Intro | Total Hereditary Depravity 1 | Total Hereditary Depravity 2 | Unconditional Election 1 | Unconditional Election 2 | Limited Atonement 1 | Limited Atonement 2 | Irresistible Grace 1 | Irresistible Grace 2 | Perseverance of the Saints 1 | Perseverance of the Saints 2
by William J. Stewart
Supporters of Calvinism use a number of texts as support for the doctrine of Total Hereditary Depravity (THD). Space limits us from addressing every passage, but if there are questions about other texts, I am happy to have a private conversation on such.
Psalm 51:5 — Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (NIV)
I rarely use the NIV, but since it is the most used English version of the Bible1, it seemed prudent to cite it here. The NIV certainly presents a solid case for THD. However, there is a huge issue; the NIV is not a translation. It is an example of a method called dynamic equivalence. That’s a fancy way to say it is a thought-for-thought, and not a word-for-word rendering of the text. In other words, David didn’t write “I was sinful at birth,” that’s an interpretation of the text by the NIV translators.
Dynamic equivalence is easier to read than literal translations, but the reader is at the mercy of the translator’s bias. The responsibility of translators is to tell us what the text says, not what they think it means. Reader beware!
The NKJV of Psalm 51:5 reads:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.
What sin is David referring to? Original sin? His mother’s sin? His own sin? A culture of sin? Is he using hyperbole? Without the THD bias of the NIV, a number of possible explanations may be pursued. Which of these is it? It is likely either hyperbole (ie. similar to Paul declaring himself to be “chief of sinners”), or an acknowledgement of the influence this sinful world can have upon all, even one who is said to be a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
Why do we reject Psalm 51:5 as evidence of original sin? Take a look at Psalm 139:13-16:
For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there was none of them.
Further, hear God’s words to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
Both Jeremiah 1 and Psalm 139 identify God has the Creator of man, not just Adam, but all men. David was wonderful, a marvelous work; Jeremiah was sanctified (clean, holy, pure). Surely this kind of language is an unfit description for those who are depraved sinners from the womb.
Calvinists adamantly affirm that we are guilty in Adam due to the concept of federal headship. Basically the idea is that Adam, being our universal father, is our representative. Hebrews 7:8-10 is cited as an example. We’re told that as the Levites paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham, so we have sinned in Adam. Romans 5:12-19 is used to support the doctrine. Note a few things from the text:
12…though one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men 15…by the one man’s offense many died 18…as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation 19…by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners…
That all sounds quite convincing. Paul emphasizes that sin came into the world through Adam, and that death has come to all as a result. However, the Calvinist only gives us part of what the text says. Notice:
- Why has death spread to all (v 12)? Paul doesn’t say this has happened because Adam sinned, but “…because all sinned…”
- Verses 15, 18 & 19 deal with association, not by imputation, but by imitation. Death is ascribed to Adam and it comes upon us if we imitate him — sin. Grace, justification and righteousness are ascribed to Jesus; we can have them too, if we imitate Him.
- If Romans 5:18 teaches universal condemnation, then it also teaches universal justification. However Calvinists know the Bible doesn’t teach universal salvation (nor does Calvinistic theology), and so they want to limit the scope of the second “all”. Doing so destroys the parallel Paul established, namely this, that all who imitate Adam will die, and all who imitate Jesus will live.
One last text to consider, Romans 3:10-18. Paul gives a collection of OT texts which describe the wickedness of man. He quotes Psalm 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; 36:1; 140:3; and Proverbs 1:16. Men are universally wicked, there is no doubt. In fact, in Romans 3:9, Paul declared that all are under sin. However that doesn’t mean the starting point is the womb. Consider the context of each of the texts used:
- Psalm 14:1-3 is a description of those who reject the existence of God. A departing process is revealed in verse 3, for they have turned away and become corrupt. Those who are corrupt already cannot become corrupt.
- The context of Psalm 5:9 describes David’s enemies, not a newborn child. They spoke falsehood and were bloodthirsty.
- The context of Psalm 140:3 speaks violent men who plan evil works, gather for war and laid snares to trap David.
- The context of Psalm 10:7 speaks of those who persecute the poor, renounce the LORD, curses, murders, etc.. Surely that is not a description of a child in the womb.
- In Proverbs 1:16, Solomon warns his son of the type of company he should not keep. Don’t hang around those who are intent on doing evil and want to shed blood.
- Finally, Psalm 36:1 begins a text discussing the wicked words and works of those who “ceased to be wise and to do good.”
The Bible does not teach that we are born sinful. All children are the creation of God, are born pure, and unfortunately learn sin from the influences that surround them. We sin by imitation, not by inheritance.