Putting off the Natural Man


President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) 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 he received from an angel of God. 2

The Doctrine of the Fall

In the profound discourse King Benjamin delivered at the temple, he taught 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 humankind? 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.

When Adam and Eve transgressed, they were cast from the Garden of Eden. At that point, they were cut off from God’s presence—so much so that the estrangement has been referred to as death.

Fortunately, the Savior was foreordained to atone for this estrangement. 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).

We do not believe, with John Calvin (1509–64), in the moral depravity of men and women. We do not believe, with Martin Luther (1483–1546), 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—sin, disease, and the other ills of mortality but not the original guilt of Adam—are transmitted to Adam’s posterity.

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,” 3 said Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The Natural Man

So what characterizes the natural man? Simply stated, the natural man is someone who remains in his or her fallen condition; he or she has not experienced a spiritual rebirth. At one end of the spectrum, the natural man may be a person who loves Satan more than God and thereby is carnal, sensual, and devilish (see Moses 5:13).

At the other end of the spectrum, the natural man may well be a moral and upright person bent on benevolence. Such a person, acclimated to the present fallen world, still does not enjoy the enlivening power 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, he or she has not followed it into the Lord’s full gospel truths.

“The whole world lieth in sin,” the Savior declared, “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).

So 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. 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).

    “How difficult it is to teach the natural man,” President Brigham Young (1801–77) 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.” 4

  2. 2.

    The natural man is proud. The natural man’s most distinguishing feature is pride. The look of the natural man is neither up (to God) nor over (to man), except as the horizontal glance allows him or her to compete with others.

    “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.” 5

  3. 3.

    The natural man is preoccupied with the rewards of this world. His or her values are derived solely from pragmatism and materialism. Such people find only temporary pleasure in having something. Soon they want more, and they want more of it than the next person.

  4. 4.

    The natural man yields 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.” 6 On the other hand, “the ‘natural man’ is the ‘earthy man’ who has allowed rude animal passions to overshadow his spiritual inclinations.” 7 Rudeness characterizes his or her relationships; crudeness fills his or her speech and manner.

Putting Off the Natural Man

King 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. We do not change our nature simply by attending meetings. The transformation is accomplished only as we choose to be changed through the mediation of Jesus Christ. As we repent, His Atonement pays for our sins, and the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost cleanses us and gives us a new nature. 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.

This renovation may be dramatic and rapid for some people. Such was the case with Enos (see Enos 1:1–8), with the Apostle 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 warned us. “Though they be 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.” 8

Day by day we begin to enjoy what Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit,” namely “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (see Gal. 5:22–23). 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 rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.” 9

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    A Witness and a Warning (1988), 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.

    The Promised Messiah (1978), 350.

  4.   4.

    Discourses of Brigham Young, selected by John A. Widtsoe (1954), 260.

  5.   5.

    “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, 4.

  6.   6.

    Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (1966), 101.

  7.   7.

    Spencer W. Kimball, “Ocean Currents and Family Influences,” Ensign, November 1974, 112.

  8.   8.

    “A Mighty Change of Heart,” Tambuli, March 1990, 7.

  9.   9.

    Mere Christianity (1960), 124.