by Pastor Allen Colemen
After fifteen years of utilizing the English Standard Version (ESV), I have begun using the New Living Translation (NLT) in my public ministry.
Why the switch now?
As I’ve gotten older, my priorities in preaching have shifted ever so slightly. My priority as a preacher used to be information. Therefore, I wanted people to have an accurate, word-for-word translation to accommodate this misguided emphasis. (The emphasis is misguided, not the translation.) However, my priority has shifted to transformation as I have matured as a Bible teacher. Information doesn’t mean anything, with respect to the Bible anyway, if it doesn’t bear fruit in people’s lives. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating a particular translation of the Bible to faithful life transformation over another. This is more about a very personal decision with very public implications for me. So, for me, part of what it means to preach each week with an emphasis on transformation is to eliminate obstacles to the text and, therefore, to the gospel itself, as I see it. So what matters to me when choosing a Bible translation?
I want my messages to be accessible. Not just to the mature believer, but to those new in the faith or not in the faith at all. Therefore, the older I get, the simpler I get. The more accessible I want my preaching to be. Which means I want the text to be more accessible as well.
The readability of the NLT is the first thing I noticed when I began investigating a new Bible translation. It’s smooth, baby. The word order doesn’t feel like driving through a parking lot with speed bumps, like other translations. It reads like plain English, which is exactly the kind of Greek the New Testament was written in . . . plain. For example, as you compare some of your favorite Bible texts, notice the well-paved, open highway. Without sacrificing meaning, small word choices end up making a huge difference:
- “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.” (Philippians 1:21, nlt)
- “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21, esv)
Hopefully you’ll notice that the NLT is written in updated language for modern readers. The ESV still, at times, has a lot of KJV-style language, making the reading experience more challenging. By contrast, the NLT largely does away with old-school language that makes you feel like you’re reading Hamlet. Personally, I think this makes the Bible more enjoyable and raises comprehension for any reader. I think it’s a safe bet that New Testament authors didn’t talk like old British scholars.
For example, “thus” appears 8 times in the NLT but 691 times in the ESV. “Lest” appears 0 times in the NLT and 186 times in the ESV. “Shall” shows up 43 times in the NLT and a whopping 4,144 times in the ESV.
- “For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Hebrews 11:14, esv)
- “Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own.” (Hebrews 11:14, nlt)
- “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1, esv)
- “So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1, nlt)
- “. . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, esv)
- “. . . except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.” (Genesis 2:17, nlt)
With the NLT, my ministry won’t require a seminary degree to read on Sundays or in the home. These kinds of updates have me stoked about the NLT! I think you’ll find it easier to read and understand, which will encourage you to take up and read God’s Word even more. Isn’t that the point, after all?
Accuracy to the original languages doesn’t have to be sacrificed for readability. Approximately 90 biblical scholars worked on the NLT during the foundational work of the translation to ensure accuracy of the text.
The translators first struggled with the meaning of the words and phrases in the ancient context; then they rendered the message into clear, natural English. Their goal was to be both faithful to the ancient texts and eminently readable. The result is a translation that is both exegetically accurate and idiomatically powerful. . . . All of the Bible scholars and stylists involved in this work are Christians who accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Most of the translators are professors in seminaries or universities, and all of the translators have written books and/or scholarly articles regarding the specific books of the Bible for which they did their translation work. They represent a rich variety of theological and denominational backgrounds, united by the common conviction that the Bible is God’s Word and that all people should have a translation of Scripture that they can really understand. (Source: https://www.tyndale.com/about-the-nlt)
I’m not talking about cultural inclusion for inclusion’s sake. Certainly not at the expense of a particular text’s meaning. I’m talking about inclusion that actually clarifies the meaning of a text and, at the same time, includes the reader.
I think it’s critical that the NLT makes a translation choice that includes “brothers and sisters” rather than just “brothers.” Much of the time, the Greek word that is literally translated as “brothers” is intended to include our sisters in Christ. This is huge, given that most churches have more women than men. Using “brothers and sisters” is a welcome translation decision because I worry that newer Bible readers won’t know that Paul is speaking to the women in our churches too. We should all want the ladies in our churches to plainly hear God addressing them without having to continually remind themselves, “‘Brothers’ means me, too!”
- “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, esv)
- “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, nlt)
The NLT does a good job of keeping gender intact when the context matters but being more inclusive with the text when it is clearly directed at both men and women.
My final thought is this: I want to feel like I can hand a Bible to someone who has never read the Bible. With the NLT, I can do so knowing comprehension and inclusion won’t be further obstacles when they don’t need to be. I should point out that I’m a minority. And for other minorities who want an English Bible but whose first language is not English, the NLT is a ministry Godsend.
For more mature Christians, the accuracy we care about remains intact. However, I have always said that we should have other Bible study tools at our disposal for a more advanced understanding of the text anyway.
Lots of faithful, transformative preachers will continue to use the ESV (and other translations) in their public ministries to great success. My thoughts here are in no way intended to diminish their conviction in doing so.