How the New Living Translation Is Better Than the English Standard Version


(Gasp!) Oh no, he di’int! 

Well… I might not have. I wouldn’t dare question the neo-Reformed law that reads, “All neo-Calvinist Driscolites, Piperites, Carsonites, Chandlerites, Deverites and Mohlerites shall read the ESV.”

Of course not.

This blog post is not titled, “Why the New Living Translation Is Better Than the English Standard Version.” It’s titled, “How the New Living Translation….” It’s an extremely dicey issue to pit two translations of the Bible that are trying to do two very different things against each other and call one of them “better.” I don’t think either the ESV or NLT are better than the other. In fact, I think both of them represent the best of their particular translation philosophy.

Quick Bible translation primer: The ESV is what’s called a “formally equivalent translation.” It tries to preserve, as much as possible, the number of words and grammatical constructions of the original Greek text. This allows the reader to get a good sense of what the original wording said in more minute detail. On the other hand, it can sometimes result in an English translation that is barely English. Enjoy the horror of this sentence: Eph. 6:18-20: “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

Quick: Say that in your own words. … You can’t, can you? You’d need to go back and read it several times to comprehend that one sentence. It likely made easier sense in Greek and was more immediately memorable, but in trying to follow the Greek sentence structure the English translation has made it very difficult to comprehend. “English minds” comprehend ideas in English sentence structure and grammar, not Greek sentence structure and grammar. Which means that while I still use the ESV as my primary teaching Bible (for reasons detailed below), at least 4-5 times during my messages I have to say, “In other words…” and then render the text into common English myself so that people can see the apostle’s point. For that reason I might move to the NLT as my primary preaching Bible eventually. We’ll see. The jury is out.

The NLT is what’s called a “functionally equivalent translation.” It tries to convey accurately the same meaning and “sense” of the original language, but is less concerned about preserving the same number of words in the sentence or literally rendering figures of speech.

For example, in Matthew 23:31-32 (ESV) Jesus says, “Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.” Fill up the measure of your fathers? What does that mean? Would any common English speaker understand you if you told them to fill up the measure of their fathers? Try to imagine it:

“Dude, fill up the measure of your fathers!” What the…?

Whatever the meaning of the idiom, Jesus’ hearers clearly immediately understood it. The ESV preserves the actual wording of the Greek idiom. The NLT instead tries to preserve the force of Jesus’s statement (not just the literal word-for-word meaning) by using a commonly used English idiom with a very similar meaning: “Go ahead. Finish what they started!”

So, one might say that the ESV is often better at helping the reader see the words that are actually there in the original Greek, while the NLT is often better at helping the reader see the meaning that was actually there in the original Greek. But even that distinction is slippery. After all, it’s the words themselves that convey the meaning of the text.

So, should you use the ESV or NLT in your preaching, teaching and personal devotional life? My answer: Yes. Who said you have to choose one? That’s not in the Bible. At least, not in my ESV or NLT. But I hasten to say this: There are some preachers who tend to make a habit of constantly choosing (often from a dozen translations) whichever translation happens to make their point for them the best. Rick Warren slips into that sometimes in The Purpose-Driven Life, for example (NB: I like Rick). That can become dangerous because it steers close to trying to get the Bible to say what you want to say, rather than trying to say what the Bible says. So, it’s probably wise to limit yourself to the use of two, maybe three translations that you regularly resort to.

And since you asked for my advice: The ESV and the NLT are the best formally equivalent and functionally equivalent translations (respectively) out there. Own and read them both. Make one of them your primary and read the other when you need a little more clarity. Carry around a paper copy of one and have the other on your iPhone/cool kid phone.

That’s how I roll, anyway.


12 thoughts on “How the New Living Translation Is Better Than the English Standard Version”

    1. Well, Carson likes the TNIV. But he actually reads the old NIV. And most Carsonites actually read the ESV. It’s complicated. 🙂

  1. I love the NLT for my personal study and also my kids and I are using it to read through the entire Bible. They get it and really enjoy the times that we read because they understand it. Thank you also for the clarification on what the ESV represents. That was very helpful to me. When I teach Jr High girls i also suggest they get a NLT. Thanks, Kathryn.

  2. Love the NLT when explaining a text to my kids. We use the ESV during family devotions but when needed we pull out the trusty NLT to break it down. have you seen the new ESV kids Bible? Looks good but have only see it online.

  3. I completely understand the importance of using certain translations for there strictness to the original language and other translations for the pleasure of just reading a text through. That being said, all translations are not created equal within each category.

    In trying to use the ESV I have constantly run into difficulty in using it as a “hardcore” dig-into-the-original-language bible. The translators seem to have made many bizarre and unnecessary word choices. In many of these cases a word-for-word rendering would have been more understandable than what they came up with.

    It’s not just me. Theologian Mark Strauss wrote an excellent article explaining why the ESV is so underwhelming. We are at a level of scholarly ability that, frankly, I know we can do better than this.

    1. Yeah, I’ve read that article too. It’s a good one. The ESV translation committee was composed of a whole mess of brilliant scholars in the original languages. …But no English professors. 😉

  4. I always cringe when I hear a preacher say, “I like the way it reads in the xxx version.” That normally means he found a version that makes his point when the others don’t. I also find it curious that preachers/teachers will go into great detail defining the origin of the English word in a verse and completely ignoring the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew word in the original.

  5. It is interesting how this is a generational debate, KJV vs RSV, NIV vs NASB etc. My guess is that in 20 years we will be having another post comparing the EIEIO version to the LOL version or what not. What is the challenge for those who lead congregations is to find good translations for public consumption that make the Word of God clear to as many people as possible, regardless of educational levels, while maintaining the most accurate translations for our own study and reflection.

  6. Not a huge fan of the NLT, but I do use it sometimes, it seems to fall short in many areas like removing gender language from passages which I believe reduces the concept of roles between men and women, it also seems to ask questions where in other translations its a statement, and yes I am one of those who believe the bible teaches there is clear distinction between men and women roles (i.e. preaching in church), well back to the discussion- I believe though it does serve a purpose in possibly understanding difficult texts as pointed out above but should never be used as a main bible. I happen to believe that people are smarter than what they give themselves credit for and it would do them good to step it up a bit, it also would force you to do more study (more study to show yourselves approved that is 🙂 – The best translation for word for word and functionality I believe is 1st place NASB, very close 2nd ESV, 3rd Both NLT AND NIV. Love the conversation though and I hope everyone is blessed by the Lord today! I do a blog on evangelism, its fairly new but becoming developed, please if you are interested come check it out @ – Beware it isn’t for seeker sensitive folk, I go out and open air preach about sin, righteousness, judgement, and more importantly the CROSS!!

  7. My Greek prof commended NLT to us as the all-around best English representation of New Testament verb tenses, which is to say that some parts of speech simply do not cross languages in a 1-1 word transfer.

    1. Doesn’t surprise me, Mike. The NLT had a pretty impressive stable of scholars on the translation committee. Who’s your Greek prof?

  8. I began using the NLT on Mission trips to Kenya, it was far easier for the translators to to understand what I was saying than stopping and explaining to them so they could translate to their Swahili speaking Brethren. Then it grew on me for evangelism in the States. Folks might want to try it where using a translator on non-speaking mission trips.

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