NIV vs. ESV and why Piper switched.

The Problem

Here is the problem we have had for almost thirty years in the English speaking world. The New International Version has become the most popular modern translation of the Bible in the Evangelical Church . But the NIV is very much of a paraphrase rather than a more literal translation. When I first read it in 1975 I knew I could never teach or preach from it, because of how much interpretation it does that I think the reader should do, not the translator. I will illustrate in a moment.

There have been two main alternatives to the NIV. One is the King James Version, which was translated into 17 th century English and not suitable as a translation into contemporary English. The other is the New American Standard Bible, which we have used in this church for some 20 years. The problem with the NASB is that, while being quite literal, it is not as readable as it might be. In other words, we were forced for 30 years to choose between the more readable, but less literal, NIV and the less readable, but more literal, NASB.

We are no longer limited to those two choices. The English Standard Version was published two years ago and is far more literal than the NIV and far more readable than the NASB. Not only is it a better balance, in my judgment, of literalness and readability, but it has the advantage of being in the lineage of the King James Version. Here’s what I mean by lineage. The King James Version was published in 1611. A revision was published in 1901 called the American Standard Version. Then in 1952 the King James Version and the American Standard Version were revised and published as the Revised Standard Version. It was a good translation, but with a few liberal theological biases and some free-wheeling speculation in certain Old Testament poetry.

This version went out of print and was replaced in 1989 by the New Revised Standard Version. For most Evangelicals the NRSV was so lopsided in its handling of gender issues it never became a common version.

I am deeply thankful to God that Crossway Books made the decision to call for a preservation of the King James lineage by publishing a light revision of the Revised Standard Version. That is what the ESV is. Here you will find the cadences and much of the wording that you may have absorbed from the King James even without reading the King James—just because its impact on our culture for almost 500 years has been enormous.

Why the ESV Instead of the NIV?

The key practical question that should be asked is: Why not the NIV? So many people use it. Children have been raised on it. Why encourage people to change? Please know, that is all we are doing: encouraging. We do not require anyone to change in the Bible you use for your own personal reading and meditation and memorization. We hope that we can persuade you to move over to the ESV and that over the next several years there can be enough unity in this move as a church that we can do congregational recitations and readings right from our own Bible.

So why is the ESV better for us than the NIV? Now let me say again that the NIV is the precious Word of God. Oh, how careful we must be not to belittle the Word of God. And yet we must not put any human translation above criticism. God has used the NIV to bring millions of people to faith in Christ over the last 40 years. But its essential weakness is that the translators do for the reader what they should be allowed to do for themselves—they go well beyond necessary interpretation that is always involved in translation, and make decisions for the reader that good English does not require. Far too often the NIV replaces the ambiguity of the original with the decision of the translator, not because good English demands it, but because the philosophy of translation favors translator-clarity over apostolic-ambiguity. In all the following cases the ESV keeps the more literal translation and the NIV gives the interpretation of the translator instead of the ambiguity of the original.

Romans 1:5 ( hupakoen pisteos )
ESV the obedience of faith
NIV the obedience that comes from faith

Romans 3:20 ( ex ergon nomou )
ESV By works of the law
NIV by observing the law

Romans 13:8 ( medeni meden opheilete )
ESV Owe no one anything
NIV Let no debt remain outstanding

Hebrews 6:1 ( nekron ergon )
ESV dead works
NIV acts that lead to death

James 2:12 ( nomou eleutherias )
ESV the law of liberty
NIV the law that gives freedom

John 11:6 ( hos oun ekousen ) This is not an ambiguity removed. It is a meaning reversed, perhaps because the translation could not see what meaning “therefore” could have.
ESV So, when he heard
NIV Yet when he heard

Romans 8:35-36 ( thanatoumetha holen ten hemeran ) Again this is not a removal of ambiguity but a softening of the original. But the effect is to play into the hands of those who might argue: Christians only “face death” in persecution and calamity. They can be spared if they have enough faith. But the text says, “We are being killed.”
ESV we are being killed all the day long.
NIV we face death all day long.

Well, I am deeply thankful that the ESV exists. I pray that it will become the primary reading, preaching, teaching, memorizing Bible version of the English speaking world. It would be a wonderful thing if there could be glad-hearted common usage in local churches so that almost everyone is using the same Bible. Whether that happens will be finally God’s doing, not ours.

There are hundreds of them available to you, and the fighter verse packs are now available in NIV and ESV. I hope you will consider the ESV for your family and for yourself.


About Matthew Blair

Sinner saved by grace.
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26 Responses to NIV vs. ESV and why Piper switched.

  1. Reuben Moore says:

    Considering which version of “The Listener’s Audio Bible” with Max McKlean to purchase, decision to go with the ESV translation series is now ours, and this blog has helped me understand the differences.

    The last example on this blog, Romans 8:35-36 has helped me to sign seal and deliver the choice. A softening in translation like that of NIV, be it intended or otherwise, can definitely lead one to consider that somehow an escape of an ultimate sacrifice (that of flesh) could be avoided perhaps!?!. Truth be that Christ did make an ultimate sacrifice of his body, yet overcoming death (true eternal death) in an ultimate display of faith in the father.

    While Christ has saved us from the eternal death and punishment, Christ is to remain our example.


    If true in quoting the above…

    `But the effect is to play into the hands of those who might argue: Christians only “face death” in persecution and calamity. They can be spared if they have enough faith.’,

    …then should we try to say that those who have also been martyred post salvation, may have avoided it had they enough faith perhaps!?!

    …I don’t think so.

    -Reuben :)+<

  2. Pingback: We have switched from the NIV to the ESV! « Washed In The Word

  3. Shari says:

    My professors encourage us to use the NASB for serious study. As a beginner student of Hebrew and Greek, I am dismayed to discover just how badly the NIV translated any verses that referred to a specific gender. Most of these verses had their translations changed to a masculine word or phrase to avoid any idea that God had “female” properties, despite the fact the Hebrew word or phrase was deliberately referring to a feminine trait. Here I’m thinking of Deuteronomy 32.

    I personally have resigned myself to using several translations, as well as continuing to learn the original languages, because so much seems to have been omitted or changed from any one translation.

  4. Rob says:

    Thanks for this concise comparison and description. I am in need of a new Bible and my pastor has switched to ESV, so I wanted to get a little info. My preliminary Google searches pointed mostly to KJV-only apologetics sites, which I truly believe are well meaning but not helpful for my particular question. This web site was helpful for me.
    God bless,

  5. Stan says:

    I think we should choose a translation, read it, study it, memorize it and obey it. If we do that we will do well, reguardless of the translation.

  6. Wes says:

    I have found that there is no one single bible translation that is ordained by God obove any others. It does no good to read a translation you do not understand. The teachings in the bible were meant for us to apply to our everyday Christian lives. As long as the meaning is the same the translation doesn’t matter. The only reason I hope for a single translation is so that all Christians can be unified on this issue. Satan will use any means possible to divide us. Use whatever translation you can understand the best, and throutgh prayer the Holy Spirit will guide you

  7. Joel says:

    I also have problems with the NIV at times. Like 1 Corinthians chapter 7, which I just blogged about. In the NIV, it has Paul as saying it’s better no to marry. The KJV and ESV are in a little more agreement with the actual greek word which means to touch, not marry. I don’t know how the NIV got that interpretation as marriage was and is created by God and it was and is good. For the two shall become one. Come by and leave a comment and maybe shed some light if you can. Thanks.

  8. Rod says:

    wow, I’ve been wondering about the ESV that I just learned of recently. I’m glad I found your site. Thanks.

  9. Pingback: ESV vs. NIV, briefly « Plough deep in me, great Lord

  10. satchell says:

    I found that very helpful. Thanks for the clarification. Did you go to a seminary?

  11. damian says:

    I am a teenager and I have a dilema of buying a new biuble so really i like NIV and ESV but which one is better i like both of them. I am looking for a bible that is as easy redable as NIV but also very good for mini studies.

    Would you still recomend ESV as an easy readable understadable bible that you can take to church on Sunday and to the youth group and as a study bible?

  12. dogbarber says:


    Yes, I would most assuredly recommend the ESV for you. Go over to wtsbooks and you’ll find one there for very little money. 🙂

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  14. Courtney Joy says:

    My pastor was using NIV for a long time but recently switched to ESV. So as I entered Bible College I became more curious about translations and which was best for ME. What I have found for myself in my scripture reading is that ESV is very clear and yet challenging.

  15. Graeme Beckett says:

    I fully agree with your comments. Our church has a lot of NIV pew Bibles, which means that on the little island of St Helena, they are here to stay. While preaching through Galatians, I am constantly having to point out that “sinful nature” is really the word “flesh”. Its up to me to interpret the Word. I keep reminding the congregations that the NIV went beyong translating from Greek and Hebrew and did a little interpreting of their own. Good intentions, but a dangerous practise, in the tradition of the New World Translation by the Watch Tower organization.

  16. Robert Rohe says:

    I have been looking into this new translation ESV and finding it to be more accurate than I first thought. I think it’s a safe translation to use for group study and teaching. But still prefer the NASB for expository study, which I like to do on my own. I think it’ll be good to have both translations in your library.
    Those who’ve commented about translation not mattering are mistaken, translation does matter very much. It sounds very narrow minded, but truth is very narrow – there is truth, and then there’s everything else. Especially now more than ever, we should be concerned about accuracy; where this pluralistic world today values tolerance and feel good unity over the harshness of the truth which in many cases actually divides. Luke 14:26
    I also do not know where the idea came from that the Word of God needs or should be easy reading? I hear Christians saying that they like a certain translation better because it reads or flows better. Since when did the Scriptures become a sit down novel? When I was a brand new believer, excited, I read through the New Testament front to back in a few weeks. Years later I cannot recall anything life-changing from doing it. God’s Word is not designed to be just read lightly, it is meant to be studied, daily and indepth. If we are not willing to put effort and time into doing this, are we really worthy to be called His followers? Christ has said that we need to take up our cross daily – fighting against our fleshly tendencies to be distracted or make excuses for not get into His Word every day, saying it’s too hard or too much work; this is part of that cross we are called to bear. It is a lesson I am still learning, but it produces so much fruit! In fact, the more I study and do the work to get into His Word, the more I crave for true clarity and accuracy. Actually, in comparison to the Hebrew and Greek, the NASB or KJV are really not that hard.

    Press on toward the goal.

  17. Dennis Bordelon says:

    i am very pleased with the esv. it is every bit as accurate as my kjv that i have been studying for 10 1/2 years since my savation journey started.

  18. Morris Zoleta says:

    i like the esv because is very clear and easy to read and undestand than other bible.

  19. Anonymous says:

    The fact is that there is no other bible version more reliable than the Authorized Version. We for the most part have dumb down the English language. The Authorized Version has already been tested for easy readability and has been graded as easier to read than the other bible versions. These excuses that many propagate to promote using other bible versions that omit whole verses and read differently in other areas than the Authorized Version does not justify switching to what I believe are inferior bibles like the NIV, ESV and the 1995 NASB. This is my opinion in the matter and I do not stand alone. And for the record, I am not a KJV-Only advocate. I would have no problem with another bible version if they were to keep all of the verses that many have grown to study, believe, apply to their lives and memorize. Verses that have been a tremendous blessing to many in the church. Thank you and God bless.

  20. MWicks says:

    It is true that the ESV is a more literal translation than the NIV. What mistifies me is that Piper (and others) omits a very credible translation candidate, which is modern and literal–the New King James Version.

    You may find it interesting to note that there are places where the NKJV is more readable than the ESV. i.e. A friend of mine whose first language was not English did not know what “chide” meant.
    (Psalms 103:9 ESV) He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.
    (Psalms 103:9 NKJV) He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever.

    The NKJV has the most consistent and objective notes on textual issues as well. The NET Bible also has textual notes and more than the NKJV, however they are less objective. The NET Bible as a translation is also just as interpretive or more interpretive than the NIV.

    Personally, I don’t use or recommend the ESV for a few reasons. 1. The translators do not offset the words added by the translators with italics. 2. I think the Majority Text is closer to the originals than the text used by the ESV (and NIV and NASB, etc.–but the textual issue is another discussion). 3. As a conservative evangelical, I am not excited about the idea of supporting the National Council of Churches. (Maybe someone can tell me–if I buy an ESV Bible, do they get some of my money?)

    Thus, I recommend the NKJV. [No, I don’t receive royalties from Tomas Nelson.] Needless to say, Piper is still my brother in Christ and I can and do learn much from him and his walk with Christ.

  21. eldadzondag says:

    I used to use NIV Bible to read, it’s more simple to understand. But I agree with you as you said that NIV gives the interpretation of the translator instead of the ambiguity of the original.
    Until now i’m still confusing which Bible Version should i use regarding there’re many Bible versions. I thought NKJV it’s sound good enough to understand. There’s any Pastor in our church said that you’d better to use NKJV to read than NIV and He said that NIV has a really bad interpretation. But, I’ve been growing through NIV since i was a child.
    but overall, The ESV sounds better enough than another bible version.

  22. Thank u….accuracy is so important.

  23. Vlad says:

    Can someone tell me from which manuscripts the new testament was translated in ESV?
    I find that ESV omits the same verses as does NIV, comparing to KJV

  24. Richard says:

    I’m not one for bible conspiracy theories or purely following the KJV, as some Christians i know are, but some important omissions in many modern bibles have me concerned. The ESV is included.
    On doing some research, many verses found in the KJV regarding ‘fasting’ (one of a Christian’s most important practices), have been removed from other versions.
    Where is verse 1 John 5:7 in the other versions (including ESV)?
    In the KJV, 1 John 5:7 tells us of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost as one), one of our most important Christian doctrines. Why has it been blotted out, especially with no mention of it ever being there?
    The ESV seems to have less problems than the the NIV, but upon research (which I recommend every Christian does), major omissions and incorrect inclusions are still there.

  25. Bob says:

    I just started using and reading the esv on my bible is app. So far I like it. I never did like the NIV. My Pastor calls it the Naughty Incomplete Version

  26. Hannah L. says:

    This is a great commentary. Thank you for providing your insight. I have had my NIV since I was in like 1st grade (mind you, I am only a 12th grader now), so switching was weird, but GOOD. I had always heard the argument about how literal it was, but never had I thought about how it does the work of translation for the reader. Thank you! God bless ya.

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