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

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

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.


  • Joe 10-02-2009

    Thanks! Context plays such an important role doesn’t it?

  • Don Hedrick 28-04-2009

    You’re wrong. Sorry.

  • Edwin Crozier 29-04-2009

    Thanks for your input, Don.

    What it lacks in explanation, it makes up for with concision.

  • luckee1 10-05-2009

    thank you so much! this clears up much! i am spreading the word!

  • Edwin Crozier 16-05-2009

    Thanks for the encouragement, luckee1.

  • James 02-07-2011

    My question is if we are not born into sin when or where is it received or conceive. also then why are we or should we worry about the wages of that in which we dont have? what about the nature of Adam? What nature did we get from him?

  • Edwin Crozier 07-07-2011

    James, thank you for your good questions.

    According to James 1:14-15, sin is conceived when we are drawn away by our desires and decide to do something that is a violation of God’s will (cf. I John 3:4).

    We certainly don’t need to worry about the wages of something we don’t have. However, claiming that we are not born with a sinful nature is not the same as saying we have no sin. According to Romans 3:23, all have sinned. Additionally, Romans 5:12 ties this and your last question together, pointing out that sin and death spread to all men not simply because Adam sinned, but because all men sinned.

    Regarding the nature we have inherited from Adam, I’m not sure that is the right question to ask. It assumes there is some kind of nature that we received from him. It assumes that because he acted in a certain way his genetic structure was changed and passed on some genetic change to us. Adam was a human. We are humans like him. That’s all I can say about that.

    I hope that is helpful.

  • Michael Gilroy 05-12-2011

    Thank you brother Edwin!-

    After reseraching various sources, I concur with the premise that verses like Psalm 51:5 and Psalm 58:3 are taken way too far in establishing an extra-biblical doctrine of Orginal Sin. Psalm 51:5 could also be construed as David’s mother being a sinner (in general, not in the act of conception itself).
    Although Romans 6 states that through Adam sin entered and the Adamic curse brought death to all men, my point of discussion is the time at which someone sins.
    In other portions of the Bible, it is clear that God says that the heart of man is evil from youth(not from birth or from infancy) Ex. Gen. 8:21 & Jer. 3:25. The words used there seem to be quite different than the word used for infant. (See Is. 65:20; 49:15 Job 24:6) God’s Spirit seems to continue this through Paul when he says that Sin was in the world but was not imputed except by the Law. Rom. 5:13. He continued making a difference that infants and the mature, stating that the mature have learned to discern good from evil. Heb. 5:13-14.

    I would like to get feedback on the Son of God’s imputation of sin somehow being linked to knowledge of sin. For example, Jesus said the Pharisees had no sin before he came but did as a result. John 15:22 Likewise, John 9 seems to fully refute the notion of imputed sin because of birth, finally culminating in Jesus saying that judgement was in part involved making those who were blind see (spiritually) and those who say blind (to revelation). John 9:39-41.

    A bit more on subject of children sinning, it seems that Jesus differentiated between children (those children being trained-padion in Greek) Mat. 18:3-5, Mk. 10:15, Lk. 18:17 , and those of a hgiher age or maturity that believed in him which should not be stumbled (mikron in Greek). I guess the point is that those who cannot discern good from evil may have a lesser capacity to sin or have their sins covered (not imputed)?

  • Edwin Crozier 06-12-2011

    Thanks for your input, Michael.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest that those who cannot discern between good and evil have lesser capacity to sin. I think that is born up by the example of God’s dealing with the Israelites at the entrance to the Promised Land. The children who had no ability to make the choice between good and evil were not held responsible for the choice. Only those who were capable of choosing between this good and evil were.

    By no means do I think the age of 20 that God used there is an absolute age of accountability, but rather the whole scenario demonstrates a principle. Where someone has not capability of choosing between evil and good, sin is not counted.

    I do believe the issue in John 15:22 is not a blanket statement that the Pharisees would not have had any sin whatsoever. Rather, they would not have sin in regard to Jesus and the Messiah. But as they have seen Him and heard Him and rejected Him, now they are guilty of the blasphemy they had committed against God.

  • Roger Leonard 19-09-2012

    Jewish Rabbis said that Psalm 51:5 represents David as being born in adultery (Aglen 161). How is it that David was born in adultery? While studying at the Memphis School of Preaching, this writer heard Curtis A. Cates explain Psalm 51:5 in a manner that harmonizes with the Rabbinical position on the passage. The Bible often uses the word “mother” or “father” when referring to an ancient member of one’s family lineage. For example, Nebuchadnezzar is called Belshazzar’s father (Dan.5:11) when Nabonidus was actually Belshazzar’s father and Nebuchadnezzar was his grandfather. David’s mother, Tamar, committed the sin in question when she committed adultery with Judah (Gen. 38). In sin Tamar conceived David. According to the Mosaic Law, an illegitimate son was not allowed to enter the congregation of the Lord until the 10th generation (Deut. 23:2). Ruth 4:18-22 indicates that David was the 10th generation from the adulterous relationship between Judah and Tamar. No wonder David said, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.” Brother Cates’ explanation of Psalm 51:5 fits the context of the passage without teaching error. In fact, is it not the case that David’s grief was compounded inasmuch as he repeated the sin of Judah and Tamar? And if his child had lived, he would not have been allowed to enter the House of the Lord!

    Quoted from Darrell Broking’s lecture, “A PENITENT’S PLEA PSALM 51”, pp. 104-105, Studies in the Psalms, Annual Bristol Gospel Journal Lectures; Bristol, VA; May 18-21, 2003.

    This certainly lays waste to the false teaching that this Scripture supports the idea of inherited sin. It also takes away the impression that David was speaking purely in hyperbole (exaggeration). He is heavily burdened in his soul over the sins he committed against and with Bathsheba and against her faithful husband, Uriah, and yet recognizes that His sin primarily was against a holy God (Psalm 51:4). While Jehovah “put away” his sin and released him from the penalty of death (2 Sam. 11:13), David declares clearly in the rest of the psalm that he is the guilty party, not his mother, Tamar. Even in verse five that we are considering, the wording does not place blame on her! He is taking the blame, as well he should have. The false doctrine of hereditary depravity implies blame on the part of our ancestors for our sins. Others may be guilty of evil influence or temptation toward us (Cf. Matt. 18:5-6; I Cor. 15:33), which David implies about his mother to a degree, we each are accountable for our own reactions to temptation (Cf. Ezekiel 18:20; James 1:12-16). RL

  • Edwin Crozier 21-09-2012


    Thanks for your input. That approach to the text is certainly worth considering. Certainly, you and I agree that nothing in this psalm places the responsibility for the sin on either David’s mother or his great-great-great…grandmother. Rather, David is taking the responsibility fully upon himself. It is that broken and contrite heart of his that is granting him access to the grace of God’s forgiveness (vs. 17). If he were blaming others, that would show a lack of contrition.

    However, I can’t see what a reference to either potential adultery from his mother or from Tamar would add to the psalm. For some reason, modern readers seem to struggle with the use of hyperbole in a poem that is filled with figures. It is almost as if we think that is saying the poem doesn’t say anything at all. That is just not so. David uses that same kind of hyperbole more than once in the psalm to provide the snapshot of his guilt and shame.

    “My sin is ever before me” (vs. 3)–hyperbole
    “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (vs. 4)–hyperbole
    “Let the bones you have broken rejoice” (vs. 8)–hyperbole
    “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering” (vs. 16)–hyperbole

    It is no surprise then to me that he also uses hyperbole in vs. 5. David is expressing his shame over his own sin. He is not diverting attention to anyone else’s sin. As you stated, he is certainly not blaming anyone else. Rather, he is wholly looking at himself. In this snapshot of David’s experience, he is capturing the guilt and shame he feels over his sin.

    In other snapshots we see different statements. These statements do not contradict because they are not meant to be taken as statements from a doctrinal thesis about the nature of sin. They are snapshots of a person’s experience in their walk with God. In Psalm 58:3, rather than saying he was conceived in sin. David says the wicked are estranged from birth. But then there is Psalm 71:6 in which David claims to have relied on God in the womb and from birth (see also Psalm 22:9-10). These snapshots reveal David at different moments. Just like in one moment you and I feel like such great sinners it is as if we were just born that way, we have other moments of such complete trust that we recognize our great reliance upon God while even at our mother’s breast.

    Perhaps there is a different explanation. But I admit, I am not simply happy to find any kind of explanation that will get the psalm to say what I want in contradiction to the Calvinist’s and their total inherited depravity. I have to look at the nature of Psalms and what I see is a poem, using poetic language, to describe David’s personal shame over his personal sin. That suffices for me to see that this passage is not a doctrinal statement of inherent depravity. I look forward to your further response on this.

  • VIRGIN BIRTH 08-04-2015

    […] of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. Psalm 51:5 Does Not Teach We are Born in Sin | Franklin Church of Christ Psalms 51:5 taken out of context does not mean David was conceived in sin and that we are all […]

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