By Collin Ross
Whether we are toddlers or adults, it is difficult to take personal responsibility for our misdeeds. As a society, we’ve come up with all kinds of explanations for our faults: genes, environment, stress, or our upbringing. It isn’t that these factors have no effect on our daily lives, because they certainly do. However, we frequently place all the blame on these forces rather than face the uncomfortable truth that we are responsible for our own choices and actions.
The exiled people of Judah were engaged in the same habit. We can interpret the given proverb in a couple of ways (Ezekiel 18:2). First, the exilic community could be expressing a sense of deterministic fatalism. They look at the destruction and the sad state of their lives in exile and all they can bring themselves to do is shrug and say, “This is just the way of things.” Their ancestors were unfaithful to the covenant, and now the present generation is facing the consequences. Nothing we can do about that.
The problem with this outlook is the inevitable apathy that accompanies it. If my present situation is unavoidable, there is no reason to repent. It won’t change anything.
Ezekiel emphatically calls Judah to resist that mindset by remembering that every life belongs to God (v.4). Far from living in the impersonal grip of fate, we live in relation to the personal creator God! As a result, there is no excuse for apathetic responses to God’s Word on the grounds that it would make no difference in our lives. That is not so, says Ezekiel. Our personal choices govern our destiny.
The second way of interpreting the proverb sees the community shifting the blame for their exile away from themselves. They say the Lord is unfair, for it was the previous generation who broke the covenant, not the present!
The Lord’s response is simple: “The person who sins is the one who will die” (v.20). While they may be suffering the final result of many generations of sin, they are not innocent victims, but are just as guilty as their forebears. They are in exile, because they themselves bear responsibility for breaking the covenant.
Here’s the danger that awaits us if we dare to not take personal responsibility for our sin. When we shift blame, we diminish our ownership of our sins, which in turn diminishes our perceived need to repent. But without repentance there can be no opportunity for forgiveness, salvation, and renewal. Shifting blame, then, creates a false sense of security and becomes a roadblock to the only way of salvation that the gospel offers.
God does not delight in punishing the wicked; he’d much rather see them turn from their ways and live (v.23). But there is no path to repentance apart from Christ. That path means taking ownership of one’s unfaithfulness. As we ponder and reflect during this Lenten season, we can be confident in our confessions because the cross of Christ testifies to what awaits the repentant heart: forgiveness, restoration, and eternal life.