Demystifying 
The Internal Civil War

sin nature

Is there a civil war going on inside our souls, a “bad” vs “good” nature that is waging war inside of us? Many books and Bible teaching on the subject assume this is the case. Even Bible translations that employ the term “sinful nature” to translate “flesh” suggest this. For example, Gal 5:17 seems to validate such a waging war within one’s soul as a reality.

“For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (NIV 84)

Rom 7:14-24 similarly seems to imply we can’t win this “civil war”:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. …24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (NIV 84)

If you read commentaries, many are divided on the subject. After years of reading up on the issue, studying people in addiction (and lecturing on the topic), participating in an addiction program myself, and studying the Bible from a more group-oriented perspective, I’m solidly convinced that the majority “civil war” view simply is not accurate, nor even internally consistent. Pastors Sean and Jeff share the same sentiments with me. There are others, but we surely don’t comprise the majority.

We believe that when Christ was crucified on the cross, he also crucified  the sinful nature, as per Gal 5:24 puts it. But this truth rings throughout the entire letter to the Galatians.  If Christ’s crucifixion really crucified the sinful nature, there are a few questions we must answer:

  1. What do Scriptures like Gal 5:16ff and Rom 7:14ff teach?
  2. Why do we continue to sin?
  3. What responsibility do I have to deal with my sin?

What do Scriptures like Gal 5:16ff and Rom 7:14ff teach?

The time of the “sinful nature” is past once one comes into relationship with Christ. This too is a theme throughout Galatians. See Gal 3:23-25, 5:1, 5:24.  The lead translator of the NIV, Gordon Fee says that “sinful nature” is in the past for believers. He writes,

“It describes believers only before they come to be in Christ and live by the Holy Spirit…that Paul viewed the flesh as belonging to the past for believers, in the same way he viewed Torah observance, is specifically stated in Rom 7:4-6” Fee, in Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. 

There’s no sinful nature inside of us. There’s no waging war between two natures within us because there IS NO sinful nature. This was a term devised by dynamic translations of the Bible (like the 1984 edition of the NIV, the NLT, etc). It was an attempt to dynamically translate “flesh” while keeping to NIV’s 7th grade vocabulary parameter. Arguably, the fault may not be with the translators, for we know what the leader of the translator team meant (see #1). I have no problem with dynamic translations, even paraphrases, because I read a children’s Bible to my son all the time. But I DO have a problem of changing the meaning of what God intended. And I know former mentors of mine who share my view who have questioned Dr. Fee’s use of this “sinful nature” term for years. In practice, the majority view interprets the term to be some abstraction, some nature that exists within us, as if our identity lie invisibly within us. In the latest 2011 edition of the NIV, the term has reverted back to the literal Greek term meaning “flesh.” Some may argue the term “flesh” can equally be misread by the reader since it’s somewhat of a foreign term for Western readers. But at least the NIV no longer translates the term for the reader from what was understood to be a very concrete bodily term to the original hearers.

This is because for readers from group-oriented contexts, and certainly for the original hearers, the term “flesh” was very concrete and real. Some abstract “sinful nature” inside of us would have been a foreign thought to them. In other words, a context of individuality pushes too much of it’s culture of the term “flesh”, coloring it to the point that it no longer reflects biblical truth. For them, flesh represented following the Law and getting circumcised. Context says similarly; the Galatians had bought into this false gospel of following the Law. People from a group-oriented culture would have immediately felt the  pain of being left out if they did not subscribe to this false “honor-appeal” Gospel preached by the Judaizers.

Part of the difficulty of understanding this passage is because the very Gospel Americans preach is steeped in a Western world view, with little room for a more inclusive gospel that includes those from a shame culture (and those from fear cultures too). An “honor” Gospel is foreign in Western worlds that tend to be more individual where our Gospel presentations tend to be guilt-based. “Tend” is a nice word to use. I once bought up every single tract in a Christian bookstore, and not one of them presented to Gospel to an “honor shame” context. (A quick survey of indices among theological texts will also reveal an scarcity of honor/shame entries). This imbalance does not reflect the biblical balance of the concepts. Our powerful individual-based culture has marred the beauty and color of the Word, and in this case, has cause much confusion. Step more into the cultural and social context of a group-oriented culture, and this letter will click and harmonize together beautifully. I started Kingdom Rice partially to provide more of this perspective to the Body here in Western worlds.

The false gospel sold to the Galatians basically taught that they had to work, obey, and acquire to get into the family, into the Covenant. However, Paul preached that God has ascribed sonship, had already adopted them. The false Gospel leads to a breakdown of the body, and the vices of 5:19-21. The true Gospel results in a concrete crop of fruit 5:22-23 which actually fulfills the very Mosaic Law they were concerned about.

Why then do we continue to sin?

The NIV84 says in Gal 5:19ff “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

When we came to Christ, we continue to sin because we brought a whole truckload of practices/habits with us. These habits have been “discipled” into us, especially in our growing up years, where we learned how to love, how to trust, and how  we’ve learned to deal with pain.

So now I’ve drawn a distinction. We continue to sin not because of some nature within us (again, foreign concept to the original hearers because they were part of a group-oriented culture), but because we brought “habits” with us.

These “habits” can be changed, but only in a context of love and acceptance, another words, in a context where one has experienced true honor in Christ’s body. This is the message of the true Gospel Paul preaches to the Galatians.

Unfortunately, this whole honor concept is typically foreign in the U.S. and Europe, anywhere where individually reigns supreme. But even in modern group-oriented contexts like my ethnic culture (I’m Asian), where honor is intrinsically felt and experience, we miss the boat. Where do Asians traditionally get that honor from? Family, job, where we live, etc. In my experience, Asians don’t do a good job of redefining where their honor comes from. The theology of honor/shame even in Asian churches is somewhat foreign. Yet many Asians battle the idolatry of displaced honor all the time.

What responsibility do I have to deal with my sin? The end of 5:21 says “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” or rather, will not continue to habitually practice these sins. Put another way, a believer will experience transformation. So here are a few responsible steps we can take.

    1. Do the tough work of discovering how you were taught to love and trust to continue to work of sorting out the good from the bad from our culture, our family, etc. Popular author Pete Scazzero (http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org) encourages believers to “go back to go forward.” Paul the apostle “goes back” to contract the abundant life in the present through Christ. For Asians, we need to sort out where we’ve derived honor from, then to surrender those former masters at the cross of Christ, and then declare Jesus as true Master and Lord.
    2. We can tactically plan for new behaviors and patterns through new disciplines. Dallas Willard has influenced me greatly here (even though I don’t see eye to eye with him regarding what I’ve written above). He suggests disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. I’ve picked just 3 of each here. The descriptions come right from him.

Disciplines of Engagement:

Submission — “A call for help to those recognized as able to give it because of their depth of experience and Christlikeness… In submission we engage the experience of those in our fellowship who are qualified to direct our efforts in growth and who then add the weight of their wise authority on the side of our willing spirit to help us do the things we would like to do and refrain from the things we don’t want to do.” Because they are servants, the wise people we choose may not see themselves as leaders.

Study — “Giving much time on a regular basis to meditation upon those parts of the Bible that are most meaningful to our spiritual life, together with constant reading of the Bible as a whole. We should also make every effort to sit regularly under the ministry of gifted teachers who can lead us deeply into the Word and make us increasingly capable of fruitful study on our own. Beyond this, we should read well the lives of disciples from all ages and cultures of the church, building a small library as we make them our friends and associates in The Way.”

Confession — “We let trusted others know our deepest weaknesses and failures. This will nourish our faith in God’s provision for our needs through his people, our sense of being loved, and our humility before our brothers and sisters. Thus we let some friends in Christ know who we really are, not holding back anything important, but, ideally, allowing complete transparency. We lay down the burden of hiding and pretending, which normally takes up such a dreadful amount of human energy. We engage and are engaged by others in the most profound depths of the soul… Confession alone makes deep fellowship possible, and the lack of it explains much of the superficial quality so commonly found in our church associations.”

Disciplines of Abstinence:

Solitude — “The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”

Silence — “Approach the practice of silence in a prayerful, expectant attitude, confident that we shall be led into its right use for us. It is a powerful and essential discipline. Only silence will allow us life-transforming concentration upon God.” Silence also includes the discipline of not speaking ourselves (James 1.26), helping us learn to listen and pay attention.

Fasting — Abstaining in varying degrees from food or drink. “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food.”

When I preached this sermon last weekend to the congregations of San Francisco Lighthouse and the Great Exchange Church, I had the luxury of face to face contact. But I realize in writing this post, the whole contour has changed. For one, the listeners are completely different. Whereas the two congregations are friends of mine, sojourners here in San Francisco, I have no control over these posts. This message was originally targeted to these two bodies. Through Pastor Sean Curtis’ radical preaching on the book of Galatians, and through Pastor Jeff’s radical teaching on our identity as the BELOVED, and through the fellowship of the saints, especially those in recovery from addiction, I aimed to write something to honor our God amidst the coming together of these two radical bodies of Christ in San Francisco. But because I lost the luxury of face to face and all the dynamics that come with that, I’ve changed the emphasis with this post. It’s less expository, and hopefully more readable than if I had typed out a manuscript. Yet I wrote this with hopes that you’d be blessed.

With God’s peace,

Steve Hong

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One thought on “Demystifying 
The Internal Civil War

  1. Steve, great post. I like your connections between the biblical concept of “sarx/flesh” and contemporary Christian spirituality. -Jayson

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