Monday, January 31, 2011

What of Ezekiel 18:31-32 and Ezekiel 33:11? (52)

Dear Forum members,

We come now to the two passages which, more perhaps than any others are quoted in support of a gracious and well-meaning gospel offer. I refer to Ezekiel 18:31, 32: “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.” (See also verse 23.)

A similar passage is found in Ezekiel 33:11: “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

From a certain viewpoint, these passages from Ezekiel are the strongest proof for the well-meant and gracious gospel offer. Both mention the fact that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Ezekiel 33:11 says also that God does have pleasure in the wicked repenting from their sins and living. And the rhetorical question is a powerful one: “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

Nevertheless, it is a perversion of the text to force it to prove an intention of God, or a desire on God’s part, to save all who hear the gospel. As a preliminary observation, we must point out that the text makes no mention of “grace.” After all, the well-meant offer is part and parcel of a common grace, which is an attitude of favor on God’s part and which he shows to all men in the preaching of the gospel.

I think this is crucially important. The grace of God can, in this connection also, be understood in two ways. It can refer to the fact that God looks with favor on all who hear the gospel and gives evidence of his favor towards them by expressing in the gospel his desire that they be saved. In other words (and it is not clear to me how this conclusion can be avoided) in the gospel God graciously gives all who hear a chance to be saved. God’s love, mercy, and grace are so great that God through the gospel makes salvation available to all that hear the gospel and earnestly desires that they seize on the opportunity and satisfy God’s desire.

But in the context of common grace, the grace that comes in the preaching of the gospel to all that hear is also a subjective grace given to each man so that he is put into a spiritual state in which he can make a choice either for or against the offer of the gospel. He has the grace to say, when he hears to the gospel, “No, I do not want to be saved;” or, “Yes I will accept the offer of Christ and so be saved.

In this respect, common grace as taught in the well-meant gospel offer is patterned after the Puritan conception of Preparationism. I have referred to this in earlier installments, and need not enter into this notion again.

But such a grace as is taught by the well-meant offer defendants leads directly into Arminianism. And Arminianism is contrary to Scripture, Calvinism and the Reformed faith.

But more important for our present purposes, no such idea can be gleaned from the texts in Ezekiel.

The second point we need to remember is that these passages must not be taken out of their context. In both passages in Ezekiel the Lord is answering an objection that Israel made against the Lord’s dealings with the nation.

In chapter 18 the context explains to us that the words of God in verses 23 and 32 were spoken because Israel charged God with double dealing. Especially, they said, this was true because they were being punished for the sins of their fathers.

God answers this by informing Israel when a righteous man turns from his righteousness, he will surely be punished; and when a wicked man turns from his wickedness, he will surely save his soul. For this reason God says that he will judge each man according to his own ways (30).

But God does not take pleasure in a righteous man turning away from his righteousness; but he does take pleasure in a wicked man turning away from his wickedness. And therefore he comes to Israel with the command, “Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions” (30).

This is the command of the gospel of which I already spoke at some length and which must be preached to all men. This is bound on all Reformed ministers by the Reformed confessions, specifically in Canons 2/5.

Chapter 33 is somewhat different, and may very well been spoken at a different time. The context here is a charge to the elders in Israel to be watchmen on the walls of the city, whose responsibility it is to warn the inhabitants of the city of the approach of an enemy. If they fail to do this, and people perish as a result, the blood of these people will be required of the watchmen.

It is worth our while to note that the principle God lays down in Ezekiel 33 is still in force today. How dreadful it is when the elders of a church fail to warn the people of enemies who constitute a spiritual danger to the church. And how much more dreadful it is when these watchmen actually conspired with the enemies to assist them in entering the city, something they do when they approve of false doctrine.

Ezekiel is therefore told that he must warn the people of the enemy. If he does this, and the people do not listen, then Ezekiel will be free from their blood (verse 9).

Apparently, the people of the captivity, to whom Ezekiel prophesied, complained that they were so punished by God in being brought into captivity that they saw no possibility of living once again (verse 10). The implied criticism of God was that God had no interest in them any more and that he did not really care if they died in Babylon.

To this Ezekiel, speaking God’s word, tells them that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He does have pleasure in repentance and a turning away from the wicked ways that characterized Israel’s life.

One more remark needs to be made. That is that Ezekiel is addressing the nation in captivity in their organic unity. That is, he is addressing the nation as a whole. But the nation, we must remember, consisted of many wicked who had gained control over the life of the nation and had led the nation into terrible idolatry so that the nation became ripe for judgment.

But there was also in that nation a remnant according to the election of grace. This remnant was small and seemingly insignificant. But it was represented by Daniel and his three friends, by Ezekiel himself, and by those who sang Psalm 137.

This word was spoken to the whole nation in its organic unity; that is, in such a way that the wicked and the faithful both heard it.

This truth remains always the same. The word of the gospel is proclaimed in the church in its organic unity. In that church are hypocrites and unfaithful members. But in that church are also believers, saved by the power of the gospel. To them all comes the word of God: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways, for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

That is, as Canons 2.5 expresses it: God promises eternal life to all who receive the gospel and repent of their sins; but God condemns those who refuse to obey the command of the gospel.

Looking at the preaching from God’s point of view and from the viewpoint of his eternal purpose, God uses that gospel with its promise and its command to save his people through the work of the Spirit in their hearts. And he uses the same gospel to harden the wicked in their way that it may be shown that God is righteous in all his ways.

We will, God willing, look at the meaning of these passages in our next installment.

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What of I Tim. 2:4 & I Tim. 4:10? (51)

Dear forum members,

In the last installment I referred to two passages of Scripture that are quoted in support of the gracious and well-meant gospel offer, which comes to all men as an expression of God’s love for all men and his desire to save all men. The first is I Timothy 2:4: Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The second is I Timothy 4:10: “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”

What do these texts teach?

I Timothy 2:4. Almost all serious commentators, including Calvin, take this passage in the light of the context in which Paul admonishes Timothy to pray for all men. This “all men” is defined in verse 2 as “kings, and all that are in authority.” The reason to pray especially for all in authority over us is “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty;” that is, we must pray for those in authority for the sake of the well-being of the church.

To do this is pleasing to God, because it is his will that all be saved. God saves all kinds of people, including those in authority. Timothy needs to know this, for those in authority were persecuting the church, and he would have wondered why he had to pray for obvious enemies of the gospel. But this was surely in keeping with our Lord’s own instructions to citizens of the kingdom in Matthew 5:44.

It all seems clear enough and one cannot help but wonder how this text can be quoted to support the idea of a universal love of God and a desire of God to save all men.

I Timothy 4:10. If one takes this passage in the context in which it is written, the meaning is not all that hard to ascertain. Paul says that it is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Timothy exercise himself unto godliness, for physical exercise is of little profit, while godliness “has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (verse 8). That is a great incentive to practice godliness! Such a great incentive is this for the apostle (and he wants his own life to be an example to Timothy) that he is willing both “to labour and suffer reproach” at the hands of the enemies of the gospel for the sake of the exercise of godliness. The reproach of the wicked does not mean very much and has little significance for him because he trusts in God, who is the Saviour of all men, especially the elect.

To set aside for a moment the true meaning of the passage, it is worth our while to note that should this be used in support of a universal desire of God to save all men, the text proves more than supporters of a well-meant gospel would themselves want.

After all, the text does not say that God desires to save all men, but that Christ is actually the Saviour of all men. That is more than the most dedicated Arminian wants to say.
There is another meaning to the Greek word soter (Savior) that is the meaning here. That meaning is “Preserver.” Christ preserves all men, especially the elect. Paul calls attention to this fact as the reason why he is not troubled by reproach for the godliness in which he exercises himself. The reason, apparently, is that God has his own purpose in preserving every man.

Whether he be elect or reprobate, he is created by God to serve God’s sovereign purpose in history. By his providence, God preserves righteous and wicked alike. The wicked too exist by the word of God, the same word that sustains the entire creation. (See for this use, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 612. Thayer, in fact, claims that “preserver” is its original meaning. Hermann Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1895) 534).

Part of that purpose God has in preserving wicked men is that they persecute the righteous. Persecution also comes through wicked men by the will of God. And persecution is the means God uses to sanctify his people. Peter reminds us that persecution is a fiery trial in which the faith of God’s people is tried as gold is tried in the fire, that it might be to the praise and glory of God (I Peter 1:7).

It may very well be that Paul, in this general statement, has a broader purpose in mind that God has for the reprobate; but he particularly calls attention to the preservation of the reprobate, for it stands in direct relation to God’s purpose in preserving the elect. God’s purpose is “especially” revealed in them in their salvation; but the reprobate are also preserved “especially” for the elect.

Surely, there is no universal love and grace of God in the text.
The text I consider next is found in Romans 2:4: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” The argument that is made from this text is that God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering are shown to all men and express God’s desire to save them; yet they despise these manifestations of God’s love and grace towards them. The point of the defenders of a well-meant gospel offer is that the text speaks of God’s attributes, particularly his goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, as indicative of God’s love for all men, his grace towards them and his desire to save them. Louis Berkhof argues this very point in his book written in defense of common grace.

There are two things wrong with this interpretation. The first is that it clearly places the final decision for man’s salvation in man’s hands. I have objected to this implication of the defense of common grace repeatedly, but the use of this text as proof that God desires to save all and thus to throw the final decision in man’s hands is blatantly argued here. There is absolutely no way one can hold to such a position without becoming Arminian in the fullest sense of the word.

The second thing wrong with this interpretation is that it changes the reading of the text. No man has a right to do this. The interpretation offered by the defenders of a well-meant offer deliberately change the text to read something which it does not say. These defenders say the text reads: “. . . not knowing the goodness of God desires to lead thee to repentance” – but does not succeed in its desire. While the text says, “. . . not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” – and actually does so.

This alteration in the words of the text is inexcusable to a sincere student of Scripture, and shows a willingness to twist Scripture’s clear words in the interests of making a case for one’s own notions.

I am assuming, of course, that no one who uses this text as proof that God wants all men to be saved, actually believes that all men are saved, and that no one goes to hell. A universalist who believes that no one ever goes to hell is some other creature whose arguments are not relevant to the subject of the well-meant offer. A defender of the well-meant offer believes that many go to hell, even though God loves them and wants desperately their salvation.

One can, therefore, appeal to this text in support of a well-meant gospel and give it the meaning which the defenders of the well-meant offer give it only if one is a universalist, believing that all men will eventually be saved.

But no argument over a wrong interpretation of a text in Scripture is successfully refuted without a statement as to its true meaning.

The apostle is paving the way for his great teaching of justification by faith alone, without the works of the law. He is demonstrating that justification on the basis of the works of the law is an absolute impossibility. The keeping of the law cannot justify a man; it cannot justify any man. It cannot justify the Gentile; it cannot justify the Jew. The reason is that all are sinners under the just condemnation of God. Thus the whole human race is referred to in chapters 1 and 2, and in chapter 2, Paul directly addresses all men with this condemnation by using the general term “man” (verses 1, 3).

All men despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering. They even despise God’s goodness, forbearance and longsuffering when they know that these attributes lead to repentance, and thus salvation.

This fact that God’s goodness leads to repentance does not mean that God wants all men to be saved; nor does it mean that in fact God’s goodness always does lead every man to repentance and salvation. But it does mean that in fact, in the case of some, it is God’s goodness that leads to repentance, a truth that is evident on every page of Holy Writ. When the gospel is preached, the elect are brought to repentance. The wicked are witnesses of this great goodness of God that does save. But even though they see this, they still despise this goodness of God.

And, of course, we also despise God’s goodness, for we are included under the dire things Paul says about men. Thus behind the text stands the truth that God’s attributes, goodness, forbearance and longsuffering, are revealed in all his works, but men despise them. They are particularly revealed in his salvation of some. When some are led to repentance, it is the goodness of God that leads them to repentance, and not their works. Hence, the direct address is used here: “. . . the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” But they are nevertheless universally despised.

The text becomes very important, therefore, for the doctrine of total depravity; and this truth in turn prepares the way for the great truth of sovereign grace, namely that God justifies the elect through faith in Christ, apart from any works which man performs.

With warmest regards,

Prof. Hanko