What do Christian theologians mean by a “sinful nature”? Well, the phrase isn’t in the Bible as such, although the Bible does say that we were once “by nature, children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Augustine of Hippo, who had a vast influence on Christian theology in both Roman Catholic and Protestant camps, believed that since Adam fell, people are born with an inherently sinful moral nature which is passed down, as if through genetics from parents to children.
Some Bible translators have read Augustinian theology into some English translations, by translating the Greek word sarx (flesh) as “sinful nature”. You can see how the NLT translators did that here where we can compare various English translations of Galatians 5:17 which is about “the works of the flesh”. The translators of the NIV did the same thing in Romans 7:18. And so people naturally tie these things together with the Augustinian ideas about us being created in the womb with a rotten nature that can’t do good. And then we are to blame for producing what is “only natural” for us. But what if sin ISN’T natural to us? What if it is a perversion and what if our sinfulness is something that is a result of what every individual has chosen to do, not primarily a result of the nature we were born with? Is God right in expecting thistle plants to produce sweet grapes? If he really made us bad trees, thanks to someone else’s choice, then does He expect us to stop sinning? I explore this issue here and I make the claim that God made us with good natures and consciences that instruct us to do what is right. We are to blame because when we knew right, we followed a selfish path instead, against our God given nature.
Nevertheless, according to Romans 3:23 all have sinned (apart from Jesus Christ, who by the way was also descended from Adam). But although the reason for everyone making this choice has something to do with Adam’s sin (see Romans 5:12-19) it does not mean that we inherited a sinful nature from Adam, as Augustinian theology teaches. (By the way, Luther and Calvin were both followers of Augustine in many ways). There are other ways to explain this universal sin, which do not lead us to possibly question the goodness or justice of God.
I’m not denying that the vast majority of people, including many professing Christians, have a conscious awareness of a “sinful nature”. But the sinful nature we have (Ephesians 2:3) can well be the result of the moral choices we have made up until the present day. It is also possible for people to be confused, thinking that the demonic oppression they experience in life is really part of themselves. I think people from both sides of this historical issue need to give more attention to the role of demons in the sinful choices of human beings. The Bible says in the Majority text that people, when they sin, are drawn away by their own desires and enticed.
But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:14,15 NKJV)
The NU-text which is used in many modern translations doesn’t have the bit about enticed in the text, but the Majority text does. It is another example of the devil trying to cover his tracks and disempower the Word of God by subtly changing it. See also The Passage the Devil Wanted Out of Your Bible.
Even Cain was told by God that “sin was crouching AT THE DOOR. Its desire is to have you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7). Clearly Cain was already less than perfect at that stage – chiefly because he was not really seeking to please God with his whole heart. But God said that sin was crouching at the door. The sin had a personality and a desire. I believe it was really demons that were seeking to get into Cain. They needed Cain’s consent. Once Cain gave consent, the spirit of murder could operate through him to kill his righteous (not sinful) brother Abel. That is what happened. We can’t take out of this passage that Cain sinned and killed his brother because he was born with a sinful nature which basically obliged him to murder his brother. God’s Word teaches something quite different here. Cain had a choice. And Abel, who was also born after the fall, was righteous because he lived by faith in God and so sought to please God in the way he offered the firstling sheep to God.
When you give into sin on a habitual basis, you progressively corrupt yourself. Your moral character is perverted. You get enslaved to sin more and more. In this sense, you now have a sinful nature. But it is not the nature God formed you with, but rather a perversion of your nature which you are largely responsible for. Although many don’t want to accept it, we are actually responsible for the transgressions we do because we chose them. That is why we were by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). It is because, as it says in the previous verses,
in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind
Now if we are in Christ we are new creations and we live a new way. But we were “children of wrath”, not because we were “born that way” but because we chose to follow “the course of this world” – including the bad influences and examples around us, because of bad spirits working in us, and because we found and deliberately practiced unlawful ways to fulfil and pervert the desires of our flesh and mind. Note that the flesh and the mind are two different things here. We mustn’t be confused by the word “children” to take it to mean that little children, including infants (unbaptized), are all “children of wrath” as Augustine taught. The Bible clearly teaches in many passages that The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as little children (Matthew 18:3). Consider for example also the following verses:
16 Moreover Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides his sin by which he made Judah sin, in doing evil in the sight of the Lord. (2 Kings 21:16)
4 and also because of the innocent blood that he had shed; for he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, which the Lord would not pardon. (2 Kings 24:4 )
37 They even sacrificed their sons
And their daughters to demons,
38 And shed innocent blood,
The blood of their sons and daughters,
Whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
And the land was polluted with blood. (Psalm 106:37-38)
How could these children be considered innocent if they were already guilty of the sin of Adam and were in fact by nature children of wrath at the time they were sacrificed or slain by ungodly people?
Romans 5:12-19 and How Sin Spread to All Men
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)
18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)
This is a passage which has confused a lot of people, myself included. Nevertheless, we should make a distinction between what it says and what it doesn’t say. It DOES say that through Adam’s sin, sin came to all men. It also says that by Adam’s sin many died. What it does not say is exactly what type of death it is referring to – whether it is physical only, or spiritual death. It also doesn’t say exactly HOW sin spread to all men from Adam. It turns out we don’t need the Augustinian explanation to explain this.
Some say we are all born spiritually dead on arrival. But how does this square up with what Paul says in Romans 7:9-11, not once, but twice?
I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. 10 And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me.
How could Paul say he was alive once if Augustine was right and Paul was really born spiritually dead on arrival? Paul must be speaking of spiritual life, because in what sense could he say that “I died” if not spiritually? He was still physically alive. It seems that spiritual death does not come until a person knowing the right thing to do, deliberately chooses to do the wrong thing.
Getting back to the Romans 5 passage, it says that “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). It is important that it says death spread to all men, BECAUSE ALL SINNED. You don’t die spiritually unless you sin. But apart from Jesus, all have sinned once they get to the age where they can understand something of the moral law, and choose to reject it. Jesus had a human nature, but never sinned. The Bible says:
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
So death spread to all men because all sinned, not because Adam sinned. Adam’s sin did affect things greatly, and provided the occasion but not the actual cause of our sinful choices in life. Adam’s sin got Satan in as the “god of this world” and evil spirits began to get the upper hand with men time and time again every since the original sin of Adam. We were all weakened by Adam’s sin, and I believe almost all of us got born with demons attached to us, because of the idolatrous choices of our ancestors going back up to 4 generations (see Exodus 20:4-5). But our own nature, although weakened, was not made evil at birth. This is where we must part ways with Augustine and his theology, even if it costs us something in the eyes of men.
Death reigned from Adam to Moses because everyone (apart from Nephilim – offspring of fallen angels and human women – see Genesis 6) was born with a good nature and went AGAINST their nature and their conscience in order to sin, thereby perverting their nature, corrupting themselves and very likely opening the door to demonic oppression. They did sin, but not in the same way as Adam, because in general they were not given an explicit instruction or law directly from the mouth of God.
Paul then goes on to talk about the free gift of God through Jesus Christ results in justification, which is very good news for everyone who believes. It resulted from many offenses because many people sinned to put Jesus on the cross.
I would like to jump to verse 18 now.
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. (verse 18)
In what sense did condemnation come to all men through the one man’s offense? If it came automatically, without their active participation in sin, then using the same verse we should say that the free gift of God’s salvation comes automatically to all men, justifying them. That would mean we should be Universalists, believing that God will save all people because of Jesus, regardless of what they do. What I think this passage must mean is this: that just as Adam’s sin created the occasion or opportunity for all to sin, so the death of Christ creates the opportunity for all to enter into a new life by making the choice to embrace the cross of Christ as God wants us to. If you have a better idea, that is fine, but please explain from the verse in what sense the free gift does not come to men whereas judgment does. To me, the only explanation is that people enter into the kind of sin that Adam did – disobedience – but refuse to enter the life that Jesus Christ provided at the cross.
For more information on this, I suggest you take a look at Jesse Morrell’s book “Does Man Inherit a Sinful Nature?” which for now can be obtained for free by signing up to his newsletter at OpenAirOutreach.com.
I am aware that there are many other verses that Augustinians and Calvinists use to support the idea of Original Sin transmitting a sinful nature to us, but I hope to address these in later articles, God willing.