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Corporate Responsibility and Ezekiel 18

Corporate Responsibility and Ezekiel 18

“The word of the Lord came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel” (Eze. 18:1-3). 

A brother writes, “Having read Prof. Hanko’s explanation of federal responsibility in the Covenant Reformed News, this morning I read Ezekiel 18, which seems to directly contradict what he says. Perhaps he could address this passage.”

The question is a good and important, and I am pleased that I have an opportunity to answer it.

The proverb to which the children of Israel referred, “Our fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (2), was used by the people who were in captivity. They had been brought there as a part of a band of Israelites taken to Babylon while Jehoahaz was king. A later captivity, when Zedekiah was king, was the final one. The seventy years Judah had to be in captivity began with the first captivity.

Ezekiel was brought into captivity along with the former band of captives and ministered to them at the River Chebar. He had a difficult time of it, for the captives were rebellious about their punishment. By quoting to Ezekiel this ancient proverb, they meant to say that they were in captivity unjustly. They had not done anything worthy of such a dreadful punishment. They did not hesitate to admit that their fathers had committed sins that made them worthy of captivity, but not they. And so, they complained, they were being unfairly punished for their fathers’ sin. That was a terrible indictment of God’s justice.

But the claim they made by quoting this proverb and the answer of the Lord shows that the proverb did not apply to them at all, and that, in fact, the proverb was not true.

It is, first of all, necessary to read the rest of the chapter. God makes several points in the chapter. The Lord emphatically makes the point that He is just and righteous in all His ways, and that if a man is just and righteous, he will not be punished. That is, if such a man thinks that he is totally sinless and yet must bear the punishment his fathers deserved, he is totally mistaken. 

In fact, God says, that even if a man sins and repents of his sin, he will not be punished (21). A man dies for his own sin, not for anyone’s else’s sin.

Ezekiel 18 teaches that the will of God’s command is that sinners repent of their sins, serve Him and keep His commandments. And if sinners turn from their sin and repent, God is quick to forgive and bless. Every man may be assured of this. Even if a man has very wicked parents, but lives himself a holy life, he will not be punished. God is merciful and gracious. But He is also perfectly just.

What then about corporate responsibility? 

The way to escape such corporate guilt is to repent of it personally. And repentance means:

1) That one acknowledge his own part in the sin. 
2) That one do what he can to eradicate the sin. 
3) That he openly condemn the sin and show others why it is a sin against God. 
4) That he not commit the same sin, but drive it out of his life, by Jehovah’s grace.    

There is another element in all this, however. God punishes sin with sin, lesser sins with greater sins, and He does this in generations. The sin of which a father, for example, is guilty is ultimately the responsibility of the children. God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children (Ex. 20:5). That responsibility is evident from the fact that the children commit the same sin not only but even magnify the sin in their own lives. Then the sin of their father becomes their sin as well, and when they are punished, their punishment is for their own sin.

I have repeatedly seen in other families and among my own relatives what this rule of God means. Parents with a family may, for some reason or another, leave the true church. They take their children along. They join a church where the gospel is not preached in all its purity. The children drift farther from the truth than their parents. And, in time and in future generations, the children do not even go to church any more.

If, however, there are a few who confess the sins of leaving the true church, turn from their sin in repentance and seek forgiveness in the cross, they will not be punished for their sins and will, by repentance, experience the blessings of escaping the judgment that comes upon their fathers.

There is always forgiveness and salvation to the one who turns from his evil way—even when it is the same evil way in which his parents walked. But such a one repents of this sin—and repents of his parents’ sin when he turns from that wrong way.  Prof.H. Hanko (emeritus)

Last modified on 26 October 2013
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Additional Info

  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 18
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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