This false teaching says that all men are born sinners (even as a baby), and completely depraved. The false teachings known as Calvinism include this, as well as others. Once again, this false teaching is obtained by mis-interpreting verses of the Bible, Psalm 58 most notoriously, where poetic language is being interpreted literally. Each of us is born sinless, and we are responsible for our own personal choices and sins after the age of accountability – for we are all sinners. Even though creation was cursed as a result of their “first” sin, we are not held to account for Adam and Eve’s “original sins”; we are held to account for our own sins! God makes it very clear that babies are without sin. This is such an important and widely believed false teaching, which may cause many to ignore the seriousness of their own sins and forego accepting Christ, by blaming their own sins on their ancestors, or on God for “giving them their sinful” nature, that I want to provide a more complete discussion of it here.
I reprint below an excellent analysis on the subject, by Wane Jackson at Christian Courier:
Does Psalm 58 Teach “Original Sin”?
“I’ve just discovered your web site and all the wonderful Christian articles there. I’m pleased with what I’ve read, and I appreciate the fact that you are willing to address and discuss some biblical issues that are difficult. I have read your article Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage. I used to think that God considered all babies innocent, and I had heard about ‘the age of accountability.’ But after learning more about the Bible, I have changed my conclusion on that. It definitely is a very hard thing to think about. Have you read Psalm 58:3ff? It seems to say that babies are seen by God as sinners. Can you explain this passage?”
We appreciate this sincere question. We are quite familiar with Psalm 58. Verses 3-6 read as follows:
“The wicked are estranged from the womb: They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: They are like the deaf adder that stops up her ear, who listens not to the voice of charmers, charming ever so wisely. Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Jehovah.”
The first thing that the careful Bible student must observe is the fact that this text is a part of that body of Old Testament literature that is highly poetic in nature, and as such, is punctuated with graphic figures of speech.
These four verses contain several vivid figures, e.g., the hyperbole, the simile, and metonymy. Hyperbole is an exaggeration for emphasis’ sake; simile is a comparison between two objects by the use of “like” or “as,” etc., and metonymy involves the substitution of one name for another in order to stress an important truth.
One of the most significant sources of erroneous views about the Bible is the failure to discern the difference between the literal and the figurative expressions of Scripture. And that is precisely the problem in reading this text, and concluding that it provides substance for the doctrine of “original sin” or “hereditary total depravity,” i.e., the notion that infants are born in sin. Our response to this question, therefore, involves an understanding of several important principles of interpretation.
First, the Bible teaches — in unambiguous prose — that moral responsibility for sin comes in the “youth” of one’s life, and not at the point of one’s conception, or birth (see Gen. 8:21; Isa. 7:16, etc.). For a more detailed discussion of this point, we refer the reader to our companion article on Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage [also reprinted here below]. Passages such as Psalm 51:5; 58:3ff, which are highly figurative in composition, must be brought into harmony with the literal language of prose – not the reverse.
Second, when one presses the language of these two Psalms, in order to extract the dogma of “original sin,” he encounters some insuperable difficulties. Consider the following points.
If the language of Psalm 51:5 and 58:3-6 is to be pressed literally, then one encounters a contradiction between the two texts. Psalm 51:5 would teach that the child is a sinner from the moment of his conception, whereas Psalm 58:3 would suggest that the infant does not “go astray” until he is born — nine months later. Which is it – if the text is strictly literal?
The fact that the sinner is said to “go astray” (Psa. 58:3), rather than being “born astray,” reveals the individual’s personal culpability, rather than Adam’s responsibility (as in the “original sin” theory). Compare Isaiah’s declaration: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53:6). No one is considered “sinful” on account of the sins of someone else (Ezek. 18:20).
A literal interpretation of Psalm 58:3 involves an impossibility. It has the infant “speaking” lies as soon as it is born, which every parent knows is not the reality. It is the case, however, that we often figuratively (using hyperbole) refer to the language that one has spoken most of his life as the tongue of his “birth” (cf. Acts 2:8).
Similarly, the fact that these “estranged” people are said to have “teeth” at the point of birth (v. 6) is further evidence that the sacred writer is not speaking of a literal, newborn child. Can anyone cite a case of where a day-old child has told a lie?
Kill the baby?
If the text of Psalm 58:3ff is to be pressed literally, these little ones who are “speaking lies” must have their teeth broken (v. 6). And since they are compared to poisonous snakes, the implication is that they should be killed so that their venom will not be deadly to others. Can the reader not see the gross error in pressing this language into a literal mold?
Lions or people?
If the language of Psalm 58:3-6 is literal, one must conclude that the divine writer was not dealing with human beings at all, but with “lions” — and, in fact, lions that spoke lies (v. 6). What is this: an example of figurative language, or some kind of Walt Disney production?
One of the cardinal rules of Bible interpretation is that one must never force a scriptural statement into a situation wherein an absurdity is affirmed. Such certainly would be the case, however, if the “original sin” interpretation of this passage is maintained.
The meaning of the text, then, is simply this. When the panorama of one’s life is viewed as a whole, relatively early in life each rational person begins to move away from God into a sinful state of spiritual rebellion. He utters things contrary to the will of God – his speech being a commentary on the disposition of his heart (cf. Mk. 7:21). He does not listen and respond to the voice of the Lord. Such conduct, therefore, if pursed continuously, is worthy of punishment.
As one writer observes, these enemies of the Lord “are so evil, it seems as if they had been born to it (cf. Ps. 51:5). This is literally impossible, and those who use this verse to argue for infant depravity surely miss the author’s point” (Ash 1980, 198).
It is not the case that one goes astray and speaks lies from his mother’s womb in a literal sense, any more than it was a reality that Job was caring for orphans and widows from his mother’s womb (Job 31:18). Why is the Psalms passage considered to be literal, while the Job text is acknowledged to be figurative?
It is interesting to observe that Albert Barnes, the renowned Presbyterian commentator who believed in the dogma of “original sin,” conceded that this doctrine could not be sustained from this passage by itself. He said this text spoke of the fact that men “develop a wicked character” fairly “early” in life. He acknowledged that the concept of “original sin” would have to be found elsewhere in Scripture before this context could be said to lend any support to the idea (1980, 138).
Note: Barnes’ view of “original sin” was somewhat confusing. He once wrote: “The notion of imputing sin, is an invention of modern times …. Neither the facts, not any proper inferences from the facts, affirm that I am, in either case, personally responsible for what another man did before I had an existence” (1830, 7; emphasis original).
The reality is — the doctrine of “original sin” is not found in Psalm 58, or elsewhere in the Bible.
Original Sin and a Misapplied Passage
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.
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.
- 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.