The New International Version’s Translation Of Sarax

By Ferrell Jenkins

Imagine the time, money, and effort that must be expended in order to produce a completely new translation of the Bible. The New International Version (NIV) “involved more than a hundred scholars working in excess of 200,000 man-hours over a period of twenty-five years at a cost of more than two million dollars” (Youngblood 239).

In the early 1950’s evangelical Bible scholars began talking and writing about the need for another translation of the Bible. Some recognized that the language of the King James Version (KJV) was difficult for modern readers. Some felt the Revised Standard Version (RSV) to be too liberal. After the publication of the New American Standard Bible.- New Testament (NASB) in the 1960’s, one scholar concluded that it showed little improvement over the American Standard Version of 1901. By the mid 1960’s meetings began to be held to make plans for what eventually would become the N%~w International Version. For those who are interested in an overview of the translation project in conception and implementation, we recommend the article by Youngblood.

The New Testament of the NIV was published in 1973 and the complete Bible was issued in the fall of 1978 with advance sales of more than one million copies. The most complete evaluation of the format, notes, text, changing editions, and features of the NIV that I have seen is that by Jack P. Lewis (Lewis, The English Bible 293-328). Brother Lewis had what he called a “minor” role in the translation of three Old Testament books. His account of some of the discussions that went on within the committee makes interesting reading and gives one an insight into some of the difficulties faced by translations (Lewis, “The New International Version”).

The Text

There are many ways to evaluate the NIV. One might evaluate the underlying text from which it was translated. In this case it follows the same basic approach as the English Revised Version (American Standard Version), the Revised Standard Version, and the New American Standard Version. These versions are translated from a text which is considered by textual critics to be based on the best and oldest manuscripts.(1)

It differs from the “majority text” approach taken by the King James Version and the New King James Version.(2) In light of this, we find it strange that some suggest that the KJV, ASV, or NKJV are the “safe” translations.(3) Many of the criticisms of the NIV which I have seen compare its wording with that of the KJV or ASV without any recourse to the Hebrew and Greek texts from which the translations were made. Let us add that there is no textual problem regarding the term under consideration in this article.

The Language

Another way to evaluate a translation is on the basis of the modern language into which it is translated. Trial portions of the NIV were read and criticized by a wide variety of people (both in and out of the churches) prior to its publication (Youngblood 246). One reviewer said that the NIV used both contemporary English and international English (free of “Americanisms” and “Britishisms” (Craigie 251). A research study was conducted by an educator to test the readability of the KJV, NASB, and the NIV among students in the middle grades. Another study was conducted among high school students. As a general rule it was demonstrated that students scored higher when using the NIV (Chappell). This is good. From somewhere I recall that when Martin Luther was criticized for translating the Bible into German so that more could read it he said, “Perhaps there will be more Christians.”

The Theology of the NIV

One might choose to evaluate the NIV on the basis of the theology of its translators. If we compared it with the RSV we would say that it was conservative. In fact, this is one of the motivating factors behind the new translation (Harris 1242). Every translator was asked to subscribe to the following affirmation: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs” (Youngblood 245). This we find commendable.

But another theological stance to be considered is that in the widest sense of the word all of the translators were evangelicals and that the majority of the translators were adherents to the doctrines of Calvinism. Edwin H. Palmer, author of The Five Points of Calvinism, was the Executive Secretary of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation during its production. Don Jackson has recently published an article in which he seeks to show “the NIV to be free from any thoroughgoing theological bias that sacrifices its goal of accuracy in translation” (Jackson 210). Jackson deals with the areas of Theological Terminology, Christology, and Soteriology. It is to this last area, the doctrine of salvation, that this article takes us.

The Translation of Sarx

Most of the translators of the NIV shared a Calvinist doctrine of salvation. One of the hallmarks of Calvinism is the doctrine of original sin, or hereditary total depravity. Several writers have seen the NIV’s handling of the Greek word sarx

to be a reflection of the Calvinistic views of the translators. Notice some of the criticisms that have been offered:

The eighth chapter of Romans is the epitome of the false doctrine of original sin insinuated promiscuously into Paul’s epistles of the New International Version. It is shyly ensconced within the sinister phrase “our sinful nature,” which nowhere occurs in the New Testament but inserted nine times in Romans 8, in the New International. It is the denominational dogma of hereditary total depravity. . . (Wallace 700).

But, now with the NIV rendering of Rom. 8:3,4,5,8,9,12,13 as “sinful nature” instead of “flesh,” they (Calvinists) have a ‘,Bible” from which to teach their doctrine (Rader 9).

To translate “flesh” as “sinful nature” favors the Calvinistic view of depravity of man in his total nature (Baird 185).

Romans 7:18; 13:14; Galatians 5:13 and other passages in the NIV render the Greek word sarx “sinful nature.” The ASV renders the Greek word “flesh.” “Sinful nature” in the NIV is the old Calvinism of original sin. Besides that, in Romans 8:6 the NIV is inconsistent because there they render the same Greek word “sinful man.” They should have rendered the Greek word sarx “flesh” and left the explanation to others (Merideth 86).

Dr. David Scaer, a Lutheran professor at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, says the NIV “in many places adjusts passages to fit a Calvinist, and sometimes Fundamentalist, bias” (“NIV Often Adjusts. . . ” 1).

The word sarx is used no less than 151 times in the New Testament. The KJV translates it flesh (147 times), carnal (2 times), carnally minded (I time), and fleshly (I time) (Smith, 318). According to Bauer the Greek word has at least eight different meanings: (1) “the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body”; (2) “the body”; (3) “a man of flesh and blood”; (4) “human or mortal nature, earthly descent”; (5) “corporeality, physical limitation(s), life here on earth”; (6) “the external or outward side of life”; (7) “In Paul’s thought especially, the flesh is the willing instrument of sin, and is subject to sin to such a degree that wherever flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise present, and no good thing can live in the sarx Rom. 7:18. . . “; (8) “The sarx is the source of the sexual urge, without any suggestion of sinfulness connected with it (Jn. 1: 13)” (Bauer 743-744).

It is Bauer’s meaning number seven with which we are concerned. What does the word sarx mean in this connection’? We have indicated above that many see the NIV translation of sarx as proof that the NIV translators were attempting to validate their doctrine of total depravity. But some, who presumably do not share the Calvinistic doctrine, argue that such is not the case:

The NIV’s descriptive terminology is in keeping with the teaching of the passages in question. Whether that ‘sinful nature’ is an inherited Original Sin or a description of that part of man that leads to sin is determined by the expositor and exegete. The basic doctrinal problem lies not with the interpretation of the translation but the interpretation of the original. Should one be inclined to find the doctrine of Original Sin, he will do so whether the translation is “flesh,” “sinful nature,” or sarx. The doctrine of Original Sin is not necessarily inherit in the translation “sinful nature” (Jackson 219).

Even non-Calvinistic students have long struggled with the nature of man and his relationship to sin. Jackson mentions sarx as “that part of man that leads to sin.” Wallace says that man “becomes a sinner,” and that “Adam acquired the propensity of sin” (Wallace 701). My own struggle to find the correct Word to describe the meaning of sarx in the passages under consideration is found in my Flesh and Spirit: A Word Study (6-10). I believe it to be an acquired condition; that man becomes a sinner by sinning.(4)

The NIV and Sarx

A careful study shows that the NIV has been most inconsistent in its translation of sarx. In certain passages the translators have used the phrase “sinful nature” for sarx. For example, the word sarx is used 10 times in Ephesians, and the NIV has rendered it “sinful nature” only in Ephesians 2:3. This seems to me to be a theologically motivated translation. Of course, Calvinistic commentators were making use of this verse before the publication of the NIV. Hendriksen, for example, says “The flesh or depraved human nature, accordingly, produces evil desires” (New Testament Commentary: Ephesians 115).

In Colossians the term sarx is used 9 times. It has been rendered “sinful nature” only in 2:11 and 2:13. Note the way sarx is translated throughout Colossians in the NIV.

Col. 1:22 – physical body (The reference is to Christ. Why did not they translate it “sinful nature”?)

Col. 1:24 -flesh (The reference is to Paul’s physical body.)

Col. 2:1 – met me personally (for “seen my face in the flesh”)

Col. 2:5 – body

Col. 2:11 – sinful nature

Col. 2:13 – sinful nature

Col. 2:18 – unspiritual

Col. 2:23 – sensual

Col. 3:22 – – (Here the NIV omits any translation for the phrase kata sarka, “according to the flesh.”)

It is granted that sarx does not have the same meaning in every occurrence, and many of the renderings of the NIV are quite good. The problem is that the NIV has used “sinful nature” only when it seems to bolster the theological view of hereditary total depravity. The use of so many different words and phrases by which to render sarx obliterates the actual usage of sarx. The practice of using many English words to translate a single Greek word has brought much criticism of the KJV.

In Romans 1:3 where sarx is used of Christ it is translated “human nature.” When sarx is used of man in Romans 7:5,18, and 25 it is rendered “sinful nature.” In Romans 8:3, where sarx is used 3 times, the NIV has it “sinful nature” in the first instance where it refers to man. But when it refers to Christ coming in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (the Greek is sarkos harmatias, flesh of sin), they have used “sinful man.” Such haphazard rendering can only be for the purpose of advancing the theological view of total depravity.

Please remember that the translators responsible for the phrase “sinful nature” sincerely believed that man does have an inherited depraved nature; their translation is simply a reflection of their theological self-understanding. Also keep in mind that many of the passages translated as “sinful nature” were already being used by Calvinists as proof-texts for their doctrine. Our task really hasn’t changed all that much. Still we must urge people to look to the sum of God’s word on this and every subject.

Our Task

All of my preaching life I have been explaining to inquiring minds that English words like “baptism,” and “church,” mean different things to various people. Our approach has been to return to the definition of these words in Koine Greek and to the contexts in which they are used in the New Testament to determine what they meant to the first readers and what they should mean to us. I think we will have to go on doing this regarding sarx and a host of other words.

Nearly 120 years ago J.W. McGarvey was pointing out translations of Acts in the common version (KJV) which failed to convey correctly the idea of the Greek. Some of the verses seemed to favor Calvinistic teaching (Acts 2:47; 3:19; 13:48; McGarvey 50, 54-59, 169-171). Alexander Campbell had already, in 1858, corrected these verses in his American Bible Union translation of Acts (Campbell).

Of the making of many books there is no end, and of the making of new translations there doesn’t seem to be an end. Likewise, I suppose that there will be no end to the need for explaining what Bible words mean, what the context says, and what harmonizes with other Scriptures.(5)


1. The ERV and the ASV translators relied heavily on the WestcottHort edition of the Greek New Testament. The NASB, NIV, NEB, and RSV translators worked from the type of text represented by the United Bible Societies The Greek New Testament. By consulting Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, one may learn why any particular reading was placed in the text or assigned to the footnote (critical apparatus). For a discussion of this approach the reader is directed to the following works: Ewert, David. From Ancient Tablets to Modern Translation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1983; Greenlee, J.H. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964; Harrison, Wahke, Guthrie, Fee. Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978; Metzger, B.M. The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. The article by Lewis, “The Text of the New Testament,” points up some of the issues involved in the debate regarding which Greek text should be used.

2. The KJV and the NKJV are based on the, Textus Receptus. This term was applied to the second edition of a Greek text published by two Elzevir brothers in 1633. Their text was taken mainly from Theodore Beza’s text of 1595. Beza was a successor of John Calvin. The type of manuscripts from which Beza made his text are known as the Byzantine text. “The majority of the late manuscripts have this text. . . ” (Ewert 151).

3. Some cite criticisms of the versions from John William Burgon. One should remember that his criticism was aimed primarily at the ERV (which became the ASV).

4. For my reply to the Calvinistic doctrines relating to the nature of man and conversion see The Finger of God (14-16).

5. I have other problems with the NIV but they do not fall within the scope of this article.

Selected List of Works Consulted

Baird, James O. “Unfortunate Renderings In The NIV.” Gospel Advocate. March 22, 1979: 181-185.

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 2nd ed. Translation and adaptation William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Campbell, Alexander. Acts of the Apostles. Austin: Firm Foundation. Reprint of 1858 edition.

Chappell, Dwight. A Readability Report on the New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.

Craigie, Peter C. “The New International Version: A Review Article. ” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21 (1978): 251-254.

Harris, R. Laird. “Do Evangelicals Need A New Bible Translation?” Christianity Today 12 (September 27, 1978): 1242,1244-1246.

Jackson, Don. “The Theology of the NIV.” Restoration Quarterly 27 (1984): 208-220.

Jenkins, Ferrell. Flesh and Spirit: A Word Study. Fairmount, IN: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1981.

Lewis, Jack P. The English Bible From KJV to NIV. A History and Evaluation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981.

___________. “The New International Version.” Restoration Quarterly (198 1): 1 -11.

___________. “The Text of the New Testament.” Restoration Quarterly 27 (1984): 65-74.

McGarvey, J.W. A Commentary on Acts of Apostles. Cincinnati: Wrightson & Co., 1868. This work is not to be confused with the more popular New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, 1882.

Merideth, J. Noel. “New International Version.” Gospel Advocate. February 5, 1976: 86-87.

Motyer, J.A. “Flesh.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.

“NIV Often Adjusts Passages to Fit Calvinist-Fundamentalist Bias.” The Christian News. 12 Sept. 1983: 1,16. As source this article cites Concordia Theological Quarterly, April, 1983.

Radar, Dorris V., and Rader, Donnie V. “The New International Version (or Pseudo-Version).” Searching the Scriptures. August, 1984: 174-183.

Smith, J.D. Greek-English Concordance to the New Testament. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1955.

Wallace, Foy E., Jr. A Review of the New Versions. Fort Worth: Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Publications, 1976.

Youngblood, Carolyn Johnson. “The New International Version Translation Project: Its Conception and Implementation.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21 (1978): 239-249.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 1, pp. 26-28
January 1, 1987