Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous criminal defense attorneys, addressed prisoners in the Cook County Jail (Chicago) in 1902. His haunting words expressed a naturalistic determinism. “The people here can no more help being here than the people outside can avoid being outside. I do not believe that people are in jail because they deserve to be. They are in jail simply because they cannot avoid it on account of circumstances which are entirely beyond their control and for which they are in no way responsible.” Ironically, the principal of personal responsibility forms the basis of the legal system of the United States; otherwise, no accountability or crime exists.
Responsibility was not a popular idea in the days of Ezekiel. During the time of Babylonian exile and the approaching destruction of Jerusalem, some people focused on the Bible’s condemnation of King Manasseh. During Manasseh’s reign (686-642 B.C.), the king introduced worship of Assyrian gods in the temple compound in Jerusalem, child sacrifice of his own sons, and divination practices. 2 Kings 21:16 blamed the destruction of Jerusalem and great personal suffering of three people in 587 B.C. upon the actions of Manasseh.
Did Ezekiel’s fellow countrymen suffer because of the actions of one individual living more than one generation ago? What does Ezekiel teach about our society’s fascination with the blame game? Asking a series of questions assists readers to understand the prophet’s message.
First, who is to blame? Who is responsible? Ezekiel 18:1-4 teaches that each individual is accountable to God for his or her life (Ezek. 18:1-4). Since the garden, people have attempted to avoid personal responsibility. Adam blamed Eve (Gen. 3:12); Eve blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Many of the prophet’s contemporaries used the popular proverb Jeremiah 31:27-30 to affirm that children received the judgment due their forefathers. Perhaps the proverb misunderstood the teaching of Ex. 20:5; 34:6-7. The effects of sin pass from generation to generation, yet each individual is responsible to God (Deut. 24:16; Ezek. 18:4). Based on His character (as I the Sovereign live), God declared that each person is accountable for his or her own sin. Rather than blaming others for our sinful choices, we must account responsibility. The unrighteous son of a righteous father is responsible for his actions; the righteous son of an unrighteous father does not receive his father’s judgment (Ezek. 18:5-18).
Second, in light of the principle of personal responsibility, what is an individual to do (Ezek. 18:21-23)? Each individual is accountable to God for his or her sin. When one reflects upon this statement, the truth may lead to despondency and despair. God’s truth, however, liberates. The proper course of action is to repent from sin and make a commitment of heart obedience to God. Ezekiel 18:21 describe the two-heads of the one coin of biblical salvation, that is, repentance and faith. Repentance is not merely a change of mind; repentance is a change of direction. Faith is not a mere intellectual assent. Faith involves a commitment to faithfulness, a reorientation of the totality of an individual’s life. God’s character is such that He finds pleasure in repentance rather than judgment (v. 23).
Third, is it fair to not punish guilty people (Ezek. 18:25-27)? Grace is difficult to receive and difficult to accept. Humans want to earn their own way. Twice the people questioned God’s justice (vv. 25, 29). In essence, the complainers declared God’s judgment of sin was faulty. God responded that the people’s evaluation was the unfair one. God upholds His principles of justice. God judged sin as Jesus died in the place of sinners. Since He judged sin, He can receive the sinner. Repent and live!
Mark Rahel is a professor of theology at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.
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