Admittedly, we theologians can sometimes be annoying.
We often nit-pick over just the right way of phrasing a particular doctrine—and to non-academics especially, the habit evokes images of Hermione Granger pedantically correcting her classmates: “It’s Leviōsa, NOT Leviosar.”
Behind this concern, however, is a belief that language matters, and some words are simply better than others when gesturing toward Christian truth.
Case in point: “sin nature.”
More than once lately, I’ve read a book by a major evangelical publisher that makes reference to the allegedly foundational belief that all humans possess a “sin nature.” This claim is then taken to be so universally accepted—so basic to Christian theology—that it does not merit any evidence, explanation, citation, or supporting argument.
Our “sin nature” is taken to be a “Duh doctrine”—except it’s not.
The problematic phrase is partly the fault of contested translation in the original NIV (corrected in 2011), which rendered “flesh” (sarx) as “sinful nature.” Admittedly, Paul’s use of sarx is not easy to boil down for first-time readers. But the fact remains that neither Scripture nor the vast majority of Christian tradition ever claims that humanity has something called a “sin nature”–even as they remain insistent that our sin problem is indeed catastrophic.
AGAINST GOD AND NATURE
Tom McCall has a helpful critique of this phrase within his book-length treatment of the doctrine of sin, Against God and Nature (here). McCall is clear that all humans, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. And he offers a robust account of original sin that would make even a strict Calvinist nod gravely in approval. We can’t save ourselves. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). Pelagius was wrong.
But McCall also explains why it is problematic to assert that humans have something called a “sin nature.” Parts of the argument are too technical for a brief blog post, but others deserve attention outside of academia–since that’s where the phrase often appears.
Chiefly, to speak of all humans having a “sin nature” implies that sin is a concrete substance rather than a twisting or corruption of something good. To speak of our universal “sin nature” makes sin sound like a constitutional part of our anatomy—like a heart or brain—a physical thing that all humans have by virtue of being members of the fallen human race.
Unfortunately, this causes big problems for Christian theology.
It smacks of Gnostic heresy to imply that some constitutional part of our shared humanity is inherently sinful. That would seem to mean that at least one of the following is true:
- God authored sin or our sin nature.
- Sin or a sin nature existed eternally.
- Satan created this sin nature and placed it within us.
Christianity has long rejected all these options while maintaining that humans are indeed enslaved to sin in ways that require God’s gracious rescue. To disavow the concept “sin nature” is not therefore to reject concepts like original sin or even total depravity. On those points, Christians have long held that we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves.
That’s why someone as conservative as the late, great J. I. Packer (the OG of kind-hearted Calvinism) wrote that the “widespread but misleading line of teaching” regarding a “sin nature” should be rejected. Better options include the language of human fallenness, original sin, depravity, or as my Aussie comrade Michael Bird suggests: “‘suckiness’ unto death.”
In saying all this, I am at all not implying that those speaking of our “sin nature” are somehow unwitting Gnostics. Far from it! In fact, they surely think they are uttering the same doctrine of fallenness that Christians have held throughout the centuries. They’re just wrong.
In other words, it’s “leviosa”—even if Hermione’s tone can be a bit annoying.
Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.
Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:
- Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism (IVP Academic, 2021).
- Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements (Seedbed, 2018)
- The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Zondervan Academic, 2019)
Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”