KJV to ESV: Why I Made the Switch

Written by Drew on February 13th, 2007

At the first of this year I made a change that will cause me a great deal of difficulty for the next several months, maybe years. I took my copy of the English Standard Version of the Bible from its place among the works of reference on my desk and switched it with the reliable King James that usually rested next to my notepad and pen. Now I am using the English Standard for all my preaching and teaching, instead of the King James.

I’ve been using the ESV in Bible classes since it was first published in 2001. This way, I could get familiar with the text to see if I really wanted to use it in the pulpit. It was a way of testing the waters before making the plunge. In the meantime I continued to preach from the King James. I had been doing memory work in that translation for several years and was comfortably quoting from it every Sunday.

The problem was, I was constantly stopping in the middle of citing the KJV to say, “That word has changed in English usage. For a better translation, see the ESV.” I was constantly explaining that “conversation” no longer means what it did in 1611, or avoiding the “superfluity of naughtiness” in James 1:21. I had a hard time discussing the afterlife, since the KJV substituted “hell” for “Hades.” A number of other problems confronted me, all of them familiar to anyone who has preached from the KJV for a period of time. I could have put up with them and stayed in my comfort zone, but I was having a hard time justifying this when the ESV came on the scene.

The ESV is not perfect, but in the context of today’s English it is superior to the KJV. Not only does it strive for a word-for-word translation, it also employs beautiful, dignified English in its phrasing and delivery. Also, it is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, the United Bible Society’s fourth edition of the Greek New Testament, and to the twenty-seventh edition of Nestle and Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece. These benefit from earlier manuscripts than were available to the KJV translators, who relied upon the Textus Receptus.

The hardest part of making this switch is trying to quote from memory passages that I have cited from the KJV through all my years of preaching. Hopefully, my mind is making an “ESV” file for new quotations, while keeping the old “KJV” file with the memory work I’ve done in the past. With extensive work in two major translations, I should have a better grasp of the text, as I will be able to compare these two translations in my mind while studying.

Elders, ministers, editors, and lectureship directors should consider revising their translation guidelines to include the ESV. The translation has been on the market for six years now and has proven to be as reliable as any other, not to mention that when it comes to beauty and style, it has no rival. Some years ago I wrote a 67 page booklet for an organization using the ESV. Not long afterwards I received a call from the director, saying I would have to rewrite my work. He didn’t feel comfortable with the translation I was using. In another case, I received a letter concerning a speaking appointment. Within the letter was the following guideline: “Use the King James Version, New King James Version, or the American Standard Version for your text.” I don’t want to judge motives, but I wonder how many church leaders have given the ESV a chance. If they did, they would welcome it in their pulpits and classes.

While we may get sentimental about certain versions of the Bible, sentimentality is not the preacher’s job. A preacher’s job is to explain God’s will to the world and persuade people to follow it. By this rationale, the ESV is one of the best translations on the market.

18 Comments so far ↓

  1. Jeff @ truth-in-love.com says:

    Just curious: If you had those issues with the KJV, why hadn’t you taken a look at the NASB? OR did you?

  2. Joey says:

    I think another plus for the ESV (if one is contemplating a switch) is that it seems easier for others to follow along with you even if they have KJV/NKJV than say with NASB (especially since it tries to preserve Greek word order).

    My personal preference for the ESV stems from how it acknowledges grammatical and syntactical nuances from the Greek (with prepositions, etc).

    Thanks for setting an example in handling what can be a controversial subject with class…

  3. almcfaughn says:

    A few months ago, I listened to a sermon delivered by Wayne Jackson at the Memorial Parkway congregation in Huntsville, AL. He recommended the ASV (partially because it was what he was used to). BUT, near the end of the lesson he said that the ESV, so far as he had been able to tell, was just as reliable and was a good translation.

    I study from the ESV and NASB, but usually preach from NJKV, mostly because so many have that version in front of them.

    The ESV is a great translation and should be in every preacher’s library; for reference, if not much more.

  4. Drew Kizer says:

    Jeff, the NASB is a great translation. I used it quite a bit in college due to its commitment to accuracy. I preached with it for a while, but opted for the KJV and then the ESV because of my desire to quote the text from memory. While the NASB is precise, its language is a bit awkward to me. Also, when the update came out in 1995, that told me there would never be a definitive edition to quote.

    That is not to say that the ESV won’t do an update. In that case, I’ll have to start my memory work a third time!

  5. Joel says:

    Maybe versions should start doing updates like software. “Get your NASB 5.0 update here!”

    On second thought…

  6. Ike says:

    Nice idea, Joel… but we already have too many denominations trying to tweak the code for their flocks.

    “NASB 3.0.1 – now Rapture compatible!”

  7. J-Train says:

    I like the NASCAR version best. All those “thee”s and “thou”s being replaced with “Ya’ll” and lots of references to “get ‘r done”. How can you go wrong?

  8. russ says:

    With the NIV paraphrase, readability, obviously is great, but defending it is a headache – it does have problems. Drew is right, the readability and language is great in the ESV. I’ve used it for 3 yrs now.

    If the KJV is frustrating to you and, to you, the NKJV was a translation of a translation, and you’ve thought the NIV is the only option, please pick up the ESV. It is great!

    I “tried out” here 3 yrs ago with the ESV. The elders asked me not to use the NIV – anything that readable and clear had to be bad, I suppose. Wanted me to use the KJV, NKJV. I printed off Wayne Jackson’s article (how can i post a link?)on the ESV, handed it out, 2 of them have it now, and many in the congregation use it all the time.

  9. Drew Kizer says:

    Wayne Jackson’s article that Russ referred to can be found here.

  10. Paul says:

    I just got an ESV and love it. However, we need to investigate any translation for error. I used to use the NIV back in my OC days. Why? Because everyone else did and I thought it was the best since it was the most modern. I thought people opposed it because it was new. Then I learned that the NASB considered the most literal at the time. Also, I did research and found out that the NIV is full of errors that just don’t make sense.

    I wish they’d make an ESV, NASB, NKJV parallel to use. biblegateway.com is good to use in the meantime!

  11. Chris says:

    With the NIV paraphrase

    I may misunderstand you, but the NIV is a true translation, not a paraphrase.

  12. Robert says:

    Good discussion. Every translation has its strengths and weaknesses. I have preached from the NASB since my college days, but am working the ESV in to my classes and some pulpit. I am amazed, though, at some who just go ballistic over anything other than the KJV, when there are obvious problems in it, too. Translation selection has become an issue of emotion when it should be a matter of of truth and honest discussion. Thanks for offering the latter.

  13. Craig says:

    >>the NKJV was a translation of a translation<< Remember that the ESV is also just a a revision of a prior translation (well, of a revision–the RSV). >>That is not to say that the ESV won’t do an update.<< They have at least twice already. Just minor things, from what I understand. I also wish I had a parallel ESV, NKJV, NASB (and with NET Bible footnotes!). But certainly more important would be for me to pay more attention to all that is written in any one of these.

  14. russ says:

    Chris. Ok, and I’m the best blogger in the world.

    Craig, point taken. I’m just not sure the NKJV brought anything “new” to the table. Maybe for “scholars”(?), but what did it really do for “Member Joe” other that dispose of “thees” “thous” and “ensamples”? I’m just saying – I’m always up for learning more.

  15. Craig says:


    Yes, from one standpoint the NKJV took out archaic pronouns (actually, I still refer to the KJV when I want to know whether a modern “you” is plural or singular, since I don’t know Hebrew or Greek and modern English doesn’t show the difference but KJV does). But the NKJV also updated the language quite a bit–many verbs and nouns had changed their meanings over the years. As a layman in the pew, I found that helpful (since I worried about what nuances I might misread into the KJV). I have a lot more confidence in what I read in the NKJV for this reason.

    I find the NKJV very similar to the ESV (sometimes verses are identical). I am delighted that both are available, and I enjoy reading both weekly (I use the ESV for daily use, and my church uses the ESV, but I still pull out the NKJV a few times a week).

    I am a little confused by those who try the ESV and enjoy it so much they use it regularly or (if in a position of leadership) have their church change to use it. What was it about the NKJV that they didn’t like? (For example, Piper’s church changed to ESV, but when I read their rationale, I think that all the things they wanted were available in the NKJV 25 years ago.)

    I know the arguments about the textual basis being more accurate for the ESV (critical text vs received text); but here I think the NKJV beats the ESV, since the NKJV gives the textus receptus rendering, plus the majority text rendering, plus the critical text rendering. So the NKJV gives me the benefit of seeing all of the textual traditions, and it makes it clear to me which text says what (at least to the level of general text families). The ESV doesn’t do this in this detail. So I still study from the NKJV frequently.

    Just the observations of a layman. Not an elder or a deacon. (Okay, I did teach Sunday School for a while and I help with awana.)

  16. Michael says:

    The ESV did a revision similar to the 1995 NASB update as recently as this year. They probably won’t go the route of actually naming it ESV 2007 update (for obvious reasons), and I think the NASB wasn’t very smart to market its revisions by the date they were done, but they followed in the (how many times have you heard this) 1901 American Standard.

    Translations are just that- translations. They all involve interpretation at some level, and some interpret at a level that we are more comfortable with than others. For Greek lovers like myself, NASB fits my desire to have everything very rigidly translated from the original. ESV is very close to that but is probably much more readable like the RSV which it is in the “legacy” of.

    Enjoyed the article.

  17. Kevin W. Rhodes says:

    While I appreciate the ESV’s help in returning focus to formal equivalence translation as well as its literary style, I do not believe that it has brought anything profound to the world of translation. For example, if the ESV were compared to the RSV, how would it differ in comparison with the comparison of the KJV to the NKJV? Certain verses seem to still be stumblingblocks for some translators (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:9-10; Rom. 12:1) and I have noticed a tendency to translate certain phrases incorrectly on the basis of dynamic equivalence and so distort the meaning of the text (especially in regard to the Holy Spirit). Some of the newer translations also fail to understand the import of “faith” in the genitive and translate it as if it were in the dative, which misses the point of the passage. Also, we seem to see people not appreciating the nuances of prepositions as much as in years’ past. (This is probably the most obvious in the NASB’s translation of Romans.)

    These tendencies are not true for just one translation. They occur in the NASB, NKJV, and the ESV–all of which I consider to be acceptable translations. But we should be aware of these problems and not simply endorse something across the board.

    Oddly enough, the KJV is probably still truer to prepositions and more word for word than all the newer translations (though the ASV follows Greek syntax far more closely).

    I am not a KJV only guy–nor am I an “All new translations are wrong” guy. I made the move to the NKJV from the KJV in 1995. I still believe that was a good move. I also understand why others would prefer the ESV, though I am not an eclecticist, so I do not believe the textual base is superior, though I do not follow the textus receptus either, preferring instead the Majority Text.

    I agree that the ESV should be added to the list of acceptable translations, but we should remain cautious with it as well. (For example, note the major problem introduced in the NKJV in John 6.)

    Most of all, I think that we need to be able to discuss such matters openly without fear of being dragged into the street. I appreciate Drew’s willingness to initiate just such a conversation.

  18. Anonymous says:

    You are all sadly mislead, and i pray that the GOD of all creation will open your eyes before it is too late. God promised to preserve his Word and he has in the KJV. I can point out so many contradictions in your perverted texts that it will make your head spin and your heart sink. The new versions ALL of them are compromised, and have been corrupted by satanic manipulation through the catholic church(antichrist). If you are ministers as you claim to be, be very careful what you preach from the pulpit, especially when it comes to what version you are using. You will have the greater condemnation. Listen to the spirit that speaks to your heart. God promised to preserve his Word and he does not lie. He has preserved it perfectly. Do the research, don’t be fooled, study to shew yourselves approved unto God. The earth is only about 6k years old, and a secret rapture is NOT biblical. Over and over again it says “at the last day” when referring to the second coming. There is only 1 more coming of Christ, NOT 2 as required by “rapture theology”. Hold true to the doctrines of the reformers. Let not your hearts be troubled, for Christ will return and gather his elect together to be with him for all eternity, AT THE LAST DAY. Many tribulations lie ahead of us, the church of rome will once again seek to destroy the true Church of the Living GOD, and she has already started by corrupting the manuscripts. Be very weary of anything that comes from Alexandria.

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