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Corporate Responsibility, Corporate Guilt, and the Gospel

This post is in response to comments made by Tim Keller in his presentation titled “Racism and Corporate Evil” on March 28, 2012. The video and transcript of his presentation are here.

In the presentation, Keller makes clear that he wants to discuss “corporate responsibility”, which means corporate moral responsibility and corporate guilt, as he says:

I’d like to talk to you first about the idea of corporate responsibility — corporate moral responsibility, corporate guilt

Tim Keller

Since Keller is talking about moral responsibility and guilt, and to help highlight the primary concerns, the remainder of this article will use the more theological terms imputation and sin. Sin is breaking God’s law, and imputation is the teaching that a person can be reckoned or credited something (a curse, blessing, sin, righteousness, etc.) that is not their own, thus be responsible for the sin of another.

God requires all people to obey His commands. As Christians, we desire to identify what is sin and what is not. Keller argues that when a person is part of a community or ‘system’, they are in part responsible for the actions of that system or community. The only exception to this doctrine seems to be if one is ‘resisting’ the sinful system. If someone is ‘resisting’ then they are not responsible for the sin. He mentions and illustrates this doctrine by using the community of Germany during World War II and uses the Holocaust as an illustration when he says:

Don’t you see that at the one end, you’ve got people who are more corporately responsible, at the bottom a little less corporately responsible, but only all those people died because the whole system was working and everybody who was in the system, everybody who wasn’t resisting the system was part of it because the system couldn’t kill all those people unless everybody was doing their job, even just looking the other way.

Tim Keller

Therefore, his concept of corporate responsibility is a moral responsibility and results in guilt for everyone who does not ‘resist the system.’ Within a Christian worldview, this must mean we are discussing sin: moral guilt before God earned by breaking God’s moral law.

The primary concern with Keller’s doctrine of corporate responsibility is that it means people are guilty of the sins of the community they live in unless they are ‘resisting the system.’ 

This sounds similar to the doctrine of sins of omission, the teaching found in James 4:17 that if we know the good we ought to do, and do not do it, then that is sin.

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James 4:17

However, upon closer inspection, it seems Keller is not talking about sins of omission, but a new category of a sin of imputation: the sin you are guilty of merely by being part of a community or system (and not ‘resisting’ it).

If this doctrine is true, then Christians must always and constantly be resisting the system if they desire to stop being imputed with the sins of their community (because every community always has sin).

Before seeking clarification on what exactly it means to ‘resist the system’, we must first ask, “Is this doctrine Biblical or only man-made?” Does God’s word teach that people are guilty of the sins of the community they live in unless they are ‘resisting the system’?  To answer that question, let’s examine the three biblical texts Keller uses to argue support for this doctrine (Joshua 7, Daniel 9, and Romans 5), and then consider our perfect example of a sinless life, Jesus Christ.

Joshua 7 and Corporate Responsibility

Keller argues that Joshua 7 demonstrates there is family responsibility for sin. The sin that Achan committed, the keeping for himself things that God had devoted to destruction, is in part imputed to his family, Keller says, because the family was also punished along with Achan.

However, does the punishment of the family require the imputation of Achans sins? Are there other explanations that do not require us to impute the sin of Achan to his families account?

I would argue, in light of clear teaching that children are not responsible for the sins of their father, we should seek another interpretation for why the family was punished.

First, let’s consider another biblical text, one that deals directly with the topic of a person being held guilty for another’s sin. Consider Ezekiel 18:1-24 which contains God arguing that children will not be held guilty for their fathers’ sins. This is clearly taught in verses 19-20:

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

God speaking to Israel in Ezekiel 18:19-20

Also, consider the godly example of King Amaziah in 2 Kings 14, who “did what was right in eyes of the Lord” when he did not punish the children for the sins of their murderous fathers, thus obeying the law of God laid down in Deuteronomy 24:16.

But he did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.”

2 Kings 14:6

Scripture is clear that children should not be punished for the sins of their fathers, so why should children feel the weight of and be imputed guilt for the sins of their fathers? There is no biblical warrant to seperate the guilt from the punishment, for if one is guilty they should be punished. Conversely, if one should not be punished that means they are not guilty.

In light of these clear scriptures, I would argue there is another explanation for why the family was punished along with Achan, one that does not require creating a new corporate, or family responsibility doctrine.

The reason Achan’s family was stoned along with Achan was simply because that was the prescribed judgment God placed upon Achan for his sin. We are told in Joshua 7:1 that God’s focus was the covenant group of Israel, and when Achan sinned, he caused Israel to break the covenant.

But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things, for Achan the son of Carmi, son of Zabdi, son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of the devoted things. And the anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel.

Joshua 7:1

All of Israel, all people in the world, are sinners by nature and action and the wages of sin is death. God is able to bring judgment for sin through death at any time, and in any fashion he chooses. The stoning of Achan’s family was not because they were imputed the guilt of Achan’s sin (which the text does not say). We can say it was because the prescribed punishment for Achan’s sin was not just Achan’s death, but the death of his entire family.

Just because someone is impacted by God’s judgment of another’s sin, it does necessitate the one impacted is guilty of the sins of the one judged.

God could have killed more than Achan’s family. He could have wiped out of half of Israel. God is the creator of all people and has the right to do with his creatures as he chooses, which includes bringing death to a family in the judgment of the father’s sin. Just because one is impacted through the judgment prescribed for another’s sin, it does not mean the one impacted is guilty of the other’s sins. They are guilty of their own sins, not the sins of their father.

In light of Ezekiel 18 and Deuteronomy 24:16, we must not use Joshua 7 to establish the doctrine of family guilt as described by Keller. What is clear in Joshua 7 is that sin is serious, your sin impacts others, and God’s covenant with Israel requires all people in the nation to be accountable to each other. To create a doctrine where the members of a family are guilty before God for another family member’s individual sin cannot be established in Joshua 7.

Daniel 9 and Corporate Responsibility

Keller argues that Daniel 9 illustrates the doctrine of corporate responsibility for a culture because Daniel demonstrates his sorrow for the sins of Israel, even his ancestors, by praying for Israel’s forgiveness. Keller says:

I’ll take it up a little higher. In Daniel 9, now we’re talking about corporate guilt and responsibility inside a whole race or a culture because Daniel, in Daniel 9, confesses sins — repents for — and says it’s his responsibility to repent for sins that his ancestors did that he didn’t do it all.

Tim Keller

When Keller says that this text evidences Daniel’s felt responsibility to repent for the sins that his ancestors committed, Keller is reading into the text what isn’t there. Below is every verse in Daniel 9 where Daniel references his ancestors, or fathers:

We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.

Daniel 6:6

To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 

Daniel 6:8-11

16 “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us.

Daniel 6:16

20 While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God,

Daniel 6:20

Keller asks the question “why does Daniel feel responsible for the sins of his ancestors”, and then explains the answer is because Daniel is responsible for the sins of his ancestors.  Then Keller argues we today are responsible for the sins of our ancestors, at least in part. You can see this application when Keller says:

But here is Daniel, feeling a responsibility for and repenting for things his ancestors did. Why? Because he knows that the culture that he’s part of produced the sins of the past and he’s still part of that culture. He senses the responsibility and the Bible senses the responsibility. He senses the connection. 

Tim Keller

Keller does not read or exegete the text, yet then asserts this feeling of corporate responsibility applies to all cultures, and thus, we should feel guilty and responsible for the sins of our culture’s past, just like Daniel supposedly feels for Israel.

There are at least two major issues with this application of Daniel praying for Israel and applying this text to establish the doctrine of corporate guilt.

Daniel was part of a nation in covenant with God.

As Daniel references multiple times in Daniel 6, Israel was in a national convenant with God, and thus, God had established specific national promises and curses that, as a nation, they were held accountable to and were corporately responsible to keep. Therefore, anyone born in Israel was by covenant responsible before God as a nation. The problem with using this text to argue all communities and systems are responsible for each other ignores that moral responsibility is before God and that God has not established a covenant relationship with every system, society, or community. Therefore, to argue we should feel guilty or responsible for the sins of a wicked nation we live in, or wicked ancestors of a community we live in, is unnecessary guilt at best, and a heretical doctrine at worst.

God has not made a covenant with any community or nation besides Israel, therefore, no other community or nation is held responsible before God corporately, because there is no corporate covenant that is broken.

The only covenant that currently exists between man and God is the covenant between the man Christ Jesus and God the Father. And all who are in Christ are in this covenant. In the new covenant, rather than holding individuals accountable for the sins of the group, Jesus takes away the sins of the group and gives them his imputed righteousness. Therefore, in the new covenant, rather than feeling guilt or responsibility for sins that are not your own, you feel freedom and gratitude for a righteousness that is not your own.

Should we feel sorrow over the sins of the past and of the present committed in our culture? Yes! We are to join the psalmist in lamenting that men disregard the law of God. But our tears are not because we feel guilty or responsible for the sins of our community or nation, but because the sin is against the law of a holy God who we love!

My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.

Psalm 119:136

Intercession does not equal guilt or responsibility.

To use Daniel’s prayer as an example of how Christians in every culture should feel the need to repent and feel responsibility for their cultures sin is ignoring the covenant Daniel is referencing when he prays.

Notice how Daniel specifically references the covenant he is part of when he says:

To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him 10 and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. 11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. 

Daniel 6:9-11

Daniel specifically references the “curse and the oath” that God promised  Israel as the reason God’s judgment is falling on the people. If you remove the curse and oath from the nation, then all you have is Daniel interceding for God’s mercy and forgiveness upon the sins of others. We know intercession is biblical, as we are to pray for others.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,

1 Timothy 2:1

Our prayer for others does not mean we are guilty of others sins. Intercession does not equate guilt or responsibility. Daniel 9 should not be used as a prooftext to apply Daniel’s payer regarding Israel’s covenant relationship with God into every culture, society, or system.

Romans 5 and Corporate Responsibility

Keller references one final scripture in his case for corporate responsibility. He argues from Romans 5 by saying:

In Romans 5, Paul goes way beyond the idea that you are responsible for what other members of your family did and he goes way beyond the idea that you’re responsible for what other members of your culture do. He says you are responsible and you are condemned for what your ancestors Adam and Eve did. That is just by virtue of being in the entire human race, you’re responsible for things that you didn’t individually do. You are condemned for what they do and then of course he turns around and says, “But by connection to Jesus Christ, you can be saved not because of what you have done, but through your connection to him by faith.” The whole structure of the gospel is based on corporate responsibility.

Tim Keller

The doctrine Keller is alluding to is called original sin. It is the doctrine that all people born after Adam are guilty of Adam’s sin because Adam represented us.  As Wayne Grudem explains:

The conclusion to be drawn from these verses is that all members of the human race were represented by Adam in the time of testing in the Garden of Eden. As our representative, Adam sinned, and God counted us guilty as well as Adam. (A technical term that is sometimes used in this connection is impute meaning “to think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person.”) God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us

Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 495)

There is a lack of clarity when Keller says you are responsible for what your ancestors Adam and Eve did. Because nothing in Romans 5 says we are responsible for our ancestors (plural). It is not Eve who represented the human race, it was Adam alone. As Romans 5:12-18 says multiple times, it was through one man, Adam, the guilt of sin passed down to all people.

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 

Romans 5:12-18

To be clear, the doctrine of original sin is clearly taught in Romans 5. It is a true doctrine that all in Adam are guilty of Adam’s sin.

As we see in Romans 5, we are responsible for Adam’s sin. There is a category of responsibility for sin outside of one’s personal sins, and that is original sin, the first sin, committed by Adam who represented the entire human race.  To take this truth, and argue that the concept extends beyond Adam and the human race to every society, culture, or system is a misuse of Scripture. There simply is not any didactic teaching that such a corporate imputation of sin exists. Not only is lack of scripture warrant enough to reject the doctrine of corporate responsibility that Keller is teaching, but there is clear illustrative evidence that such imputation of sin does not exist. That clear illustrative evidence is the very life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Before believing that you are imputed the sins of your culture, consider the life of Jesus.

The man Jesus was sinless even though he lived within a sinful system.

Jesus was truly a man. All experiences, hardships, and sinful effects of a fallen world he endured as he lived a real human life. He truly is able to sympathize with our weakness as a man (Hebrews 4:15). As you read the gospel of Jesus’ life and ministry, you find very little ‘resisting the system’ of the sins of Rome, the culture he lived in. In fact, he seems to abide by the system as he instructs citizens to pay taxes to Ceaser (Matthew 22:21), commends a soldier of Rome (Luke 7:9), and does not resist the unjust decision of Pilate the governor (Matt 27:14).

The man Jesus did not ‘resist the system’ on multiple levels and in multiple ways. He never spoke against slavery or the corrupt government of his day. If Keller’s corporate guilt doctrine is correct, how did Jesus remain sinless? The reason Jesus was not guilty of the sins of his culture is because people are not guilty or imputed the sins of the society they live in.

Jesus was not guilty of original sin. The sin of Adam was not passed to him because Adam is not his father. Jesus was born of his Father, God, through his miraculous conception through the Holy Spirit. Being fully human by being born of Mary, Jesus was tempted by Satan to sin against God by disobeying God’s law and “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Nothing Jesus did, thought, or did not do was constituted sin.

Considering the perfect life and ministry of Jesus, the ultimate example of a righteous life, we see that corporate guilt and sin do not exist in the way that Keller is teaching; otherwise, Jesus could not have remained sinless. I guess one could argue that Jesus was ‘resisting the system’ at every level of his life, though this is clearly not the case in the gospel narratives.


As with any false doctrine, the result is a wrong and harmful application. As Keller begins to apply how we deal with the doctrine of corporate sin, specifically racism, he argues a Christian must not rely on salvation of individuals to solve corporate racism but must address the ‘system’ to solve racism. He says:

Now lastly, how does the gospel actually address this? On the one hand, you’ve got to keep in mind that just converting some individuals with the gospel, if the system needs to be dealt with won’t be enough to deal with racism.

Tim Keller

Keller actually takes a step back from the power of the gospel with this statement, even though he thinks he is moving forward. The gospel message is a call for individuals to believe God, repent and be saved. It is not a message that changes sinful systems apart from individual salvation. To attempt to use the gospel as a means to change a system is to misuse the gospel.

Consider any of the apostles as they preached the gospel throughout the New Testament, and you’ll find not one of them attempted to use the gospel to change a sinful Roman system apart from individual salvation. As Paul clearly teaches regarding the power of the gospel:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

Romans 1:16

The very power of the gospel is that it brings salvation to individuals. It is not meant to convert sinful systems, it is not an instructive societal handbook. It is a message that Jesus died according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). All who place their faith in Christ will be forgiven their sins, and are delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of the Son where they have redemption, the forgiveness of their sins (Colossians 1:13-14).

To guard the gospel, we must be diligent to avoid using it in a way it is not intended. We must not dilute the simple message with additional, even good, messages. The gospel cannot be used to changes systems, but to change hearts. It should not be used to save societies, but to save sinners.

To guard the gospel, we must be diligent to avoid using it in a way it is not intended.

Christians should fight injustice. They should seek righteousness individually and the righteousness of others by being rightly related to Christ. Christians should love their neighbor. They should abstain from every form of evil. They should feel guilty over their own sins, confess them, and repent. But Christians should not feel guilty for the sins of another, rather, they should call the sinner to repent, and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of those sins. They should daily examine their own heart for any sin that might be lingering there. As for the supposed doctrine of corporate sin (the imputation of a systems sins upon one who has not committed the sin): that doctrine should be rejected utterly, for the sake of the truth. We must guard the focus of the gospel’s message and power, and guard the perfect life of Jesus as our example of a sinless life lived in an evil world.