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The Objections Answered
As noted in the introductory lecture, some Calvinists object to the idea that God may desire what he does not decree. We shouldn’t be surprised to find them objecting to the conclusions we’ve drawn from Ezekiel 33:11. Not only do they object to the idea that God may have desires that he doesn’t decree, but some of them also decry that view that God is really offering salvation to the non-elect. God may issue commands, but he’s not making offers! Thus, to avoid the conclusions we’ve drawn from the passage, they usually redefine one or more of the following: (1) the meaning of divine pleasure, (2) the identity of the wicked, and (3) the nature of the repentance and the life.
God Commands the Nation to Reform
John Owen identifies God’s pleasure in this passage as his preceptive will. Then he insists that God’s preceptive will only defines the duty of the wicked. In no way does it define God’s disposition.
Moreover, Owen argues that God’s directive is not directed to the nations but to the nation of Israel, that is, to the physical seed of Abraham. Therefore, we cannot apply this passage to the wicked in general.
Finally, Owen understands the “life” and “death” in the text as referring to the nation’s temporal welfare, not to her eternal welfare. Presumably, then, God is not necessarily calling for spiritual and evangelical repentance. Instead, he is merely demanding natural and legal repentance.11
John Gill agrees with Owen and summarizes the position as follows:
The expostulation, Why will ye die? is not made with all men; nor can it be proved that it was made with any who were not eventually saved, but with the house of Israel, who were called the children and people of God; and therefore cannot disprove any act of preterition passing on others, nor be an impeachment of the truth and sincerity of God. Besides, the death expostulated about, is not an eternal, but a temporal one, or what concerned their temporal affairs, and civil condition, and circumstances of life; see chap. xxxiii. 24 to 29.12
In summary, God is commanding the nation to reform her ways according to the dictates of his law so that they might continue to dwell in the land.
The Rejoinder …
First, we don’t deny God is commanding the nation. He does that explicitly by employing the double imperative (turn, turn) and the rhetorical question: “Why will you die?” which means something like “Don’t die!” Moreover, God commands them implicitly when he says, “I take pleasure in your repentance and life.” However, we cannot reduce the entire statement to a simple command. God’s grounds his directive—“repent”—on his disposition—“I take pleasure in your repentance.” In essence, God says, “Do X and Live!” because “I want you to do X and live!”
Second, we don’t deny that the nation Israel or physical seed of Abraham is the immediate audience God is addressing. That’s obvious by the vocative God employs at the end of his entreaty: “O, house of Israel!” However, the NT sometimes views the nation of Israel as paradigmatic for humanity as a whole. In Romans 3, for example, the apostle Paul cites passages from the Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah that describe Israel’s sinful condition (Rom 3:9-18).13 Then he draws the following conclusion:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (Rom 3:19, ESV).
Moreover, when Paul explains justification to the Gentiles, where does he derive his doctrine? He appeals to the God’s dealings with Israel in the OT, and then he posits two rhetorical questions: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?” His answer: “Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:29–30, ESV). If sinful Israel can serve as an exemplar for the entire sinful human race in many other OT passages, why not in Ezekiel 33? If God’s dealings with the patriarchs and their offspring can have soteriological ramifications for Gentiles, why not Ezekiel 33? Honestly, the position of Owen and Gill in this regard bears some resemblance to classical dispensationalism!
Third, we don’t deny that Israel’s temporal welfare falls within the scope of God’s concern. After all, Jesus assures his disciples in the NT that the Father cares for their temporal well-being, as he cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matt 6:25-33). Nevertheless, we would find it remarkable if God cared for the temporal well-being of his people but not their spiritual well-being. Indeed, we wonder how such a message would be encouraging to the besieged Israelites.
Furthermore, a parallel passage in Ezekiel 18 demonstrates that God is looking for something more than mere legal repentance and outward reformation. In that text, God identifies the kind of repentance he’s calling for:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live (Ezek 18:30–32).
Elsewhere, a “new heart” and a “new spirit” refer to moral and spiritual renewal (see Ezek 36:26). It could refer more narrowly to regeneration or more broadly to conversion. If the former, God is calling them to do what only he can do and is making them feel their inability so that they’ll look to him. If the latter, this is just another way of saying, “Repent and believe.” In any case, God is not merely commanding legal repentance and outward reformation.
In conclusion, the view that God is commanding the nation to reform her ways according to the dictates of his law so that they might continue to dwell in the land is seriously inadequate.14
God Desires the Salvation of His Elect
Herman Hoeksema interprets God’s pleasure as his decree. He sees the repentance called for as inward and evangelical. The life offered is eternal. Therefore, God has sovereignly purposed the repentance and life of the wicked in this passage.
But Hoeksema knows that not all wicked people repent and enjoy eternal life. Therefore, he believes the wicked in this passage are only those sinners whom God has elected unto salvation. Hence, the text teaches that God decrees the repentance of the elect for their eternal welfare. In a sermon on Ezekiel 33:11 entitled, “God’s Delight, the Life of the Wicked,” Hoeksema remarks,
That [the] text does not address all the wicked, beloved, is evident in the first place from the fact that the church is addressed. The church. Not the heathen. Not all men. But the church. The house of Israel is addressed here. “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?” And therefore the text does not mean all men in general in the first place.15
A little later he asserts, “It is very evident from Scripture that when you read, “God has no delight in the death of the wicked,” the reprobate wicked are certainly not included.”16
Matthew Winzer appears to agree with Hoeksema’s reading of our text. God’s word in Ezekiel 33:11 is not “ineffectual because it has reference to Israel as elect.” However, Winzer offers an additional argument. He notes the conditional “if … then” scenarios described in the larger context (33:12-16; cf. 18:19-22). Then he insists that God’s pleasure is conditioned on the wicked man’s penitence. In his words,
The conclusion is only realised when the condition is met…. It applies, hypothetically, to any within the house of Israel who would be of a mind to turn from wickedness and cease from charging God with injustice because of His judgements.17
So, according to Hoeksema and Winzer, God’s oath-bound affirmation and his impassioned entreaty are not intended for all Israel. They are only intended for the elect—for those whom God has ordained to eternal life and who, in time, receive the gift of repentance and turn from their sin.18
Some Problems …
First, it’s certainly true, as Winzer points out, that the “life” offered in the text is conditioned on the Israelite’s repentance. However, Winzer’s reading does not reflect the language of the text. God does not say, “I have pleasure that the wicked live if he repents.” Rather, God says, “I have pleasure that the wicked turn from his way and live.” In other words, God doesn’t just want penitent sinners to live. God also wants impenitent sinners to repent. In the words of Jesus, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10, ESV). So Winzer’s attempt to limit the scope of God’s pleasure fails.
Second, Hoeksema uses God’s secret will in order to limit the scope of God’s revealed will. However, the scope of God’s revealed will must be determined not by ascertaining God’s secret decree but by exegeting God’s revealed will (Deut 29:29). That is, if the language of the text naturally applies to sinners indiscriminately, then the message of the text applies to sinners indiscriminately. There’s no need to determine whether you are an elect sinner or a non-elect sinner. If you’re a sinner, God says he prefers you repent and live rather than die. So repent! The text applies to you!
Third, Hoeksema interprets the double imperative as a limiting description. God’s good news is limited to “the turning ones.” Hence, Ezekiel can say to the Israelites in Jerusalem, “I have some good news, but it’s only for some of you.” Not surprisingly, when Hoeksema preaches this text, he limits his application to the church:
Turn ye. Turn ye. Why should ye die, O house of Israel. Ye. Ye Ye whom God makes alive. Ye in whose life God takes delight. Ye for whom Christ died. Ye for whom Christ merited all the blessings of salvation. Why should ye die? Why should ye even walk in the way of death? Turn ye.19
But such an approach to the language of the text is unnatural and forced. The scope of the double imperative “turn, turn” is not limited to some sinners but applies to all the sinful Israelites in Jerusalem, whether elect or not. And if there’s no good reason to limit the human duty in the text, then there’s no good reason to limit the divine disposition on which that duty is founded.
In summary, there are no good linguistic or contextual reasons to define the wicked in Ezekiel 33:11 as the elect. The language more naturally applies to any and all sinners for whom Ezekiel functioned as a watchman. And since the scope of Ezekiel’s audience included the reprobate, then the referent of God’s “pleasure” cannot be God’s decree.
11 “The Death of Deaths,” in Works, 10:387-88.
12 The Cause of God and Truth (1735-1737; Sovereign Grace Book Club, n.d.), 25.
13 He pulls citations from Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ps. 5:9; 104:3; Ps. 10:7; Prov. 1:16; 3:15-17; Isa. 59:7; Ps. 36:1.
14 Interestingly, in a sermon entitled “The Strength of Faith” Owen employs Ezekiel 33:11 as a means to comfort the believer with the thought that God is earnest for our salvation and has sworn an oath to secure it. I fail to see how this use of the text is consistent with Owen’s reading of it in “The Death of Deaths.” The latter treatise was published in 1647. The sermon was published around the time of his death in 1722. It is possible he changed his view on the text.
15 “God’s Delight, the Life of the Wicked,” A Sermon Preached on Sunday, February 14, 1954; Accessed July 18, 2019, audio, 17:12: tinysa.com/sermon/531121054208.
16 Ibid., 24:38.
17 “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review,” The Blue Banner (2000); accessed September 18, 2008: http://www.dr-bacon.net/blue_banner_articles/murray-free-offer-review.htm.
18 According to Hoeksema, the reprobate may hear God’s declaration in Ezekiel 33:11. But since the words only apply to the elect, only the elect can really hear them.
19 Ibid., 58:56.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.