Personal Responsibility for Sin
Moses tells us in Deuteronomy 24:16,
16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.
It was common in those days—and even today—for people to execute whole families for the sin of one member. Such collective punishment is unlawful in the sight of God.
In the time of Ezekiel, there were some Israelites who apparently disagreed with this law, for he tells us in Ezekiel 18:19 and 20,
19 Yet you say, “Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?” [Answer:] When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person [nephesh, “soul”] who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
The prophet then tells us that the house of Israel as a whole disagreed with God, saying in verse 29 and 30,
29 But the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is not right.” “Are My ways not right, O house if Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right? 30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord God. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.”
It was fortunate for the house of Israel that their viewpoint was incorrect, for otherwise God could have destroyed all of the Israelites, other than, perhaps, the remnant of grace among them. God says through the prophet that His desire is for all to repent, and if they repent, their sin would be forgiven. Verses 21 and 22 say,
21 But if the wicked man turns from all his sin… he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him…
We know more clearly today that such forgiveness is based upon what Jesus did on the cross as the Mediator of the New Covenant. In 1 Timothy 2:5 Paul says,
5 For there is one God and one Mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
The underlined portion above, when we add the value of each letter in the Greek language, carries a numeric value of 3168, which is also the numeric value of “Lord Jesus Christ.” (Lord is 800, Jesus is 888, and Christ is 1480.) And so the numerical system itself, built into the fabric of Scripture, identifies the one Mediator. It is only through Him that sins are forgiven. Hence, when God tells the prophet that men’s transgressions will be forgiven if they repent, we understand that the penalty for their sin is paid by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Example of King Amaziah
But getting back to the law of Moses, we are given an example in 2 Chron. 25:1-4 how King Amaziah of Judah observed this law:
1 Amaziah was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem. 2 And he did right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart. 3 Now it came about as soon as the kingdom was firmly in his grasp, that he killed his servants who had slain his father the king. 4 However, he did not put their children to death, but did as it is written in the law in the book of Moses, which the Lord commanded, saying, “Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, nor sons be put to death for fathers, but each shall be put to death for his own sin.”
We read here that Amaziah followed the law of God to some extent, and as a result, when executing the men who had killed his father, he did not also execute their children. For this he is commended by Scripture, though he did not follow God “with a whole heart.”
The Problem of Adam’s Sin
This law forbidding children to be put to death for the sin of their father brings up a theological problem. We were all sentenced to death on account of the sin of our father, Adam. The sin of our father, Adam, has been imputed to all of us, making us all mortal. Hence, we die on account of the sin of our father.
How can God require men to follow a law that He Himself seems to violate? Is this law a standard for men but not for God Himself?
Bible scholars and translators have wrestled with this problem for centuries. One focal point is seen often in their mistranslation of Rom. 5:12. The NASB renders this verse,
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because [eph’ ho] all sinned—
Translating eph’ ho as “because” makes Paul contradict himself. First we see that sin entered the world through the sin of just one man (Adam). But then, the translators tell us, this mortality (death) spread to all of “because all sinned.” Really? Are all men mortal “because all sinned”?? Why would Paul contradict Himself within the same verse?
The question is: Did we become mortal because we all sinned, or did we become mortal because Adam sinned?
The Greek text reads eph’ ho, which does not mean “because.” It means “on which” (i.e., “therefore”). And so the Concordant Version of this verse is rendered correctly:
12 Therefore, even as through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and thus death passed through into all mankind, on which all sinned—
In other words, Adam sinned, and was sentenced to death. When he begat children in his mortal image, all of his offspring were born mortal as well. “So death passed to all men.” The children were paying for the sin of their father, because Adam’s sin had been imputed to them, making them liable for a sin that they did not commit.
Churchmen for centuries have engaged in theological gymnastics as they attempt to tell us that Paul did not really mean what he wrote. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, which gives the Roman Catholic view, says on page 307, “The meaning of the phrase eph’ ho is much disputed.” It goes to give various views, the second of which is of interest to us:
(2) “On the grounds of which,” an interpretation that understands “death” as the antecedent (so T. Zahn, H. Schilier). But this is hard to reconcile with Rom. 5:21; 6:23, where death is the result of sin, not its source.
In other words, the theologians cannot reconcile Paul’s words in verse 12 with what he says in verse 21, and especially in 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” For this reason they find it necessary to reverse the meaning of eph ho in Rom. 5:12. But the reason churchmen did not understand Paul’s statement and instead chose to think that Paul made a mistake was because they did not believe that God would or could save all mankind.
Paul’s statement in verse 12 was laying the foundation for universal reconciliation in the rest of the chapter. But the churchmen after the fourth century began to reject Paul’s doctrine, preferring to think of divine judgment as never-ending. Neither could they see that God’s temporary injustice in imputing Adam’s sin to all of mankind was totally reversed by the last Adam (Jesus Christ), whose righteous act was also imputed to all mankind to reverse the harmful effects of Adam’s sin.
In other words, the only way that God could impose the death sentence upon the children of the original sinner was if He was willing to reverse this death penalty through the last Adam. Every vestige of the original unjust sentence upon Adam’s children would have to be reversed fully and completely in order for God to remain holy and righteous in His character.
Hence, Paul says elsewhere in 1 Cor. 15:22,
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
God’s purpose, Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:28, was to “put all things in subjection under His feet,” the only exception being God the Father Himself. For a more complete study of this, see my book, The Restoration of All Things.
Therefore, I believe Paul was correct in telling us that Adam’s sin brought death to all of us, “on which all sinned.” In other words: we are mortal, therefore we sin. Mortality is our weakness, our disease, and out of this death residing in us, we sin. Adam’s sin imposed death upon us. Divine judgment at the Great White Throne, then, is dispensed to hold us accountable for our own sins—not for Adam’s sin—and this is referred to as “the second death” (Rev. 20:14).
The second death, however, must end at some point with the Jubilee, because men would not have sinned at all except for the fact that they became weak through mortality. It would not be just for God to make men weak and then judge them for eternity when they sinned. For this reason, the second death is aionian, that is, it is temporary. The Greek word is the equivalent of the Hebrew olam, which means a hidden or unknown period of time.
Theologians do not like this arrangement, because in their eyes, it makes God unjust for making all of mankind responsible for Adam’s sin. But how else can we understand mortality? Even babies are born mortal prior to any sin that they commit. In fact, as of 2012 we have over 55 million proofs in America alone that babies can be killed in the womb. Why? Because they are mortal, not through any fault of their own, but on account of sin that was done before they were born.
Mortality was not the result of the will of men in general but rather the will of Adam in his decision to sin. Looking even deeper into this, Paul attributes this to the divine plan itself, saying in Romans 8:20,
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
If there is any injustice, this is it—and there is no way to deny it theologically. In other words, men’s attempt to remove blame from God by twisting the biblical text in Romans 5:12 is all in vain. The fact is, when Adam sinned, we were all held accountable. This meant that the death penalty was imposed upon the children, which technically violated the law (will) of God. That is, it went against the character and the very nature of God.
Hence, Paul shows that God fully intends to reverse this in the end by abolishing death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). The beneficiaries of this act of God will be all those who suffered mortality through Adam’s sin.
Because Adam’s sin was done outside of our will, it had to be resolved through Christ’s work in equal fashion—outside of our will. God alone was responsible to correct the injustice, for if He did not do so, that injustice would have remained embedded in creation for eternity. So we can be assured that the injustice was temporary, and that God will more than recompense us for the temporary trouble, as Paul says in Rom. 8:18,
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Unbelievers will be judged at the Great White Throne in the so-called “lake of fire,” that is, the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2). That judgment is temporary, for in the end all debt is cancelled by the law of Jubilee, as men everywhere are set free by the law of grace. Mercy does indeed triumph over judgment (James 2:13).