Question: Some Bible translations use the term “sinful nature” instead of “flesh.” Which is more accurate?
Usually, “flesh” is the more accurate translation. Here’s why:
The phrase “sinful nature” in many of our English Bibles typically translates the Greek word sarx, which literally means “flesh,” meat,” or sometimes “body.” However, it can also be used as a metaphor (occasionally) to mean the “sinful nature” associated with the powerful passions of our physical body. Romans 7:5 and 18 (NIV, 2011) represent good examples of sarx being accurately translated both ways:
Rom. 7:5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh (sarx), the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.
Here, sarx literally refers to the “flesh” as the physical home (“realm”) of sinful passions and desires. In verse 18, however, Paul uses the same word (sarx) in a somewhat broader way, where “flesh” refers to himself as a human being once controlled by physical passions:
Rom. 7:18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature (sarx). For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
Notice how Paul says, “good…does not dwell in me,”—then explains “me” with the word sarx—meaning the physical, fleshly part of his nature that is dominated by sinful desires. Here, sarx is used metaphorically to indicate the man he once was before he came under the control of the Holy Spirit.
As he explains a little later…
Rom. 8:5 Those who live according to the flesh (sarx) have their minds set on what the flesh (sarx) desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
Simply put, the New Testament teaches that the “desires” that drive human beings have their source in the flesh (sarx)—our physical nature. We are slaves to those desires, unable to live as God desires for us, even when we desire His will for ourselves (Rom. 7:25; Rom. 8:8). However, when we surrender control of our lives to Jesus Christ as Lord, His Holy Spirit takes up residence in our physical bodies. Then we have a choice…
Rom. 8:5 Those who live according to the flesh (sarx) have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
The newest edition of the NIV (2011) has actually improved upon the earlier, 1984 translation in this regard, changing the older version’s over-use of “sinful nature” back to “flesh,” where the word sarx is clearly intended in the Greek to be literally understood. “Sinful nature” is not incorrect, just less clear in terms of how powerful the body is in determining human behavior.
But the really good news is this:
Gal. 5:24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.