We return once again today to our relentless (tedious?) series on biblical passages that present problems for the Protestant (especially Reformed) view of justification by faith alone. By way of overview: there are many passages that either flatly contradict or which do not seem terribly amenable to a sola fide interpretation. We are far from done yet, but the series may be found here. My hope with respect to these posts is to persuade the reader that the Protestant sola fide view is mistaken; I would be satisfied with the more modest end that the reader agrees with me that the Protestant view is scripturally problematic at the very best.
In today’s episode we shall take a look at a longish passage, Ezekiel 33:10-20:
“And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins are 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 his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live.
“Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’; when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live by it. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” (RSV2CE)
There is quite a bit here, so for ease of reference I’ll offer my remarks in a bullet list.
- As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked… At least some of the Reformed say that those who are “reprobated” go to hell because it pleased God to fulfill His will in this way. They will explain this by claiming that it pleases God to do this according to His “decretive will” but that according to His “permissive will” He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. They make this distinction in order to save the appearances, for unless they do so their monergistic notions of salvation break down (“monergistic” refers to their claim that our salvation is 100% completed by God, without any human cooperation whatsoever). This approach is problematic, inasmuch as it contradicts the dogma of divine simplicity (which even at least some Reformed accept) to suggest that there are two competing, conflicting wills in God. It likewise creates an opportunity for the objector to say things like “no good God would allow so much suffering in the world; therefore there is no God.” A second problem it creates is that the Reformed man interprets this verse in Ezekiel according to verses of his preference so as to attempt to maintain the coherence of his theology. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture is not illegitimate in itself, of course, but why would we not let God’s own explicit declaration here in Ezekiel guide our interpretation of other related passages? He says that He has no pleasure in the death of sinners. Why does He allow it? Because free will is fundamental to our human nature as rational beings. Yes, He loves us, but He does not compel our love in return (which would be a contradiction anyway: there is no genuine love by a rational creature where that so-called love is compelled).
- …turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? First, this part of the passage reaffirms what He has already said: He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so God urges them to repent. Second, it reaffirms the fact that we have been created with free will. Paraphrasing Aquinas on this subject: God’s providence governs all that occurs in creation, but it does so according to the nature of things. We have free will, and so God’s will for us is achieved by means of our free will. If we have free will but God “manages” it then we cannot be genuinely responsible for our own actions and it would be unjust (as St. Augustine says) to punish us for evil or to reward us for good. The greatness of God’s providential authority extends at least as far as achieving His purposes without breaking or contradicting the natures of created things.
- The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness: This contradicts the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” according to which there are no righteous people whatsoever. Therefore this Reformed notion is incorrect. Alternatively the Reformed man might attempt to avoid this difficulty by saying that the righteous in view here are the elect, but that only opens two other lines of criticism: first, that approach would mean that (according to this passage from Ezekiel) the elect may lose their salvation; and secondly that the reprobate (the wicked in this passage, according to this argument) can actually attain salvation. Both of these outcomes are impossible according to the Reformed. So there seems to be no way that the Reformed can salvage their system of doctrine in the face of this passage from Ezekiel. At any rate I can think of no way to do so. For what it is worth, God apparently wants to drive this point home, because He goes over it so thoroughly: the righteous may “blow it” and wind up in hell, while the wicked may repent and enter into God’s presence in heaven.
In any case, this passage seems to do quite a number upon the Protestant doctrines of sola fide and assurance: throughout these verses the emphasis is that one’s standing before God is measured by what he does. The righteous may fall; the fallen may rise; in both cases the measure is the same: his works.