The nature of things in Ephesians 2:3
by Barry Newton
Ever reflect upon the various ways people use the word “nature” or whether the nature of someone or something can change? Consider this collage.
- Veterans suffering the brutal effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are by nature susceptible to feeling like no future exists, to lashing out for no apparent reason, or to repeatedly reliving disturbing events.
- After winning a high school football game against their team’s primary rival, you can expect young athletes by nature to be exuberant.
No one would accuse veterans with PTSD or football players celebrating a significant victory of having been born that way. We can use nature to describe characteristics or qualities that are mutable.
By nature graduate students are studious. Certainly this attribute is not an innate predisposition among all advanced students. Through a variety of factors such as self-discipline and a drive to pursue goals, some young people become serious students.
Even the ancient Greeks, by using nature (phusis) to denote attributes or characteristics, were not denying mutability. For example, they wrote, “For the hyena changes its nature each year” and Dionyssius is described “before he attained to the nature of the gods” (Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, Phusis)
Why all this fuss about whether the nature of something can change? Furthermore, what does this have to do with Ephesians 2:3?
Those seeking a proof text for original sin repeatedly gravitate to Ephesians 2:3. In this context Paul summarizes the activities of Christians before they came to Christ. He describes their former lifestyle as living “in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest.”
Calvinists assume the phrase, “(we) were by nature children of wrath,” describes a person’s state from birth because they also assume nature is unchangeable.
This verse, however, makes no such claim as even the Calvinistic commentator Andrew T. Lincoln concedes. “To be sure, the verse does not explicitly teach original sin by making a statement about how this tragic plight came to be humanity’s natural condition” (Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, p. 99).
Looking at the text, Paul is accurately, but simply, describing the spiritual state and activities of people before they are raised up with Christ. No claim is made about how these people became sinners, nor that they have always been sinners from birth. Rather, Paul affirms that people are subject to God’s wrath because they are engaged in rebellion.
Simply depicting the state of those in rebellion against God as being under God’s wrath falls woefully short of condemning infants as sinners. This is especially true when we remember how Paul thought about the nature of those under God’s wrath in Romans 1:18-32.
Paul says that it is because people knew the truth about God, but deliberately chose to rebel against their Creator, that God is justified in pouring his wrath out on them and giving them over to ever-increasing ways of depravity. What is significant for our purposes is to note that, when Paul described the reason people are the objects of God’s wrath, his mindset focused upon their personal choices, not inheriting a sinful contagion.
Rather than hijack Ephesians 2:3 to support a doctrine not within the apostle’s purview of that text, the student would do well to focus on Paul’s message and its application to us.
Before people come to Christ, their lifestyles involve serving evil. This is a dreadful situation before God. Not only are people spiritually dead, but God’s wrath is poised against them. Nevertheless, through his love and grace, God’s power can transform people to be alive together with Christ. Praise be to God!