06 February, 2017

The Ezekiel Texts



Philip Rainey


Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezek. 18:23 KJV).


This verse, together with its parallel in Ezekiel 33:11, is appealed to … in support of the free offer of the gospel … These two passages also figure largely in Murray and Stonehouse’s defence of the free offer and have become the stock in trade of all those who teach the free offer. The idea of these passages, according to such men, is that God expresses a sincere desire for the salvation of all men, including the reprobate wicked. In rejecting this understanding of the passages as Arminian, I here explain them in their context.

The theme of this chapter is the justice of God in his dealings with Israel. Evidently the people of Israel who were in captivity, together with those who remained in the land of Israel, were bringing an accusation against God. This is evident in their use of a certain proverb that taught that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers (Ezek. 18:2). God rejects that proverb and makes clear that every man will answer for his own sins (v. 4b). The following verses make clear that God will deal with every man according to his works: if a man is just and does what is right (v. 5) “he shall surely live” (v. 9); if a man is wicked and “hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die” (v. 13). In strict justice God will render to every man as his works shall be.

Consequently, there is no contradiction between this passage and Exodus 20:5, which states that God “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate [him].” Obviously having this verse in mind when they charged Jehovah with injustice, they nevertheless misunderstood it. Exodus 20:5 does not say that God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children in succeeding generations; it says God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children in the generations that hate him. Clearly, when the generations following do not hate Jehovah but do what is right in his sight, according to Ezekiel, they will not be punished for the sins of the fathers (Ezek. 18:19). No one may blame his wicked ways on the sins of his father. The matter is succinctly stated in verse 20, which is axiomatic in its nature.

Having established the principle of the equitable nature of God’s dealings with men, He now proceeds to exhort sinners to repentance: “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezek. 18:21). This exhortation also includes the promise of salvation to those who repent: “he shall surely live, he shall not die.” This exhortation to repentance is repeated in verses 30-32.

The equitable nature of God’s dealings with men is also revealed in God’s exhortation to repentance. God calls all the house of Israel to repent of their sins. Those who repent, who turn from their sins and do what God commands, shall live. Those who continue impenitent, who refuse to turn from their sins, will die. God promises life and salvation to the penitent; at the same time, God promises death and ruin to the impenitent. As we read in Proverbs 28:13, “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh [his sins] shall have mercy.”

That God promises life and salvation to those who repent of their sins is just on God’s part, thus reflecting the justice of His dealings with men. That God promises death and ruin to those who refuse to repent of their sins is also just on God’s part. This is so because God has clearly revealed what pleases Him, namely, repentance; and God has clearly revealed what displeases Him, namely, impenitence. This is the meaning of God’s words in Ezekiel 18:23: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” God is pleased that men repent of their sins; God expresses approval of repentance and disapproval of impenitence. God expresses approval with repentance because it is in accordance with His revealed will. On the contrary, God has “no pleasure in the death of him that dieth” (v. 32) simply because He cannot approve of the sinful impenitence of the wicked. Such impenitence is contrary to the revealed will of God and severely displeases God.

The conclusion of the matter is given in verse 30, which begins with the word “therefore,” indicating a conclusion. God will judge them according to their ways. Those who repent and turn themselves will not be ruined; those who continue impenitent will find that iniquity will be their ruin. This is all according to the justice of God.

The Ezekiel passages must be understood in their context. Even the most ardent disciples of free offer theology ought to be able to see that it is God’s precept or command that explains these passages. To make these passages teach a desire of God to save all, elect and reprobate alike, to whom the gospel comes does not fit the context. The passages are not so much a revelation of God’s will of decree as of His rule for our actions. We are dealing here with God’s precept or, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “that duty which God requires of man” (Q. & A. 3). If the passages taught a well-meant offer of salvation to all men, then it would follow that the promise of mercy would be to all men. But try as they may, the proponents of the well-meant offer will never be able to get a general promise of salvation out of these texts. That the promise of mercy is particular in Ezekiel 18 ought to be clear to anyone with eyes to see it: “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (18:21). The passages make a clear distinction between the wicked that turn and the wicked that do not turn. The gracious promise is only for those who turn.

[The] fatal error [often made] with respect to these texts … [is to] reason from an imperative to an indicative: from God’s precept—“turn”—they conclude that it is God’s desire or purpose that all turn and be saved. Their reasoning is fallacious. From the precept or command of God we learn the rule of our duty; we may not infer from the precept what is the mind of God with respect to individual sinners.

To view these texts as expressing a desire of God to save all who hear the gospel is a fundamental misunderstanding of the will of God. The doctrine of the simplicity of God is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. As God is one and undivided, so is His will. Although we distinguish between God’s decretive will and His preceptive or revealed will, we may not accord these wills equal ultimacy.


(Source: Calvinism Cast Out: The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the Free Offer of the Gospel)




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