The famous chapter 18, one of the few well-known texts in Ezekiel, is sandwiched between oracles that pronounce as inevitable the judgment of Judah and Jerusalem. Lest those prophecies to be taken to mean that there is no hope for the individual Israelite man or woman, we have this magnificent declaration of individual freedom and human responsibility, and, so, the possibility of salvation.
”As I live” means that the Lord charges the nation by an oath taken symbolically upon his own life.
God controls the judgment of all men and judges each according to his holiness. Notice the use of “die” in this context. Everyone dies in this world. That, obviously is not what he is talking about, otherwise there would be no meaningful distinction between people to talk about. He is talking about spiritual death, about death that continues in the world to come, about damnation and hell (the second death; just as life is used to describe eternal salvation and existence in heaven). This will become very clear in vv. 19-32. From the beginning of the Bible the terms life and death have been used with this deeper meaning or significance.
In any case, Ezekiel begins by saying that one cannot begin to approach a true understanding of human existence until he recognizes that his life belongs to God and that God has claims upon it. [Block, i, 562] Here the emphasis – and one that is carried consistently through the chapter – is on God’s claims upon the individual life. Each man, each woman belongs to God. There is no fatalism, such as the proverb suggests. The personal God is a man or woman’s judge and every single person stands before him.
Ezekiel’s first counter illustration is that of a righteous man with an unrighteous son. The son will not be judged righteous on account of his father’s righteousness.
The Bible often speaks this way, both in the OT and in the NT. In the total context of Israel’s covenantal faith it is entirely fair to point out that these works are not thought to deserve life, as if the man in question were piling up points for himself. These are the works of faith, the demonstrations of a man’s covenantal faithfulness. Faith without works is dead, as James will later put it. This makes perfect sense in the context because it has been precisely Israel’s works that have unmasked her lack of faith. The kind of living described in the previous verses – a rejection of idolatry, sexual purity, honesty and generosity in dealings with others, generosity to those in need – is precisely what the NT also describes as a righteous life, the sort of life that God will reward. These are the good works God prepared beforehand that believers in his son should do, as Paul puts it in Eph. 2:10. This is the life of God’s people, this is the way they live who trust in God and love him.
Vv. 10-13 now add to the picture an unrighteous son of this righteous father. That son will answer for his own sins and his father’s righteousness will be of no help to him.
Vv. 14-18 offer a second example: the righteous son of a sinful father, actually the righteous grandson of a righteous grandfather, with an unrighteous father between. He will not be punished for his father’s sins and will be treated by God as the righteous man that he is.
As often enough in the Bible, and in keeping with the best principles of persuasion, the Lord now anticipates objections. No doubt these objections were also being uttered by Ezekiel’s contemporaries. The objection is built on the indisputable fact, often acknowledged or positively taught in the Bible, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children. Indeed, Nebuchadrezzar’s first conquest of Jerusalem and the exile that took Ezekiel and his contemporaries to Babylon is said to have occurred “because of the sins of Manasseh,” (2 Kings 24:3-4), several kings earlier. Indeed, in 16:44, Ezekiel said of Jerusalem, “Like mother, like daughter!” The Jews were behaving just like her Canaanite ancestors. Well it seemed to Ezekiel’s contemporaries that there was something inevitable about this. Children suffered for their parents sins. How could anyone say they didn’t?
We see it all the time of course: the children being punished for their fathers’ sins. The children of cruel, foolish, or indifferent parents suffering the consequences in their personalities and characters, in other words, growing up to be like their parents, which is punishment enough; the children of abusive parents becoming abusers themselves; of alcoholics becoming alcoholics themselves; and so on. And on the larger scale it is the same. Untold multitudes of American children have suffered for the choices their parents and grandparents made in unleashing the sexual revolution in our land. The prevalence of drug use among young Americans is the consequence of choices made by people much older than themselves. And so it goes. In the same way, the children who died at Dresden or Hiroshima did not themselves make the decision to go to war. And, of course, most of all, parents who turn away from the Word of God in a family tradition of Christian faith often condemn their children to a life of unbelief when theirs might have been a tradition of living faith.
So, how can it be said that the children do not suffer punishment for the parents’ guilt? And back comes the answer from the Lord. Each person has his or her own opportunity to answer the Lord’s summons in faith, to find forgiveness, and to walk in the ways of righteousness. Individuals, that is, have free will. They are not condemned to repeat their parents’ errors; they are not in bondage to the habits of life created for them by their family, their nation, or their culture. “No generation is merely the moral extension of another.” [In Block, i, 563] “The Soul that sins shall die!” Repentance can mend anyone’s past. Faith can open to anyone a new and sunlit future.
That the Lord does not delight in the death of the wicked is a point made as well in the New Testament. He wishes all men to live! We want to know, of course, how this can be true if no one can be saved apart from the sovereign and particular grace of God and God has not chosen to save all men. Calvin writes on this verse: “It is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction.” John Kennedy, the great Highland preacher, put it this way of faithful preachers of the gospel: “He cannot reconcile the good will [of God] declared to all, with the saving love confined to the elect; but he takes the revealed will of God as it is given to him. He would have others, he would have all, come in.” [cited in I. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage, 147] W.G.T. Shedd, the American Presbyterian says simply, “God chooses in some instances not to gratify his own desire.”
The same principle works in the reverse. It is a life of covenant faithfulness that opens the way to the Lord and salvation. If it is repudiated by a man who for a time seemed to be living a faithful life, his past “righteousness” will be no more a help to him than another man’s past sins will be a hindrance to him. There is neither a treasure of merits nor of demerits. One generation cannot build up merits for another to trade, nor can the individual. In the same way, there is no measure of sin that reaches a point where a man or woman stands beyond hope of forgiveness and new life. The issue is the present; or, as Paul would later put it: “Now is the day of salvation!”
Obviously the people were saying just this: that Yahweh’s ways were not just.
Once again, the Lord’s words make sense only when they are understood to refer to eternal judgment, to the ultimate issue of a man or woman’s life. The oracle concludes with Ezekiel pleading with his audience to accept responsibility for their own destiny. What may be true of the generation, the people as a whole, need not be true of any individual.
The new heart and new spirit are characteristics of the converted man or woman, because these are terms that describe the seat of a person’s thoughts, attitudes, and desires from which his living, his behavior springs. This statement is unique in calling upon the wicked to take initiative in making their hearts and spirits new, ordinarily something God alone can do and must do, as in 36:26-27. David, in Ps. 51:10, prays, “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” But elsewhere a similar image is used in both ways. Israel is called upon to “circumcise” their hearts (Jer. 4:4), but the Lord will circumcise them, we read in another place (Deut. 30:6). Fact is, as the entire Bible makes clear, faith, repentance, and obedience are at one and the same time a divine gift and a human duty.
“The death of anyone” is clearly “death” in the sense of the “second death” of Revelation 20:6, 14. Ezekiel is manifestly not talking about a longer life on earth. The exiles might very well expect that themselves. These folk, in fact, dodged the fatal bullet when they were carried off into exile. Instead of being killed by the Babylonians, they were made captives. They might, in fact, live long lives, but they will still die if they do not repent and turn to God. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes, meaning, of course, not physical death in this world – the fate of the righteous and the unrighteous alike – but death in the world to come.
The influence of Israel’s historic theology is obvious here. When the church goes bad, she invariably holds in her mind some of the theology she once believed. They may have jettisoned other parts of it, but the echo of better times can still be heard in her speech. God is just so he should not act unjustly. They remembered that. What is more, he does visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children. That is often enough said in the Bible, as it is famously in the second commandment. It is worth remembering, however, that though we read there that the Lord will visit the sins of the fathers upon the third and fourth generation of those that hate him, he shows mercy to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commandments. There is not an equivalence here. The Lord is more magnificently merciful. Mercy is what he delights to show.
But, as the prophets made perfectly clear, the principle of fathers’ sins being visited upon children is valid. Judah’s conquest and the exile of many of her people to Babylon was the conclusion of generations of Israelite unfaithfulness to Yahweh. A proverb has to have some truth in it to gain a place in the popular mind. [Stuart, 153] In fact, one of the commentaries I read in preparing these sermons is translated from German and the author notes that Germans have a similar proverb as the one the Jews were reciting in Ezekiel’s day. [Eichrodt, 235] So universal is the principle that children pay for their parents’ sins.
In the Bible, the warning that God will visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation is intended as a warning to parents, to take seriously the implications of their conduct upon their children and grandchildren! It is not and was never intended to be an excuse for children, as if they can escape responsibility for their sins by blaming their parents or, worse, blaming God.
To acknowledge the moral and spiritual connection between generations is hardly the same thing as saying that one person is being punished for another person’s sin or that an innocent group has suffered the penalty that only the guilty group deserved. Indeed, the largest part of the confusion of the Jews who were repeating this proverb about the fathers eating sour grapes was that they imagined themselves innocent! They quoted the proverb as if it were solely the parent’s sins that had brought catastrophe upon them. Fact is, they were enthusiastically complicit in all their parents’ sins. It makes all the difference in the world that they were in fact guilty – willingly, persistently, unrepentantly guilty – of the very same sins their fathers committed. They too were idolaters, as Ezekiel has already said many times.
Ezekiel offers us no new doctrine here. At the end of the republication of God’s covenant with Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, we have the very same offer made. Moses, having set out the alternative before people calls on them to choose life, so that you and your children may live. The Lord is life, Moses says, hold fast to him and live.
It is certainly true that sometimes the righteous suffer the punishments of the wicked. So happened to be the case for Jeremiah and Ezekiel themselves. They were not complicit in the sins that brought Yahweh’s judgment upon Jerusalem and brought Ezekiel as a captive to Babylon. But the Lord is not talking about that here. He is talking about the ultimate issue of a person’s life. As one commentator put it, “The general rule is that ‘nations are judged in this world, and individuals in the next.’” [Stuart, 155] That is not entirely the case, for there is certainly a judgment of individuals in this world – individuals can suffer judgment for their sins in this world – but it is true in the generality: the complete judgment, the entire judgment of a person’s life awaits the last day.
Put yourself in the sandals of the Israelites who found themselves in Babylon far from home. It was not pleasant to contemplate their situation. They were in exile, far from home, and lived and worked at the whim of a great military power that had swept Judah aside like a bug. They had little to look forward to, or so they thought, except eking out a hardscrabble existence on foreign soil in what amounted to a refugee camp. It was, for these reasons, altogether predictable that they would take psychological refuge in the suggestion that they were suffering for someone else’s sins. It was too much to bear to think that they had brought this misery and hopelessness upon themselves, so they blamed their parents’ generation and the one before that. It was their only comfort. The mess they were in was not their fault! They expressed this viewpoint characteristically with an epigram that had apparently become popular in that day, insofar as it is also mentioned and in a similar context in Jeremiah (31:29).
“The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
The epigram expressed at one and the same time the people’s fatalism – there is nothing we can do about the situation – and irresponsibility – it’s not our fault. Human beings are past masters at blaming others for their problems and that is what we find Israel doing here.
But their folly and their blame-shifting and their arrogance provoked a reply from the Lord that has caused untold numbers of human hearts to ring with hope for these thousands of years. The Lord does not desire the death of anyone. And there is hope for everyone, if only he or she will repent. No matter the sins piled high in one’s past, no matter the consequences that have ensued. A happy eternity stretches before any man, any woman who will turn from his or her ways and trust in the Lord and live according to his will.
This is known in Christian theology as the Free Offer of the Gospel. It is the invitation given to all men to turn and live. It is the declaration that they may have salvation if only they are willing to accept it on God’s terms. It is the assurance that nothing, nothing can stand in the way of heaven and the life of everlasting joy, nothing at any time, but a person’s unwillingness to believe and repent.
As you may know, Calvinists have sometimes had to assert this free offer over against their own preachers and teachers. There have always been a few – and sometimes that few have numbered among them good and persuasive men – who have concluded that it is illogical to offer salvation to people indiscriminately when we know that only the elect and only the redeemed can and will be saved. From John Gill, the influential 18th century English Baptist, to Herman Hoeksema, the 20th century American Dutch Reformed theologian, there have been those who denied the free offer. You will sometimes hear used the term hyper-Calvinist. Sometimes the term is used by detractors to describe anyone who is actually a Calvinist. But in theology, hyper-Calvinism is the denial of the free offer of the gospel. It is an unfortunate term because it suggests that there is in Calvinism something congenial to this view, but that is the term: hyper or super-Calvinism. The hyper-Calvinist is so mesmerized by sovereign grace, so determined to defend the absolute glory of God in the salvation of sinners, that he minimizes the moral and spiritual responsibility of sinners. To hyper-Calvinists, to appeal to a sinner to repent and believe is to assume that he can, which is to deny salvation by grace alone and to defame the love of God and the redemption of Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit as alone the sources of salvation. Hyper-Calvinism also diminishes to the vanishing point the difference between the secret and the revealed will of God, deducing the duty of sinners from the decrees of God, as if we knew what they were. If only the elect will believe and be saved, the message of the gospel is only and can only be for the elect, so the hyper-Calvinist reasons. To call on all men to repent and believe is to forget about election in the hyper-Calvinist view. So hyper-Calvinist preachers were very careful how they preached the gospel, so as not to give people in general the impression that it was for them!
John Duncan, “Rabbi” Duncan, made this interesting observation.
“Intellectually, I dislike the Arminian doctrine [of John Wesley] far more than the Antinomian [or hyper-Calvinist; i.e. hyper-Calvinism is antinomian because it is unwilling to call on men to take responsible action for their behavior, as if they were capable of doing such]… Dr. John Gill’s creed is not so repugnant to my intellect as Wesley’s, but Wesley comes far nearer in practice.” [Just a Talker, 6]
By the way, in further contrasting hyper-Calvinism with Arminianism – the former holding that since only the elect can be saved there is no offer of salvation made to all; the latter holding that since there is no saving grace from heaven the responsibility for salvation rests finally upon the individual himself – Duncan would tartly say that hyper-Calvinism of Gill’s variety is all house and no door; the Arminianism of Wesley, on the other hand, is all door and no house. I should mention that he also said that he had no doubt that, no matter his theology, Wesley trusted in divine grace and no matter his theology John Gill loved holiness of life, even though he was unwilling to regard faith and repentance as duties that all men are called upon to perform.
But, you see Duncan’s point. He disliked Wesley’s Arminian creed, but in practice he himself and all Calvinists preached much more like Wesley preached – holding out the gospel and urging all men to believe and be saved – than like Gill preached. Calvinist preachers have, historically, been great pleaders with souls. They have offered salvation in Christ’s name to any and to all and urged them to believe that the door of heaven stood wide open for them, no matter their past or present, if only they would trust Christ and follow him.
They believed in the sovereignty of God’s grace, they believed in election, they even believed in definite or particular redemption. But they offered the gospel to everyone as the Bible taught them to do. They did not presume to be able adequately to explain how God could desire the salvation of all but only secure the salvation of some, but that is what the Bible taught them to believe and they believed it and preached accordingly. And that is what the Bible plainly does teach, which is why there have always been few hyper-Calvinists!
Iain Murray, the biographer of the great London preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, says, “in the preaching of one of the most effective Calvinistic evangelists of the twentieth century, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, it was generally impossible to tell from his gospel preaching that he held to a particular and definite atonement.” [BOT 494/495 (Nov/Dec 2004) 18] And you could say the same thing about perhaps the greatest evangelist of all, also a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist, Charles Spurgeon.
It is simply the fact of human experience that it is not finally the burden of sin and guilt that makes men and women turn to Christ to find salvation. It is the discovery that there is mercy to be found in God, that he stands willing to forgive and forget the sins of our past, and that he wants you to come to him, he wants you to be saved: this is what finally brings a person to Christ. As John Owen, the prince of the Puritan preachers, once put it:
“Persuading men of God’s love is the great calling of the Christian ministry. It is part of preaching ‘to root out all the secret reserves of unbelief concerning God’s unwillingness to give mercy, grace, and pardon to sinners.’” [Works, vi, 504]
Well that is just what Ezekiel is doing in this great chapter. He is pleading with men to repent and believe by declaring to them Yahweh’s willingness to receive them, forgive them, and bless them with eternal life, if only they should turn to him. Now is the day of salvation. It is the state of your heart and life now, that and that only that determines where you stand and whether or not you will die the second death if tonight you should die the first! This is the momentous fact of human life. There is an alternative. God does stand ready to save you. Eternal life does beckon. It is up to you to believe and to repent. You cannot blame your parents for not doing so, you cannot claim that your past has made it impossible for you to change – God will change you if you turn to him. Everything wonderful is there for the asking, if only you will ask; really ask!
Now is the day of salvation! One Sunday during the Second World War Martyn Lloyd Jones was preaching on “the wedding garment” and the danger of being found without “the wedding garment” as in the Lord’s parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22) – a parable all about the free offer of the gospel and a true and sincere response to that offer – and after the service an older woman, a Miss Spain came to speak to him, to thank him for the sermon. It was a typical Lloyd-Jones sermon, a straightforward gospel appeal. There were two Spain sisters in the church and Miss Spain told the preacher that they had another sister who was coming to join them in London for a few days. As she left Lloyd-Jones that night she turned back and said, half-shyly: “Doctor, I am so glad I have on that wedding garment, thank you.” That night a bomb fell on their house and all three sisters were killed instantaneously.
Do you have the wedding garment on? Remember: in the Lord’s parable in Matthew 22 and here in Ezekiel 18, the wedding garment is true and living faith, the faith that produces an obedient life. It is trust in the Lord that produces all of the righteousness – not perfection but real righteousness – that Ezekiel has described throughout the chapter. Do you have that wedding garment on? If you don’t you can’t blame God, or your parents, or anyone else but yourself! If you will but pick it up and put it on, it will be yours. And then you can live the rest of your life in this world in that garment, serving the Lord and awaiting the dawn of eternal day.