Federal solidarity and personal responsibility are Scriptural conceptions. The first term refers to the oneness of the human race. The word “federal” signifies a league or contract, derived from an agreement or covenant between parties, particularly between states or nations. Theologically this word refers to the covenant idea as pertaining to the human race with Adam as its head. “Solidarity” refers to a solidarity of interests, a communion of interests. Hence, “federal solidarity” is the conception which refers to that which all mankind has in common because of the covenant relation in which Adam stood to the entire human race. All men are objects of wrath and are conceived and born dead in sin and trespasses because of the sin of the one man. Of course, the idea of guilt stands upon the foreground. All men do not become guilty because of their sins (Pelagianism). But we all sin because we are guilty. Guilty we are because of the one sin of Adam, our judicial representative head.
Scripture teaches this doctrine of “federal solidarity,” particularly in Rom. 5. In verse 15 we read that through the offence of one many are dead. In verse 16 we are taught that the judgment was by one to condemnation. In verse 18 Paul declares that by the offence of the one judgment came upon all men to condemnation. And in verse 19 we are told that by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners. One man sins, commits one offence. Thereupon all are guilty of death. That one offence is sufficient to place all men under condemnation. We are all dead because of the one sin of Adam.
On the other hand Scripture also teaches the doctrine of “personal responsibility.” In connection with the subject which we are treating in this brief essay “responsibility” is referred to from the viewpoint of our being held accountable by God for our sins.
Man’s personal responsibility is taught in Scripture throughout. We read in: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” Moreover the parable of the talents and the description of the judgment day in surely proceed from this Scriptural truth. In we read that Christ comes quickly, and that His reward is with Him to give every man according as his work shall be. Besides, does not Scripture abound in admonitions, commanding man in general to forsake his evil way and His people in particular to put on the new man and to put off the old? All men are personally responsible and are held accountable by God for their actions.
Federal solidarity and personal responsibility—how must we conceive of these conceptions in their relation to one another It is in this light that I understand’ this subject which has been assigned to me. How can a man be held personally responsible when he is a member of an organism which is characterized by federal solidarity? In answering this question we do well to bear in mind that it is of the utmost importance that both concepts be maintained.
The Pelagian’s explanation of this problem is rather simple. He simply denies the federal solidarity of the human race. Pelagianism denies original guilt and pollution. His conception is strictly individualistic. Every man, in his opinion, is born good and upright. Man is the victim of his own environment. Viewed superficially this view is very simple. Viewed realistically, however, this conception involves us in a hopeless predicament. This is true of every conception which deviates from the Word of God. We deny that Arminianism, in distinction from the Reformed conception, is easier to understand. We maintain that Pelagianism and Arminianism involve us in hopeless conceptions which can never satisfy the human mind. For, apart from the fact that this Pelagian conception presumptuously opposes the teaching of Holy Writ as in Rom. 5, it certainly gives no answer to the amazing question, “Why, then, are all men victims of evil environment, and whence this evil environment?’’
The Christian Reformed Churches, in their explanation of man’s personal responsibility, fail to do justice to the federal solidarity of the human race. Fact is, this federal solidarity of the human race implies that every man, himself personally responsible, is condemned to death because of the sin of another. I do not mean to say that these churches deny the headship of Adam. But I will maintain that their conception of personal responsibility is individualistic. And we must also bear in mind that one hears more and more nowadays, of that rather convenient explanation of difficulties, summed up in the term: apparent contradictions. Is it not true that, when we would maintain the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God, and that the gospel is not a general offer of salvation, but is preached as a savor of life unto life for some but also as a savor of death unto death for others, we are accused of denying the responsibility of man? Does this objection not imply that only then can the responsibility of man be maintained if he be presented as one who can either reject or accept this “offer of salvation?” And is this view not a denial of the truth that because of the sin of the one man all men are conceived and born dead in sins and trespasses, unable by nature to do any good and inclined to all evil? Surely, the doctrine of a free offer of salvation implies that man is also able to accept this offer. Hence, I maintain that also their explanation of personal responsibility is principally Pelagian and maintains the sovereignty of the individual.
Of course, man’s personal responsibility must never be confused with moral sovereignty. His moral freedom is not sovereign freedom. Never does man act independently of the Lord. It is surely not necessary to quote from Scripture to prove this point. Are not the hearts of kings in the hands of the Lord as water courses, which He turneth whithersoever He will? Was not Shimei’s cursing of David of the Lord, and was it not of Jehovah that Joseph was sold by his brethren into Egypt? And was not Christ taken, crucified, and slain by wicked hands, delivered into these hands, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God? Consequently, the personal responsibility of man is never to be viewed as sovereign, as independent of God, as sovereignly determining his own eternal lot. God is and remains God also as far as all the moral acts of man are concerned.
Yet, man is personally responsible, also as a member of the human race which is characterized by federal solidarity. He is personally responsible also for the sin of Adam. This means, of course, in the first place, that he is held accountable by God for the sin of Adam in the sense that, because Adam is the judicial head of the human race, his sin is imputed to all and all men are held accountable for that one sin. That one sin is laid to the charge of all. All men stand condemned before God, worthy of eternal death and subject to spiritual darkness because Adam partook of the forbidden fruit.
However, man is personally responsible also in the sense that he himself always assumes personal responsibility for that one sin of Adam. Man is a morally free agent. Sin is always the object of his own choice. He sins because he chooses to sin. He is never driven to do iniquity. Although God is sovereign and therefore the eternal Cause of all things, also of the moral actions of men, He is never the Author of iniquity. Having willed sin He also willed it as being performed through man as a morally free agent. God eternally willed a sinner who would voluntarily choose iniquity which the Lord hates. As that morally free agent man always assumes full responsibility also for Adam’s sin. By nature we approve of our first father’s action in Paradise. Man’s objection to the doctrine of federal solidarity, that because of the sin of one man all should be subject to death, is very hypocritical. He himself chooses Adam’s sin in every moment of his existence. If man by nature were asked whether he would have followed a different course than Adam, or whether he is in any sense of the word sorry for the sin of pride of his first father, he, if he be honest, must needs answer in the negative. Man may be sorry because of the results of sin but he never experiences any grief because of sin itself.
Yet, even so, the question is not fully answered. In the final analysis only one answer is possible. It remains an incontrovertible fact that my spiritual agreement with the sin of Adam is due to the federal solidarity of the human race. I agree with the sin of Adam because I am wholly corrupt. I may choose to do iniquity and perform deeds of darkness as the object of my own free choice. However, I must choose the evil, I cannot choose the good. I am become a slave of iniquity, am bound in the service of darkness with fetters of iron and steel which reign over me even in the very depths of my spiritual being. I am not subject to the law of God, will not be subject to that law, but neither can I be subject to it! This, I say, is due to the federal solidarity of the human race. And this, of course, is to be ascribed only to the alone sovereign God. Why did God impute the sin of the one man unto the whole human race? And we answer, of course: Because God conceived of that human race as an organism with Adam as its head, so that the sin of the one would’ be imputed to all, and all would be held accountable for the sin of the one. Why did God conceive this? Because He sovereignly willed it so. God is the Potter and man is the clay. This is the only possible final answer.
What, then, shall man say? What must be his answer as far as mankind’s federal solidarity and his personal responsibility are concerned? What shall be his answer when every vile mouth shall be stopped, and every knee shall bow? Why does he now object to this Scriptural presentation of the truth? Is it not because the clay refuses to be clay and would be the Potter? And shall he not forever acknowledge this sovereignty of the Lord? Let that man, also today, who objects to this truth, confess his sin of pride and humble himself before the living God.
What shall we say? Firstly, if it pleased God to call us out of darkness, who also by nature are included in that condemnable human race, only because He sovereignly decreed a place for us among those of whom Christ is the Head, we shall render Him eternal thanks for a salvation which is so exclusively Divine in order that no flesh should boast. And, secondly, we shall confess that God willed the human race as an organism in Adam, because He willed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must maintain Christ as the Head of His eternal covenant. The headship of Adam is but a divinely willed symbol of the headship of Christ. Was not Adam a figure of Him Who was to come? All men, in Adam, are condemnable because of the sin of the one, in order that all men, in Christ, should be rendered righteous because of the righteousness of the One Who died that we might live, and that the more abundantly.