sinful nature

Sinful Nature?

A friend asked me about what the New International Version of the Bible calls the “sinful nature” of humanity. Other Bibles don’t have that phrase — is it a real thing?

Short answer: The Greek word sarx means flesh, and refers to the experience and consciousness that responds like an animal to flee pain and seek pleasure; not just the body, but the mind united to the body and alienated from God. Translators would do better to translate the word literally as “flesh” and leave it to catechists and teachers to describe the darkening and illumination and healing of the nous.

Longer answer: That unfortunate translation “sinful nature” is willfully ignorant of what classical Christianity meant by the word “nature.”

There is one human nature: the nature of Adam. Christ united it to himself in the incarnation. Christ received from his mother a physical body, along with all the damage sin has done to the soul of man. And Christ made it his own, uniting that human nature to all of God in himself. As when the woman with the issue of blood touched Christ, he was not made impure but she was made whole; lepers touched him and he was not made unclean but they were healed. Christ was baptized, not to wash away sin, but the muddy Jordan river received Christ and was made pure and holy. The nature of Adam, being received by God the Word, was made whole and pure and entirely holy.

And Christ took that human nature down into death by means of the Cross, burst the place open, and brought all of humanity back with him in union with his own Life, and seated it in himself beside the Father..

If there’s a “sinful nature,” then in Christ it is now a fallen, dead, buried, resurrected, justified, glorified, deified nature that sits on the throne of God Almighty, and we’re all predestined to participate in that glory. The only way we can fail to achieve that destiny is if we can’t be bothered to live lives of repentance that cooperate with the saving, healing, sanctifying power of God.

So give me all that “sinful” nature — it’s the nature of man in Christ.

Fr Silouan Thompson


  • Update: I am told that in 2011 the publishers of the NIV made a significant revision to their translation: One of the changes was to return to the classic, direct translation of Greek sarx as “flesh”. Some examples:

    • “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Romans 8:6,7)
    • “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)
    • “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5)

    I applaud this particular upgrade! But I still have to agree with Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, who said, “I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.” I still hear from Evangelicals wondering why we believe in saints or bishops, since neither are to be found in the NIV. The apostolic exhortations to keep the Tradition are obscured in this translation, too.

    For purely narrative passages, and in some parts of the Psalms, the NIV does a good job distilling the sense of the Hebrew text into very readable English. Unfortunately — especially in dogmatic passages — that very readability is at times a symptom of a translation that prefers to offer Evangelical Protestant interpretations rather than expose the reader to the apostles’ and prophets’ own, unfiltered, inspired words.

  • thanks, Fr. Silouan. I sent this on to some protestant friends and hope that they can imbibe your thoughts! God’s blessings on you and your mission!
    PS I still remember when you secretly paid for our dinner in Walla Walla many years ago.