How do we reconcile the idea of "free will" with the doctrine of "indwelling sin"? I've always been told that God did not create evil, that human beings sin through their own free choice, and that for this reason we are all accountable before Him. But recently I heard a Bible teacher say that we are actually enslaved to our own sin nature and unable to do God's will no matter how hard we try. If that's true, how can I be held responsible for my own actions? And how can I ever hope to make any progress in the Christian life?
You seem to have grasped the point that this is anything but an abstruse, esoteric theological question – the kind of thing that doesn't concern anyone except ivory-tower scholars. The Christian's ongoing inward struggle against sin is a thoroughly practical problem. It has important implications not only for the business of daily living but also for our view of ourselves and our relationship with God. Let's see if we can't shed some light on this difficult subject.
When we fall prey to temptation and sin, it's a serious mistake to say "the devil made me do it." The "sin nature" we're talking about in this instance isn't an outside power that "invades" the human psyche and takes it captive by force. On the contrary, the bondage or servitude that often weighs us down when we're trying to do the right thing is actually the direct result of our own willful choice.
It's true, as you say, that the Creator has endowed mankind with free will. This is an important aspect of what it means to be made in the Image of God. But the Bible also teaches that when the God-man relationship was broken in the Garden of Eden, mankind's original moral freedom was seriously compromised or impaired. Because of the fall, man's God-given ability to determine his own moral destiny is no longer what it was "in his state of innocency." To be more precise, unredeemed man is dead in sin and thus unable to choose the good. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it,
Man by his fall into a state of sin hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereto.(Chapter IX, section 3)
Paul expounds this principle in a number of his epistles. Especially noteworthy are the following passages:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? … For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness … But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. (Romans 6:16, 20, 22, NKJV)
For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me … If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. (Romans 7:11, 16-18, NKJV)
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins … (Ephesians 2:1)
The language the apostle uses to articulate this truth varies from passage to passage. Sometimes, as in the above examples, he speaks in terms of spiritual slavery or death. Quite often he employs the word flesh (Greek sarx), which, for him, is a technical term referring not to the body per se but to unredeemed human nature as the seat and vehicle of sinful desires; as in Galatians 5:17: "The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (NKJV). In other instances he draws a distinction between the old man (or old self) and the new man (or new self): "Put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts … and … put on the new man which was created according to God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24, NKJV). In every case his meaning is the same: man, in his fallen state, is intrinsically bent away from the light of God and towards the darkness of his own perverse desires. It's a uniquely human disease. This is why man so desperately needs a Savior.
It's important to add that this disease isn't cured overnight. It's fairly easy to understand that unredeemed man cannot please God in his own strength. But our grasp of this subject will be incomplete if we fail to realize that even the regenerate – those who have been born again and raised to new life in Christ – continue to battle the "old man" or the "old sin nature" as long as they live in this world. That's because the process of salvation and sanctification will not be complete until the believer is resurrected bodily as well as spiritually and integrated into the new creation that God has promised to initiate at the end of the age. Here again the Westminster Confession offers a helpful summary:
This sanctification is throughout in the whole man, yet imperfect in this life: there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome: and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (Chapter XII, sections 2 & 3)
This statement echoes perfectly Paul's summation of the matter in Romans 7:24-25: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin."
If you think it might be helpful to discuss these concepts at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
Reasons for Faith
Christian Research Institute