The topic of sin and personal accountability for sin, a moral issue, has been blurred with various theories that place blame on something or someone other than the moral agent in question. It is true that there are many factors that enter into one’s personal guilt and accountability, but clear distinctions must be communicated that, in the final analysis, place one’s moral accountability firmly upon the individual in question, “so that they are without excuse” (Ro.1:20). As well, this discussion must be removed from the realm of solely being a doctrinal “argument” and seen in conjunction with its practical reality.
Various forms of determinism have lead to the view that man’s behavior, including that which we have commonly labeled “sin,” is under causation. Neither Divine, genetic nor environment determinism is the ultimate explanation for man’s choices and, in the case of sin, guilt.
Theories of Imputation
There have been various theories about sin (as well as righteousness) which rely upon a scheme involving imputation. For our purposes I will treat such theories with a “broad-brush” approach, yet aiming for accuracy in my explanation.
Some of the common phrases, terms and ideas that relate to this view are “original sin,” “The Federal Headship Theory,” “sinful nature,” and “total depravity” (associated with inability). In one way or another, a major emphasis in this approach toward explaining sin is that every individual’s guilt (and often the abilities we do or do not have) is based upon the fact that Adam, as the representative or original human source of humanity, sinned; his sin becomes our sin, his guilt becomes our guilt. Some people state that we were literally present in the form of seed when Adam sinned and consequently, sinned as well (we sinned with him or, more commonly, in him). Others teach that the Divine arrangement was that whatever happened with Adam would be applied to the entire human race that was to come from him. Either way, his sin is our sin and his guilt is our guilt regardless of and / or prior to any moral choice or action we personally and actually create. Proponents of this approach often emphasize that after Adam’s sin (the fall), human beings were born in a state of “total depravity.” This relates to the idea that human beings have no ability to obey God (to do His will, often expressed by saying, “God gave us the Law to prove we could not keep it”). There are two angles from which this idea can be approached. One involves the loss of something in our basic human make-up and the other involves the addition of something to our human make-up. The emphasis with “inability” is that human beings born after Adam’s sin are void of something needed in order to have the ability to obey God, to do what He requires. The other approach involves the addition of something most commonly referred to as a “sinful nature” which becomes the cause of our sin. A component being added or subtracted from the original design of human beings results in our current dilemma and our need for salvation.
- How do the above ideas (theories) compare to what is stated in Romans 1 and Ezekiel 18?
It is clear that Paul emphasized that man’s rejection of truth and his production of ungodliness and unrighteousness is a moral act for which we have no excuse. The theories just considered, though generally accompanied with philosophical double-talk, provide sinners with an excuse for sinning. This is not only the case theoretically, I have encountered people who offer such convenient explanations for their sin (generally sinners who have enough church / Sunday school in their past that they have been “educated” to think this way).
Ezekiel emphasizes, very explicitly, that guilt is not passed from father to son. No one is guilty for what another chooses to do. We understand that the choices of one person can produce consequences which potentially have an impact on someone else, but that is a separate issue. When stating that “the soul who sins will die,” he indicates that a son will not be held accountable for the sin of the father nor will the father be held accountable for the sin of the son. This would seem to have a significant influence on the development of the theories under consideration. However, many simply dismiss this revelation in favor of their theory of imputation.
- What did God hope to accomplish by destroying mankind, excluding Noah and his family, if man’s moral state was strictly and utterly connected with Adam’s sin?
This is a relatively simple, but significant, consideration. If the entire human race that stems from Adam gets its moral character from Adam, there are two main challenges to consider. First, Noah would have been as guilty as all other people in his day, a subject of “inability” with a “sinful nature.” It is difficult to see how Scripture could declare, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.” Next, regardless of anything we might believe about Noah, all of the people born after the flood would receive their “Adamic nature” and the whole mess starts all over, nothing of a positive nature resulting from this massive destruction of the human race. No matter how one might approach this dilemma, such a maneuver could make no difference in the course of human history to unfold thereafter.
- If Adam is the Federal Head of the human race, would not all men be reconciled to God upon Adam’s reconciliation to God?
An imputation scheme cannot simply be a one-way street. As it is commonly agreed, individuals living prior to the atonement of Christ can be recipients of His provisions for salvation if God recognized them as having appropriate faith (their faith is credited, counted, imputed to them as righteousness – Ro.4:1-5). This being the case, if Adam was reconciled to God as the Federal Head of the entire human race, what must we conclude about the entire human race? On the other hand, if we were to believe the evidence for such reconciliation does not exist, we might ask the question, “If Adam, as the Federal Head of the human race, was punished for his sin, what is true of the entire human race? Either way, it would appear that a strict system of imputation based on Adam as the Federal Head produces universalism.
- Finally, does the prevailing representation of Scripture indicate that God treats man as though he has no ability to obey Him?
I simply refer the reader to the entire 30th chapter of Deuteronomy in which we find statements such as, “…return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today…,” “…you shall again obey the LORD, and observe all His commandments which I command you today…,” “…if you obey the LORD your God to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the law, if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it…,” “…I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments…,” “…choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him…”
 A significant but largely ignored question that should arise at this point is, “How can someone be morally guilty for failing to do something they have no ability to do?”
 With this as a presupposition, the doctrine of salvation is greatly influenced (if one attempts to be consistent).