The “Sinful Nature” Translation Dilemma and the Upcoming NIV Revision

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Word is out (see the Better Bibles Blog, for example) that an updated version of the NIV will be released in 2011. Mark Goodacre (and a happy 6th anniversary of blogging to Mark) and others have already noted their hopes that the NIV finally drop “sinful nature” as a translation of σάρξ (sarx), which means “flesh.” As Goodacre notes, this translation of such a key term “makes [the NIV] unusable as a translation for teaching Paul,” a sentiment with which I strongly agree.

To further the conversation, Matthew Montonini has pointed to an interesting essay by Douglas Moo (now the chair for the Committee on Bible Translation, overseeing the NIV translation project), “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for The Translator, where Moo expresses his initial displeasure at the translation but concludes that for a dynamic equivalence translation, it is hard to find a better alternative. Moo’s article surveys the use of σάρξ in the Pauline epistles, especially in Rom 7–8, concluding:

Nevertheless, the argument could be made, as Dunn suggests, that the best route is simply to render sarx with “flesh” every time it is conceivable to do so, and let the English reader, through careful contextual reading, build up for himself or herself a sense of this important technical term. The TNIV, of course, retains many such technical theological terms, in contrast to some modern versions that seek to avoid them. But the problem with technical terms is that it demands a great deal of the reader. A careful reader of the Bible would no doubt eventually acquire a sense of the significance of “flesh” in Romans. Yet, no matter what our hopes might be, how many readers of the Bible today are that careful? If one is translating for the well-read churchgoer—the person who goes to Bible studies where the Bible is really studied—then “flesh” is probably the best rendering of sarx. But the unpalatable fact is that only a minority of Christians anymore fall into that category—to say nothing of non-Christians, who, we hope, will pick up and read the Bible. For many readers, then, translating Paul’s sarx as “flesh” would not effectively communicate. …

First, a good English equivalent for Paul’s theologically loaded use of sarx in a negative sense is difficult to find. … One could avoid the language of “nature” by translating “sinful impulse,” but this rendering moves too far away from the idea of something that is the seat of sinful behavior. “Sinful aspect” might fit better with Paul’s anthropology but is hardly understandable English. At the other end of the phrase, “sinful nature” is certainly preferable to “sinful self,” since the latter would suggest that the person as a whole is irremediably sinful. And other possible variations—”evil nature,” “lower nature,” “old nature,” “fallen nature”—are hardly improvements on “sinful nature.” With its problems, therefore, “sinful nature” is hard to improve on if one chooses to translate sarx in a contextually nuanced manner.

A second penalty one pays for such a translation procedure is the loss of explicit connections among Paul’s various uses of sarx. Romans 8:3 is the best example. Paul uses the word three times in this verse to make clear that the victory over sarx was ultimately determined in the sphere of sarx itself. God in the person of his Son entered fully into sarx in order to defeat it from within. … Because the meaning of sarx within the verse varies, the TNIV renders the three occurrences with three different English expressions, thereby somewhat obscuring the connections: “for what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh” ….

What the TNIV may sacrifice on this score [consistency of readings] may be more than made up for in contextual readability. Every indication is that the ability of people to read is steadily declining. If we are to hope for a Bible that an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option.

Problem #1: Low Standards Beget Lower Competence

While I agree that most people (churchgoers or not) are not especially good readers, I strenuously disagree with the idea that we must resort to imprecision or “dumbing down” material to meet this lower level. On the contrary! As I have found as an instructor, students will generally rise to meet a higher standard if it’s set—the rule of thumb is that people will meet expectations, wherever they’re set. So if they’re set progressively lower, progressive decreases in competence will follow.

Then should we return to older translations (say, the KJV) simply because they’re harder to read? Of course not! The reason for newer translations is because the language has changed over time (e.g. “suffer the children” in the KJV does not mean what it would today), and our text-critical resources continue to improve. I am not advocating difficulty for the sake of difficulty. Where an easier word or term does the same job as a more difficult one, we should use the easier one. But a choice between imprecision—or worse, misinterpretation or mistranslation—and a little more difficulty to the reader is no choice at all.

Bigger Problem: Sarx Doesn’t Ever Mean “Sinful Nature”

One could argue that sarx is one of the five or so most important key terms in the New Testament—one of the consistent points across NT authors is that Jesus came and shared in the same sarx as every other human being. 1 John 4:2–3 even says that the denial of this fact is “of the antichrist,” an emphasis that fits closely with Rom 8:3 as discussed by Moo above. Given such strong admonition that Jesus came in the sarx is a key teaching in earliest Christianity, one would think this term above all would be treated with the utmost precision!

But the one thing that sarx simply does not mean is “sinful nature,” a term tracing back to the Augustinian concept of Original Sin (or what is known in Reformed circles as “total depravity“). Despite the venerable history of these concepts, it as at very best highly debatable (and I think utterly incorrect) to assert that they were teachings of the Apostle Paul or anyone else in the New Testament period. (On the importance of getting beyond Augustinian interpretations of Paul in order to understand what Paul is actually saying, I think Krister Stendahl’s “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” should be required reading for anyone studying Paul even at an elementary level.)

In contrast to the Augustinian reading, I think it’s a vast improvement to see Paul’s teaching as closer to the later rabbinic conception of the two inclinations: the inclination to good (יצר הטוב) and the inclination to bad/evil (וּיצר הרע). That is, every human being is born with desires that can be bent towards good or evil, and there are competing inclinations towards each. If this is indeed the case, Paul would seem to be borrowing from the Platonic notion of the soul as well, which I covered in some detail here (scroll down until you see the bust of Plato). This shouldn’t be surprising, as that’s where Philo turns when attempting to conflate Jewish and Greek concepts (see especially De Cherubim 54ff.).

To give a brief synopsis of the way such a system would function, it is not that there is a “sinful nature” or some “depravity” inherent in every human being, but instead that human beings are (and have always been, even before the Fall) created with a flesh that has specific desires (e.g. food, drink, sex, pleasure). But since that flesh is itself irrational, it is prone to desiring unlawful or sinful things (such as sex with another man’s wife) without real distinction from the desire for what is lawful. When a person is hungry, it makes no difference if the barbecue is coming from the neighbor’s house—it still stimulates the desire for that food. So the flesh, left unrestrained, is prone to reckless and unlawful action—and the teaching of early Judaism (and in fact Greek wisdom as well) was that the more the flesh gets its way in such things, the more uncontrollable it becomes (hence John 8:34, “Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you that every person who sins is a slave to sin”—note that he does not say “every person sins because they are a slave to sin already,” as the “total depravity” model would suggest).

So Paul is not teaching something new with his depiction of the flesh in Romans. Rather, he is using the traditional teachings of his day to establish something everyone already understood—the existence of a part of all of us that desires things that are often illicit. He then sets up the death/resurrection of Christ and the subsequent sending of the Spirit as the answer to this problem—if we have died with Christ, our flesh and its desires are dead, and our desires are now purified by the life of Christ, his Spirit that lives in us.

The takeaway? Paul is not speculating about the existence of some depraved nature that we all have resulting from the fall, a nature that Jesus himself did not share. On the contrary, as already covered above, Jesus himself shared this sarx—this source of all desires—in order that when he was crucified, it meant a victory over the desires of that flesh (chief among which is the desire not to die). As such, the flesh no longer requires an external law to hem it in and restrain its desires—it has died and is now raised to new life, the life governed by the Spirit. But this whole scheme is all shot to pieces if Jesus did not share the same sarx as all of us (hence 1 John’s very strong statements to that effect). To repeat: sarx never means anything close to “sinful nature” in Paul. Rather, Paul is referencing the seat of bodily desires (like food, sex, etc.), which is not “sinful” in essence at all, though it can lead to sin if not restrained.

A final problem that a contextually differentiated translation of sarx presents is the fine distinction that Paul makes between sarx (“flesh”) and soma (“body”). Most Pauline scholars point to an important distinction between the two in Paul’s eschatology, where there is a bodily, but not fleshly, resurrection.

So not only is this translation further encouraging lazy reading, it does so with a poor rendering that doesn’t mean what the word it translates means. Sarx simply never means “sinful nature.” Ever. So why would it ever be translated as such? And, to be honest, I’m not sure why it would be so difficult for even a relatively lazy reader to identify this kind of definition of the English word “flesh” anyway—it’s not hard to understand that one’s “flesh” wants certain gratifications that aren’t always right. Just google the word “flesh”; it’s not like the concept is foreign. Western culture is quite conscious of “fleshly” desires and their consequences. Frankly, I think in this sense “flesh” is a more understandable modern rendering of the term than any other option, even for the negative uses of the term (which, as Moo points out, do come up a good bit in Paul). There is no reason to attempt to introduce baggage-bearing theological language like “sinful nature” when “flesh” is quite simply not difficult. If anything, our translations should go in the opposite direction—away from heavy baggage and theological terminology towards common terms in the world that remain in use.


Honestly, I think the NIV revision has two legitimate choices: either translate sarx consistently (and literally) as “flesh” or translate it consistently as “sinful nature”—even when it applies to Jesus. Thus, if it wants to retain “sinful nature” with respect to the rest of humanity, it must declare that Jesus “came in the sinful nature.” This is a better alternative to the constant contextual monkey business of the current NIV and TNIV.

EDIT: Doug Chaplin has posted a couple more helpful points in favor of a “flesh” rendering rather than “sinful nature,” resting on some very important passages in Galatians.

Tags: Douglas Moo, flesh, Mark Goodacre, New Testament, NIV, Paul, romans, sarx, sinful nature, Translation

44 Comments. Leave new

  • Stephen C. Carlson
    September 3, 2009 8:01 pm

    Nice piece. Unfortunately, the link to the Stendahl is now dead, because the publisher no longer wanted it to be freely available on the web (according to the Paul Page).

  • Jason A. Staples
    September 3, 2009 8:05 pm

    Argh. I hadn't checked the link to see if it was still active before I posted it. I have a .pdf of it, but I suppose I shouldn't post it without permission. Thanks for letting me know.

  • Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts on this issue, Jason. This idiosyncratic translation choice is one of the reasons (though not by any means the only one) I have quit using the NIV in my personal reading and study.

  • I'm sure you know that Douglas Moo was one of the biggest voices criticising the NIV's translation "sinful nature." Or at least I would hope you would.

    But what you might not know is that in The Challenge of Bible Translation, Moo states that after he was invited to be on CBT for the TNIV, he realized: the translator had thought through the issues and the teacher did not. I might suggest that same.

    Go read his chapter.

  • Jason A. Staples
    September 13, 2009 9:02 pm

    Thanks, Mike. That chapter happens to be the very essay that I cited and quoted throughout this post.

    As such, I have read the chapter you're referencing and strongly disagree with Moo's conclusions for the reasons stated here. I understand his (and other translators') difficulties, but I cannot agree with the NIV translation of sarx.

    A decent dynamic translation requires that one actually approach the meaning of the word or phrase, something that the various options (aside from "flesh") chosen by the NIV do not do.

    The arguments Moo puts forward from the position of a translator are unconvincing. As I stated in my post, I find it difficult to believe that a normal English reader cannot understand the sense of "flesh" as Paul uses it, which makes moot the primary case Moo makes for the NIV's choices.

    There is no need to attempt to interpret "flesh" (especially wrongly interpret it!) for the wider public when it's an easily understandable term.

    The bottom line is that sarx never even approaches "sinful nature" in meaning at all, so to translate it that way is absolutely unacceptable. This is not a teacher/translator issue, it's a much simpler matter of completely misrepresenting the meaning of the source text.

    Difficulties of a translator or not, it is unacceptable a phrase that means "he went to the store" as "he went on a shooting spree." As far as I'm concerned, that's about how far removed "sinful nature" is from the Pauline conception of "flesh." It's simply a wrong concept for the term, not simply an approximate dynamic equivalent.

  • I understand and agree with your intention for accurate translation of sarx. Unfortunately, you have missed an important point about the meaning of the word “flesh” in English (not sarx in Greek). You wrote about “a flesh that has specific desires.” In English, flesh does not have desires. In English (unlike in the biblical languages) flesh is part of a person’s body that has no volition of its own. We can try to change the meaning of the English word “flesh” through teaching, but that only works for intensive, repeated teaching to a group of individuals committed to learning a new vocabulary. If we want to communicate the meaning of biblical text words accurately to those who are not part of that community which speaks a unique dialect of Bible English, we need to find an English word which accurately translates sarx in each of its contexts. This is not easy work, but it is part of the job that Bible translators must do. First, we have to start by clearly expressing what the various meaning senses of sarx are in the Bible. Then we need to try to find a word (or words, or a descriptive phrase) that comes closest to expressing the meaning of each of those senses. If we start with the assumption that sarx is best translated as “flesh”, we are practicing circular reasoning, assuming the conclusion, rather than doing enough exegesis and lexical work to come to an accurate conclusion.

    • Jason A. Staples
      October 25, 2009 11:19 pm

      Wayne, I understand your case, but I couldn’t disagree more. “Flesh” absolutely does have the sense of bodily desires in English. Test me: type “flesh” into Google and see what comes up. If you want even clearer evidence, do it without the content filter (Google is probably the most effective lexical tool for the English language now). You’ll quickly see that “flesh” is as often as not used for sexual desire or in a sexual context.

      The next way to test my case is to do a “street test”—just walk up to people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word “flesh.” You’ll hear the following three semantic domains: 1) the body, 2) meat, and 3) desire (especially sexual desire). Of all the key terms in the Bible, I think “flesh” is the one term where English sits closest to the Greek concept (I mean, you still have “sins of the flesh” as a vernacular phrase).

      This is not the case for terms like justification/justify, sanctification/sanctify, holy, grace, faith, etc.—all terms I think should be reexamined and usually translated differently. Unfortunately these are the terms that are usually left as is, while a word like “sarx,” which has an almost perfect English parallel still in use, is thought too conceptually difficult and changed. I think this is due in large part to many translators having grown up in the church and having little idea of the conceptual world and lexical data outside the church, leading to assumptions that some words are difficult though they are actually easy, while other “easy” words are conceptually foreign.

  • Jason wrote:

    The next way to test my case is to do a “street test”—just walk up to people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word “flesh.” You’ll hear the following three semantic domains: 1) the body, 2) meat, and 3) desire (especially sexual desire). Of all the key terms in the Bible, I think “flesh” is the one term where English sits closest to the Greek concept (I mean, you still have “sins of the flesh” as a vernacular phrase).

    I disagree, Jason. I am a linguist and Bible translator. I have also done extensive field testing of the kind you are recommending. “Desire” is not a meaning sense found in street tests nor is “body.” In English “flesh” refers to soft tissue on the body, close to the skin, as in the sentence, “It was just a flesh wound.”

    As for Google, it is not a reliable indicator of standard English examples. Even example found by Google needs to be analyzed for whether or not it is used as jargon of a special dialect group (especially religious language) or is borrowed from the KJV, which, of course, is the source of most religious language used by speakers of Bible English.

    If you would like, I’d be happy to team up with you to conduct a reliable street test for the meaning(s) of “flesh”.

  • Jason A. Staples
    October 26, 2009 11:23 pm

    I’d love to collaborate on some street testing for the meanings of “flesh” and a few other key terms, Wayne. (By the way, I think your “Better Bibles” project/blog is outstanding.)

    To do a reliable test, we’re going to have to ensure a representative sample and ensure that we conduct these tests as “blind” (i.e. “unbiased”) as possible. I don’t think we can do that through a site that advertises itself as a “Bible Translation Survey,” which both skews the sample and immediately biases the person being surveyed.

    I’d suggest as a first avenue we use something like, which can leverage Twitter as a survey tool, but if we want an even better sample and even more unbiased polling system, we’d have to get into more specific field work (face-to-face, telephone, etc.). As I have access to two college campuses, it could at least offer a sample of the younger folks (I’d actually suggest that college students probably offer the most important sample for any new Bible translation for a number of reasons).

    Anyway, I really hope we can collaborate on this. Perhaps we can collect some data that would be helpful to the committee (and other future committees).

  • […] from the recent flesh/sarx discussion, the verse that got me thinking of this was actually 2 Samuel 8:18, which […]

  • […] in Greek (as was discussed extensively about a month ago by Peter Kirk, Clayboy, Mark Goodacre, Jason Staples and others, and again in passing yesterday by T. C. Robinson). It’s not exactly that sarx […]

  • […] Zealot Outside the Building: The Sinful Nature Translation Dilemma and the Upcoming NIV Revision […]

  • Jason, interesting post…just wanted to make a few observations:

    I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly. Your comment: “…one of the consistent points across NT authors is that Jesus came and shared in the same sarx as every other human being.” But look at Romans 8:3…Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus didn’t share in the exact same sarx as every other human being? Paul says God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh…” So, we (humanity) come into this world in sinful flesh. Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh so that he could provide the perfect atoning sacrifice for sin.

    Your comment: “…it is not that there is a ‘sinful nature’ or some ‘depravity’ inherent in every human being, but instead that human beings are (and have always been, even before the Fall) created with a flesh that has specific desires (e.g. food, drink, sex, pleasure). But since that flesh is itself irrational, it is prone to desiring unlawful or sinful things (such as sex with another man’s wife) without real distinction from the desire for what is lawful.”

    I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly: You say that depravity is not inherent in every human being. Are you speaking of regenerate or unregenerate human beings, or both? The theological term ‘depravity’ is used, at least in Reformed circles, to describe the fact that the flesh is inherently sinful. You say the flesh is irrational. Indeed, it is. It would not be irrational if it were not sinful. If the flesh is prone to desiring sinful things, then the flesh is inherently sinful. The flesh would not desire sinful things if it were not inherently sinful. If the flesh were a good thing in the context of Romans 7 and 8, then the flesh would produce good. But Paul frequently contrasts flesh and Spirit. “I am of the flesh, sold into bondage to sin”; “nothing good dwells in…my flesh…”; “…the mind set on the flesh is death…”; “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God.” Paul has already argued that we are all under sin and that no one does good and that no one seeks God. Paul is not contrasting two competing inclinations within man. He is contrasting natural man with the Spirit of God! The status of all humanity at birth is that we exist in sinful flesh, in bondage to our sin. If this were not the case, we would not need a Saviour to set us free from sin. We would all naturally seek the things of God and desire to know Him. Depravity then, from the Reformed perspective, doesn’t mean humanity is as bad as it could be; it simply means that natural man doesn’t accept the things of the Spirit of God.

    • According to the New Testament, Jesus shared in the exact same sarx as every other human being. Yes, Paul says “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” but it’s the same flesh, with the difference being that Jesus did not sin.

      In saying that depravity is not inherent in every human being, I am speaking of human beings as a whole. I entirely disagree with the Reformed circles who teach “total depravity.” When you say, “It would not be irrational if it were not inherently sinful,” you are mixing categories. Irrationality is by no means the same thing (or dependent on) sinfulness. Animals, for example, have biological flesh which is equally irrational (put a starving animal in a room with food, and see what happens—it’s not a rational process). Perhaps I could tighten up my own terminology here by pointing out that what I mean is actually “non-rational,” rather than “irrational,” which has a different English connotation (I’ll correct it in the post). That is, it is not controlled by logic or any sort of intellection—it’s a non-rational drive without a notion of intent. It’s the same way something can be amoral as opposed to immoral. By using the term sarx, Paul is using a long-established Greek concept of the non-rational, appetitive part of a person—not the same thing as saying the “sinful” part of a person. (This is something some of the Reformers, whose theology was a response to problems in the church rather than an independent historical exegesis looking back to what was actually said in its own context, quite simply got wrong.)

      In my experience, it’s extremely difficult to convey the larger structure of what’s going on here to someone who has embraced a Reformed system, because that system attaches different definitions to Paul’s terms and then builds everything from that. Again, the problem is that the Reformers effectively read their own situations back into Paul (through Augustine, who was a bad interpreter of Paul to begin with) rather than going back to the established pre-Pauline understandings of these terms in order to understand how Paul was using the language available to him. The problem is that they’re two entirely different frameworks, and to understand Paul’s (which uses the terms of Hellenistic philosophy), one has to step away from the other, much later interpretation. To put it simply, it’s better to read Paul in light of his own day and time (and how his terminology was used) than through the Reformers. That’s not to say that they missed everything (they didn’t), just that we should be careful to distinguish what they say Paul says from what he says.

      Paul most certainly contrasts flesh and spirit and presents them as differing, competing inclinations, but this doesn’t exactly equate to what Reformed folks have gotten from it. Rather, Paul is operating in line with both Hellenistic philosophy and later Rabbinic philosophy, neither of which holds to a notion of human nature as “depraved” in a Reformed sense. In Judaism, for example, the teaching is that every person has two yetzerim (inclinations) built into the human fabric by God, the yetzer ha-tov (=”good inclination”) and the yetzer ha-ra (=”bad inclination”), meaning everyone has a choice whether to do good or bad. This is quite similar to the Hellenistic system of terminology Paul uses: that of a tri-partite person/soul involving nous (mind/intellect), thumos (the “spirited” part involving will or volition; associated with the heart) and the appetitive part (e.g. “flesh,” the appetitive part; associated with the belly or genitals).

      Effectively, in this system, the intellect/mind is the seat of “the good,” and longs for what is good, pure, etc., while the appetitive part of a person (the “flesh”) desires food, sex, etc. The middle, “spirited” part is like an elevator which can go to the top or bottom floor—it mediates between the intellect/mind and the flesh, representing the person’s will, which can choose to follow the mind or the flesh. In this system, the “righteous” or “just” person follows the mind/intellect to do what is good, keeping the flesh strongly in check, choosing to feed the hunger of the flesh only when it is rationally/intellectually right. An unrighteous person follows his/her appetites without regard for what the mind says is right (i.e. “whose god is their belly”). This is the background for the terms Paul is using, and he is using them more or less within their standard range of meaning (which only makes sense, since the point of using language is to share ideas).

      So in your examples, take note of this system at work (forgive me for oversimplifying a bit): “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God”—this is a standard Hellenistic picture of a disordered person whose will has been bent towards the flesh. The reader of Romans would know that the mind should be regulating and controlling the flesh, not following it. It is not that the flesh is inherently sinful any more than that the desire for sex is inherently sinful. It is simply that when the flesh is given license to fulfill its desires without constraints, this leads to sinful behavior. But the responsibility for this sin lies with the will, which did not control the God-given but undirected desires of the flesh. But Paul also knew what the Rabbis and philosophers also knew (and what Jesus himself states in John)—the person who sins becomes a slave to sin, as feeding the flesh makes its desires and appetites stronger. Ultimately, if it overpowers a person, that person needs a new spirit and will, one that is stronger than the flesh. To this end, Paul says God has provided his own holy spirit through participation with Christ, which makes unrighteous people, whose own flesh had become their ruler, into new creatures who serve the living God.

      Another point worth making is that your statement, “If this were not the case, we would not need a Saviour to set us free from sin,” neglects a (perhaps the) primary object of Christ’s redemption: ransoming Israel from the curse of the Law, restoring Israel from exile. Israel had broken the Lord’s covenant, and remained under the curse for covenant-breaking, in need of redemption and restoration (as promised in Deuteronomy and the prophets). The promise was that God would restore them by giving them a new spirit, which would lead them into righteousness. If we try to understand Paul without that redemptive plan in mind, we will inevitably misunderstand him—much like Augustine transformed the Pauline message into an introspective and individualistic enterprise. Obviously this is a lot of material condensed and somewhat oversimplified, but I’ll hopefully have more time to address some of this once my exams are over in early December.

      • I have all was agreed with the word flesh thought out the KJV bible and Paul’s teaching of the word. I was not even save at the time I started reading the bible. I was in jail and bought a NHCSB and started reading it, and I heard God say to me, that is not my word, then I obtained the Gideon Bible, and God said to me again. That is not my word. So then as I went on to prison to serve a 8yr sentence. I was given a KJVB, and God said that’s my word. Now I have 5th grade education and I understand what paul and Christ was teaching. From the English. God did not call us to understand the word, he said to believe it, and the Holy Spirit will give us the Revelation or understanding. So thank you for your time in breaking down the interpretation the word sarx, and flesh. For it is going to help me teach this Wednesday night at 7:30 on Facebook. Seek and you will find, knock, and it shall be open, ask and you shall receive.

  • […] First on the list, of course, was my firm agreement with many other scholars that the old NIV’s handling of the Greek word σάρξ (“sarx“) was simply abominable. Put simply, σάρξ (the Greek word for “flesh”) does not mean, nor does it ever […]

  • This.Is.Awesome. Thank you for posting!

  • Jason, thanks for your examination of this subject. I for one have always sort of cringed whenever I read “sinful naute” in the NIV. I never had anyone teach me differently about this – it just didn’t fit with what I understood about what happens at salvation, and also the totality of Jesus’ victory over sin at the cross. Furthermore, the notes in the majority of study bibles aver that we have an “old”, and “sinful nature” that remains after conversion. I have always wondered where this doctrine came from, since these footnotes never give a reference as to where this teaching originates in the bible. I’m a simple minded person: if the bible says it, I believe it, but I feel betrayed when translators and editors try and tell me something without backing it up with a reference.
    For me, to approach romans 7 and 8 with this doctrine (of the “sinful nature”)is, in the very least, to completely confuse what is essentially a simple passage in the bible, and at the very worst it is mistranslating the bible, which has a strong warning in Revelation against doing this.
    For me the key verse in the entire issue is Romans 8:9. “But ye are not in the flesh (sinful nature???)……if so be the Spirit of God dwell in you”. This simple sentence puts to rest the whole issue in my mind. If one had a sinful nature after receiving Christ it becomes irrelevant bc having the Sprit dwelling in a person negates the “sin nature” arguement – We are NOT “in the flesh” if God dwells in us. Again, to say we have a sinful nature that we act out on negates Romans 8:9 altogether, unless we suppose that the Spirit leaves us, leaving us to act out on this supposed nature, only to return to non-sinfulness when the Spirit return. I’m being picky I know, but that is how absurd the whole “sinful nature” arguement sounds when they try and use it.
    When a believer sins, it is because they are deceived, (like Eve was, who by the way had no sinful nature – only the capacity to sin). We are deceived in thinking we can do the deed because ……..”it really isn’t sin – is it?”……”it isn’t that bad”……..”God will forgive me anyway”…………”God really wants you to have that”…..”You only live once”…………Excuses ad infinitum. We are tempted by the tempter, who deals in the flesh, and knows what we like (flesh). He whispers to us that what our flesh wants is OK for us to reach out and take. He whispers rationalizations, like when he had his famous conversation with Eve, to convince her that it was a good idea to go against what she clearly knew she was not to do.
    I think the “sinful nature” argument is a subtle way or the enemy to hide in plain sight. How many times in recent years have you heard about the Enemy being the tempter, lying in wait to trip people up and temp them to sin…..not very often I would guess. I know I never hear anything about him any longer.
    No, what bible translators need to do is to just translate it as best they can, in this case, just call it flesh and put a footnote explaining the different ways the word can be used, and stop interjecting their own theological views into the text.
    Thanks for listening to my view.

  • […] money is typically required to satisfy all its primary appetites. This seat of the appetites was also referred to as the “flesh” in the ancient world (σάρξ; sarx). Because this part of the soul is non-rational, it is […]

  • Wayne writes:

    the meaning of the word “flesh” in English (not sarx in Greek). You wrote about “a flesh that has specific desires.” In English, flesh does not have desires. In English (unlike in the biblical languages) flesh is part of a person’s body that has no volition of its own.

    I wonder if in Greek sarx ever has desires. What I mean by that is this: Aristotle (and the pseudo Aristotle) wrote extensively on sarx as, what we in English call, flesh. And this flesh, as the scientist named Aristotle writes of, never was conceived of as something animate with desires or as anything sinful.

    Fairly typical stuff is this from Problems, where the flesh is attached to a body, which itself may have such desires as hunger: “…and the body [σῶμα] grows thin as a result of sweating. But walking in cold weather hardens the flesh [σάρκα] and engenders a greater desire [ἐπιθυμητικωτέρους] for food ; for it produces an increase of heat in the parts inside, and since they become less liable to be affected by the cold, it cleanses the region inside.”

    Likewise, does the LXX use of sarx ever have these metaphorical senses? Isn’t this issue here over new testament (or second testament) Greek metaphors? Isn’t it Paul mostly playing with Greek in ways his readers find novel? Isn’t he extending meanings? Don’t Paul’s Greek readers scratch their heads at first but still get what he’s saying? Why wouldn’t he just be clear with his Greek for 8th grade level readers? Now, why can’t we do that sort of metaphoring with “flesh” in English, for a New Testament translation?

  • […] First on the list, of course, was my firm agreement with many other scholars that the old NIV’s handling of the Greek word σάρξ (“sarx“) was simply abominable. Put simply, σάρξ (the Greek word for “flesh”) does not mean, nor does it ever […]

  • What would be a good English term to use? Would the term “human nature” work?

    • “Human nature” isn’t an ideal substitute because it implies more than just the bodily/appetitive part of that nature. It also tends today to be a circumlocution for “sinful nature,” as it serves as shorthand for “we’re all human, we’re all sinners.”

      I tend to favor just using “flesh,” as it’s not hard to explain how it works as a figurative way of representing the appetites.

      • Hello Jason,

        I enjoyed your article very much. I am actually seeing that there is somewhat of an awakening to flawed doctrines that some “translations” put forth. This is more than a word usage, it is in fact a doctrine and should be viewed as such.

        I recommend that you check out a Romans study by Michael Pearl, (available free in MP3 download). It takes a while since there are 20 or so “episodes” but it is well worth the listen.

        thank you for the forum.


        • Hi, Roy, thanks for the comment. I’m afraid that I cannot recommend Michael Pearl’s work, however, as I am a specialist in Romans and simply don’t think he gets it right.

          • Thanks for the reply Jason,

            I doubt if anyone “gets Romans right” in the sense of capturing the entire scope of Paul’s thesis; I can pick apart anyone’s sermon on any book of the Bible just as I am sure that you can as well.

            I am not stumping for Michael Pearl but considering that the subject at hand is that someone has finally accepted that the concept of the “sinful nature” does not work from translation or context when teaching Paul’s doctrine on the subject I recall that Michael Pearl deals with the subject of the flesh quite well in his Romans study.

            Paul is very clear on the subject that the flesh is the seat of sin and the death that Jesus experienced on our behalf actually does bring us into the same relationship to sin that Jesus has: We are dead to sin. This won’t work if we change sarx to “sinful nature” that one time in scripture.

            I know I am repeating myself but this is more than whether a word translation is more or less effective or understandable or modern etc… The issue is the actual doctrine that the apostle Paul under God’s guidance is teaching. I know that this sounds like a DUH moment but sometimes I see folks relying on semantics of language nuances and tradition and education and doctorates or Calvinist/Anti-Calvinist etc… and I think we would all be better served and serve better if we actually prayed as James suggests for wisdom; not doubting.

            In other words lets not rely on our argumentative prowess or education or even what we are an expert in, but on the Spirit of God to guide us.

            Please don’t get the idea that I am accusing you. I just see several quotes in your article and I think that we all can make use of an open mind, realizing that even teachers that we disagree with can teach us something; all the while praying for wisdom and discernment of course.

            Thank you again for the article.


  • Very good article and comments. I just wanted to add that in biology, we learn that animal behavior comes from the flesh. Also, for the most part, animal behavior is inherently selfish. Much of what looks like altruism in the animal kingdom is explained by kin selection or some other explanation. So selfishness (which is one way of looking at sin) comes from the flesh.

    I do find that many religiously trained individuals have trouble with this concept of a sin nature residing in physical flesh. The idea that our brains lead us to selfish behavior while the spirit leads us to righteousness is difficult for many outside of science to comprehend. They prefer to think that the word “flesh” is a metaphor with no connection to our sinful desires. For me, it was quite an eye opener to see how much Paul understood the source of sin being the flesh when modern science is basically only now understanding this.

  • Paul R. Highfield
    April 7, 2017 11:03 am

    I wonder if this translation of Romans 7: 18 from the Easy To Read version may be a good way to go, “Yes, I know that nothing good lives in me—I mean nothing good lives in the part of me that is not spiritual. I want to do what is good, but I don’t do it.” Paul

  • So if I understand you correctly, Dr. Staples (I must interpret Scripture, but I must also interpret Scripture interpreters!), you’re arguing that σάρξ, when Paul uses it metaphorically, refers to (the locus of) morally neutral appetites, and that it’s the same σάρξ both before and after the Fall? I don’t have your expertise, but I should think an easy way to test this would be “try it on for size” by paraphrasing verses such as the following:

    “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my [appetites]” (Rom. 7:18).

    “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the [appetites], God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of [the] [appetites] of sin and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the [appetites], so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the [appetites] but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the [appetites] set their minds on the things of the [appetites] but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the disposition of the [appetites] is death, but the disposition of the Spirit is life and peace, because the disposition of the [appetites] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the [appetites] cannot please God.” (Rom. 8:4-8)

    “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the [appetites]. For the [appetites] set[ their] desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the [appetites]; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Gal. 5:17)

    “Now the deeds of the [appetites] are evident . . . [but] those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the [appetites] with [their] passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:19, 24).

    “. . . [I]n Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the [appetites] by the circumcision of Christ . . . . When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your [appetites], He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions” (Col. 2:11, 13).

    I chose these specific verses because the neutral-sounding “appetites” doesn’t appear to work there. Paul really seems to be describing a “nature” or “aspect” or “dimension” – or whatever translation works! – that is inherently sinful, and therefore could not have been possessed by Adam and Eve before the Fall, and could not have been shared by our Lord in his incarnation. Moreover, “appetites” also doesn’t work in verses where Paul indicates that this “aspect” or “nature” is something we have “put off” or “circumcised.” I still enjoy BBQ as one of my appetites; I definitely haven’t circumcised it!

    So while the NIV’s “sinful nature” may not work in every case where the 1984 edition used it, that doesn’t mean it can’t work anywhere (hence the NLT has picked up the term). I value a less interpretive/more literal translation for study purposes, which is why I lean heavily on the NASB; however, there’s value in a more interpretive Bible as well, especially for newbies or inquirers.

    Your response . . . ?

    • It would be wrong to gloss σάρξ with “appetites”; it is instead the seat of the appetites, the animal flesh that drives a person to desire all sorts of things, many of which are illicit. Thus Paul can say, “I know that nothing good dwells in my flesh,” because just like a black bear is not morally good or bad, a human being’s goodness is not in the flesh.

      Similarly, in Rom 8:4–8, the problem is precisely that the flesh, ungoverned by mind/spirit, is unruly. A person’s appetites are as likely to be directed toward something illicit as not—and may actually be more driven toward the illicit once bent that way by practice. And if a person lacks the heart/spirit to properly direct the desires, these appetites will inevitably lead to sin. This is precisely the problem Paul highlights with his speech-in-character passage in Rom 7:14–28, and it’s what he says is fixed by receiving the Holy Spirit/new heart promised by the prophets. That new heart/spirit now enables a person to be properly ordered rather than governed by the unruly, animal flesh. (Note the NT tendency to refer to those who are governed by the appetites as “like brute beasts.”)

      The same applies to all the other passages you posted. None of these work in the manner the Augustinian schema of concupiscence would suggest; instead, they are (as one might expect) much more similar to typical Hellenistic (and Rabbinic) models of anthropology and morality. Augustine’s “sinful nature” concept is quite different from these and from what Paul is doing.

  • greg dempster
    November 7, 2017 2:48 pm

    Thanks for your work! The option for sarks/flesh in Rom. 6,7,8 that has really helped me and those I work is very simply the “unaided life” or “independent life,” Would be interested in your thoughts…thanks!
    Greg Dempster

    • Those are interesting glosses for it, though they do lose the sense of embodied desire that “sarx” has in Greek. The distinction is really between the urges that come as a result of being embodied versus the rational, spiritual faculties that should govern those drives and desires.

      Paul does talk frequently about the spirit as providing the necessary resources (“aid”) to supersede these desires and lead to a righteous life, so in that respect you’re on the right track here.

  • Colin Chung
    May 19, 2018 1:07 am

    My goal is to better understand soma versus sarx and I am not a theologian. I have a good understanding of soma, but sarx is still something I’m grappling with. I have a question to try to put this into context. I see a 2 year old child who doesn’t want to share his toys and wants to beat his sister for stealing any of his toys. Is this “flesh” or “sinful nature.”?

  • Colin Chung
    May 20, 2018 2:06 am

    So that’s where my confusion lies. In your article you define that the “flesh is itself irrational, it is prone to desiring unlawful or sinful things” If we define sin as “missing the mark”, “illicit”, etc – and the flesh is prone to desiring sinful, illicit things, how is that different from an “inclination to sin” or “sin nature”?

    Or are you suggesting that the “flesh” is equally prone 50/50 to do sinful or good things? If the “flesh”= left to its own devices – is prone 90% of the time to do illicit things – I’m not sure how that is different from an inclination to sin or sin nature?

    My goal in understanding sarx is manifold: 1) Communion scriptures used both soma and sarx 2) Paul spoke a lot about sarx and victory as a Christian 3) John made sure we understood what it meant to know that Jesus came in the sarx and 4) if you look at all the works of the enemy – freemasonry, gnostics, etc, it’s been adamant and extremely aggressive in denying that Jesus came in the sarx so there is “hidden gold” for Christians if we truly understand what it means that Jesus came in the sarx. For me this is more than just some intellectual exercise but it has huge implications for victorious living as a Christian. Naturally, I really want to understand this…

  • Burnell R Zimmerman
    October 23, 2019 10:07 pm

    2011 NIV revision? But the google entry is dated 2019. When was this article written?


    The title of this topic sounds like some chapters of my book.
    The “Sinful Nature” Dilemma & Problems

    There is more theology that goes with the right translation of Sarx. Sinful Nature, Lower Nature, Human Nature, Human Condition, are all definitely theologically wrong.
    Hebr 2:14-17 says He partook of the SAME; e.g. Blood & Flesh It was absolutely necessary that there be no difference between the High Priest and us, otherwise it would have defeated the purpose of His coming (He did not come only to die for sins) It was absolutely necessary that He have no advantage over his brothers (born again people)

  • Lane Buckner
    March 13, 2021 1:04 pm

    Thank you Jason A. Staples. I’m a layman struggling to understand.

    How does μέλος melos in Romans 7 fit into this discussion?

    • That’s a good question. That word typically denotes a “member” or “part” of the body and can be euphemistically used just like the English word “member” can. It seems that Paul is here employing a bit of litotes as a way of referring to the locus of bodily passions and desires.

  • Thanks for this article written over 10 years ago, Jason! Such a great topic. I have been studying the nature of the Man in Christ and the implications for who he is ontologically and what the source of sin is in the life of the believer.
    Here are several things I would like to point out:
    1. I think the notion that Christ took on the same flesh that all sinners have doesn’t work. There is a reason that the Holy Spirit used the phrase, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” If it was the same flesh, then saying “in the lightness of” is both confusing and unnecessary.
    2. It’s important to note that Paul says in Romans 7 that there is a “law of sin” located in his members. I believe that law of sin came into being on the day Adam sinned. God promised that he would die on the day that he sinned, and he did die then. Romans 5 says that we sinned in Adam that day, and I believe Romans five and other places make it clear that everyone born of Adam is born with that same dead spirit, depraved.
    3. This Side of Heaven we will not fully understand the ontology of the man in Christ, nor the exact makeup of the flesh in the believer. Although it certainly doesn’t answer all these questions, I like what John MacArthur said when he was defending the idea that Christians only have one nature. When asked how that can be true when we send like we do, he simply said,” the reason we sin is because we are new creatures living in unredeemed bodies.” And it’s interesting to note that in Romans 8:23 Paul says what we are now waiting eagerly for is our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies!”


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