God has entrusted humankindboth individually and collectivelywith responsibility. Humankind is, therefore, answerable to God. Initially, God gave humans the responsibility of multiplying, subduing the earth, and having dominion over creation ( Gen 1:28 ). As God revealed more of himself to man, man was given greater responsibility and thus became more accountable.
Jesus told several parables in which responsibility and accountability are at the center. Illustrative is the parable of the talents. Before a man went on a journey, he entrusted money to his servants. When he returned, each servant had to give an answer for what he had done with the money assigned to him. To those who doubled their money, the master exclaimed, "Well done!" However, the one who hid the money in the ground was severely judged for his irresponsibility ( Matt 25:14-30 ; see also Luke 19:11-27 ).
The Bible continually emphasizes the fact that the greater the privilege the greater the responsibility or accountability. Jesus concluded the teaching of a parable with the statement, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" ( Luke 12:48 ). Peter noted that judgment begins with the family of God ( 1 Peter 4:17 ). The Lord revealed to Ezekiel what he expected of his people and the dangers of disobedience. The prophet is a watchman who is accountable to warn the people when danger comes ( Ezekiel 3:18 Ezekiel 3:20 ; Ezekiel 33:6 Ezekiel 33:8 ). On another occasion, the Lord spoke to Israel, "You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins" ( Amos 3:2 ). This verse has been dubbed the greatest "therefore" in Scripture.
The sin-nature in man seeks to shirk responsibility and to blame others for failures. There are a number of illustrations in Scripture in which a person attempted to shift responsibility for an action onto others. Adam pointed to Eve, and ultimately to the Lord, for the sin in which he found himself. Likewise, Eve sought to lay the blame on the serpent ( Gen 3 ). Sarah became upset with Abraham when Hagar bore him a child, even though Abraham was following Sarah's advice ( Gen 16:1-5 ). Esau complained that Jacob "deceived" him and got the birthright, when in fact he had sold it to his brother (compare Gen 27:36 ; with Gen 25:27-34 ). Aaron would not own up to the fact that he had formed the golden calf ( Exod 32:21-24 ). Pilate wanted to wash his hands of Jesus' death ( Matt 27:24 ).
The Bible teaches both corporate and individual accountability. Solidarity in accountability is seen early in Scripture. For example, at Sinai, the Lord commanded the people not to make an idol to worship. If they did, he would punish the children for the idolatry of the fathers "to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, " but he would show "love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" ( Exod 20:5 ; Deut 5:9 ). Likewise, in the wilderness, Moses affirmed that although the Lord is slow to anger, "he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" ( Num 14:18 ). One sees how this principle worked its way out in a historical setting at Jericho. Not only was Achan held accountable for his misdeeds; so were the other family members ( Joshua 7:24-25 ). On the other hand, Moses specifically commands that parents should not be held accountable for their children's sins nor should children suffer the consequences of their parents' sin; "each is to die for his own sin" ( Deut 24:16 ). During the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel amplified the ramifications of this latter verse, arguing that it was not the sins of the fathers but the sin of his generation that was being judged. He quoted a proverb: "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge" ( Ezek 18:2 ; see also Jer 31:29 ). Ezekiel commanded them to quit hiding behind the proverb; they were also accountable. Instead, he had them focus on the truth that "The soul who sins is the one who will die" (v. 4) and "The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him" (v. 20).
Of all of the writers of Scripture, Paul addressed the issue of accountability most extensively in the Book of Romans. He affirmed that God is righteous and his judgment is based on truth ( 2:2 ). Each person individually will give an account to God ( 14:12 ). Humankind rejected truth, choosing instead to follow a lie and worship created things rather than the Creator ( 1:25 ). To the Israelites, God gave the Law; it brought privilege but also greater responsibility ( 2:9 ). In various ways, the Israelites demonstrated that they were opposed to God. Paul affirmed that no one was righteous; all had sinned and fell short of the glory of God ( Romans 3:10 Romans 3:23 ). The whole world is accountable to God ( 3:19 ). However, God has revealed a righteousness that comes through faith to all who believe in Jesus Christ ( 3:22 ). Jews as well as Gentiles must acknowledge their sinfulness and repent, trusting in Christ's finished work on the cross ( 5:9 ).
Glenn E. Schaefer
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Responsibility'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".