This article was written by Rev. Cornelius Hanko in the January 15, 1982 issue of the Standard Bearer.
We received the following question: "Is a regenerated person still depraved?
Your question reminds me of two errors that often arise within the church: on the one hand, the error of perfectionism, and on the other hand, the error of antinomism.
The perfectionist argues that we are new creatures in Christ; old things are passed away, and, along with these old things, also our depravity. He appeals to such passages of scripture as I John 3:9: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." The perfectionist will also refer to saints like Job, of whom it is written that he was a man, "perfect and upright, and one who feared God and eschewed evil.” The Pentecostals seem to lean in that direction when they speak of being baptized by the Holy Spirit, enabling them to live sinless lives. These perfectionists stress, of course, an outward perfection of "touch not, taste not, and handle not."
On the other hand, there are the antinomians who stress that we are by nature depraved sinners who cannot keep God's law. They remind you that Christ has fulfilled the law for us. In Him is all our righteousness, so that we can add nothing to that nor detract from it. Nor must we try with our good works to add to the righteousness of Christ. Some will, therefore, object to admonitions in the preaching, since we cannot fulfill them anyway. In extreme cases the antinomian will condone sin with the attitude, "Let us, then, sin, that grace may abound."
Now I am sure that you have neither of these errors in mind. Your question centers about the extent of Christ's work of regeneration in us. When we speak of the renewal of the heart, does this also include the renewal of our nature?
To that I must answer, that it is my conviction, that the renewal of the heart does not include the renewal of our nature. It is true that the heart is the spiritual ethical center of our life, for from the heart are the issues of life. Paul teaches us: "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." This is true even to the extent that there is a new man in Christ within us that wills the good (Romans 7). This is evidently what our fathers had in mind in Canons III, IV, XI, where they state, "But by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, (God through his word) pervades the inmost recesses of man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.” Nevertheless, that does not renew our nature. Our sinful inclinations, our character weaknesses do not change. We do not become better people. The old man of sin is still present, sin still wars in our members.
This is the plain teaching of scripture in many passages, such as Psalm 19:13, Romans 6:12–14, Galatians 5:16, 17. In Galatians 5:16 Paul makes a contrast between "walking in the Spirit" and "fulfilling the lusts of the flesh." This is the tension in the life of the believer, the constant warfare between the old man of sin and the new man of Christ. The lusts of the flesh refer to every carnal, wicked inclination and desire, all the sinful cravings of our nature, whereby we transgress, not some, but all of the commandments of God, and are not able to keep one of them (Lord's Day 23). This is our covetousness, the root of all our sins. Those lusts are summed up in the verses 19–21 as every conceivable sin that can be committed, not only by the unregenerate, but also by the regenerate.
Over against these "lusts of the flesh" stands our walking in the Spirit. The new man in Christ has learned to love God, and therefore to hate sin. He is afraid to offend his God. He opposes sin, because sin is contrary to God's holiness and contrary to his desire to live according to all the commandments of God. When he sins he experiences bitter pangs of conscience, a deep sense of shame and guilt, so that he daily humbles himself before God with the confession of sin and a plea for forgiveness. An integral part of his prayer life is the petition, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," as well as the crying need, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Sin is still so much a part of us. We do not improve with age, even though that may be the dream that lives in the soul of every young Christian. As far as our depravity is concerned, a child is like a young sapling, an elderly person like an old, gnarled tree. Young people may give vent to their evil lusts, but their nature is not as experienced in the ways of sin as is an older person’s. The difference is that a child of God becomes ever more aware of his own weaknesses and character sins, so that he prays ever more fervently: "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" He roots himself ever deeper into Christ, relies no more on his firm resolutions or hopes for improvement, but seeks all his salvation only in his Savior. Sin is still like an angry, snarling dog within him, that tugs at the leash and must constantly be kept in control by the grace of God operating in the new life within him and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore our Catechism asks the question in Lord's Day 2, question 5, "Canst thou keep all these things (all the demands of God's law) perfectly?" It is a matter of keeping God's law in love to God perfectly, or not at all. And the answer is given, "In no wise!" That is strong language. But the reason that is given is even more emphatic: "For I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor." By nature I hate God. By nature I am so self-centered, so selfish that I hate God in wicked pride. I hate those closest to me, so that even my natural affections, sociability, kindness, and all else is still hatred against God, rooted in sin. The reason for that can only be ascribed to the proneness, the evil inclinations of my nature. "I am evil, born in sin"; my only hope of salvation is my Savior, who died for me and intercedes every moment for me in heaven, and the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit constantly causing grace to abound, so that sin no longer can have dominion over me. "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25).