Some Brief Thoughts on the “Sin Nature” and Reader Follow-Up

Posted By on July 19, 2009

I decided I’d post a few quick thoughts on these items before the post on what happens to babies and other innocents. I promise, this is the last post on this part of the topic, unless I get an answer to its final sentence.

I’m still getting replies that amount to no more than a defense of the traditional Romans 5:12 view without answering my question: show me how you exempt Jesus from the guilt of Adam. Without that, the traditional view is worthless and, theologically aberrant when it comes to Christology. But, there was a good item for discussion: this thing we call the sin nature. I think it gets filed in the “things Christians all say they believe in but leave unexamined” file. I’ll be getting into this topic in depth at some point in the future, so I’ll just set the table for now.

The traditional view of the sin nature goes hand-in-glove with the traditional view of Romans 5:12. “Sin nature” = “the Adamic guilt we are all born with, and so we are born in a guilty condition before God, without ever havign sinned.” Let’s look at this.

If you’re following, you know my first response is, “That’s nice–did Jesus have a sin nature?” You can’t say “no” and retain the traditional view of Romans 5:12. Again, Jesus is 100% man, and he is explicitly called a son of Adam. Avoiding these facts isn’t a response.

Where is the “sin nature” in Scripture? Here’s where things get interesting. People usually refer to a verse like Ephesians 2:1-3, where Paul writes:

1And you were dead in the trespasses and sins2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (ESV)

It’s the “by nature children of wrath” part that the traditional view points to in defense of their view of Romans 5:12 and an original sin nature-the idea that we are condemned at the very moment of our existence by Adam’s guilt, transferred to us by God. Is that really what these verses SAY? It’s certainly the way they’ve been interpreted. Well, it’s not very complicated if you just look at the TEXT, rather than get the citation from a theology book.

Verse 1 says explicitly, “YOU were dead in the trespasses and sins…” In other words, your spiritual deadness is the result of YOUR sins and trespasses (I’m just repeating the text, look it up). And, of course, these are trespasses and sins the Ephesians actually COMMITTED in real time. The verse does NOT say, “you were dead in the trespass and sin of Adam.” In fact, the idea of INHERITED GUILT is nowhere in the passage. We have to put it there or read the text through that preconceived filter to get that. It just isn’t there.

Verse two continues the idea. “YOU were dead in our trespasses and sins IN WHICH YOU ONCE WALKED…” These are real sins that have been committed by YOU, not a sin committed by someone else (like Adam). Sins committed in real time are not a “condition” you were born with before you committed those sins. The text very plainly says we were dead in our own trespasses and sins. Adam isn’t in the text. Adam’s guilt isn’t in the text. The only condition in the text is the condition we’re in (“dead”). Now, the “spiritual death” view comes up. As I have detailed in the past, “spiritually dead” to someone who hold the traditional Romans 5:12 view means “condemned by Adam’s guilt before we are born,” or perhaps some notion of Adam’s “separateness” from God after being driven from Eden. As a sidebar: Isn’t it curious how Adam is driven from the garden (Gen 3:24) AFTER God makes atonement for them (Gen 3:21)? His separation was a punishment, it was not a spiritual condition, else we have someone who was atoned for still “spiritually dead” (separated from God). Just a thought there about how Genesis 3 is used (poorly, in my mind). Now, aside from the traditionalist idea, we can say that human beings are alienated from God. But they are alienated not because of Adam’s sin, but because of their own. They are under sentence of death if they do not believe in Christ-that is, they will suffer what Scripture calls “the second death”-an eternity under punishment outside of God’s presence (or annihilation). None of that has anything to do with Adamic guilt according to Ephesians 2 (or Romans 5:12). We can get there without the traditional view of Romans 5:12. (We just did).

Now we get to verse 3. Note that verses 1 and 2 lead up to verse 3 (I know that sounds a bit insulting). Note also that verses 1 and 2 therefore DEFINE what is meant in verse 3. Note thirdly that the words Adam, garden, Eve, are not in verse 3. Here is verse 3: “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” What does it mean to be “by nature children of wrath”? What prompts Paul to label us this way? Is it Adam’s guilt? No-he’s already told us-it’s OUR trespasses and sins, behavior that was not godly, but which fell in line with the rest of the lost world, and with the spiritual enemies of God. These trespasses and sins were the result of evil desires in “our body and mind.” OUR body and mind, not Adam’s. In verse 3, then the “nature” Paul speaks about involves our sinning-our inability to not sin, as I have said many times before on this topic. Further, ANY creature who is not God himself will have the inner propensity to sin-to act in defiance of the will of the Creator. Even angels are witness to this. We are born not with Adam’s guilt, but as inevitable and invariable sinners. We WILL sin after we are born into this world. We cannot do other, if allowed to live. That is our curse, condition, and “nature” that condemns us. It isn’t Adam’s fault, and it isn’t God’s fault for transferring the guilt of another to us. It’s OUR fault.

An interesting side note. The Greek word for “nature” in Ephesians 2:3 is phusis. If you search for the phrase “sin nature” in your English Bible, you may find it (not in the ESV). Typically, though, it is a theologically driven translation of Greek that says “old man” (as opposed to the “new man” Paul talks about). The word phusis does not occur in any verse with the word “sin” in the NT (hamartano or its noun counterparts). Likewise the Greek word most often translated “guilt” does not appear with the hamartano or its noun counterparts.1 The *real* biblical teaching about a sin “nature” involves at least two things: our “non God” nature described above (which has nothing to do with Adamic guilt transferred to us-we’ll sin without Adam just fine, thank you) and the “flesh” we live in (for Christians, that part of the human that is yet unredeemed). We’ll get to that topic at some point.

Lastly, if the traditionalist on Romans 5:12 is likewise trapped to get Jesus off the hook of a sin nature in Ephesians 2:1-3, what about my view? I’ve explained in earlier posts how Jesus DOES inherit the affect of what Adam did, in terms of mortality. Jesus also inherited a human nature that, left to itself, would sin. But Jesus’ human nature wasn’t left to itself. Ours is, because that is all we are: humans. Jesus was also 100% God.

Let’s think of this analogically before we go any further. As Christians, we are essentially inferior versions of the incarnate Christ. We have the Spirit within us, but our bodies are mortal – the “flesh” as Paul calls it, actively seeking the its natural desires in less-than-holy ways. We are conflicted since we have no divine immaterial nature in us-just the deposit (Paul’s term) of the Spirit) and, as Peter says, our fleshly desires are at war with that internal Spirit. Jesus was not conflicted. He had, as Paul tells us, “the fullness of the Godhead” inside his human body, which = full deity. He was the incarnated GOD. Nothing is superior in power or force to GOD, and so his deity overwhelmed any “less than holy” force exerted by his true human flesh. He was perfectly responsive to his deity. We are anything but perfectly responsive to the Spirit while in our flesh. But when the “internal us” (the “new creation” of 2 Cor 5:17) is finally married to our redeemed, transformed, glorified BODY, we will be whole. Still not full deity in flesh, but “like him” as sons of God, as John wrote in I John. Jesus gets off the hook in my view because he is God. I don’t need to exempt him from Romans 5:12.

But cannot the traditionalist argue the same? Cannot the traditionalist argue that Jesus was exempt from Adam’s guilt just because he’s God? No, he or she cannot. Here’s why.

My view has the power of deity overcoming any impulse to sin that comes from our humanness (“all those who are human will sin, and when they do, they become guilty before God”). What needs to be defeated is the impulse of the flesh. That isn’t the problem with the traditional view. The traditional view transfers the guilt of Adam to every human, thereby placing them in a CATEGORY (“those guilty before God because they are human”). They do nothing to be put into that category except exist. Even if incarnated-deity-Jesus never sinned (and he didn’t), in the traditional view, he’d still be in that CATEGORY because he’s human. In my view, one’s own sins produce guilt before God. In the traditional view, existing as a human means you’re guilty before God. Jesus existed. He was human. He is therefore guilty (and cannot be anything but guilty) before God.

Still waiting for any other view to get Jesus off the hook.

  1. Please note this was a brief search for the sake of illustration. I haven’t done a search for every conceivable word for sin or guilt in their semantic categories. I think the results will be the same if I did. At any rate, the terms I searched for are the words that show up in the verses offered in defense of the traditional understanding of Romans 5:12.

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13 Responses to “Some Brief Thoughts on the “Sin Nature” and Reader Follow-Up”

  1. cwmyers007 says:

    You still have not addressed the covenant context in Romans…I clearly answered your Jesus objection to Romans 5:12. I do not understand why you cannot see this: IN ORDER TO HAVE A SIN NATURE YOU MUST BE ‘IN ADAM.’ To be IN ADAM means that you are under the covenant headship of Adam. Jesus is never said to be united with Adam in this way. Because Christ is the head of a whole different covenant. Jesus has Adam’s humanity (so he can be called a son of Adam, but he is not his covenant progeny, so he cannot have his sin nature). The reason is simple to why this distinction must be made. There is nothing inherently evil about humanity the way God created it with Adam and Eve AND CHRIST. But THERE IS something inherently evil about the nature that Adam corrupted himself and passed on to all men who were united in Him. All God has to do to let Jesus free from Romans 5:12 is to NOT let Jesus be born in covenant union with Adam, but to use Adam’s humanity to create his own covenant head. A good analogy is Eve. God used Adam’s rib to create undefiled Eve. So God used Mary’s egg to create undefiled Jesus. The problem with your view is that you connect the passing of death in Adam’s mortality. However, the right view is that passing of death is connected to Adam’s corrupt nature which is passed to all those who are united in him.

    By the way, another serious error, when you say, “Jesus DOES inherit the affect of what Adam did, in terms of mortality. Jesus also inherited a human nature that, left to itself, would sin.”

    You are explicitly saying here that Jesus inherited a sin nature…this rings heresy bells because then Jesus is nothing of a “second Adam.” Adam had a undefiled nature and fell into a defiled nature. SO DID CHRIST have a undefiled nature (the contrast is that Christ DID NOT FALL into defilement). But you would have us to think that Jesus is UNLIKE Adam in this respect…he had a defiled nature that was kept at bay by his divinity. This is ludicrous. Be careful of the winding paths that you are about to follow into oblivion.

    I feel that you are under-read on the covenant context of Romans. I suggest you read some James D.G. Dunn and his Theology of Paul the Apostle, and N.T. Wright and his commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary among many other publications on the matter.

  2. cwmyers007 says:

    I forgot to mention that my view of Romans 5:18 laid out here:

    “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men [IN ADAM], so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men [IN MESSIAH].”

    Is perfectly in line with Pauls parallel in I Cor. 15:22

    “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

    Yours does not square. Your defense starts to decline when you start seeing that IN CHRIST and IN ADAM is referring to a UNION that demands a covenantal context.

  3. cwmyers007 says:

    A verse that contradicts you when you say that Jesus inherited Adam’s propensity to sin is this:

    Hebrews 7:26…For such an High Priest [Jesus] became us, HOLY, harmless, UNDEFILED, SEPARATE FROM SINNERS….

  4. DJR says:

    This is something that’s always puzzled me. It’s as if God was waiting for a human to beat the compulsion to sin, yet He knew immediately and prophesied in the garden concerning it that no one would be able but Christ, therefore He incarnated Himself into a sin nature and did it Himself. How has our case truly been adjudicated by Christ and Satans argument that we must inherit the same punishment as him been silenced? After all, no human ever did accomplish what Adam could not, technically. It took a God-man with the deity-overwhelming nature you described above to do it.

  5. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: nonsense – Jesus was all those things despite his humanity; he never sinned and was impeccable. You miss the point (and I don’t know how, it was so clear): HAD JESUS BEEN ONLY HUMAN … (it was crystal clear).

  6. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: one issue at a time; we’ll get to the universal language. You still haven’t gotten Jesus out of Adamic guilt, which is the real issue (and I have been painfully clear on that).

  7. MSH says:

    @DJR: I would rephrase this: “He incarnated Himself into a sin nature” to “he incarnated himself into humanity, which could not not sin” – more awkward, I know. But my point was that *if Jesus had only been human and not God* he would have sinned since he was human. But we know he WAS more than human, and perfect deity always overwhelms any human weakness, unless deity (Philippians 2) chooses to suffer some weakness of the flesh.

  8. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: As I noted to another responder: But my point was that *if Jesus had only been human and not God* he would have sinned since he was human. But we know he WAS more than human, and perfect deity always overwhelms any human weakness, unless deity (Philippians 2) chooses to suffer some weakness of the flesh.

  9. rode says:

    i made this exact point to fellow christians… some would answer that Jesus did not inherit Adam’s sin because he did not have a human i would then ask them if Mary’s genes/humanity was transferred to Jesus… because if it was then Adam’s sin would be transferred to Mary and then transferred to Jesus….so some would now say that Jesus did not have any Human genes from a human father or mother, that God “CREATED” himself in Mary’s womb, Mary was just an incubater(sp) and that this would explain how he was a Second Adam, created and not born from a female human…

    if i understood correctly, i agree with you that the only thing that Jesus inherited from Adam was the mortality, just as any other human. I “presume” that when God told adam that if he ate of the fruit of knowledge that he would certainly DIE, that he was referring to a physical death, cause just like you mentioned, God does atonement for their transgression, and then God leads Adam and Eve out of Eden so that they wont eat the fruit of the tree of life and LIVE ETERNALLY….

    now thru Christ we can live Eternally again because we will have access to the tree of life,,,

    please correct make any corrections necessary, blessings

  10. Lyn says:

    Thank you, thank you Dr. Heiser.

    This does make sense, once you stop to unthink your overly-sermonated thinker! It does. Very much so.

    Yeshua was so bonded to “My Father” (His Abba) that He took everything to Him. He showed us how to “bring EVERY THOUGHT captive” to Him (He set the example for us by doing this with His Father). We have been told that He was tempted in EVERY way, but it makes sense that He could avoid that temptation ONLY through His divinity. He could sin, but CHOSE not to!

    You will forgive me for this, but I (being Messianic) also believe that this is why He hammered into our skulls (or tried to), THE LAW! Because He knew it so well. He said “If you SEE ME–you SEE MY FATHER, WE ARE ONE”! He “cleaved” to His Father and to the laws that His Father laid down for humanity. But today, we insist that these laws no longer apply to us. Nearly all that He quoted to Satan was out of Deuteronomy or out of Isaih!

    Yes, the laws still apply–they do–but we are no longer “under” their penalty of death because Yeshua spreads Himself out as an umbrella (that’s Grace and Mercy)above our heads (pardon the word picture here) when we belong to Him and have accepted HIS sacrifice for our SINS. He even told us that He came NOT to do away with the Law but to “fulfill it”. Fulfill also means to complete something. When one “fulfills” his/her military obligation, it does NOT do away with the military. He kept ALL the LAW in order to show us how to do it. He set the perfect example, even though He knew NONE of us could do that–so He died in our stead as atonement.

    We are not genetically predisposed to sin through Adam, but rather genetically predisposed by virtue of simply being human. Were this NOT the case, then we would be paying the price not for our own sin but for that of our father(s). That was not the case, as you pointed out in most instances, although it could be when “corporate national/ family/tribal” sin was involved.

    What is being termed as sin nature is a human attribute and not an Adamic one. Just as not all of a human father’s attributes are inherited by every single one of his kids, neither was Adam’s propensity to sin automatically passed down to us.

    Even when sins were passed on through the family line (and I might be wrong in this), it was only to the “third and fourth” generations. That would mean that a “sin nature” could also not be passed down from Adam for more than that, at least, I would think. (?)

    Further that, had Yeshua not had the ability to have a “sin nature”…how then could He have incurred guilt for our sins on our behalf (although He remained sinless on His own) in order to die for us; without a sin nature, would His body/person have been able to even handle something as nasty as sin? A 100% human man (G-dman, in this case) without guilt, dying on a cross for guilty sinners would not have accomplished much, especially since it is SIN that brought death, both spiritual and physical, on.

    And, No…there might not be something inherently corrupt about human, nor in Adam and his progeny, however, throw in something called “free will” and just watch what happens to humanity. It even happened in the angelic realm. What good would creatures be without free will? They’d be robots. Yeshua took His free will and said “Father, NOT my will, but YOUR will be done”! That’s the difference.

    Wrong as I might be, thank you Dr. Heiser for making me think at 3:10 a.m. LOL Maybe exercising the old dunderhead will help. As Karen Dolan said “you do force people to s t r e t c h “.


    Lyn Walters

    ps…loved you interview with Dr. Future and Tom Bionic too.

  11. MSH says:

    @rode: I think you’ll see you’re tracking if you read all the posts on this.

  12. Kirby says:

    Romans 5:12

    The reason Jesus did not have a sin nature is because he did not have an earthly father. His Father was God. He was the “last” Adam, obviously superior to the first Adam.

    • MSH says:

      you apparently missed the problem with this in the post; sin isn’t transmitted through women; Jesus had plenty of male ancestors through Mary as well.

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