Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Make yourselves a new heart..."

A few thoughts on a passage I read this morning in Ezekiel 18:
“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? When 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. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die. Yet 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?

“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. Cast 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? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
They called Him unjust for forgiving those who repented of evil and for condemning those who turned to evil. Why? I suspect because they thought works should ultimately count for something in the eyes of God - they forgot how filthy even our righteousness is. They believed that a good man's deeds should be his security and the wicked man's his permanent condemnation. Instead, God speaks of mercy for the repentant wicked and condemnation for the rebellious righteous man. It is an inversion of expectation, and one that we shouldn't take too lightly.

The last paragraph quoted above also stood out to me: in the midst of a call for repentance, God tells His people to make themselves a new heart and a new spirit. That's quite a task. In fact, given the testimony of the rest of Scripture, I'd say it's impossible: try as we might, we're unable to change our own hearts. Yet this passage calls for just that.

This leaves us asking how exactly God expected His chosen people to make for themselves heart and spirit. Frankly, if God never said anything else on the topic, we'd be throwing our hands up in the air and calling it quits. Thankfully, however, God did not cease His revelation, even to Ezekiel, at this point. Eighteen chapters later, God shows Ezekiel what He has planned for Israel:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel." [emphasis mine]
Striking, is it not? In chapter 18, God calls Israel to repentance, telling them that if they will forsake wickedness and make themselves a new heart and a new spirit, He will forgive their evil. Eighteen chapters later, He shows Ezekiel how this new heart will actually come into being. God is not a fool, and He is not insane: He knows that human ability will never accomplish the task. How then can He show mercy?

Where the efforts of man would always be destined to fail, God Himself promised to accomplish the work. He makes the new heart and implants His own spirit. He would take away a heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He would case them to follow Him wholeheartedly, as their own attempts could not.

Nor did He act because of the supreme worthiness of Israel. Quite the contrary: He acted in spite of Israel's sinfulness, wickedness and rebellion. He acted for the sake of His holy name, and to vindicate His holiness - not for their sake.

There's a lot in this passage, but a few more highlights are worth mentioning.

First, this is a picture of regeneration. When we are born again, God changes us - radically, completely, transformingly. I recently heard a pastor say, "There are people who get saved, and stay saved, and live like hell the rest of their lives." Nothing could be farther from the truth. When we have new life breathed into us - like the dead bones of Ezekiel's vision - we do not live like hell. We have new hearts, we are filled with His Spirit and we walk in His ways. We walk imperfectly, of course, but there is no staying in hell for those God has rescued.

Second, God explicitly refutes the idea that this coming regeneration has anything to do with the people being transformed. It has everything to do with His showing Himself holy and good. We dare not think that our salvation is of our own merit in any way -- not even taking credit for our choice to follow Christ. We could make no such choice without His grace opening our eyes to see Him and His Spirit breathing life into our dead bodies to walk after Him.

But praise be to God, who has done just that for all who believe!
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5

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