Are Infants “by Nature” Children of Wrath?
During a speech some time back before the American Humanist Association, television mogul Ted Turner leveled a blast at Christianity for its alleged doctrine that infants are born in sin. The fact is, though this teaching is popular with certain denominational groups, it is unknown to the Bible. However, a few biblical passages are perverted in a futile attempt to support the doctrine.
In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul wrote:
And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest."
Here, the apostle describes unregenerate people as being “by nature children of wrath.” Calvinists appeal to this verse for support of the doctrine of hereditary total depravity. They feel the passage is affirming that humans are “by birth children of wrath.”
Baptist writer B.H. Carroll contended that Ephesians 2:3 “knocks the bottom out of the thought that sin consists in the wilful transgression of a known commandment.” He argued that the allusion is to “original sin” (1973, 105-106). This is the theory that all people are born tainted with the guilt of Adam’s sin.
The assertion is absolutely false. There are several interesting observations that can be made in connection with Ephesians 2:1ff.
First, note that in verse one the apostle plainly declares that spiritual death is the consequence of “your trespasses and sins” (ASV). Note the word “your.” This emphasizes personal sin. We are not spiritually dead as a result of Adam’s transgression. Though the term “your” is not found in the King James Version (following the Textus Receptus), it is amply supported by evidence from ancient Greek manuscripts, early versions, and the writings of the “church fathers” in the post-apostolic period (Salmond 1956, 283).
Second, in verse three Paul affirms that all of us “were . . . children of wrath.” The verb emetha (“were”) is an imperfect tense form. The imperfect tense describes continuity of action as viewed in the past. Thus, here it depicts the habitual style of life which had characterized these saints prior to their conversion. Had the apostle intended to convey the notion of inherited sinfulness at the time of their birth, he easily could have expressed that idea by saying, “you became by birth children of wrath.”
Third, it is also significant that the verb is in the middle voice in the Greek Testament. The middle voice is employed to suggest the subject’s personal involvement in the action of the verb. The language therefore stresses that the sinful condition of the Ephesians had been their individual responsibility. Hence, combining the imperfect tense and middle voice aspects of the verb, we might paraphrase the passage thusly: “you kept on making yourselves children of wrath.”
Fourth, it is probable that the King James Version, and most subsequent translations, reflect a Calvinistic bias in the rendition, “by nature children of wrath.” The Greek word phusei, rendered “nature” in our common versions, can denote “a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature” (Thayer 1958, 660). Edward Robinson observed that the term can be understood of a “native mode of thinking, feeling, acting” on the part of those who are “unenlightened by the influence of divine truth” (1855, 771). Clearly, these people, by habitual practice, had become worthy of divine wrath.
Hugo McCord’s translation has an excellent rendition of this passage. It suggests that the Ephesians had “by custom” become children of wrath. Wiener contended that their trespasses and sins had made them “natural children of wrath” (1882, 270). Moule suggested that the phrase rendered “by nature children of wrath” might be equivalent to saying, “left to ourselves we are destined to suffer the consequences of sin” (1953, 174). Thus, the Ephesians, in their unregenerate state, had become, by long practice of sin, deserving of the wrath of God. These thoughts are consistent with the immediate context and with the tenor of the Bible as a whole.
Fifth, it is worthy of note that if this passage teaches that babies are born totally depraved, one would have to infer necessarily that infants who die in that condition are lost since they are clearly designated as “children of wrath” (cf. the expression “son of perdition” in John 17:12). Yet, this is a conclusion that even denominationalists are loath to accept.
The Bible does not teach the doctrine of inherited depravity. The dogma is strictly of human origin. And it is a serious tragedy that those who profess to be friends of the Scriptures will teach this error, thereby subjecting the Christian system to unjustified criticism. Ephesians 2:3 does not teach inherited depravity.
Scripture references: Ephesians 2:1-3; Ephesians 2:3; Ephesians 2:1; John 17:12
- Carroll, B. H. 1973. An Interpretation of the English Bible. Vol. 6. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Moule, C. F. D. 1953. An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek. Cambridge, England: University Press.
- Robinson, Edward. 1855. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.
- Salmond, S. D. F. 1956. Ephesians. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 3. W. R. Nichol, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
- Wiener, G. B. 1882. Grammar of New Testament Greek. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.