THE NATURE OF THE CARNAL NATURE
© 2002, 2020 By Philip A. Matthews
First of all, the concept of the 'Adamic nature,' the 'carnal nature,' 'inbred or inherited sin,' etc, etc, is largely a Calvinistic ideology. Of course, Calvin got much of the basic concepts from early Catholic teaching (Augustine): the idea that humans are by nature sinful and condemned, born into a sinful state when they enter the world. Hence, they need to be baptized ASAP, i.e., as infants, or else they will not go to heaven, even when 'innocent.' Calvin emphasized a doctrine he called 'total depravity,' i.e., that man is completely and totally sinful, unable to have any thoughts toward God unless God Himself gives him those thoughts. Hence, the Calvinistic doctrines of 'no free will,' 'predestination,' and, worst of all, 'the preservation of the saints,' aka 'once saved, always saved.' Calvin's total depravity was called the Adamic nature.
Please note that so far none of these doctrines are biblical in terminology. That is, even if they are true biblical doctrines the Bible never uses any of these terms. These terms are all man-made. It may even be possible that these concepts, too, are man-made, developed to explain what various theologians believed was happening in the process of salvation. To them, it appeared that humans must have something inside of them that causes them to sin automatically and as soon as they get here. That something must have been passed down from Adam through the generations, because everybody seems to have it. Hence the term, 'Adamic nature.'
The Basic Problem
The problem is, exactly what is the nature of this Adamic nature? Is it spiritual or physical? Of course, we know that no theologian thinks it is physical, simply because every solution they have ever proposed to deal with the Adamic nature is a spiritual solution. But if it is spiritual, then how in the world could Adam, our physical father, pass it down to us? Spiritual qualities cannot be passed to children via the parents' genes; only physical attributes are reproduced that way. So the Adamic nature could not have come from Adam if it is a spiritual thing!
For this reason I prefer to call it carnality or the carnal nature, which literally means the fleshly nature. Or even better, the flesh, although by this term theologians do not mean merely the physical body but "the whole of human nature without the divine Spirit; the state of the creature before or in contrast with his reception of the divine element whereby he becomes a new creature in Christ; the whole of man as it exists and acts apart from the influence of the Spirit. It properly characterizes, therefore not merely the lower forms of sensual gratification, but all—the highest developments of the life estranged from God, whether physical, intellectual or aesthetic" (Vincent, Word Studies in the NT). In other words, the broader meaning of "the flesh" is man himself as a creation separated from Gods' Spirit.
Here's why: If you think about it, do we really have to have something dwelling within our nature to make us carnal? Are we not fleshly naturally, just being ourselves? Is there a thing 'living' inside us that can be cast out by some work of grace-first, second, or third-so that we do not still have the capability to yield to our flesh and sin? Has anyone on record-including Jesus' apostles-ever had this 'thing' so completely 'cast out' and 'removed' that they never acted carnal again? Certainly not Paul nor Peter. The carnal nature is not something in our flesh; it is our flesh, in the larger definition given above. (Bro. H. Pat Huskey, father of Bro. James, once suggested this idea to the ministers, and boy, did he cause a ruckus! Almost all of his fellow ministers refused to even listen to him. As a young minister, I was quite shocked at their "carnal" reactions!)
Right here it would be good to discuss quickly the nature of man himself. Man, who was made in the image of Three-Person God, is thus a tripartite being, i.e., a three-fold being, having body, soul, and spirit. Genesis 2:7: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Job 32:8: “But there is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless…” Hebrews 4:112: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow…” These verses show the three different parts of a human being: physical body relating to this world, and soul and spirit, relating to the spiritual dimension, with the soul being the link to both dimensions.
How are the three connected and related? The BODY is the physical flesh. The SOUL contains the emotions, the will, the personality, the symbolic “heart” (the center of loves and desires), etc. The SPIRIT is the eternal essence that can communicate with and was naturally connected to God’s Spirit. Both the body and spirit try to influence the soul. The body wants the soul to love and desire physical things. The spirit strives to get the soul to obey the Spirit of God and to love and follow godliness. These two parts are constantly tugging on and appealing to the soul to influence the person to obey their opposite associated interests, the age-old war, “spirit vs flesh.”
Thus, we can explain what happened at the Fall. Man’s spirit was originally connected to God’s Spirit. All of heaven’s blessings flowed freely into man’s life. The result was that people were blessed and secure. They knew that they were valued and esteemed. They knew their identity and significance, purpose, reason for living, and the meaning of life. There was no worry or anxiety, nothing to be afraid of or even threatened by. In fact, they had no real knowledge that threats even existed because they had not yet eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But then, how could they not have such an ideal existence when all of the Love and blessings of Heaven were flowing freely to them through the spiritual channel/connection they had with God?
Then they were deceived by the serpent, they rebelled and disobeyed, and that connection was severed. The Love, blessings, and spiritual communion ceased. We were separated from the presence of God. Our spirits were severed from the Spirit of God. The main damage in the Fall was not physical (to our bodies and to the world), but spiritual; that is, it was done within and to our spirits. Whereas at the beginning we were able to freely communicate directly with God’s Spirit with our own spirits, the “death” that occurred at the Fall was a loss of that capability. At the beginning, our spirits and God’s Spirit were in perfect ‘fellowship,’ which means ‘joint participation and sharing with’ God. It was like our spirits were actually part of God. We were ‘one with the divine.’ (This is what Jesus Christ claimed to be—one with God.) But because of the Fall, our beings lost that oneness in spirit with God.
The horrible result was this: By severing the connection within our spirit to God's Spirit, we were abandoned to fall under the power and rule of our flesh. Man has only two motivating forces within: his spirit and his flesh. Once the Spirit of God no longer energized the spirit of man, the flesh became man's primary motivating force. This condition of being under the power and rule of the flesh is what we religious people are calling the "carnal nature." IT IS NOT A THING, BUT A CONDITION. And this condition of disconnectedness is definitely one that all of us are now born into. Hence, the idea of "inherited sin."
So the immediate result of being spiritually severed and disconnected from God was spiritual death-death within our spirits. How do we know this? What proof do we have? Many times we think about spiritual death as only being the permanent separation from God after we die physically, i.e., banishment to eternal hell. True, that is spiritual death, but that is not when it began. Adam did not have to wait until he physically died to experience spiritual death. In Genesis, it is obvious that he experienced an immediate change in his spiritual state: his "eyes were opened" (obviously his spiritual "eyes"), he was awakened to the knowledge of good and evil (which means his dormant conscience became alive to know right from wrong), he felt guilt, fear, and the need for self-protection (e.g., excuses, lies, self-justification, and blame-casting) since he had evidently lost the security of the protection of God and the sense of God's approval. All of these are spiritual symptoms of some sudden and dramatic spiritual change. That change was the separation of his spirit from God's Spirit, and he felt it and knew it within himself immediately.
Besides this symptomatic proof, there is this other deductive proof: God, who never lies or misstates anything, had assured them that "in the day they eat thereof they would surely die." Some kind of death had to occur on the day they ate the fruit. They certainly did not die physically on that day. So it had to be a spiritual death that occurred on that day. Spiritual death would indicate that a separation from God in the spirit occurred on that day.
That day also saw the beginning of natural death and dying. This means that we were immediately cut off from everything pertaining to life while here. Most importantly, we lost the security that comes from the presence of God. Where God is, there is a great, immeasurable sense of security. There is no fear, and therefore no need or motivation to act selfishly. But where God is not, there is a great, unfathomable, all-pervasive fear and insecurity. Think about it: Is this not the experience of all who get to know God? When we are sure and aware of His divine presence being with us, we are able to act Christ-like and be full of faith because fear and insecurity have been banished. "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
It should be easy to see how such fear and insecurity would literally permeate human existence, thus describing how the carnal nature works. Fear-brought on by the absence of God-causes us to be completely given over to every form of selfishness:
(1) Obsession with survival ('self-preservation is the first law of nature');
(2) All of the various ways of protecting oneself at the expense of others;
(3) Oversensitivity (to stay on the alert for any real or imagined threats);
(4) Hoarding of anything gained (power, money, fame, opportunities, or
anything considered valuable, to build a hedge of protection and security
(5) All the forms of aggressiveness and fighting (to scare others off, to keep
them from taking advantage of you, to get revenge, to teach them a lesson,
(6) Drinking, drugging, sexual carousing, and pleasure-seeking (to anesthetize
oneself to the fear and pain of living separated from God by altering one's
perception of reality);
(7) The obsession with seeking significance, fame, attention, immortality, etc.
(manifested even by many positive human endeavors); and
(8) Etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum.
If you will look around, you will see that this fear and insecurity is the primary motivating force in the world, the most powerful influence in society. Hardly anything in human existence is not motivated by fear. Even positive, productive human efforts are really motivated by fear: building great projects, art, music, education, other development of human potential, etc., are really efforts to cheat death, to achieve immortality, to avoid insignificance, to counteract the fear that life is purposeless and we are meaningless, etc. All of this is the natural result of being separated from the security found in the presence of God.
This explains every sin in the world. Read Hebrews 2:14-15, two of the most important verses in the Bible, that describe insecurity and the fear of death—not mere dying-as the power that places ALL people under the bondage of Satan and sin: "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (See For God So Loved the World for more comments on these concepts.)
The Basic Solution
Now if this is truly the problem, then it is obvious what the solution must be. The real problem with the world is not the existence of so much evil, but the absence of enough God. So then, if the separation from God is the source of the trouble, then the reconnection to God should be the answer. And this is exactly what the Plan of Salvation is all about. It is a two-step program perfectly designed to reconnect us to God, and thereby serves as the answer to all of our problems.
First of all, sins—actual evil deeds we have individually committed—prevent us from being eligible to be reconnected to God. He cannot be attached to that which is sinful. Something must be done with our sins, to get them out of the way. Therefore, He Himself sent Jesus Christ (after centuries of temporary sacrifices) as the permanent sacrifice for the sins of everyone in the world for all time. By believing in Jesus as the God-ordained payer of the debt our sins created, we take advantage of God's willingness to permit our sins to be erased. They are paid for. They no longer exist as an impediment between God and us.
In that same, initial act of forgiveness, God places us in right standing with Himself. This is what the Greek word of 'justification' means. This act simultaneously works several spiritual miracles within our souls and lives: (1) We are forgiven and released from guilt; (2) God places His righteousness upon us; He declares (or imputes) us as righteous, and we know it; (3) We are given an inward spark of His life that enables us to hear Him, to communicate with Him, to possess and feel strong desires to please Him; i.e., we are 'quickened' (KJV) or 'made alive' (NIV); and (4) We are delivered from the hold active sin held over us; many times habits are instantaneously broken. This act is called being 'born again...of the Spirit' (John 3:5). It can also be called 'regeneration,' i.e., given life again.
Notice that this New Testament justification is far more than the Old Testament forgiveness of sins. An old bumper sticker reads, 'Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.' However, this is in error. 'Christians are not perfect,' it is true, but they are truly more than 'just forgiven.' The two actions of Jesus Christ that make this type of expanded justification possible are His death on the cross and His resurrection. The first produces our forgiveness and death to sin, and the second produces newness of life. See Romans 6. Also, note 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, especially verse 17: "If any man be in Christ , he is a new creature [creation]: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
Next, once our sins no longer prevent our reconnection to God, the actual process of permanent reconnection begins. This is achieved by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ came to do three things: (1) to bring forgiveness by making a permanent sacrifice for sin, (2) to bring deliverance and a new life, and (3) to bring the presence of God-the Holy Spirit-into our beings on a personal level.Forgiveness of sins had been achieved for centuries by animal sacrifices and repentance, not just by Jesus Christ. But only Jesus brought deliverance from sin and only Jesus brought the Holy Ghost: "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost..."
This infilling with the Holy Spirit is our formal reconnecting with God. Because the carnal nature is not a thing but a condition of disconnectedness, only the infilling of the Holy Spirit can remedy this situation. We are reconciled to God by justification-when we are saved. But we are literally reconnected to the presence of God when we are filled with His Holy Spirit. This is the literal fulfillment of Jesus' other name, 'Emmanuel,' which means, 'God with us.' It means God actually flowing through and living in us.
According to the Acts, this event takes place after justification (initial belief in Jesus or rebirth):
(1) In Acts 2 ( the disciples received after their belief in Christ);
(2) In Acts 8:15-17 (the Samaritan believers: "They...prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost, (For as yet He was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.");
(3) In Acts 9 (Saul receives the Holy Ghost after his conversion);
(4) In Acts 19 (the Ephesian 12: "Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed?... They were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them..."); et.al.
Thus we see the need for what we call 'sanctification.' Keep in mind that the way we use 'sanctification,' in the Wesleyan sense, is not necessarily the way it is used in the New Testament. Therefore, it is probably better to use the New Testament terms: 'being filled with the Spirit,' 'receiving the Spirit,' 'being baptized with the Spirit.' What happens thereafter can be described as the process of sanctification—the process of being spiritually cleansed by the blood as the Spirit reveals areas of spiritual lack. Actually, it is the ongoing removal of fear and its scars where they still reside in areas of our lives—spirit, soul, body, mind, and emotions. These 'scars' are habits of thought and action that we have learned and acquired from a lifetime of living under fear and making adjustments and adaptations based on death while we were disconnected from the security and love of God.
Thus, many times it is not active fear but habits of fearful behavior that we see working in ourselves. These are the things, the residue of fear, which must be purged and cleansed from our lives. Receiving the Spirit is only the commencement or beginning of this sanctifying process, so we probably should not call it a work of grace. It is more like a 'working' of grace, because sanctification is not a finished but an ongoing process.. As Paul instructed in Ephesians 4:23: “And be renewed in the spirit of your mind,” i.e., allow your spirit, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, to move your mind (part of the soul) into new directions, mental habits, and renewed attitudes based on the reality of being reconnected to God.
However we phrase it, these facts remain: It is the experiencing of a definite miracle in which God's presence takes up residence somewhere within us (our spirits and bodies-Romans 12:1) and begins to live His Life through our lives. It is the act and process of reconnecting our souls and spirits to God's Spirit, so that He lives His power, His ability to love, His glory, His desires, His wisdom, His special gifts and abilities, His special graces, His fruits of the Spirit, His divine guidance, etc., through us. God is actually living in each Spirit-filled soul.
This new creation—a Spirit-filled human being—is far better than the original creation, Adam and Eve. They at first served God without even knowing what "good and evil" were. The new creation serves God by choosing Him in spite of their knowledge of evil and their freedom to choose it, thus proving their love for God and making their every choice an act of worship. Repeating, this experience of full salvation is a miracle. It restores man to a spiritual condition that can truly be labeled, as by the KJV, "every whit whole."
The new creation is characterized by the presence and love of God. Therefore, all of the negatives associated with the absence of God, which are merely various forms of death, are eliminated. Some are immediately "cleansed," and some are "cleansed" over the remainder of our lifetimes. There is no need to cast out or purge out some carnal nature to find peace and righteousness. The presence of God is automatically accompanied by such cleansing power. "Perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18). There is victory over sin—some even go so far as to claim 'sinless perfection'—because the fear and insecurity motivating sinful acts are overwhelmed by the presence of God. The potential to act in a carnal manner is not eliminated, however, because the flesh is still there. But as long as there is an acute awareness of the presence of God, there will be victory over the flesh.
In fact, those who experience the greatest awareness of His presence experience the greatest release from fear and the greatest power over their flesh. The greater your awareness of God's presence, the greater your personal victory in life. Nothing can disturb you, make you impatient, or make you act selfishly or unloving, when you are consistently aware of the presence of God.
The Basic Application
Therefore, our spiritual efforts should be focused on two things after we are saved: (1) Receiving the Spirit of God and (2) Maintaining a keen awareness of His presence. "This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts (desires) of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). "Walking in the Spirit" necessitates that (1) you have received the Spirit and (2) you are living moment by moment, i.e., step by step, making choices each moment, in His presence. This is the only way to allow God to live His life through us (Galatians 2:20).
Needless to say, this is where the break down occurs: Even if we have been filled with the Spirit, we sometimes find it difficult to maintain that keen awareness of His presence. Thus, we can often act un-Christ-like and make missteps. This can be traced to our tendency to want to turn "living in the Spirit" off and on. Many times we are guilty of not even wanting to and not consecrating to live in the Spirit on a permanent basis. We want to indulge our flesh a little, then move back into the Spirit when we get ready. We routinely practice moving 'in' and 'out' of the Spirit, and we like it. Such a practice, which is very easy to do in today's selfishness-promoting world, prevents us from really cultivating and maintaining a consistent awareness of the presence of God.
There is a crying need for a greater consecration and a deeper, actual dying to self on the part of God's people. What would happen in your life if you truly consecrated to live in the Spirit on a permanent basis? If you really, truly gave up all rights and privileges to live any of your life according to your own desires? How many Christians do you know have died to themselves this completely? And yet this is what the songwriter meant when he wrote, "I saw the death I had to die, a death in which my soul did cry; The frightening waves my heart did chill, but I must yield: 'Twas heaven's will." Is there any wonder why most of us Christians are still 'alive,' and therefore, fairly powerless?
Note should also be taken of the latter part of this verse: "...walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts (desires) of the flesh." This, then, obviously follows: If you do not walk in the Spirit, then you will automatically fulfill the lusts and desires of the flesh. One does not have to put forth special efforts to live according to the flesh. Simply neglect to walk and live in the Spirit. Unfortunately, this is how most Christians live: neglecting to live in the Spirit on a moment-by-moment basis, they live their lives mostly according to the dictates of their fleshly desires, opinions, weaknesses, old emotional wounds, fears and insecurities, human perspectives, ambitions, preconceived plans, etc.
Perhaps it is now easier to see why true salvation is not religion. Religion is man trying to live what he believes is good and godly with his own strength and ability. Salvation is God Himself living His life through ours. In religion, we try to match what we and others believe and teach as holiness. In salvation, God defines and produces His own holiness. In religion, we follow external rules and regulations, and measure up to standards. In salvation, God produces the righteousness from within; the measuring up is to the internal convictions of a soul who is truly Holy Spirit-filled and led. The first Christians did not even have a New Testament or written standard to go by to show them what a Christian was supposed to do and be. They only had an internal Spirit that produced what was later written down and what we now know as the standard Christian experience.
Obviously, religion—which is legalism—is salvation working backwards. It is trying to work the results of salvation without the Spirit of salvation. Religion is like trying to produce the fruit without being connected to the vine (John 15:1-8).
If you were to look in some of our Church of God books on this subject—e.g., Sanctification, The Two Works of Grace, The Cleansing of the Sanctuary, et.al. by H.M. Riggle, D.S. Warner, et.al.—you would find this general consensus among the early Church of God leaders about sanctification:
(1). The Adamic or carnal nature or 'sin principle' is a thing within us that can be cast out or 'burned' out.
(2). When we get saved or justified, our committed sins are forgiven. So we are sinless only in the sense that we are no longer charged for any actual, committed sins. That is, our record before God is clean. But the 'sin principle' is still within us. However, we are not responsible for the carnal nature, so we are not condemned for having it within. Thus, we are still 'sinless.' (Hence our belief that it is not necessary to baptize babies before the age of accountability.) But our writers make it clear that a merely-justified person cannot remain guiltless for long: we must 'go on to perfection' and get rid of this 'sin principle,' or it will lead us back into committed sins.
(3). The sin principle is eradicated when we are sanctified, which occurs at the reception of the Holy Spirit. The carnal nature is purged by the “Holy Ghost and fire.” [Three comments: (a) If it is completely burned out, then there is no more capability to sin; but the evidence suggests differently. Also, (b) Once someone denies this “eradication” concept, the church immediately denounces him as part of the “anti-cleansing heresy,” and he is dismissed from the movement. However, as described above, there is definitely a cleansing process that takes place, both immediate and ongoing. (c) As Christian brethren, we should always remember that some disputes are matters of semantics. For example, Joshua wrote that the sun stood still, but we know better now that that was simply how ancient people described it. The sun does not move around the earth after all. So we can agree that something miraculous happened, but it was certainly not the sun standing still. This age-old "eradication" dispute may be similar: What seemed to be eradication to some was actually describing the reconnection to the Spirit that overwhelmed the carnal motivations.]
(4). We are thus restored to the state Adam and Eve were in before their fall. Many call this 'Two Steps Down and Two Steps Up.'
(5). We are then enabled to live 'free from sin.' Much of the literature seems to almost indicate that sanctification makes us unable to sin again. This is why the books are so confusing. Personally, I read those books over and over again, trying to obtain what they seemed to be teaching. I got 'sanctified' over and over again; probably an average of every two weeks! Sometimes the devil would tell me, 'The reason you can't get sanctified is because you're really not saved.' Then I would get 'saved AND sanctified' again! And my experience was very common. This is why I don't recommend young Christians reading a lot from those books. Later, by reading other church history books, etc., I discovered that the men writing the books on sanctification were themselves very carnal at times, D.S. Warner included. Read C. W. Naylor’s book, The Teachings of D. S. Warner and Associates. Apparently, they were not beyond the apostles, who also acted strangely carnal-actually sinful-at times: Peter at Galatia (Gal. 2:11-21); Paul and Barnabus (Acts 15:39); Paul (Acts 23:3); etc.
The interesting-and inconsistent-thing about some of the above theological system is that before we are sanctified, we label all un-Christ-like behavior as evidence of the "carnal nature." But after we are sanctified and the carnal nature is supposedly burned out, we call the identical un-Christ-like behavior, "self," which needs to be denied, resisted, or "put to death." This, too, was confusing to me as a young person. Nor could any of the older, major ministers I asked explain the difference between the manifestations of the carnal nature and the manifestations of self or the flesh. Thus, how could anyone really prove that the carnal nature and self were actually two entirely different things if their manifestations were the same? That question the COG has yet to answer officially.
Eventually, God Himself gave me the explanation presented above, which I hope helps you understand it a little better and is closer to explaining reality. I believe it more closely models what is actually happening. It is how the evidence suggests, and nothing in the Word suggests anything else. It would pay for every sincere Christian to personally seek for a greater and more consistent awareness of the presence, love, and power of God.
© 2002 Philip A Matthews