Any list of the “top” anything is bound to be a bit subjective. This list is no different. I do not think myself to be the man with all of the answers, but am only trying to address a problem many have seen. It can be easy to misuse a verse, and I am not above that mistake.
How we interpret the Bible is important. Biblical interpretation can shape our relationship with God, how we worship, and even where we spend eternity. In my years of discussion and formal biblical education, here are a few verses that I have seen frequently misused.
1. Psalm 51:5
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (NIV)
This verse, especially in the NIV, is used by many to support the doctrine that children are born sinful. It must be established that no matter what Psalm 51 seems to be teaching, it cannot contradict the rest of Scripture. Yet, when individuals take it to mean that children are born in sin, Psalm 51 contradicts the teaching of the rest of the Bible.
The Bible clearly teaches that sin is something that someone does. Not something they inherit. To become guilty of sin, one must commit sin. In First John we read, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (3:4). Sin isn’t something you inherit—it’s something you do.
Likewise, in Ezekiel, we read that “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (18:20). Sin is not passed down from generation to generation. A person is accountable for their own sin.
Also, Psalm 51 is Hebrew poetry, in which literary devices are used. One of these common devices is hyperbole; where the author uses dramatic language to demonstrate meaning. Within Psalm 51 is David’s passionate acknowledgment of his sin with Bathsheba. His point is not to affirm that babies are born sinful, but rather to magnify the depth of his personal iniquity. Lastly, when other translations are viewed alongside the NIV, the true meaning better shines forth.
The KJV, NKJ, ASV, NASB, and ESV all translate the verse in a similar way much different than the NIV which strives to be more of a dynamic equivalent: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me” (NASB). While many may use this verse to support their belief in original sin, such is a misuse of this verse.
2. Matthew 7:1
“Judge not, that you be not judged.”
Perhaps one of the most well-known Bible verses today, Matthew 7:1 is often used as a counter to the Christian who would question a behavior as immoral. In this sense, this verse is often misused. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 are not a restriction on his followers in making moral distinctions. In fact, in the same chapter, Jesus says, “beware of false prophets… You will recognize them by their fruit” (Matt 7:15, 16).
Jesus commands his followers to listen and to judge (i.e. use their discretion to make a decision) certain individuals. So, not all judgment is outlawed by Matthew 7:1. Jesus once told his Jewish audience, “Do not judge by appearances but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). A right (or righteous, KJV) judgment is encouraged by Jesus. But, a hypocritical judgment based on an incomplete picture or shallow toward circumstances is wrong.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1 do not make it wrong for a Christian to identify immoral behavior or even discuss it with someone. When this verse is used to condemn Christian for their contentious discretion, it is misused.
3. 1 Corinthians 1:14, 17
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius… For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
I believe that, by the grace of God and through the faith of man, baptism is the point at which we receive the forgiveness of sins, an “in Christ” relationship with God, and become part of Christ’s church (Acts 2:38, 41, 47; Rom. 6:3-7; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 2:11-14; etc.).
There are many in Christendom, however, who have never been baptized and who do not think that such is necessary to take part in Christ’s covenant. I have had long conversations with many well-meaning, loving people about baptism. Often, I am met with the verse above from 1 Corinthians 1.
It is believed that the above verse teaches that baptism is not that important—at least, it is not necessary for salvation—otherwise, Paul would not have thanked God for baptizing no person in Corinth except Crispus and Gaius. Otherwise, Paul would have been sent to baptize, not to only preach. But, the context of Paul’s statement above must be put in its proper context.
Paul was thankful he baptized only a few because the fleshly-minded Corinthians were using who baptized them as a cause for sinful division (1 Cor 1:10-13, 3:1-4). Since the Corinthians were using their baptisms as a cause for division, Paul was thankful they could not cite him as a reason for their carnal misunderstandings.
The Corinthians’ sinful division and Paul’s rebuttal concerning baptism do not change the fact that “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Pet 3:21-22).
4. John 10:26-27
“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.”
These beautiful words of Jesus concerning eternal security are often misused. From these verses, it is taught that once we are in the hands of Jesus, we can never leave them. In other words, once someone is saved, they are always saved. While it is true that once we are in the fold of God, no person or power can expel us (cf. Rom 8:31-39), Christians can use their free will to walk away from God.
By inspiration, Peter writes of those who “have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” but are “again entangled in them and overcome” (2 Pet 2:20). For these, “the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Pet 2:21). Peter explains that “What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire’” (2 Pet 2:22).
The words of Jesus are true: no person or power can snatch us from God’s hand. But we can walk out of God’s hand anytime we choose. Such is why Scripture so adamantly warns against apostasy (cf. Heb 2:1-3, 3:12-4:1, 10:26-31, 12:14-17). Eternal security is found in Christ, but such does not take away our free will. This verse teaches us to rest in the hand of God! But this verse does not teach that apostasy is impossible
5. Psalm 137:9
“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
The above verse is frequently referenced by those who are antagonistic toward Christianity. It is taken out of context and used to prove that God is a diabolical fiend in favor of infanticide. This particular Psalm has even been cited in high-profile debates by atheists to demonstrate that God’s nature is logically contradictory.
Psalm 137:9 is not an example of God condoning the murdering of babies. It is actually a prophecy concerning the impending destruction of Babylon and how those who destroy Babylon will be “happy,” or “blessed.” The Hebrew word in Psalm 137:9 translated in most translations as “blessed” literally means “happy.” So, the prophecy is, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones Against the rock” (Ps 137:9 ASV).
This prophecy concerning the coming destruction of Babylon by those who will be happy to kill their children is paralleled in Isaiah 13:16-18 and was fulfilled when Cyrus, king of the Medes and the Persians, overtook the Babylonian capital in 539 B.C. (almost 200 years after the prophecy).
While this verse is misused to teach that God is evil—or non-existent—it actually teaches the opposite. It demonstrates the omniscience behind the One who inspired the Bible and shows that the Bible transcends the possibility of human authorship.
6. Ephesians 2:8-9
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Perhaps the most popular verse in some circles of fellowship, Ephesians 2:8-9 is a beautiful verse. It teaches us a profound truth about salvation. Salvation is not something we earn through our own meritorious works; nor could it ever be. However, the above verse is unfortunately misused to prove that other things the Bible teaches as necessary for salvation are unnecessary.
This verse often referenced to support that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Nowhere is it stated in the Bible that faith alone saves the sinner. However, the Bible does teach that man is saved by God’s grace (2 Tim 1:8-9; Titus 3:4-7), the blood of Jesus (Rom 3:25; 5:9, Eph. 1:7, 2:13), faith (John 3:16; Heb 11:6), repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Cor 7:10), confession (Rom 10:10), and baptism (Acts 22:16; 1 Pet 3:21).
The meaningful words of Ephesians 2:8-9 do not make the words of the apostle Paul or Peter, or Jesus himself meaningless when they state that baptism, repentance, or confession is a vital part of salvation. Salvation cannot be earned through any means. It is not something we deserve when we have faith, repent of our sins, confess our faith in Christ, or are baptized.
Our reaction to God’s grace ought to be one of obedience (Titus 2:11-14), and our faith in God and his word should lead us to do all that he has said is necessary for our salvation through his grace and his son’s blood. To use this great section of scripture in order to demonstrate that repentance, baptism, etc. are unnecessary to join Christ’s covenant is a misuse of one of the Scriptures’ greatest truths.
The goal of this post was not to be legalistic, domineering, or to prove that I am right. The only hope is to have some dialogue concerning verses that I have seen often misused. Not everyone misuses these verses, and just because they are often misused doesn’t mean they should be avoided. The sum of God’s word is truth (Ps 119:160), even the misused parts. Let us try to understand that truth to the best of our ability; keeping in mind context and over-arching interpretive principles.