I had occasion recently to engage some individuals who deny the imputation of Adam’s sin. This of course was on Facebook; a place that can be dank at times, filled with many dark corners occupied with the cages of every theologically foul bird imaginable.
One of the key arguments my antagonists used to make their case was an appeal to Ezekiel 18 as proof against the doctrine of imputation. The prophet Ezekiel, they claim, demonstrates that each individual person is responsible for his own sin before the Lord. Hence a son can never be held accountable for the sins of a father nor can a wicked father pass the guilt of sin upon his son. Ezekiel’s words demonstrates that the idea of Adam’s sin imputed upon all of humanity is a false doctrine.
I was challenged to provide a response, so I thought I would write up a rebuttal to this sloppy heresy.
Let’s outline the particulars first.
The earliest doctrinal statement, apart from Scripture, affirming the imputation of Adam’s sin is of course the Council of Orange in 529 AD. That is where the heresy of Pelagius was condemned and the doctrine of Adam’s sin defended and defined more concisely.
Canon 2 provides the relevant definition to my discussion here,
CANON 2. If anyone asserts that Adam's sin affected him alone and not his descendants also, or at least if he declares that it is only the death of the body which is the punishment for sin, and not also that sin, which is the death of the soul, passed through one man to the whole human race, he does injustice to God and contradicts the Apostle, who says, "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Rom. 5:12).
In other words, the Bible clearly teaches that when Adam sinned, he imputed his sin of disobedience to the whole of humanity. Meaning, every person, both man and woman, born after his fall into sin, were born sinners, incapable of saving themselves apart from God’s grace. Furthermore, all humanity bears the full guilt of Adam’s sin in that they are born under the curse of God, separated from God, and judicially under His judgment. The exegesis of all the necessary Scriptures that speak to Adam’s sin only confirms that truth.
So how exactly does Ezekiel 18 fit into the debate?
Ezekiel was an Exilic prophet. He was more than likely taken captive with 8,000 other Israelite in 598 BC by the Babylonians. He was called to a specific prophetic ministry to those captives before Babylon utterly leveled Jerusalem in 586 BC.
During his ministry to those captives, Ezekiel confronted the erroneous idea believed by his fellow countrymen that the reason why they were in their circumstances languishing in captivity had to do with the sins of the previous generation. In their minds, the people believed they did nothing wrong to feel guilty about and so denied any responsibility for the judgment they were experiencing. As far as they were concerned, they were innocent. Chapter 18 rebukes that false belief.
With that bit of background in mind, let me briefly sketch out what Ezekiel 18 is and is not saying.
First, it needs to be known that the use of chapter 18 against the doctrine of imputation is something of a novel idea. That “interpretation” has only been seriously considered within the last 200 years or so with the emergence of higher critical views of the Bible, as well as among unorthodox groups who hate the doctrine of imputation. That has not been the view of the historic, Christian church.
Secondly, Ezekiel is not rebuking once and for all the notion of transgenerational punishment as some modern commentators suggest. Moses was clear in Deuteronomy 24:16 that fathers were not to be put to death for the sins of their sons, nor the sons for the sins of their fathers.
Thirdly, Ezekiel is not teaching that individual salvation can be lost, another false notion about the content of chapter 18.
Fourth, Ezekiel is repudiating the doctrine of retribution. That is the idea that if a person does enough good, God will honor his good deeds, but if he has unconfessed sins, God will bring disaster and misfortune upon his life. That is what Job’s head-wagging friends suggested was the reason for his personal calamity and trials. They were wrong.
Fifth, Ezekiel also repudiates the false belief that a person can be held responsible for the past sins of loved ones, or generational curses. The prophet’s words are a direct refutation to the charismatic teaching of generational curses that are passed down from family member to family member.
What Ezekiel 18 does tell us is, according to verse 3, that the people of Israel are the focus of God’s rebukes. Meaning, the primary audience is the nation of Israel in judgment and captivity.
Rather than this chapter teaching us about extreme individualism as those who are opposed to the doctrine of imputation want to believe, Ezekiel rebukes that false belief and reminds the people they are in their circumstances because ALL of them as the collective nation share in the responsibility of committing those sins listed throughout the chapter. Adam, for example, blamed Eve for his disobedient act, who in turn, blamed the serpent. Yet all of them shared in the sin for which they were judged. The same is with the nation of Israel.
God reminds them through the words of the prophet that even though they all share in the guilt of Israel’s sin, God is not unjust and will judge everyone according to their obedience to the law. A law-breaking father is responsible for his law-breaking alone and his children will not be held accountable for it. Just as a faithful, law-keeping father is not held judicially responsible for his law-breaking son.
Additionally, God makes it clear in verses 21 and 22 that a wicked man who is a law-breaker who turns from his wicked way and now obeys God’s law, will not have his past sin of law-breaking held against him. God forgives and does not remember his past disobedience. In like manner, God states that a righteous man who turns from his righteous ways to live out the rest of his life as a law-breaking, defier of God’s ways will be judged for his sin and not his past righteousness. His apostasy is described as treachery in verse 24 and for it he will die.
The prophet concludes his words by proclaiming God’s heart who wishes none to perish, but that all of them would do right and live. That would entail them recognizing their collective sin against God’s covenant, their repentance to no longer be law breakers, and their return to obeying God’s commands.
So, rather than this chapter being a treatise that rejects and refutes the biblical doctrine of imputation, it is a specific word to the people of captive Israel to turn away from the law-breaking that brought them to their circumstances, return to God, and live.