Why our church is switching to the ESV (English Standard Version) for its Pew Bibles


The English language has been blessed beyond measure with a myriad of wonderful translations of the Bible over the years.  Did you know that only 670 languages in the world have the entire Bible translated into their mother tongue?  There are many more languages (1,521) whose people are still waiting for the Old Testament to be translated.  Imagine trying to live the Christian life without knowledge of God’s redemption in the Exodus event or God creating the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) or being unable to soak in the character of God as God interacts with Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets!  Other people groups are even less fortunate; Wycliff Bible Translators are still in the business of recruiting missionaries to translate the Bible into another 3,787 languages so that these people might read the Bible in their heart language.[1] 

I’ve been blessed, in different phases of my own Christian walk with the Lord, by many different translations of the Bible over the years.  I first began memorizing verses using the New International Version (NIV) shortly after my conversion at 13 years of age.  One summer, during my college years, I remember devouring the Psalms/New Testament of The Message Bible (as the OT Message had yet to be released); I found that the contemporary language jolted me awake to consider ancient biblical ideas in new and fresh ways.  During my seminary days, I often kept the New American Standard Bible (NASB) close by my side as I labored through translating the Greek text into English; the “wooden, literal” translation of the NASB was a great friend during those days.  When I was at The University of Edinburgh in 2011, I took part in the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) in the School of Divinity.  The history and impact the KJV has had on the entire trajectory of the English language is profound.  During my time in Equatorial Guinea, I was immersed in Spanish translations of the Bible (Reina Valera, Dios Habla Hoy, and Nueva Versión Internacional) as I prepared to preach in churches and teach classes at the seminary; thus, I frequently read devotionally these Spanish translations of the Bible and often caught nuances of the text in Spanish that I long had overlooked in English.  Simply put, we are able to come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and grow in the grace and knowledge of God through many wonderful translations of the Bible.  As English-speakers, we should be profoundly grateful and thankful for the many wonderful translations of the Bible into our own “mother tongue”! 

This general appreciation for the myriad of English translations, however, does not mean that there are no real differences between our own English translations.[2] In detailing why Trinity is switching to the English Standard Version (ESV), I want to begin by emphasizing (again) that a Christian believer can have a profound sense of confidence that they are reading and hearing the Word of God through many different translations of the Bible.  

Reasons for switching from the NIV to the ESV:

If you are interested in a longer explanation about the reasons for switching from the NIV to the ESV, see the 31-page pamphlet written by Kevin DeYoung, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary entitled Why Our Church Switched to the ESV which can be downloaded here. (It’s only a 10 minute read.) I’ll be largely summarizing from DeYoung in the rationale that follows. 

1)     The ESV utilizes an “essentially literal” translation philosophy.

The ESV attempts to translate “word-for-word” whereas the NIV translates “thought-for-thought”.  This difference is spelled out in the prefaces of both Bibles very clearly:

NIV Preface:

The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers.  They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts.  At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation.  Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demand frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meaning of words.  (bold italics added)

ESV Preface:

The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each biblical writer.  As such, its emphasis is on “word for word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages.  Thus is seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.  (bold italics added)

As DeYoung notes, this means that the “ESV does a better job of translating important Greek or Hebrew words with the same English word throughout a passage or book”.[3]  For example, look at the difference between the NIV and ESV in translating John 16:2:

NIV:  “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.[4]

ESV:  “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”

The same difference occurs again in John 16:21:

NIV: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.”

ESV: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”

In the Gospel of John, “the hour” (Greek ωρα, hōra) represents an important thematic and theological development which runs throughout the entire fourth gospel.[5]  The NIV translates hōra as “hour” in 12:23, 27 and 13:1 but the next use of hōra in John’s Gospel is translated “time” (in John 16:2) by the NIV which serves to obscure the meaning to a non-Greek reading believer.  The ESV makes the original Greek word “hour” more accessible by translating the same Greek word more consistently across the entire book of John. 

The same point can be made with the key Greek word μένω (menō) in 1 John which means “abide” or “remain”.  DeYoung writes:  “The verb occurs twenty-four times in 1 John.  It is an important part of the overall argument of the epistle.  The verb can easily be traced in the ESV with a good English concordance. Twenty-three out of twenty-four times, menō is translated as “abides” (or “abiding” or “abide”). By contrast, the NIV translates menō with five different words: “lives,” “remains,” “has,” “continue,” and “be”.[6]

2)     The ESV is an easier translation to use for expository preaching.

Most expository preachers believe it is the preacher’s job, rather than the translator’s job, to flush out the meaning of the text from the original Greek and Hebrew words of scripture.  A preacher using a “thought-for-thought” translation (the NIV) is thus forced to constantly get “behind” the English translation to get at the specific words of the original languages.  This may actually serve to weaken a congregation’s confidence in the Word of God over time if the preacher is always going behind the NIV translation to get at the original words of the text.  In the ESV, there is much less spade work for the preacher because the ESV is committed to translating “word-for-word”, thus making the words in the original languages (Greek/Hebrew) more apparent to the reader. 

DeYoung makes the point like this:  “I preached from the NIV for five years.  It is a good translation in many respects, but it is difficult to preach from—especially if one wants to preach exegetically and with an eye to the original languages.  There were a number of times over those five years when I had to un-explain the NIV in order to make a point in a sermon. Other times I had to simply skip a point I would have otherwise made because to get behind the NIV text in the sermon would have taken too much work.”[7]

3)      The ESV engages in less “under-translation” and less “over-translation”.

The ESV engages in less “under-translation”.  DeYoung writes “the NIV at times avoids theological words and important concepts found in the original languages”.[8] 

A case in point is made with the Greek word ἱλασμός (hilasmos) which has historically been understood to mean “propitiation”.  Christ is our hilasmos, our propitiation because he appeases the wrath of God (Rom 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).  

DeYoung writes: “The NIV, to be more easily understood, translates hilasmos (and its derivates) as “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom. 3:25), “atonement” (Heb. 2:17), and “atoning sacrifice” (1 John 2:2; 4:10).  So what’s wrong with this? The problem with dropping ‘propitiation’ is that (1) it makes it much more difficult for Christians to learn the meaning of and the concept behind this crucial word, (2) it is questionable whether 'sacrifice of atonement,' without explanation, will be readily understood by most Christians (or non-Christians) either, and (3) it deprives the church of important Christian vocabulary.”[9]

The ESV engages in less “over-translation”:

1 Corinthians 4:9 [ESV]: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”

1 Corinthians 4:9 [NIV]: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.”

As DeYoung observes, “Most scholars agree that Paul’s imagery of becoming a spectacle (theatron) is meant to invoke images of the gladiatorial arena. But the connection is not mentioned explicitly in the text. Being unsatisfied with an implied connection that readers might not notice, the NIV adds to the verse to explain the imagery with words like “procession” and “arena.” This may have been the image in the back of Paul’s mind, but it isn’t what Paul said.”[10]

Conclusion: Consistency for Trinity’s Pew Bibles

Over the years, Trinity has accumulated several different NIV Bibles so that the pages numbers are not consistent from one pew Bible to another.  This variation within our pew Bibles may impede people from actually opening a pew Bible and following along during the worship service –especially people new to church or new to the Christian faith who may have a difficult time finding where a particular biblical book is located within the Bible.  (In fact, finding the Old Testament book of Obadiah or Habakkuk can often prove difficult for even seasoned Christians!)  Thus, when our elders discussed the reasons above for switching our pew Bibles from the NIV to the ESV, the Session noted that eventually having a consistent pew Bible where the bulletin (and occasionally the preacher) could reference the page number in the pew Bible as another advantageous reason to make the switch. 

Practically, the discussion amongst Trinity’s elders also moved from “this is a good idea” to “let’s do it now” when an elder returned to next month’s meeting to announce that, if it was the will of the Session to switch to the ESV translation, that this elder would contribute the entire cost of all the new ESV pew Bibles.  Praise God!

Finally, let me highly encourage you along these lines:  make it a habit to open your Bible during corporate worship every Sunday morning.

There are few sounds so sweet to a pastor who has poured over the Scriptural text during the week than hearing the congregation flip the pages to find the passage on Sunday morning! 

Grateful to be with you on the journey.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Rev. Dr. Jason Carter

[1] Wycliff Bible Translators webpage, https://www.wycliffe.org.uk/about/our-impact/, accessed August 27, 2018.

[2] For example, the NASB is often referred to as a “wooden translation” because its literal translation philosophy diminishes the literary quality of the English language.  The KJV is based on “demonstrably inferior” Greek texts; see this article by respected Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace: https://bible.org/article/why-i-do-not-think-king-james-bible-best-translation-available-today. The Message Bible makes no apologies for utilizing highly contemporary language but is primarily meant to supplement other standard translations of the Bible.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, Why Our Church Switched to the ESV, 19

[4] All references to the NIV are to the 2011 translation, the only NIV edition currently being sold as new. 

[5] In the Gospel of John, the “hour” refers to Jesus’ death on the cross, a paradoxical “hour” of glorification despite the humiliation of the cross.  Early in his ministry, John communicates that the “hour” of Jesus had not yet come (John 2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28, etc.).  Yet, beginning with John 12, suddenly “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23) which leads Jesus straight to the path of the cross. 

[6] DeYoung, Why Our Church Switched to the ESV, 19-20

[7] Ibid., 25.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 16.

Jason Carter