This means, of course, that the Christian, the child of God, must be constantly converted during his whole life. Conversion may be defined as the work of God whereby the regenerated sinner, through the Spirit and Word, is efficaciously turned about from the way of sin to the way of righteousness, or from the service of the devil to the service of God. The fruit of conversion is, of course, that he hates sin and eschews it and flees from it, and that too with his whole heart. It is true that in our confessions no clear distinction is made between conversion and regeneration. But we must remember, nevertheless, that regeneration is always first. A man must be born again before he can even see the kingdom of God, and he must be born of water and of the Spirit before he can enter it. Besides, we must remember that we ascribe this whole work of conversion to God. There is nothing of man in it. On the other hand, we must also remember the truth that God in the work of conversion never treats man as a stock and block, but always deals with him as a rational and moral creature. And therefore God’s work of conversion bears the fruit that we turn and that we eschew evil and flee from it, and that we love the law of God, His precepts; and keep them with our whole heart.
The result is, however, that the regenerated and converted child of God, as he lives from the regenerated heart, has a continual struggle. Of that struggle the apostle Paul speaks in Romans 7:15ff.: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this 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.”
Many indeed deny that the apostle. Paul speaks of him self here as a Christian. It is also noteworthy that in general it is those that try to defend the free will of man and deny the total depravity of the natural man who want to apply what the apostle writes here to the natural man, the unregenerate. Men like Pelagius, Erasmus, Socinus, Arminius, Episcopius, Grotius and all the Remonstrants in general, have always attempted to explain this passage as referring to the apostle before his conversion. This attempt, however, is evidently vain and impossible. In the first place, such explanation of the passage certainly does not fit in the context of the chapter, nor in the preceding and following context of the entire letter. In the second place, such an interpretation certainly brings us in direct conflict with the doctrine of Scripture in general, which certainly denies that the natural man has a delight in the law of God, that he hates sin, and that he serves with his mind the law of God. The natural mind is enmity against God, according to Scripture, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. It certainly does not consent to the law of God, that it is good, as the apostle does in these verses. In the third place, it is true that the apostle in this passage employs some very strong expressions when he speaks of himself as carnal and sold under sin. But in the light of the context these expressions evidently refer to his members, to the old man of sin that is still within him, while according to the inner man he has a delight in the law of God. And understood in this light, there is nothing in these expressions that also in other passages of Scripture is not clearly taught, nor anything that every child of God that knows himself cannot take upon his own lips. He certainly subscribes to all that the apostle expresses of himself in the passage we quoted. In his letter to the Galatians the apostle writes almost literally in the same style, when he says that the “flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” And finally, it must be noted that in the entire passage of Romans 7 the apostle writes in the first person and in the present tense, so that it cannot very well be doubted that he describes his spiritual, ethical experience and condition as it was at the very moment of his writing to the Romans.
Hence, according to the presentation of Holy Writ, as well as in harmony with the experience of the people of God in the world, believers know of a battle between flesh and Spirit, between the old and the new man, the law of the Spirit of life and the law which is in their members—a battle that is fought to the very end of their life. And this raises a question. The question is: what is the old, and what is the new man? How is it possible that these two can exist next to each other in the same Christian? What is the relation of these two to each other, and what does it mean that we must put off the old man and put on the new man? It is of greatest importance for the doctrine of sanctification that we give as clear as possible an answer to these questions.
It is not easy, but indeed very difficult, to form a somewhat clear conception of the life of the Christian from a spiritual, ethical viewpoint—of the old and of the new man in him, and also of the battle between the flesh and the Spirit which is being fought by him and through him. The believer is regenerated. And regeneration is the principle of a new and of an altogether different life. It is a principal renewal, a radical translation, a total change of heart. It is a transition from death to life, from darkness into God’s marvelous light. The Christian is a new creature in the strictest sense of the word. Old things have completely passed away; all things have become new. If this were not the case, if regeneration were simply the beginning of a certain moral reformation, the apparent dualism in the life of the child of God could probably be explained rather easily. But now it is different. The Christian became a totally different man. He is born out of God. The seed of God remains in him, and he cannot sin. He lives, yet not he, but Christ lives in him. Yet it seems that this renewal, this radical change in the life of the child of God often comes to manifestation but very little. So much in his life and walk cannot be explained from that root, or seed, of regeneration. And he himself confesses that in him there is only a small beginning of the new obedience. And Holy Writ speaks of the flesh and the Spirit warring against each other, of the old and the new man which place the Christian in the position of continual battle.
Although, therefore, the language of Romans 7 certainly is the experience of every child of God, it cannot be denied that its apparent dualism cannot easily be explained. One would almost reach the conclusion that in that chapter two entirely different persons are speaking. It would seem impossible that one and the same person could say of himself what is expressed here in the verses of Romans 7. On the one hand, the apostle Paul speaks in that passage of a person who testifies of himself that he is carnal and that he is sold under sin. He speaks of a person who does not perform that which is good. For the good that he would he does not, but the evil which he would not, that he does. On the other hand, however, he speaks of a person who is filled with a deep love of the good and of God, and is motivated by a deeply rooted hatred against the evil. The good he wills; the evil he wills not, but hates it. He has delight in the law of God according to the inner man. With the mind he serves the law of God. Notice, however, that in this passage the apostle does not speak of two persons, but always of the same person, the same ego, the same I. And that one person does not speak of experiences in different times, but of his experience at the same time. The same person at the same time wills to do the good and does not do it. The same person hates the evil, yet he does it. The same person serves with the flesh the law of sin, and with the mind the law of God. The question is, therefore, how is such a sharp conflict and contrast conceivable in one and the same person and at the same time?
Different attempts have been made to explain the apparently irreconcilable contrast between the old and the new man in the Christian. On the one hand, it was maintained that regeneration is really not a renewal of the heart, but the increating of an entirely new man within the sinful man. The Christian is really a dualism, and he lives a dualistic life. He is not one, but two persons. There are in him two egos. In actual life this view led to antinomianism. In the one person the Christian can never do any good, and he is delivered over unto corruption. In his other person, however, the Christian can never sin: for he is born of God. Hence, the one person in the Christian does not hold himself accountable for what the other person does; and the attempt to fight against and to overcome sin, overcome that evil person in the Christian, is simply vain. It is evident that this presentation does certainly not solve the problem. Nor is it in harmony with Holy Writ, nor with the Christian’s experience in the world. Holy Writ, which speaks exactly of the same person as being under the influence of flesh and Spirit both, does not speak of two persons, but rather of two different natures. Others have tried to explain this apparently irreconcilable contradiction by distinguishing between the person, or the ego, and the expressions or manifestations of that ego in the nature, in the mind and will of man, that is, of course, of the Christian. The person, according to this presentation, is entirely renewed. He is a completely new man. But the manifestations and expressions of that renewed person in the consciousness and will of the Christian are still under the influence of the operations of sin.
Dr. A, Kuyper Sr. wants to make the distinction between the center on the periphery of our life. That center, according to him, is the kernel, or pith, of our ego. From that ego the lines run to the periphery. And in that periphery lies our consciousness, our perceptions, our inclinations and desires, our will, and also our acts, personally and in relation to others and in relation to the whole world, as well as in our relation to God. Now according to Kuyper, the pith of our ego is being regenerated. And from the center of that regenerated ego also our consciousness, our desires, our inclinations, our will, our mind are influenced in conversion. But on the other hand, there are also according to him reacting influences from the periphery upon the regenerated ego. And those reacting influences are not holy, but sinful. And thus Dr. Kuyper explains that the regenerate man always sins, and yet remains holy in the very center of his person or ego. Different figures have been used to elucidate this relation between the regenerated ego and the so-called periphery of the regenerated man’s life. The figure of a steamboat has been used—a steamboat that runs, say, in a westerly direction, but whose engine is suddenly reversed, so that the boat now as far as the engine is concerned runs in an easterly direction. Then, according to Kuyper, the momentum of the boat will for a while still run in a westerly direction even though the engine is put into reverse. This is supposed to explain the relation between the sinful motions in the members of the Christian and his regenerated ego, or person. Also the more organic figure has been used of the cultivated twig that has been grafted upon a wild tree. By the process of grafting the tree has become essentially a cultivated tree. Yet, for a long time the trunk of the tree will shoot forth wild branches. Also to explain the operation of a sinful nature the figure of a tree that has been cut down has been used. Such a tree, of course, is really dead. It has been separated from its root. Yet it will happen, according to Kuyper, that by virtue of the life that is still in the tree, it will for a while still shoot forth branches. All these figures and others are used to explain the life of the Christian as he is regenerated in the very center of his ego, and yet brings forth wild fruits of sin.
It is evident, however, that this explanation is not in harmony with the Word of God. According to this theory, the regenerated person or ego of the Christian really stands outside of his sinful life. That person, or ego, is regenerated, and therefore holy. The pith of his ego always does that which is good. The person of the Christian, therefore, really is presented as standing outside of his own sinful deeds, and cannot be held accountable for them. In this way this theory means to account for the expression in Romans 7:20, “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”
But this is certainly not in harmony with the language ofRomans 7. It is very evident in this passage that the one that speaks there does not put his person, or his ego, outside of his sinful deeds. For the person that speaks there says: “I am carnal; I am sold under sin; I do not what I will; I do what I hate; I do not do the good that I will do; I do the evil that I do not will: and I serve with the flesh the law of sin.” Besides, it is the same person that speaks in the context. There the apostle writes, in vs. 7, ff.: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.”
The question, therefore, that must be answered is: how can one and the same ego speak in such apparently contradictory language about his own life from a spiritual, ethical viewpoint? And this question is not being answered by saying that the very pith of the ego, or person, is regenerated, and therefore completely holy, and sins no more. For the apostle teaches in Romans 7 exactly that the ego of the Christian sins indeed. When the apostle says, “I myself serve the law of sin with the flesh,” he admits indeed that it is in his flesh, that is, in his old man, that he serves the law of sin. Nevertheless it still is his person that is serving sin. And if the theory of Dr. Kuyper were correct, namely, that the ego is entirely holy and separated from sin, it would be entirely impossible that the same ego still serves sin. This explanation, therefore, is not in harmony with Holy Writ.
How true this is may be ascertained when we pay attention to another figure which Dr. Kuyper uses in the same connection in De Gemeene Gratie. Writes he: “The comparison of a negro who works’ in a plaster mill and a white European who works in a coal mine makes this distinction perfectly lucid. When they should meet each other and look into a mirror, the negro somewhat white because of the powder of the plaster mill, and the white European black as coal, as he crept out of the coal mine, they might; judging by experiences, indeed maintain that the negro is less black than the European. But the negro knows very well, nevertheless, that he is black, even though he appears for the moment somewhat white. And the European claims with perfect assurance: I am white, even though you see him before you black as coal. And when the same European laborer, who appears black for the moment, boasts over against the negro, ‘Nevertheless I am white,’ comes home and his child jumps up to him and wants to embrace him, the father will say to his child: ‘Just a moment, darling, for I am black.’ Are there then two egos, a black ego and a white ego in that man? Of course not. It is one and the same ego who one moment boasts: I am white, and who the next moment acknowledges: I am black; and which of those two he will say depends entirely upon the contrast. Over against the negro, who disputes the now hidden whiteness of his skin, he maintains definitely: Not true, I am entirely white, there is no black spot on me. But over against his child, who would become defiled by touching him, he acknowledges: I am completely black. The same is true of the regenerated man. Over against the man who disputes the work of God in him he will boast: ‘I am holy, and cannot sin.’ But over against his brother and before God on his knees he will confess: ‘I am a miserable man’.” From this figure it appears very clearly that it is not the condition of the ego which determines the condition of the nature; but on the contrary, it is the condition of the nature that determines the condition of the ego. Just analyze the figure above quoted. Will the negro maintain that he is white because there is some plaster powder on his face? And will the white European acknowledge that his skin is black because he just comes out of the coal mine? Of course not. But both the negro and the white European will certainly say: “I am dirty.” And this is certainly true. But notice in that case: both admit that their person, their ego, is dirty. They say: “I am dirty.” Nor can either of them say at the same time: “I am not dirty.” And what determines that dirt of their ego? Is their person dirty, and consequently their nature? Of course not. The very opposite is true. The dirt is upon their body, and therefore upon their nature. And because of that dirt on their nature, they say: “I am dirty.” And when presently they both wash themselves, they simply undergo a change in the appearance of their nature; and both say: “I am clean.” In that case the negro does not say: “A while ago I was white, and now am black.” And the white European does not say: “A moment ago I was a negro, and now I am a white man.” But both say: “A while ago I was dirty, and now I am clean.” The condition of the ego is being determined by the condition of the nature. And in a spiritual, ethical sense this is no different.
Therefore we cannot agree with the interpretation of Dr. Kuyper. By the concept person, or ego, we refer to a mere formal and psychological distinction. It is without any spiritual, ethical content. The person is simply the subject of all our actions from a natural, psychological viewpoint. The person remains the same, whether before or after regeneration.
This is also evident from the incarnation of the Son of God. We confess that the Person of the Son of God assumed an impersonal human nature from the virgin Mary. May we say now that the entering in of the Person of the Son of God made the sinful human nature holy? Or is the Person of Christ in the human nature holy in virtue of the fact that He is the Person of the Son in a sinful human nature? Of course not. The Person of the Son of God had not been able to assume a sinful human nature, for the simple reason that in that case also the ego, or the Person, of Christ in that sinful human nature would have become unholy. And it were blasphemous, even to conceive of such a thing. But the fact is that the Person of the Son from the womb of the virgin Mary through the conception and operation of the Holy Spirit assumed a sinless and holy human nature. And only in this way is the Person of the Son of God also in the human nature a holy ego.
It is not the person which is, as I said, a formal, psychological concept, but the heart of man, which represents a spiritual, ethical concept, that is regenerated. Scripture very frequently speaks of the heart. And although in Scripture the terms spirit, soul, and mind are sometimes interchanged, yet in general we may say that by heart Scripture usually denotes that spiritual, ethical center of man that is in regeneration radically turned about. It is therefore not the person of the Christian that is regenerated, but the heart, and from that heart the nature. The essence of the nature in regeneration is changed radically, that is, from a spiritual, ethical point of view. This is also plain from a comparison with what took place through the fall of man. We do not say that through the fall the person was corrupted, but the nature. Through the fall of our first parents our nature was so corrupted that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. This we must surely bear in mind if we would understand somewhat what the Scripture means when it speaks of the flesh and spirit, and of the old and the new man in the child of God.