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Moses tells us in Deuteronomy 24:16,
16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin.
It was common in those days—and even today—for people to execute whole families for the sin of one member. Such collective punishment is unlawful in the sight of God. In the time of Ezekiel, there were some Israelites who apparently disagreed with this law, for he tells us in Ezekiel 18:19 and 20,
19 Yet you say, “Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?” [Answer:] When the son has practiced justice and righteousness and has observed all My statutes and done them, he shall surely live. 20 The person [nephesh, “soul”] who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.
The prophet then tells us that the house of Israel as a whole disagreed with God, saying in verse 29 and 30,
29 But the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is not right.” “Are My ways not right, O house if Israel? Is it not your ways that are not right? 30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord God. “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.”
It was fortunate for the house of Israel that their viewpoint was incorrect, for otherwise God could have destroyed all of the Israelites, other than, perhaps, the remnant of grace among them. God says through the prophet that His desire is for all to repent, and if they repent, their sin would be forgiven. Verses 21 and 22 say,
21 But if the wicked man turns from all his sin… he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him…
We know more clearly today that such forgiveness is based upon what Jesus did on the cross as the Mediator of the New Covenant. In 1 Timothy 2:5 Paul says,
5 For there is one God and one Mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.
The underlined portion above, when we add the value of each letter in the Greek language, carries a numeric value of 3168, which is also the numeric value of “Lord Jesus Christ.” (Lord is 800, Jesus is 888, and Christ is 1480.) And so the numerical system itself, built into the fabric of Scripture, identifies that one Mediator. It is only through Him that sins are forgiven. Hence, when God tells the prophet that men’s transgressions will be forgiven if they repent, we understand that the penalty for their sin is paid by the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But getting back to the law of Moses, we are given an example in 2 Chronicles 25 how King Amaziah of Judah observed this law. Verses 1-4,
1 Amaziah was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem. 2 And he did right in the sight of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart. 3 Now it came about as soon as the kingdom was firmly in his grasp, that he killed his servants who had slain his father the king. 4 However, he did not put their children to death, but did as it is written in the law in the book of Moses, which the Lord commanded, saying, “Fathers shall not be put to death for sons, nor sons be put to death for fathers, but each shall be put to death for his own sin.”
This law reveals not only what God requires of men, but also the divine plan by which He judges the earth. Here we encounter a problem, however, because the sin of our father, Adam, has been imputed to all of us, making us all mortal. Hence, we die on account of the sin of our father.
How can God require men to follow a law that He Himself seems to violate? Is this law a standard for men but not for God Himself?
Bible scholars and translators have wrestled with this problem for centuries. One focal point is seen often in their mistranslation of Romans 5:12. The NASB renders this verse,
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and earth through sin, and so death spread to all men, because [eph’ ho] all sinned—
Translating eph’ ho as “because” makes Paul contradict himself. First we see that sin entered the world through the sin of just one man (Adam). But then, the translators tell us, this mortality (death) spread to all of “because all sinned.” Really? How is that we received death from one man’s sin, but at the same time we die on account of our own sin?
Did we become mortal because we all sinned, or did we become mortal because Adam sinned?
The Greek text reads eph’ ho, which does not mean “because.” It means “on which” (i.e., “therefore”). And so the Concordant Version of this verse is rendered correctly:
12 Therefore, even as through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and thus death passed through into all mankind, on which all sinned—
Churchmen for centuries have engaged in theological gymnastics as they attempt to tell us that Paul did not really mean what he wrote. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, which gives the Roman Catholic view, says on page 307, “The meaning of the phrase eph’ ho is much disputed.”
It goes to give various views, the second of which is of interest to us:
(2) “On the grounds of which,” an interpretation that understands “death” as the antecedent (so T. Zahn, H. Schilier). But this is hard to reconcile with Rom. 5:21; 6:23, where death is the result of sin, not its source.
In other words, the theologians cannot reconcile Paul’s words in verse 12 with what he says in verse 21, and especially in 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” For this reason they find it necessary to reverse the meaning of Romans 5:12. But I believe Paul was correct in telling us that Adam’s sin brought death to all of us, “on which all sinned.” In other words: we are mortal, therefore we sin. Mortality is our weakness, our disease, and out of this death residing in us, we sin.
But why, then, does Paul tell us later that “the wages of sin is death”? This says that men die on account of their own sin, not on account of Adam’s sin. This seems to contradict what Paul said in 5:12.
The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of death. The first death is mortality, which has been imposed upon us on account of Adam’s sin. This is the death in Romans 5:12. The second death, however, is the divine judgment for our own works, according to Revelation 20:12-15. Here the dead are judged “according to their deeds” (20:12), and “this is the second death” (20:14).
A second death implies a first death that precedes it. Romans 5:12 speaks of the first death, brought about by Adam’s sin, while Romans 6:23 speaks of the second death, brought about by the sins of mankind in general. The sequence, then, is as follows:
Adam’s sin brings the first death, on which we sin, resulting in the second death.
Theologians do not like this arrangement, because in their eyes, it makes God unjust for making all of mankind responsible for Adam’s sin. But how else can we understand mortality? Even babies are born mortal prior to any sin that they commit. In fact, as of 2012 we have over 55 million proofs in America alone that babies can be killed in the womb. Why? Because they are mortal, not through any fault of their own.
If there is any injustice, this is it, and there is no way to deny it theologically. In other words, men’s attempt to remove blame from God by twisting the biblical text in Romans 5:12 is all in vain. The fact is, when Adam sinned, we were all held accountable.
This is seen also in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:23-35. The man who owed 10,000 talents was unable to pay his debt, so verse 25 tells us,
25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.
Where is the justice in this? Why should the man’s wife and children be held accountable for the man’s debt? Remember that in Scripture, sin is reckoned as a debt. In fact, the moral of the story, given in verse 35, makes it clear that Jesus was not speaking of monetary debt, but of sin that was to be forgiven.
Adam was the debtor in question. When he sinned, incurring a debt that he could never repay, his wife (Eve) and his children (us) were held accountable. That is an established principle on which Paul based his statement in Romans 5:12. We may not like it, but we have little choice but to accept it and then search the mind of God for the answer.
The answer is found in Romans 5, where verse 12 is the starting point for the rest of the chapter. Paul was comparing Adam with Christ. By the law of headship (authority), children are affected by the deeds of their father. Adam was our earthly father; Christ is our heavenly Father. In a broader view, Adam was made king of the earth, but his failure brought the last Adam to replace him as King.
Each is the head of a family, and the actions of each affect the lives of their children. But also, each is a king in his own right, whose actions affect all of their subjects. Their authority goes far beyond their children, for their entire estate was affected by their actions. Hence, all of creation was sold into slavery on account of Adam’s sin (Romans 8:19-22). The great debtor in Matthew 18 affected not only his wife and children, but “all that he had.” The entire estate was sold for his sin.
Paul’s point was not to leave creation in a state of perpetual injustice, but to show that even as Adam’s sin put the whole of creation into bondage, so also will Christ’s righteousness bring the whole of creation into the glorious liberty of the children of God. He put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:22,
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.
In each case, the “all” is the same. Even as all creation was sentenced to death by Adam’s sin, so also all creation will be set free from death by what Christ has done. Each case is established by the law of headship. Because of Adam’s headship, a great injustice was imposed upon all men and upon all of creation. Because of Christ’s headship, this injustice has been reversed and reconciled.
This injustice can be reversed only if Christ reverses it for all men and all creation. In Adam, death was imposed upon all men apart from their will. Paul says in Romans 8:20,
20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
So also, Christ’s death on the cross has nothing to do with the will of man, but only by the will of God Himself. Both Adam and Christ did their work beyond the will of mankind in general.
Having said that, however, let us remember that there is a second death, where mankind is indeed held accountable for their own sin. There are two deaths in Scripture. The first was done outside of our will, and so it was resolved outside of our will. But the second death is different, for God holds each man accountable for his actions.
How, then, can God reconcile all of creation by the work of Christ on the cross, when He must also hold all men accountable for their actions? This seems contradictory. Can sin that is done by the will of man overrule the righteous work of Christ on the cross? Most have been taught that this is indeed the case. I disagree.
The common answer is that Christ will save only the tiny fraction of men who confess Him as Lord and Savior. But such a view makes the judgment of God in the second death superior to the mercy of God that was manifested in Christ’s work on the cross.
Paul’s point was to show that Christ’s “headship” work is greater than His judgment work. As James 2:13 puts it, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” In other words, the mercy seat was positioned OVER the tables of the law in the Ark of the Covenant. To put it another way, God has invoked His power of eminent domain on the grounds that He owns the universe by right of creation. He will not violate His law, for it reflects His mind and will, but at the same time He has the wisdom and power to find a way to accomplish His will and desire in a lawful way.
That plan shows that all judgment is temporary and limited. For serious crimes, where men are sold into slavery to pay the debt incurred through sin, the law of Jubilee limits liability and sets all men free in the fiftieth year—regardless of what is yet owed. This is where mercy triumphs over judgment. The law of Jubilee is the law of grace.
For lesser crimes, judged by a beating (set forth in Deuteronomy 25:3), no judge may impose more than forty stripes for any sin. Again, the mercy of God is seen here, for judgment is limited by the law of God.
In the bigger picture, the judgments of God are remedial, rather than destructive, as Isaiah 26:9 says, “for when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” This is not unlike any judgment that a father imposes upon his children, which are designed to correct, not to destroy.
And so the judgments of God are everywhere described, not as “eternal” or “everlasting,” but as pertaining to an age (aionian). Here again many translators fail to translate the word properly, but three accurate translations are: Young’s Literal Translation, Rotherham’s The Emphasized Bible, and The Concordant Version.
For a more complete study of this, see The Judgments of the Divine Law, chapter 5.
In summary, getting back to Moses’ law, we see that God considers it to be an injustice if children are held accountable for the sins of their fathers. Yet the sin of our father Adam was held against us, imposing the death penalty upon us. Not only Adam’s wife and children were affected, but everything under Adam’s authority—i.e., the entire creation.
Because this was done outside of our will, it had to be resolved in equal fashion—outside of our will. God alone was responsible to correct the injustice, for if He did not do so, that injustice would have remained embedded in creation for eternity. So we can be assured that the injustice was temporary, and that God will more than recompense us for the temporary trouble, as Paul says in Romans 8:18,
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Unbelievers will be judged at the Great White Throne in the so-called “lake of fire,” that is, the “fiery law” (Deuteronomy 33:2). But that judgment is temporary, for in the end all debt is cancelled by the law of Jubilee, as men everywhere are set free by the law of grace. Mercy does indeed triumph over judgment.