Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, thus you have said: “our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” Say to them, as I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, o house of Israel? And you, mortal, say to your people, the righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, it shall not make them stumble when they turn from their wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by their righteousness when they sin. Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, YET IF THEY TRUST IN THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS AND COMMIT INIQUITY, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die (Ezekiel 33:10-13)
This passage of Ezekiel is effectively a recapitulation of the teaching on repentance of chapter 18 which I commented on previously. That it is has been widely misunderstood is evident from the English translations (especially verse 13 – capitalized) certainly within many Protestant editions. Even the above NRSV Catholic edition is ambiguous in this key verse whereas the New Jerusalem Bible I tend to utilize is somewhat clearer in this instance:
If I say to someone who is upright, “you are to live” and then TRUSTING IN THIS UPRIGHTNESS, he does wrong, none of the uprightness will be remembered, having once taken to sinning (v13nkj cf. Hebrew Interlinear)
The NASB is more typical of the Protestant translations:
When I say to the righteous he will surely live, and HE SO TRUSTS IN HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT HE COMMITS INIQUITY, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered; but in that same iniquity of his which he has committed he will die
In other words, according to the NASB, the righteous person’s sin was to “trust in his own righteousness”. But the point is that the persons in question were declared to have actually been righteous: “When I say to the righteous he shall live”, etc. Their folly was to rely upon that previous declaration of righteousness, believing they were now at liberty to sin having, as it were, accredited righteous deeds that God would remember. For no, He will not remember: “None of (the backsliders’) earlier righteous deeds will be remembered”. The matter can be placed beyond dispute by referring back to the parallel passage in chapter 18, where verse 24 had stated:
But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die (Ez18:24NASB)
It was the same God speaking through the same prophet in chapter 33 as in chapter18; neither has changed their mind on the matter. The other consideration is that God was here addressing His chosen people to whom He had previously given assurances of His favour. Now they had provoked his displeasure and were being punished, so what were they to do? The answer (as in chapter 18) was to repent, not “to cease striving to keep the Law by their own efforts and appeal to God’s mercy and grace” or “believe in the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ as a future event” as Augustine and some Reformers would have us believe; rather they were to do what they had the capacity to do for they had done it already before abandoning their upright way of life (18:24). They were not expected to achieve inviolable perfection but to do what they knew to be lawful and right – applying the efforts of a pure heart in seeking to be faithful to God’s Law, which had been provided for their own benefit and to promote social justice.
I suspect some readers who, having the love of God in their hearts, may also yearn for the broader providence I have been outlining in this series of posts nevertheless might take objection to some of the above, believing it to undermine the foundational teaching of their particular Christian tradition (which is bound to be the case for the Reformed Evangelical). Yet if Augustine and the Reformers were right then there would indeed be no hope for anyone outside Israel or the Church, including many of their own friends, family and work colleagues, not to mention the vast majority of Asian people who have ever lived throughout the Christian era. For what Reformed Evangelicalism understands to be required of man in order to avoid eternal punishment is entirely counter-intuitive to him. It opposes the witness of the human conscience which provides a sense of peace when one acts rightly or humanely and guilt and shame when one does not. Such peace is not “worldly pride” but the interior witness of Christ who has enlightened every person coming into the world (Jn1:9 Greek cf. Mt18:6).
In another misinterpreted and often mistranslated passage Paul affirms the divine nature of the faculty of conscience. Referring to Gentiles of the Old Testament who did not have the Law (Torah), he observed they nevertheless often practiced BY NATURE the things contained within it and so become a law FOR themselves. The conscience, which the apostle affirms is God’s law written in the heart , either accuses or provides a defence for specific actions (Rom2:14,15 from Greek) – which is why for his own peace of mind, man by nature often does the right thing – that which is contained in the Law, which Jesus, Paul and James summarize as love for one’s fellow man (Mt7:12; Gal5:14; Jam2:8). I have been shown that by adhering to this divinely provided faculty, a person is accepted in God’s sight through the merits of Christ’s faithfulness (Greek: ek pisteos christou).
Such benefits are conferred upon those who exercise such faithfulness, which in view of the nature of the of conscience is a form of godly fear, even amongst those who do not outwardly acknowledge God, for it is an adherence to the light of Christ received by everyone coming into the world. This divinely provided faculty acts as the guide and control for true human living, and if observed faithfully, regardless of accompanying weaknesses and failings results in the response of compassion (agape), the determinant of those who are of God (1Jn4:7) and the filter for those who (for the age to come at least) must be excluded from His Kingdom (Mt25:34-40). Yet as hopefully I have made clear elsewhere, this detracts not a whit from the urgency of the Gospel: not least in the context of these last days. For only those who respond to the Gospel of the Kingdom and remain faithful to it will be sure to escape the perils of the earthly purgation pertaining to the “great and dreadful day of the Lord” (cf. Mal4:5,6); and only such will be suitably fitted (Rom8:29) to be co-heirs with Christ and corporately be in a joyous close communion with Him for ever.