THERE is an aspect of the theological doctrine of human responsibility, like that of free will, which is a direct contradiction of the deity of God. It denies the great gulf between the Creator and the creature, the Potter and the clay, the mighty Molder and His handiwork. It assumes an independence of God which elevates man while, at the same time, it degrades his Maker. So great is the reverence for this non-scriptural teaching, that it has become the touchstone by which to test truth. If any statement merely seems to ignore or set aside creature responsibility, it is rejected, even if it is clearly stated in the Scriptures. It has become one of the foundation stones of human religion, by means of which God's Word is made of none effect. It should never be confused with accountability.
The Scriptures do not directly advert to this theme. The expression does not occur at all in the popular versions. Neither is there any term for it in either the Hebrew or the Greek Scriptures. Hence we may be sure that we are outside the scope of divine revelation when we use it or propound it as a problem. It shows that our thoughts are not God's thoughts. We should rid ourselves of this philosophy rather than seek to force such a notion into God's revelation. Certainly there are elements in the word "responsibility" which are scriptural, but there are others which are not, and we can not distinguish these unless we forsake it for sound, scriptural expressions. It is only because theology has perverted the truth as to God's judgment and refuses His deity, that it needs to fall back upon responsibility in man's relations to God.
It is not my wish to write this article, seeing that it is not on a scriptural subject, but my friends are much concerned about this matter, and some of them have pressed for an explanation. Besides, many who read our expositions stumble at the fact that we pay little heed to human "responsibility," which, we are assured, must underlie all of God's dealings. The idea seems to be that the sinner is a culprit and God like a human judge, who may punish only those who have attained sufficient maturity to realize their crimes and who had it in their power to do otherwise if they wished--in short, who are independent of God, and can do right or wrong as it suits themselves.
It must be clearly understood at the outset that we are concerned here only with the relations between God and His creatures, not that between man and man. What I may say must not be applied to the social or political relations existing among mankind. I do not wish to deny the "responsibility" of parents, or of rulers, or of any who have a duty to fulfill toward a fellow man, and everyone, believer or unbeliever, to whom aught has been committed, must give account to God. The confusion of thought on this subject is due largely to lack of discrimination between our relations to God and that to creatures like ourselves. By reasoning or inference the human is carried over to the divine, because men have no proper idea of the dignity due to the Deity.
The reason I prefer not to write on this subject is that it has no scriptural basis. The word has no equivalent in the divine vocabulary. If we wish God's thoughts we must use His words, especially when it takes such a large place in our thinking. Moreover, a denial of human responsibility is almost sure to give an utterly false impression. Men will reason that, if the creature is not responsible, men may sin as much as they please, and judgment is impossible. Job's friends wished to prove that he was "responsible" for his plight. This is specifically denied at the outset, where we are assured that God, through Satan, was "responsible." But few have as yet learned this lesson.
The whole difficulty depends on a partial denial of God's deity. He is a Judge, though He has delegated all judgment to the Son. But He is far more than that. A wise human judge may seek to sentence a culprit so as to correct his character, but he cannot justify his past life. That is beyond his function and his power. Indeed, if he did so, he could not pass an adverse sentence. He can condemn a man to death but he cannot bring him back to life. These things only God can do, and these He will do for all men in the future. God brings all men into condemnation. This is not within the province of a judge. This also would make justice impossible in a human court.
The fact is that God is the Deity, and we are His creatures, and He is bent on blessing us by revealing Himself to us. This can be done only through an experience of evil and sin and judgment. In the last analysis, as between the Creator and the created, He alone is "responsible," for He makes us according to His own purpose and plan, and we have no choice or lot in the matter whatever. This is basic, but it should not be made the basis of conclusions contrary to His revelation. It would be easy to reason that, in this case, since no one is "responsible," God cannot righteously condemn any for what they could not avoid. In fact, on this subject all reasoning is apt to be vain except that which has for its major premise the absolute deity of a God Whose acts are beyond the criticism of His creatures, Who can and does condemn the irresponsible.
In utter contrast to the popular dogma, the truth of human irresponsibility is clearly set forth in the ninth of Romans. After citing the case of Pharaoh, the conclusion is drawn: "Consequently, then, to whom He is willing He is merciful, yet whom He is willing, He is hardening." Seeing that this totally sets aside human responsibility, the apostle takes up this objection: "You will be protesting to me, then, `Why, then, is He still blaming? for has anyone withstood His intention?'" If it is God's intention that a man oppose Him, and He hardens him to do it, can the man be blamed? He certainly is not "responsible." What shall we say? The apostle does not even try to find a reply, for the question entirely ignores the great fact that it is God Who does these things. No man has a right to ask it. "O man! who are YOU, to be sure, who are answering again to God?" While such a course may be wrong for a man to follow, it is utterly right for God, because He not only glorifies Himself through it, but also brings blessing eventually to the one who seems to be wronged, as well as to all His creatures, by its means.
The rest of this passage enforces this great fact--of man's utter irresponsibility--by figures of speech which cannot be mistaken. God is the Molder: we are the molded. He is the Potter: we are the clay. Is there anything more irresponsible than a lump of clay in the hands of a potter? I much enjoyed watching a potter in Jerusalem put a piece of clay upon his wheel and deftly shape a small bowl with his fingers, and then--to my surprise--he destroyed it all in an instant. The clay was utterly at his mercy. It had no will and no voice. It certainly did not say, "Why do you make me thus?" Oh, that the saints might learn this humbling lesson! All creatures will come to the realization of their utter impotence and God's power when He has finished dealing with them, for He must not only be All in all, but All in all.
If it were not usual to evade this passage, which is practically the only one which really discusses the subject, who would dare to champion this philosophy? Can there be a more decisive denial than the question, "has not the potter the right over the clay, out of the same kneading to make one vessel, indeed, for honor, and one for dishonor?" The vessel for dishonor cannot escape its function or its fate. It will be used for that which must bring down the indignation and judgment of God. Sin must be judged, not only for the sake of the sinner, that he may realize what it is, but for the sake of all creatures, and as a display of the just character of God. Our injustice must recommend God's justice. Is God unjust in bringing on indignation in that case? By no means. Else how shall God be judging the world? (Rom.3:5,6). These verses in the third of Romans also are clear proof that God judges the irresponsible, and that this would be unjust, if He were a man.
Of course, many cannot believe these words or any like them. If "God locks all up together in stubbornness" (Rom.11:32) and "all is out of Him" (Rom.11:36), then the basis of all morality seems to be taken from them, along with their fancied responsibility. The reason is that they are still self-centered, and imagine that they should be given a chance to display themselves, rather than be helpless vessels for the revelation of God. As we will see, the real reason why so many refuse the truth is because they take it for heartless Calvinism, which confuses God's process with His goal, and dooms the irresponsible creature to endless, hopeless torture, and thus displays Him as a hideous and hateful monster instead of a wise and loving Saviour.
No man is "responsible" for being a sinner. He was not consulted before he entered the family of Adam, and he has no means of extricating himself out of the penalty of Adam's sin. His first father sinned without his knowledge or consent, and he is obliged to suffer the consequences, which include the extreme penalty, death. Even his own sins are due to his inherited mortality. So, in reality, he cannot help himself. Here we have an example which should instruct us. Man suffers and dies even though he is not "responsible." And he will be raised and judged for the sins which he committed, even though we might easily prove his irresponsibility. God's judgment is not based on responsibility.
Responsibility is often confused with light. This is a mistake. The character and penalty of sin varies according to its relationship to God's will, not to man's capacities. A sin against light, such as that contained in the law, brings sin into closer contact with God. A transgression is no longer a mere failure or falling short. It becomes an act definitely directed against God, and as such demands a more severe corrective. And an offense, which wounds God's feelings, is liable to a still greater penalty. Judgment is not according to man's ability (miscalled "responsibility") but to God's revelation. To whom much is given, from him much will be required.
JUDGMENT AND RESPONSIBILITY
It is usually accepted as an axiom in human law that punishment should vary according to responsibility. Thus, minors seldom come within the scope of criminal law. The Japanese have a classic story of a maid who deliberately set fire to her parents' home in the hope that it would lead to a reunion with her lover. As a result a large part of the city was destroyed and many lives were lost. Still, the question of her fate did not depend on her act or its results, but on her age. Had she been less than eighteen, she could not have been held "responsible." But, as she had just come of age, she suffered the death penalty. Such is human law! What a travesty of justice! According to this all who die as minors would not be subject to the usual penalty, but to corrective discipline. In fact, God treats all as we treat minors, for His judgments will right all that is wrong. Even if minors are not responsible for their acts, they must be judged in some way when they have committed a crime.
It is generally supposed that only the responsible will suffer for their sins. But that is not so in God's providence and will not be so in His judgment. A trainman ignores a signal and hundreds of innocent victims suffer. A great storm sweeps over the land and thousands, saint and sinner alike, are destroyed. A great earthquake kills multitudes in a moment. Is it just? Men call it an act of God for which they refuse to be responsible. God does not act according to human law in His present dealings with mankind. Neither will He do so in the judgment. In both, the idea of responsibility is entirely absent, for the simple reason that it has no place there. Its injection is only one of the temporary and illusive ideas of man in his ignorance and rejection of God.
However, if, as the final result of God's eonian operations, the greater part, or even a fraction of His creatures should be condemned to endless torment or final extinction, it would be impossible to justify God in His efforts at self-revelation. Even the Deity cannot display Himself at the expense of His creatures and at their loss, for He is Love, and such a revelation would be an exhibition of hate. It is only as we see that all the suffering which comes to the creature will be fully compensated by God, nay, will become a vital factor in his future bliss, that we are able to see why responsibility is practically absent from the Scriptures, yet so important a part of human religion. In Holy Writ, God operates the universe. Outside, man is master of his fate.
Eternal torment becomes insufferably hideous, if its subjects are not responsible--that is, if they had not brought it upon themselves when they might have done otherwise. As a matter of fact, if those who hold to everlasting punishment could not fix the responsibility for their fate upon these unfortunates, they would abhor their own teaching. That is why they cannot account for the doom of infants, or those under the years of accountability. Even those whose hearts have been seared by years of familiarity with the fires of hell (for others), shudder at the thought of finding infants and the insane undergoing its torments. And what of the vast majority, who have never heard of Christ? Are they responsible? If they have not believed they are not saved. And how could they believe what they have never heard?
If men had not this false refuge of human responsibility, many more would be forced to reconsider the fiendish doctrines of human destiny which they hold. As it is, if their hearts are not utterly hard, they will not believe in the damnation of infants, and are led into many non-scriptural notions as to the age of accountability, the appointment of sponsors at baptism, confirmation, and what not, seeing that eternal torture or annihilation can never be justified in the case of those who are not fully answerable. If they could only see that God holds none responsible, they would find everlasting suffering or death utterly repugnant and impossible. "Responsibility" is a twin heresy with eternal doom.
The real question concerns the judgment. What is it? When? Why? At the great white throne, when all the dead will rise to be judged, the question of responsibility will not come up at all. All of the dead will rise, in other words, all unbelievers, for only these have not been made alive at the previous resurrections. There will be no question of their former age, state, or religion. If they are dead, they will stand before the great white throne. Moreover, they will be judged according to their acts. The nature, extent, and severity of their judgment may be adjusted according to circumstances, but there is no question whether they are too young or too ignorant or otherwise ineligible to judgment. According to human standards most of them can hardly be held responsible for their acts. Their youth, their darkness, their environment, evil influences--all these they could not evade. Yet, for their own sakes, their acts must be judged.
The object of human justice is quite different from God's judgment. Men must protect society by removing objectionable members from it, either for a time, by imprisonment, or finally, by death. Divine judgment has an entirely different aim. It has to reveal God's righteousness, as a basis for His love, by placing a proper penalty on all injustice. This can be done without bringing the "responsible" criminal into court, for the saints will not even come into judgment. Christ has suffered for them, not because He was "responsible," but because, by so doing, He has displayed God's love as well as His justice, and this is the ultimate aim of all.
A real difficulty here is our perverted view of the meaning of judgment. We look at it as punishment, a penalty incurred by wrong doing. God's judgments are corrective. They set matters right. To most persons the idea of infants appearing in the judgment is almost unthinkable. But why not? Christ sits on a great white throne. It is not black. He will do no wrong. Nothing will occur there to which there can be the least objection on the part of any creature in the universe. If, later, God intends to reconcile all who appear in the judgment, this must be done on a righteous basis. All wrongs must be righted before men can live in perfect peace with God and with one another--the object of this judgment.
Thus we see that this idea is a moral necessity for all who hold false ideas of human destiny. God must not be blamed for everlasting torment, or endless death. That would transform Him into a fiend. Therefore, men have been forced to invent this doctrine of moral responsibility, which is, in reality, the assertion of divine irresponsibility. If God tortures His creatures eternally He must not be blamed. If He wipes them out of existence, it cannot be His fault. But if He deals with each one justly in judgment, so as to correct what is wrong, even if by severest affliction and distress, and eventually makes each one alive, bringing him back to His own heart--as the Scriptures declare--then He needs no excuse, He may be burdened with all the responsibility without in the least tarnishing His righteous and holy Name.
Men hold God less responsible for the work of His hands than a weak creature for his fellow men. Though He is able to turn men's hearts as the ripples of water, He cannot help Himself if the majority of their hearts are estranged from Him! Though no one can come to Christ except the Father draw him, He can do nothing for the myriads who do not find the way of salvation! Is He not at all responsible for the state of the world, for the circumstances which make most sinners the helpless victims of their surroundings? Is He not responsible that Satan is still free to lead mankind astray? Not even for the final rebellion, which is the direct result of Satan's liberation after the thousand years? Where will we end if it is necessary to relieve Him of all responsibility in order to clear His character? What will become of His deity if we are compelled to use such means to justify His acts? This seems necessary only because we are too narrow, too dark, too ignorant, or too timid to believe the goal He has placed before Him.
HOW IT AFFECTS CONDUCT
Shall we persist in sin in order that grace may increase? (Rom.6:1). Just as it has been argued that the doctrine of grace will lead to sin, so it is insisted that freedom from moral responsibility will encourage us in ungodly living. And, even as a false apprehension of grace may have led to license, so a superficial glance at this release from responsibility may lead to laxity and carelessness and sin. But we should not reject grace because of its abuse. So neither should we judge this truth by its effect on those who know only its form and not its power. Grace does not lead to sin, neither does the acknowledgment of God's deity promote lawlessness.
The difficulty here is a real one. It may be wise not to press this matter on those who do not heartily acknowledge the deity of God. They are apt to reason that, if they are not responsible, they will suffer no penalty. They will say, "Why, then, is He still blaming?" (Rom.9:19), and seek to find an excuse for sin in blind fate. But man's irresponsibility does not affect God's judgment. All who stand before the great white throne will be judged according to their acts. Were judgment mere "punishment," or were it eternal, this would be intolerable. That is why most men, having a distorted idea of divine judgment, do not hesitate to call such teaching as this "fiendish" and "diabolical." It is their false outlook, their unbelief which makes it appear so. The doctrines of eternal torment and annihilation effectually prevent any full acceptance of God's deity. He must be relieved of the "responsibility" for such a fate on the part of any of His creatures, and they must shoulder this responsibility.
Men are sufficiently ignorant of their creaturehood to imagine that they can answer for their own acts. This self- confidence is necessary in order that it may be shattered. God cannot be All in anyone who is all in himself. He could not be All in anyone if all were dependent on themselves for their destiny. So far as their present consciousness is concerned, men are not aware of the subtle forces which combine to form their will and their way. When these all flow in one direction, they are "free" and seem to act without any compulsion or restraint. They have their own way, and are willing to answer for it. If influences clash, and they must "choose," they yield to the strongest and imagine that they have yielded to none. In this eon they carry out the behests of the chief of the aerial jurisdiction, the spirit that is now operating in the sons of Stubbornness (Ephesians 2:2).
No doubt numerous passages in the Scriptures can be found in which human responsibility seems to be implied. The Mosaic law appears to place the responsibility of keeping it on the shoulders of Israel. But later revelation not only shows that it would not be kept, but that it was not given for that purpose, and, indeed, that it could not be kept by sons of Adam. It crept in, not to decrease sin, but to increase offense (Rom.5:20). If a law had been given to responsible men who could have kept it, they would have done so, and displayed their own righteousness (Gal.3:21). But as it is, they cannot do so, and incur the just penalty, and so, by their unrighteousness and its judgment, display God's righteousness, which is the real aim of God's law.
A wise father is justified in teaching his children their limitations by asking them to do the impossible. This is ever so much more effective and impressive than the mere assertion of their impotence. So we are by no means warranted in saying that God does not demand of His creatures what they cannot do. That is merely an unsupported inference. What man has lived up to God's standard? With One Exception, none! Laying aside all such false reasonings, we are shut up to the clear assertion that God alone possesses sufficient power to effect His purpose, hence He only is "responsible."
In Eastern lands the husk of this great truth is still found in the ingrained fatalism of the people. "Whatever shall be will come to pass." But, being held as a mere philosophy, apart from the knowledge of God and His ultimate purpose through Christ Jesus, it has degenerated into an apathetic acceptance of blind fate, even when associated with the name of God. This leads to hopelessness and laxity. In contrast to this, the knowledge that God only is responsible alone can rescue us from utter despair, once we learn how little dependence is to be placed upon man. A belief in God's ultimate is irrational apart from it, for if God counts upon any of His creatures apart from His spirit, His goal is by no means sure. Moreover, there is not the slightest ground for careless behavior, for the motives which lead us to please God are strengthened, rather than weakened by the realization that He has not left aught to chance, so that even our failures, much as we regret them personally, are within the scope of His mighty plan.
We are reminded that believers must stand before the dais of Christ, to receive for the things done in the body (2 Cor.5:10), and hence they must be "responsible." The spirit of God deduces differently. After exhorting us to carry our salvation into effect with fear and trembling, the reason is given: "for it is God Who is operating in you to will as well as to work..." (Phil.2:12, 13). The slave of God who is profoundly impressed with his own responsibility is due for a great disappointment in that day, but he who realizes his absolute dependence on God--that He desires him to do that which he is quite unable to accomplish in his own strength (for which he therefore in not "responsible")--he alone will do that in which God delights. The theory of responsibility, like that of "the perseverance of the saints," leads away from God, the Source of all power, and makes self-centered, self- sufficient servants, who seldom see why they should fear and tremble.
Theological literature and practice is saturated with the thought of human responsibility. No one seems to be struck with the absence of the term in the sacred text. Indeed there are many who would consider that a very grave oversight on the part of the Author. So far as we have observed, the term is not only applied to temporal judgments, in order to press the point that privilege entails responsibility, but is the necessary preliminary to all judgment, especially that which is without end. Briefly stated, if men were not responsible, God could not punish them.
In this sense the non-scriptural term is but the reflex of unscriptural ideas concerning judgment. It is not just to "punish" men for acts to which they were impelled by influences over which they had no control. A good criminal lawyer could easily excuse any crime on this ground, for there are no incentives to crime, except innate tendencies and external influences which appear without our bidding. But, when we find that God's judgments are not mere "punishments" meted out to "responsible" criminals, but severe yet salutary corrective measures which counteract, or rather cooperate for eventual reconciliation, we are not driven to invent a term not found in the divine vocabulary in the sense in which we use it.
The idea of responsibility is not an innocent addition to God's revelation. It is a harmful accretion to the Scriptures, leading to much that is contrary to the truth and subversive of the knowledge of God.
If human beings are not sinners until they come to years of accountability, it is imperative to determine what age or condition is necessary. In this the Word of God gives no help whatever. Everyone has a different idea, and the indeterminate years stretch all the way from infancy to maturity. If, in some way which has never been clearly defined, irresponsible youth is "sure of heaven," it would be a mercy if none were allowed to develop into manhood and womanhood. Infanticide becomes the best assurance of salvation. Murder might accomplish eternal weal, while the rescue of an endangered youth from death would be nothing short of a heinous crime, if he should still be found unsaved at the age of accountability.
Human courts are continually at a loss to determine the amount of "responsibility." Of late the theory has been gaining ground that every murderer is insane, and not accountable for his acts. It is a plausible plea, and, enforced by sufficient influence and other valuable considerations, may save many a murderer's life. Is not the very doing of such a deed in itself evidence of insanity?
Further, is not the commission of any crime convincing proof of moral disease which we have inherited and for which we are not "responsible?" The only possible reply is based, not on a denial of the facts, but on an appeal to the terrible results of such teaching. Human courts find that they cannot, dare not, make many allowances on the score of irresponsibility. Ignorance of the law does not excuse anyone, although it is absolutely impossible for even a professional jurist to know all the laws. Thus we see how insoluble are the problems which this theory raises, even in its application in human courts.
Before closing, we again earnestly beg the reader not to discard judgment along with responsibility, and thus give free license to sin and lawlessness. The reasoning is false that bases judgment on responsibility. Just as minors, who have not attained to the years of discretion, are, nevertheless, sent to houses of correction for their betterment, so God judges His irresponsible creatures, through our Lord Jesus Christ, for His own glory and their good. We do not allow a child to go without chastisement merely because it is irresponsible. Let us correct our ideas of God's judgment, and all reasoning as to responsibility will vanish. Judgment will be meted out impartially to all unbelievers, according to their acts. The fact that men are not responsible is not an incentive to sin, for it does not remove the judgment, and restores God to the throne of His omnipotence.
If men must reason, let them be logical in their deductions, and they will not clash with God's Word. If, for instance, all of God's creatures were endowed with the power to thwart His intention, or to act counter to it in any way, how can He fulfill His purpose? Recognizing this, men have whittled Him down to a second or third rate deity, who does not, and cannot carry out His own counsel. In making man "divine," they have made God human. All who believe that God will succeed in His declared intention to become All in all, cannot consistently hold to human responsibility. If this teaching is true, we must acknowledge eternal torment also, for that is the only goal to which human ability can lead, apart from God.
To sum up: creature responsibility is a contradiction in terms, and denies the responsibility of the Creator. It is a necessary corollary of the doctrines of everlasting torment or eternal death. Man must be made responsible for such a fiendish fate, or God would be to blame. But once our eyes and hearts are opened to the truth of God's great ultimate, to be All in all, we are not forced to excuse Him by means of a theory, not only unknown to God's revelation, but contrary to its plain assertions, but freely acknowledge our own impotence and irresponsibility, in the glorious light of His revelation, that, because He is operating the universe in accord with the counsel of His own will, He will succeed in His grand purpose of becoming All in all.