The doctrine of inherited sin is often referred to as “Original Sin,” or in Calvinism, “Total Hereditary Depravity,” claiming that children are totaled depraved at birth, having inherited their parents’ sins, and are in danger of hellfire. There must be a reason that people believe this, right? Is there a biblical reason? There are two primary passages that teachers of Original Sin use (or, as we will see, abuse) to preach their doctrine. The main one is Psalm 51:5, which records king David saying, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin my mother conceived me.”1
The other passage is:
The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent; like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, or a skillful caster of spells. O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.Psalm 58:3–6
Do these Scriptures really teach that you and I were born as sinful infants? To answer that question, we must answer this one: are these passages to be taken literally or figuratively? Both of these passages were written in Hebrew poetry. In most forms of poetry, authors often use figures of speech, similes, and hyperboles to emphasize their points. We must not neglect this fact. Are these verses to be taken literally or figuratively? We’ll come back to this question toward the end of the study. Let’s analyze a couple of other questions first.
By whose sins will people be judged?
One of the implications of the doctrine of Original Sin is:
- Since babies inherit sin,
- And since the wages of sin is the second death,
- When babies die or are aborted, they will enter judgment guilty and will be cast into outer darkness.
Will God impute another person’s sin on a child?
The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.Ezekiel 18:20
So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.Romans 14:12
From beginning to end, Scripture states that sin is something committed, and not inherited.
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.1 John 3:4
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.“John 8:34
There’s a time in each person’s life when he or she knows the difference between evil and good and has the capacity to choose between the two. Even prophesying about the coming Jesus, Isaiah said:
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.Isaiah 7:14–16
Evil is something one chooses, not inherits.
What does Jesus say about the state of children?
Jesus promises, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). If it’s the case that children are full of sin and are subject to the wrath of God, why would Jesus put “become like a child” as a condition for entering His kingdom? Similarly, the apostle Paul speaks of a child’s innocence when he says:
Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.1 Corinthians 14:20
Surely, God expects His citizens to think rationally about matters of faith, but He wants us to be infants in regard to what is evil. Again, this would be a senseless thing for the apostle to say if children were evil. This only makes sense if infants are innocent.
Sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Therefore, if children have imputed sin, they are separated from God. And if they die in that state, they would remain that way—severed from God—for eternity. But they are innocent. That’s why we have to become like them (innocent, teachable, trusting) to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why else would Jesus tell us to become like children?
Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”Matthew 19:13–14
Again, think about what this verse would mean if children inherit sin. The kingdom of heaven would belong to such as those separated from God. Instead, since children are innocent, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the innocent—those who belong to God.
Scripture teaches us that, at death, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Regardless of how righteous or evil a set of parents may be, that has no bearing on the state of the child’s soul, because the parents don’t give the soul to a child. God does. If God hates sin (He does; Psalm 45:7), cannot look at sin (He doesn’t; Habakkuk 1:13), and is the giver of the spirit (He is), a newborn baby’s soul cannot be sinful.
The Roman Catholic Church holds strongly to the idea of Original Sin. They teach that sin, based on Psalm 51:5, is passed down from every mother to every child. The doctrine of Original Sin allows them to follow through with another man-made teaching: infant baptism. They also know what Original Sin must mean concerning Jesus. A natural question is if sin is passed through our parents (at least our mother), then what about Jesus? He was born of a woman; therefore, He would have to be born sinful, and therefore, could not forgive sins.
Some religions skirt around this problem by simply saying (still with no biblical proof) that we inherit sin from our fathers, not our mothers. (If you believe this, I recommend you consult Ezekiel 18:20 again.) But to address this problem in the Roman Catholic Church, they have invented another teaching that will never be found in the Bible, and they know this. It’s called the “Immaculate Conception.” Something that’s immaculate is spotless and perfectly clean. Most people think that the Immaculate Conception claims that Jesus’ conception was perfect; therefore, He was not born in sin. This is not what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches. Instead, it teaches that Mary’s conception was perfect, and that Mary lived a sinless life, so when Christ was born, there was no sin for Jesus to inherit. The Immaculate Conception speaks more of the “sinlessness” of Mary than it does of Christ. To read about this first-hand, read paragraphs 490-93 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. One thing that is notably absent from this section of the Catechism is any reference to Scripture.
Although we can point out the flaws of this teaching using logic, only one observation is needed. And that observation is the fact that the doctrine of Original Sin and the “Immaculate Conception” are not taught in the Bible.
What about those Psalms?
How, then, do we explain the meaning of Psalm 51:5? When looking at this verse with fresh eyes, not having been convinced of the doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity, no one would interpret, “in sin my mother conceived me,” to claim that David was born sinful. Consider what T. W. Brendts writes on this verse:
Were the wife to say, “In drunkenness my husband beat me,” or the child that “in anger my father whipped me,” surely no one would attribute drunkenness to the wife or anger to the child; neither can they impute the sin of the mother to the child.The Gospel Plan of Salvation, p. 107
I’ve heard parents describe their chatty children as speaking from the womb. One may also say, “I’ve been playing piano my entire life!” Surely, no baby was born speaking intelligible words, and no one has ever played the piano out of the womb. Consider another example in Scripture:
But from my youth I reared him as a father,Job 31:18 NKJV
And from my mother’s womb I guided the widow.
If one believes the poetic “in sin my mother conceived me” proves inherited sin, to be consistent, he or she must also believe Job was ministering to widows from the literal moment he was born.
So, what does Psalm 51:5 mean? Some say that David meant that he was born into a sinful world. Some say that David was conceived during a sinful act. Some say David was alluding to an affair in his lineage (like in Genesis 38). But I believe the clearest explanation is that David was using hyperbole to voice his deep repentance. I encourage you to read the entire psalm, and when you do, you’ll notice how the focus is not some sin or inherited sin in David’s lineage. Instead, David focuses on his own sin after he had committed adultery and murder. (For more on this verse, go here.)
What about the passage that people have abused to refer to an infant as a “viper in a diaper”?
The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent; like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, or a skillful caster of spells. O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; break out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD.Psalm 58:3–6
What if we took both this text and Psalm 51 literally in order to teach our doctrine? We would see a contradiction between the two Bible passages. If Psalm 51 teaches Original Sin, then the infant becomes sinful at conception. If Psalm 58 teaches Original Sin, the infant goes sinful at birth. Which one is it? We obviously cannot take these passages literally. If we did, we wouldn’t be talking about humans at all; we would be talking about young lions with fangs and the venom of a snake who literally speak lies and need their teeth shattered in their mouths (thankfully, infants aren’t born with teeth)! Using hyperbole, the author of Psalm 58 shows us that the sinner goes astray, and is not born astray.
The Bible was completed at the last inspired stroke of the apostles. Far be it from us to try to force our pet doctrines into God’s word! As the Bible rejects the teachings of Original Sin, I hope you do too. God creates humans. God gives them their souls. God does not give defective, despised, condemned blessings. Instead, the baby is born with an innocent soul, and as he or she matures, the decision must be made to do right or wrong. And I hope it’s your decision today to follow God and His word.