In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes unregenerate people as being “by nature children of wrath.”
Calvinists appeal to this passage for proof 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 this passage “knocks the bottom out of the thought that sin consists in the willful transgression of a known commandment.” He argued that the allusion is to original sin (105, 106).
The assertion is absolutely false. There are several interesting notations that can be made in connection with Ephesians 2:1f.
Spiritual Death a Consequence of “your sins”
Note that in verse one the apostle plainly declares that spiritual death is the consequence of “your trespasses and sins” (ASV). Underline “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 KJV (following the Textus Receptus) it is amply supported by manuscript, version, and patristic evidence (cf. Salmon, 283).
A Lifestyle of Sin
In verse 3, Paul affirms that all of us “were. . . children of wrath.” The verb
emetha (“were”) is an imperfect tense, middle voice form. The imperfect tense describes on-going action as viewed in the past. Thus, here it depicts the style of life which had characterized these saints prior to their conversion. Had the apostle intended to convey the notion of inherited sinfulness, he easily could have expressed that idea by saying, “you became the children of wrath.”
Moreover, the middle voice tense implies these folks’ personal involvement in their sinful predicament. We might paraphrase the passage thusly: “you kept on making yourselves children of wrath.” How? By their sinful lifestyle.
Habitual Practice not Genetic Nature
It is possible 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, 660). Clearly, these people by habitual practice had become worthy of divine wrath. McCord’s translation suggests that the Ephesians had “by custom” become children of wrath.
Thus, underline “nature” and in the margin write: Habitual practice. Winer contended that their trespasses and sins had made them “natural children of wrath” (270). These thoughts are consistent with the immediate context of this passage and the tenor of the Bible as a whole.
Logical Implications: Babies in Hell
Finally, note that if this passage teaches that babies are born totally depraved, one would have to necessarily infer that infants who die in that condition are lost since they are clearly designated as “children of wrath” (cf. the expression “son of perdition” — John 17:12). Yet, this is a conclusion that even denominationalists are loath to accept.
Make marginal notes appropriate to these points.