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Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
“It’s not my fault,” says the child who is caught cheating. “They didn’t cover up their answers. If they would have done what they were supposed to do so that I couldn’t see their answers I wouldn’t have been able to copy them.”
“It’s not my fault,” says the thief. “They left the keys in the ignition and the car running. I didn’t have a car and I was tired of walking or taking the bus. If they would have turned off the car and locked the doors none of this would have happened. In fact, if my parents would have treated me better and society would have helped me more, I wouldn’t be so poor, and I could have had my own car.”
“It’s not my fault,” says the adulterer, the adulteress, the porn user. “If my spouse wouldn’t have ignored me, I wouldn’t have had to look other places to satisfy my desires.”
“It’s not my fault,” says the person living a homosexual lifestyle. “God made me this way so it’s not fair for him to call what I’m doing sinful.”
“It’s not my fault.” That’s what the people of Judah were saying when God sent Nebuchadnezzar to defeat them, take many of them as captives to Babylon, including Daniel and Ezekiel, and finally destroy Jerusalem including the great temple Solomon had built. They were saying, “Fathers eat sour grapes, and their sons’ teeth are set on edge”? “We are being punished because of the things that evil kings like Manasseh did – worshiping idols and even sacrificing his children to false gods. We are reaping what they sowed, and it’s not fair because we haven’t done anything as sinful as that.”
“It’s not my fault,” said Adam and Eve when God confronted them in the garden. “It’s your fault, God, because you created Eve and she’s the one who gave me the fruit.” And Eve pointed to the serpent and said, “Don’t blame me, it’s his fault.” By refusing to take responsibility and blaming others, even God, Adam and Eve gave evidence of what sin had done to their heart and spirit. They had lost the perfect image of God. Their children, all of us, are born in their imperfect, sinful image, with a heart that is inclined only to evil all the time and refuses to take responsibility.
So, it’s true then. It’s really not our fault. It’s Adam and Eve’s fault. We can blame them every time we do something sinful. No! God makes it very clear that he holds each person responsible for their own actions and for their own righteousness or lack of it.
The theme of this whole chapter is the soul (person) who sins in the one who will die. God makes it clear, the son will not share in the guilt of the father, and the father will not share in the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous person will be credited to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be charged against him alone. God is perfectly fair. He will not send anyone to hell because of what someone else did. Nor will he take anyone to heaven because of someone else’s faith. Each person is responsible to God for themselves.
But didn’t God say that he would punish the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation? Yes, but don’t forget the very important end of that sentence. It says, of those who hate me. God is talking about those who continue in the sin of their fathers. He is talking about children who hate God just as their forefathers did.
Through Ezekiel God makes it clear that this is not what he wants. He repeatedly points out that he takes no pleasure in carrying out judgment on those who hate him. He wants people to repent and live. He makes it clear that not only will he not punish anyone for someone else’s sins, he makes it clear that he will not punish those who get a new heart and a new spirit, who take responsibility for their sins in repentance and faith, he will not punish them for their own past sins.
God says, if a wicked man turns from his wickedness that he has done and practices justice and righteousness, he will preserve his life. 28Because he has seen and turned away from all the rebellious acts that he had committed, he will surely live, and he will not die.
The people said, “God is not fair.” That’s true, but not in the way they meant it. They refused to acknowledge their own sins and tried to claim that God was not fair for making them suffer for the sins of their fathers. God said, “NO! Stop trying to blame others. Take responsibility for your own sins. Admit that I would be perfectly just and fair if I were not only to send down fire and brimstone from heaven to destroy you physically, but I would be perfect just and fair if I were to send you to live in the fires of Hell for all eternity. Admit your own sins and call on me to save you. Then you will see me do something that is completely unfair. I will forgive all your sins and remember them no more. God says of the person who takes responsibility for their sins, repents, and turns away from them, All of the rebellious acts that he had committed will not be remembered against him.
God says, throw off from yourselves all your rebellious actions by which you have rebelled, and obtain a new heart and a new spirit for yourselves. The heart and spirit we inherit from Adam and Eve, like them, does not want to take responsibility. It wants to blame anyone and everyone else, including God. But God didn’t accept the blame game from Adam and Eve. He didn’t accept it from the people of Judah in Ezekiel’s day, and he doesn’t accept it from society or you and me today. The person who commits the sin is the one who is accountable to God for that sin. In order to avoid the blame game and take responsibility for our own sins we need a new heart and a new spirit. How do we obtain that new heart and new spirit?
God is the one who has to create that new heart and new spirit within us. He does that through his word. He uses his law to crush our hearts of stone, to remove every excuse and make us realize that we are responsible for our sinful actions and we deserve much worse than anything we can suffer on earth because of them. Through his word he helps us see our rebellious acts and the punishment we deserve because of them. He makes us despair and say with the tax collector in the temple, God be merciful to me, a sinner.
Through his word and sacrament, he shows us how unfair he is in our favor. He doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve. Instead of punishing us he punished Jesus, his one and only perfect son in our place. Through the gospel in the word and sacraments he assures us that Jesus has paid for all our sins in full. There is nothing left for us to do. And that good news is what God uses to replace our hard, accusing, distrustful heart with a heart that beats with love and thanksgiving for his amazing grace. This new heart and spirit recognizes sin as sin, wants to turn away from sin, is willing to take responsibility and confess when we fail to avoid sin. It turns to God for his gracious forgiveness and strength to will and do only what pleases him.
There is also a strong warning in this chapter about personal responsibility. Not only can you not save someone else because of your faith, there is no such thing as once saved, always saved. God says, if a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and practices unrighteousness, he will die because of it. All the righteous deeds that he did will not be remembered. If someone becomes complacent. If they fail to take responsibility for their sins. If they think that their sins are so small compared to others that they don’t matter to God. If they begin to think that they can commit sins because Jesus has already paid for all their sins, that God’s grace is a license for sin. If their heart is filled with pride in thinking that they are so much better than others that God must love them more and that they surely deserve to go to heaven, their hearts have turned back to stone. They are in danger of losing the righteousness of Christ and having to answer for their own sins instead of having Jesus answer in their place.
How do we keep that from happening? Luther says, remember your baptism. Drown your sinful nature by daily contrition and repentance. Daily take responsibility for your own personal sins. When you hear God’s law look in the mirror, not at the TV, or your neighbor. When you see all the wickedness around you don’t blame everyone else. Take responsibility for your own sin. Listen to what God says to you in baptism. Listen to what God says to you in his word and in the Lord’s Supper. “You who have taken responsibility and confessed your own sins, look, I have provided a lamb. I have sent Jesus to suffer in your place. Your sins are washed away. His body was given and his blood was shed for you! The Holy Spirit, working through the gospel in word and sacrament has given you a new heart and a new spirit so that you may live. Live for me now. Recognize sin and turn away from it. Live in daily repentance and faith. And look forward to the life that is truly life, eternal life in glory with me.”