A Commentary by John Stott
But (*phusei*), ‘by nature’, seems to describe more than our ‘natural’ condition, when left to ourselves. It seems also to point to the origin of our condition ‘as members of a fallen race’, and so to raise difficult questions about our genetic inheritance, and therefore about our moral responsibility. Is Paul’s phrase shorthand for something longer such as that by birth we have a tendency to sin, that we therefore do sin, and that our sin brings us under the judgment of God? Or is he saying that our very being as humans is from birth under God’s judgment? I have not found a stronger repudiation of the latter notion than the following words of R.W.Dale. Without doubt he speaks for many: ‘This phrase is sometimes quoted as though it were intended to affirm the dreadful doctrine that by our mere birth we incur the divine anger and that apart from any voluntary wrongdoing we are under the divine curse. This appalling theory receives no sanction from either Old Testament or New.’ Yet R.W.Dale knew that the very doctrine he so vigorously repudiates is taught by the great reformed confessions like the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession. Here is Anglican Article 9: ‘Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (that is, in imitating him)…but it is the fault or corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation…’ In other words, our inherited human nature itself deserves God’s wrath and judgment. This is what Paul seems to be teaching here; how can we understand him?
Probably the best commentary is his own as it is found in Romans. Just as these verses are a condensed version of Romans 1-3, so the expression ‘by nature children of wrath’ is a summary of Romans 5:12-14. His argument there that ‘death spread to all men because all men sinned’ is not that all inherited a sinful nature which led them to sin and so to die, but that ‘all men sinned’ in and with Adam. The Old Testament has a strong sense of the solidarity of the human race. It speaks of the next generation as being already ‘in the loins’ of the present generation, a truth which modern genetics may be said to underline. Paul is saying, then, that we cannot make Adam our scapegoat and blame him for our sin, guilt and condemnation. For we were ourselves in Adam. It may truly be said that we sinned in Adam, and that in and with him we incurred guilt and died. Is it not in this sense that we may be described as ‘by nature’ sinners and subject to God’s just judgment? The great majority of the Protestant theologians have always wanted to add (even if tentatively) that they believe God’s grace and Christ’s atonement cover the years of childhood before the age of responsibility, and those in the reformed tradition have drawn attention to the biblical evidence that children with Christian parents are born within the covenant (cf. 1 Cor.7:14). Yet even these important qualifications do not alter the facts of our inherited sin and guilt, or of the judgment we deserve.
Death, slavery and condemnation: these are the three concepts which Paul brings together in order to portray our lost human condition. Is it too pessimistic? Well, we must agree (as he would have done) that this is not the whole truth about mankind. He says nothing here about ‘the image of God’, in which human beings were originally created and which – now grievously damaged – they retain, although he certainly believes it and speaks of our redemption in terms of a re-creation in God’s image (verse 10 and 4:24). He says nothing either about different degrees of human depravity, although again he would have accepted this. For the biblical doctrine of ‘total depravity’ means neither that all humans are equally depraved, nor that nobody is capable of any good, but rather that no part of any human person (mind, emotions, conscience, will, etc.) has remained untainted by the fall. Nevertheless, despite this necessary qualification which affirms the continuing dignity of man on account of the divine image which he has not altogether lost, Paul’s diagnosis remains. Outside Christ man is dead because of trespasses and sins, enslaved by the world, the flesh and the devil, and condemned under the wrath of God.
It is a failure to recognize this gravity of the human condition which explains people’s naive faith in superficial remedies. Universal education is highly desirable. So are just laws administered with justice. Both are pleasing to God who is the Creator and righteous Judge of all mankind. But neither education nor legislation can rescue human beings from spiritual death, captivity or condemnation. A radical disease requires a radical remedy. We shall not on that account give up the quest either for better education or for a more just society. But we shall add to these things a new dimension to which non-Christians are strangers, namely that of evangelism. For God has entrusted to us a message of good news which offers life to the dead, release to the captives and forgiveness to the condemned.