Nature and Will
Ever since the first humans, Adam and Eve, committed the sin in the Garden of Eden, mankind is by nature fallen. Every human being born from Cain to the present day is born into this sinful condition. King David confesses this in perhaps his most famous psalm, Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51:5).
This is an extremely unpopular teaching of the Christian faith because it credits our human nature with absolutely nothing in the sight of God. Many even from different Christian traditions believe that human beings are born basically good or at worst morally neutral, able to choose between good or evil when they mature. This is not what the Scriptures teach. God warned Adam and Eve that sin brings with it the curse of death (Gen. 2:17). The fact that infants, even infants in the womb, can die proves that by nature we are all corrupted with the stain of sin.
The church calls this fallen nature we each have inherited from the first man and woman “original” sin. It has nothing to do with the originality of the sins we commit. After all, Solomon observed that there really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). Instead, it speaks of the sinfulness we have inherited from the origin of mankind under Adam and Eve. Because God has formed every human being that has been born from the flesh of Adam and Eve, their fallen, sinful nature has been passed on to all people. Think of it like a hereditary genetic defect that never skips a generation. Because Adam and Eve fell into sin, their descendants are born without trust in God and with the inclination to do evil. That inclination to do evil is sin (Gen. 6:5).
But for Christians, this is only the beginning of the story. The Son of God formed for Himself a body in the womb of the Virgin Mary that was like ours in every way but without this stain of original sin. Jesus lived a perfect, righteous human life on the behalf of all humanity, and gave His own life as a perfect sacrifice for our sins to redeem us from sin and death.
Now in our baptism, we have received the the fruits of Jesus’ death, namely his righteousness and life (Rom 6:4). By faith in Jesus, we live in this new life which he has given to us. So for the Christian, we are not only fallen sinful beings. On the other hand, it would be incorrect to say that human nature for a Christian is no longer fallen. Jesus didn’t restore us to a morally neutral state in our baptism. He gave us His full, complete, and perfect life and righteousness, but not in such a way that we no longer have original sin. Rather, as Christians, we now have essentially two human natures. Through the flesh and blood we have inherited from Adam, we are totally corrupted and fallen into sin, unable to do good or please God. Even after baptism, though we are forgiven, we remain corrupted by sin. But, through our baptism, we have also been given the perfect human nature of Jesus the righteous one. As St. Paul says in Romans 7, For I delight in the law of God in my inner being (i.e. the new nature we have in Christ), but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Rom. 7: 22-23). These two natures war within us, so that St. Paul complains, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:24).
Martin Luther similarly described the Christian as simul iustus et peccator, which translates as “simultaneously justified and a sinner.” As Christians, we live in the justified, righteous life of Jesus given to us in our baptism, and at the same time (simultaneously!) we are still sinners according to our flesh.
Of course, this state only exists for the present time. When Christ returns, our sinful nature will be totally destroyed, and we will live forever with Christ as solely the justified, perfect, and righteous people that He has made us to be through the redemption that is in Jesus and His blood.
Following closely on this discussion of human nature is the discussion of the human will. Many people are curious to know whether or not we have “free will,” and can choose to believe in Jesus. An important preliminary point must be made when talking about “free will.” We must first distinguish what state of humanity we are talking about. If we’re talking about the state of Adam and Eve before they fell into sin, then the answer is yes. They had free will to choose good or evil and tragically used that free will for evil by breaking the commandment of God.
However, if we’re talking about the will of man after the fall into sin, it’s a different question. There, as we’ve discussed, mankind’s nature is so corrupted by sin that we cannot rightly say that man has the freedom to choose to believe. That’s not to say that we are automatons forced to do whatever God tells us. Our wills are active, but the problem is that our will is to sin and disbelieve! We don’t want to believe and indeed cannot apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
If we’re talking about the will of the Christian, that’s a different question too. As we said above, the Christian has two natures: the sinful nature we’ve inherited from Adam, and the righteous nature we’ve received from Jesus in our baptism. Likewise, the Christian has essentially two wills. The will of the sinful nature is to sin and disbelieve. The will of the new man in Christ is free. And because it is the will of Jesus, it wills to trust in the LORD and to live in righteousness. Or, you could say, the new man wills to do God’s will. These two wills, as part of the two natures, war within us so that we are always fighting our sinful will and praying for God to give power to the new man to do God’s will.
After Jesus returns, we will no longer have our sinful nature, and therefore we will no longer have this sinful will that only wants to sin and do evil. Our only remaining will is going to be the will of the new creation that is given to us in Jesus. That will only desires to live in accord with God’s will. So, in the resurrection, we will have “free” will, but because our will has been given to us by Jesus, we will only ever want to do good. There will never again be the possibility that we will use our free will to choose sin and evil as Adam and Eve did in the garden.
These are difficult topics, but necessary in order to understand who we are as human beings. Much more could be said about our nature and our will, but for the sake of brevity, we’ve limited our discussion to this overview. If you have questions, please call or email me, or just stop by my office sometime. I’d love to talk more about this with you!