God is Just

 

Week of June 15, 2014

 

Bible Verses:  Ezekiel 18:21-24,30-32.

 

The Point:  God is always just.

 

Radical Choice:  Ezekiel 18:21-24.

 

[21]  "But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. [22]  None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. [23]  Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?  [24]  But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.  [ESV]

 

[21-24]  Radical Choice. There is a very significant shift in Ezekiel’s argument at verse 21. Up to that point he has been talking about successive generations – fathers and sons – and separating them with moral firewalls of distinct responsibility. Suddenly he moves to considering individual lifetimes – a wicked person [21-22], and a righteous person [24]. And he affirms that the same choice that faced the son when he reflected on the behavior of his father (between generations [14]) also in principle faces each of us when we reflect on our own behavior (within our own lifetime). Three things may be said about this proffered choice.

(1) Real choice and real change are possible. You can choose to change! It is a powerful affirmation of the reality of human freedom and the seriousness of the choice that God has placed in our hands. Just as, in the preceding argument, Ezekiel was at pains to insist that the action of one generation did not lock the next one into an unbreakable chain of consequences, so here he presents each individual with the same truth – which is simultaneously liberating and challenging. It is liberating because a wicked past need not imprison the present and future; the wicked man can choose to turn away from all his sins that he has committed [21]. But it is also challenging because a righteous past does not guarantee the end of the journey; the hitherto righteous man may choose to turn away from his righteousness and embark on the same life direction as the wicked [24]. But the main point to be stressed is the sheer power of this affirmation. You can choose, and you can choose again. The choice is always open. We are not mechanically determined beings, locked into the consequences of our own or anybody else’s past. We are human persons entrusted by God with moral freedom of choice. Choice is real and change is possible.

(2) Moral choice is a matter of life and death. Ezekiel calls people to recognize that their choice of commitments and behavior, in response to the known will of God, is literally a matter of choosing life or death. With such language he takes on, possibly consciously, the mantle of Moses, who has so forcefully presented exactly that choice to the people in Deuteronomy 30:15-20. Ezekiel echoes not only the crucial language of life-and-death choice, but also the evangelistic appeal at the end: Choose life! It is worth pausing to ask what Ezekiel and the exiles would have understood by life and death in this context. It seems clear that there is a dimension to ‘life’ in the promise of Ezekiel which transcends either mere avoidance of physical death or the hope of national restoration to the land. ‘Life’ must have signified a restored and blessed relationship with the Lord at a personal level, which the righteous and the wicked who repented could enjoy, and that would somehow transcend physical death. Even the wickedest among the exiles, who were doomed to the virtual death of exile itself, and who faced actual personal death before the restoration, are challenged to repent and change, with the promise that they could then ‘live’. What would it mean to be given such life from God? Perhaps Ezekiel the pastor would have turned such repentant people to the words of Deuteronomy itself in explaining to them what such life meant: loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life [Deut. 30:20].

(3) Choice can be in either direction. Ezekiel’s words in 18:21-24, expanded in 33:12-14, are both liberating (for the repentant) and challenging (for the righteous). He is not only concerned to urge the wicked to repent. He is also concerned to warn the presently righteous not to be complacent. The challenge to the righteous is sobering [24]. It reminds us that no matter what our doctrine of eternal security, it should never become an excuse for complacency or something to be traded on as a divine insurance policy against our misdemeanors. Such was the tragic error of those who trusted in the assurance of God’s protection of Jerusalem and then behaved as if it were a license to kill and indulge in all the other excesses listed in Ezekiel’s chapters of accusation. If there is no peace for the wicked, there is also no false peace for the righteous. Watch yourselves, warned Moses [Deut. 4:9,15,23]. Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation, warned Jesus [Matt. 26:41]. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall, warned Paul [1 Cor. 10:12].We never grow beyond the need to continue making the active decision to love and serve God in righteousness of life and behavior. It was to those who had grown old with him, after a lifetime that included the wonders of the conquest of Canaan, that Joshua issued the memorable challenge: choose this day whom you will serve [Joshua 24:15]. Choices matter all through life.”  [Wright, pp. 196-201]

 

Radical Repentance:  Ezekiel 18:25-32.

 

[25]  "Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? [26]  When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. [27]  Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. [28]  Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. [29]  Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? [30]  "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. [31]  Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? [32]  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live."  [ESV]

 

[25-32]  Radical repentance. So at last we are able to come to the point of the whole chapter. On the twin bases of the reality of the choice that can be made, and the rock of God’s consistency, Ezekiel can make his great appeal to the people, brilliantly addressing both the community as a whole and every individual listener. Ultimately there are only two categories of people before the Lord – the righteous and the wicked. Only repentance can make the difference, but it truly can and will make all the difference in the world for those who respond. So Ezekiel works and weaves and pushes and pulls to achieve that response, for with God there is always time to turn, always space for grace, always scope for hope. God offers a free transfer from the camp of the wicked to the community of the righteous. God offers a free pardon and a new life. But the offer is open only to those who truly repent. Leaving nothing to misunderstanding, Ezekiel makes it abundantly clear what that required repentance will mean.

(1) Repentance which is practical. First of all, negatively, true repentance would mean a total rejection of former ways: Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed [31]. These are strong words. Turning to God must involve turning away from all that offends Him, namely, the sins which, by incurring His wrath, cause our downfall. So there has to be a radical change of direction which deliberately rejects the former ways and practices. Cast away speaks of the very decisive action of throwing something away as totally unwanted and unwelcome. Transgressions is a word that describes acts of rebellion and treachery. Israel must recognize the loathsomeness and betrayal involved in their persistent evil ways, and in throwing them away they must return to submissive and wholehearted loyalty to the Lord. But was such change actually possible? Only if it was genuinely internal as well as external. It would require a whole new attitude and mindset, virtually a new person within. In short, they would need to get a new heart and a new spirit [31]. The Old Testament recognizes the mysterious interaction between what humans are required to do, and what God alone can do for them. The new heart and new spirit are something Israel must make as part of the genuineness of their repentance, yet ultimately something that God alone can give them. Secondly, such new attitudes will be manifested positively in very different behavior. Only faithful obedience to God in practical reality is the proof of the genuineness of repentance and faith in God’s promise. Not only is repentance not merely a matter of words; neither is it merely a spiritual or emotional attitude. It involves putting things right even if it costs. It affects one’s financial affairs and relationships. Indeed, given the hold that money has over us, it is likely that until repentance and conversion does affect that part of our lives, it is premature to talk about a new heart and a new spirit. The heart is not changed if our pockets have not felt the difference.

(2) Repentance which is purging. True repentance wipes out the past! This is the incredible message of verse 22: None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him. This does not mean that the man himself will totally forget his wicked past. There is for all of us as sinners an appropriate and salutary remembering of our sin. It is a remembering which prevents us ever losing the precious joy of forgiveness. No, it is God who will not remember the wicked person’s sin against him – that is, will not take any further action on it. The charges will be dropped. The slate will be wiped clean. The guilt is gone. The debt is cancelled. Repentance means change, and repentance produces change – change in God’s own attitude and action towards the repentant. What incredible words of immediate, amazing grace, words that only God could utter, words that express in stark simplicity the glorious liberating truth of the biblical gospel! The immediate, present, nature of God’s response to the repentant wicked, as well as to the previously righteous person who reverts to wickedness [18:24], may well have been what sparked the people’s objection about the Lord’s justice [25,29]. We want to weigh God in the scales of our own distorted sense of fairness. And in our self-righteousness it doesn’t seem right that people should just be let off for their sins when they repent. The gospel affirmation that repentant sinners are instantly forgiven is, and always has been, offensive to those who weight themselves in their own scales and are rather impressed with the result. When Jesus called sinners to repentance and declared that they were forgiven when they responded in faith, without insisting that they go by the prescribed route of the temple, priesthood and sacrificial system, he caused such offense too. When Paul preached that we are justified by grace through faith and not through works of the law, he likewise caused offense and was accused of giving people license to sin. When we preach that God’s saving mercy towards us is entirely unmerited but entirely available to the guiltiest sinner only on the grounds of repentance and faith, we will likewise meet the offended response of hurt pride or sheer incredulity. If we never do meet such response, we need to check if we are preaching the truly biblical gospel of God’s grace. Conversely, if somebody has been living in a respectable manner for a long time, but then goes off into serious moral wickedness and spiritual backsliding, shouldn’t God take all their previous righteousness into account and let them off in the end? In thinking thus, we betray the hold that self-righteousness still has on us – as if we were ever saved by our deserts in any case. Behind all such thinking lies the very ancient conception that our eternal destiny depends on some kind of divine or angelic calculation in which, at the end of life, all our good deeds and all our bad deeds will be weighed up, and the decision made then about whether we have done enough good to be saved, or so much evil that the scales must tip into damnation. But against all such postponed-calculation views of our standing before God, this text affirms that God deals with us in the here and now. The question is not one of quantity, but of direction. It is not a matter of asking how much wickedness or how much righteousness there is in our past, but what direction are you facing now? Are you turned towards God or away from Him? God relates to each human being in the living, personal present – not as if we were walking bank statements. Neither wickedness nor righteousness is a commodity that can be stored up or counterbalanced. After repentance, the wicked man is not required to achieve a balancing amount of righteous deeds to cancel the past before being granted the verdict of life. No, the glorious immediacy of the divine declaration is breathtaking. He has turned to do righteousness and so he shall surely live. This is the gospel that we as Christians know through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the gospel so richly celebrated in many New Testament texts. But Old Testament believers celebrated it in advance. Even if they did not yet know the means, they knew the character of the Lord their God: that He is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin [Ex. 34:6-7]. This was the fundamental truth that fueled the intercession of Moses [Num. 14:18] and Nehemiah [Neh. 9:17] and inspired Joel to lead his people to repentance [Joel 2:12-13]. For the psalmist it was sheer joy that such a God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities, but rather that as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us [Ps. 103:10-12]. The decisiveness and finality of God’s forgiveness are perhaps most memorably, and most reassuringly, captured by Micah: he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea [Micah 7:18-19].

(3) Repentance that is pleasing to God. The closing verses of this great chapter, Ezekiel 18, express all the heart longing of God. He has no pleasure in anyone’s death; all He longs for is that people should repent and live. This is the great evangelistic appeal that Ezekiel has been working up to all through the chapter. The question is urgent, and rhetorically unanswerable: Why will you die, O house of Israel? You don’t have to! God doesn’t want you to! Turn back to God and live, and you will please God more than your sins have ever hurt Him. What is it that brings pleasure to the heart of the Almighty? What is it that puts a smile on the face of God? What is it that rings all the bells in heaven? Didn’t Jesus Himself give us the answer? There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents [Luke 15:7,10]. And in the same chapter Jesus portrayed the joy of the father running to welcome back the prodigal son, and ordering up a celebration feast because the one who was dead is now alive again. The message of Ezekiel 18 is to urge the people of God as a whole to return from the grave of exile and rebellion against God by turning round, asking the question, ‘Why should I die?’, and then setting off on the road home. The same call of God reaches out to us over the centuries. And if we respond to it in the same way, we will be met by the outstretched arms and beaming face of the waiting Father.”  [Wright, pp. 201-210]

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         In 18:21-24, Ezekiel emphasizes the importance of the choices that we make. Our choices have consequences; and the more important the choice, the more serious are the consequences. Think about the consequences of choices you have made in the past. Pray that God will give you wisdom in making future choices and considering possible consequences.

 

2.         Ezekiel emphasizes the need for radical repentance in our lives when past choices we made lead to sinful consequences. How does Ezekiel describe repentance in this passage? What is the nature of true repentance? Look at the two essential characteristics of true repentance given in 18:31. Why is it important in our repentance that we do not just cast away our sin but also seek a new heart and a new spirit?

 

References:

The Book of Ezekiel, vol. 1, Daniel Block, Eerdmans.

The Message of Ezekiel, Christopher Wright, Inter Varsity.