Romans 7 Does Not Say People Have a Sin Nature

Romans 7 Does Not Say People Have a Sin Nature August 22, 2023

Credit: Pixabay/Oto Zapletal

Christians have long taught that humans have a “sin nature.” Countless people debate about precisely what that means. However you explain it, Romans 7 does not focus on it, contrary to popular teaching.

The Flesh is Not Sin Nature

As I previously noted, Romans 7 is routinely used in ways that evoke and cast shame on people. One reason for this concerns the way that Bibles sometimes translate sarx, the Greek word for “flesh.” The NIV takes much interpretive liberty by translating it as “sinful nature” in Romans 7:18, 25.

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. (7:18)

So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (7:25)

My previous post, drawing from Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, elaborates more on my understanding of Romans 7 as a whole. For now, I’ll simply make a simple observation about how the Bible speaks about the flesh.

Put simply, living in “the flesh” is not inherently evil, no more than being “in culture” is evil. Notice how Paul himself uses the term. In 1 Corinthians 15:35‐49, different types of “flesh” have varied kinds of glory.

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.

Likewise, Christ is the Son of David “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). Paul’s kinsmen “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3, 5) are Jews. He even calls them “my flesh” in Romans 11:14.

The writer of 1-2 John even states:

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. (1 John 4:2)

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! (2 John 7)

You might say, “Wait, doesn’t context affect meaning?” Certainly, but nothing in Romans 7 necessitates the translation of sarx as sinful nature. Sarx concerns our nature, and Romans 7 talks a lot about sin, but we need a much stronger argument than I’ve seen to assert that sarx means “sinful nature.”

The Flesh is Naturally Weak

In Delivered from the Elements of the World (which I previously discussed) Peter Leithart presents “flesh” as the creaturely state of vulnerability and need. This finitude arouses in us desires to exert power, gain praise, and secure protection. He explains,

Even mortal flesh is not evil in itself. Flesh becomes a motivator of sin and evil when human beings seek to compensate for finitude, mortality, weakness, when they refuse to accept their vulnerability and trust their Creator for all good gifts. Sin and evil are human attempts to compensate for having, for being, mortal flesh. (81)

For Paul, “in the flesh” (in Romans 7) functions similarly to “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. It simply refers to a manner of living as though our current mortal life were all that exists. It is the state of living apart from faith, union with Christ, etc. Perhaps, in our day, it’s like saying that someone lives “according to the secular mind” (i.e., without regard for the sacred).

This perspective of flesh makes complete sense in the context of Romans.

Paul is concerned that we are not defined by mere flesh. When the fundamental elements of our (sub)culture define us, we live in “the flesh.” The law is weakened by the flesh when the law becomes a mere social boundary marker (as is the case for Jews who boast of circumcision). God’s law then serves as little more than a token of cultural identity.

There’s No “Sin Nature” in Romans 7

So, does Romans 7 tell us whether people are born with a good or evil nature? We can hardly answer this question based on Paul’s comments in this chapter. We’ll have to go elsewhere to debate the meaning and extent of “sin nature.”

What we do in Romans 7, however, is that Paul presents a more optimistic view of humanity than Western teachers often assume. In Romans 7, he emphasizes humanity’s inability, not its evil disposition. The “I” delights in God’s law and does not desire evil. Sin, not “I,” bears the blame for wrongdoing.

I could go on, but I’ll not reiterate what I’ve written in my previous post as well as in Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes.

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