By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.
Society is plagued by a soaring crime rate. Churches are hindered by an ever-rising number of open and flagrant sins among the members. Families are torn apart by ungodliness. Who is responsible? Who can we blame for all of these problems?
This may be a bit old-fashioned, but maybe the answer is found in the Bible: “The wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:20). Is it too incredible to think that the responsibility for crime in society lies with the criminal or, that flagrant sin in the church ties with the sinner, or that the responsibility for homes broken by ungodliness lies with the ungodly person? Ezekiel deals with the matter of personal accountability in chapter 18.
When Ezekiel prophesied, Israel was in Babylonian captivity because of her sins. Yet, in spite of its plight, this generation of Israelites seemed to be having trouble accepting responsibility for its sins. They were using a proverb that shifted the responsibility away from themselves to their fathers (vv. 1-3). Rather than accepting responsibility and repenting the), were blaming their fathers (v. 19) and even God (vv. 25, 29).
Ezekiel tells them that each father and child would bear the responsibility for his own sin. Each must give an account of himself and could not shift the responsibility to the other. Furthermore, one could not excuse himself by appealing to what had happened in his past life – a bad childhood or otherwise. If a wicked man would now turn from his wickedness, his past wickedness would not be held against him by the Lord. If a righteous man turned from his righteousness, his past righteousness would do him no good now (vv. 21-29), So, the solution that Ezekiel gave to Israel was: “Repent, and turn from all your transgressions, so that iniquity will not be your ruin” (vv. 31-32).
Any doctrine or philosophy that allows one to shift the responsibility for his sins away from himself encourages two great hindrances to genuine repentance: self-pity and self-justification. As long as one engages in either of these he will not fully repent of his sins. If he is allowed to think that someone other than himself caused his sin, then he can look with pity upon himself as a victim rather than a transgressor. He can justify himself in his mind, because it was not really his fault. Somebody made him do it.
For generations Calvinism has shifted attention away from personal accountability for sin and righteousness. The Calvinistic doctrine of imputed sin relieves the sinner from personal responsibility for his sins. Classic Calvinism not only teaches that one inherits his father’s guilt, but also his father’s “sinful nature.” He must sin. He cannot help it. He inherited it from his parents. (There is vast difference in “all must sin” and “all have sinned” – one is in the Bib1c, the other is not.) The Calvinistic doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Jesus relieves the Christian from much of his personal responsibility to struggle against sin and keep himself pure. The idea is that the righteous life of Christ is imputed to the sinner, so when the sinner faces the Great Judge he will not be judged by his own life, but by the righteous life of Christ. The Bible says each will be judged by his own works: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
The modern liberal sociological philosophy of crime and anti-social behavior in society has not only affected our criminal justice system in society, it has affected the way brethren approach open sin in the church. The bottom line is to take the heat off the guilty and place it elsewhere. The result is that the crime rate continues to worsen and discipline in many churches has become non-existent. People are being allowed to march right on into hell, secure in the feeling that they should not be held accountable for their problems (sins). Let us notice four popular approaches to crime and sin.
The Decriminalization Approach
If an evil becomes too difficult to control and the penalty too hard to consistently administer, then decriminalize or legalize it. If the laws against drug abuse (including alcohol), prostitution, homosexuality, etc. are problems for society to enforce, then there must be something wrong with the law. So, the cry goes out to solve the problem by legalizing the sin.
If a sin becomes very prevalent among brethren and hard to weed out by discipline, then make it acceptable or at least put it in the “gray area.” It is amazing how uncertain brethren can become about a thing that only a few years ago would not be tolerated in churches – as the thing becomes commonplace among them. It is assumed that something must be wrong with the rule by which the thing was formerly condemned or with our methods of applying the Scriptures – anything but that more brethren are becoming guilty of sin.
This approach takes the heat off the sinner and places the blame upon the law or upon those who are faithfully trying to apply it. It is not the sinfulness of the individual, but the harshness of the law that must bear the responsibility. God’s law is neither sin, nor does it produce sin (Rom. 7:7-12). It is the rebellion of the individual against that law that is the problem.
The Distribution Approach
Another way to take the heart off the transgressor is to spread the guilt around. This tactic assumes that one’s crime or sin must be shared by others. A crime is committed, so what is done before the criminal can be punished? The victim, the police, the judicial system, and society must first be put on trial. After all, somebody must have failed or provoked this good follow into committing his crime.
A man takes up with his secretary. Before we criticize him we must first investigate his wife, children, parents, or just about anybody to see if they drove him to it. It would be absurd to think that a fellow’s own Just caused him to sin.
A youngster terrorizes his teachers and classmates. Before discipline is administered, we must look at his teachers, peers, and school administration, It is just impossible to think that he could be a little brat on his own.
A Christian rebels against the Lord’s way and walks disorderly. Rather than holding him responsible for his deeds, the church, its elders, preachers and others are often held accountable for his apostasy.
It is the age old “look-what-you (they)-made-me (him)do” approach. Adam blamed his sin on the woman God gave him. Eve blamed her sin on the serpent (Gen. 3:12,13). Aaron blamed his calf worship on the people (Exod. 32:22).
This approach places all imperfections and mistakes on the same level. Any mistake the police, victim or society makes is considered as bad as the action of the criminal, so these forfeit their right to prosecute. Any flaw that parents might have removes their right to firmly discipline. Any shortcomings that brethren might have cancel their right to discipline the flagrant offender.
It discourages all parties from accepting and facing up to their respective responsibilities. The transgressor feels little need to repent if others are as responsible for his actions as he is. Those responsible for discipline in society, the home, and the church are often convinced that they have no right to administer correction since they themselves are imperfect. The results: society and the church suffer from crime and sin out of control.
The Deprivation Approach
One is not depraved anymore, just deprived. If murderers, rapists, and drunkards had not been deprived of love by someone, parents or otherwise, surely they would not have turned to their evil ways. If society had not deprived the thief of the prosperity of his neighbors, then surely he would not have stolen. If an unfaithful Christian had not been neglected and deprived of attention by his brethren, then surely he would not have turned to walking disorderly. So the beat goes on.
So, what is the fashionable solution? Rather than punishment or discipline, simply shower the offender with those things that he allegedly has been denied and everything will be fine. Try to make him understand that his problem is not really his fault, but the selfishness of those who deprived him. If folks will run all over themselves to supply his every need or want, then the whole problem will be solved.
By understanding the supposed real underlying cause of his badness and knowing now who the real villains are those who deprived him – he can feel less ashamed, more comfortable and less need to repent of his actions. After all, it was not really his fault. He can take refuge in self-pity because he sees himself as more victimized than those he has sinned against. Rather than being brought to repentance, which involves mourning over one’s guilt, he is encouraged to down play personal accountability and shift the blame to his parents, society, church, or anyone who may have neglected him.
The Disease Approach
How long has it been since you heard of an old-fashioned sinner? You see, there are not any really bad folks anymore – just sick folks and people “with a problem. ” So, punishment and discipline are obsolete. After all, you don’t discipline a patient – you treat him with tender loving care. Rather than give him to understand that he must repent and bring forth fruits meet for repentance, you must show more understanding for his “problem.” Who can blame a sick person? He is a victim. So, one can no more be blamed for murder than he can for malaria; no more for licentiousness than for leprosy; no more for drunkenness than for diphtheria; no more for homosexuality than for hypertension; no more for fornication than for flu; no more for adultery than for allergy. So, no longer do we need to call for his repentance and reformation, just call for a physician and a prescription.
We are not denying that sin can become a sickness with some people. But, it is a sickness that is self-inflicted, for which the individual must accept personal responsibility and repent before he can be right with God. We are also convinced that the disease approach to sin is far over played by brethren to avoid accepting the responsibilities to mark, rebuke sharply, warn or withdraw from sinful brethren (Rom. 16:17; Tit. 1:13; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6).
Sin is a disease – a spiritual sickness. The prescription of the “Great Physician” is calling sinners to repentance as the only cure (Mark 2:17). Sinners do have a problem – sin – a problem that can only be solved by accepting responsibility for their actions, repenting, obeying the conditions of forgiveness and changing their lives to reflect their repentance.
Brethren, we must face up to our responsibility to deal with internal sin by reproving and rebuking as well as exhorting (2 Tim. 4:2) – even stronger discipline when words fail (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). We will not do this until we stop thinking that we have to be completely mistake free before we can correct those who are openly defying God’s will. We will not have effective church discipline until we stop looking around to find another cause of scandalous behavior other than the sinner’s own sinfulness. Nor will we get the job done until we quit allowing rebellious brethren to send us on a “guilt trip” concerning their sins. We need the courage of Paul who, even though conscious of his own sins (I Tim. 1: 15), would not let those whom he was rebuking blame him for their sins. To the Corinthians, whom he had rebuked sharply in the first letter to them; he wrote, apparently in response to a charge against him: “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one” (2 Cor. 7:2). To the Ephesian elders he said, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26,27). To one Jew who rejected his correction, he said, “Your blood be upon your own head, I am clean” (Acts 18:6).
Of course, we need to examine ourselves often to avoid sinning against the Lord and our brethren. We must try to avoid being stumbling blocks to others – thus, to a measure, contributing to their sins (Rom. 14:13). Yet, when dealing with brethren who are subject to correction, they must be brought to understand that they cannot blame their sins upon us or anyone else. “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek. 18:20).
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 1, pp. 18-20
January 3, 1991