I heard someone on the radio talk about people having a “sinful nature,” and as proof that we are all born sinners, he quoted Psalm 51:5 from the NIV. Are we really born sinners?—D. from Illinois.
Thanks for the question. This is one that has bothered people for many years. In fact, this one doctrine has led to all sorts of other doctrines and practices which are foreign to the Bible.
Before we go any further, let’s look at the passage, quoted in the NIV (since that was what the man referenced). This version of the Bible has David saying, “Surely I was sinful at birth; sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” When you read that passage by itself (which is questionably translated), it can sure make you think that we are all “born in sin.” But we need to look at the rest of the Bible first, then we’ll come back to this passage.
In order to understand where people are coming from when they say that we are all “born in sin,” we need to figure out how they came to that conclusion. They claim that all people are born sinful, condemned to hell from the time they were conceived (some say from the moment of birth) because of the sin of Adam. They claim that we all hell-bound sinners from birth because we bear the guilt of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. This is why Catholics and Lutherans “baptize” (actually sprinkle) babies—to supposedly cleanse them of the sin of Adam.
But do we really bear the sins of Adam?
Let’s think this through for a moment. If every human is born sinful because of the sin of Adam, then that applies to everyone who has ever been born, starting with Adam and Eve’s first child. That would apply to every person under the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament.
But this doctrine is 100% denied in the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel, while speaking words directly from God, said, “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). And look at what else God says through this prophet: “The son will not bear the sin of the father, nor will the father bear the sin of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). God makes it incredibly clear that we do not “inherit” sin from any ancestors.
King David was incredibly upset, because his brand-new baby was incredibly sick. Then the baby ended up dying at just 7 days old. But, when the baby died, King David said these words: “Now he is dead…can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). David, a prophet of God (Acts 2:29-30), said that he would be reunited with his son. Since David was a man after God’s own heart, and fully expected to go to heaven, that means he also fully expected his infant sin to be in heaven as well. This is because babies aren’t born in sin.
But suppose someone won’t accept these Old Testament examples as evidence. What then?
How about the New Testament, which clearly states that we will be judged on what we do, and not on what someone else does? All people will be judged, according to their works (Revelation 20:12-13, 2 Corinthians 5:10).
But let’s consider one more thing: if all babies are born sinful, bearing the guilt of Adam’s sin, then no one can be saved!
Whoa! Wait a minute! What do you mean by that???
If all babies are born in sin, born sinful, then that means Jesus Christ was a sinner from birth. That means Jesus wasn’t the sinless and perfect sacrifice. And if Jesus isn’t the sinless and perfect sacrifice then (1) His death on the cross couldn’t take away sin, and (2) the New Testament contains lie after lie when it says that Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21, I Peter 2:22, Hebrews 4:15).
So, which one are you going to believe: the Bible, which says Jesus never knew sin, or the people who claim all babies (which must include Jesus) are born in sin?
As for me and my house, we’ll believe the Bible.
But what about Psalm 51:5?
Yes, that’s where this question started, so let’s paint the picture. David has sinned, having committed adultery with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan has confronted him and said, “You are that man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). David’s realization that he has sinned completely overwhelms him. And in that state, he writes Psalm 51.
He says, “blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me [that is, it’s all around me, it’s everywhere I look]. Behold, I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me…purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:1-7).
David is poetically saying that all he can see is his sin. It’s like he’s always sinning. He’s such a horrible sinner, it’s like he’s done nothing but sinning. It’s like he’s been sinning since he was born. His sin is overwhelming him, and he’s begging for God’s forgiveness. He’s not saying, “I was a hell-bound sinner the instant I was conceived.” He’s saying, “I’m such a horrible sinner, it feels like that’s all I’ve done my entire life.”
And he’s not that different from us. Haven’t you ever said, thought, or heard the words, “I can’t do anything right”? Or perhaps, “All I ever do is mess up”? That’s how David was feeling when he wrote Psalm 51.
So, to answer the original question: No, we are not born sinners. We do not get our sin from someone else. We are born precious and free from sin. We become sinners when we ourselves disobey God’s law.
For further reading on this topic, check Luke 18:16 and Romans 7:7-9.
-Bradley S. Cobb