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Andrew Lincoln on Ephesians 2:3

April 30, 2009


kai emetha tekna phusei orges os kai loipoi, “and we were by nature children of wrath like the rest.” When they once lived their lives in such total absorption with the flesh, the writer and all believers were tekna. . . orges, “children of wrath.” This is a Hebraism, like “sons of disobedience” in v 2, which means they were deserving of and liable to wrath. This wrath is clearly God’s wrath (cf. Eph 5:6; also Col 3:5,6) rather than merely an impersonal process of cause and effect or a principle of retribution in a moral universe. The wrath of God is a concept which occurs frequently in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It refers to God’s active judgment going forth against all forms of sin and evil and is evidence of his absolute holiness (cf. Rom 1:18; 2:5,8; 3:5; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12: 19; 13:4,5). The Hebraistic expression used here in Eph 2:3 reminds one of the way in which in the OT a person deserving of punishment is spoken of as a “son of stripes” (Deut 25:2) or a person doomed to die is spoken of as a “son of death” (cf. 1 Sam 26: 16; 2 Sam 12:5; Ps 102:20). It is also reminiscent of the way in which in apocalyptic literature Cain, in being marked out for judgment, is described as a “son of wrath” (Apoc. Mos. 3). In the NT also, Jesus is represented as condemning the proselytizing of the Pharisees, declaring that when they made a convert he was twice as much a “son of Gehenna” as they themselves (Matt 23: 15). The children of wrath, then, are those who are doomed to God’s wrath because through their condition of sinful rebellion, they deserve his righteous judgment.

As does Paul in Rom 1:18-3:20, the writer makes this category cover all humanity outside Christ. os kai oi loipoi means “like the rest of humanity,” and in this way the sinful condition and its consequences, which the writer has been describing, become all-embracing in their extent. What was once true of the readers (vv 1,2) was also once true of all believers (v 3a), and what was once true of all believers is also true of the rest of humanity (v 3b). The human condition of being destined to judgment in the day of God’s wrath is a condition that is “by nature.” What is the force of the term phusei here? Elsewhere the noun phusis can refer to the natural order of things (cf. Rom 1:26; 1 Cor 11:14), but the actual expression phusei the dative, “by nature,” occurs elsewhere in the NT in Gal 2: 15, “we who are Jews by nature,” where it refers to that which comes through birth rather than that which is acquired later (cf. also phuseos in Rom 2:27), in Gal 4:8, where it means “in reality,” and in Rom 2:14, 15, where it means “of one’s own free will, voluntarily, independently.” phusei in Eph 2:3 belongs with the first of these uses (cf. also A. Bonhoffer, Epiktet und das NT [Giessen: Topelmann, 19111 146-54; BAGD 869; Barth, 23 1; contra Gnilka, 117). So, in their natural condition, through birth, men and women are “children of wrath.”

Some commentators (e.g., J. A. Robinson, 50-51; Gnilka, 117; Barth, 231) wish to dissociate the thought expressed in this verse from any notion of original sin. (On the history of interpretation of this verse in connection with that doctrine, as seen mainly from a Catholic perspective, see Mehlmann’s Latin monograph, Natura filii Irae.) But if original sin refers to the innate sinfulness of human nature inherited from Adam in consequence of the fall, then such a notion is not entirely alien to the thought of this verse when it speaks of the impossibility of humanity of itself, in its natural condition, escaping God’s wrath. To be sure, the verse does not explicitly teach original sin by making a statement about how this tragic plight came to be humanity’s natural condition. Yet the idea of the natural condition in which one finds oneself by birth being a sinful state deserving of God’s judgment surely presupposes some such view of original sin as is found in Rom 5:12-21, where Paul recognizes that, as well as sinning themselves, men and women, in solidarity with Adam, inherit a sinful situation by sharing in the one sin of the one man (cf. also Schlier, 107; BAGD 869, where Eph 2:3 is translated “we were, in our natural condition [as descendants of Adam], children of wrath.”) “By nature” should not of course be taken to mean that sinfulness is of the essence of human nature. In Pauline thought sin is always abnormal, a disorder, but in a fallen world the natural condition of human beings involves experience of that abnormality and disorder. In this sense, Eph 2:l-10 contains a contrast between nature and grace, between fallen human existence in and of itself and the divine initiative required if human life is to be restored to what it was meant to be.

Andrew Lincoln “Ephesians,” Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, Tex.: Word Books,1990), 98-99. [Note: Liable should be understood in its legal sense, rather than its more general conversational sense.]

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