As a person who struggles with sin, I’ve come across a certain belief that is especially circling in restorationist circles: the belief that once you undergo conversion you lose your sinful nature. This belief for a time seemed to burrow itself into my own psyche and the results were not good. This will be a very brief, unscholarly post in response to this belief; if a reader knows of a resource that gives a more full treatment please let me know. The belief seems to have come from a certain reading of Paul that has him saying that we not only have an obligation to choose righteousness over sin, but that we can’t sin any more. It also seems to come from the church fathers because many of them took a particular strong stance in reaction to the Gnostic heresy, which in some cases concluded that we could continue to live a sinful life because it does not matter what we do in the flesh, and God will forgive any way.
I might also say in 1 John it says that the one who has been born of God no longer sins, which might give the impression that we no longer have a sinful nature (1 John 3:1-6). One might say, what about 1 John 1:7-10? I would agree, but as I’ve talked with some who hold this belief they seem to read this passage as only referring to sins one committed before conversion. In other words, we are forgiven of sins before becoming Christians, but we cannot sin as Christians. People who hold this belief also seem to have an aversion to calling Christians “sinners” because to them it seems to give Christians and identity and nature they no longer possess.
I want to ask some questions to this belief and its implications both from my own experience and thoughts and then give a response to some of these readings of scripture and the church fathers. Let’s say that as Christians we no longer have a sinful nature after conversion. Let’s say we sin. What is the reason? If we didn’t have a sinful nature than is our sin more egregious? Do we fall out of grace the moment we sin after conversion? How do we measure the amount of sin that would show us we still have a sinful nature, and therefore had an illegitimate conversion? Who can make such a judgement, and will this not result in paranoia around our salvation every time we commit a sin? Is the amount of guilt, shame, and perhaps worry going to lead us to repentance if we sin? Let’s say we struggle with a sinful addiction, will such an all-or-nothing mindset lead us to make progress towards righteousness, or lead us to give up when we fail? Some of us have a particularly difficult struggle with sin and it’s a daily battle where we may constantly struggle with wanting to sin more than we want to do what’s right. Will such a belief empower a person like this to keep fighting even after a failure, or lead them to think they are probably not Christians? Likewise, if someone is only forgiven sins before their conversion why should they continue fighting for righteousness if they have already failed after conversion?
As to the reading of Paul, doesn’t Paul (and many other epistles for that matter) address Christians who were sinning in various ways? If these Christians were sinning shouldn’t the focus (according to this belief) have been to question their conversion rather than telling them to repent of the sins they were committing? Furthermore, Paul says in Romans 6:12, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires.” It sounds to me that Paul is alluding to a constant pull the Roman Christians would have had towards sin as Christians. If this is not a sinful nature, what do you call it then?
When it comes to the church fathers, some people (especially from a Restorationist background) think the Church fathers were at least close to faultless in their interpretation of scripture. if you want an example of how they most definitely were not, check out this article on sexuality I wrote a while back: https://www.jonwalt.com/post/the-early-church-s-view-of-sexuality-and-descent-into-asceticism. The church fathers of the late first through third centuries were closer to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, but we should never give them the credibility we give scripture. They can be helpful in getting us closer to a faithful interpretation of scripture in some cases, but Christian scholars will disagree on how far this should be taken.
When it comes to 1 John, scholars agree that this book is written in response to the Gnostic heresy. 1 John uses particularly strong and hyperbolic language throughout the book that, if taken too literally rather than poetically, renders it a book of contradictions and nonsense. What I would ask someone who wants to use 1 John to “prove” that we lose our sinful nature at conversion is to stop proof-texting and interpret the book as a whole. If someone wants to use the term “Christians who sin” instead of “sinner” that’s fine by me, as long as you keep that between you and God and don’t try to enforce this highly debatable interpretation and semantics on to others. The strong language of 1 John should lead us to take our sin very seriously, but not to live in fear.
My own interpretation of my sin and my walk with God is that I am both a sinner and a Christian who sins, but my identity is in Christ, not my sin. There are some days and even weeks where it is a constant war with my sinful nature, so trying to deny that my sinful nature seems counterproductive. It’s like telling the Mavs that if they believe the Lakers aren’t really there, they’ll be more likely to win the game. Furthermore, God gives me all that I need to win every time against my sinful nature (see 1 Corinthians 10:13), but I often fail to use the tools and resources God has gifted me with adequately, which is why I still sin. God is sanctifying me and helping me grow in my salvation over time: I have been saved, but I’m also being saved. Centering all salvation around my conversion moment creates an obsession with the past rather than hope for the future. Likewise, it does not empower me to grow into the salvation I have received, to grow in the fruits of the Spirit over time.
Would you add anything to my response to this belief? Was this article helpful for you at all? Let me know what you think in the comments below.