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Does ‘nature’ in Psalm 51:5 refer to the practice of sin, not a sinful nature?

First, let me set forth a basic theological issue that is very important to the implications of the various views people have of sin as they relate to its cure. We might ask, what difference does it make what position is taken on this matter? The answer is that our view of the cause of sin will ultimately determine our view of the cure for sin, since the cure will necessarily involve negating the cause. If sin is simply the result of learned behavior stemming from a bad environment, then all people need is a better environment and sin can be eliminated. Remember the TV ad, “Don’t leave your keys in your car and help a good boy go bad?” Those who hold this viewpoint believe the solution is education and social reform rather than regeneration through the Spirit based on faith in the completed work of Christ.

From the biblical perspective, the problem lies in the fact that mankind is sinful by nature. We live in a world in which powerful forces seek to induce us to sin and we are extremely susceptible because of our inherently sinful bent—that bias toward sin and away from doing God’s will that leads us in the wrong direction.

In Ephesians 2:3 the Greek word for nature is phusis, which means “natural endowment, condition, natural characteristics or disposition, natural being, product of nature, nature as the regular natural order.” In classical literature it meant, “inherited from ones ancestors” by Isocrates (IV BC), by Isaeus (IV BC), and by Plato. Further, it was used by the Christians of Tralles in the sense of “to have a blameless disposition . . . not by usage or habit, but by nature (Ignatius of Trallians 1:1), i.e., by natural disposition or inherent endowment. These definitions and uses come from Bauer, Walter, Gingrich, F. Wilbur, and Danker, Frederick W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1979.

The point here is simply that the meaning of “by nature” in Ephesians 2 can refer to a natural disposition inherited from one’s parents or ancestors. Further, if Paul wanted to speak of the practice of sin, there are other Greek words or terms or even constructions he could have used that would certainly have been clearer like ergasia, “practice, working, pursuit” (cf. Eph. 4:19), or praxis, “practices, deeds as practiced, etc.” (cf. Col. 3:9; Rom. 8:13).

The clearest passage is Psalm 51:5, which, unless one is totally biased against the doctrine, clearly speaks of sinfulness as being inherited. David was hardly saying that he was born as a result of fornication or adultery by his mother. He clearly said, “surely I was sinful at birth,” before I could even speak. (see also Job 15:14).

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin)