Strangers and sojourners are individually responsible before God.
In previous articles we have observed that all who travel the road of life walk either on the broad way or the narrow way and pass through either the wide gate or the strait gate. All sojourners travel the narrow way and enter through the strait gate. This they have in common. We will look at this communal aspect of being strangers in the next article on this subject. Although sojourners travel together, each walks his own way, and is individually responsible for that way, and for his conduct along that way. It is necessary to stress this idea because it is under attack in today’s society. In fact, I often wonder if this concept has already disappeared.
I don’t know how often I have seen on television news a person who has shot and killed someone. The liberal media must, of course, get a comment from the killer’s mother or other relative. The person invariably says, “He can’t be guilty of murder. He didn’t do it. He’s such a good boy.” No, he’s not. He’s evil. He’s a murderer who is responsible to society and before God for his actions.
This example is symptomatic of a pervasive idea in today’s society. Whatever is wrong, it is not the fault of the individual. If someone drops out of school or flunks his courses, it’s the fault of the educational system. Maybe the teachers didn’t like him. If someone is poor, it’s the fault of the economic system that oppresses the poor and favors the rich. Heaven forbid that he should go out and get something called a job. If someone is a drunk and homeless, it’s the fault of the alcohol companies. Whenever someone acts badly, it must be because of circumstances beyond his control—lack of money, living in a bad neighborhood, a poor education, racism, an unfair economic system, the temptation of drugs, a marriage gone wrong, being bullied, and any other causes you can think of. In summary, everybody seems to have a victim mentality. Everyone is a victim of something or someone, and it drives me crazy.
The logical conclusion is that we must fix the external circumstances that cause the problems. We need to spend millions and billions of dollars to achieve economic equality, to improve the educational system, to end racism (perceived or actual), to eradicate drugs, to build more homeless facilities, to fix marriages through counseling, to eliminate victims, and in general to improve the condition of mankind.
Never could the problem be lack of personal responsibility, and never could the solution be taking individual responsibility for one’s actions. When you think about it, the victim mentality in society eliminates the whole idea of individual responsibility.
This, young people, is the world in which we live. This is reality. Maybe you have already observed this. But in case you have not, this is the world that you will inherit from your seniors (shame on them).
The scriptures and the confessions paint an entirely different picture, and you need to pay attention not to what man says, but to what God says. And God teaches that strangers and sojourners are characterized by personal responsibility. To actions there are always consequences. God knows nothing of a victim mentality.
We find this truth in Lord’s Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question, “Whence then proceeds this depravity of human nature?” we are instructed: “From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise; hence our nature is become so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin.” I can do no better than to quote here from Herman Hoeksema’s remarks on this matter:
Does not the doctrine that all men are conceived and born in sin, so that they are incapable of doing any good, exempt man from all responsibility? I am born corrupt, totally depraved. I came into this world with a nature that was incapable of doing any good. This I cannot help. I never had a chance…I am by nature prone to hate God and my neighbor, and I always was, without fault of my own. But does it not follow then that I cannot be held accountable for my sin? If it is not my fault that my nature is corrupt, how can actual sin that arises from this nature as a foul fountain be reckoned to me as guilt? Can God hold me responsible for what I cannot and never could do? Am I not rather a victim of circumstances, of cruel fate, who is to be pitied rather than condemned?
Hoeksema then expounds at length why this is wrong thinking and sets forth the true doctrine of man’s depravity. Briefly stated, we are guilty in Adam because he is our legal and organic head.
Article 14 of the Belgic Confession teaches along similar lines. Notice how the Confession does not allow man to make excuses, but puts the blame for his depravity squarely on man’s doorstep:
We believe that God created man out of the dust of the earth, and made and formed him after his own image and likeness, good, righteous, and holy, capable in all things to will agreeably to the will of God. But being in honor, he understood it not, neither knew his excellency, but willfully subjected himself to sin, and consequently to death and the curse, giving ear to the words of the devil. For the commandment of life which he had received he transgressed; and by sin separated himself from god, who was his true life; having corrupted his whole nature; whereby he made himself liable to corporal and spiritual death. And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he hath lost all his excellent gifts which he had received from God, and retained only a few remains thereof.
Scripture teaches the same truth of individual responsibility. Many instances could be mentioned from the New Testament, but I prefer two similar, graphic passages from the Old Testament.
The first is Ezekiel 18:1–4, in which through the prophet the word of God comes to Israel: “What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” Young people, you can easily understand what God is saying here about sour grapes. All of you have at one time or another managed to find a sour grape out of a bunch of grapes. What happens when you bite into one? It makes you pucker up and sets your teeth on edge. The point of God’s word is that when you bite into a sour grape, it sets your teeth on edge. It does not set someone else’s teeth on edge. But there was apparently a proverb in apostatizing Israel to the contrary: the fathers ate a sour grape, and the children’s teeth were set on edge. Spiritually applied, this is an avoidance of personal, individual responsibility on the part of Israel. The fathers have sinned, but the consequence is that their children reap the reward of sin. Conversely, the children are responsible for the sins of their fathers. In either instance there is no personal responsibility for the fathers or the children. Both are pointing their fingers at one another.
What does God say about this? He takes this attitude very seriously, for he swears by himself in contradicting and condemning Israel (v. 3): “As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.” God goes on to say in verse 4: “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The language of God is clear: No more using the avoidance proverb. He has created the souls of both fathers and children, and he holds every person responsible for his or her own actions.
A similar and even clearer passage is found in Jeremiah 31:29–30. Speaking of the time of Israel’s redemption, the Lord says: “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Then in verse 30 God states the concept of personal responsibility: “But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.” How much clearer can it be?
Young people, do not avoid this issue. Don’t say, “This does not apply to me. I don’t evade my personal responsibility. I don’t blame someone else for what I have done.”
Yes, you do. So do I. So does everyone.
How do I know this? Because that is exactly what our first parents did, and what they did applies to us, since we are their children both legally and organically. What did they do? They refused to take individual responsibility for their actions. After both of them ate of the forbidden fruit, God came looking for them to confront them with their sin. God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” What did Adam instantly answer? He blamed Eve: “The woman you gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” When God turned to Eve for an explanation, asking her what she had done, she said,” The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” So Adam blamed Eve, and Eve said, “The devil made me do it.” Nobody was personally at fault.
We know better. And this is also our experience, is it not?
When we mess something up—and it doesn’t matter what it is—what is the first thing we do? We make excuses and do our best to blame someone or something else. To be a bit more blunt, when we sin either against God or against our neighbor (and they are essentially the same), what do we do? We deny it, we try to cover it up, and we blame someone else. This is sin.
What is the remedy?
The remedy is grace, which is always the answer to sin. More specifically, the remedy is the grace of sanctification, according to which we confront our sins and take responsibility for them. We recognize the consequences of sin. In the light of scripture and by the redemptive grace of God we take responsibility for our lives and our actions. We make wise choices that are consistent with God’s will as revealed in his law. We do not blame others, but face and deal with responsibility, considering the consequences if we do not do this.
As strangers and pilgrims, travelling together on the road of life, we help each other take responsibility for our individual lives as members of the community and friendship of the body of believers. We all travel together on the same road, but each of us, as distinct individuals, must walk our personal ways, thus fulfilling our calling as strangers and sojourners on our earthly pilgrimage.
 Herman Hoeksema, The Triple Knowledge, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1970), 1:146–47.
 Belgic Confession 14, in The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 38–39.