John H. Gerstner



SPEAKING OF GOD’S PROVIDENCE, we noticed sin incidentally. We now bring it into focus. One cannot think of God’s holy ways without thinking of our unholy ones. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of our sin. Sin is the most important conviction any man can have. It is a bad theology which thinks man good. Any good theology must start with man as bad.

In the opening verses of chapter two of Ephesians, Paul describes unconverted persons by many different expressions. They are called “dead through trespasses and sins”; they are seen as walking in the “course of this world,” walking “according to the prince of the power of the air,” fulfilling “the lusts of the flesh and of the mind,” and “by nature” they are “children of wrath.” The former terms refer to the expressions of their character. The last expression, “children of wrath,” is the root cause of their character. It is because the unconverted or unquickened person is by nature a child of wrath that he is dead in trespasses and sin and walks according to the will of the world, the devil, and the flesh. These evil works reveal him as naturally liable to “wrath” — the wrath of God, His abiding fury. That is, the unconverted person — whoever he may be — is, by nature, doomed to destruction, for sin is no respecter of persons. Be he a Gentile, like those to whom Paul wrote, or a Jew, like Paul himself, he is a child of wrath. Sin makes no racial distinctions.

I. Sin No Respecter of Persons

All people, in and out of the church, are by nature children of wrath. Paul begins his description of the unconverted by referring to the Gentiles, the Ephesians, who were outside the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the promises of God, etc. However, before he finishes his description, he includes Israel as well in the indictment, saying: “Among whom also we [we Israelites also] had our conversation in the times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.” Paul thereby teaches that although Israelites had received circumcision, which was “the seal of righteousness by faith,” they were not thereby changed in nature. Because they had been engrafted into the visible church, they were not thereby necessarily engrafted into the invisible body of Christ. They, just like the Gentiles (“pagans”) whom they despised as outside the law, needed to be born again. Though they were heirs of the promises, they still remained by nature children of wrath, even as the others. It was a Jew — and a Jewish ruler at that (Nicodemus) — to whom Jesus had said: “Ye must be born again” (John 3:3).

II. Proof That Sin Is No Respecter of Persons

A. General Bible Teaching

Note how this teaching of Ephesians is corroborated everywhere in Scripture. David says in Psalm 51: “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” In Psalm 58:3 we read: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.” Eliphaz, one of Job’s three friends, is very emphatic: “What is man, that he should clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints: yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight. How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh iniquity like water?” (Job 15:14-16). In 14:4 Job asks, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” Job is speaking here expressly of man being born of a woman, as spoken of in verse 1. This is given as a reason for man’s not being clean. That is, being a human creature, proceeding by ordinary generation, man is naturally polluted.

B. “Man Used Synonymously with Sinner

The Bible sees man so constantly and universally associated with sin that it virtually uses the term “man” as synonymous with “sin.” “Cursed is he that trusteth in man,” said the Lord in Jeremiah 17:5. Christ said to Peter, “Get thee behind me, Satan. . . . for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (Matt. 16:23). This plainly signifies that to be carnal and vain — opposite to what is spiritual and divine — is what properly belongs to men in their present sinful state. Compare also I Corinthians 3:3; I Peter 4:2; Job 15:6.

C. Man More Destructive than Animals

That man is more wicked and destructive than even voracious and wild animals is clear from a somber remark of our Lord. When He sent forth his disciples into the world, to bear witness of Him, He said: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: . . . but beware of men.” It was as if He said, “I send you forth as sheep among wolves. But why do I say wolves? I send you forth into the wide world of men, that are far more dangerous than wolves.” Jonathan Edwards was justified in saying: “There is no one lust in the heart of the devil that is not in the heart of man. Natural men are in the image of the devil. The image of God is rased out and the image of the devil is stamped upon them.”1

One writer tells of a Christian who in prayer cited the words of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked,” and then continued by saying: “O Lord, Thou knowest we no longer accept this interpretation.” This amounts to saying that we no longer accept the Bible’s interpretation of sin. But for us to reject the verdict of the Word of God about sin is a dreadful act of sin, is it not? So if we deny the sin which the Bible says is in our hearts, we prove that it is there, do we not? Perhaps the very best proof of the sin of our hearts is that we deny the sin of our hearts.

In or out of the church, then, the unconverted person’s liability to eternal destruction is not occasioned by his environment but by his inherited nature. “We are by nature children of wrath.” It is not by what we do that we are children of wrath, but by what we are. We do not become children of wrath by doing evil things, but we do evil things because we are children of wrath. Of course, doing evil makes us more and more the children of wrath. As Christ said, the proselytes of the Pharisees became twofold more the children of Hell than they (Matt. 23:15). Not by environment are we the children of wrath, but by nature. It is our nature which makes our environment evil and not our environment which makes our natures evil. This is the startling thing that the inspired Apostle taught in Ephesians 2:3.

Reinhold Niebuhr, America’s distinguished neo-orthodox theologian, lectured to the students and faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 1940. He was discussing original sin and gave this domestic illustration. His son, who was then seven, had been in a neighborhood brawl. Niebuhr was inclined to finish what the boys had begun, but the maid interceded. “Professor Niebuhr,” she said, “it is not your son’s fault. It’s the company he keeps.” The father replied: “It is not the company he keeps. It is his own little black heart.”

D. Even Infants Are Polluted

What shows the iniquity of man most clearly of all is that infants themselves are contaminated with sin. Before babies learn how to think or speak or act responsibly they are by nature children of wrath. The Bible shows this first of all inferentially. That is, it teaches clearly that the wages of sin is death. Where there is no sin, there would be no death. If there were no sin, there would be no suffering. Yet babies both suffer and die. Sometimes they suffer dreadfully and sometimes they die in agony. “Therefore,” said John Wesley, “children themselves are not innocent before God. They suffer, therefore they deserve to suffer.” Or as the Lutheran theologian Sohnius puts it: “Since infants die, as universal experience teaches, it is evident that they must be chargeable with sin; for Paul clearly represents sin as the cause of death — of the death of all men. ‘For the wages of sin is death.’” John Calvin says: “We are by nature the children of wrath. But God does not condemn the innocent. Therefore, . . .” And so Calvin argues that God’s calling our natures guiltily corrupt proves that we are corrupt and, at the same time, responsible for our native corruption.

Some moderns have jumped to the conclusion that there is no necessary connection between sin and suffering and death. This they do because our Lord has told us there is no necessary connection between a particular sin and a particular suffering. A calamity coming upon a particular person is no proof that the person is a greater sinner than one on whom that particular calamity did not come. But Christ nowhere says that suffering is unconnected with sin, or that there would be death where there was no sin.

Continuing with the sinfulness of infants, we call attention to the divinely commanded execution of some Midianite children, mentioned in Numbers 31:17. Moses there commanded the Israelites to slay all of the male children, as Saul was commanded on a later occasion to slay all the infants of the Amalekites, I Samuel 15:3. In Psalm 137:9 we read: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Edwards, in his Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, says: “I proceed to take notice of something remarkable concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, represented in Ezek. 9, when command was given [to them that had charge over the city] to destroy the inhabitants, ver. 1-8. And this reason is given for it, that their iniquity required it, and it was a just recompense of their sin (ver. 9, 10). God, at the same time, was most particular and exact in his care, that such as had proved by their behavior, that they were not partakers in the abominations of the city, should by no means be involved in the slaughter. Command was given to the angel to go through the city, and set a mark upon their foreheads, and the destroying angel had a strict charge not to come near any man, on whom was the mark; yet the infants were not marked nor a word said of sparing them: on the contrary, infants were expressly mentioned as those that should be utterly destroyed, without pity (ver. 5, 6). ‘Go through the city and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity. Slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children; but come not near any man upon whom is the mark.’” Sodom would have been spared by God if there had been ten righteous; since there must have been ten infants, these could not have been righteous. We read in Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” Matthew 18: 11 says that the Son of man came “to save that which is lost.” If, therefore, children who die are saved, as many believe, it is from a lost condition by nature!

E. Inevitability of Punishment

Not only do the above passages teach us that any unconverted person is exposed to wrath but they also teach that it is absolutely certain to come upon him. The expression “children of wrath” was a Hebrew idiom. It meant that the person so described was inevitably liable to wrath. It was an idiomatic way of saying what Paul says more conventionally in Romans 9. There he speaks of “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.” In Deuteronomy 25:2 the expression “son of stripes” is used to signify one who is to be beaten. In II Samuel 12:5, the expression “son of death” is used of one who is certain to die. We remember that Christ referred to Judas as the “son of perdition,” the heir of Hell, the one certain to receive that dread destiny. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul shows that the unconverted person is already under the “prince of the power of the air.” Every soul is the habitation of unclean spirits, precisely because by nature he is a child of wrath.

So we have seen from the Ephesians text, from other statements of Scripture, from biblical references to man as virtually synonymous with sinner and worse than an animal and more like a devil, from the lost condition even of babies, and from the inevitability of punishment, that the unconverted are by nature — not by environment, and without respect to persons or distinction of race — children of wrath.

III. Application of the Universality of Sin

Let us now apply this doctrine to ourselves. First, let me apply it to myself. This means that, though I am a minister of the gospel, I am by nature a child of wrath. Even Paul, the greatest of ministers and apostles, included himself. “We also,” he said. No privilege or opportunity can blind us to this sober fact. Indeed, a true minister is one who preaches as a dying man to dying men, telling them of a Saviour who can save both him and them.

Second, as professing Christians we need to take warning. We have already shown that we, too, are “by nature children of wrath even as the rest.” Let us not say to ourselves, “Abraham is our father.” Let us not say we are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists. Let us not say that we come to church regularly and give our tithes and teach our class and visit the sick. We are by nature children of wrath, just like the rest of this perishing world. If we have a hope of salvation, it must be on some other basis than what we are. By nature we are lost. Let us not say, “Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other men. I am not like people who play golf on Sunday afternoons, or people who give less than a nickel a week to charity, or people who read foul novels and tell dirty stories.” We are by nature children of wrath just like the rest. There is no hope for you, no matter what you join or what you do or what you say unless you acknowledge that you are in yourself reeking with corruption and in a lost condition by nature, a dwelling place for the devil, an enemy of God, a hypocrite, and a criminal. What has made the matter worse is that you have thought well of yourself. You resent having anyone, even God, calling you names because you consider yourself a decent person, one who dwells among decent people.

But the Bible tells you, you are no saint. You must recognize yourself to be a sinner by birth and by nature (Luke 18:13-14). Only one who recognizes that he is a sinner can ever be a saint. Sinners deny that they are sinners — for the sin of lying is part of their sin. Saints admit that they are sinners by nature, for as saints they now tell the truth.

Third, those outside the church need to be warned. Professing Christians are presumably repentant (though by no means necessarily so, as we have previously seen). Those outside the church are presumably impenitent (though there may be very rare exceptions). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Generally, those outside the church do not hear the Word of God, by which faith and salvation comes. That is, they do not hear it unless you tell them. Unless they hear it, they who — like you — are by nature children of wrath will most certainly perish under the judgment of God. The wrath of God is upon them now. His fury burns hot against them. Their life hangs by a thin thread, and when that thread is broken, they will go to their everlasting home of suffering. How shall they hear without a preacher? You, as a Christian, are their preacher. Do not worry only about what will happen to people who never hear the gospel. Worry about what will happen to you if you never tell them the gospel. They will perish, but you will be held responsible by God for your failure to give them the gospel. There is positively no way by which they can escape the wrath which is to come and that which now is, except through the only name given under Heaven whereby men may be saved — the name of Jesus. You have that name. If you truly believe in it and are trusting in Christ’s grace for your salvation, you will most certainly try, as opportunity affords, to win some. “Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men,” said Paul. And, knowing the love of the Lord, we should persuade men, too. “We thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again” (II Cor. 5:14-15). The love of Christ constrains men; the terror of Christ constrains men.

Fourth, nothing less than a change of nature is needed. If we are by nature children of wrath we can only become children of grace by new birth. When we read that a very religious man of great influence and reputation came to Jesus and was told, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see [or enter] the kingdom of God,” we realize that a radical change is necessary. This religious man had to be born from above; he had to be born again. He had to be given a new nature. He had to be born twice. He had to have a radical transformation of soul. The ruling disposition of his life had to be changed. Until that time, there was no hope for him. He was by nature a child of wrath just like the rest. He was a perishing sinner. Every moment that he lived, he was odious to God. Every moment that he continued his impenitent way, he was storing up wrath against the day of wrath. Every moment that he lived, he was making the fires of Hell that much hotter. The time would come when he would wish that he had never lived a happy moment longer. The time would come when he would wish that he had never been born. It would be better for that man if he had never been born, or if a millstone had been tied about his neck and he were cast into the sea. Being a child of wrath is as dreadful as being a child of glory is wonderful.

1 “Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition,” Works, VIII, 10.


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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