Steve Wallace

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White Unto Harvest

Psalm 51:5, Inherited Sin and Foreign Translations

The belief that mankind inherits sin is widespread in what is popularly known as "Christiandom." Indeed, it would be hard to find a church that does not believe in some form of it. The Roman Catholics teach it as "original sin." We know of no group among the Protestant Evangelicals which would deny every form of it. Indeed, the New International Version of the Bible witnesses to this fact. Among the scholars who participated in its preparation were those from the following denominations: Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, and Wesleyan (Preface to the Fifteenth printing of the NIV). Representative from these various religions joined in producing a translation which consistently translates the Greek word for "flesh," when it speaks of the flesh of man, as "sinful nature(s). The NIV translates Psalms 51:5 thusly, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."

In light of the pervasiveness of this teaching, it behooves those preaching in countries where English is not the mother tongue to check translations of various verses. On the topic of inherited sin, Psalms 51:5 has been a point of conflict for years, so it should surprise no one to find it so in other countries. Please notice the following examples of renderings of this verse from some Bibles of Eastern Europe:

    Tikejimo zodis (Word of Faith) Bible (Lithuanian): "I was born sinful, and my mother conceived me in sin."
    Biblijsko Drustvo Bible (Lithuanian): "I am born with fault, and my mother conceived me sinful" (i.e. as a sinful one).
    Bulgarian Bible: "Behold, I was born with uncleanness and with sin my mother [began] me." (translation printed by United Bible Societies in 1991).

Our purpose herein will be to better understand this verse. In so doing, we hope to not only better inform brethren, but also arm them with the truth about this controversial text.

The Meaning of Psalms 51:5

Let us first spend some time looking at the verse itself. It reads in the KJV, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me." The word "shapen" means "be brought forth" (Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Lexicon, p. 297). It appears in the following verses:

    "Art thou the first man that was born? or wast thou made before the hills?" (Job 15:7)
    "When there was no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water." (Prov. 8:24)
    "Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth." (Prov. 8:25)

Clearly, "shapen" in Psalms 51:5 has reference to David's being born. Therefore, the text simply refers to the situation surrounding his conception and actual birth. It does not talk about his state at birth. To illustrate this, one might say, "In drunkenness did my father beat me." This would not make the beaten person drunk; it simply describes the situation wherein he was beaten. Similarly, David's being conceived and brought forth in sin did not make him a sinner.

Because of the danger of this verse's being mistranslated, as in the case of the NIV, let us notice how it is rendered in some popular versions of various countries. Please notice the following:

    KJV: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."
    ASV: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me."
    NASV: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me."
    NKJV: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me."
    Revised Elberfeld Translation (German): "See, in guilt was I born, and in sin had my mother conceived me."
    Zurich Bible (Swiss): "See, in guilt was I born, and in sins had my mother me conceived."
    Reina-Valera Version (Spanish): "Behold, in evil I have been formed, And in sin my mother conceived me."
    Ecumenical (Czech): "Yes, I was born in iniquity. In sin did my mother conceive me."
    Kralicka (Czech): "Yes, I am born in iniquity. In sin did my mother conceive me."
    NRV (Italian): "Behold, I have been begotten in (the) iniquity, my mother has conceived me in (the sin)." (the standard, Non-Catholic version in Italy)
    IEP and CEI (Italian): "Behold, in (the) fault I have been begotten, in (the) sin has conceived me my mother." (the two most important Catholic versions in Italy)
    Norwegian Bible: "See, I was born in sin and my mother has conceived me in sin."

Please notice that in all these translations, David never says he was born "with" sin. That sinful actions surrounded his birth is clearly taught; that sin was passed on to him from his mother is not.

Psalms 51:5 In Its Context

All major translations have a superscription penned to Psalms 51 which says that it was written when Nathan the prophet confronted him with regards to his sin with Bathsheba. David committed a number of sins at this time, adultery, deceit and murder among them. His prayer in this Psalm contains several things: 1) A confession of his sins (vs. 3-4); 2) A plea for mercy and complete forgiveness (vs. 1,7,9,14); 3) Statements of contrition (vs. 3, 17); 4) His understanding of God's desires (vs. 4,6,16-17); 3); 5) A plea for restoration to his former state (vs. 10,12); 6) A promise to glorify God as a forgiven one (vs. 13-15).

Amidst the above verses, David writes, "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (v. 5). Some things about this verse are clear from its context:

  1. David was seeking forgiveness for sins he had committed - not sins he had inherited. Note the following things which show this to be true. He called his sins "transgressions" (vs. 1, 3). This comes from a verb which means "rebel, transgress" (Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Lexicon, p. 833). This harmonizes with David's words in verse 4, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil." David had actively committed the sins he confesses herein, not passively inherited them.


  2. David was not seeking an excuse for his sins (vs. 3-4). He owned them as something he personally had done, not as something he committed as a result of his inherent condition (cp 2 Sam. 12:13).


  3. He contrasts the situation outside of him at his birth with God's desire for "truth in the inward parts" (v. 6). Hereditary depravity advocates would have sin in his "inward parts" or counting against him at his birth.

There is nothing in the context of Psalms 51:5 which would cause one to understand it to teach that one inherits sin. Thus, both the verse and its context speak against how it is popularly used and sometimes translated by those who teach that a person is born with sin on their soul.

Contradiction or Harmony?

How will Psalm 51:5 best conform to the clear teaching of the Bible in other places? This is a material question whenever one is trying to understand the teaching of a given text. If one were to take the verse to say that one is born with sin on his soul it would contradict the following verses:

    The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. (Ezek. 18:20)

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 19:14, my emph, sw)

On the other hand, if we understand Psalms 51:5 to teach that one is born innocent, in spite of the events surrounding their birth, it harmonizes with the above verses.


Most English-speaking brethren are aware of the weaknesses of various translations in their native tongue and have learned to deal with them. Likewise, we can deal with such problems in other languages. (In Lithuania, where Russian is understood, we use the Russian Synodal Version to show the proper rendering of Psalms 51:5.) Let us be aware of the dangers of possible errors in translations and be zealous to give proper explanation of God's word.

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