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The Natural Man

1 Cor. 2:14: But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

The natural man is an unbeliever that lives a life in apparent, external accordance with God’s word. In contradiction to the Scriptural direction, he is tolerated in the churches. This was the case throughout most of the Christian era. R. J. Rushdoony in “Van Til and the Limits of Reason,” described the natural man as follows:

“Man outside Christ is, in terms of Scripture, a fallen and evil creature, at enmity with God, and yet many churchmen have seen him as basically a good man, needing only Christ to round out his life…

This perspective was present even among the Puritans. Thus, Thomas Hooker described “the civil man” as a paragon of public moral virtue,a man “outwardly just, temperate, chaste, careful to follow his worldly business, will not hurt so much as his neighbor’s dog, payes every man his owne, and lives of his owne; no drunkard, adulterer, or quarreler, loves to live peaceably and quietly among his neighbors,” even though hell bound, lacking Christ. Together with this, there was often a favorable view of reason. Such opinions were common in the medieval era, and in the Reformation and its churches.

What was the origin of such thinking? Given the plain speaking of Scripture on man’s sin and depravity, it seems strange that that this should that this should be so. The problem was that most people knew non-Christians within Christendom. These non-Christians took on the coloration of the Christian community. Just as to carry on business in an English-speaking country or community, one needs to know English, so within a Christian context the non-Christian has, until recent years, taken on the coloration of the community. For example, for a long time homosexuals were “in the closet” with respect to their vice; publically, they were a part of the general community, its churches, organizations, and activities. Society, as a result, for a long time did not know what a natural man is; some still do not know!

Given this situation, too many churchmen assumed that people are what they profess to be rather than what God in the Bible tells us they are. To insist on a Biblical doctrine of man is therefore seen as illegitimate when the “public evidence” indicates otherwise…

“Man’s fall, according to Scripture, is total, affecting all of his being. Even in the songs of Biblical worship, i.e., Psalms 14 and 53, we are told of the ungodly that none  do good, “Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Ps. 53:3). When songs of Israel include such statements, we know that this was a basic doctrine. But churchmen are no more faithful to the Bible than were the Jews. They do, of course, proudly retain Jesus in the church, but only after remaking Him in their own image.” [1]

While the nation’s culture was Christian, the natural man pretended to be a Christian but worked to change both the culture and the church. He did so through man-centered philosophies and their application to society. He went to church, perhaps served as a deacon or elder and was a model citizen outwardly. Inwardly, he was his own god; living for himself, perhaps even believing he will go to heaven when he dies. The churches did little to help this poor soul. They didn’t rebuke him for his pretence of faith but let him go through life thinking all was well with his soul while he remained in Satan’s cruel grip.

Van til goes on to show how toleration of the natural man in the churches led to the rise of rationalism as a philosophy, but he did not pursue its impact within the churches. But what effect does the presence of the natural man have on the churches? It has a tremendous effect!

Spiritual development, like physical or mental development is a difficult and time consuming process. It involves, in addition to much serious Bible study, a retraining of the inner man, his likes, dislikes and entire way of life all need to come into conformity to God’s standards. The new believer has a long way to go before he even begins to approach his potential as a representative of his Lord. His model is Christ but he also looks around at his fellows to see how he’s doing, how he stands relative to them.

The natural man provides an alternative, although false model of what a Christian should be and could be if he so chose. If not directly emulated by the true believers he rubs shoulders with, he can and often does, serve as an excuse for a lower standard of achievement. When the natural man is recognized as a fellow congregant the bar is lowered and the spiritual development of the assembly as a whole is impacted. A few such individuals, recognized as members in good standing, can seriously impact  the spiritual development of the entire assembly.

As Van til pointed out, this is no new problem; it is centuries old and has wreaked untold damage to the Christian cause. Here once again the Reformers compromised; they failed to alert the body of Christ to this serious problem in the churches and permitted the toleration of impurity within to continue.

The view of many churchmen is that the unbeliever is better off in church than out in the world; at least he is hearing the gospel and is exposed to the Christian culture, etc. but what does God say?

…deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus…

Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump…

Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person. (1 Cor. 5: 5,6,7, 13)

The wicked person (anyone demonstrably without Christ) is to be excommunicated, delivered to Satan for his own good, and put out of the assembly for the good of the community.

The individual is benefited in that he is confronted with the truth of his spiritual condition; he can no longer deceive himself and must now face-up to his lost condition. The community is benefited in that a sub-standard role model has both been exposed and also can no longer directly influence the congregation.

The long-term presence of the natural man within the Christian assemblies has severely limited the personal development and thereby the effectiveness of the Christian community as an influence on society in general. Much of the degradation in Western society over the past century can be attributed to this factor. Had the churches obeyed God’s directions, guarded their purity and rejected the natural man, the world would be very different today.

[1] R. J. Rushdoony, “Van Til & The Limits of Reason,” Chalcedon/Ross House, Vallecito, California