Vol. 2 - No. 3
Children of Wrath By Nature
by Lloyd Clark
There is a doctrine in circulation today known as "total depravity" which teaches that when a child is born into this world, he is born "totally depraved" of righteousness; that even as a little baby, its soul is so blackened with sin that God considers it a vile creature. Were it to die in that state, it would surely be eternally lost.
As a proof text, Ephesians 2:3 is often cited: "Among whom we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath."
Surely the divinely inspired Word of God does not teach such a repulsive doctrine as "total depravity," but doesn't the passage say we are "by nature the children of wrath?" To aid our attempt in determining just what this passage teaches, let's first make sure we understand what it does not teach.
First of all, concerning babies being born totally depraved, guilty of sin, the Scriptures teach nothing of the sort. Christ said in Mark 16:16, "…he that believeth and is baptized saved, believeth not shall be damned." Little babies do not have the capability of believing or not believing. They cannot choose whether they believe in Christ or not. To the contrary, their minds are pure and innocent, to the extent the Lord told us we must "become as little children" if we are to enter into heaven (Luke 18:15ff). If we are to be as children, then surely the teaching here is not that children are wicked!
Evidently, this doctrine became recently famous because of a misunderstanding of passages such as Romans 5:12, 14ff, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned: nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of Him that was to come."
Paul teaches here we die physically because of Adam's sin. Yet some wrongly believe we die spiritually because of Adam's sin. So, following that reasoning, the guilt we supposedly possessed at birth was that of the sin of our father, and his father, and so on; a line of succession which dates back to Adam, making us guilty of the very sin Adam committed. Many folks believe babies are truly born guilty of sin, and it is easy to see how the false doctrine of infant baptism got its start. But the Scriptures teach specifically against this idea.
Evidently the early Jews also believed a baby inherited his father's guilt, because in Ezekiel 18, the prophet goes into great detail to lay to rest this false idea. Then in vv. 19-20, he sums up his meaning by saying, "Yet ye say, 'Why? Both not the son bear the iniquity of the father?' When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him."
It can be made no more understandable than this. One is guilty of sin only when he commits sin. And just because we turn to the Old Testament to find this passage does not mean we are returning to the Old Law for authority, because the principle is carried into the New Testament. Though God may change His methods of dealing with man, His principles remain the same (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Thus Ephesians 2:3 does not teach that babies inherit sin from their parents, because that would be a different principle from what is taught in Ezekiel 18. So, if this passage does not teach that all men are born totally depraved of righteousness and guilty of their ancestor's sins, what does it teach?
It seems the trouble in understanding this passage is centered around the term "by nature." The word "nature" is given thirteen different meanings in Webster's New World Dictionary. We are concerned with only two. One meaning refers to "the natural order of creation," or referring to trees, animals, reproductive cycle, etc., as being a part of nature; natural as opposed to synthetic.
But the word "nature" as used in our passage does not carry that meaning. The Greek language scholar, Joseph Henry Thayer, says the word, as used here, means "a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature." In other words, we engage in certain activities so frequently, and over such an extended period of time, we begin to do them without really thinking about them anymore. It has become a part of our nature. We all have probably seen cases where, for example, normally quiet, temperate folks have, over the years, lost control of their anger, until one day we "wake up" to see that person as very bad tempered. It has become his "nature" to lack self control in temper. That is the way the word is used here.
Paul is not saying we are "naturally" children of wrath, otherwise we would have to accept as truth all of the doctrines we have already shown to be false. They are based on this verse saying we became children of disobedience "naturally," through birth and the unavoidable inheritance of guilt. Such reasoning makes void the grace of God. Adam and Eve were guilty of sin because they knowingly and willfully transgressed His law: they were at fault. Yet, if we today are guilty of those same sins merely by natural birth, then we are unavoidably guilty. And since we had no choice in the matter, then we would not be held accountable. Such is Ezekiel's reasoning. God's grace is nonexistent in such a predicament, in that He would have shown a spirit of hatefulness by putting man in a "no win" situation. Can anyone believe God would actually "make" us guilty so He could practice His grace!?! But Paul is not teaching such a false doctrine.
In vv. 1-3, Paul points out we all used to live after the wicked ways of the world which Satan, the "prince of the power of the air," is directing. Following his guidance, we lived to fulfill and follow after our lusts. This wickedness made us guilty of sin. When he says we "were the children of wrath, even as others," he means all men are guilty of committing sin, and likewise in danger of suffering God's wrath.
By inserting the word "nature" he means man has indulged in sin for so long, following Satan's guidance with such frequency, it has become the "nature of man" to live in wickedness. So, Paul is saying we are children of wrath "by nature," or "because of our sinful nature or practice," not because we got it naturally from our parents, because Ezekiel teaches otherwise. But because of our sinful practice, our proneness to commit sin, we are "children of wrath," deserving God's punishment.
To sum it up, we all have brought upon ourselves the wrath of God because we commit sin, so much so it has become our nature. But Paul goes on to say in vv.4-7, "But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness toward us through Christ Jesus."
Though we have chosen a life of sin, God continues to show His abundant love toward us, offering His Son as a sacrifice to die, providing us with salvation from our sins, that we might live in heaven in spite of our guilt. Indeed, the grace of God is exceeding abundant.