Psalm 51:5 Does Not Teach We are Born in Sin

December 2, 2008 by  
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Used with permission from Gilbert PhotoPsalm 51:5 says: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ESV).

This is a playground for Calvinists who desire to claim every person is born a sinful creature worthy of death even from conception because we all carry the sin of Adam within us or we all sinned in Adam. David is held to be the example. He was conceived in sin, so are we all. 

But is that really what David was saying? Was he really saying my little children were guilty of sin from the moment they were conceived? Or was he saying something entirely different?

The Calvinist makes one huge error when he yanks this verse out as his prooftext for the Total Depravity position. He forgets the genre of this passage. This is not a doctoral thesis on sin. It is not a doctrinal assertion about how sin works. This is a poem; it is filled with all the devices of ancient Hebrew poetry including the use of figurative language. Don’t balk here. I am not just waving the magic “It’s figurative” wand because I can do nothing else with the passage. In actuality, when we are done reading the passage we will note that the one who wants to take this verse literally needs to show why we should take this one verse out of all the others literally.

Consider a survey of this Psalm.

  1. Psalm 51:1 – “blot out my transgressions” — Do we seriously think God is going to take an ink pen and blot the ink down on David’s transgressions to get rid of them?
  2. Psalm 51:2 – “Wash me…cleanse me” — Is David saying he needs a bath in order to remove the guilt of his sin?
  3. Psalm 51:3 – “My sin is ever before me” — What is David saying here? Do we believe that literally his sin with Bathsheba is right in front of his face 24 hours a day?
  4. Psalm 51:4 – “Against you, you only, have I sinned” — Really? What about his sin against Uriah? What about the one against Bathsheba? What about his sin against his own body? What about his sin against the nation of which he was king? Do we believe that literally the only one sinned against in this story was God?
  5. Psalm 51:7 – “Purge me with hyssop…wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” — Does David really mean for God to take the hyssop plant and get rid of his sins by bleaching him?
  6. Psalm 51:8 – “Let the bones you have broken rejoice” — Did God really break David’s bones?
  7. Psalm 51:10 – “Create in me a clean heart” — Was David looking for some kind of surgical procedure to dust off the old ticker?

This first half of the psalm is completely full of figurative language. Not to mention the two verses before the one in question make two huge exaggerations. We call those hyperboles. They are a great figurative device to arrest our attention and cause us to stop and think about what is being said. No, David was not literally looking at his sin with Bathsheba 24 hours a day. Rather, his sin was filling his mind. He was finding it hard to think about anything else. No, God was not the only victim of David’s sin. Rather, the fact that he sinned against God was so much more important than his sin against every one else that David wanted to highlight it.

The hyperbole continues in Psalm 51:5. David is not saying that he literally sinned at the point of conception. Rather, he is exaggerating the claim of how guilty he is to explain how deeply he feels his own guilt. It is as if there has been nothing but sin in his life from the very beginning.

Here is the challenge for everyone who wants to take this verse literally. In the midst of all this figure and hyperbole, prove this verse is to be taken literally. Feel free to comment and let us know why it should be taken literally. If you can’t prove this, then at the very least, remove this verse from your list of prooftexts for this doctrine.

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