Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage

By Wayne Jackson

The doctrine of original sin—the notion that one is born into this world hereditarily totally depraved—is widely believed in the religious world.

For example, the Augsburg Confession of Faith (1530), Lutheranism’s creed, asserted:

[A]ll men, born according to nature, are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without confidence towards God and with concupiscence, and that this original disease or flaw is truly a sin, bringing condemnation and also eternal death to those who are not reborn through baptism and the Holy Spirit (Article II).

This, of course, explains the practice of infant baptism as advocated by numerous sects.

Likely, the passage that is commonly appealed to in an attempt to justify the concept of original sin is Psalm 51:5.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me.

Does this verse provide a basis for the doctrine of original sin? Assuredly, it does not. But let us carefully study the matter.

Preliminary Principles

First of all, it needs to be initially recognized that this passage is Hebrew poetry. And Hebrew poetry abounds with bold and imaginative figures of speech; it is frequently characterized by a freedom which departs from customary forms of expression. It is, therefore, a mistake of great magnitude to extract statements from poetical literature and thus employ them as a foundation for doctrinal schemes.

This is precisely the error of the materialists (Watchtower Witnesses, Armstrongites, etc.) who dip into Old Testament poetical books, like Psalms and Job, for their doctrines of soul-sleeping and the annihilation of the wicked.

Secondly, one of the primary rules of Biblical interpretation suggests: “The language of Scripture may be regarded as figurative, if the literal interpretation will cause one passage to contradict another” (Dungan n.d., 196).

There are numerous Bible verses, in plain, literal language, that affirm the innocency of infants, and Psalm 51:5 must not be arrayed against these. Consider the following:

(1) Scripture plainly teaches that sin is not inherited. “[T]he son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” (Ezekiel 18:20); every person is responsible for his own conduct (Romans 14:12).

(2) Human sinfulness commences in that period of one’s life that is characterized as youth (Genesis 8:21; Jeremiah 3:25).

(3) A child must reach a certain level of maturity before he is able to choose between evil and good (Isaiah 7:15, 16).

(4) The qualities of little children are set forth as models for those who would aspire to enter the kingdom (Matthew 18:3; 19:14) and for those already in the church (1 Corinthians 14:20). Surely the Lord was not suggesting that we emulate little, totally corrupt sinners!

(5) The human spirit is not inherited from one’s parents; rather, it is given by God (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Hebrews 12:9). Hence, at birth it must be as pure as the source from whence it comes.

Clearly, babies are not born in sin.

Psalm 51:5 Analyzed

Having shown what Psalm 51: 5 cannot mean, we now turn to some possible views of the passage that do not violate portions of Scripture found elsewhere.

(1) Since Psalm 51 is one of David’s penitent psalms revealing the anguish resulting from his adulterous conduct with Bathsheba, some have felt that verse five contains words that are figuratively put into the mouth of the child conceived by that illicit union (2 Samuel 11:5), thus acknowledging the sinfulness of that relationship. The sinfulness is therefore attributed to the parent and not the child.

T. W. Brents commented:

Whatever may be the meaning of this passage, it can not be the imputation of sin to the child. ‘In sin did my mother conceive me:’ that is, she acted wickedly when I was conceived. 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 (1957, 133, 134).

(2) Others have suggested that David alludes to an incident in his ancestral lineage, an adulterous affair (Genesis 38), whereby he was considered ceremonially defiled because he was of the tenth generation of that unlawful intercourse (Deuteronomy 23:2). This is probably a rather remote possibility.

(3) Most likely, however, Psalm 51:5 merely refers to the fact that David was born into a sinful environment. We all are conceived in and brought forth into a sinful world. But we do not actually sin until we arrive at a stage of spiritual responsibility.

Perhaps David also, by the use of dramatic language, alludes to the fact that sin had characterized his whole life, relatively speaking.

In a similarly poetic section, for example, Job, in denying that he had neglected his benevolent responsibilities, affirmed that he had cared for the orphan and the widow from his mother’s womb! Surely, no one believes that on day one of Job’s existence that he was out ministering to the needy! In fact, the Hebrew parallelism of this verse (Job 31:18), clearly indicates that the word “womb” is used in the sense of youth.

A Concluding Problem

Those who employ Psalm 51:5 to buttress the doctrine that sin is inherited from one’s mother are faced with a serious problem. Jesus was both conceived by and brought forth from a human mother (Luke 1:31). If original sin is inherited from one’s mother, Christ had it. If, however, someone should suggest that depravity is received only from the father, Psalm 51:5 cannot be used to prove it, for it mentions only the mother!

The truth of the matter is, the doctrine of original sin is not Biblical. It had its origin in the writings of the so-called “church fathers” in the post-apostolic era. Such men as Tertullian (160-220) and Cyprian (200-258) first formulated the doctrine and it was later popularized by Augustine and John Calvin.

Those who accept the plain testimony of the sacred Scriptures will reject this error.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Brents, T. W. 1957. The Gospel Plan of Salvation. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • Dungan, D. R. n.d. Hermeneutics. Cincinnati, OH: Standard.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.