The Old Man and Conversion

What is the relationship between the death of the old man in Romans 6:6 and the experiences of conversion and sanctification?

ERWIN R. GANE, Department of Religion, Union College

WHAT is the relation­ship between the death of the old man in Ro­mans 6:6 and the experi­ences of conversion and sanctification?

This vital question has been answered in many different ways. Some interpreters, for example, identify the old man with the carnal nature, the inclination to sin inherited by every individual, that something within every man which predisposes him to sin­ning.

Those who thus identify the old man with the carnal nature go on to explain what happenes at conversion in either one or the other of two ways. Some argue that the old man, the carnal nature, dies at con­version in an absolute sense. After genuine conversion, they insist, no carnal propen­sity remains; the individual is saved and will not fall again. Others, however, reject this once-saved-always-saved conception on the grounds that it is an established fact both in Scripture and in human experience that a carnal nature which requires daily subjugation continues to live on after a man is converted. But since, like the first group, these other students, too, identify the old man with the carnal nature, they are confronted by an apparent contradiction. Although Romans 6 clearly teaches that to the Christian the old man is dead, Paul elsewhere indicates (1 Cor. 9:27) that even after conversion the carnal nature continues to remain. This second group of interpreters, therefore, say that at con­version the old man dies only in the sense that it is subjected to the divine nature; it may be revived again at any time, they say, by a single decision to sin. In the opinion of these men the carnal nature is only asleep and may be awakened at any mo­ment; the converted man, they explain, immediately renders himself unconverted by resurrecting the old man—his carnal na­ture.

The point common to both of these views is the identification of the old man with the carnal nature. The difference be­tween them is that the first view regards the death of the old man as an actual death, while the second regards that death as a sleep which may be interrupted at any mo­ment by the individual's choosing to sin. Our problem, of course, is to discover what the Bible really does teach on the subject.

Death in the Past

What does Paul mean by the term "old man"? A careful examination of Romans 6 reveals that to Paul the death of the old man is in the experience of the converted Christian an event that already has been completed in the past. In Romans 6:2 the verb "we . .. are dead" is a translation from (See pdf).Ev, a Greek verb in the aorist tense. This verb is more correctly trans­lated in the R.S.V.: "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" The New American Standard Bible also gives this improved translation, and The New English Bible reads, "We died to sin: how can we live in it any longer?" * The tense of the Greek verb indicates that the reference here is to a death, which occurred and was completed in the past. Paul is not here speaking of a progressive daily dying to sin.

And what does the context show?

In verses 3 to 5 of this same chapter (Ro­mans 6) Paul uses baptism as an illustra­tion of his point. Christ, he says, died and rose again; we followers of His died to sin and were baptized as a means of giving public testimony to our death. In verse 6 Paul makes this application plain in words rendered by the K.J.V., "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him." But the verb "is crucified" here comes from (see pdf), a verb which again is in the aorist tense, and so ought to be translated "was crucified" or "has been crucified." Once more Paul is referring to an event that occurred and was completed in the past. The R.S.V. gives: "We know that our old self was crucified with him," and other versions, too, provide the phrase "was crucified." It is apparent, then, that to Paul the death of the old man is not something that is going on day after day, but is some­thing that occurred and was completed in the past.

Lest any doubt as to his meaning should remain, Paul emphasizes his illustration further in verses 9 and 10. Christ is not con­tinually dying! His death happened only once, and today He lives. Just so, Paul goes on (verse 11), we are to regard ourselves as having died to sin in the past—at the time when the old man was crucified with Christ; and because this event has occurred, we may know that sin no longer reigns in our lives.

Old Life of Habitual Sinning

But just what is this old man which died when we were crucified with Christ?

Ephesians 4:22 says: "Put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts." The two phrases the "former con­versation" and the "old man" are here in apposition. They are synonymous. "Conver­sation" in Greek is a term which means "way of life, conduct, behaviour." Thus the "former conversation, the old man" must be a twofold reference to the former manner of life. Thus there is no choice but to conclude that in Ephesians 4 the old man is the old life of habitual sinning.

Certainly the old life of habitual sinning came to an end in the past! Its demise took place at conversion. The old life of habit­ual sinning does not go on dying every day. The converted man may sin, but he surely does not sin habitually. The death of the old man is a reference to the change in the trend of the life, the change in direction that occurs at the time of conversion.

Other Scriptures harmonize with this conclusion.

Colossians 3:3 says, "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." The phrase "are dead" is from the Greek (See pdf), an aorist; it refers to a completed event in the past, not a continual dying. It is correctly translated "for you have died" in the R.S.V., or simply "you died" in the N.E.B. In Colossians 3:9 we are instructed, "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds." The phrase "ye have put off" is from (see pdf), once more an aorist referring to the completed putting off of the old man at some time in the past.

Confirmed by Spirit of Prophecy

These Scriptures, then, justify the con­clusion that the old man is the old life of habitual sinning, which ceases at conver­sion. Ellen G. White corroborates this con­clusion when she says:

Great responsibility comes to those who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Strive to understand the meaning of the words, "Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." . . . The old sinful life is dead; the new life entered into with Christ by the pledge of baptism.—Sons and Daughters of God, p. 300.

Writing to an unconverted man Ellen White says:

You have clothed yourself with a self-righteous garment to cover up the deformity of sin; but this is not the remedy. You know not what true con­version is. The old man is not dead in you.—Testi­monies, vol. 2, pp. 322, 323.

If this man had known what true conver­sion was, the old man would have been dead in him.

Thus the Bible and the Spirit of Proph­ecy writings both teach that the "old man" is the old life of habitual sinning, which ceases at conversion. There is no sugges­tion in inspiration that the old man is the carnal nature, or that the old man is still dying progressively. Paul's over-all message on this subject in Romans 6:1-13; Ephe­sians 4:22-24; and Colossians 3:1-10 is not to put the old man to death every day, but, since the old man has been put to death, to refrain from all behavior characteris­tic of the old life of habitual sinning.

The One-natured Man

This discussion inevitably leads to a whole series of questions. If the old man is not the carnal nature, does the converted man retain a carnal nature? What about sin after initial conversion? Does such an act resurrect the old man? Will one sin after conversion render an individual un­regenerate? What is daily conversion?

The unconverted man has one nature—the carnal, sinful nature. In many passages the Bible clearly implies this. We read: "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7). "Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled" (Titus 1:15). "For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death" (Rom. 7:5).

The Two-natured Man

At the point of conversion man is given a new nature. He becomes a partaker of the "divine nature." He is "born of the Spirit." He is given a spiritual nature (John 3:5; 2 Peter 1:4). The old carnal nature remains, but it is now in subjection to the spiritual nature. The apostle Paul describes his own experience in this way: "I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." It was years after conver­sion that Paul wrote this. Ellen G. White comments:

Paul's sanctification was a constant conflict with self. Said he: "I die daily." His will and his desires every day conflicted with duty and the will of God. Instead of following inclination, he did the will of God, however unpleasant and crucifying to his na­ture.—Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 299.

Again she writes:

The words, "I keep under my body," literally mean to beat back by severe discipline the desires, impulses, and passions. . . . Paul knew that his warfare against evil would not end so long as life should last. Ever he realized the need of putting a strict guard upon himself, that earthly desires might not overcome spiritual zeal. With all his power he continued to strive against natural in­clinations. Ever he kept before him the ideal to be attained, and this ideal he strove to reach by willing obedience to the law of God His words, practices, his passions,—all were brought under the control of the Spirit of God.—The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 314, 315.

The "Incidental" Sin

Therefore the converted man very def­initely retains a carnal nature, defined as inherited and cultivated inclination to sin. These inclinations are not sin, but unless constantly controlled by the Spirit of God they lead to sin. An incidental sin, how­ever, that is, a sin which is contrary to the general trend of the life, when committed after conversion, does not resurrect the old man in the sense of completely divesting an individual of his spiritual nature and projecting him back to his pre-regenera­tion experience. Since the old man is the old life of habitual sinning, incidental sin­ning after conversion does not resurrect this way of life. This is not said in any sense to justify even one act of sin. Sin is never inci­dental in the sense of "unimportant" in the sight of Heaven. John wrote to con­verted believers, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not" (1 John 2:1). But John does not rule out the possibility that his Christian readers would sometimes fall, for he adds: "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Fa­ther, Jesus Christ the righteous." The con­verted man has an Advocate when he falls; the unconverted does not. In Israel the same distinction was dramatized by the fact that the sins of believing Jews were for­given and the record of pardoned sin, in type, was transferred to the sanctuary. The sins of unbelieving Gentiles were never in­troduced into the sanctuary. Incidental sin, that is, sin which is contrary to the trend of the life, when committed after conversion, does not resurrect the old life of habitual sinning, the old man, for God makes special provision for His people in such cases. God does not cut us off and render us unregen­erate when we fall incidentally.

The Role of Chastisement

The same truth is beautifully expressed in Hebrews 12:6-8: "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chas­tening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasten­eth not? But if ye be without chastise­ment, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons." When we fall, God does not treat us as if we were unregenerate men. He chastises us; and this in itself is an evidence of our sonship. El­len G. White expresses the same truth when she says:

There are those who have known the pardoning love of Christ, and who really desire to be children of God, yet they realize that their character is im­perfect, their life faulty, and they are ready to doubt whether their hearts have been renewed by the Holy Spirit. To such I would say, Do not draw back in despair. We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our short­comings and mistakes; but we are not to be dis­couraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Said the beloved John, "These things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." [1 John 2:1.] And do not forget the words of Christ, The Father Himself loveth you." [John 16:27.] He de­sires to restore you to Himself, to see His own pu­rity and holiness reflected in you. And if you will but yield yourself to Him, He that hath begun a good work in you will carry it forward to the day of Jesus Christ. Pray more fervently; believe more fully. As we come to distrust our own power, let us trust the power of our Redeemer, and we shall praise Him who is the health of our countenance.

The closer you come to Jesus, the more faulty you will appear in your own eyes; for your vision will be clearer, and your imperfections will be seen in broad and distinct contrast to His perfect na­ture. This is evidence that Satan's delusions have lost their power; that the vivifying influence of the Spirit of God is arousing you.—Steps to Christ, p. 64.

When the Carnal Gains Predominance

Although an incidental sin does not res­urrect the old man in the sense of the old life of habitual sinning, yet even incidental sin does constitute behavior characteristic of the old manner of life. It is Paul's bur­den in Romans 6, Ephesians 4, and Colos­sians 3 to encourage believers to refrain from all sins characteristic of their former way of life. In Colossians 3:9 he says, "Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds." Paul does not say that one act of lying resurrects the old man. To say so would be inconsistent with the rest of his teaching on the subject. His instruction rather is that since the old man is dead, we should not engage in be­havior characteristic of the old manner of life.

Thus an incidental act of sin (a sin committed contrary to the trend of the life) renders a soul unconverted only in the sense that for a short period a man allows his carnal nature to assume predominance over his spiritual nature. Such an event is not tantamount to the restoration of a life of habitual sinning; hence it is not a resur­rection of the "old man" as Paul defines that term. Yet since the carnal nature lives on after conversion, there is always the pos­sibility that it may temporarily assume command, which is why Jesus warned, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). The con­flict between his two natures, which Paul describes in Romans 7, is all too painfully experienced by the converted man who temporarily takes his eyes off Christ. The same experience is described in Galatians 5:17: "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."

The Glorious Solution

But there is a glorious solution to this conflict available through Christ (Rom. 7: 24, 25). Through the power of the Saviour the carnal nature may again be subjected to the spiritual.

Even in the experience of the man who is constantly victorious there is still this daily conflict between flesh and spirit, between the carnal and spiritual natures. Ellen G. White writes:

It is only by long, persevering effort, sore disci­pline, and stern conflict, that we shall overcome. We know not one day how strong will be our con­flict the next. So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained.—The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 560, 561.

Refusal to confess and repent of inci­dental sin after conversion is to "serve sin." Paul explains: "Our old man is crucified with him, . . . that henceforth we should not serve sin" (Rom. 6:6). Refusal to con­fess and repent of sin after conversion is to make provision for the flesh, and the Bible instructs: "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to ful­fill the lusts thereof" (Rom. 13:14). Refusal to confess and repent of sin after conver­sion is to let sin "reign" in one's mortal body, and Paul stresses: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof" (Rom. 6:12). The refusal to permit sin to reign again is a refusal to resurrect the old man in the sense of projecting the individual back into an unregenerate condition, for it is a refusal to return to the old life of habit­ual sinning.

Habitual Sinning to Habitual Obedience

We therefore conclude that the death of the old man is initial conversion. It is the change of the trend of the life from one of habitual sinning to one of habitual obe­dience. Incidental sinning after initial con­version does not resurrect the old man in the sense of restoring the old life of habit­ual sinning. The old man is resurrected only by a rejection of Christ, by a refusal to repent of sin, by apostasy. Daily conver­sion is the process by which, in the strength of Christ, the carnal nature is kept in sub­jection to the spiritual, a process commonly known as "sanctification," and spoken of in 2 Corinthians 4:16: "For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day." Daily conversion, an event distinct from initial conversion, is spoken of by El­len G. White as follows:

Our brethren should understand that self needs to be humbled and brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. The Lord calls upon those of us who have had great light to be converted daily.—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 165.

And again,

You need a fresh conversion every day. Die daily to self, keep your tongue as with a bridle, control your words, cease your murmurings and com­plaints, let not one word of censure escape your lips. If this requires a great effort, make it; you will be repaid in so doing.—Testimonies, vol. 1, p. 699.

The New English Bible, New Testament. (7) The Dele­gates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961. Reprinted by permission.


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ERWIN R. GANE, Department of Religion, Union College

November 1966

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