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Individual responsibility in salvation: Must each individual personally choose to be saved? Are we free moral agents, or may others decide our salvation for us?Individual Responsibility and Free Moral Agency in Salvation

Individual Responsibility in Salvation:
Must Each Individual Personally Choose to Be Saved?

Individual responsibility in salvation: Must each individual personally choose to be saved? Are we free moral agents, or may others decide our salvation for us?

Is each individual personally responsible to choose for himself whether or not to accept salvation? Some teach that babies or infants can be baptized on the basis of the faith of the parents. Others act as though they should be treated as righteous because they have family members who are godly or because they are members of a faithful local church. Others think their relationship to God is hopeless if they come from a sinful family. Is each person a free moral agent before God? 

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Introduction:

Ezekiel 18:20 - "The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself."

This passage teaches the principle of individual responsibility in salvation. Each person is accountable before God for His own life.

No one else can be saved for us, and no one else can decide whether or not we will be saved. Each person's eternal destiny will be decided by his/her own personal choices and conduct.

Some people do not completely believe this. Some defend infant baptism by saying the child can be baptized on the basis on the parents' faith. Some believe that the father in a family can decide for his whole family - wife and children - that they will all be baptized.

Let us consider Bible teaching about individual responsibility, then later we will later discuss applications in which some people do not appear to believe in individual responsibility.


I. Passages that Teach Individual Responsibility in Salvation


A. General Passages about Individual Responsibility

Each person's conduct is his individual responsibility.

Ezekiel 18:20 - The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. A father and son are each responsible for his own wickedness or righteousness. [1 John 3:4]

Matthew 7:21-28 - For everyone (individual), not just one who confesses Jesus will enter the kingdom, but he who does (individual) the will of the Father. Whether or not a person's spiritual house stands or falls is determined by who hears and does (or does not do) what Jesus teaches. This is true for "whoever" (v24) or "everyone" (v26).

Matthew 16:24,25 - Anyone (an individual) who desires to come after Jesus must deny himself (individual), take up his cross (individual), and follow Jesus. Whoever loses His life (individual) for Christ will find it. Jesus here discusses the basic issue of whether or not one is His disciple. That choice is an individual choice. Note: This applies to "anyone."

Acts 10:35 - In every nation whoever (individual) fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. Note that the person who is accepted is the same person who fears God and works righteousness. This is true for everyone (whoever) in every nation. V34 - No partiality; this is the same for all.

James 1:23-25 - If anyone (individual) hears God's word and does not do it, he is like a man (individual) who observes himself (individual) in a mirror but then forgets what he saw. But he who (individual) looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues doing the work, this one (individual) will be blessed in what he does (individual). Note that the one who is blessed is the same one who continued doing what he saw in the word.

This is individual responsibility.

[John 14:21-24; 15:5,6; Matt. 12:30,50; 24:13; Acts 2:21; 1 Tim. 2:9; Heb. 6:11; 1 John 2:4-6; 3:7,10; 2 John 9]

Each person's eternal destiny is based on individual responsibility.

2 Corinthians 5:10 - At judgment each one (individual) will receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done (individual), whether good or bad. The one being judged will be rewarded according to what he did, not what someone else did. This applies to "all."

Romans 14:12 - Each of us (individual) shall give account of himself (individual) to God. No one else - only you - will be judged for what you did.

Romans 2:6-10 - God will render to each one (individual) according to his deeds (individual - v6). Tribulation and anguish on every soul of man who does evil (individual - v9), but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good (individual - v10).

Galatians 6:7,8 - Whatever a man sows (individual) that he will also reap (individual). He who sows to the flesh (individual) will reap corruption. He who sows to the spirit (individual) will reap everlasting life. What you personally reap will be determined by how you personally lived.

Note: "Do not be deceived. God is not mocked." When people think they can avoid being punished or rewarded for how they lived, or when they think people will reap according to how someone else lived, they are deceived and are attempting to mock God!

[Revelation 20:13,15]

B. Passages about Individual Responsibility in the Steps to Salvation

Now consider how this individual responsibility in salvation requires each individual to personally take each of the steps that the gospel says are necessary to salvation.

Hearing the gospel

John 6:44,45 - No one can come to Jesus unless drawn by the Father (by teaching). Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to Jesus. The one who comes is the one who must first hear and learn, and no one can come unless they do it.

Mark 7:14 - Jesus commanded "everyone of you" to hear and understand His teaching. Each individual must hear and understand.

Mark 16:15,16 - The gospel should be preached to every creature in the whole world. "He who" (each individual) believes and is baptized will be saved. The person who is saved is the same person who must first hear, understand, believe, and be baptized. This applies to "every creature" in the whole world.

No one can learn the gospel for you, and you cannot learn it for anyone else. We may teach others and help them learn. But learning God's word is individual responsibility.

[Luke 10:16; Acts 3:23]

Faith

Mark 16:15,16 - Again, the one who is saved must first hear, believe, and be baptized. But note also that he who (individual) does not believe will be condemned. Whether one is saved or condemned is determined by individual choices.

John 3:16,36 - Whoever (or "he who" - an individual) believes should have everlasting life. But he who (individual) does not believe will receive wrath, not life. The individual who seeks eternal life is the same one who must believe. If he does not, he will have wrath. Again, this applies to everyone in the whole world.

Acts 10:43 - Whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins. The individual who wants remission is the same individual who must believe.

Romans 10:9-11 - With the heart one (an individual) believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation. "Whoever" (individual) believes on Him will not be put to shame. Each individual has his own heart in which he must believe and each individual has his own mouth with which he must confess Christ.

Hebrews 11:6 - He who (individual) comes to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him. The one who wants to come is the one who must believe. What if he does not believe? Then he cannot possibly please God.

Faith is an individual responsibility. No one can believe for you, and you cannot believe for anyone else.

[John 5:24; 11:25,26; Romans 1:16; 3;26]

Repentance

Acts 2:38 - "Every one of you" (each individual) should repent and be baptized for remission of sins. But the same individual who seeks remission is the one who must repent. Both repentance and baptism are individual responsibilities.

2 Peter 3:9 - God is not willing for "any" (individual) to perish but wants all to come to repentance. To avoid perishing, each individual must repent.

Repentance is an acknowledgement of guilt and a need to change ones life. No one can decide for you to change your life, and you cannot decide for others. By nature it is inherently an individual responsibility.

Confession

Romans 10:9,10 - Again, the individual ("one") who seeks to be saved must first believe in his heart and confess Christ with his mouth. Just as each individual has his own heart in which he must believe, so each individual has his own mouth with which he must confess Christ.

Matthew 10:32 - Whoever (an individual) confesses Jesus, Jesus will confess him (individual) before the Father. Note that the same individual who is confessed before the Father is the same one who must confess Jesus before men. [1 John 4:15]

No one can confess Christ for you, and you cannot confess for anyone else. The conviction of your own heart must lead you to confess. Confession too is an individual responsibility.

Baptism

Mark 16:15,16 - "He who" (each individual) believes and is baptized will be saved (after hearing the gospel - v15). Baptism is an individual choice made by one who first hears, understands, and believes the gospel. The person who is baptized is the same person who must first believe. Baptism is an individual responsibility, just like learning and believing.

Acts 2:38 - "Every one of you" (individual) should repent and be baptized for remission of sins. The individual who repents should then be baptized. The individual who seeks remission of sins must be baptized. Baptism is an individual responsibility, just like repentance.

John 3:3,5 - Unless "one" (individual) is born of water (baptism) and the Spirit, he (individual) cannot enter the kingdom. The same one who seeks to enter the kingdom must be baptized. If he is not personally baptized, he cannot enter the kingdom.

Each step to conversion is an individual responsibility. No one can learn for you, believe, repent, confess, or be baptized for you. And you cannot do any of these for anyone else. We can encourage one another, but each one must make up his own mind and act for himself.


II. Applications of Individual Responsibility in Salvation


Consider some areas in which some people, consciously or not, believe that people will be saved or lost because of what other people have done.

A. Infant Baptism / Household Baptism

The Bible says that faith must precede baptism, yet many denominations baptize babies. Some justify this by claiming that the child may be baptized on the basis of the parents' faith.

Others argue that the father (or parents) can make the decision for his whole family - wife and mature children, as well as babies - that they will all be baptized.

Scripture requires individual understanding and faith, etc., before baptism.

But we have cited various passages that the decision to be a follower of Jesus is an individual decision [Ezek 18:20; etc. - see above].

Mark 16:15,16 - The individual who hears and believes and seeks to be saved is the individual who must be baptized. Adults cannot hear and believe for their children or other family members. If the one being baptized does not believe, then baptism means nothing.

Acts 2:38 - Each individual who is baptized must first repent. Both repentance and baptism are individual responsibilities. Adults cannot decide for their children or other family members that they will change their lives. Baptism means nothing to an individual unless he first repents.

Likewise, the conditions that must precede baptism are all individual responsibilities. Parents cannot decide for children, husbands cannot decide for their wives, etc. No one can make the choice for anyone else.

Why not baptize the parent in the baby's place?

If you think parents can believe in the baby's place, why not also baptize the parent in the baby's place? Why insist that the baby be personally baptized? Why not let the parent do everything in the baby's place?

The Bible says that the same person who is baptized is the one who must believe, repent, confess, etc. No one can do any of these acts in anyone else's place.

What about unbelieving parents?

If parents can believe for their children or other family members regardless of whether or not they believe, what happens if the parents or father do not believe? Can unbelievers decide that their children or spouse will not be baptized regardless of whether or not they believe?

Mark 16:15,16 - Not only will "he who" believes and is baptized be saved, but the individual who does not believe will be condemned. If the father can decide that his wife and children will be baptized even though they lack personal faith, why can he not decide they will not be baptized even when they do have faith?

If you say that in that case the wife and children would have to make their own choice, then you have acknowledged the principle of individual responsibility. When passages teach believers to be baptized even if their spouse or parents do not believe, those same passages teach that those who don't believe should not be baptized even if their spouse or parents do believe. Each person is accountable for his/her own choice to serve God or not.

Parents' authority is limited.

Ephesians 5:22-25 explains the father's family leadership. The husband is head of the wife like Christ is head of the church.

Jesus gives leadership and instructs the church what it ought to do. But each individual must decide whether or not he chooses to follow. In particular, does Christ decide for each individual whether or not they will believe or be baptized? No, He leaves that up to the individual to choose (see the verses above).

Like Christ, a father gives leadership and teaches family members what they ought to do. But each individual must decide whether or not he will follow. The father cannot decide for his wife or children whether or not they will believe or be baptized. He can only teach, lead, and guide.

Infants have no sins to be forgiven.

The only Scriptural purpose for baptism is for remission of sins and to receive salvation (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16). But babies are innocent and have no sins to be forgiven (Psalm 106:37,38; Matthew 19:14; 18:3). So baptism is not for them, even if the parents could make the decision.

The principle of individual responsibility reveals the error of infant baptism.

B. Mormon Baptism for the Dead

Mormons teach that people must be baptized by the Mormon Church. But if you die unbaptized, other Mormon relatives can be baptized for you. Then after death you will have a second chance to believe and repent. If you do, you will be saved because the living relative was baptized for you. This is why Mormons are so concerned about genealogies. Each Mormon must make sure someone has been baptized for all his dead relatives!

Infant baptism says a person should be baptized for himself but others can believe in his place. Mormonism reverses that and says a person must believe and repent for himself, but other people can be baptized in his place!

In both cases, the error is the same. If people can do some of the steps in your place, why can't they do them all? No one else can believe for you, and no one else can be baptized for you. All the steps to salvation are individual responsibility.

C. Other Family Members

Some people subconsciously believe (or act as though they believe) that people should be accepted or rejected on the basis of the status of their family.

Special favors to those with honorable families?

Members of upright families sometimes seem to think that they should be treated as upright, regardless of their own personal lives. Children or wives of preachers or elders or other Christians may think they should be respected because of their family members.

Members of wealthy or influential families may think they should receive favorable treatment in the church, on the job, or by the government. If they do wrong, they think the courts, the church, or supervisors at work should overlook it because of their family status.

Sometimes other people do give special treatment to these people. Sometimes courts or supervisors do let people off the hook because of their family. Sometimes churches tend to overlook their sins.

Mistreatment of those with dishonorable families?

Some families have bad reputations: a parent or spouse with a criminal record, a reputation for immorality, or an atheist, etc. Sometimes family members conclude they may as well also live like their immoral family members, or that it is impossible for them to overcome such a background.

Sometimes other people expect people to be sinful like other family members. "An apple doesn't fall far from the tree." "Like father, like son." So they may treat the family as though they are guilty too or as though there is no hope for them.

All such ideas violate individual responsibility.

Ezekiel 18:4,9-18 - God says that if a righteous man has a sinful son, that son will be punished for his sins. If a sinful man has a godly son, that son will be rewarded for his godliness. Each person is individually responsible before God.

Matthew 10:34-37; Mark 10:29,30 - Often families are not united in their decisions about Jesus. One may choose to follow Jesus while others in the same family (husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter) choose not to do so. Each one has power to choose for himself. [Luke 14:26,27]

If you come from a righteous family, that is a great blessing and should help you to do right. But you are not right just because others are right. Each one will be judged by God and should be judged by men on their own personal conduct.

Likewise, if you come from a family with an evil background, their influence and teaching may make it more difficult to be righteous. But you are not wrong just because others are wrong. Each one will be judged by God and should be judged by men on their own personal conduct.

If you do not live right, you will be lost regardless of your good family. But if you do live right, you will be saved regardless of your evil family. Your conduct and relationship with God is your individual responsibility.

D. Other Church Members

Misconceptions regarding church membership

The point here is similar to family background, except that a person has no choice what family he will be born into. He does have a choice what church he will be a member of. God requires us to choose a congregation such that we are not required to participate in sinful practices. However, each individual is still responsible for his/her own personal conduct.

Some think they are members of a sound, active congregation. Other members actively study, pray, teach, spread the gospel, have good homes, and lead morally decently lives. They have godly, qualified elders, a sound faithful preacher, and active church programs of worship, evangelism, and benevolence. So they think the Lord will accept them even though they themselves are not doing what they could to contribute to these good qualities.

Other people are members of a congregation that doesn't really practice error. But they think other members don't study, pray, or teach as they should. Families have internal strife. They see little effort to reach the community or to help members grow. So they get discouraged and think, "Why should I work if no one else is working?" They may consider quitting altogether or joining a denomination.

The Lord still teaches individual responsibility.

You must be part of a group that is Scriptural in practice so that you are not compelled to participate in sin. But you will be judged for your personal conduct, no matter what others in the church are doing.

Revelation 3:1-4 - The Sardis church had a good reputation, but God knew they were spiritually dead. Unlike other churches, He does not accuse them of any doctrinal error or practicing sin as a congregation. But most members were not actively working. Nevertheless, a few had not defiled their garments and would walk with the Lord in white for they were worthy (v4). You can individually serve God faithfully, even when others in the church are negligent or indifferent.

Philippians 2:12 - The church in Philippi was a good church. Unlike other churches Paul wrote to, I know of no complaint or accusation of error against this church whatever. They actively supported Paul. They were apparently sound and active. Yet he warned that they must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

To be saved you must be part of a doctrinally sound congregation. But you will still be judged for your own individual conduct. If every other member is active and acceptable to God, you will still be lost if you are not diligent or if you participate in personal sins. Or other members may be indifferent and negligent, but you will still be saved if you work faithfully. Salvation is an individual responsibility.

Conclusion

Revelation 3:20 - I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. Jesus wants to have fellowship with you and give you eternal life. He has died and made every provision for you. He wants to be part of your life.

But He will not force Himself on you. Instead, He calls through His word for you to open the door. Whether or not He comes into your life depends on whether or not you choose to open the door. It is an individual choice.

Revelation 22:13 - The Spirit and the bride invite people to come and take of the water of life. But the individual who thirsts and desires, that is the individual who may come and take. No one can decide for others to come and no one can take for others. The choice is yours. What will you choose?

Please note that we have several important related articles on our web site. These include articles about inherited sin, sprinkling and pouring for baptism, and the purpose of baptism. Please see the links below for further information.

(C) Copyright 2004, David E. Pratte
Local churches and individuals may, within limits, distribute this Bible study guide for free, but not for sale.  Web sites may link to this page but not reproduce it. For details click here for our copyright guidelines.

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Topics for further Bible study

Calvinism and the Gospel
Once Saved, Always Saved (Eternal Security)
Original Sin and Inherited Depravity
Election and Predestination
God's grace and mercy (law & works)
Imputation of Jesus' Sinless Life
Importance of Repentance
The Importance of Obedience
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Babies Be Baptized?

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