“The Soul that Turns Shall Live”
September 21, 2014
God cries out to those on the road to death: ‘turn and live.’
I. The principle stated negatively (Ezekiel 18:1-4)
II. The example of three generations (Ezekiel 18:5-20)
III. The principle stated positively (Ezekiel 18:21-32)
Many years ago, before I went to seminary, I got involved in helping a young man whose name I probably shouldn’t use. Call him Charlie. Charlie had mental health issues and spent much of the time living in a car, sometimes in the church parking lot, sometimes in my driveway or other places. He had some pretty strange habits, had lots of trouble keeping a job. But his major struggle was with dependence and anger. If somebody, like the pastor of the church, or me, helped him, he quickly developed a smothering dependence, needing that person to be there 24/7. If you weren’t there to help, or weren’t willing to give unreasonable help, he’d turn against you with anger and the threat of violence. I remember visiting with him one day, having an intense discussion, while he cleaned, assembled and dry fired a handgun. It was not comfortable.
At some point in that process Charlie’s antagonism toward individuals but attraction to the church came together in a meeting with the elders where we pleaded with him to rely on God not on people, to change his angry and sinful ways, and to change the behavior choices that made him unemployable. At that meeting one of the elders, maybe Doug Rask, though neither one of us is sure, pled with Charlie in the words of Ezekiel 18. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; turn, and live.” That Scripture in that situation struck me as so powerful, I’ve always remembered it, though I don’t believe it reached Charlie. But in many ways that plea is at the heart of Scripture, the heart of Ezekiel. God sees man going off the edge of a cliff, to his own destruction, and says turn and live. The cliff is sin, the turning is to God and the result is forgiveness and grace.
These verses culminate a chapter in which God, through Ezekiel encourages the people of Israel to take personal responsibility for their sin. He reminds them, first, that sin has consequences: the soul which sins shall die. Then he gives them a hypothetical, extended, generational example to show how that is true. But at the end of the chapter he turns the principle positive: God cries out to those on the road to death: ‘turn and live.’ The soul that turns shall live.
Ezekiel 18:1-4: The word of the Lord came to me: 2“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
The people of Israel had a proverb. ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’ In case you’ve never experienced it, eating sour grapes, or sour anything, like rhubarb, can make your mouth pucker and your teeth sensitive. That’s what leads to the phrase ‘set my teeth on edge.’ Here the children don’t eat the grapes, but get the discomfort. The implication is that God has punished the sins of past generations in this generation. That, God says, is not the truth, and you just need to stop saying it.
Now it is true that the consequences of sin carry forward into the next generation. Deuteronomy 5:9 “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Children are affected by their father's sin. Sin impacts the environment they grow up in, the standard of right and wrong, the care they get, especially the examples they follow. In many cases children make the same sinful choices their parents made. But they are still choices, and the child bears personal responsibility, just as the father did. One of the main points of this chapter is that God does not unjustly judge or punish people for the sins that have gone before them.
But fallen people, whether in ancient Israel or today, love to blame our difficulties on something outside our control instead of taking personal responsibility. The classic first example is in the Garden of Eden. Adam blames God and Eve: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Eve blames the serpent “The serpent deceived me and I ate.”
These are examples of what our family calls Responsibility Deficit Syndrome. We avoid taking responsibility for our own sin, our own contribution to problems. We had a foster son many years ago who modeled RDS. We tried to get him to say ‘when Alex is good, good things happen and when Alex is bad, bad things happen.’ But he didn’t get it. He said ‘When Alex is good, good things happen, and when bad things happen, bad things happen.’ They just happen. Each of us has a list of reasons why we can’t help what we do, even if it’s obvious that what we do is sinful and harmful. If you understood my background, my troubles, what’s been done to me, you’d know I can’t help myself. I recently heard about someone moving toward divorce because of her husband’s infidelity. She wants sympathy and help. But the fact that she’s living with her new boyfriend, that’s different. You gotta understand.
So the people of Israel are saying ‘we’re victims here. Our fathers sinned and we’re taking the consequences. How fair is that?’ And God’s response, verse 3, is ‘don’t even go there. Your ultimate life or death does not depend on what your father or anyone else did. The soul that sins shall die.’
Ezekiel, in his usual layered and repetitive way is saying the same thing Paul says succinctly in Romans: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God,’ and ‘the wages of sin is death.’ A few weeks back we studied a chapter where the message was ‘all have sinned’ and ‘sin separates us from God.’ Here, chapters later, the thought is finished. Sin leads to death. The principle of this chapter, initially stated negatively, is simply that the soul that sins shall die.
And as we’ve come to expect, this is reinforced by repetition in the next 15 verses. Ezekiel describes a hypothetical case spanning three generations, to show how personal responsibility plays out. Verses 5-9: “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.
This example stresses us because we thought we were saved by grace not works. This says very plainly ‘if you do these things you are righteous and you will live.’ That sounds like a works salvation. Do these things and they will earn you right standing before God and eternal life. Later on God says that if a person turns from his sin and begins to live this way ‘for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.’ The problem is that the New Testament says explicitly that there is no such thing as a works salvation. Paul says in both Romans and Galatians ‘by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The Old Testament teaches that there is no one who does good, not even one.
So how do we resolve this? It’s actually not that hard. This is a kind of hypothetical case used to defeat the argument of the Israelites. It’s not that the claims of these verses aren’t true. They are. It’s just that no one meets them. All have sinned. Actually, there was one man who met the requirements of the law and the stipulations set forth here. His name was Jesus, the Righteous One, who never sinned, never fell short of God’s requirements. His righteousness earned him life. And because he was both God and man, his righteousness purchased righteousness for others. He himself, Peter says, bore our sin in his body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Only Jesus ever met this requirement out of his own righteousness. Everyone else receives righteousness by faith and walks in righteousness by faith. Abraham, Genesis tells us, believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. And no one ever was ever righteous any other way. In the Pentateuch, God says through Moses ‘You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live.’ That’s true. But at the end of his life Moses says “For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly and turn aside from the way.” Moses did not expect God’s people to keep God’s law. They needed God’s grace and mercy. They needed trust. This is why it’s such a huge theme in the Psalms. ‘Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust.’
Ezekiel’s assertions are absolutely true, but except for Jesus nobody ever lived this out. The purpose of righteousness as a standard is to help us to see our sin and to see the goal of our sanctification. As such this list is fascinating. Ezekiel gives four categories of righteous behavior. Relative to idolatry: he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel. Relative to sexual sin: he does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity. The principle is sexual purity. Relative to justice and compassion: he does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man. And relative to general obedience, he walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully. This list sounds very reasonable: these are things all righteous people should do. And yet it sounds impossible, because we’ve already failed by doing some of these things and failing to do others.
So, quickly, we’ll look at the last two generations of this example, and then the positive restatement of the concept. Verses 10-13: “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11(though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
This is not hypothetical at all. Even the son of a righteous father, if one could be found, will turn by his own personal choice from that righteousness to sin. He’s violent, or an idol worshipper or an adulterer, or an oppressor. And the soul that sins shall die. His blood, Ezekiel says, shall be upon himself. Scripture is consistent in this: while you can’t be righteous in your own power, it is still your responsibility when you sin.
We’re tempted to say, as people were in Paul’s day, if I can’t help sinning why hold me responsible for it? And the answer is because you still make those choices to sin, and those choices are meaningful and consequential. Sin separates you from God, and the wages of sin is death. This is what the repetition here is for. It’s not that you are punished for your father’s sins or rewarded for his righteousness, but that you are held responsible for your own sins.
Verses 14-20:“Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity. 19“Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
The repetition is here because when you have Responsibility Deficit Syndrome, it’s hard to hear that God calls each person to account for their own sin. So the second generation is sinful, but the third turns back to God. Do they die for their father’s sin? No, of course not. The righteousness of the righteous accrues to the righteous and the wickedness of the sinful accrues to the sinful.
But there is deeper truth here: things change if you turn from our sin and seek God. Verses 21-32 describe what happens when someone turns. This is the positive statement of the same truth: the soul that turns shall live. “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. 23Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
25“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. 27Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. 28Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 29Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?
30“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
The soul that sins shall die. But stated positively as it is here, ‘the soul that turns shall live.’ A wicked person turns from his sins. He has no power to change the past; his wickedness is etched in eternity. But he turns, from sin to seek righteousness, from sin to God. And God declares him righteous: “None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him.” ‘Oh, you were a sinner? I totally forgot. As far as I’m concerned you are righteous. Isaiah 43:25 says “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Jeremiah 31:34 says “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
How can this be? How can God forgive and forget? The Old Testament reveals that someone will come as a substitute, one who is pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; chastised to bring us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. The New Testament calls his name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Verse 23: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
But as God forgets our iniquities when we find forgiveness in Jesus, so he forgets any righteous deeds we may have done if we stay on the road of sin. Verse 24 “When a righteous person turns from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.”
The soul that sins shall die. God does not have a pair of cosmic scales in which he weighs your good deeds against your bad and decides which is heavier. No. When he looks at a sinner, he sees sin. You cannot counteract sinful choices.
Verses 25 to 29 are God’s review: ‘So, Israel, you say I’m unjust. But the sinner dies for his own sins. And the righteous are only righteous because they turn from their sins. Where is the injustice in that? I love verse 30: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” Repent and turn. It’s the same Hebrew word. Turn and return. Or even turn and be turned. God is involved in our turning. The sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man come together in a place where our choices have consequences. He makes it possible for us to turn to him and live, or to continue in sin and walk off the edge of the cliff and die.
Verse 31: “Cast away from you all the transgressions you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” Again, human responsibility and divine sovereignty. In chapter 11 we saw, and in chapter 36 we will again see that God gives a new heart and a new spirit. It is his gift, his divine sovereignty at work, but in turning to receive it, it becomes our responsibility as well.
Finally, the verse we started with, “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” The soul that turns shall live. All have sinned. All deserve judgment, but God cries out with the passion of his heart ‘I don’t want you to die! Turn, turn.’ That choice has consequences. We receive life and righteousness as a free gift through the work of Christ. Or we die in our sins, we walk off the cliff.
I believe this is perfectly illustrated in the following public service announcement about texting and driving. Maybe in this moment for you time pauses, eternity breaks in and God says: pay attention. Turn. Why will you die? [kids are driving along and there is a text sound] Mom: Do you know when you’ll be home tonight? [girl texting] Yea, we should be there. [Girl drifts into opposing lane, oncoming car stops, woman gets out. Girl gets out.] “Do you know that you’re in my lane.” “No, not at all.” “Are you not paying attention? Are you texting?” “I was just checking in with my mom. I was telling her that I thought we’d be home by 6:00.” “It’s ok. There’s enough time. Just pay attention.” “I’m not even halfway through my text. There’s no way. I’m not even going to look up.” “My babies are in the car. You have to pay attention.” “It’s just supposed to be a quick text. I’m so sorry.” [Both get back in cars. Crash.]