Man’s Sin Nature

The Bible does not teach that man’s nature has changed since the fall, despite the concept of man’s sin nature becoming widely accepted due to its propagation through certain theological systems. Some modern English versions of the Bible, including the NIV, have erroneously used the English phrase “sin nature” or “sinful nature” for the Greek word sarx , which is correctly translated ‘flesh’, imposing a sense that does not exist in the text itself.

Man’s nature had always included the capacity to sin, yet at creation God declared his creation to be ‘very good’.[1] Adam’s original sin therefore was not a result of his nature except to the extent of his ability to commit it. Then as now, man’s sin was a direct result of man following “the desires of the flesh, the desires of his eyes, and the pride of life.”[2] It was a conscious and deliberate choice to follow his fleshly urges and human thinking rather than to trust and obey God. Man made himself a sinner by sinning.

Throughout time, man has continued to have the choice to follow his own desires or to hear and obey God. In every case, men have repeatedly chosen to follow their own desires – to walk after the flesh.

Death entered the world by the first man’s first sin, passing to all his offspring regardless of whether they had “sinned after the manner of Adam.”[3] A newborn child may die, despite no conscious sin on his part. It is not a punishment for his offenses, as where there is no knowledge, sin is not imputed [4]; but a consequence of being the physical offspring of Adam. [5]

People argue that children are born sinners; we don’t have to teach them to sin, they start right out doing so automatically as soon as they are able. I suggest this is a self-serving statement. Children are born physical beings with physical urges they are unable to meet for themselves, and no conscience of the need to temper their responses to them. Without knowledge, there is no sin; they are incapable of considering an alternative. The argument is that we don’t have to teach a child to lie, be selfish, disobedient, to fight – that they just do so automatically. But this is begging the question, and does not square with experience quite as neatly as some would like. It is also very convenient for parents to evade responsibility for the behaviour of their children by foisting it onto their ‘inherently wicked nature’ rather than the parents’ example and instruction, and the influences they allow in their growing children’s lives. A single example that fails to follow the trend demonstrates this idea to lack truth.

Bearing in mind that obedience necessarily requires the precondition of knowledge and comprehension, children will need to be taught before they are able to obey. They have to learn that beyond themselves are ‘beings’ – it is not selfish to only consider one’s own urges when one is alone. An infant is not aware of the ‘being-ness’ of others. They only comprehend their own senses and that only in a limited, experiential manner.

In Isaiah 7:16, God refers to a time “… before [Christ] would know to refuse the evil and choose the good…..” We know that at no time did Jesus fail to be God in His very nature, and despite being human, He bore in Himself absolutely no hint of sin. Yet He as human had a time when He did not know to choose between evil and good. While it might be romantic to suggest that in His divine perfection as a baby, He never cried when physically uncomfortable or disturbed, there is no Scripture remotely suggestive of this idea and no Biblical reason to even consider it. According to God, where there is no knowledge, nor the awareness or ability to see or understand, there is no sin, and there is a time in human life when that awareness does not exist. The natural state of Christ in infancy was not sinful by being human, nor by functioning in the same manner as every other human infant. We can conclude that an infant is therefore not sinful in its nature merely by being human or behaving as an infant, otherwise Christ would necessarily have possessed the same sin nature as every other human baby, which we know He did not. The argument that babies are sinful by nature falls on Christ’s example alone.

We have two children. By the time they consistently understood our instructions, they were generally obedient. Both children were kind, they did not whine or fight, they welcomed everyone as a friend, and never lied. This does not mean they did not think up things they ought not to do; we still had to teach them what was right and wrong. For instance, it was necessary to teach our youngest that it was not appropriate to take something she wanted from the elder, but once she learned this, she stopped doing it. Was this ‘sin’ in her heart, or was it childish response to the ‘lust of the eye’ – the following of the flesh, which is what a toddler naturally knows? ‘Foolishness’ in the heart of a child needs to be corrected, but it is not sin.

Our children never lied –until they started public school. Even when began to do what they should not do, they would come and tell us what they had done, and what had happened. It was not until they witnessed their peers lying to get what they wanted, or to get out of trouble that our son first tried a lie. It was so out of nature for him, that it was immediately obvious that he was lying. Our son had to learn to lie; he did not witness it at home, and did not do it until he learned it outside the home. I would suggest that an honest examination by parents of their own behaviours, expressed attitudes, and the multitude of influences from family and friends, media and neighbourhoods, will reveal the source of instruction in most if not all of the sinful behaviours their very little children acquire – demonstrated and taught by the environment in which they grow.[6]

In the purely natural realm, there is nothing sinful in and of itself, because there is no basis for morality. Morality is a spiritual issue, defined by God Himself. His nature is the embodiment of all that is good, and everything contrary to His nature is necessarily wicked. The Bible is clear that humanity is not merely a ‘natural’ creation, but created in God’s image,[7] we are also spiritual, and we are called to live as spiritual in complete submission to and fellowship with God Himself.[8] For men to do otherwise is sin. If we live as ‘natural men’, following the fleshly desires that are the natural product of our flesh, rather than following God, it is sin.

The problem then is not that we have a new sin nature [as Calvinism teaches] but that we have the same tension as our first parents – fleshly desires that war against the spirit, with the same capacity to choose to follow the flesh instead of trusting and obeying God. There is no change in the nature of a man, and no change in the conflict. What changed when Adam first surrendered to the flesh was the introduction of sin into human experience, and its resultant death.

Cain was not compelled by his nature to kill his brother; each of he and Abel made their choice to please God or please themselves. Lamech chose to murder a man, and plead his excuse. Enoch chose to ‘walk with God”. In no instance does the Scripture state or infer that Adam’s sin rendered his offspring degenerate reprobates. In fact God’s rebuke to Cain soundly refutes the idea: “Why are you angry? If you do well, shall you not be accepted? And if you do not well, sin lies at the door, and its desire is for you, but you shall rule over it.”[10] It was clear that Cain had a choice, and the ability to exercise his choice, which he did with devastating results. Cain preferred his fleshly desires – lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life – over a holy faith towards God.

This is the essence of Paul’s treatises in Galatians 5 and 6, and Romans 8. “Walk in the spirit and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do what you desire….and those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and desires … do not be deceived; he who sows to his flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” Very clearly, we have a choice to make; we will live either according to the Spirit of Christ or our own fleshly desires. According to our choice, we shall either live or die.[11]

[1] Gen 1:31
[2] Gen 3:6; 1 Jn 2:16
[3] Rom 5:12-14
[4] Rom 5:13; John 9:3; John 9:41; Jn 15:22, 24; Rom 3;20
[5] Rom 5:12; 1Cor 15:22
[6] Matt 18:5-7
[7] Gen 1:26-27
[8] Rom 8; Gal 5,6
[9]James 4:4
[10] Gen 4:7
[11] Rom 9:13