I once had the occasion of engaging some individuals who deny the imputation of Adam’s sin. This of course happened on Facebook; a dank place, filled with many dark corners occupied with the cages of every theologically foul bird imaginable.
My antagonists appealed to Ezekiel 18:20 as their proof text against the doctrine of imputation. The prophet Ezekiel, they claimed, demonstrates that each individual person is responsible for his own sin before the Lord. Hence, a son will never be held accountable for his father’s sin, nor can a wicked father pass the guilt of sin onto his son. Imputation is a false doctrine because Ezekiel’s words refute the idea of Adam’s sin imputed to all of humanity.
I was challenged to provide a response, so I wrote up a rebuttal for this sloppy heresy.
Let’s outline the particulars first
The earliest doctrinal statement, apart from Scripture, affirming the imputation of Adam’s sin is the Council of Orange in 529 AD. That council condemned the heresy of Pelagius, affirming and concisely defining the doctrine of Adam’s sin.
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. They are born under the curse of God, separated from Him, and judicially under His judgment. That truth is solidly confirmed with the exegesis of all the relevant Scriptures speaking to Adam’s sin.
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 Israelites in 598 BC by the Babylonians, a decade before they utterly leveled Jerusalem. His prophetic ministry was specifically to those captives.
During his ministry, 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. They didn’t feel guilty about anything, 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.
(This is the point where I would expect folks to go and read the chapter, hint, hint).
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. Making Ezekiel 18 teach against imputation has not been the view of the historic, Christian church.
Second, Ezekiel is not rebuking the notion of transgenerational punishment as some modern commentators suggest. Moses was already clear about that centuries before Ezekiel wrote out his prophecy. Deuteronomy 24:16 specifically states that fathers were not to be put to death for the sins of their sons, nor the sons for the sins of their fathers.
Third, Ezekiel is not teaching that individual salvation can be lost.
Fourth, Ezekiel is repudiating the doctrine of retribution. The idea God will honor a person’s good deeds, but will bring disaster and misfortune upon his life for bad deeds. 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 charismatic teaching of generational curses. That is the false belief that a person comes under a curse for the past sins of family members and distant relatives.
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.
Those who are oppose the doctrine of imputation want us to believe the chapter is teaching extreme individualism. Ezekiel, however, is specifically rebuking that false belief. He 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, (18:29-31). They all shared in the sin for which they were being judged.
Ezekiel is further reminding them that even though they all share in the guilt of Israel’s sin, God is not unjust. He will judge everyone according to their obedience to the law. A law-breaking father is responsible for his personal law-breaking. His children will never be held accountable for it. Just as a faithful, law-keeping father is not held judicially responsible for his law-breaking son, (18:4-20).
Additionally, God makes it clear in verses 21 and 22 that a wicked man who is a law-breaker, but turns from his wicked way, 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 man who turns from righteousness and lives out the rest of his life as a God-defying law-breaker, 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 from law-breaking, 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. God pleads with them to return to Him and live.