But What about Personal Responsibility?
In the eyes of some, the Bible doesn’t strongly promote the idea of corporate responsibility. But that’s similar to saying, “Except for the gospel message, the Bible doesn’t strongly promote the idea of grace to sinners.” The Bible is the gospel message, and God’s grace to sinners runs through all of Scripture, from beginning to end.
Likewise, corporate responsibility plays a strong—and even a critical—role in our understanding of how sin and redemption work. After all, if we are condemned in Adam, without having done anything bad, we know we can be accounted righteous in Christ, the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), without having done anything good.
Nevertheless, how do we reconcile verses that assert corporate responsibility with verses that assert individual responsibility? Once again, we look to John Calvin. In his commentary on Ezekiel 18, he provides the answer to this apparent contradiction (and you will notice we’ve actually already looked at it):
[I]t will be easy to remove the contradiction by beginning with the fall of Adam. . . . [T]he principle of one universal fall in Adam removes all doubts. For when we consider the perishing of the whole human race, it is said with truth that we perish through another’s fault: but it is added at the same time, that everyone perishes through his own iniquity. If then we inquire into the cause of the curse which presses upon all the posterity of Adam, it may be said to be partly another’s and partly our own.
Are we guilty because of our sinful state or that of another? The Bible’s answer is “both.” It is not either/or, it’s both/and. Calvin states a person is a sinner before God “through Adam’s declension from God” and “through his own fault.” The problem is both imputed sin and personal sin. The problem carries a corporate component and an individual component.
Truth from Paradox
It may help to briefly address another apparent Biblical contradiction. When asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, Charles Spurgeon said, “I never reconcile friends.” He knew the reality of either doctrine did not require the elimination of the other. God is sovereignly in control and humans are responsible for their choices. As hard as it may be for us to fully comprehend, each of these truths is complemented—not contradicted—by the other.
So it is with the doctrines of personal responsibility and corporate responsibility. Both represent a facet of reality as we live, breathe, and know it. Both represent, not a set of contradictions, but a paradoxical coupling of truths that help inform and balance each other out.
Individual rights and responsibility are legitimate and honorable concepts. Like any concept, however, they can be overemphasized and abused. We must reject the excesses of our individualistic culture, where the imagined “freedom” of the self reigns supreme. That doesn’t mean we reject the reality of individual responsibility. Rather, it means we accept the Bible’s teaching even when it leads us outside our comfort zones and tramples on our society’s sacred cows.
There is much more that can—and should—be said to establish a robust understanding of corporate responsibility. For now, we can conclude there’s no need to pit corporate responsibility against personal responsibility. After all, why try to reconcile friends?
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