Does Psalm 51:5 teach inherited sin?

Watch this study instead of reading it.

Some people believe Psalm 51:5 is a “home run” verse in proving babies are born with inherited sin. In fact, read it in some translations of the Bible, and that’s what it literally says.

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51:5, NIV

Does this verse truly teach inherited sin? And how will discovering the answer to this question help me study the rest of the Psalms?

In 2011, a close family member was able to hear me preach for the very first time. This was special to me, as she was the first person to have truly taught me to pray when I was a child. But I hadn’t seen her for years, and not since I had gotten serious about Bible study. After the sermon, she had nice things to say. But I could tell something else was on her mind. “Well,” she said. “I do have a question about the end of the message.” She shifted her weight on her other foot while she worked out in her mind how she wanted to ask it. Finally, she said, “Why did you invite the audience to be baptized today? Weren’t these folks baptized as babies?” 

You see, she was a devout Lutheran, and she had done her best to raise me the same. And that’s how I know how much she loved me. Just like any good Lutheran family, my family took me to a clergyman when I was a baby and had water placed on my forehead as a mode of what they called baptism. The subject of infant baptism is an important one. Lord willing, we will cover it biblically on this channel in the future. What I want to cover in this lesson is somewhat related to infant baptism, and is what my family member did and said next.

She looked off into the distance, eyes unfocused, and began saying, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” She paused for a moment and then refocused her eyes on me. “It’s in the Catechism,” she said with confidence. “I’ve known it since I was a little girl.”

“Just a second,” I said. I retrieved my Bible. I had never read the Lutheran Catechism before, but I knew those words sounded familiar. I flipped in my Bible. “Aha! Here it is!” I showed her the passage. 

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51:5

Her eyes widened. “Wow!” she said. “It’s also in the Bible! Even better.” Now that she knew it was also in the Bible, she went on to explain to me how this Bible verse single-handedly proves that children are born with inherited sin and that they must be baptized as soon as possible after they’re born so their sin won’t send them to hell. Let me state emphatically that this conversation with my family member stayed loving and peaceful. I grew closer to her as a result of it. 

But I was a bit stunned. I had read this passage several times in the Bible before, but that conclusion had never occurred to me. Could it be true that this verse proves humans are born sinful? If so, how had I missed it in the past? It was time to find out. 

The question about inherited sin, or the doctrine of Total Depravity, is a huge subject, and again, we hope to go in depth in the future. Sign up so you don’t miss it. The scope of this article is to study and learn whether or not specifically Psalm 51:5 actually teaches inherited sin like many people assert.

It’s time to say it again: Any passage worth studying is worth studying in context. Without that, we will never be able to fully understand what a passage means. In fact, most times we will miss the point completely. I hope it doesn’t surprise you that there are four verses that appear before verse five in Psalm 51. One thing you may have not have noticed, however, is the superscription of the Psalm. Notice it now:

A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Psalm 51 Superscription

The superscriptions, which appear above most of the psalms, were not part of the original text, which means they weren’t inspired the way the text of the psalms were. When David wrote a Psalm, Jesus explains that David was “in the Spirit” when he did so (see Matthew 22:43). What that means is the composers of the Psalms of Scripture were inspired by God’s Holy Spirit while composing. Once the Psalms were distributed among the musicians, priests, and other people of God, they believed it was helpful in knowing who wrote the Psalm, and what prompted the writing of it. I agree. So people who were not inspired by the Holy Spirit, but still knew the historical context of the psalm, began also including a bit of a description of some of the psalms, as well as musical cues. In other words, the stuff that appears before verse 1 in any of the psalms was not inspired by God, but it is likely true.

The historical description of Psalm 51 is: “A Psalm of David when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” 

When you use Psalm 51:5 to try to prove inherited sin—when you treat this single verse as a prooftext for your doctrine—then you miss the entire point. The point of the psalm was to show deep repentance from “A broken and a contrite heart” (v. 17). As we weave this psalm into the narrative of 2 Samuel 11 and 12, our hearts should break with David’s as Nathan’s parable of the little ewe lamb convicts David of his great transgressions. David realizes, although he was king of God’s people, he was still laid bare before a holy God.

Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.

Psalm 51:1

He admits his evil doing. He begs for cleansing.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.

Psalm 51:5

Is David trying to convince the reader or singer of this psalm that children are born completely depraved? Only someone with an agenda could read this in context and still say yes. What sin is David referring to here? His mother’s? His father’s? Let’s read the two verses before verse 5.

For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight

Psalm 51:3–4

Multiple times in these two verses David explicitly calls attention to his own sin. Read the entire psalm, and you’ll see David continually do so over and over. Why did God see fit to inspire this psalm and preserve it for you and me today? So many people are only aware of this psalm because they’ve encountered the doctrine of Original Sin or Total Hereditary Depravity, which is truly sad. God gave us this psalm—not for proving a doctrinal point—but to give us an example of repentance. When you’ve sinned—you personally (David wasn’t talking about inherited sin)—go to God with this psalm in your heart and this prayer on your lips:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence,
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners shall be converted to You.

Psalm 51:10–13

The Bible is made up of many different types of literature. Some passages are historical; others are narrative. There’s apocalyptic, and there is poetic. The psalms, obviously, are poetic. Just like in our day, back then, poems were laced with metaphors, analogies, similes, and hyperboles. 

Do you believe David could cry so much that his tears would cause his bed to float? No? Why not? He says he does in Psalm 6:6. If we grant figures of speech in David’s prayer of faith, we should also grant them in his prayers of repentance.

And even if David were speaking literally here, notice two things. First, the NIV rendition of “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” is not a faithful translation. I’m not totally against the NIV. No translation is perfect. But this verse in the NIV is not a translation. It’s a dangerous interpretation, probably from those who have a doctrinal agenda. The accurate translation is something like, “And in sin my mother conceived me.” Second, if David were speaking literally here, instead of poetic, David would be speaking of his mother’s sin, not his own. If I were to say, “In drunkenness, the man punched me,” I would be speaking of the man’s drunkenness, not my own. A literal interpretation of “In sin my mother conceived me” speaks of the mother’s sin, not the son’s. So even if we were to permit the two blunders of reading this verse in isolation and taking poetic language literally, it still would not teach that children are born in sin.

No, Psalm 51:5 is not a “home run” verse to prove Original Sin. Nor is this article meant to be a “home run” debunking of the teaching. So, tell us what you think about inherited sin in the comments while we continue to study and prepare more Bible study materials.

I think back at my family member who saw Psalm 51:5 as a singular verse to base a doctrine of salvation on. My heart aches for her and how her religious leaders had forced her to memorize this verse out of context. In fact, they asked her to memorize it divorced from the Bible. They had ripped it from Scripture and plastered it into a man-made catechism by itself in order to build their doctrines. Even if this was done with good intentions—which I’m sure it was—it is still a terrible practice to train people to trust in catechisms and build their understanding of God and salvation on singular verses out of context.

So, remember to take your blinders off. Stop reading Bible verses in isolation, and always ask questions about the context: Who is speaking? To whom? When, where, and why? What was said before and afterward?

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