Are Babies Born with Sin?
There is a popular belief in the religious world that teaches that all humans inherit sin from their parents. Is this true? Are babies born sinful and in danger of hell? Or are babies born innocent? Only one of these options can be true.
This concept of hereditary sin is often referred to as “original sin,” or in Calvinism, “total hereditary depravity,” promoting that there is nothing inherently good about a child. There must be a reason that people believe this, right? Is there a biblical reason? There is one, well known passage that advocates of original sin use to preach their doctrine. That passage is Psalm 51:5, which records king David saying, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin my mother conceived me.” There is another, less popular passage sometimes used by those who teach original sin: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent; like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, or a skillful caster of spells. O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:3-6).
Do these passages really teach that you and I were born as sinful infants? Let us consider this question. First, we must learn whether these verses are to be taken literally or figuratively. Both of these verses were written in Hebrew poetry. In most forms of poetry, especially Hebrew poetry, authors often use figures of speech to emphasize their points. It is common to find similes and hyperboles in all types of poetry. We must not neglect this fact. We must approach God’s word, being ready to discern from literal and figurative language. Are these verses to be taken literally or figuratively? We will come back to this question toward the end of the study. Let’s analyze some other verses first.
Innocent or Guilty?
Are babies born innocent or guilty? Scripture says, “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Eze. 18:20). This verse plainly teaches that the righteous father will not be held guilty for his son’s sins. Likewise, a righteous son will not be guilty for his father’s sins. Instead, it is upon each individual person whether or not he or she lives a righteous or wicked life. “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
We must understand that sin is spoken of in Scripture as something chosen, and not inherited. “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4). We read in Scripture that there is a time in a person’s life when he or she “knows enough to refuse evil and choose good” (Isa. 7:15-16). Evil is something one chooses, not inherits.
Jesus promises, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). Does Jesus want us to convert and become like lawless, sinful children, who are destined for hell? Jesus promises us that we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven if we do not become like children (see also 1 Cor. 14:20). Children obviously represent innocence. This verse makes no sense if children are born totally depraved. Sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). If children are sinful, they are separated from God. But they are innocent. That’s why we have to become like them (innocent, teachable, trusting) to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why else would Jesus tell us to become like children?
Similarly, Jesus told His disciples on one occasion, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt. 19:14). Again, think about what this verse would mean if children inherit sin. The kingdom of heaven would belong to those separated from God. Instead, since children are innocent, the kingdom of heaven belongs to the innocent- those who belong to God.
Scripture teaches us that, at death, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7). The parents do not give the soul to a child, but God does. If God hates sin (Ps. 45:7), cannot look at sin (Isa. 59:2), and is the giver of the spirit, a newborn baby’s soul cannot be sinful.
Please note that I am not being derogatory on this next point; I am pointing out the difference between the Bible and a popular religious idea. We must decide to follow the Bible instead of a man-made creed or idea. The Catholic Church holds strongly to the idea of original sin. They teach that sin, based on Psalm 51:5, is passed down from every mother to every child. The doctrine of original sin allows them to go through with their other man-made teaching, infant baptism. They also know what original sin must mean concerning Jesus. A natural question is if sin is passed through our parents (at least our mother), what about Jesus? He was born of woman; therefore, outside of His power, He would have to be born sinful, and therefore, could not forgive sins (1 Pet. 1:18-19). To address this problem, the Catholic Church has invented another teaching that will never be found in the Bible, and they know this. It is called the “Immaculate Conception.” You have probably heard of this teaching. Most people think that this teaching claims that Jesus’ conception was perfect; therefore, He was not born in sin. This is not what it teaches. Instead, it teaches that Mary’s conception was perfect, and that Mary lived a sinless life, so when Christ was born, there was no sin for Jesus to inherit. To read about this first-hand, read paragraphs 490-93 in the Catholic Catechism (where Scripture is never referenced). This teaching is obviously not found in the Bible. You know it; I know it; the Catholic Church knows it. That is why they have to read it in their catechism (man-made), not in the Bible (God-made). Although we can point out the flaws of this teaching using logic, only one observation is needed. And that observation is the fact that the doctrine of original sin and the "Immaculate Conception" are not taught in the Bible.
How, then, do we explain the meaning of Psalm 51:5? When looking at this verse with fresh eyes, not having been convinced of the doctrine of original sin, no one would interpret, “in sin my mother conceived me,” to claim that David was born sinful. Consider what T. W. Brendts writes on this verse: “Were the wife to say, ‘In drunkenness my husband beat me,’ or the child that ‘in anger my father whipped me,’ surely no one would attribute drunkenness to the wife or anger to the child; neither can they impute the sin of the mother to the child” (The Gospel Plan of Salvation, 134). Some say that David meant that he was born into a sinful world. Some say that David was conceived during a sinful act. Some say David is alluding to an affair in his lineage (Genesis 38). Some say that David is using strong language to refer to his sinful nature and, with hyperbole, claim he has been sinful “his entire life,” which seems to be the clearest explanation, considering the context of the passage and the style of writing. We use similar language, don’t we? One may say, “I’ve been playing piano my entire life!” Surely, no one has ever played the piano out of the womb (especially from conception). It is a claim that the piano has been a part of that person’s life ever since he or she was able to use a piano (a hyperbole).
Now, let us also consider Psalm 58. “The wicked are estranged from the womb; These who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent; like a deaf cobra that stops up its ear, So that it does not hear the voice of charmers, or a skillful caster of spells. O God, shatter their teeth in their mouth; break out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord” (Ps. 58:3-6). What if we took both this text and Psalm 51 literally? We would see a contradiction between the two Bible passages. If Psalm 51 teaches original sin, then the infant becomes sinful at conception. If Psalm 58 teaches original sin, the infant becomes sinful at birth. Which one is it? We obviously cannot take these passages literally. If we did, we wouldn’t be talking about humans at all; we would be talking about young lions with fangs and the venom of a snake! Using hyperbole, the author shows us that the sinner “goes astray” (these words are actually used in the passage); he is not “born astray” (these words are not used in the passage).
As the Bible rejects the teachings of original sin, I hope you do too. God creates humans. God gives them their souls. God does not give defective, despised blessings. Instead, the baby is born with an innocent soul, and as he or she matures, the decision must be made to do right or wrong (Isa. 7:15-16).