MAN’S PROBLEM AND GOD’S PROVISION:
SPIRITUAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL?
BY: JAMES A. FOWLER
A study designed to clarify that man’s need of renewal is spiritual rather than psychological.
The waters of human thought are so muddied by humanistic premises, and “evangelical humanism” has so muddied the theological waters, that it is difficult to understand what others are talking about and how they are using the terms and vocabulary that they employ. It leads to a morass of semantic confusion!
In particular, there is much confusion concerning the failure to distinguish between the spiritual and the psychological. This is a result of the failure to distinguish between the spirit and the soul of man. In I Thess. 5:23 Paul writes, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete unto the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The writer of Hebrews states that, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit…” (Heb. 4:12) Differentiation is obviously made between spirit and soul.
The question to be considered in this study is whether the predicament of mankind, and thence the solution of God to the predicament of mankind, is specifically spiritual or psychological. Such clarification will have numerous ramifications for the presentation of the gospel.
We will commence by attempting to illustrate and document what the Scripture indicates concerning the spiritual problem of mankind and the spiritual provision of God for man’s spiritual problem. Then we will compare what appears to be a predominate psychological emphasis most prevalent in evangelical teaching today.
The “spiritual condition” of the unregenerate, those who are not Christians, is characterized in Scripture by the following designations (though not exhaustive):
(1) Spiritual death. The unregenerate are said to be spiritually dead. This was first explained to mankind in Gen. 2:17 when God said to Adam, “In the day that you eat thereof (from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”), you shall surely die.” Paul explains in Rom. 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”
This spiritual death which is predicated to all mankind because of Adam is historically explained by Paul in Romans chapter five: Rom. 5:12 – “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” Romans 5:15 – “…by the transgression of the one, the many died…” Romans 5:17 – “…by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one.” To the Ephesians Paul explains their pre-regenerate spiritual condition as “you were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1); “…dead in our transgressions.“ (Eph. 2:5)
This condition of spiritual death is not to be defined by merely the absence or privation of God’s spiritual life. It is an active death expression. In Romans 5:17, Paul explains that “death reigned” in all men because of Adam’s choice. The writer of Hebrews refers to “him having (present participle) the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Heb. 2:14). Spiritual death involves diabolic spiritual presence and activity.
(2) Made sinners. In explaining the “spiritual condition” of the unregenerate, Paul states in Romans 5:19, “through the one man’s disobedience, the many were made sinners.” Earlier in Romans 5:8 Paul wrote, “God demonstrates His love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” To his protege, Timothy, Paul noted that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (I Tim. 1:15)
It is due to this universal “spiritual condition” of having been “made sinners” that all men express sinful behavior in soul and body. We sin because we are sinners. All men inevitably express sinful behavior in thought and action because they are born physically with a “spiritual condition” of having been “made sinners.”
Again, this “spiritual condition” of being “made sinners” involves an activating resource of sin which is more than an impersonal “principle” of sin. There is a personified actuator who “reigns” in us as a false-lord, and to whom all unregenerate are subject. Paul indicates in Romans 3:9 that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;” not just under the indictment of, or the penal consequences of sin, but under the personal reign of one who actuates sin. In Romans 5:21, Paul explains that “sin reigned in death,” and later in chapter six he states that sin can “reign” in our mortal bodies (12) and can “master” us (14), obviously personifying sin. Jesus, Himself, indicated that the unregenerate were “slaves” of sin. (John 8:34,35)
(3) Unrighteous. In terms of their spiritual identity the unregenerate are referred to as the “unrighteous.” Paul reminds the Corinthians that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9), but goes on to point out that the “spiritual condition” of the Corinthian Christians had undergone a radical change: “but you were washed…you were sanctified, you were justified (made righteous).” (I Cor. 6:11) In II Peter 2:9, Peter writes that “the Lord keeps the unrighteous under punishment for the Day of Judgment,” contrasting such with the “spiritual condition” of the “godly.”
(4) Evil. There is an indwelling evil in the spirit of the unregenerate. Matthew records Jesus as saying, “the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil.“ (Matthew 12:35) Evil behavior is derived from an inner “evil treasure.” Elsewhere Jesus refers to those “being evil” in contrast to God’s activity (Matthew 7:11; Luke 11:13). This spiritual condition of “being evil” is a result of spiritual identification with the Evil One. I John 5:19 – “the whole world lies in the Evil One.”
(5) Deceitful heart. The spiritual condition, i.e. the heart, of the unregenerate individual is “not right before God.“ (Acts 8:21) The prophet Jeremiah explained that “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9) The unregenerate heart is “deceitful” because the Deceiver is functioning therein. The unregenerate heart is “wicked” because the Wicked One is at work therein.
(6) Nature. The spiritual condition of the unregenerate has to do with the nature of the spiritual personage who indwells their spirit, the spirit with whom they are identified spiritually. Jesus referred to those who were “of their father, the devil” (John 8:44). John later identified them as “children of the devil.” (I John 3:10) The apostle Paul refers to the unregenerate condition of the Ephesians, reminding them that they were “by nature children of wrath.“ (Ephesians 2:3)
(7) Old Man. The spiritual identity of the unregenerate is referred to as “old man.” Such a spiritual identity has to be “laid aside” (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9), yes “crucified” (Romans 6:6), in order for a person to be regenerated and become a Christian.
All of these Scriptural designations can be summed up in the theological terminology of “spiritual depravity.” Depravity, as properly defined, is the spiritual condition of fallen man apart from the regenerative and sanctifying work of God’s Holy Spirit.
Such a depraved “spiritual condition” in the unregenerate will inevitably manifest itself in “behavioral expressions” within the soul and body of the unregenerate. Their active “spiritual death” will issue forth in “dead works” (Hebrews 6:1; James 1:15). As “sinners,” they will manifest sinful behavior. Because they are “unrighteous” they will manifest unrighteous behavior; they will “obey unrighteousness” (Romans 2:8). “Being evil” in spiritual condition, there will be “evil deeds” (John 3:19; 7:7). The deceit and wickedness of their heart will issue forth in deceitful and wicked behavior. Their “nature of wrath” will be evidenced in behavioral expressions of wrath and anger (Galatians 5:19-21). The behavioral “fruit” will reveal the spiritual “root.” “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus said. (Matthew 7:20)
Further explanation needs to be made concerning the God-given “desires” of the soul and body. As part of our created humanness God gives every person basic human desires such as the desire to eat, sleep, belong, etc. These desires are amoral; there is nothing wrong or inherently evil about these desires. But in light of the spiritual personage functioning within the unregenerate, these desires become warped and twisted through diabolic misuse and abuse. From the very beginning of our lives these desires are fulfilled in self-oriented ways. They thus become “fleshly desires” (I Peter 2:11) or “desires of the flesh.” (Ephesians 2:3; Romans 13:14) There is a diabolic development of a pattern of selfishness and sinfulness (of unrighteous, evil, deceitful and angry behavior), in consistency with Satan’s desires (John 8:44; I John 2:16). This developed patterning of our desires, this “warp,” these developed inclinations and tendencies and propensities toward sin and selfishness; this is the behavioral condition that Scripture refers to as the “flesh.” (cf. Romans 7:18-25; Galatians 5:16-24) Every person has their “own desires” (James 1:14); their own idiosyncracies of patterned selfishness and sinfulness. Your “bent” toward sin is different from mine, and vice-versa.
What happens when an individual is regenerated, “born from above?” (John 3:3, 7) What is the “spiritual condition” and consequent “behavioral expression” of the Christian?
A radical spiritual exchange has taken place in the individual who is regenerated. The Scriptures explain the “spiritual condition” of a Christian with these designations:
(1) Spiritual life. Instead of the actuating, generating power of death, the Christian has spiritual life. Jesus explained His redemptive mission as, ‘I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). He further explained, “I am the way, the truth and the life.“ (John 14:6) Paul states that we have been “raised to newness of life” (Romans 6:4), wherein “Christ is our life.“ (Colossians 3:4) The apostle John writes, “we have passed out of death into life” (I John 3:14); “he that has the Son has life; he that does not have the Son of God has not life.“ (I John 5:12) The spirit of the Christian is alive (Romans 8:10) with the life of Jesus Christ.
(2) Saint. Instead of the spiritual condition and identity of “sinner,” the Christian has the spiritual condition and identity of a “saint.” Like the Romans Christians, we have been “called to be saints.“ (Romans 1:7) We have “His inheritance in (us as) saints.“ (Ephesians 1:18) A saint is one who has been “made holy” by the presence of the Holy One, God in Christ in us.
(3) Made righteous. Instead of a spiritual identity as “unrighteous,” the Christian has been “made righteous.” The contrast in Romans 5:19 demands a spiritual interpretation: “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so, through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Later in the epistle to the Romans Paul notes that “the spirit is alive because of righteousness.“ (Romans 8:10) To the Corinthians Paul writes, “Christ Jesus…became to us…righteousness” (I Corinthians 1:30); and then on another occasion, “He made Him who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:21) The Ephesians are told that they have become new creatures “created in righteousness.“ (Ephesians 4:24) This righteous spiritual condition is a result of “Jesus Christ, the Righteous” (I John 2:1) living in the Christian.
(4) Good. Instead of an evil spiritual condition because of the evil treasure of the Evil one, Christians have a “good treasure” indwelling their spirit, designed to bring forth what is behaviorally good. (Matthew 12:35) This spiritual treasure is the presence of Jesus Christ in our earthen vessels (II Corinthians 4:7). As Jesus explains elsewhere, we have become “good seed… sons of the kingdom.“ (Matthew 13:38) Our spiritual condition can be called “good” because the God of all goodness dwells in us.
(5) New Heart. Instead of the spiritual condition of a “desperately wicked heart,” Christians have the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s promise. We have been given “a new heart, a new spirit has been put within us, God has put His Spirit within us.“ (Ezekiel 36:26, 27) The Spirit of God in Christ Jesus has been sent forth into our hearts (Galatians 4:6; II Corinthians 1:22), and has “shown in our hearts” (II Corinthians 4:6). God’s laws have been written upon our hearts (Hebrews 8:10; 10:16) in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:33.
(6) Divine Nature. Instead of the “nature of wrath,” Christians “have become partakers of the divine nature.“ (II Peter 1:4) The very nature, essence and character of God dwells in us.
(7) New Man. Instead of having a spiritual identity as an “old man,” we “have put on the new man” identity. (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10) We have become “new creatures in Christ, the old things have passed away, behold new things have come.“ (II Corinthians 5:17)
In summation it can be said that Christians are no longer “depraved;” rather, they have the Holy Spirit of God indwelling and functioning within them. A radical spiritual exchange has taken place in the spirit of the Christian, an exchange of spiritual personages (Acts 26:18). This spiritual exchange has been accomplished for us by the “finished work” of Jesus Christ on the cross, when He exclaimed “It is finished” (John 19:30); “I’ve paid the price; I’ve accomplished the restoration of God in man.”
In the soul and body of the Christian there are to be consistent “behavioral expressions” of our new “spiritual condition.” The “saving life of Christ” (Romans 5:10) is to become operative in “abundant life” (John 10:10), as we “live through Him” (I John 4:9) and the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal bodies (II Corinthians 4:10,11). Our spiritual “saintliness” as “holy ones” is to be evidenced in holy behavior that exhibits God’s Holy character (I Peter 1:15, 16), and we share His holiness (Hebrews 12:10). Jesus Christ, the Righteous One in us, wants to use our members as “instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13) to manifest the fruit of righteousness (James 3:18). As the good treasure within us, God wants to exemplify His character of goodness in “good works” (Ephesians 2:10) derived only from God (II John 11). By the laws written upon our new heart, Christ the Law-keeper desires to express the character of God indicative of His nature in our behavior.
Oh yes, Christians still have those warped “desires of the flesh,” those patterned propensities of selfishness and sinfulness within the soul and body, even though they have been spiritually regenerated. As Christians we are to engage in the process of re-patterning those desires through the “renewing of the mind.” (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23) It took time to develop those old patterns; it will take time to re-pattern those desires consistent with God’s desires so that the God-given desires can be fulfilled in God’s way.
In the meantime, the tempter tempts us via those desires (James 1:14, 15), which he abused, misused and patterned in accord with his desires. But the Christian should not view the “flesh,” that old patterning of selfishness and sinfulness, as a “bogey-man” inside of us. Paul writes in Romans 8:9 that “we are no longer in the flesh,” that is obligated to fulfill those selfish desires. To the Galatians he writes, “we have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.“ (Galatians 5:24) We are to consider the members of our body as dead to the behavioral outcomes of those desires (Colossians 3:5).
Satan has no rightful authority or power over the Christian, or else the cross was not effective. (Hebrews 2:14; I John 3:8) “Greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world,” writes John in I John 4:4. As Christians we need to understand the position of victory we have in Jesus Christ because of the spiritual exchange in our spiritual condition and the indwelling Spirit of Jesus Christ.
In contrast to the above documented explanation of man’s problem and God’s solution being spiritual, there is an abundance of popular religious teaching today which fails to understand spiritual realities, and instead relegates man’s problem to a primarily psychological problem without any real remedies. Much of this is precipitated by a failure to differentiate the spiritual from the psychological, a failure to differentiate the spirit from the soul. In fact, there is an adamant obtuseness amongst evangelical theologians and teachers that refuses to consider the Biblical evidence of these differentiations and explains them away, and thus persists in perpetuating the problem of misunderstanding man’s problem and God’s provision in Jesus Christ.
Satan’s subtle lie is to draw people away from consideration of the “spiritual condition” of the unregenerate and regenerate, for he does not want to be exposed. So instead he encourages men to be engaged in psychological considerations of “selfism” within a theological system that might be called “Evangelical Humanism.”
Popular religious teaching often explains the condition of the unregenerate in the following manner:
(1) Spiritual death. The unregenerate person is regarded as spiritually dead, but the explanation given for this condition is that it is an inactive condition, a non-functional cessation of spiritual activity, a spiritual vacuum or spiritual void. Death is defined as merely the absence or deprivation of life. “Death is nothing!”
Satan, if they give him credence at all, is ambiguously regarded as removed in the mist of the “world,” influencing man via his “world system,” but having no personal contact or indwelling presence in the unregenerate.
The other Biblical designations are then explained as psychological phenomena pertaining to the soulical condition of man:
(2) Made sinners. It is explained that all unregenerate mankind were “made sinners” on the basis of Adam’s disobedience, but that this is a condition wherein mankind have been constituted sinful in the individuality of their soul or psyche. Sin is also defined as merely the absence or deprivation of godliness, a non-entity. “Sin is nothing!”
(3) Unrighteous. Unrighteousness is also considered as an inherent condition of the soul of all fallen men. Unrighteousness is defined as the absence or deprivation of righteousness.
(4) Evil. The personality of man in the soul is regarded as inherently evil. Evil is defined as the absence or deprivation of all good.
(5) Deceitful heart. The heart is identified with the soul, the behavior mechanism of man’s mind, emotion and will. This is regarded as inherently deceitful and wicked.
(6) Nature. The soul is regarded as containing or constituting an “old nature,” also referred to as “sin-nature,” “sinful human nature,” “Adam-nature,” etc.
(7) Old Man. The “old nature” is often equated with the “old man” designation, and explained as “the dirty old man” in every one of us.
Thus it is that the fallen condition of man is regarded primarily as a “psychological depravity.” This psychological condition is then identified as the “flesh,” an evil entity or power intrinsic to the psychological condition of all men because of Adam. Sometimes the intrinsic psychological evil is extended to an intrinsic physiological evil because the term “flesh” carries connotations of physicality. This, then, becomes the old Platonic idea of the physical body being evil. If our created humanness as soul and body is inherently evil, then God created evil beings and evil is attributable to God. Impossible! To explain away this logical conclusion, not wanting to attribute the generative and actuating source of evil to the devil, they then posit a “selfism” of self-generating sin, evil, wickedness and depravity in man. Will-power becomes the “power of sin” in contradiction to Hebrews 2:14.
The God-given desires of the soul and body are regarded as having been “bent” or “warped” to sin from the time of one’s physical birth. This psychological condition accords well with the understanding of secular humanistic psychology which advocates that people are born with a “bent” or “inclination” or “disease” of homosexuality, alcoholism, gambling, etc.
If man’s problem is primarily and predominantly a psychological problem instead of a spiritual problem, then the remedy must be psychological. Sigmund Freud is our savior! God forbid!
We proceed then to consider how popular religious teaching explains what transpires in regeneration:
(1) Spiritual life. At regeneration one receives “eternal life.” “The issue is life or death,” they say, not a spiritual exchange. But if spiritual death has been defined as inactive non-existence, then what is spiritual life? Is “eternal life” some”thing” in place of nothing? So often “eternal life” is portrayed as a product, commodity, entity or package dispensed by the divine benefactor, a “thing” called “eternal life.” This “package deal” is said to be but a deposit or down-payment on a futuristic eschatological heavenly objective. Such an inadequate explanation fails to account for the Biblical evidence that Jesus Christ is the personified spiritual life received at regeneration.
God is then viewed with a separated concept, not actually and actively living in the Christian, but removed in the mist of heaven somewhere and only in some general way influencing Christians to righteous behavior in accord with ethical and moral standards.
In popular religious teaching the soul of the regenerate individual is considered to retain the same psychological condition of the unregenerate with the same intrinsic psychological perversity and depravity. The psychological condition of the Christian is unchanged from that of his previous unregenerate function.
(2) Sinner. The Christian is regarded as yet still a “sinner.” Even though a “sinner saved by grace,” the psychological identity remains an identity based on one’s perverse condition and behavioral failures. “I am a sinner; I am a worm.”
(3) Unrighteous. The psychological condition of the Christian is considered to be still inherently unrighteous. If “made sinners” in Romans 5:19 is interpreted as a psychological condition, one has to interpret “made righteous” to be a psychological condition also, in order to be consistent. Unwilling to assert that they are “made righteous” in all their behavior (perfectionism), religious teaching since the Reformation has tended to view “made righteous” as merely “declared righteous” in a judicial, forensic sense by the Heavenly Judge. Such a concept of justification as merely “declared righteousness” easily degenerates in practical consideration to just a “legal fiction” whereby God views man “as if” he were righteous, and has no practical behavioral benefit to the Christian life.
(4) Evil. The mind, emotion and will (and sometimes the body) of the Christian are regarded as still essentially evil. Evil behavior is self-actuated by the inherent evil of man’s decision-making.
(5) Deceitful heart. The heart, identified as the soul, is regarded as still deceitful and desperately wicked. To regard the “new heart” as a phenomena of the soul would lead to some form of perfectionism.
(6) Nature. The Christian is regarded as retaining the so-called “sin-nature” or “Adam-nature” in the soul. If credence is given to the Christian being a “partaker of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4), then the Christian must have both an “old nature” and a “new nature,” and such is the popular religious teaching. As one (the so-called “old nature”) is considered to be a psychological phenomena, and the other (the “new nature”) is considered to be a spiritual phenomena, this is like comparing apples and oranges.
(7) Old man. The “old man” is said to be retained in the soul, and the believer is continually trying to “put on” the “new man” as a behavioral cover-up for the “old man.” What is this but the psychological process of “behavior modification?”
This mismatched and inaccurate comparison of “old nature” and “new nature,” “old man” and “new man,” engenders several damaging psychological processes in the Christian. First of all, it creates “schizophrenic duality.” The Christian individual does not know whether he has a spiritual identity or a psychological identity. “Am I really made new? Or am I just kidding myself, because everything seems to keep functioning in the context of the old behavioral condition?” Secondly, it fosters “paranoid uncertainty” as to what is motivating me to do what I do. “Is it my old nature or my new nature?” “How can I know the will of God anyway?” Thirdly, it leads to “antinomian excuses.” “Yes, I know I have received eternal life, but I can’t help sinning. It must be because of that ‘dirty old man’ still in me.”
Focusing, as they do, on sin-consciousness and one’s alleged intrinsic evil sin-nature, this religious system breeds several religious aberrations. Some engage in “confessionalism,” an obsessive need to be confessing one’s sins, even exaggerating those sins to create a contrasting sense of piety. Thus we see the “altar-athletes” who run to the so-called “altars” several times a week to confess their sins. For others the sin-consciousness leads to “defeatism” and lingering doubts of their salvation. “I don’t seem to ever be able to do it right.” “Perhaps I am not really a Christian after all.” Others turn to “masochistic crucifixionism.” Many mis-informed Christians are trying to beat themselves into conformity to an idealistic behavior pattern. They are constantly berating and belittling themselves for their ineffectiveness in the Christian endeavor with self-depreciation and self-deprecation for their inadequate self-efforts. They are told that they need to “die to self” or “crucify self.” The Bible never refers to a Christian needing to “die to self.” What it does say is that we are to “deny ourselves” (Luke 9:23), by resisting and saying “No” to the temptation of personal self-interest, selfishness, as we allow Jesus Christ to express His life and character in us.
The failure to differentiate between spirit and soul and the consequent psychological orientation of one’s theology creates an experiential focus that fosters subjectivism, experientialism, emotionalism and feeling-oriented religion. Such emphases make persons vulnerable to the “New Age” teaching of “finding oneself,” and to the perfectionistic teaching of a “second work of grace” to allegedly “finish” the work not finished at the cross or in regeneration. Such persons are also susceptible to a dominant personality who is willing to “play Holy Spirit” in their life and to continually advise what they should do next in order to overcome their psychological perversity and depravity. The formulas, techniques and procedures keep them on the performance treadmill trying to meet up to God’s expectations and trying to “change their lives.”
Popular religion has short-changed the glorious spiritual exchange of conversion and regeneration. They have watered-down the glorious reality of the indwelling Christ and His sufficiency to live in and through us, focusing instead on the retention of an alleged intrinsic and perverse psychological condition. They cannot appreciate the victory of restored life in Jesus Christ. The extent of their appreciation is: “It’s so nice that you got converted and received eternal life. It will serve you well when you get to heaven, but the present living is the ‘pits,’ unaffected by any spiritual phenomena.” Popular religion offers no real antidote to the present problems of life.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the “good news” of a radical spiritual exchange from Satan to God (Acts 26:18), whereby we are “complete in Christ” (Col. 2:10) as “new creatures” (II Corinthians 5:17) with the complete sufficiency of the “saving life of Christ” (Romans 5:10) operative in and through us, to demonstrate Christ-activated behavior to the glory of God. There is hope in Jesus Christ (I Timothy 1:1) for the restoration of mankind unto God’s intent, both individually and in collective society.
So to answer the question, “Is man’s problem and God’s provision, spiritual or psychological?”, I must conclude that the human problem and the divine provision are essentially spiritual. The essence of the gospel is that the Spirit of Christ can dwell in the spirit of man (Romans 8:9, 16), the reinvestiture of God in man, Christ in a Christian.
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.
MAN’S PROBLEM AND GOD’S PROVISION-Spiritual or Psychological [James A. Fowler] 1