We have here another rule of judgment which God will go by in dealing with us, by which is further demonstrated the equity of his government. The former showed that God will reward or punish according to the change made in the family or succession, for the better or for the worse; here he shows that he will reward or punish according to the change made in the person himself, whether for the better or the worse. While we are in this world we are in a state of probation; the time of trial lasts as long as the time of life, and according as we are found at last it will be with us to eternity. Now see here,
I. The case fairly stated, much as it had been before (Ezek. 3:18), and here it is laid down once (Ezek. 18:21-24) and again (Ezek. 18:26-28), because it is a matter of vast importance, a matter of life and death, of life and death eternal. Here we have,
1. A fair invitation given to wicked people, to turn from their wickedness. Assurance is here given us that, if the wicked will turn, he shall surely live, Ezek. 18:21, 27. Observe,
(1.) What is required to denominate a man a true convert, how he must be qualified that he may be entitled to this act of indemnity. [1.] The first step towards conversion is consideration (Ezek. 18:28): Because he considers and turns. The reason why sinners go on in their evil ways is because they do not consider what will be in the end thereof; but if the prodigal once come to himself, if he sit down and consider a little how bad his state is and how easily it may be bettered, he will soon return to his father (Luke 15:17), and the adulteress to her first husband when she considers that then it was better with her than now, Hos. 2:7. [2.] This consideration must produce an aversion to sin. When he considers he must turn away from his wickedness, which denotes a change in the disposition of the heart; he must turn from his sins and his transgression, which denotes a change in the life; he must break off from all his evil courses, and, wherein he has done iniquity, must resolve to do so no more, and this from a principle of hatred to sin. What have I to do any more with idols? [3.] This aversion to sin must be universal; he must turn from all his sins and all his transgressions, with out a reserve for any Delilah, any house of Rimmon. We do not rightly turn from sin unless we truly hate it, and we do not truly hate sin, as sin, if we do not hate all sin. [4.] This must be accompanied with a conversion to God and duty; he must keep all God’s statutes (for the obedience, if it be sincere, will be universal) and must do that which is lawful and right, that which agrees with the word and will of God, which he must take for his rule, and not the will of the flesh and the way of the world.
(2.) What is promised to those that do thus turn from sin to God. [1.] They shall save their souls alive, Ezek. 18:27. They shall surely live, they shall not die, Ezek. 18:21, 28. Whereas it was said, The soul that sins it shall die, yet let not those that have sinned despair but that the threatened death may be prevented if they will but turn and repent in time. When David penitently acknowledges, I have sinned, he is immediately assured of his pardon: “The Lord has taken away thy sin, thou shalt not die (2 Sam. 12:13), thou shalt not die eternally.” He shall surely live; he shall be restored to the favour of God, which is the life of the soul, and shall not lie under his wrath, which is as messengers of death to the soul. [2.] The sins they have repented of and forsaken shall not rise up in judgment against them, nor shall they be so much as upbraided with them: All his transgressions that he has committed, though numerous, though heinous, though very provoking to God, and redounding very much to his dishonour, yet they shall not be mentioned unto him (Ezek. 18:22), not mentioned against them; not only they shall not be imputed to him to ruin him, but in the great day they shall not be remembered against him to grieve or shame him; they shall be covered, shall be sought for and not found. This intimates the fulness of pardoning mercy; when sin is forgiven it is blotted out, it is remembered no more. [3.] In their righteousness they shall live; not for their righteousness, as if that were the purchase of their pardon and bliss and an atonement for their sins, but in their righteousness, which qualifies them for all the blessings purchased by the Mediator, and is itself one of those blessings.
(3.) What encouragement a repenting returning sinner has to hope for pardon and life according to this promise. He is conscious to himself that his obedience for the future can never be a valuable compensation for his former disobedience; but he has this to support himself with, that God’s nature, property, and delight, is to have mercy and to forgive, for he has said (Ezek. 18:23): “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? No, by no means; you never had any cause given you to think so.” It is true God has determined to punish sinners; his justice calls for their punishment, and, pursuant to that, impenitent sinners will lie for ever under his wrath and curse; that is the will of his decree, his consequent will, but it is not his antecedent will, the will of his delight. Though the righteousness of his government requires that sinners die, yet the goodness of his nature objects against it. How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? It is spoken here comparatively; he has not pleasure in the ruin of sinners, for he would rather they should turn from their ways and live; he is better pleased when his mercy is glorified in their salvation than when his justice is glorified in their damnation.
2. A fair warning given to righteous people not to turn from their righteousness, Ezek. 18:24-26. Here is, (1.) The character of an apostate, that turns away from his righteousness. He never was in sincerity a righteous man (as appears by that of the apostle, 1 John 2:19; If they had been of us, they would, no doubt, have continued with us), but he passed for a righteous man. He had the denomination and all the external marks of a righteous man; he thought himself one, and others thought him one. But he throws of his profession, leaves his first love, disowns and forsakes the truth and ways of God, and so turns away from his righteousness as one sick of it, and now shows, what he always had, a secret aversion to it; and, having turned away from his righteousness, he commits iniquity, grows loose, and profane, and sensual, intemperate, unjust, and, in short, does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does; for, when the unclean spirit recovers his possession of the heart, he brings with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself and they enter in and dwell there, Luke 11:26. (2.) The doom of an apostate: Shall he live because he was once a righteous man? No; factum non dicitur quod non perseverat—that which does not abide is not said to be done. In his trespass (Ezek. 18:24) and for his iniquity (that is the meritorious cause of his ruin), for the iniquity that he has done, he shall die, shall die eternally, Ezek. 18:26. The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways. But will not his former professions and performances stand him in some stead—will they not avail at least to mitigate his punishment? No: All his righteousness that he has done, though ever so much applauded by men, shall not be mentioned so as to be either a credit or a comfort to him; the righteousness of an apostate is forgotten, as the wickedness of a penitent is. Under the law, if a Nazarite was polluted he lost all the foregoing days of his separation (Num. 6:12), so those that have begun in the spirit and end in the flesh may reckon all their past services and sufferings in vain (Gal. 3:3, 4); unless we persevere we lose what we have gained, 2 John 1:8.
II. An appeal to the consciences even of the house of Israel, though very corrupt, concerning God’s equity in all these proceedings; for he will be justified, as well as sinners judged, out of their own mouths. 1. The charge they drew up against God is blasphemous, Ezek. 18:25, 29. The house of Israel has the impudence to say, The way of the Lord is not equal, than which nothing could be more absurd as well as impious. He that formed the eye, shall he not see? Can his ways be unequal whose will is the eternal rule of good and evil, right and wrong? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? No doubt he shall; he cannot do otherwise. 2. God’s reasonings with them are very gracious and condescending, for even these blasphemers God would rather have convinced and saved than condemned. One would have expected that God would immediately vindicate the honour of his justice by making those that impeached it eternal monuments of it. Must those be suffered to draw another breath that have once breathed out such wickedness as this? Shall that tongue ever speak again any where but in hell that has once said, The ways of the Lord are not equal? Yes, because this is the day of God’s patience, he vouchsafes to argue with them; and he requires them to own, for it is so plain that they cannot deny, (1.) The equity of his ways: Are not my ways equal? No doubt they are. He never lays upon man more than is right. In the present punishments of sinners and the afflictions of his own people, yea, and in the eternal damnation of the impenitent, the ways of the Lord are equal. (2.) The iniquity of their ways: “Are not your ways unequal? It is plain that they are, and the troubles you are in you have brought upon your own heads. God does you no wrong, but you have wronged yourselves.” The foolishness of man perverts his way, makes that unequal, and then his heart frets against the Lord, as if his ways were unequal, Prov. 19:3. In all our disputes with God, and in all his controversies with us, it will be found that his ways are equal, but ours are unequal, that he is in the right and we are in the wrong.