If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord God, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live? “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die. “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not God’s way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair? When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and dies in it, it is because of the iniquity which he has done that he dies. Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness which he committed, and does what is lawful and right, he preserves himself alive. Because he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not fair.’ O house of Israel, is it not God’s ways which are fair, and your ways which are not fair? (Ezekial18:21-29
Proceeding through the major prophets of the Old Testament in this series of posts, I arrive at Ezekiel, a man known for his visions, mimes and poetic allegories. Not so in this passage which is a relatively straightforward description of God’s principles of justice. It is thoroughly intelligible, though not apparently to the Israel that God was addressing, nor indeed to some prophetic theologians of the New Covenant, one in particular, Augustine, who has shaped the understanding of so many Christians for so long. He had a counter-intuitive, almost paradoxical view of God’s justice in terms of what was required to satisfy it. Reading through the above narrative it is clear who was inclined to paradox: it wasn’t God but his chosen people – “Is it not God’s ways which are fair and your (Israel’s) ways that are unfair?” Notice the Lord’s appeal to His own fairness, a concept a young child could understand and appeal to as many parents will no doubt have experienced: “S’not fair!” The aforementioned theologian on the other hand insisted that we should not expect God’s justice and intentions towards humanity to be perceived as fair or loving from a human perspective; likewise he could never have envisaged a righteous man turning to wickedness (v26) for he understood no one to be righteous in the first place. Nor would he have understood that what was required of the wicked was to stop practicing evil and start doing what he knew to be “lawful and right” in order that his previous sins might be blotted out (v21). Rather (taught he), such sinners should have “fled to God’s grace for aid” [a] and “believed in the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ as a future event”[b] .
Such notions are contradicted by any sensible (as opposed to hyper-allegorized) reading of the Old Testament, and are affirmed by the fact that even Christ’s own disciples failed to grasp that He must die and rise again, even after the matter had been explained to them!
The God of the Old Testament’s plain speaking
Unlike His Son with regard to the Kingdom, the God of the Old Testament did not choose to address His people in riddles or parables – He meant exactly what He had said in His Law and through His prophets. By being righteous or upright and “doing what is lawful and right” the Creator was not alluding to man aspiring to match His own triple holiness but to personal integrity and above all faithfulness (v24). Being superior to man in every way, He did not expect perfection from his creatures but that they endeavour to act according to the light provided to them, which in the case of His chosen people was substantially more than man by nature in view of the Law given to them by Moses. Such a positive response to the light and truth as understood through creed or conscience is what I have come to understand Scripture means by exercising faith or being faithful (confusingly, there is no distinction in either the Hebrew or Greek of the Bible).
In terms of God’s grace and mercy so frequently alluded to by Augustine, Paul does indeed write a great deal about it, for through it fallen man may be regarded as just, merely by exercising such faith/faithfulness; pardon for his inevitable failures in performance being obtained through His Son’s atonement, applied to all who exercise such faith or faithfulness. That is the context of Paul’s reference to “the righteousness of God”: it is not God’s justice imputed to the believer but His own saving justice by which man’s exercise of innate faith (being the positive response of conscience) results in his being declared righteous through the faithfulness of Christ (Phil3:9 strictly Greek). In the case of God’s elect, that results in putting their faith in Him in the cognisant sense (Gal2:16 Greek) and becoming His disciple in order to become conformed to His image, being the purpose of their election (Rom8:29). As for the apostle’s polemics regarding works and faith (especially in Romans and Galatians), it had been in the context of those Judaisers infiltrating the churches who were insisting on circumcision, dietary restrictions and other such “deeds of the Law” in order to be justified in God’s sight. No, re-iterated the apostle, Christians are justified by faith in Christ, not the works of the Law (Torah). In terms of “the wicked” referred to in the Ezekiel passage, again God was not speaking of those who fell short of His glory and failed to be perfect but those who, like their prototype Cain, wilfully and avoidably rejected the light of the truth they had received, leaving the paths of uprightness to walk in the way of darkness (Prov2:13). Such were those referred to in verse 24.
If you have been following my posts, you should not be so surprised by this unorthodox perspective; it simply reflects what I’ve been shown. All I can claim or affirm is that it “works” – i.e. Scripture as a whole coheres (and a number of providential mysteries are unravelled) when these interpretations are applied as part of what is effectively a reconstituted biblical schema outlined in my book [c].
[a] Augustine – Anti-Pelagian writings “On the spirit and letter” chap.22 & 27 READ HERE
[b] Augustine: “Against two letters of the Pelagians” Book III Chap. 11 READ HERE
[c] A free PDF of “Fellowship of the Secret” is available HERE