Eradication of the Sin Nature? Huh?
I am about to launch into a rather long post — and one that may be of interest to only a small number of my readers. Nevertheless, because of the nature of this site, and because of the issues I commonly address and raise here, I need to post a statement — so that, at the very least, I can refer back to it later, as needed.
I have often expressed my appreciation of the Holiness Movement and (to a lesser extent) the Pentecostal movement for the formative influence they had on shaping the earliest stages of my Christian journey. I house resources on the holiness movement here — and hope to have more soon. I also maintain a blog that features the writings of my favorite 19th Century Holiness writer, Daniel Steele. All of this, I am presenting “as is.” I am seeking make this material accessible, so that people can grapple with these writings on their own — without having them filtered through my own opinions and evaluations of them.
I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I realize that the message of Christian Perfection / Entire Sanctification (the main theme of the Holiness Movement) is almost completely unknown among contemporary United Methodists. Many United Methodist pastors heard of this for the first time in their life while attending Seminary. (And, some who did may not have been paying attention that particular day.)
It has been my intention, from the beginning of this site, to raise up this particular part of the Wesleyan tradition — I am not seeking to indoctrinate anyone in anything — I am raising an issue that (I believe) needs re-consideration and re-appropriation. My personal reasons for harping on the Christian Perfection theme of the Wesleyan tradition are given here: Sanctification as a Central Theme.
This naturally raises the question: do I agree with everything in the teachings of the 19th Century Holiness movement. And, the answer is: no, I don’t.
I believe the material is valuable and I believe the themes should be re-appropriated, but I do not defend the legalism of the Holiness movement, the mistaken language of testimony it promoted, and other aspects of its teaching. My intention is to present the Holiness movement “warts and all.” Let’s learn from their teachings, and from their passion for a life filled with the power and love of God, and from their vision of a world renewed and redeemed through God’s love.
I recently came across a post on the death of holiness preaching here: SHOULD HOLINESS DIE? The author has mixed feelings. I share those mixed feelings. Because I was not really raised in the Holiness movement I am less effected by it’s mistakes and excesses. I came to the holiness writings with curiosity, hoping to find insight into the life of faith. And, I am not sorry I did.
The following little essay is intended to address one of the problematic themes of holiness theology. This may be of interest to you or it may not. But, I want to acknowledge that the theme (which can be traced back to the teachings of John Wesley — see below) is a problem.
I will state the problem, give my perspective on it, and then suggest some further reading. If you are interested, plunge ahead. if not, the post will be here in case you are ever interested in this topic in the future.
One of the things that people remember about Wesleyan/Holiness preaching is the message of the "eradication of the sin nature."
This imagery is found in the old Holiness classics of the Wesleyan movement (some of which can be accessed here).
For many of those who have been exposed to Holiness teaching and evangelism it is this aspect of the message that they most remember.
And, not uncommonly, it has left a very bad taste.
In my opinion, when the holiness writers talked about "eradication of the sin nature" this rhetoric simply caused confusion. It sounds like: pulling out a weed. Once you pull it out, it’s gone. Sometimes these writers and preachers confused themselves.
Here's why: when people say: "the sin nature" in a human being is "eradicated" in an experience of Entire Sanctification, this suggests that all inner sources of temptation are removed by the Holy Spirit at that time.
One naturally wonders how a person whose "sin nature" is "eradicated" can be tempted at all? What is "the sin nature"? What do people mean by saying it is "eradicated"?
When I was a young man I came to the camp-meeting altar repeatedly for "entire sanctification" thinking that this experience would somehow remove my sexual temptations & fantasies. But, because, I continued to have sexual thoughts I continued to believe that I was not fully sanctified — or that such a thing was impossible. I thought that the evangelist was promising that the Holy Spirit could make me "sin-proof." And, of course that never happened. Nor can it!
But, a close reading of the Holiness literature shows that the writers were talking about the inner resistance of the will to the will and purposes of God. They were talking about that human egotism and selfishness that distorts even "religion" itself. What they speak of as the "sin nature" or "the remains of the carnal nature" are the inner barriers & resistances to the full love of ruling in the heart!
Thus, entire sanctification is "perfect love" — the full devotion of the heart to the will and purpose of God and the good of all people. It is enthroning the love of God — not "sin-proofing" the human nature.
My favorite of Wesley’s many statements on the meaning of Christian Perfection is this one:
What is, then, the perfection of which man is capable, while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command: 'My son, give me thy heart.' It is the 'loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.' This is the sum of Christian perfection: it is comprised in that one word; love. The first branch of it is the love of God: and as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;' Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. 'On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets;' these contain the whole of Christian perfection.
— Sermons, vol. ii. p. 168.
What Holiness writers call "indwelling sin" is a selfish, godless tendency, deeply rooted within us. Whatever it may be, it is not a necessary constituent part of human nature. It is a distortion of what the human spirit & soul was created to be.
To the statement:
"'But surely we cannot be saved from sin, while we dwell in a sinful body.”
Wesley replies with these words:
A sinful body? I pray observe, how deeply ambiguous; how equivocal, this expression is! But, there is no authority for it in Scripture: the word, sinful body, is never found there. And as it is totally unscriptural, so it is palpably absurd. For no body, or matter of any kind, can be sinful; spirits alone are capable of sin. Pray in what part of the body should sin lodge? It cannot lodge in the skin, nor in the muscles, or nerves, or veins, or arteries; it cannot be in the bones any more than in the hair or nails. Only the soul can be the seat of sin.
— Sermon "On Perfection."
Most human temptations arise from human appetites and drives of various sorts. We have the capacity to enjoy certain things. As long as we have that capacity we will be tempted to gratify these capacities and appetites in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others — and to our walk with God. As long as you love the taste of chocolate you will be tempted to indulge your love for chocolate in ways that are destructive to yourself: to your body, your teeth, etc. But, what a horrible thing it would be to lose the ability to enjoy chocolate! It would make life less enjoyable.
Most temptations are simply proof that you're still alive and well and healthy, with the capacity to enjoy the good things of life.
But, even the old, classic holiness writers themselves sometimes got confused on the issues of sin & temptation — because of their reliance on the "eradication of the sin nature" concept. Thomas Cook in New Testament Holiness Chapter 2 suggests that the temptations of the entirely sanctified "arise wholly "from without" the person. Author J. A. Wood in his classic Perfect Love also has trouble explaining how people who are entirely sanctified can possibly be tempted. He says (pages 61, 62):
The temptations of the entirely sanctified... are... entirely from without, there being no foes within a sanctified heart; all is peaceful, friendly, and right there.
The truth is: these writers (for all their good intentions) get confused at this point and temporarily loose their way.
In fact, it is simple. We are tempted because we are human. Our human nature is the medium through which temptation addresses us. Being human is a good thing. But, as long as we are human we will be tempted.
Would an experience of "entire sanctification" make temptations easier to deal with? Sure! When love for God and others is the ruling motive of our heart, many things are no longer temptations, and most temptations are easier to resist. But, it doesn't make them go away.
What we call Entire Sanctification is the moment that we move from a fear-based, obligation-based walk to a love-and-devotion-based walk.
And, the most common objection to this idea of the "eradication of the sin nature" concept is that it lacks a clear, Biblical basis and defense.
But, I think the issue here is: what kind of evidence are we looking for?
I think (as formerly stated) the "eradication" language is more confusing than helpful.
For example: what is "the sin nature"? The NT does speak of "the carnal mind" (Romans 8: 6,7: “φρόνημα τῆς σαρκὸς” — better translation: "fleshly attitude") and "the sin that dwells within [us]” (Romans 7:20). Also in Romans, Paul uses the phrase "the sin" (using the definite article) to speak of the inward power of sin that holds the will its thrall. This kind of language corresponds to what Wesley was calling "indwelling sin."
But, again, what is "indwelling sin"? It is important that this be distinguished from human nature per se and from human limitation — or what Wesley called "infirmity." (Thus, over against Reinhold Neibuhr, human finiteness itself is not constitutive of "Original Sin." Being human is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. After all, according to the book of Genesis, God originally pronounced human beings as being “very good.”)
By "indwelling sin" we mean to speak of the inner resistance of the will to the will and purposes of God. What Wesley called "the remains of the carnal nature" are the inner barriers & resistances within us to the full love of God ruling in the heart! This is the flesh-dominated-attitude, that human egotism and selfishness that distorts even religion itself. What Wesley called "indwelling sin" is a selfish, godless tendency, deeply rooted within us. Whatever it may be, it is not a necessary constituent part of human nature. It is a distortion of what the human spirit & soul was created to be.
People who have, to the best of their knowledge, committed their hearts fully to God can still make mistakes. They can still backslide. They still have certain weaknesses of personality. They can still be tempted. They have responded to the invitation of God: "My child, give me your heart." But, there is much growth in faith and knowledge and personal maturity that lies before them.
Some of the people Paul wrote to in his letters are specifically said to be "carnal" (σαρκικός). He writes to the Corinthian church: "And so..., I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh (σαρκικός), as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?" (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, NRSV).
Paul does not see their "carnal" state as being in any way inevitable. He is very clearly saying that they should not be carnal. Again, the problem is not that they are human per se, it is that they have a carnal (flesh dominated) attitude. And the flesh-dominated-attitude is at enmity with the will of God. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot..." Romans 8:6,7, RSV.
Notice this passage (very similar in some ways to 1 Corinthians 3:1-4) in Hebrews: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." (Hebrews 5:12-14, NRSV).
In both cases these Christians were being scolded for their attitude. Such an attitude might have been excusable in new believers, but among those to whom these letters were written, it was not.
And what is the issue? They need to turn from a flesh-dominated-attitude to a faith-in-God-through-Christ-dominated attitude.
And, I’d like to ask, What is required for this?
- More Church attendance?
- Put more $$ in the offering plate?
- Read 2 chapters of the Bible each day instead of just one?
- Receive Communion every week?
- Do volunteer work for the Salvation Army?
- Go to Seminary?
No! It is simply this: in faith and dedication give your heart — to the best of your knowledge and ability — to God. Take on a new attitude! It is a faith issue. It is a human will issue. Obedience & devotion flow from this act of faith.
The eradication language pretty much comes from Romans 6. In this way the Holiness writers wanted to stress that this "carnal attitude" did not have to be tolerated in the Christian life. It did not need repression, but (as it were) extinction. The attitude had to change. (Unfortunately, the widely-used NIV translation further confused the issues for everyone by insisting on translating "flesh" as "sinful nature" in the Pauline writings.)
Thus, Daniel Steele:
It is a remarkable fact that while the Greek language richly abounds in words signifying repression, a half score of which occur in the New Testament, and are translated by to bind, bruise, cast down, conquer, bring into bondage, let, repress, hold fast, hinder, restrain, subdue, put down, and take by the throat, yet not one of these, sunecho, katecho, koluo, sunkleio, katapauo, is used of inbred sin; but such verbs as signify to cleanse, to purify, to mortify or kill, to crucify, and to destroy. When St. Paul says that he keeps under his body and brings it into subjection, he makes no allusion to the sarx, the flesh, the carnal mind, but to his innocent bodily appetites.
— Mile-stone Papers, Part 1 Chapter 13 "Repression Not Sanctification.”
Nevertheless, Galatians 5 speaks of an ongoing choice between "flesh" and "spirit." The choice is always before us. Which will get our attention?
Giving our heart to God at one point in our life does not mean we don't also have to make that choice day by day. In the same way I would also argue that yesterday's faith is not enough for today.
Whew! There is my current position statement on the “eradication” view of Christian Perfection. We would all be much better off if this language had never entered the Wesleyan tradition at all. It would have saved a lot of confusion and frustration. (And, it would have saved me having to write all this just to clarify a common confusion.)
Some suggestions for further reading on all this:
Back in 1972 Mildred Bangs Wynkoop published an excellent book called A Theology of Love which re-interpreted Wesleyan teaching along relational lines. This book is still in print from Beacon Hill Press (the publishing house of the Church of the Nazarene). It is well worth reading and pondering. It is a theological book, not a popular-level book, but for people who are interested in this topic, it would be well worth working your way through it.
Here are links to the major primary sources for Wesley's doctrine of "indwelling sin." Spending time with these will show that there was a precedent in Wesley's own teaching for the subsequent development of the "eradication' doctrine. This was not a theme invented by the Holiness Movement — it is imagery they inherited.
- JUSTIFIED BELIEVERS CONVICTED OF INDWELLING SIN.
- Wesley's Sermon "On Sin in Believers"
- Wesley's sermon "The Repentance of Believers"
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