Putting Off the Natural Man: “An Enemy to God”

Sin thrusts us away from God into a life described as spiritual death. The following articles explore why and how we are reborn as children of Christ.

Putting Off the Natural Man:

President Ezra Taft Benson has observed that “just as a man does not really desire food until he is hungry, so he does not desire the salvation of Christ until he knows why he needs Christ.

“No one adequately and properly knows why he needs Christ until he understands and accepts the doctrine of the Fall and its effect upon all mankind. And no other book in the world explains this vital doctrine nearly as well as the Book of Mormon.” 1

One of the most important expositions on the Fall in the Book of Mormon was delivered by King Benjamin, who shared the doctrine as he received it from an angel of God. 2

The Doctrine of the Fall

King Benjamin’s teachings on the Fall and the Atonement were part of the profound discourse he delivered at the temple to his people, whom he described as a “diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord.” (Mosiah 1:11.) This timely treatise was not for slothful servants, but a dispensing of the “mysteries of God” (Mosiah 2:9) to the Saints, to enable them to receive “a name that never shall be blotted out, except it be through transgression.” (Mosiah 1:12.)

This prophet-king sets forth the particulars of that which had been revealed by the angel—that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam.” (Mosiah 3:19.) What is it that King Benjamin is saying about mankind? What is the natural man, and how may he or she be characterized? To answer these questions, we must first understand the ramifications of Adam’s fall.

The plan of salvation is designed, according to President Brigham Young, for “the redemption of fallen beings.” 3 This is a hard doctrine, and too often we attempt to soften it. That there is a plan of deliverance indicates there must be something from which we need redemption. The Fall is a companion doctrine to the Atonement, and there are no serious treatments of the Atonement in the Book of Mormon that are not somehow connected with the Fall.

We know that when Adam and Eve transgressed, they were cast from the Garden of Eden. At that point, their contact with God changed dramatically. They were cut off from His presence, so much so that the estrangement has been referred to as death. Elder Bruce R. McConkie summarized the effects of the Fall:

“Adam broke the law of God, became mortal, and was thus subject to sin and disease and all the ills of mortality. We know that the effects of his fall passed upon all his posterity; all inherited a fallen state, a state of mortality, a state in which temporal and spiritual death prevail. In this state all men sin. All are lost.” 4

Fortunately, the Savior’s redemption was foreordained to atone for these estrangements, first of all Adam’s. As the Lord consoled Adam: “I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden.” (Moses 6:53.) This declaration must, however, be understood in context. Because “the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children” (Moses 6:54), we must not conclude that we are unaffected by the Fall. Jehovah explained to Adam: “Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good.” (Moses 6:55.)

No, we do not believe, with Calvin, in the moral depravity of men and women. No, we do not believe, with Luther, that man does not even have the power to choose good over evil. And we do not believe that children inherit the so-called sin of Adam through either sexual union or by birth. Rather, children are born into a world of sin; conception is simply the vehicle by which the effects of the Fall (not original guilt) are transmitted to Adam’s posterity. Lehi taught Jacob that in the beginning God “gave commandment that all men must repent; for he showed unto all men that they were lost, because of the transgression of their parents.” (2 Ne. 2:21.)

As people sin, they die spiritually—”They die as pertaining to the things of the Spirit; they die as pertaining to the things of righteousness; they are cast out of the presence of God. It is of such men that the scriptures speak when they say that the natural man is an enemy to God,” 5 said Elder McConkie.

The Natural Man

So what characterizes the natural man? Simply stated, the natural man is the man who remains in his fallen condition; he has not experienced a rebirth. At the one end of the spectrum, the natural man may be a person bent on lasciviousness; he may be one who loves Satan more than God and thereby is carnal, sensual, and devilish. (See Moses 5:13.) Of such Alma said: “All men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.” (Alma 41:11; see also Mosiah 16:2–5.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the natural man may well be a “nice man,” a moral and upright person bent upon benevolence. Such a person, acclimated to the present fallen world, still does not enjoy the enlivening powers of the Holy Ghost and does not enjoy the sanctifying power of Christ’s covenants and ordinances. Even though the light of Christ is making an impact on him, he has not followed it into the Lord’s full gospel truths.

“The whole world lieth in sin,” the Savior declares, “and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin. And by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me.” (D&C 84:49–50.) More specifically, “There are none that doeth good except those who are ready to receive the fulness of my gospel, which I have sent forth unto this generation.” (D&C 35:12.)

And what of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Are any of us “natural” beings? We can answer that question, perhaps, by examining some broad characteristics of the natural man:

1. The natural man is unable or unwilling to perceive spiritual realities. Paul explained that “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.” (1 Cor. 2:14.) In exulting over the Lord’s willingness to snatch his children from evil and forgive their sins, Ammon said: “What natural man is there that knoweth these things? I say unto you, there is none that knoweth these things, save it be the penitent.” (Alma 26:21.)

“How difficult it is to teach the natural man,” Brigham Young declared, “who comprehends nothing more than that which he sees with the natural eye! … Talk to him about angels, heavens, God, immortality, and eternal lives, and it is like sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal to his ears; it has no music to him; there is nothing in it that charms his senses, soothes his feelings, attracts his attention, or engages his affections, in the least; to him it is all vanity.” 6

2. The natural man is proud. The natural man’s most distinguishing feature is pride, which, as President Ezra Taft Benson has noted, is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward man. The look of the natural man is neither up (to God) nor over (to man), except as the horizontal glance allows him to compete with his fellows.

“Pride is essentially competitive in nature,” President Benson explained. “We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of ‘my will and not thine be done.’ … The proud wish God would agree with them.” 7

3. The natural man is overly competitive and externally driven. The natural man is preoccupied with the rewards of this world. His values are derived solely from pragmatism and utility. Such people “are tempted daily to elevate [themselves] above others and diminish them.” There is no pleasure in “having something,” only in “having more of it than the next man.” 8

Samuel the Lamanite expressed the tragic end of those who spend their days pursuing such an agenda: “Your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Hel. 13:38.)

4. The natural man yields himself to the harsh and the crude. The Spirit of the Lord has a calming and quieting influence upon those who enjoy its fruits. As a sanctifier, the Holy Ghost “enlarges, expands, and purifies all the natural passions and affections. … It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity.” 9 On the other hand, the natural man “is the ‘earthy man’ who has allowed rude animal passions to overshadow his spiritual inclinations.” 10 Rudeness characterizes his relationships, crudeness his speech and manner.

Putting Off the Natural Man

Benjamin explained that the natural man remains an enemy to God until “he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:18–19.)

One does not put off the natural man by living longer. Nor does one change his nature simply by attending meetings. The transformation is accomplished only as one chooses to be changed through the mediation of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost, by means of gospel ordinances. In the language of President Benson, “The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.” 11

This renovation may for some be dramatic and rapid. Such was the case with Enos (see Enos 1:1–8), with Paul (see Acts 9), and with King Lamoni (see Alma 18–19). “But we must be cautious as we discuss these remarkable examples,” President Benson has warned us. “Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life.” 12

At the same time, we recognize that putting off the natural man is possible only through the grace and atonement of Christ. That is why the scriptures refer to the process as being born again. Having had our sins remitted, we die to the things of unrighteousness and are born of God to a new and higher spiritual life. We begin to enjoy what Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit,” namely “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (See Gal. 5:22–25.) We are humble and submissive—eager to know and carry out the will of the Savior, eager to have our own wishes swallowed up in the will of a Higher Being.

In the words of C. S. Lewis, this animation and renovation of human character “is precisely what Christianity is about. This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumor going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” 13

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

[photos] Photography by Melanie Shumway

Robert L. Millet lives in the Orem Sunset Heights Sixth Ward, Orem Utah Sunset Heights Stake. He serves as dean of religious education at Brigham Young University and as a member of the Church’s Materials Evaluation Committee.

Show References


  1.   1.

    A Witness and a Warning (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988), p. 33.

  2.   2.

    I am indebted to Curtis Wright, professor of library science at Brigham Young University, for his assistance with many of the concepts in this article.

  3.   3.

    Journal of Discourses, 1:1.

  4.   4.

    The Promised Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978), p. 244.

  5.   5.

    Ibid., pp. 349–50.

  6.   6.

    Journal of Discourses, 1:2.

  7.   7.

    Ensign, May 1989, p. 4.

  8.   8.


  9.   9.

    Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978), p. 61.

  10.   10.

    Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, Nov. 1974, p. 112.

  11.   11.

    Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 6.

  12.   12.

    Ensign, Oct. 1989, p. 5.

  13.   13

    , Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), p. 140.