What is the ‘Sinful Nature’? A Bible Study

by Robert Driskell · Print Print · Email Email

Why do we sin?  What is it that oftentimes urges us to do what we know is wrong?  Did humanity inherit a ‘sinful nature’ when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden?  Did God curse humankind by giving them a tendency to sin; a tendency that has been the cause of hurt and heartache for untold multitudes to this day?

One Popular View of the ‘Sinful Nature”

Many Christians believe that the ‘sinful nature’ is something that was added to human beings when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden.  It is also claimed that this ‘sinful nature’ is something for which each of us is guilty and for which we deserve God’s wrath.  The following statements from The Fall of Satan illustrate this concept:

“So, although we often blame Adam, the life we have was in Adam when he sinned, and the sin nature we received was because we were in Adam when he sinned.  We share in the blame and the sin as well as the punishment.”  (Hodge, p. 56-57)

“Due to the sin nature received from Adam, death is coming for all since all have sinned (Romans 3:23).”  (Hodge, p. 58)

“…why would God permit sin nature to pass along to Adam’s descendants?”  (Hodge, p. 58, emphasis his)

“In a sense, we were all in Adam when he sinned!  This explains why we inherit a sin nature.  When Adam sinned, a sin nature came over them and since we were in them and our life came from them, we inherit this nature as well.”  (Hodge, p. 58)

These statements represent the idea that, not only is the ‘sinful nature’ something we received from Adam because of his sin, but this ‘sinful nature’ also makes us guilty.  I have often wrestled with the idea that this view seemed to present the ‘sinful nature’ as a ‘thing’ that corrupts us and is to be fought against.  However, I believe there is a better, and thoroughly biblical, way to explain what is meant by this ‘sinful nature’ which we all exhibit (Romans 3:23).

What is the sinful nature?

Regardless of whether the ‘sinful nature’ results from something added to us or is something that we have lost, God has provided a way to deal with it. We can be reconciled to Him through Jesus Christ.

An Alternative View of the ‘Sinful Nature’

Consider this biblical alternative to the ‘sinful nature inherited from Adam’ concept.  What happened during the Fall was a ‘subtraction’ of God’s holiness, not the ‘addition’ of something that urges us to sin.  Dallas Willard says this about what happened when Adam and Eve sinned: “In creating human beings in his likeness so that we could govern in his manner, God gave us a measure of  independent power…In us some small part of the potential power in our body stands at the disposal of our conscious thought, intention, and choice…one of  those specific human powers was the power to interact…But the death that befell Adam and Eve in the  moment of their initial sin was also the death of this interactive relationship with God…”  (Willard, pp. 53-54).  When the first humans sinned against God, they broke the intimate bond they had enjoyed with Him up until that time.  They became separated from Him in a way that all humans, outside of faith in Jesus Christ, have endured since.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost the close personal relationship with God that they had known since their creation.  They were also banished from the paradise God had created and given them (Genesis 3:23-24).  This is certainly a loss, rather than something added to their lives.  What prevented Adam and Eve from sinning was their close connection with God, and His Holy Spirit, which gave them the ability to resist temptation.  Until they sinned, Adam and Eve were connected to God in a way that gave them the ability to resist the urge to sin, as long as they chose to resist.  Sin was obviously possible before the fall; because Adam and Eve were tempted before the Fall and their giving in to sin was what defines the Fall.  Therefore, this ‘sinful nature’ is not required for a person to be able to sin.

Even the physical death that came with the Fall was something taken away from Adam and Eve, not something added to them.  God did not cause Adam and Eve to begin to die physical when they sinned; rather, He removed what was keeping them alive.  It is clear that, had Adam and Eve not sinned, they could have lived forever (Genesis 3:22).

Problems with the ‘sinful nature as a ‘thing’ we inherited from Adam’ view

There are several theological problems with the view that we inherit a sinful nature, and guilt, from Adam.  Some of these problems are (1) how the so-called ‘sin nature’ is transmitted from parents to children, (2) how we can be held guilty for the sin of Adam; a sin in which we did not participate, and (3) how did Jesus not inherit the guilt that this ‘sin nature’ supposedly carries, even though He was born of a woman.

Transmission of the ‘Sinful Nature’ From Parents to Children

Several perspectives have been put forth concerning how this ‘sinful nature’ is passed from parents to their children.  Some say that Adam represented the entire human race when he sinned.  Some say that we were all in Adam’s loins when he sinned; therefore, we actually sinned with Adam and deserve the guilt along with him.  No real consensus has ever been reached that answers the question of how the ‘sinful nature’ is transmitted from parents to children.

However, if the ‘sinful nature’ were the removal of God’s attending Spirit from the lives of Adam and Eve, there would be no ‘sinful nature’ to be transmitted from parent to child.  Humans would simply be born without a personal relationship with God; without the Spirit of God dwelling in them.  This is indeed what we find.  We are born alienated from God, unlike Adam and Eve when they were created, who enjoyed a close personal fellowship with Him.

Are We Guilty of Someone Else’s Sin?

Another issue raised by this view of the ‘sinful nature’ is that it makes everyone guilty of Adam’s sin.  However, the Bible is very clear that each of us is guilty of our own sin, not the sin of someone else.  “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’  When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.  The soul who sins shall die.  The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:19-20 ESV).  Even Romans 5:12, a biblical commentary on the Fall, says that sin and death entered the world through one man [Adam], but we each experience this sin and death because we ourselves sin.  Each of us is guilty and deserves punishment for our own sin, not the sin of Adam.  Adam and Eve opened the doorway that allowed sin into our world.

The Sinlessness of Jesus and the Sinful Nature

If every child were born guilty of sin because of an inherited ‘sin nature’, we must consider Jesus Christ and His birth.  We know Jesus was without sin (I Peter 2:22; I John 3:5; Hebrews 4:15, 7:26).  Therefore, we must consider how this was possible.  Theological discussions have gone on for ages concerning how Jesus was born of a woman yet remained sinless.  Some say that the ‘sinful nature’ is passed down from the father only and, since Jesus had no human father, He never received this ‘sinful nature’.  However, we have seen that Adam and Eve were tempted and fell before this supposed ‘sinful nature’ even existed.  Neither Adam nor Eve had any human parents and yet they stilled sinned.

However, the ‘sinful nature’ in not something inherited at all.  It is a lack of God’s holiness within a person.  Jesus, being God, would not have lacked that holiness.  Jesus, although existing in a human body and being tempted in all ways as are we (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15), had the power and ability to resist any temptation to sin and thus remained sinless.  This same power, supplied by the Holy Spirit, is available today to anyone who trusts his or her life to Jesus Christ.

Freedom from the ‘Sinful Nature’

Regardless of whether the ‘sinful nature’ results from something added to us or is something that we have lost, God has provided a way to deal with it.  We can be reconciled to Him.  God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die on a cross, enduring the punishment that we rightfully deserve.  When one places his or her trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ, that person receives the indwelling life of the Holy Spirit.  Spiritually this is a return to the pre-fall condition of man.  The believer is then able to enjoy an intimate walk with Jesus Christ, who forgives us of our sins, frees us from the guilt and punishment those sins deserve, enables us to resist temptation, and empowers us to live the holy lives that He would have us live.

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The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

Hodge, Bodie.  The Fall of Satan.  Master Books, 2011.

Willard, Dallas.  The Spirit of the Disciplines.  HarperCollins, 1988.


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