I have a question about Psalm 51:5. In this passage David says “Surely I was sinful at birth, from the time my mother conceived me.” This scripture was used by a friend as an argument for infant baptism. He claimed that babies do have sin because David said so in this passage. God says that he was sinful from birth. How should I respond to this? Is this just a smoke screen to defend the idea that faith is the only factor in salvation? My friend does not see baptism as essential for salvation but believes that faith is the only essential factor. Other things are just good that Christians should do.
Yes this is a common argument, both for “original sin” and for infant baptism. However, this is a very weak argument. The reason that Psalms 51:5 should not be used to prove any particular doctrine is that this is clearly an example of poetry. The rules for interpreting poetry are radically different from those for interpreting straightforward doctrinal passages such as Romans or Colossians or Leviticus. Good scholars are very well aware of this and would not use Psalms 51:5 to prove or support any doctrinal conclusions, but less sophisticated believers who have not studied hermeneutics (the science of how to interpret scripture) are prone to take passages out of their context or their literary type and use them in questionable ways.
Let me discuss the passage in question. Clearly this is poetry. David is pouring out his emotions. The technical term for what he is doing here is he is using hyperbole, which is a purposeful exaggeration to make an emotional point. We can know for sure that David is not trying to teach doctrine here from more than one of the statements in Psalm 51 which clearly violate well-established theological or doctrinal ideas if we take them literally. Take for example Psalm 51:4 in which David says, “against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” Clearly, we cannot take this statement literally. David is giving emotional expression to his feelings of guilt toward God. He is not teaching a doctrine here. David sinned against Bathsheba in this case and he certainly sinned against Uriah when he killed him. The Bible does NOT teach that we only sin against God. In fact, Leviticus prescribes sacrifices for sins committed against God (the sin offering) and separate sacrifices for sins against our fellow man (the guilt offering). In the guilt offering, the sinner had to make restitution to the one sinned against before bringing the offering, whereas with the sin offering, which was for sin against God had no such restitution. Leviticus chapters 4 and 5 are the reference verses in this case.
Another statement in Psalm 51 which cannot be taken literally is 51:5 in which David says that he was sinful at birth. Even if we accept the false doctrine of Original Sin, in which we are guilty of the sin of Adam, even then, David himself would not have been sinful at birth because tiny babies are incapable of sin. He might have been held guilty of Adam’s sin, if we accept the false doctrine, but even in this case, David himself would not have been “sinful at birth.”
Whether this is a “smoke screen” on the part of the one using this argument, which would mean that they are willfully and manipulatively sending you in a wrong direction, or whether it is simply bad hermeneutics, I cannot judge. I would imagine that it is more likely that those who use this argument actually believe the argument and are simply not well trained in how to interpret the Bible. I would choose to apply the Golden Rule and not accuse these folks of putting up a smoke screen. Let us just assume the best in this person and trust that if they were taught the basic rules of biblical interpretation, they would no longer use this particular passage to defend their belief.
I hope this helps.