Ephesians 2:3 – By Nature Children of Wrath

By Wayne Jackson

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” (An Interpretation of the English Bible, Vol. 6, pp. 105,106). The assertion is absolutely false. There are several interesting notations that can be made in connection with Ephesians 2:1f.

(1) Note that in verse 1 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. Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol. 3, p. 283).

(2) 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 implies these folks’ personal involvement in their sinful predicament. We might paraphrase the passage thusly: “. . . you kept on making yourselves children of wrath.”

(3) It is possible that the KJV, 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, Greek Lexicon, p. 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” (Greek Grammar, p. 270). These thoughts are consistent with the immediate context of this passage and the tenor of the Bible as a whole.

(4) 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.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.