Click to donate today!
We may collect from this rebuke that the Jews were perverse interpreters of the best teaching; yea, they purposely reviled the Prophet’s expression, and drew it to a contrary meaning. For it, is far commoner than it ought to be among unbelievers, always to take occasion of turning backwards, twisting, distorting, and tearing the teaching of heaven. And at this time we see this impudence increasing greatly in the world. For the world is full of buffoons and other deceivers, who wickedly sport with God, and seek material for joking from the law and the gospel: and so also it appears to have been in the Prophet’s time; for although they listened to the wrath of God hanging over them, they did not cease to provoke him, and that too for many years. And not only were their own iniquities set forth against them, but also those of their fathers: hence the occasion for cavil when they heard — For so many ages you do not cease your warfare against God: he has borne with you patiently unto this day. Do you think that you can carry on your audacity with impunity? God wished hitherto to tame you by his forbearance; but your obstinacy is not to be subdued. Since, therefore, not only for one or two generations, but for four and five, your obstinacy has wrestled with God’s goodness, he cannot any longer pardon you. Since the prophets thus gathered up the iniquities of their fathers, impious men scattered abroad their witticisms — then we are to pay the penalty of our fathers’ sins: they provoked God, but we suffer the punishment which they deserved. The Prophet now convinces them of this unfairness, and shows that they had no reason for transferring their faults to others, or to thrust them away from themselves, since God was just in taking vengeance on them. We know that men willingly shuffle so as to free themselves from blame, and then afterwards accuse God of cruel injustice. It is true, indeed, that they are held in such constraint by their own consciences that they are compelled, whether they will or not, to feel that they are suffering punishment justly; but afterwards they become refractory, and suffocate their conscience, and strive pettishly with God. Hence these words —
Though guiltless of your fathers’ crimes, Roman, ‘tis thine to latest times The vengeance of the gods to bear, Till you their awful domes repair. Horace, lib. 3, Od. 6, as translated by Francis.
Since so many crimes were rife at Rome, why does that trifler say that the men of his own age were undeservedly paying the penalty due by their ancestors? But, as I have said, this is the testimony of a corrupt nature, because we desire to throw off the blame as far from ourselves as we possibly can. Hence we begin to strive with God, and to rebel against his judgments. And hence this destruction is the more useful to us, since it is proposed as a remedy for a disease by far too common. Whatever the meaning is, this sentiment came into common use like a proverb — that the children’s teeth were set on edge, because their fathers had eaten sour grapes. By these allegorical words they wished to free themselves from blame, as if God was unjustly charging the wickedness of their fathers against them. For to eat the sour grape or wild grape has the same meaning as to set the teeth on edge; for we know this to be the effect of acidity. If any one eats a sour grape, his teeth will suffer from its unripeness. To eat then is to cause this effect on the teeth — referring to sin: for they said that their own teeth suffered, not through their own eating the sour grapes, but through its flowing down from their fathers. On the whole, they wished to contend with God, as if he were afflicting the innocent, and that, too, under the fallacious pretext which I have mentioned, as God announced that he would avenge the wickedness which had been perpetrated in former ages.
Ye, says he, use this proverb; but as I live, says the Lord Jehovah, you shall not use this proverb anymore. He does not mean, by these words, that the Jews should repent and become more modest, and not dare to vomit forth such blasphemy against him; for he is not treating of repentance here; but it is just as if he said, I will strike from under you this boasting, since your iniquity shall be made manifest, and the whole world shall acknowledge the justice of your punishment, and that you have deserved it yourselves, and cannot throw it upon your fathers, as you have hitherto endeavored to do. The Jews indeed did not cease their rebellion against God, and there is no doubt that they were more and more exasperated, so as to expostulate with audacity against him; but because their wickedness was really apparent, and God was not hostile to them in vain, or for trifling reasons; and although he was severe, yet they had arrived at the highest pitch of impiety, so that no punishment could be sufficient or too oppressive. We now understand the meaning of the Prophet, or rather of the Holy Spirit, since God took away all pretense for shuffling from the Jews when he detected their impiety, and made it conspicuous that they were only suffering the due reward of their crimes. But God swears by himself, whence we gather how abominable was their blasphemy; and truly men cannot absolve themselves without condemning God; for God’s glory then shines forth, when every mouth is stopped, as we saw before. (Ezekiel 16:63; Romans 3:19.) As soon as men descend into that arena, through wishing to show their innocence, it is just as if they wished to reduce God’s justice to nothing. Hence it is not surprising that God is very angry when he is despoiled of his justice; for he cannot exist without this attribute.
We now see why an oath is interposed, while he pronounces that he will take care that the Jews should not ridicule any longer Behold, says he, all souls are mine; as the sole of the son so the soul of the father, all souls are mine; the soul, therefore, which has sinned it shall die. Some interpreters explain the beginning of the verse thus: that men vainly and rashly complain when God seems to treat them too severely, since the clay does not rise against the potter. Since God is the maker of the whole world, we are his workmanship: what madness, then, to rise up against him when he does not satisfy us: and we saw this simile used by Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 18:6.) The sentiment, then, is true in itself, that all souls are under God’s sovereignty by the right of creation, and therefore he can arbitrarily determine for each whatever he wishes; and all who clamor against him reap no profit: and this teaching it is advantageous to notice. But this passage ought to be understood otherwise; namely, that nothing is more unworthy than that God should be accused of tyrannizing over men, when he rather defends them, as being his own workmanship. When, therefore, God pronounces that all souls are his own, he does not merely claim sovereignty and power, but he rather shows that he is affected with fatherly love towards the whole human race since he created and formed it; for, if a workman loves his work because he recognizes in it the fruits of his industry, so, when God has manifested his power and goodness in the formation of men, he must certainly embrace them with affection. True, indeed, we are abominable in God’s sight, through being corrupted by original sin, as it is elsewhere said, (Psalms 14:1;) but inasmuch as we are men, we must be dear to God, and our salvation must be precious in his sight. We now see what kind of refutation this is: all souls are mine, says he: I have formed all, and am the creator of all, and so I am affected with fatherly love towards all, and they shall rather feel my clemency, from the least to the greatest, than experience too much rigor and severity. At length he adds, the soul which sinned it shall die. Now, Ezekiel expresses how God restrains the Jews from daring to boast any longer that they are afflicted undeservedly, since no innocent person shall die; for this is the meaning of the sentence; for he does not mean that every guilty person should die, for this would shut against us the door of God’s mercy, for we have all sinned against him: so it would follow that there is no hope of safety, since every man must perish, unless God freed sinners from death. But the Prophet’s sense is not doubtful, as we have said, since those who perish are not without fault; neither can they bring up their innocence to God, nor complain of his cruelty in punishing them for the sins of others. Although here a question may arise, since no one at this day perishes who does not partly bear the fault of another, namely, of Adam, by whose fall and revolt the whole human race actually perished. Since therefore Adam, by his fall, brought destruction upon us, it follows that we perish through the fault of another. Since this question will be treated again in its own place, it will now be sufficient to say, in three words, that although we perish through the fault of another, yet the fault of each individual is joined with it. We are not condemned in Adam as if we were innocent in ourselves, but we have contracted pollution from his sin; and so it has come to pass that each must bear the punishment of his own crime, since the punishment which he deserved first is not simply inflicted on the whole human race, but we have been tainted with his sin, as will afterwards be said. Whatever the meaning, we shall not die innocent, since each is held convicted by the testimony of his own conscience. As far as relates to young children, they seem to perish not by their own, but for another’s fault; but the solution is twofold; for although sin does not appear in them, yet it is latent, since they carry about with them corruption shut up in their soul, so that they are worthy of condemnation before God. This does not come under the notice of our senses; but we should consider how much more acutely God sees a thing than we do: hence, if we do not penetrate into that hidden judgment, yet we must hold that, before we are born, we are infected by the contagion of original sin, and therefore justly destined to ultimate destruction: — -this is one solution. But as far as concerns the Prophet’s expression, the dispute concerning infants is vain and out of place, since the Prophet only wished to refute that impious perverseness, as I have said, so that the people should no longer charge God with cruelty. The soul, says he, which has sinned; that is, none of you can boast of innocence when I punish you: as when it is said, He who does not labor, neither let him eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10.) Surely this cannot be extended to infants. Nature teaches us that they must be nourished, and yet sure enough they do not acquire their food by labor: but this is said of adults, who are old enough to acknowledge the reason why they were created, and their fitness for undergoing labor. So also, in this place, we are not treating of the tender young when newly born, but of adults, who wish to charge God instead of themselves, as if they are innocent; and so, when they cannot escape punishment, they are anxious to transfer the fault elsewhere — first upon others, and then upon God himself.
Here the Prophet confirms his former teaching by examples. For he first says, if any one faithfully keep the law, he shall prosper, since God will repay the reward of justice: afterwards he adds, if the just man beget a son unlike himself, the justice of the father shall not profit the degenerate son, but he shall receive the reward of his iniquity. But if this second person should beget a son who does not imitate his father, God promises that this third person shall be acceptable by him, because he is just, and therefore enjoys prosperity and happiness. We see, then, that the grandfather and grandson are here spoken of, and that the son of the first, and father of the third, is placed between them. But this is the Spirit’s intention, that God has prepared a reward for each according to their lives, so that he does not permit them to be deprived of their promised blessing, nor let the impious and despisers of his law escape. Now let us come to the words, if any one has been just, says he, he shall be just, therefore he shall live. He speaks generally first: he afterwards enumerates certain species under which he embraces the sum of the whole law. The full sentence is, if any one has been just, he shall live in consequence of his justice. But the Prophet defines what it is to be just, and he there chooses certain parts of the law: by putting a part for the whole, as I have said, he signifies, that whoever faithfully observes the law is esteemed just before God. Now we must examine each of these kinds of justice, and afterwards come to the general doctrine. He says first, that he is just who does justice and judgement. By the word judgment holy Scripture signifies rectitude; but when the two words are joined together, judgment seems to express more than justice: for justice is nothing but equity, fidelity, integrity, when we abstain altogether from fraud and violence, and deal with our brethren as we wish them to deal with us. Whoever so conducts himself is said to do justice; but judgment is extended further, namely, when we not only desire to benefit but defend our brethren, when unjustly oppressed, as far as we can, and when we oppose the lust and violence of those who would overthrow all that is right and holy. Hence to do judgment and justice is nothing else than to abstain from all injury by cultivating good faith and equity with our neighbors: then to defend all good causes, and to take the innocent under our patronage when we see them unjustly injured and oppressed. But these duties belong properly to the second table of the law. But it is clear from this that we fear God when we live justly with our brethren, for piety is the root of charity. Although many profane persons seem blameless in their life, and manifest a rare integrity, yet no one ever loves his neighbor from his heart, unless he fears and reverences God. Since, therefore, charity flows from piety and the fear of God, as often as we see the duties of the second table placed before us, we should learn them to be the testimonies to the worship of God, as is this place: but then the Prophet also adds certain parts of the first table.
He says then, if he has not eaten upon the mountains, and not raised his eyes to the abominable deeds of the house of Israel. These two points respect the worship of God: for by the figure “a part for the whole” to eat, means to offer sacrifices: he refers to those to which banquets were added as appendages. And truly when Paul speaks of idolatry, he does not say, if any one bends his knees before stone or wood, but he quotes the words of Moses, that the people rose up to play after eating, that is, after banqueting. (1 Corinthians 10:7; Exodus 32:6.) Hence a feast is there taken for that sacrilegious profaneness when the people made for themselves a calf, and wished to worship God before it. When, therefore, it is now said, if any one has not eaten upon, the mountains: by a feast, as I have said, a sacrifice offered to idols is intended. Now we know that altars were raised on high in every direction, because they thought that they were near God when they ascended to an elevated spot. Because, therefore, superstitions were so exercised on the mountains, hence the Prophet relates what was customary, if any one has not eaten, upon the mountains: then he explains himself more clearly, if any one has not raised his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel. To raise the eyes is here taken by a figure of speech for to be urged with eagerness towards superstitions: for we know that eyes are the principal outlets to the affections; for when the affections burst forth in the eyes, and are conspicuous there, it is not surprising if all our desires are marked by this form of speech. Thus a person is said to raise his eyes to the house of his neighbor when he covets it, and also towards his wife, or anything else, when he is seized by a depraved lusting. The meaning is, then, that those who do not contaminate themselves with idols are thought just before God, as far as concerns the first table of the law, since they are content with the simple and lawful worship of God, and do not incline from it in any direction; nor, like the superstitious, allow their eyes to be wandering and erratic: and so they are compared with harlots who seek lovers on all sides. I repeat it again. — the meaning is, that the true worshipers of God are those who are content with his doctrine, and are not carried hither and thither by a perverse appetite, and so fabricate for themselves idols. Besides, the Holy Spirit calls idols גלולים, gelolim, “defilements,” (211) since all superstition should be detested by us; for as we are prone by nature to all kinds of error, we cannot be sufficiently restrained within the true and pure worship of God. Since, then, unbelievers imagine their gods to be sacred, the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, pronounces them to be defiling, since their profane worship is disgusting and abominable. But he says, the idols of the house of Israel, so that all shuffling must cease: because, if he had spoken of idols only, they might have objected that they detested the false and foolish gods of the Gentiles; but since many ceremonies were through long use received among the elect people, these ought not to be condemned like the impious rites of the heathen. The Holy Spirit refutes this cavil, and says, that though the house of Israel has approved such defilement’s, yet they are not to be excused for setting aside the law of God, and devoting themselves to human fictions.
And has not polluted his neighbors wife. The Prophet now returns again to the second table, and treats here of adultery; and the language must be noticed, since such contamination shows how holy God considers the marriage tie: hence we see the atrocity of the sin, and the detestable nature of adultery; for both parties are equally polluted, though it appears stronger in the female sex through their natural modesty. We must hold, then, that the very body is engrained with disgrace and infamy, as Paul says, when such sins are committed. Other sins, says he, are without the body; but this is a sin against the body itself which thus bears the marks of shame and infamy. (1 Corinthians 6:18.) Here, as I have said, Ezekiel treats the case of the woman, since the offense is in her case more pernicious. It follows — and has not approached a female when legally unclean: for we know this to be prohibited under the law; as being contrary to nature; for it was not necessary to define the matter by written law, as it speaks for itself. and God detests such crimes, not only because their offspring would contaminate cities and the nation at large, but because they are adverse to the instincts of human nature. (Leviticus 18:19; Leviticus 20:18.) He afterwards adds, if he has not oppressed or afflicted any one. This is general, just as if the Prophet had said, if he has abstained from all fraud, violence, and injustice. But this is a great point to live so innocently among men, that no one should complain of any injury done to him, nor of any loss sustained. But it is not enough to preserve this self-restraint unless we desire to profit our brethren, since God wishes the good offices of life to be reciprocal: although, indeed, to take care to be free from all injustice ought to precede other duties. He says, if he has returned his pledge to the debtor. This ought not to be taken generally, but depends on the precept of the law; for we have often said, that the prophets are the interpreters of Moses, and so they often touch briefly on what Moses expresses more clearly. But if we wish to occupy ourselves usefully in reading them, we ought to determine the meaning of the law, and then to accommodate what we read in the prophets to what is there contained. (212) So, in this passage, to restore the pledge to, the debtor, is restricted to the poor and needy, who had pledged either their garments, or their beds, or the tools by which they acquired a livelihood: for God forbids taking a pledge of a widow or a poor person: then he forbids taking a millstone, that is, any tool which a workman uses to Judea his living; for if any one empties the workshop of the miserable, he might just as well take his life. Hence Moses says, His life is in the pledge, (Deuteronomy 24:6,) that is, if any one pledges his tools, it is like having his hands cut off, since he cannot carry on his trade without His tools: hence you take away his life. Hence God forbids taking a coverlet, or garments, or bedding, for a wretched man would perish with cold were he to pledge either his coverlet or his bedding. But if, on the other hand, men of this kind are assisted without taking a pledge, they will bless those who abstain from too much rigor. Lastly, God forbids the destruction of the poor man’s house, lest he should be ashamed of his poverty, and then because it is too cruel to penetrate into the house of another, and inquire for its contents; nay, this is a species of robbery. We see now how Ezekiel thought to be understood, if he has restored a pledge to the debtor, that is, to the poor debtor, or the necessary pledge, as I have said, such as tools and needful furniture, without which a person cannot exercise his trade. He has not seized a prey, that is, has not preyed upon his neighbors. For every kind of robbery is here marked by the word גזל, gezel, violence. And has given his bread to the hungry. Here the Prophet teaches what I have lately touched on, that cautious self-restraint from all injury is not sufficient, and sparing our neighbors; but that more is required, since we ought to assist them as far as we possibly can. Unless this had been added, many might object that they injured no one, never defrauded any, nor took advantage of the simple. But since God has united men in the bonds of mutual society, hence they must mutually perform good offices for each other. Here, then, it is required of the rich to succor the poor, and to offer bread to the hungry. But it is said, His bread, lest any one should object, through his habit of being too restricted; but there is no reason to bind me to bestow my goods on others: this is my bread, and so I have a right to possess what is my own: if any one is oppressed by want, I confess it to be praiseworthy to succor him, but no one is compelled to this act of liberality. Lest any one should escape thus, behold, says the Holy Spirit, although you rightly call the bread yours, yet it is not so yours that you ought to refuse your brother when his hunger provokes you to pity. And has covered the naked with a garment: the rule for garment and for bread is the same. The substance is, that others are not deemed just before God unless they are inclined to benevolence, so as to supply the necessities of their brethren, and to succor them in their poverty. It follows, since he has not given on usury and has not received increase. Here, among other crimes, Ezekiel enumerates usury — though the word usury is not properly suitable to this passage נשך, neshek, is deduced from biting, and so the Hebrews name usury, because it gnaws and by degrees consumes the miserable. Ezekiel then says, that they are considered observers of the law who abstain from usury. But because men are very acute and cunning on this point, and devise subterfuges by which they may hide their cruelty, he adds, and has not received increase: for we know how various are the schemes for gain: for whoever devotes his attention to unlawful gains, will find out many monstrous things which no one would ever have thought of. Thus it happens that the usurer will deny that he exacts usury, and yet he will spoil the wretched and even suck out their blood. Under the name, תרבית, ther-bith, Ezekiel comprehends those more secret kinds of usury which the avaricious use with many disguises, and when they spread such coverings before them, think themselves free from all blame. Hence the Prophet says, even if the name of usury is removed and is not taken into account, yet it is sufficient to condemn men if they receive increase, that is, make a profit at the expense of others. A question arises here, whether usury be in itself a crime, since God formerly permitted his people to take interest of strangers, and only forbade it among themselves. And there was the best reason for that law. For if its just proportion had been overthrown, there would have been no reciprocity, since the Gentiles could exact interest of the Jews; and unless that right had been mutual and reciprocal, as the phrase is, the condition of God’s people would have been worse than that of the Gentiles. God therefore permitted his people to take interest, but not among each other, as I have said: this was only allowable with strangers. Besides, the law itself was political: but in this case the Prophet seems to condemn all kinds of interest, and exaggerates the weight of the sentence, when he adds increase, that is, whatever gains the avaricious mutually strive for. So also in the 15 Psalm, where a just mode of living is proscribed for us, David mentions, among other things — who has not lent his money on usury, (Psalms 15:5.) It seems, then, from these two places, that usury is in itself unlawful. But because God’s law embraces complete and perfect justice, hence we must hold that interest, unless it is opposed to God’s law, is not altogether to be condemned, otherwise ignominy would clearly attach to the law of God if it did not prescribe to us a true and complete rule of living justly. But in the law there is that perfection to which nothing can be added. If then we wish to determine whether interest is unlawful we must come to the rule of the law, which cannot deceive us: but we shall not find all interest contrary to the law, and hence it follows that interest is not always to be condemned. Here, too, we must remember that we must regard the subject rather than the words, for men trifle by their own caviling, but God does not admit of such fallacies. Hence, as I said, the substance ought to be weighed, because the words alone will not enable us to decide whether interest be sometimes lawful or not. For example, among the Latin’s the word for interest is honorable in itself and has no disgrace attached to it, but that for usury is odious. What causes disgrace to be thus hidden under it, but they fancied that they abhorred usurers, hence the general term interest contains within it all kinds of usury, and there was nothing so cruel, so unjust, and so barbarous, which was not covered by that pretense. Now since the name for interest was unknown to the French, that for usury became detestable: hence the French devised a new craftiness by which they could deceive God. For since no one could bear the name of usury, they used “interest” instead: but what does this mean but something which interests us, and thus it signifies all kinds of repayment for loans, for there was no kind of interest among the ancients which is not now comprehended in this word. Now since we have said that interest cannot be totally and without exception condemned, (for we must not play upon words, but treat the real point,) we must see how far it can be proved not to be reckoned a crime. First of all, in a well regulated state, no usurer is tolerated: even the profane see this: whoever therefore professedly adopts this occupation, he ought to be expelled from intercourse with his fellow-men. For if any illiberal pursuits load those who pursue them with censure, that of the usurer is certainly an illiberal trade, and unworthy of a pious and honorable man. Hence Cato said that to take usury was almost the same as murder. For when asked concerning agriculture, after he had given his opinion, he inquired, But what is usury? Is it not murder? says he. And surely the usurer will always be a robber; that is, he will make a profit by his trade, and will defraud, and his iniquity will increase just as if there were no laws, no equity, and no mutual regard among mankind. This is one point: but there is another part of the occupation besides that of taking interest. When any one sets up his table he uses the same art as a farmer does in employing his labor in cultivating the fields. But any one may receive interest without being a professed usurer. For example, a person may have capital and put out a part of it on loan, and thus receive interest: and if he do that once, he will not be called a usurer; so that we must consider when and from whom a person exacts interest. But this sentiment ought to prevail here: “neither everywhere, nor always, nor all things, nor from all.” This indeed was said of offices, and that law was imposed upon the governors of provinces: but it agrees best with this subject. It is not suitable then to receive “all things,” because if the profit exceed moderation it must be rejected, since it is contrary to charity: we said also that the continual habit and custom is not without fault. Neither “everywhere,” since the usurer, as I have said, ought not to enter or be brought into the Church of God. Then again, not “from all,” because it is always wrong to exact usury from a poor man; but if a man is rich, and has money of his own, as the saying is, and has a very good estate and a large patrimony, and should borrow money of his neighbor, will that neighbor commit sin by receiving a profit from the loan of his money? Another borrower is the richer of the two, and might do without it and yet suffer no loss: but he wishes to buy a farm and enjoy its fruits: why should the creditor be deprived of his rights when his money brings profit to a neighbor richer than himself? We see, then, that it may sometimes happen that the receiver of interest is not to be hastily condemned, since he is not acting contrary to God’s law. But we must always hold that the tendency of usury is to oppress one’s brother, and hence it is to be wished that the very names of usury and interest were buried and blotted out from the memory of men. But since men cannot otherwise transact their business, we must always observe what is lawful, and how far it is so. I know that the subject might be treated at greater length, but I have shortly expressed what is sufficient for our purpose.
It follows, And has withdrawn his hand from iniquity. Here again the Prophet commends innocence, when we are cautious that our neighbor should not receive any damage or injury through our fault. Hence abstaining from injury is again praised here, but a new form of speech is used, since if men are not very anxious and careful they easily extend the hand to iniquity: and why so? various means of gain from many quarters present themselves to us, and we are easily led captive by such enticements. Hence the Prophet, not without reason, here commends the servants of God to withdraw the hand from iniquity, that is, not only to abstain from injury, but when the sweetness of gain entices us, and some plausible means of profit is proposed, that they should restrain themselves this is the meaning of to withdraw the hand from iniquity. The rest I leave for tomorrow.
(211) The older lexicons connect this word with that for filth, dii stercorii , following the Jewish commentators: it occurs forty-seven times in the Old Testament, and our translators have always translated it “idols.” The margin of Deuteronomy 29:17, has dungy gods.
(212) This canon of sacred criticism was not received by the Jews. The Talmud informs us of discussions among their doctors, pointing out the discrepancy between this chapter of Ezekiel and the Pentateuch, and objecting to the writings of this prophet being received into the Canon. See Bartolocci Biblioth. Heb., volume 2, and Wolf. Bibl. Heb., volume 2, as quoted in Norton’s Genuineness of the Gospels, volume 2 Additional Notes, p. 141.; and also the Dissertation on this chapter at the end of this volume.
We yesterday explained why the Prophet says that no one is just unless he withdraw his hands from iniquity, because many occasions tempt us to injure others: unless we restrain ourselves in a middle course we often hurt our neighbors. Now among the virtues of a just man he puts, to judge according to truth: to act truthfully, says he, between man and man. This seems indeed to be the proper duty of judges who discharge a public office, but yet it is suitable to private persons; for although no one argues his own cause except before some one endued with power to decide it, yet we see that the inclinations of men often pervert equity and rectitude in judgments. Again, many are chosen arbitrators who do not hold any public office. The meaning is, that what Ezekiel previously sought concerning equity is extended to the causes of others, that no one should turn aside from right and equity through private friendship. Afterwards it follows, if he has walked in my statutes and kept my judgments, in acting with truthfulness. Again, the Prophet returns to general remarks: for he has recorded certain kinds of justice, as we said yesterday, whence its nature may be more clearly perceived. Besides, because God’s law contains within it more than the prophet has thus far mentioned; hence it was necessary to add this clause, who has walked in my decrees, says he. It is too cold to restrict this to ceremonies, as is sometimes done; hence I interpret it of edicts or decrees. The metaphor of walking does not require a long explanation, as it is very common in Scripture. Hence, to walk in God’s precepts is nothing else than to form his life and morals according to the rule which has been prescribed by God; or, what is the same thing, so to conduct oneself, that in desiring to be deemed just a man should attempt nothing but what is agreeable to God’s precepts. But since the observance of the law is difficult, first, because we are not only of a frail disposition, but prone to sin; hence the word “serving” is added, by which the Prophet commends diligence. Whoever wishes to direct his life according to God’s precepts should attentively keep them, since nothing is more natural than to transgress and fall. He now adds, for acting truthfully. Integrity is here denoted by the word truthfulness. We gather, then, from this word the fruitful teaching, that the object of God’s whole law is to conduct ourselves without deceit or fraud, and study to assist one another in simplicity, and to conduct ourselves with sincerity in every duty. If any one, then, asks the object of the law, the Prophet here describes it to us — the performance of truth; and this is said rightly of the second table. But this may be adapted to the former table, since the Scripture teaches us that no dissembling can be pleasing to God. And we see also what Paul says when he briefly defines the end of the law to be charity out of any pure heart, and faith unfeigned. (1 Timothy 1:5.) But the word truth in this passage is, in my judgment, referred to that sincerity which we must cultivate, so that no one should deceive another, nor act fraudulently or knowingly, but be really simple and sincere. He adds, he is just, and in living he shall live, says the Lord Jehovah. At length he pronounces, as we said, that he is just who has faithfully observed God’s law; then that a recompense is prepared for all the just who thus sincerely worship God. Now let us come to the second example.
He has oppressed the poor and needy: he had simply said, He has oppressed a man; but now to make the greatness of the crime appear, he speaks of the poor and needy: for cruelty in oppressing them is less tolerable. Whatever the condition of the person whom we treat, with injustice, our wickedness is in itself sufficiently worthy of condemnation; but when we afflict the wretched, whose condition ought to excite our pity, that, inhumanity is, as I have said, far more atrocious. Hence this circumstance exaggerates what Ezekiel had formerly simply expressed. In the phrase for seizing booty, the word for booty is in the plural: in the next phrase he omits the word for debtor, because it is sufficiently understood: in the next, he does not add “of the house of Israel” to the word “idols;” and in the last clause the word “abomination” seems to refer to one kind of grossness only: but if any wish to extend its meaning further, I do not, object; but since he lately used the word in the plural, I rather take this word in its restricted sense. I pass thus rapidly over this second example, as I shall over the third, because Ezekiel preserves the same sentiments, and repeats almost the same words as he had just used. Hitherto he has taught that life is laid up for all the just as the reward of their justice: but he now sets before us a degenerate son, sprung from a just father, running headlong into all kind of wickedness. He says, then, if a man who desires to obey the law beget a son of a perverse disposition, who rejects the discipline of his father, and at the same time violates the whole law of God, shall he surely live? No, says he, he shall die, his blood shall be upon him; that is, he cannot escape God’s judgment;, because his crimes cry out, and are heard. Hence none who turn aside from the right way shall remain unpunished: this is the simple meaning of the Prophet. Let us now come to the third member.
In this third example Ezekiel announces, that if a man be born of a wicked father, he may nevertheless be pleasing to God, if he be unlike his father and thus he refutes the proverb that was so common in Israel — that the father ate the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge. For if the sons were sufferers through the father’s eating the sour grapes, then the pious who drew their origin from wicked despisers of God would be freed from all their sins. Thus Ezekiel would have been punished instead of his father, Ahaz, and Josiah instead of Manasseh. But here the Prophet bears witness that the good, however they may have been born from wicked parents, should receive the reward of righteousness no less certainly and faithfully than if they had come down from heaven, and if their family had always been without the commission of any crime. Since, therefore, God does not punish them for their fathers’ crimes, it follows that the Israelites uttered this taunt not only foolishly, but impiously, saying that their own teeth were set on edge, because their fathers had eaten the sour grapes. Besides, as there is a difference in the phrase, I shall notice briefly what is worthy of remark: if he begat a son who saw all that his father had done, and was afraid. Here the Prophet teaches that it needed the greatest attention for the son to forsake the example of a bad father. For sons are blind to their fathers’ vices; and although, when duty is set before them, they carelessly despise it, yet they fancy themselves held so far by pious reverence, that they dare not condemn their fathers. Hence it happens that sons do not acknowledge their fathers’ crimes, and thus a wicked father corrupts his son willingly. Bad discipline, therefore, is added to this, so that it is not surprising if the offspring is worse than his ancestors. For this reason the Prophet says, if he has seen, that is, if a righteous child has observed his father’s sins, since sons shut their eyes as much as possible to all their fathers’ crimes; nay, they embrace their vices for the greatest virtues.
He then adds, if he has feared. It would not be sufficient to take notice of this without adding the fear of God. It is true, indeed, that many were unlike their parents, through being restrained by shame; for when they heard the reproaches of their parents, they were touched with ingenuous modesty, so as to be on their guard against such enormities. But all these followed the empty shadow of justice; and here the serious observance of the law is treated, which cannot flow from anything else but, the fear of God, and this, as Scripture says, is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 1:7.) A person thus may be blameless through his whole life, and yet not touch on any part of justice, since righteousness flows from only one principle — the fear of God. He afterwards adds, and has not done according to them. We see, therefore, that those who implicate themselves in others’ crimes are not otherwise deceived, unless they purposely stifle all difference between good and evil; for if they had attended to this, they would doubtless have been touched with some fear, and thus have governed their life according to God’s precepts: but scarcely one in a hundred thinks of this, and hence every one mingles freely with his neighbors, and so all perish together. He afterwards adds, he has not eaten upon the mountains, has not raised his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel: we have explained all these: and has not oppressed any one, and has not received a pledge. We said that this ought not to be explained of every pledge; for it was lawful for any one, on giving money, to receive a pledge for its return, but not from one who is destitute of either garments or the necessary implements of trade: so I pass this by. He has not received a prey, has distributed his bread to the hungry He adds, what he had not touched on previously, he has withdrawn his hand from the poor. This seems to differ from the opinion which we had in the sixteenth chapter, (Ezekiel 16:49.) Among the sins of Sodom, the Prophet there puts this also, that they withdrew their hand from the poor and needy; and surely, when we stretch forth the hand for the sake of help, it is a true proof of charity; but if we withdraw the hand, it is a proof of cruelty, since we do not deign to aid a brother who ought to obtain some favor from us. But we must bear in mind that there are two senses in which the hand is either extended or withdrawn. If I extend my hand to the poor to supply what is wanting, and to the weak to render him aid, this is the duty of charity. If, on the contrary, I withdraw my hand, I unjustly turn away from him who implores my confidence, and whose misery ought to win for him some favor. But we extend the hand when we seize on a neighbor’s goods, and violently deprive him of them, and despoil the innocent of their rights. On the contrary, he who withdraws his hand is humane in sparing his brethren, and not enriching himself at their expense, and profiting by their oppression. In this sense the Prophet now enumerates withdrawing the hand from the poor in the list of virtues, because the poor are subject to all kinds of injury. If, therefore, when we see booty already prepared for us, and yet we refrain from it, this is a proof of true charity. But again, we must remark upon what I treated but briefly yesterday, namely, that we must withdraw our hands from the poor, because nothing is more easy than to be enticed to make a gain of the poor; and wherever occasion and impunity offer themselves, avarice so seizes us, that we neither discern nor consider what is right and fair. Every one who wishes to preserve his self-restraint, and to subdue his affections, ought to attend to this with all his strength and with constant struggling: thus the Prophet says, we must withdraw the hand
Now at last he concludes: he shall not die through his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. He does not repeat that this is just, yet we must understand it so; but he stops at the immediate effect, since God’s blessing awaits all the just, as Isaiah says surely there is a reward to the just, (Isaiah 3:10;) and the Prophet exclaims as if it were believed with difficulty: for, since we see all things revolving promiscuously in the world, we directly imagine either that God is at rest in heaven, or that chance governs all things here on earth. But we must strive against this perverse supposition, and determine, as Isaiah teaches, that there is a reward for the just. The Prophet now expresses this, while a difficult question arises from the passage; for he says that he is just who has kept the law, and so God will bestow a recompense upon. him: hence these two things are connected together, and the question which I mentioned arises from the former clause; for the whole Scriptures teach that no one is just, and that none can be justified by the law. But these things are contrary to each other; to be just and worthy of reward through keeping the law, since none is just, all are transgressors, all devoid of justice, and so but one remedy remains — that of seeking our safety from the gratuitous mercy of God. But although, at first sight, this kind of it consistency disturbs the rude and partially-exercised commentator, yet this solution is easy, since, strictly speaking, justice is the observance of the law. If any one asks, then, what justice is, the proper definition is, the observance of law. Why so? Because the law, as I said yesterday, lays down the solid rule of justice; whoever observes it will be esteemed just; and thus justification is properly said to be placed in works. But, on the other hand, Scripture pronounces what is very true, and entirely confirmed by experience, that no one can satisfy the law, and, on account of this defect, we are all deprived of justification by works. What I have said may be made much clearer by many testimonies of Scripture. Not the hearer of the law, says Paul, in the second chapter of the epistle to the Romans, but the doer of the law, shall be justified, (Romans 2:13.) There Paul speaks naturally, that those are just who conform their whole life to the obedience of God’s law. So also John, in his canonical epistle: He who does righteousness is righteous. (1 John 3:7.) Now, if any one asks whether any perfect observer of the law can be found, or one who does justice in every respect, the answer is at hand, that we are all by nature very far gone from all righteousness, and all our senses and affections are enemies which contend against God’s law, as Paul teaches: The whole soul of man is perverse, and we are not fit to think anything of ourselves, and that all our sufficiency is of God, since we are slaves of sin. (Romans 8:7; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Romans 11:0.) But it would be superfluous to heap together many testimonies. Let it suffice, then, that we are by nature all together rebels against God, so that not the slightest particle of good can be found in us. As far as concerns the faithful, they aspire indeed to righteousness, but lamely, and at a great distance from their aim; they often wander from the way, and they often fall, so that they do not satisfy the law, and hence require God’s pity. Hence we must come to the second kind of righteousness, which is improperly so called, namely, that which we obtain from Christ. He who does righteousness is righteous. (l John 3:7.) None of us does it; but Christ, who fulfilled the law, is esteemed just before God. Hence it is necessary that we should be approved by God through his righteousness; that is, it is imputed to us, and we are accepted through his righteousness. Hence justification by faith, as it is called, is not properly righteousness; but on account of the defect of true righteousness, it is necessary to fly to this as to a sacred anchor; and Paul, in the tenth chapter to the Romans, explains this briefly and clearly. The righteousness of the law, says he, thus speaks: He who has done these things shall live in them; but the righteousness of faith says, He who has believed shall be just. The Apostle here speaks of a double righteousness — that of the law and of faith: he says, that the righteousness of the law is situated in works, since no one is thought just unless he fulfills the law. (Romans 10:5.) Since all are far distant from this standard, another is added and substituted, namely, that we may embrace the righteousness of Christ by faith, and so become just, by another righteousness without us: for if any one again objects that justification by the law is superfluous, I answer, that it profits us in two ways; first, because the law brings in those convicted of their own unrighteousness to Christ. This, then, is one fruit of the law, that we renounce our own righteousness, when our iniquity so discloses itself, that it compels us to be silent before God, as we formerly saw. A more fruitful result follows; because, when God regenerates his elect, he inscribes a law on their hearts and in their inward parts, as we have elsewhere seen, and shall see again in the thirty-sixth chapter. (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26.) But the difficulty is not yet solved; because the faithful, even if regenerated by God’s Spirit, endeavor to conform themselves to God’s law, yet, through their own weakness, never arrive at that point, and so are never righteous: I answer, although the righteousness of works is mutilated in the sons of God, yet it is acknowledged as perfect, since, by not imputing their sins to them, he proves what is his own. Hence it happens, that although the faithful fall back, wander, and sometimes fall, yet they may be called observers of the law, and walkers in the commandments of God, and observers of his righteousness. But this arises from gratuitous imputation, and hence also its reward. The works of the faithful are not without reward, because they please God, and pleasing God, they are sure of remuneration. We see, then, how these things are rightly united, that no one obeys the law, and that no one is worthy of the fruits of righteousness, and yet that God, of his own liberality, acknowledges as just those who aspire to righteousness, and repay them with a reward of which they are unworthy. When, therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds, this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop. But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. Thus it still remains true, that faith without works justifies, although this needs prudence and a sound interpretation; for this proposition, that faith without works justifies is true and yet false, according to the different senses which it bears. The proposition, that faith without works justifies by itself, is false, because faith without works is void. But if the clause “without works” is joined with the word “justifies,” the proposition will be true, since faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead, and a mere fiction. He who is born of God is just, as John says. (1 John 5:18.) Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from his heat yet faith justifies without works, because works form no reason for our justification; but faith alone reconciles us to God, and causes him to love us, not in ourselves, but in his only begotten Son. Now, therefore, that question is solved, when the Prophet teaches that life is reposed in the just, even if they are born of wicked and unholy parents.
Lastly, we must notice the word “life,” since the word “living” ought not to be understood only of life on earth, but looks to eternal life: and here some expositors are mistaken: for because they could not free themselves from those difficulties which I lately explained, they interpreted the words of Moses in a civil sense — He who has done these things shall live in them. But Moses is speaking of life eternal. Hence we must hold, not only that a reward is promised in this life to the just observers of the law, but that eternal life is also a promised reward. Besides, as I have said, since we are all destitute of righteousness, so we thought not to hope for any reward, since we are all under the law and under the curse, as Paul says: neither is there any means of escape, as Paul again says, (Galatians 3:10,) unless we fly with complete and abject faith to the mercy of God alone, and to the satisfaction by which Christ has reconciled us to his Father. Here I shall finish.
He inculcates the same thing more at length, not for the sake of ornament so much as to refute that impious saying in which the Israelites so perniciously persisted. Since then it was difficult to tear from their minds what was so deeply rooted in them, the Prophet often exclaims that no one was punished except he deserved it for his crimes. He adds in the next verse what seems superfluous and absurd: for the Israelites did not contend with God for sparing the innocent: but here Ezekiel represents them speaking as if they wished the innocent son to be punished equally with the wicked father. But he does not mean that they contended about the right, but about the fact, as we usually say. For since they were imbued with that error, that punishments extended beyond the criminals, on the other hand he pronounces that the just were not absolved by their own goodness, if they sprang from impious parents, although the people supposed so; for they were buried under their own depraved judgment, otherwise they must have perceived that justice is never deprived by God of its reward of life.
Ezekiel still pursues the sentiment which we have explained, namely, that God is a just judge and treats every one according to his conduct; as Paul says, As each has lived in the flesh, so God lays up a reward for him. (Romans 8:13.) But he more clearly refuted the proverb, that the sons should suffer for their fathers’ sins. He says, then, that each when he comes before God’s tribunal should be judged by his works. As far then as the general sentiment is concerned, it is in accordance with common sense that God should exact punishment of the wicked, and that they should receive the just reward of their works. But in the next clause, the question arises how the Spirit here pronounces that the son should not pay the penalty due to the father, when God so often declares that he visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 20:5.) That sentiment often occurs: but there are two passages peculiarly remarkable, where it is annexed to the second precept of the law, (Deuteronomy 5:9,) and then in that remarkable vision which occurred to Moses, God pronounces the same thing as before, namely, that the iniquity of the fathers should fall upon the sons. (Exodus 34:7.) These passages seem opposed to each other, but it will be easy to remove the contradiction by beginning with the fall of Adam, since if we do not consider the whole race fallen in Adam, we can scarcely extricate ourselves from that difficulty which we often feel as causing pungent scruples. But the principle of one universal fall in Adam removes all doubts. For when we consider the perishing of the whole human race, it is said with truth that we perish through another’s fault: but it is added at the same time, that every one perishes through his own iniquity. If then we inquire into the cause of the curse which presses upon all the posterity of Adam, it may be said to be partly another’s and partly our own: another’s, through Adam’s declension from God, in whose person the whole human race was spoiled of righteousness and intelligence, and all parts of the soul utterly corrupted. So that every one is lost in himself, and if he wishes to contend with God, he must always acknowledge that the fountain of the curse flows from himself. For before the child was born into the world, it was corrupt, since its menial intelligence was buried in darkness, and its will was perverse and rebellious against God. As soon as infants are born they contract pollution from their father Adam: their reason is blinded, their appetites perverted, and their senses entirely vitiated. This does not immediately show itself in the young child, but before God, who discerns things more acutely than we do, the corruption of our whole nature is rightly treated as sin. There is no one who during the course of his life does not perceive himself liable to punishment through his own works; but original sin is sufficient for the condemnation of all men. When men grow up they acquire for themselves the new curse of what is called actual sin: so that he who is pure with reference to ordinary observation, is guilty before God: hence Scripture pronounces us all naturally children of wrath: these are Paul’s words in the second chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, (Ephesians 2:3.) If then we are children of wrath, it follows that we are polluted from our birth: this provokes God’s anger and renders him hostile to us: in this sense David confesses himself conceived in sin. (Psalms 51:5.) He does not here accuse either his father or his mother so as to extenuate his own wickedness; but, when he abhors the greatness of his sin in provoking the wrath of God, he is brought back to his infancy, and acknowledges that he was even then guilty before God. We see then that David, being reminded of a single sin, acknowledges himself a sinner before he was born; and since we are all under the curse, it follows that we are all worthy of death. Thus, the son properly speaking shall not die through the iniquity of his father, but is considered guilty before God through his own fault.
Now let us proceed further. When God pronounces that the iniquity of the father returns into the bosom of the son, we must remember that when God involves the son in the same death with the father, he does so principally because the son of the impious is destitute of his Spirit: whence it happens that he remains in the death in which he was born. For if we do not consider any other punishments than those which are openly inflicted, a new scruple will again arise from which we cannot free ourselves, since this inquiry will always recur, how can the son perish by his own fault, if he can produce good fruit and so reconcile himself to God? But the first punishment with which God threatens the reprobate is that which I have mentioned, namely, that their offspring are destitute and deprived of spiritual gifts, so that they sink deeper and deeper into destruction: for there are two kinds of punishment, the one outward and the other inward, as we express it. God punishes the transgressors of his law by either the sword, or by famine, or by pestilence, as he everywhere denounces: he is also armed with other means of slaughter for executing his wrath, and all these punishments are outward and openly apparent. But there is another sort inward and hidden, when God takes away the spirit of rectitude from the reprobate, when he gives them up to a reprobate mind, subjects them to foul desires, and deprives them of all his gifts hence God is said to cause the fathers’ iniquity to recoil upon the children not only when he outwardly punishes the little ones, but because he devotes a cursed offspring to eternal destruction, through being destitute of all the gifts of the Spirit,. Now we know that God is the fountain of life, (Psalms 36:9,) whence it follows that all who are separated from him are dead. Now therefore it is evident how God throws the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, since when he devotes both father and son to eternal destruction, he deprives them of all his gifts, blinds their minds, and enslaves all their appetites to the devil. Although we may, in one word, embrace the whole matter of the children suffering for the fathers when he leaves them to simple nature, as the phrase is, since in this way he drowns them in death and destruction. But outward punishments also follow afterwards, as when God sends lightning upon Sodom many young children perished, and all were absorbed with their parents. (Genesis 19:24.) If any one asks by what right they perished, first they were sons of Adam and so were accursed, and then God wished to punish the Sodomites through their offspring, and he could do so deservedly. Concerning the young who thus perished with their fathers, it is said, happy is he who dashes thy young ones against the stones or the pavement. (Psalms 137:9.) At first sight, indeed, that atrocity seems intolerable that a child whose age and judgment is thus tender should be so cruelly slain: but as we have already said, all are naturally children of wrath. (Ephesians 2:2.) No wonder, therefore, that God withdraws his favor from the offspring of the reprobate, even if he executes these outward judgments. But how will this now be suitable, shall not the son bear the iniquity of the father? for Ezekiel here speaks of adults, for he means that the son shall not bear his father’s iniquity, since he shall receive the reward due to himself and sustain his own burden. Should any one wish to strive with God, he can be refuted in a single word: for who can boast himself innocent? Since therefore all are guilty through their own fault, it follows that the son does not bear his father’s iniquity, since he has to bear his own at the same time. Now that question is solved.
He now adds, the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the impiety of the impious shall be upon him. We said that this was the legal sentence: if God used the same language everywhere, no hope of safety would be left to us. For who would be found just if his life were judged strictly by the law? But it has already been said, speaking accurately, that God rewards those worshipers who observe his law, and punish those who transgress it. But since we are all far from perfect obedience, Christ is offered to us, from whom we may partake of righteousness, and in this way be justified by faith. Meanwhile it is true, according to the rule of the law, that the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, since God will not disappoint any, but will really perform what he has promised. But he promises a reward to all who observe his law. If any one object that this doctrine is useless and superfluous, we have an answer at hand, that it is in many ways useful, since, first of all, we acknowledge that God, although he owes us nothing, yet willingly binds himself to be reconciled to us; and thus his surprising liberality appears. Then we again collect, that by transgression we cannot profit or obtain any advantage when God offers a reward to all who observe his law. For what can we demand more equitable than that God should of his own accord be our debtor? and should reward us while he holds us bound to himself, and completely subject to him with all our works? And that pattern of Christ must be considered, When you have done all that was commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants. (Luke 17:10.) Why so? for we return nothing but what God has justly required of us. We gather, then, from this sentence, that we cannot expostulate with God, or complain of anything while the fault of our own condemnation resides in us for not keeping the law. Thirdly, we acknowledge another instance of God’s mercy in his clothing us in the righteousness of his Son, when he sees us in want of a righteousness of our own, and altogether destitute of everything good. Fourthly, we said that they are esteemed just who do not satisfy the law, since God does not impute their sins to them. Hence the righteousness of the law is not without fruit among the faithful; since on account of that blessedness which is described in Psalms 32:2, their works are taken into account and remunerated by God. So the righteousness of the righteous is upon him, just as the impiety of the impious is upon him, and it shall recoil upon his own head. It follows —
In this sentence God proposes the hope of pardon, and invites and exhorts to penitence all the transgressors of his law. But this doctrine is specially worthy of notice, that God extends his arms, and is prepared to meet and receive all who betake themselves to good fruits: for despair hurls us into madness, and then hardens our hearts by abandoned obstinacy. Hence it is necessary that God should extend his hand towards us, and animate us to penitence. This is the meaning of this passage of the Prophets, as soon as the impious is turned away from his impiety, God will be at peace with him. Now we see that no excuse remains for us if this humane invitation of God does not stir us up when he bears witness that he is propitious to us when we heartily desire to be reconciled to him. But he here requires serious repentance when he says, if the impious has turned away from his impiety, and has kept my statutes, and done justice and judgment, he shall live, says he. For a sort of half conversion is discerned in many who think that in this way they are safe before God, but they are greatly deceived; for many mingle virtues with vices, and imagine their guilt blotted out, if they can only bring forward something as worthy of praise. But this is just as if any one should offer muddy will to his master, because he had mixed it not only with dregs, but even with filth: so are all the works of those who do not put away all depraved desires, and strive to free themselves from all the corruption’s of the flesh. Thus what is here taught is worthy of notice, namely, that the beginning of conversion is, when any one renounces himself and his own lusts. But it is necessary to add another part of duty, that when any one bids farewell to his vices, he must devote himself obediently to God. The Prophet joins the two together, therefore, since one cannot be separated from the other. Hence the Spirit here shortly defines what true and legitimate conversion is. He says, that when any one is thus converted, that his life is prepared for God, since God will forget all his sins. This is a confirmation of the doctrine; for God cannot be entreated as long as he imputes our sins to us: hence, that we may determine him to be propitious to us, he promises, as soon as we repent, that all our sins shall be buried, and no longer come into remembrance. But this is the incomparable goodness of God, since he deigns to forget all our sins as soon as he sees us earnestly desirous of returning to him. On the whole, Ezekiel pronounces that all the penitent pass at once from death to life, since God blots out all their transgressions by voluntary oblivion. It afterwards follows —
He confirms the same sentiment in other words, that God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety. And for this reason not only is the Gospel spread abroad in the world, but God wished to bear witness through all ages how inclined he is to pity. For although the heathen were destitute of the law and the prophets, yet they were always endued with some taste of this doctrine. Truly enough they were suffocated by many errors: but we shall always find that they were induced by a secret impulse to seek for pardon, because this sense was in some way born with them, that God is to be appeased by all who seek him. Besides, God bore witness to it more clearly in the law and the prophets. In the Gospel we hear how familiarly he addresses us when he promises us pardon. (Luke 1:78.) And this is the knowledge of salvation, to embrace his mercy which he offers us in Christ. It follows, then, that what the Prophet now says is very true, that God wills not the death of a sinner, because he meets him of his own accord, and is not only prepared to receive all who fly to his pity, but he calls them towards him with a loud voice, when he sees how they are alienated from all hope of safety. But the manner must be noticed in which God wishes all to be saved, namely, when they turn themselves from their ways. God thus does not so wish all men to be saved as to renounce the difference between good and evil; but repentance, as we have said, must precede pardon. How, then, does God wish all men to be saved? By the Spirit’s condemning the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment at this day, by the Gospel, as he did formerly by the law and the prophets. (John 16:8.) God makes manifest to mankind their great misery, that they may betake themselves to him: he wounds that he may cure, and slays that he may give life. We hold, then, that; God wills not the death of a sinner, since he calls all equally to repentance, and promises himself prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent. If any one should object — then there is no election of God, by which he has predestinated a fixed number to salvation, the answer is at hand: the Prophet does not here speak of God’s secret counsel, but only recalls miserable men from despair, that they may apprehend the hope of pardon, and repent and embrace the offered salvation. If any one again objects — this is making God act with duplicity, the answer is ready, that God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways, and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned. Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our own intelligence. (1 Corinthians 13:12.) When we shall be like God, and see him face to face, then what is now obscure will then become plain. But since captious men torture this and similar passages, it will be needful to refute them shortly, since it can be done without trouble.
God is said not to wish the death of a sinner. How so? since he wishes all to be converted. Now we must see how God wishes all to be converted; for repentance is surely his peculiar gift: as it is his office to create men, so it is his province to renew them, and restore his image within them. For this reason we are said to be his workmanship, that is, his fashioning. (Ephesians 2:10.) Since, therefore, repentance is a kind of second creation, it follows that it is not in man’s power; and if it is equally in God’s power to convert men as well as to create them, it follows that the reprobate are not converted, because God does not wish their conversion; for if he wished it he could do it: and hence it appears that he does not wish it. But again they argue foolishly, since God does not wish all to be converted, he is himself deceptive, and nothing can be certainly stated concerning his paternal benevolence. But this knot is easily untied; for he does not leave us in suspense when he says, that he wishes all to be saved. Why so? for if no one repents without finding God propitious, then this sentence is filled up. But we must remark that God puts on a twofold character: for he here wishes to be taken at his word. As I have already said, the Prophet does not here dispute with subtlety about his incomprehensible plans, but wishes to keep our attention close to God’s word. Now, what are the contents of this word? The law, the prophets, and the gospel. Now all are called to repentance, and the hope of salvation is promised them when they repent. this is true, since God rejects no returning sinner: he pardons all without exception: meanwhile, this will of God which he sets forth in his word does not prevent him from decreeing before the world was created what he would do with every individual: and as I have now said, the Prophet only shows here, that when we have been converted we need not doubt that God immediately meets us and shows himself propitious. The remainder tomorrow.
As in the last lecture the Prophet offered to sinners a sure hope of pardon if they heartily repented, and promised that God would be propitious to them as soon as they shall seek reconciliation with him: so now, on the other hand, he pronounces, if the just shall decline from his justice, whatever he has hitherto done, shall not come into the account before God. He urged sinners to repentance when he assured them that God was prepared to pardon them: but he now frightens those who profess for the occasion to be pure and sincere worshipers of God, if they fall back in the midst of their course: as Paul says, Let him who stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12.) Besides, we gather from this passage, as Christ teaches, that those only are happy who persevere, (Matthew 24:13;) since a temporary righteousness will never profit those apostates who afterwards turn aside from God. We see, then, how these two clauses unite together, namely, that God invites all who are in danger of perdition with extended arms, and promises them salvation if they heartily return to him. Again, that he may restrain within the bounds of duty those who have made some progress, and correct their sloth and stir up their anxiety, he threatens, that unless they pursue the course of a holy and pious life to the end, their former righteousness will not profit them. But here a question arises, Can a truly just person deflect from the right way? for he who is begotten of God is so free from the tyranny of sin that he devotes himself wholly to righteousness: and then if any do turn aside, they prove that they were always strangers to God. If they had been of us, says John, they would never have gone out from us. (1 John 2:19.) And regeneration is an incorruptible seed: so we must determine that the faithful who are truly regenerate never fall away from righteousness, but are retained by God’s unconquered power: for God’s calling in the elect is without repentance. (Romans 11:29.) Hence he continues the course of his grace even to the end. Nor are they to be listened to, who, in contradiction to Scripture, teach that faith is extinct in the elect, when, through its barrenness, they bring forth no fruit. In what sense, then, does Ezekiel mean that the just fall away? That question is easily answered, since he is not here treating of the living root of justice, but of the outward form or appearance, as we commonly say. Paul reminds us that God knows us, but adds, that this seal remains. (2 Timothy 2:19.) God therefore claims to himself alone the difference between the elect and the reprobate, since many seem to be members of his Church who are only outwardly such. And that passage of Augustine is true, that there are many wolves within, and many sheep without. (227) For before God demonstrates his election, the sheep wander, and seem altogether strangers to the hope of salvation. Meanwhile many hypocrites make use of the name of God, and openly boast themselves pre-eminent in the Church, but inwardly they are wolves. But because it often happens that some make the greatest show of piety and justice, the Prophet very properly says, that if such fall away, they cannot boast of their former righteousness before God, since its remembrance will be bloated out.
In fine, we see that the word righteousness is referred to our senses, and not to God’s hidden judgment; so that the Prophet does not teach anything but what we perceive daily: for those who seem to excel others desert their calling, shake off every yoke, and cast away the fear of God, and sometimes rush on with diabolical fury. When this result occurs we hear what the Spirit pronounces by the mouth of the Prophet, that none of their righteousness shall be taken into account. But weight is added to his words when he says, if you have turned aside from righteousness, and done according to all the abominations of the impious, (or wicked,) shall he live? For the Prophet separates those who desert God and rush into every wickedness from those who fall through infirmity or want of thought, and from those also who would fall headlong into ruin, unless God preserved them, yet do not utterly cast off his fear, and the desire of living piously and righteously. For example: every one is occasionally off his guard; and hence, in numberless ways, we offend God through error: and hence David exclaims, Who can understand his faults? (Psalms 19:12.) We fall of our own accord, since we are often conquered by temptations, even when our consciences accuse us; so that, although sanctified, we decline from the path of uprightness through ignorance, and depart from duty through infirmity. But what is far worse, the saints sometimes rush headlong, as though utterly desperate. For the example of David shows that the elect, although regenerated by God’s Spirit, not only sin to a small extent, but, as I have said, plunge into the very lowest abyss. David became a perfidious homicide, and a traitor to the army of God; then that wretched king fell into a series of crimes: yet he failed in only one thing, and showed that God’s grace was only suffocated within him, and not altogether extinguished. For as soon as Nathan reproves him, he confesses that he had sinned, and is prepared to undergo any punishment which God may inflict. Since, therefore, the saints sometimes fall, the Prophet here stretches forth his hand, lest they should despair, and bears witness that God does not reject them unless they turn aside from their righteousness and commit all the abominations which the impious do. By these words, as we see, he expresses a complete revolt, and he so mitigates the severity of the sentence, lest the minds of those who had only partially relapsed should despond. Now we see the meaning of this language: If he has done according to all the abominations of the wicked, shall he live? says he; all the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered, because he shall perish. Here the Prophet shows that: a mere temporary righteousness will not profit us unless we persevere unto the end in the fear of God.
Here again the contrast is worthy of notice, because it enables us to refute a fiction which is current in the schools of the papacy. They say that guilt is remitted by God, but the punishment is retained. Now what says our Prophet? If the impious turn away from his impiety, I will no longer remember any of his iniquities. Here the papists thrust for-ward the foolish distinction, that God does not remember them as to their guilt, but he does as to their punishment. But what follows a little afterwards? If the just turn away from his justice, his justice shall not be taken into account. But if they do not come into the account as to merit, and yet do as to reward, what is the meaning of the passage? how will the Prophet’s meaning stand? But it is necessary thus to receive what the Prophet says; because, if the distinction of guilt and punishment avails, that of merit and reward will avail also. Hence it will follow, that as to merit God forgets all acts of righteousness; but as far as reward is concerned, they are remembered since they are not abolished. Since, then, it is sufficiently clear that the righteousness of the backslider is not taken into account, so as to lead him to hope for reward, it follows, on the other hand, that his sins are abolished not only as to guilt, but also as to punishment. It now follows —
(227) Augustine. Comment, in John 10:16.
The Prophet here shows that those who used the vulgar taunt — that the children’s teeth were set on edge, because their fathers had eaten sour grapes — had broken away from all restraint; and nothing further remained to hinder them from uttering their blasphemies arrogantly against God: but their insolence and madness now increases when they say that God’s ways are not equal. And this is discerned in almost all hypocrites: at first they indirectly find fault with God, and yet pretend not to do so: while they endeavor to excuse themselves, they accuse him of injustice, and of too much rigor, yet they do not openly break out into such impiety as to dare to charge God with this crime: but after they profit nothing by their double dealing, the devil inflames them to such a pitch of boldness that they hesitate not openly to condemn God himself. The Prophet refers to this when he says that this disgraceful saying was bandied about among the Israelites, that the ways of the Lord are unequal. Lest, therefore, we should happen to resist God, and to contend with him, let us learn to restrain our rashness in good time before he becomes enraged against us. As soon as any thoughts spring up, tending to reflect upon the character of the Almighty, let us quickly restrain them; for if we do not, they will entangle us by degrees, and draw us into the extremity of folly, and then no sense of either religion or shame will deter us from open rebellion against God. But it is worth while noticing the source of this impiety: first of all, when we think of men’s relation to God, they should be ashamed to rise up against their Maker: for the clay does not cry out against the potter; and we are a hundredfold more insignificant than the clay, with reference to God. (Isaiah 45:9; Romans 9:20.)
But let us come to another consideration. We know with how much greater clearness the angels are able reverently to adore God’s wisdom than the human race. What, therefore, must we do? Not only is God’s wisdom incomprehensible, but his justice is the most perfect rule of all justice. Now, if we desire to pass opinions upon God’s works according to our own perceptions, and to weigh them in our balance, what else are we doing but passing judgment upon him? But we must remember that passage of Isaiah, As I live, says Jehovah, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall swear by me. (Isaiah 45:23.) Paul, too, is a faithful interpreter of this sentiment, when he forbids mortals to judge arrogantly, by saying, we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ (Romans 14:10.) Since, then, it will be necessary for us to render an account before Christ heavenly tribunal, we must now acquiesce in God’s judgments; because, when at length our license has entirely spent itself, and our petulance has had its full scope, God will be our judge. We see, therefore, that when men claim to themselves the right of daring to pronounce their own opinions on God’s work, they first subject his wisdom to their own fictions, and then feel too much hostility and contempt towards his justice. But this one thing ought to be sufficient, that men are too forgetful of their own condition when they dare to open their mouth against their Maker, not only to murmur, but openly to condemn him, as if they were his superiors. Let us then obey the contrary rule; let us with sobriety and modesty learn to look upon those works of God which are unknown to us, and to concede to him the praise of supreme wisdom, although his counsels seem at first sight contradictory. Hosea also briefly reminds us of this. For after God had promised that he would be merciful to the people, and when he had discoursed on the slaughter which he had inflicted, he says, that at length he would heal them: he adds, Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? (Hosea 14:9;) because many might have thought it inconsistent to remit so many sins for the abandoned people; and others might object that what they heard was utterly incredible and absurd, since God suffered the people to be utterly torn to pieces, so that no hope remained. For this reason, then, the Prophet exclaims, that we have need of rare and singular prudence to comprehend and embrace that teaching. When he says, “who is wise?” it signifies that the number is but small of those who will wait patiently till God really fulfills his promises. Yet he adds, because the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them; but the impious shall stumble and perish. When he speaks here of the ways of the Lord, he does not mean only precepts, though the Scriptures often take the word in this sense; but he means the whole order of government which God upholds, and all the judgments which he exercises. He says, therefore, that all the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them, since the just will give God the glory calmly, and with the proper docility; and when they are agitated by various doubts, and through their infirmity are ever in a ferment through the force of many temptations, yet they will always repose on the providence of God, and briefly determine, by cutting off every occasion for long and perplexing and thorny questions, that God is just. Thus the just walk in the ways of the Lord, because they submit to all his works.
He says also, that the impious stumble and fall; for as soon as they begin to think that God does not act rightly or prudently, they are rebellious, and are carried away by blind impulse, and their pride at length hurries them headlong into madness. Thus they stumble in the ways of the Lord: because, as we see in this passage, they vomit forth their blasphemies against God. Hence we ought, to be influenced by this course of action, namely, adoring with humility the counsel of God, although to us incomprehensible, and attributing the praise of justice to all his works, though in our opinion they may not correspond, or be consistent with each other. — This, then, is the sum of the whole. Although the Prophet speaks of the penalties which God inflicts on the reprobate, and of the reward which he has laid up for the just, yet we ought to ascend still higher; and if God in his deeds seems to pervert the whole course of justice, yet we should always be sustained by this bridle — he is just; and if his deeds are disapproved by us, it arises from our error and ignorance. For example, we not only contend with God when he seems not to repay us a just reward for our good works, or when he seems too severe towards us; but when his eternal election is discussed, we immediately roar out, because we cannot penetrate to so great a height: the pious, indeed, are not altogether free from perplexing doubts which disturb them, but they restrain themselves directly as I have said. But some restive men break out in this way, — I do not comprehend — I do not understand: hence God is unjust. We see how many blusterers in the present day betray their desperate impudence, whence this teaching should recur to our minds — the ways of God are right. But since we do not perceive how it is so, another clause is added, that our ways are not right; that is, that all our senses are defective, and our intellect blinded, and that we are all so corrupt that our judgment is perverted. If, therefore, we conclude with the Prophet, that our ways are not right, the glory of God’s justice will remain untarnished and entire. Afterwards he adds —
The Prophet repeats what we formerly saw, namely, that the state of the case turned upon this, Whether the people had any cause of complaint when God absolves those who repent, and condemns the just who desert the course of a pious and holy life? Now, we must always return to this cardinal point, that God rewards every one according to his works, since he offers mercy to all the lost, and demands nothing else but a sincere and hearty return to him. Since, then, God treats the impious with such clemency, and is so ready to pardon them, what is the reason why men contend with him? If the just should retrace his steps, and after having shown some signs of the fear of God, throw off all obedience, who can object when God punishes him, and blots out the remembrance of his former righteousness? God, therefore, determines the result fairly in each case. We have explained how the phrase, the just should turn aside from their righteousness, ought to be understood, not that the elect ever utterly fall away, as many think their faith is extinguished, and every root of piety also in the sons of God; that is too absurd, because, as I have said, the gift of regeneration has perseverance always annexed to it: but here that righteousness which mankind recognize is intended. But we know how frequently it happens that what seemed entirely pure and perfect is deficient. Now, God pronounces that he would punish all who fall away from him, and would be accessible and propitious to miserable sinners who desire to be reconciled to him; and he repeats again, if the wicked have seen and turned away from his wickedness. We must mark this phrase, for it shows that thinking rightly is the commencement of repentance; because, though the reprobate knowingly and willingly transgress God’s law, it is certain that they labor under blindness and madness, so that the Scripture does not call them foolish and beside themselves in vain. He does not extenuate their faults, as if they sinned ignorantly; but he means that they were so blinded by diabolical madness as to think of nothing; for surely horror would immediately possess their minds if they only perceived God to be their adversary, and themselves to be making war with him. For this reason, therefore, when the Prophet describes to us the conversion of the wicked, he says, if he has seen; that is, if at length he has returned to a sound mind, and collected his senses, so that he may not rush on madly, as he has been accustomed to do, but may look upon both God and himself. It now follows —
Here God briefly shows how furious those are who dare to rebel against him even when his justice is manifest: for what can be desired more justly than that God should punish all the transgressors of his law? and also, if sinners repent, that he should be prepared to pardon them? But if it seems hard that punishment should overtake the just if they fall away, common sense dictates that no virtue can be approved without perseverance. Since, therefore, it is very clear throughout this course of action, that God is just and without blame, what madness it is to vomit forth blasphemies against him, as if his ways were unjust! But God shows in one word, as I have mentioned, that the Israelites had no excuse for such dishonesty and impudence; and he repeats what he had formerly said, that men would always be guilty of rashness in insolently cursing God when their own ways are found oblique and perverse: but God will sufficiently vindicate his own ways. But we must add what follows —
Here God precisely points out that he would discharge the office of judge, and then he reduces the Israelites to order, and refutes their audacity: for, as long as men do not feel God’s judgments hanging over them, and are not held completely in cheek, they grow restive in their petulance. We see how ferocious and wanton the reprobate are, because they are not held in by the fear of punishment, nor do they dread the judgments of God. Hence that he may take away every vestige of excuse, he says, I will be your judge: plead now; but I will decide your strives in one word, since each of you shall be judged by my will. It is certain, then, that God here asserts for himself the praise of justice and rectitude; but at the same time he brings forward his own authority, that he may strike terror into those who thus madly dare to oppose his sway, and call upon him to render an account. Now, therefore, we understand in what sense he says that he will judge them all according to their ways; that is, although you do not confess yourselves worthy of destruction, it is sufficient that I, as the lawful judge, pronounce you so. I will judge you justly, therefore, since I pronounce sentence according to your ways and to my supreme power, that all your complaints and murmurs may cease. He afterwards exhorts them to repentance, and signifies that they have no other remedy than being dissatisfied with their sins, and deprecating his wrath. Hence we collect that men rebel so extravagantly against God, while they wander away from themselves, since, if they descended within themselves, and sincerely examined their whole life, they would be instantly humbled before God; hence that thought should stimulate them to repentance: but because their conscience is stupid, and they are willingly brutish, they boldly blaspheme God. On the other hand, God now offers a remedy on their repentance and return from their wickedness. The word being converted, or return, refers to the renovation of the mind and heart: for this also is the beginning of repentance, that we should be inwardly renewed in mind, as Paul says, and so be made new men. (Ephesians 4:22.) And this deserves notice, because many, when repentance is spoken of, fix their eyes only on the outward fruits of penitence. But we must begin at the root, as the Prophet teaches, by saying be you converted. But he afterwards adds, והשיבו, veheshibu, and return. This second word ought to be referred to the fruits of penitence; for as interior conversion comes first in order, when we leave off our peculiar vices, and renounce flesh and blood, the fruits and proofs of repentance thought to follow, as John said, Bring forth fruits as witnesses to your repentance. (Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8.) We see, then, that the Prophet begins with purity of heart, and then comes to hands, as the Scripture elsewhere says, flint is, to outward works. He says, from all your iniquities or crimes, to show that a partial repentance is not approved by God. It is true, indeed, that even those who strive with all their might to act rightly, do not succeed in discharging their duty without many faults remaining; but we are not treating here of perfection, but only of sincere affection and serious endeavors. Let us then only strive seriously to return into the way, and to humble ourselves calmly and sincerely: this is the integrity which the Prophet now requires.
Ezekiel again exhorts the people to leave off complaining, and to acknowledge that there is no remedy for their evils but to be reconciled to God. But that cannot be done unless they repent. For God was not hostile to them in vain; nor did he, after the manner of men, persecute with hatred the innocent, and those who did not deserve it. Hence it was necessary to seek God’s pardon suppliantly. Ezekiel had already touched upon this, but he now confirms it more at length. He says, therefore, that they not only lost their labor, but increased the flame of God’s wrath by striving with him, and complaining that they were unworthily treated by him: cast forth, says he, your iniquities from you. He shows that the cause of all evils is within themselves: so that they have no excuse. But he afterwards expresses more clearly that they were entirely imbued with contempt of God, impiety, and depraved desires. For if he had only spoken of outward wickedness, the reproof would have been partial, and therefore lighter; but after he commanded them to bid farewell to their sins, he adds, make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. He requires, therefore, from them a thorough renewal, so that they should not only conform their life to the rule of the law, but should fear God sincerely, since no one can produce good fruit but from a living root. Outward works, then, are the fruits of repentance, which must spring from some root; and this is the inward affection of the heart. What is added is to refute their impiety, for they wished their destruction to be ascribed to God. Here God takes up the character of a mourner, saying, Why will ye die, O house of Israel? while the next verse confirms this more clearly.
We see, therefore, how God throws off that false reproach from himself with which the children of Israel taunted him, saying, that they perished by his immoderate rigor, and could find no reason for his severity against them. He announces, on the other hand, that the cause of death rested with themselves; and then he points out the remedy, that they should amend their life, not only in outward appearance, but in sincerity of heart: and at the same time he testifies of his willingness to be entreated; nay, he meets them of his own accord, if they only repent heartily and unfeignedly. We now understand the Prophet’s meaning. We said, that we are admonished in this way, that if we desire to return to God we must begin at the beginning, namely, renewal of the heart and spirit; because, as Jeremiah says, he looks for truth and integrity, and does not value outward disguises. (Jeremiah 5:3.) But it may seem absurd for God to exhort the Israelites to form their hearts anew: and men badly trained in the Scriptures erect their crests under the pretense of this passage, as if it were in the power of man’s free will to convert himself. They exclaim, therefore, either that God here exhorts his people deceitfully, or else that when alienated from him we can by our own movement repent, and return into the way. But the whole Scripture openly refutes this. It is not in vain that the saints so often pray that God would renew them; (Psalms 51:12, and very often elsewhere;) for it would be a feigned and a lying prayer, if newness of heart were not his gift. If any one requests of God what he is persuaded that he has already, and by his own inherent virtue, does he not trifle with God? But nothing occurs more frequently than this mode of entreaty. Since therefore, the saints pray to God to renew them, they doubtless confess that to be his peculiar gift; and unless he moves his hand, they have no strength remaining, so that they can never rise from the ground. Besides, in many passages God claims the renewal of the heart as peculiar to himself. We noticed that remarkable passage in the eleventh chapter of this Prophet, (Ezekiel 11:19,) he will repeat the same in the thirty-sixth chapter, (Ezekiel 36:26;) and we know what Jeremiah says in his thirty-first chapter, (Jeremiah 31:33.) But Scripture is everywhere full of testimonies of this kind, so that it would be superfluous to heap together many passages; nay, if any one denies that regeneration is a gift of the Holy Spirit, he will tear up by the roots all the principles of piety. We have said that regeneration is like another creation; and if we compare it with the first creation, it far surpasses it. For it is much better for us to be made children of God, and reformed after his image within us, than to be created mortal: for we are born children of wrath, corrupt and degenerate; (Ephesians 2:3;) since all integrity was lost when God’s image was removed. We see, then, the nature of our first creation; but when God re-fashions us, we are not only born sons of Adam, but we are the brothers of angels, and members of Christ; and this our second life consists in rectitude, justice, and the light of true intelligence.
We now see that if it had been in man’s free will to convert himself, much more would be ascribed to him than to God, because, as we have said, it was much more valuable to be created sons of God than of Adam. It ought, then, to be beyond all controversy with the pious that men cannot rise again when they are fallen, and turn of themselves when alienated from God; but this is the peculiar gift of the Holy Spirit. And the sophists, who in all ways endeavor to obscure God’s grace, confess that half the act of conversion is in the power of the Holy Spirit: for they do not say that we are simply and totally converted by the motion of our own free will, but they imagine a concurrence of grace with free will, and of free will with grace. Thus they foolishly represent us as cooperating with God: they confess, indeed, that God’s grace goes before and follows; and they seem to themselves very liberal towards God when they acknowledge this twofold grace in man’s conversion. But God is not content with that partition, since he is deprived of half his right: for he does not say that he would assist men to renew themselves and to repent; but he attributes the work to himself entirely: I will give you a new heart and a new spirit. (Ezekiel 36:26.) If it is his to give, it follows that the slightest portion of it cannot be transferred to man without diminishing something from his right. But they object that the following precept is not in vain, that men should make for themselves a new heart. Now their deception arises through ignorance, from their judging of the powers of men by the commands of God; but the inference is incorrect, as we have said elsewhere: for when God teaches what is right, he does not think of what we are able to do, but only shows us what we ought to do. When, therefore, the power of our free will is estimated by the precepts of God, we make a great mistake, because God exacts from us the strict discharge of our duty, just as if our power of obedience was not defective. We are not absolved from our obligation because we cannot pay it; for God holds us bound to himself, although we are in every way deficient.
They object again, God then deludes men when he says, make yourselves a new heart. I answer, we must always consider to what purpose God thus speaks, namely, that men convicted of sin may cease to throw the blame on any one else, as they often endeavor to do; for nothing is more natural than to transfer the cause of our condemnation away from ourselves, that we may seem just, and God appear unjust. Since, then, such depravity reigns among men, hence the Holy Spirit demands from us what all acknowledge they ought to pay: and if we do not pay it, still we are bound to do so, and thus all strife and complaint should cease. Thus, as it concerns the elect, when God shows them their duty, and they acknowledge that they cannot discharge it, they fly to the aid of the Holy Spirit, so that the outward exhortation becomes a kind of instrument which God uses to confer the grace of his Spirit. For although he gratuitously goes before us, and does not need outward channels, yet he desires exhortations to be useful to this end. Since, therefore, this doctrine stirs up the elect to deliver themselves up to be ruled by the Holy Spirit, we see how it becomes fruitful to us. Whence it follows, that God does not delude or deceive us when he exhorts each of us to form his heart and his spirit afresh. In fine, Ezekiel wished by these words to show that pardon would be prepared for the Israelites if they seriously repented, and showed its effects through their whole life. That was most true, because the elect did not embrace this doctrine in vain, when at the same time God worked in them by his Spirit, and so turned them to himself. But the reprobate, though they do not cease to murmur, yet they are rendered ashamed, since all excuse has been removed, and they must perish through their own fault, since they willingly remained in their wickedness, and by self-indulgence they cherished the old man within themselves, — a fountain of all injustice. Whenever such passages occur, let us remember that celebrated prayer of Augustine: grant us what you command, and command what you wish, (Epist. 24;) for otherwise, if God should lay upon us the slightest burden, we should be unable to bear it. Besides, our strength will be sufficient to fulfill his requirements, if only he supply it, and we are not so foolish as to think anything comprehended in his precepts which he has not granted to us; because, as I have said before, nothing is more perverse than to measure the angelic righteousness of the law by our strength. By the word heart, I understand him to mean the seat of all the affections; and by spirit, the intellectual part of the soul. The heart is often taken for the reason and intelligence; but when these two words are joined together, the spirit relates to the mind, and so it is the intellectual faculty of the soul; but the heart is taken for the will, or the seat of all the affections. Hence we see how very corrupt the Israelites were, since they could not be otherwise reconciled to God, unless by being renewed in both heart and mind. Hence also we my gather the general doctrine, that nothing in us is sound and perfect, and hence all entire renovation is necessary that we may please God.
The subjoined phrase, why will ye die, O house of Israel? suggests many questions. Here unskillful men think that God speculates on what men will do, and that the salvation or destruction of each depends on themselves, as if God had determined nothing concerning us before the foundation of the world. Hence they set him at naught, since they fancy that he is held in suspense and doubt as to the future end of every one, and that he is not so anxious for our salvation, as to wish all to be saved, but leaves it in the power of every one to perish or to be saved as he pleases. But as I have said, this would reduce God to a specter. But we have no need of a long dispute, because Scripture everywhere declares with sufficient clearness that God has determined what shall happen to us: for he chose his own people before the foundation of the world and passed by others. (Ephesians 1:4.) Nothing is clearer than this doctrine; for if there had been no predestination on God’s part, there had been no deity, since he would be forced into order as if he were one of us: nay, men are to a certain extent provident, whenever God allows some sparks of his image to shine forth in them. If, therefore, the very smallest drop of foresight in men is laid hold of, how great must it be in the fountain itself? Insipid indeed is the comment, to fancy that God remains doubtful and waiting for what will happen to individuals, as if it were in their own power either to attain to salvation or to perish. But the Prophets words are plain, for God testifies with grief that he willeth not the death of a mortal. I answer, that there is no absurdity, as we said before, in God’s undertaking a twofold character, not that he is two-faced himself, as those profane dogs blurt out against us, but because his counsels are incomprehensible by us. This indeed ought to be fixed, that before the foundation of the world we were predestinated either to life or death. Now because we cannot ascend to that height, it is needful for God to conform himself to our ignorance, and to descend in some way to us since we cannot ascend to him. When Scripture so often says that God has heard, and inquires, no one is offended: all pass over those forms of speech securely, and confess them adopted from human language. (Genesis 16:11, and often.) Very often, I say, God transfers to himself the properties of man, and this is admitted universally without either offense or controversy. Although this manner of speaking is rather harsh: God came to see, (Genesis 11:5,) when he announces that he came to inquire about things openly known; it is easily excused, since nothing is less in accordance with his nature: for the solution is at hand, namely, that God speaks metaphorically, and adapts his speech to the convenience of men. Now why will not the same reasoning avail in the present case? for with respect to the law and the whole teaching of the prophets, God announces his wish that all should be saved. And surely we consider the tendency of the heavenly teaching, we shall find that all are promiscuously called to salvation. For the law was a way of life, as Moses testifies, This is the way, walk you in it: again, Whosoever has done those things shall live in them: and, again, This is your life. (Deuteronomy 30:15; Deuteronomy 32:47; Leviticus 18:5; Isaiah 30:21.) Then of his own accord God offers himself as merciful to his ancient people, so that this heavenly teaching ought to be life-giving. But what is the Gospel? It is God’s power unto salvation to every believer, says Paul. (Romans 1:16.) Therefore God delighteth not in the death of him who dieth, if he repent at his teaching. But if we wish to penetrate to his incomprehensible counsel, this will be another objection: Oh! but in this way God is chargeable with duplicity; — but I have denied this, though he takes up a twofold character, because this was necessary for our comprehension. Meanwhile Ezekiel announces this very truly as far as doctrine is concerned, that God wills not the death of him that perishes: for the explanation follows directly afterwards, be you converted and live. Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes? Because he invites all to repentance and rejects no one. Since this is so, it follows that he is not delighted by the death of him who perishes: hence there is nothing in this passage doubtful or thorny, and we should also hold that we are led aside by speculations too deep for us. For God does not wish us to inquire into his secret. Counsels: His secrets are with himself, says Moses, (Deuteronomy 29:29,) but this book for ourselves and our children. Moses there distinguishes between the hidden counsel of God, (which if we desire to investigate too curiously we shall tread on a profound abyss,)and the teaching delivered to us. Hence let us leave to God his own secrets, and exercise ourselves as far as we can in the law, in which God’s will is made plain to us and to our children. Now let us go on.
These files are public domain.
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter