaves of these dumb devices, which could not impart any of their nature to their worshipers. God, however, especially in dealing with the Circumcision in the day of Jehovah, will impart to His people His own instincts, or nature, which will enable them to do far more than the human nature we now possess is able to accomplish, toward fleeing from the corruption which is in the world. It is possible to conceive of an instinct so strongly antagonistic to sin as to repel it. This is not for us. We are given God's spirit. They will be given of His instincts, or nature (2 Peter 1:4). This is the key to millennial conduct.

The instinct of animals varies according to their habitat. Wild beasts live on the earth. They cannot fly in the heavens. It is instinct which teaches a bird to spread its wings, and navigate the air. Each kind of bird has a distinct nature. The eagle soars out of sight. Vultures congregate. Some birds live on the land. Others stay near the water. One will hover in a single spot and dart down with a sudden swoop, and spear a fish. Who taught these creatures their peculiar parts in the economy of creation? It comes from God. It is their instinct, their nature. Each animal keeps within its proper environment. The fish does not long to be on land. This nature is their most precious possession. It never is sinful. Only when they violate their nature is there sin and suffering and death. So is it with the nature of mankind.

If instinct, in mankind, were sinful, the race would perish in a day. It is this subconscious governance which keeps us in the land of the living. It is only after a man has refused to acknowledge the deity of God that he is given over to go against the basic law of his being and abuse his body, and violate his instincts, contrary to his nature, and against the dictates of his conscience. Were our instincts not dulled by sin we would subconsciously fall into line with God's laws, just as the lower creatures about us.

The practical question arises for the saint, "What shall we do with this nature?" If it causes us to sin, let us crucify it. If it keeps us from sin, let us encourage it. We are never exhorted to crucify our nature. We crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts (Gal.5:24). We are crucified to the world and the world to us (Gal.6:14). This means far more than death. The flesh does not deserve a decent death. Neither do we or the world. It is the utter shamefulness of the flesh and of ourselves and the world which calls for the most detestable death which can be devised. This calls for our utmost abhorrence.

But nature and the flesh are at opposite poles in relation to the law of God, even though they are popularly confused. The flesh is not subject to the law of God through sheer inability (Rom.8:7). Those who sow to the flesh shall reap corruption (Gal.6:8). Quite the reverse is true of our human nature. Being implanted by the God Who promulgated the law, it is in thorough harmony with His enactments and leads to the same results. Corruption does not come in until we violate nature and do that which is unnatural.

This exposition may easily be mistaken for a plea to give license to the flesh. On this account, its composition has been long postponed. The reaction due to liberation from unlawful restraint is apt to degenerate into license. The tendency may be to yield to the flesh rather than to set the instincts free. But the temporary abuse of light is no excuse for continuing in darkness. The light may blind us at first, and cause us to blink, but in due time our eyes will accommodate themselves to the brighter condition, and we will become more nearly normal than we ever could be in the darkness. And there will be worship and walk well-pleasing to God.

A conscience constantly cultivated by contact with the living Word of God is the best means of discriminating between that which is of the flesh and that which is the fruit of instinct, or nature. The boundary line between soul and spirit (Heb.4:12) can only be discerned by means of the written revelation, and so it is also between the lawful operation of instinct and the lawless excesses of the flesh. Some of the distinctions are so apparent that even those who denounce human nature as totally depraved say nothing about it in such connections. For instance, matrimony is the result of instinct and is honorable in all (Heb.13:4). The apostle Paul categorically says that the one who marries does not sin (1 Cor.7:28). Yet the leading works of the flesh are simply the unlawful abuse of the same relations (Gal.5:19).

It is the failure to perceive the proper place of instinct that has led such ecclesiastic abnormalities as monasticism and nunneries. The segregation of the sexes on religious grounds is thoroughly unscriptural and, being contrary to natural instinct, has sometimes led to grave irregularities. It is our privilege, for the Lord's sake, to hunger and thirst, and to deny ourselves much which we instinctively crave, if it is done with an intelligent and intense desire to sacrifice ourselves in His service. So did the apostle Paul, because the character of his service, as well as his typical position, was such as warranted it. But he is careful to insist that such a course is not always best. The opposite may be indicated by the sphere of service to which a man is called. So he adds the great truth that God Himself differentiates and gives graciously to each one "some, indeed, thus, yet some, thus" (1 Cor.7:7).

While it is a high privilege to forgo some of our natural and proper cravings for His dear sake, it is better to yield to instinct when it passes our control (1 Cor.7:9), and it is never sinful when we yield to its demands (1 Cor.7:28). As this sentence may easily be cited against me by the enemies of the truth, I will seek to define my meaning by an illustration. A meal is set before me. Shall I eat it? If I am hungry, my instinct tells me "Yes." If I am not hungry, it says "no." To disobey is a sin, not to obey. But if my eating would stumble a brother, I have the privilege of abstaining, for his sake and for the Lord's. If, however, I cannot control myself, being utterly famished, I would not sin, even if I ate. Moreover, it may be that, instead of stumbling a brother, my action may help him, or be a witness to the truth. Spiritual conditions should rule, even over instinct. In the resurrection, our bodies will be spiritual, and we should anticipate that condition as far as is possible at the present time.

I should choose my food to build up my body and sustain its strength for use in His service, guided largely by instinct. But if I select it principally to please the palate, and eat to repletion, beyond the point indicated by nature, that is soulish, not natural. It is unnatural. The fact that instinct is subconscious and weakened even more than the physical functions of the body, has almost eliminated it from the lives of most men. It is like conscience, covered up by custom and nullified by the corrupting influences of sin.

One of the fruits of a return to God and a knowledge of His ways should be a revival of interest in nature, not only in the external world, but in our own selves. Beyond the veil of sin, we see His marvels in creation. Among the most wonderful is the instinct of animals. None of the tricks which they may be taught can compare with the inherent law which regulates their being. In itself it is unerring, that is, sinless, however much it may be affected by the rebellion of mankind from God. If the lower creation were destitute of instinct and dependent only on the slower process of reasoning, it would not long survive. Mankind also has a share of this instinctive perception. It is possible that our lives are regulated by it to an extent far beyond our own calculations. Do we not often find ourselves doing things instinctively before we have time for conscious deliberation? We meet a person. What is it that repels us or attracts us in the instant? Sometimes it is overwhelmingly powerful, and we try to rid ourselves of such unreasonable prejudice or predilection. It is well not to altogether ignore such revelations of our subconscious personality, but to consider them and analyze them. A subconscious reaction is more likely to be true to our real selves than an elaborate self-examination.

If someone were to ask me point blank, "Do you believe in total depravity?" I would be inclined to say, "Yes." This is a good example of the disastrous effect, of substituting uninspired expressions for the living Word, and then, by faulty inferences, arriving at unscriptural deductions. Paul says, "I am aware that good is not making its home in me that is, in my flesh" (Rom 7:18). See how he hastens to guard a statement not nearly so drastic as "total depravity." In this very epistle he has made it clear that conscience and nature are both good. Even in the heart of his argument, he puts in a parenthesis, lest anyone should imagine that he included them. Let us not ignore this safeguard, as theology is doing.

Let us be rid, once and for all, of the delusion that spirituality consists in thwarting our natural inclinations, In doing so we have been battling with a friend, not a foe. But let this not be interpreted as license to fulfill the lusts of the flesh. One is normal and lawful. The other is abnormal and lawless. Let us cultivate our conscience, so that the instinct may not be taken for soulish, or the sensual for the natural. But above all, let the spirit of God control, through God's Word, so that, at times, we may forgo even that which is good for the sake of Him Who loves us. If need be, let us hunger and thirst in order to bring the bread and water of life to others. But let us not deduce, on that account, that eating and drinking are sinful, but let us eat and drink, and obey every other natural instinct, to the glory of our Creator God.

The Scriptures would have us heed the teaching of nature, the leading of instinct (1 Cor. 11:14). We are not to do that which is beside nature (Rom. 1:26). For the nations it, in some measure, replaces God's law, with the added advantage that it is written in our very constitution, not on tablets of stone. It may be that the law, written on Israel's heart in the day of Jehovah, will be the release of this nature or instinct from the thralldom of Satan, who will then be bound. Tradition seeks to suppress this divine gift, and calls it "sinful," but God declares that it is not. Let us purge our vocabulary from the false phrase "sinful nature," and seek to disinfect our thoughts from the poisonous impression that we must strive to be unnatural in our behaviour in order to please God. Let us shed the false humility which refuses to recognize the good with which God has endowed all His living creation, the instinct, or nature, which alone preserves it from instant decay and death. Let us thank God for this marvelous nature, without which our most learned scholars, our keenest scientists, would not be able to preserve themselves alive for an instant. It is the presence of God, for in Him we are living and moving and are (Acts 17:28).

This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).