The word of cheap grace
has been the ruin of more Christians
than any commandment of works.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship)
Have you ever been so inundated with bad news that it became impossible to even visualize a way out of the problem? I feel this way when I look at the situation in the Middle East today. If you watch any of the news networks, all you seem to hear is horrible news. The odd gesture for peace seems to have the permanency of a sand castle built beside the ocean at low tide.
Ezekiel’s exiles must have felt something like this. After years of bad news—war, famine, siege, slaughter, and the list goes on—they started to believe that God was a little capricious. To put it in the exile’s words:
Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us,
and we waste away because of them;
how then can we live?
(v. 10, NRSV)
Those words are an expression of hopelessness. Their question is not genuine, but rhetorical. The term “waste away” is so devastating, it was also used of gangrenous flesh!
Any restorative element of God’s judgment would be completely lost if the exiles just decided to walk away in their depression. Ezekiel borrowed some of the words he spoke earlier (18:21-30) and modified them significantly to help his people see God’s logic.
. . .
The overarching thrust of this passage is plain:
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? (v. 11, NRSV)
That is a remarkable statement. We could understand if God said “I have no pleasure in the death of the righteous.” But, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” is revolutionary. God’s justice as executed in judgment is not something God enjoys. He is not some bloodthirsty deity shuffling human pawns around. Even God as revealed in the Old Testament is a God of mercy who hates to see even wicked people die.
. . .
God’s logic is listed more clearly in the verses that follow. Let me paraphrase: “If a wicked person turns and lives righteously, his wickedness will not be remembered. If a righteous person turns and starts living wickedly, his righteousness will not be remembered.” Pretty simple, right?
All people had to do was leave their defeatist mindset and start living righteously.
This raises the question of faith and good works. These two ideas are so closely interlocked in this passage, to speak of them separately is difficult. The turning that is spoken of is to righteousness—to trust in God. That trust in God will naturally lead to and be shown by good works. Some of those works include:
- Restore the pledge
- Give back what they robbed
- Live the way God showed them in the Torah
- Stop sinning
God has a way out for everyone—if they would just turn to him.
. . .
Merciful God, thank you for your patience in restoring people to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.