March 31st, 1985 @ 10:50 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
3-31-85 10:50 a.m.
And the Lord wonderfully reward you, who share the hour on radio; and the throngs of you who are in God’s house this holy hour, here in the First Baptist Church of Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Personal Accountability. In our preaching through the tremendously pertinent and meaningful message of Ezekiel, we are in the eighteenth chapter. And the text reads like this: Ezekiel chapter 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.
. . . all souls are Mine; as the . . . father, so . . . the son: and the soul that sinneth, it shall die . . . if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right . . . he shall . . . live . . .
[Ezekiel 18:1-5, 9]
. . . doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right . . . he shall live—
no matter what his father has done—
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither the father bear the iniquity of the son.
. . . if the wicked turn from his sins . . . and keep My statutes, and do . . . right, he shall . . . live, he shall not die—
no matter how wicked he is—
All the transgressions that he has committed . . . shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness . . . he shall live.
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
The doctrine of personal accountability: all of this rose out of the unspeakable tragedy of the destruction of the nation of Israel. In 722 BC, the bitter and hasty Assyrian came. Under Tiglath-pileser, under Ashurbanipal, under Esarhaddon, under Sennacherib, and finally, under Sargon, the Assyrian destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel—took Samaria into captivity [2 Kings 17:22-23].
As though that were not tragedy enough, beginning in 605 BC [Daniel 1:1-3], and in 598 [2 Kings 24:1], and then finally in 587 BC [2 Kings 25:8-21], the Chaldeans came under Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed the temple and the Holy City and the nation, and took the remnant into slavery. It was a bitter time of unavailing remorse. It was a consciousness of national death. And they fell into a fatalistic hopelessness, an abject and continuing despair. Ezekiel quotes them in 37:11: “Our bones are dried, our hope is lost: we are completely cut off in all of our parts” [Ezekiel 37:11].
It would be natural, wouldn’t it, and it was so with them, that the people in despair, in this tragic trauma and judgment saw a reason for the terrible punishment that had been inflicted upon them. And they found it. “The fathers have sinned, and we guiltless children are vicariously suffering for their iniquity. God has visited the iniquity of the fathers upon us, and we are bearing the judgment and the punishment for their wrong.”
That was not a philosophical observation of an astute student of the law. It was so reiterated by the nation and so confirmed and quoted by all the people that it became a proverb. It became an epigram. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” [Ezekiel 18:2]. They have sinned, and we bear the punishment.
That was the reaction of the whole nation to the judgment of God. For example, Jeremiah quotes it in Jeremiah 31:29, “The people say,” and then he quotes it, “In the land of Israel the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” And here Ezekiel quotes it in Chaldea, in Babylonia: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” [Ezekiel 18:29]. It was a universal, national response to the tragic judgment of God that had destroyed them. We are the innocent victims of what our fathers have done.
Now, there has to be a basis to give color and credence and likelihood to such an epigram. And they easily found it. In the law of God, in Deuteronomy 5 and verse 9; in the second commandment the Lord said, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to an image or an idol or worship any other god: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations” [Deuteronomy 5:9]. It’s a doctrine in the very Decalogue itself. “I visit,” says the Lord God, “the wickedness and the iniquity of the fathers in judgment upon their children down to the third and the fourth generations” [Exodus 20:5].
And on the basis of that revelation of the character of God, they said in their tragic, national destruction: “Our fathers have sinned, and the iniquity of our father is visited upon us—we, their guiltless children” [Ezekiel 18:2]. And the conclusion was one that was drastic. They accused God of being unfair and unrighteous. Twice here in this eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel: “You say the way of the Lord is not equal” [Ezekiel 18:25]. It is not right. It is not fair. And in the twenty-ninth verse the Lord quotes them again: “You say the way of the Lord is not equal” [Ezekiel 18:25]. It is not fair. It is not right. We bear the iniquity of our fathers and that is not right.
There is such a thing as a doctrine being right but its use is perverted, it is not right. For example, there is a teaching in the Bible of the elective purpose of God. He is sovereign. And on the basis of that election of God, our Baptist forefathers created a great, beautiful system of doctrine. Our Baptist people are Calvinistic. They believe in the elective purpose of God, the sovereignty of God. But there have been times when the doctrine has been perverted. It has not been rightly construed, applied, brought to reality.
Here is an instance. When, in the Baptist Association, in Central England, young William Carey, a shoe cobbler at that time, stood up and said, “Is it not incumbent upon us to preach the gospel to the whole world; the heathen, the pagan, that they be saved? We need and are under commandment to preach the gospel to them.”
John Ryland, who was the moderator of the Baptist Association, said to him, “Sit down, young man, you are a miserable enthusiast. When God wants to save the heathen, He will do it without your help or mine”—a perversion of a great doctrine. The elective purpose of God is sovereign. He is the King and the Ruler of the universe, but to pervert it, “Therefore, if He wants to save anyone, that’s His elective choice, and purpose, and prerogative, I have nothing to do with it.” It is a perverted doctrine.
That is what happened in the national tragedy of Israel. They were under the judgment of God—their city destroyed, their Holy City, their temple destroyed, their nation destroyed [2 Kings 25:8-21]—but they were not accountable. It was due to the sins of their fathers. And they supported it by this second commandment: God visits the sins of the children—God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children [Exodus 20:5]. And that proverb is a concise, expressive truth. “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” [Ezekiel 18:2].
I don’t need to demonstrate that. That’s not just a theological axiom. That’s a truth in everyday life. These children reflect their parents. You can take a child, any child, and teach that child to be a communist, an atheist, or a goose-stepping Nazi, or a thief, or a liar, or a whoremonger, or a prostitute. The child reflects the teaching of the fathers, the parents, the people who discipline and direct the life of the child. That is a truism. But the perversion of the doctrine was found in this: “Therefore,” said the people of Israel who bore that awful catastrophic judgment—“therefore,” they said, “we are not accountable, we are not responsible. Our fathers are responsible. Our fathers are accountable, but we are not” [Ezekiel 18:2].
“It may be true, they would say, that I am evil, but I am not accountable, my father was evil.” “It may be true that I am a felon, but I am not accountable, my father was a felon.” “It may be true that I am a drunkard, but I am not responsible, my father was a drunkard.” “It may be true that I am a harlot, I am a prostitute, but I am not accountable, my mother was a prostitute.” “It may be true that I am irreligious and blasphemous, but I am not accountable, my parents were irreligious and blasphemous.”
That is a perversion of the doctrine. You can see it—personal accountability, no matter what our parents or what our influences, we are personally responsible. You can see that easily in common everyday law, the law of the land.
(Are you a lawyer? You ought to be. Smart as you are there in that House of Representatives, calling down Tip O’Neal, the Lord bless you for that. Man alive, how I can get away from preaching the gospel! Bless your heart.)
A culprit is brought before the magistrate. And as he stands there before the judge, he may say, “I know I am a drunkard, but I was born a drunkard. I know I am a thief, but I was born a thief. I know I am a prostitute, but I was born a prostitute. I am not accountable.” There is no judge, and no magistrate, or jury in the land that would ever accept such a perverted doctrine. No matter what the parents or what the people that surrounded him and influenced him, he is responsible, she is responsible—the doctrine of personal accountability.
Now when you lift that up beyond civil law into the great universal law of Almighty God, it is no different. The Lord God is not a tyrant up there in heaven with a clenched fist, ready and willing and eager to pulverize those that transgress. Rather, the Lord God created our universe without which we would not be civilized and could not exist [Genesis 1:1-3]. The Lord created the universe according to a pattern of great and just laws. And each one of us individually lives by a personal choice as we confront, as we face, the universal laws of God—all of us.
There are laws, for example, of health; laws of health. Each one of us individually face that law. And if I break it, I fall into illness and sickness and weakness. I have the choice, I am individually responsible. There are tremendous laws of truth, and each one of us faces it in choice. And if I lie, I am at loss, I am hurt—I am. There are tremendous laws that govern society, the common good. If I break that law, I pour into my own life a stream of bitterness and rebellion. And there are laws of worship, and of adoration, and of approach to God. And I face them personally. And if I violate them, I am thereby a great loser, I am judged, I am impoverished. I lose out of my life some of its richest endowments and most marvelous and precious rewards.
That’s why the prophet will say: “Doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? No. When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, he shall live” [Ezekiel 18:19]. If he chooses, he is responsible. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” [Ezekiel 18:20]. It is a personal choice and a personal accountability, no matter what the family, or the parents, or the friends, or the people. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither the father of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” [Ezekiel 18:20].
It is always ultimately and finally personal. I choose. Whatever these have done or however these have done, I am personally responsible before God for what I do. I am accountable.
This doctrine of personal accountability, personal responsibility, on the part of the prophet Ezekiel is so poignant in the gospel message of our Lord. The truth that others influence us is undeniable, and the truth that the child bears the derelictions, and foibles, and faults, and shortcomings of the parents is everlastingly true. But it is no less true that however others may have influenced or fail to influence for right, I am accountable. I am personally responsible.
When I was a teenage pastor in a county here in Texas, in the county seat, they had a public hanging. They apparently, I suppose, used the young man for a spectacle, for an object lesson, a gruesome one. They erected a platform on the county courthouse lawn, and there they hanged this young fellow. He had robbed and killed a cotton farmer, and for that crime the judge sentenced him to be publicly hanged. As the custom—and that’s only as I have read it—as the custom, the hangman said before the boy was slain, the hangman said to him, “Do you have any final request? Do you have any last word to say?” And the boy said, “Yes. Would you bring me my mother?” And the sheriff brought to the platform his mother.
And the boy turned to the mother, and he said, “Mother, if you had taught me about Jesus, and if you had brought me to Sunday school and to church, and if you had taught me what it was to love God and to do right, I would not be hanging today. It’s because of what you did that I am dying today.” The mother fainted and they carried her away. The hangman sprung the trap and the boy dangled in death.
There is a tragedy to that unspeakable. The fault and the failure of the mother is sad beyond any way to describe it, but the boy is still accountable! He is still responsible. You robbed and slew this cotton farmer, and for that you pay with your life. That is the whole sequence and circumference of the law of God. However others may be, and whatever choices they have made, and whatever their dereliction, I am personally accountable and responsible to God for what I do—I am.
Now, this is not a new revelation. This is not a new dispensation in the government of God. This has been the law of God from the beginning of the creation. In the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, the first chapter, God creates [Genesis 1:1]; and the second chapter He speaks to the man and the woman whom He has made, and He says to them: “Of all of the trees in the garden of Eden, thou mayest freely eat except this one tree that I have reserved for Myself, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thou shall not eat of it, thou shalt not touch it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shall surely die” [Genesis 2:16-17].
Personally: “Thou shalt surely die.” “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” [Ezekiel 18:4]. You shall die. Death: to be cut off from the principle of life which alone is in God; like a branch separated from the vine, it withers. Like my hand, separated from my body, it decays. My soul and my life, separated from God, dies. Sometimes the Bible will call that the second death [Revelation 20:14-15, 21:8]. Sometimes it will call it damnation [Mark 3:29]. Sometimes it will call it hell [Revelation 20:13]. But whatever nomenclature I may use, when I am separated from the principle of life in God, I die! I dissolve. I decay. And in the day that I transgress, I die! [Ezekiel 18:4]. The judgment of death is in me.
Now, the great, tremendous gospel of Ezekiel is: “I admit I have transgressed. I admit that I have sinned. I am a fallen and iniquitous person. I am not holy and pure and perfect.” I am a sinner, “but if the wicked, if the sinner, will turn from his sins that he committed . . . he shall surely live. He shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they will not be mentioned unto him”; because he has turned, he shall live [Ezekiel 18:21-22]. “Have I any pleasure that the wicked should die? saith the Lord, My pleasure is that he should return . . . and live” [Ezekiel 18:23]—he, he; she, individually, before God.
Let me speak of that from another angle. We’re not saved by nations. We’re not saved by cities. We’re not saved by communities. We’re not even saved by families, or by clans, or by tribes. We are saved one at a time. We are saved individually [Romans 10:9-10]. Each one of us is born individually. Each one of us shall die individually. And each one of us shall be judged individually, one by one [Romans 8:1]. And however the clan, or the family, or the state, or the nation, or the church, I stand before God individually. I am condemned for my sins [Romans 6:23], or I am justified in Christ from my sins. But it is I individually accountable and responsible unto God [Romans 14:12].
I cannot lay upon my father, or my mother, or my teacher, or my friend, or my neighbor the accounting for my soul. I am responsible, and I am accountable, and I alone. That’s why the appeal of Ezekiel: “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will you die?” [Ezekiel 33:11]. I am to come before God. I am to come before God and ask God’s mercies upon me. I am to do it. My parents cannot do it for me. The church cannot do it for me. These who love me the most cannot do it for me. I must come individually. I must bow before the Lord. I must ask God to come into my heart. I must ask Jesus to forgive me [Ephesians 1:7]. I must turn and look, if I am to live.
The gospel message is always personal. It has social overtones, I know. And it has great community purposes, I realize. But fundamentally and finally and basically, the gospel message is always personal. It’s to your heart. It’s to your life. And it has a marvelous promise in it. No matter what we have done, no matter how far we may have fallen away, no matter how we have sinned or transgressed, God says if I’ll turn, if I’ll look, if I will ask, if I will confess, if I will receive, I will be saved! [Romans 10:9-10]. I can be saved. We can be saved. It matters not all of the past.
“I will remember it,” says the Lord, “no more” [Hebrews 8:12]. Sometimes He says, “I will take your sins and put them in the deepest sea” [Micah 7:19]. Sometimes He says, “I will cast them back of My back” [Isaiah 38:17]. Sometimes He says, “I will blot them out as a thick cloud” [Isaiah 44:22]. Sometimes He will say, “I will remember them no more” [Hebrews 8:12]. The gospel message will sometimes say, “They are washed clean and white in the blood of the Lamb” [Revelation 7:14]. That’s why God will say, “Turn ye, turn ye, for why will you die?” [Ezekiel 33:11].
Why would anyone choose to die from God when the love, and the grace, and the appeal of our Lord is so preciously near and so incredibly, indescribably sweet? My friend, to open your heart God-ward, and Christ-ward, and heavenward, and to ask Jesus to be your Savior is the greatest experience in human life. And on it you can build your home, you can build your marriage, you can raise your children, you can further your business, you can walk the paths of life, you can face every trial.
God is with you if you’ll just open your heart and say, “Lord God, blessed Jesus, come into my heart, forgive me my sins. Watch over me in guardian love and care, and some day take me to heaven when I die.” Oh, what a blessedness to open our hearts in love and acceptance of the grace and mercy of our wonderful Savior!
And that is our appeal. In the name of the Lord God, who loved us and gave Himself for us [Galatians 3:20], come and welcome. There is life and forgiveness and heaven in the hands of our gracious Savior if I will but receive the gift from His loving heart. Come. May the Spirit guide you into that ultimate commitment to Him. Do it now; in the balcony round, down a stairway, in the throng on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “Pastor, this is God’s day for me and I’m on the way.” Make it now, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.