There is no such thing as a “sin nature.” The Bible never refers to the “sin nature.” It is a myth of modern theology. However, the Bible DOES teach a lot about the “flesh.” This study looks at Ephesians 2:3 to learn what the flesh actually is, and what we are to live in the Spirit rather than in the flesh.
Note that this study is an excerpt from my Gospel Dictionary online course. This course considers 52 key words of the Gospel and thousands of biblical texts. The course contains over 100 hours Bible teaching. You can take the course by joining my online discipleship group.
So let us see what we can learn about the flesh from Ephesians 2:3.
What is the “Flesh” in Ephesians 2:3?
… among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (Ephesians 2:3).
The opening verses of Ephesians 2 contain key ideas for the traditional doctrine of the “sin nature.” It is often taught that these verses clearly describe that the human body is the source of sinful lusts and desires which lead us away from God. It is even sometimes thought that the lusts and desires of the flesh that Paul refers to here are the sexual sins of sensuality that many religious people love to rail against. But several factors reveal what Paul truly has in mind.
First, whatever type of sins Paul has in mind, they do not appear to be of the sensual or sexual variety. When Paul writes that “we all once conducted ourselves” in these behaviors, Paul includes himself as being guilty of these sins. But we know from passages like Philippians 3:3-6, Paul considered himself to be blameless in obedience to the Mosaic Law. He kept the purity laws to such a high degree, he was even able to become a Pharisee. It is unlikely, therefore, that Paul ever committed some of the sexual sins that many read into the text of Ephesians 2:3.
Secondly, and more importantly, the context of Ephesians 2 explains clearly what sort of sins Paul does have in mind. Ephesians 2 follows a “Problem (Ephesians 2:1-3), Solution (Ephesians 2:4-10), Application (Ephesians 2:11-22)” structure.
To properly discover what sort of problem Paul has in mind in Ephesians 2:1-3, we can reverse engineer the chapter and look at the Application section of Ephesians 2:11-22. Nowhere in this section do we read anything about sexual lusts or sensual sins. There is not even a typical “sin list” such as those found elsewhere in Paul’s writings.
Instead, Paul’s primary point of application in Ephesians 2:11-22 is that people who part of God’s family should put aside the various differences and divisions that normally cause strife and separation among us. In Jesus, we should no long allow such separations to exist. Jesus has torn down all dividing walls of hostility, such as those of race, gender, or religion.
Paul’s primary emphasis is on the religious walls of morality that get erected between groups of people. The primary source of enmity between people, says Paul, is found in the laws of commandments and ordinances (Ephesians 2:15). But Jesus exposed the source of this enmity in His own body on the cross, where He put it to death and showed us how we can live together in pace (Ephesians 2:16-18). Now, as a result, we who used to condemn and kill others in the name of God can now love and forgive one another instead (Ephesians 4–5).
So if the application of Paul’s message in Ephesians 2 is that we should no longer kill and condemn others for religious reasons, but should love and live in unity with them instead, this means that the stated problem in Ephesians 2:1-3 must refer to this sinful behavior as well.
And indeed, this is what Paul has in mind.
The “sin” of Ephesians 2:1-3 is not primarily the breaking of the Ten Commandments or living in sensuality. Instead, the sinful behavior of Ephesians 2:1-3 is exactly the sin which Paul himself committed frequently as a zealous, law-abiding, Pharisee. It is the sin of using morality and religion to condemn and kill others in God’s name.
Therefore, when Paul writes about the sins and desires of the flesh, he is referring to the exact thing we have seen elsewhere in this entry about flesh. Paul is thinking about the human mind which sees things only through the physical perspective, and which judges, accuses, and condemns others because they do not follow the same religious laws that we do.
The sin that Paul has in view in Ephesians 2:1-3, and which Jesus revealed to us and delivered us from in Ephesians 2:4-10, is the sin of religious zealots who use their personal obedience to God’s commands as a way to justify hateful and hurtful behavior toward those who do not practice the same levels of obedience.
In such ways, God’s law of love is being used to perpetuate hate. Paul calls his readers to turn away from such fleshly living based on zeal for the law, and follow Jesus into a life of love instead.
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