Calvinism is a doctrine which has influenced many denominations. It is summed up in five points, known as the TULIP. T = Total Hereditary Depravity. U = Unconditional Election. L = Limited Atonement. I = Irresistible Grace. P = Perseverance of the Saints.
In this writing, we will address the first point. Is man born inheriting the guilt of Adam’s sin? Is man born totally depraved?
Here are some passages which some say teaches that man is born in sin –
1. Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.”
The NIV reads, “Surely, I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This is a poor rendering of the text.
What does this verse teach? (1) Some believe that this teaches inherited guilt of sin. However, this view seems to contradict other Bible passages (e.g. Ezekiel 18:21). (2) Some believe that David’s mother conceived him in sin. I do not believe that this is the context. David is confessing his personal sin with Bathsheba. He repetitively speaks of “my transgressions,” “My iniquity,” and “My sin” (Psalm 51:2-3, 9). He says, “I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). He is not, in context, focused on any one’s sin, but his own. N.B. Hardeman once said to a man who thought that David had inherited sin, “If from the father, then the 51st Psalm has nothing to say about the matter of hereditary total depravity since it makes no mention of the father. But if the sin is inherited from the mother, then this would make a sinner out of the infant Jesus, since He was born of a human mother” (Roy Deaver, Psalms Vol. 1, p. 171). Mary needed a Savior (Luke 1:47 cf. 2:11). (3) Some believe that this refers to the sin of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38:13-20). The descendants of such union were to be excluded from entering the congregation for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:2). David is the tenth generation (Ruth 4). The difficulty again, with this view is that David does not appear to be discussing such in this context. He is confessing his personal sins. (4) Some believe that David is saying that he was born into a sinful world. Again, I fail to see how this is the point in context. This is about David having done evil (Psalm 51:3), and being guilty of “bloodshed” (Psalm 51:14). Gus Nichols pointed out, “If I were to say, ‘Behold I was brought forth in a cucumber patch, and in a field did my mother conceive me,’ it does not mean that he was, therefore, a cucumber” (Tom Wacaster, The Songs and Devotions of David, Vol. 3, pp. 39-40). The environment into which David was born is not the issue. His own sin is. (5) I believe that this is a hyperbole. David is saying that as far back as he could remember he had engaged in sin. It was as if he had been born that way (cf. Job 31:16-18; Psalm 58:3). It is not literal language (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:29; Ezekiel 28:11-12, 15). John Haley suggests, “The text is simply an oriental hyperbolic way of saying that he had begun to sin at the earliest of periods” (Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, p. 161). The NIV, while not accurately rendering the words of this verse, may have expressed the hyperbolic sentiment of David (though, such is the function of a commentator and not a translator).
2. Psalm 58:3, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies.”
This is another case of hyperbole. Infants do not lie. The word “infant” is from the Latin: In = not, Fant = speaking. Tom Wacaster comments, “The fact that they ‘go astray’ suggests free moral agency, not total hereditary depravity. Their departure begins, ‘as soon as they are born,’ when they reach the capability of ‘speaking lies.’ The language here is exaggerated, a form of poetic style. We learn from this verse the tremendous importance of providing training in righteousness at an early age. A young impressionable mind left to itself will go astray. If unchecked, the end result is wickedness” (Tom Wacaster, The Songs and Devotions of David, Vol. 3, p. 119). Wayne Jackson writes, “Psalm 58:3 is merely acknowledging that human beings commence sinful activities in the early stages of life relatively speaking, cf. Genesis 8:21” (Jackson, Notes from the Margin of My Bible, Vol. 1, p. 88).
This is much like Job 31:16-18, in which Job says – “If I have kept the poor from their desire, or caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or eaten my morsel by myself, so that the fatherless could not eat of it (But from my youth I reared him as a father, and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow)…” Job is saying that he would deserve the wrath of God, if he had done such things. However, such is not how he has lived, or lives. He had cared for the fatherless from his youth. He had cared for the widow from his mother’s womb. This is not literal language. This is a hyperbole. He was brought up doing this. The womb is in juxtaposition with youth. He simply means, “As far back as I can remember, this is how I have conducted myself in regards to orphans and widows.”
3. Exodus 20:5, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me.”
There is a distinction which should be made between inheriting consequences to previous generations sins, and inheriting guilt. (1) Children may inherit the consequences of their ancestors sins (cf. Numbers 14:32-33; Deuteronomy 28:15, 32; 1 Samuel 8:10-18; 2 Kings 20:14-18). (2) However, the Bible does not teach that children inherit guilt (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18, esp. v. 4 and v. 20).