Continuing our look at some of the common objections to the Doctrine of Original sin. You can get caught up here:
Innocent Babies and That’s Not Fair
Objection #4 – What about Ezekiel 18?
This passage is often used as a proof text not only for those who wish to deny original sin, but also for those who wish to deny the seminal headship of Adam, discussed in An Objection to Original Sin – What about Eve?
In short, Ezekiel 18 is not talking about the seminal transmission of sin, nor does it have Adam (centrally) in mind. It’s focus is on an individual’s deeds (see Objection #6, forthcoming) and the judicial punishment associated with those. The fault of the Israelite’s was to drift into fatalism by shifting the blame of their exile from their own sins, to the sins of their fathers and essentially throwing their hands up in hopelessness.
Let’s look at the passage in context and allow that to determine whether or not this undermines the doctrine of original sin.
The crux of interpreting Ezekiel 18 hinges on the proverb cited in verse 2, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Admittedly, I have had a tough time with this proverb in the past, particularly because it is cited elsewhere, Jeremiah 31:29, where it is applied differently. Clearly though, the intended meaning is that the action of the fathers has had consequences on the children. As stated before, Israel seemed to place the blame of their pending exile at the feet of their fathers who had sinned and walked contrary to God. In doing so, they had failed to recognize the sinfulness of their own sin, were guilty of blame-shifting, as Adam and Eve were in the Garden, and resigned themselves to a fatalistic view of the pending exile.
In our passage, God then commands that use of the proverb cease and makes a declaration of sovereignty that all souls are his, both father and son, and that the soul that sins will die (Ezekiel 18:3). In other words, we are responsible for our own actions. This does not have original sin in its cross hairs, rather we may add, the consequences of original sin’s corrupting influence, but let’s press home this point.
As the prophet unfolds an ethical case study (Ezekiel 18:5-18) against the erroneous belief of Israel, we find 3 scenarios: 1) The Grandfather 2) The Father 3) The Son, which are righteous, unrighteous, and righteous respectively. The argument follows that the father is not credited with the righteousness of the grandfather, nor is the son credited with the sins of the father but each are responsible for their own actions. Essentially this is a case study of the the law found in Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.”
After raising their own argument against them in vs. 19-20, we read, “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.” Ezekiel 18:21-22
This point is critical towards understanding that the fatalism of the Israelite’s was a fallacious belief because the passage clearly states that repentance, i.e. turning away from sin, is a decision that rests on the individual. In other words, their situation is not hopeless but they can be restored if they recognize and repent of their sins. The individual is responsible for his/her actions and the decision to repent of those actions rests with them as well (humanly speaking). The reality is, this is a gospel, hope-filled passage declaring the justice of God in holding people responsible for their own sins, yet also the mercy of God in granting forgiveness and restoration to the penitent heart.
That said, understanding this individualism, in isolation from the rest of Scripture, has caused many to use this passage as a proof text against original sin and Adam’s seminal headship, as noted earlier. However, this application simply cannot be allowed to stand.
First, this view subconsciously implies that individual responsibility for sins would have been unthinkable in Israel prior to Ezekiel’s prophecy and he was charting new territory. Additionally, the alternative view, “corporate solidarity” would have had to have been the view that this prophecy was correcting. Neither of which is expressly true.
As previously mentioned, Deuteronomy 24:16 is in the background of Ezekiel’s prophecy and would have been a familiar passage to the prophet’s audience. Again, the view that was being confronted was the fatalistic view of being punished for another’s actual sin, a view that is explicitly denied when attention is given to the possibility of individual repentance.
Now this is where the objection against original sin finds its headwaters. As you can probably hear, the argument often made is that Ezekiel 18 is speaking against Adam’s posterity receiving the punishment that was due for his sin. However, as previously mentioned, the “corporate solidarity” view must equally be considered. Ezekiel 18 must be harmonized with other areas of Scripture that affirm this solidarity, i.e. that the one can represent the whole.
A classic case study for this is Achan. Though it was his individual sin, the entire nation was punished for it. Joshua 7:11 – Israel has sinned, Joshua 7:20 – Achan has sinned. A second example is the wives and children of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16), where the ground split under those who would presume the priesthood and swallowed up whole families. A further example is that of David, after his sin in the murderours affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) and his sin in conducting the census of Israel (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). In the first, we find the death of his newborn son and the promised division of the Israelite Kingdom, both as a result of his sin. In the latter, we find that God declared judgment upon Israel for David’s unwise, ungodly decision to count his people, resulting in the death of 70,000 Israelites. Each of these are individual sins, in a sense, the one represented the many and yet corporately they subsequently suffered the consequences.
On the positive side, we have the example of Abraham, and subsequently, Isaac and Jacob, through whom God promised to bless the nation of Israel. Repeatedly we find God “remembering” the promises made to the Patriarchs as the foundation and basis for how He deals with Israel in an ultimate sense. Certainly not least in our example of corporate solidarity is our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who represented the many in His death and resurrection on the cross and His subsequent imputation of righteousness to those who believe.
When held in isolation and taken from its context, it’s easy to see how Ezekiel 18 may be used as an argument against original sin and also against the idea of Adam’s seminal headship. However, context is king, as they say. The concept of individual responsibility as well as corporate solidarity must be held together. As Walter Kaiser states in his book on Old Testament ethics, “Both individual responsibility or worth and group solidarity must be understood and carefully defined in approaching Old Testament ethics.” Additionally, the whole of Scripture is in harmony and is therefore does not contradict itself.
In the next post from this series, we’ll wrap up our look at some of the more common objections raised against the Doctrine of Original Sin before proceeding with two implications which arise from the foundation of this critical, yet oft-misunderstood biblical doctrine.