What’s this bit about “sinful nature”?

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Two questions:

  • Does a Christian still have a sinful nature?
  • Did Adam’s sin cause everyone to be born with a sinful nature?

A definition: I’m understanding sinful nature to mean: an inner identity that naturally tends toward sin.

To supplement my original questions:

  • Is it correct to consider Adam our federal head–that he is our representative and, since he as our representative died, we also died “in” him? (Similar to how we say Christ is our representative and that we participated in his death and resurrection.)
  • If so, are we being punished for Adam’s sin? Or are we only judged for our own sins (into which we have been led, thanks to Adam’s influence)?
  • Would it be more accurate to say (with Rom. 5) that Adam’s trespass brought sin into the world (rather than that it gave us a sinful nature) and that sin overpowers us and reigns over us? If so, then when we die with Christ in conversion, what dies is not so much a sinful nature that by its very nature was guilty, but a powerless self that was ruled by sin. This seems to better fit the vocabulary of Romans (sin reigning over the Spirit-less man and taking up residence in our flesh, contaminating it–but no mention of a sinful nature) and also seems to make better sense of the idea of children not being accountable for their sins.

gift-from-adam1

Sinful nature is, arguably, not a biblical term. The phrase is never found in the KJV, nor in two of my favorite modern translations, the NASB and the ESV. Even the latest version of the NIV now only contains that phrase twice (both in Romans 7, where the actual word is sarx–“flesh”). So if we want to affirm the concept of a sinful nature, we will need to deduce it from other terms, much as we deduce the concept of the Trinity from various texts that describe the unity and divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the closest Paul comes to directly mentioning a sinful nature is when he says that we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). But in the same context he describes our sinfulness as a combination of outward realities and of the flesh–no mention of a sinful nature. He says we are “dead” Ephesians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) Buy on Amazon (“alienation from the one who gives life,” a relational problem), “under the control of the age of this world” and “under the control of the ruler of the realm of the air”1 So our outward sin problem is that we are separated from God and under the control of the world and the devil. The inner aspect of sin Paul locates in our flesh, not in some sinful nature: “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body [literally, flesh] and of the mind.” We were “children of wrath” when the world, our flesh, and the devil met apart from Christ’s saving presence. In this context, sin ruled us, leaving us “dead” under God’s wrath. Notice also that this passage speaks only in the past tense: Paul does not say that Christians are still “by nature children of wrath,” let alone that they still have a sinful nature.

It seems to me that sinful nature tends to blend together what Paul carefully separates when he says, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20). Sinful nature, though usually phrased as something we have, is sometimes treated as an identity, as if sinful nature = I. But Paul says sin = an it inside of I.

Another way of getting at my central question here is to ask these questions:

* Do we sin because we are sinners?
* Or are we sinners because we sin?


Perhaps neither, ultimately? Perhaps we sin because, apart from God’s Spirit, we are powerless in this post-Adamic world where sin and death reign. Then secondarily, because we sin, we are sinners.

Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) Buy on Amazon Another factor that got me thinking along these lines was reading a brief essay summarizing what the Bible says about the Book of Life. Perhaps all initially are written in Book of Life and only removed later by God when they have filled up the measure of their sins. From that essay:

“Everyone starts out in the Book of Life. It is a book of the living, and all who are born originally appear in it…. All who come into the world have the potential for eternal life… but most ignore, reject, disdain, put off, or otherwise forfeit that potential—and so their names are eventually blotted out of the Book of Life…. Their rejection of [God] eventually earns them rejection from being listed among the living.” Note: “One could argue that the time of blotting out would be when they died, once they no longer had any opportunity to retain their names in the Book by trusting Christ for their eternal life, but the Bible does not speak to the question of when blotting out occurs” (Douglas Stuart, “Excursus: The Book of Life,” Exodus, pg. 688).

Mennonite Confession of Faith Buy on Amazon The 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith tries to get around the problem of guilty-because-we-have-a-sinful-nature by saying:

“Although men are sinners by nature because of Adam’s fall, they are not guilty of his sin. Those who perish eternally do so only because of their own sin…. We believe that children are born with a nature which will manifest itself as sinful as they mature. When they come to know themselves to be responsible to God, they must repent and believe in Christ in order to be saved.”

I think that is essentially accurate, depending on how you understand nature. Perhaps it would be more clear and accurate (and more helpful for understanding the biblical perspective that children are not accountable for their sins) to say:

“Because of Adam’s sin, children are born into a world ruled by sin. They are powerless against sin and fall under its rule. As they mature they become aware of good and evil (see Is. 7:16). They also become aware of God’s Law (Rom. 5:13, “sin is not counted where there is no law”; Rom. 7:9 “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died”; etc.). As this awareness grows, they become accountable for their sins. If they refuse to repent and trust in Jesus throughout their lives, eventually God in his own time will remove them from his Book of Life.”

In summary: I wonder if it might be more biblical to say we are ruled by sin (as an external force that takes up residency in our flesh) rather than saying we are born with a sinful nature.

The above way of thinking about sin reigning (a powerless old man instead of a sinful nature) and the accountability of children would also have repercussions for evangelism of older children. The “sinful nature paradigm” I have grown up with suggests that children go from saved to damned to born again. The “sin reigning paradigm” would allow for this progression: saved to awareness of danger of losing that security but not yet damned to born again. Thus in coaching children to trust in Christ we would not be so much waiting until they gain consciousness of sin and then telling them “You are sinners who are currently worthy of hell” but rather, when that consciousness of sin begins to arise, we might say: “Do you know why you sin? Sin is a powerful force within you that drives you to do what you don’t want to do. If you place your trust in Jesus and turn away from sin, your old powerless self will die and you will be born again with the powerful Spirit of God inside of you, giving you victory over sin. That way you never need fear the wrath of God. However, if you refuse to trust in Christ, God will eventually–we don’t know when–judge you worthy of eternal death.” Explaining all that (beginning with the basic awareness of why they sin, gradually explaining the hope of the gospel) would be more of a process than a single child-evangelism event. And, if the child responds in faith throughout, it might be right to say they never were “lost.”

Hmm… That’s called thinking aloud.

  1. Definitions and translations by Clinton Arnold, in Ephesians (Zondervan, 2010, pages 129-30).

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