Series - WMO

The Well-Meant Offer: God Begs the Wicked to Repent (Ezek 33:11), Part 5

Two Practical Applications

What bearing do our exegetical conclusions from Ezekiel 33:11 have for our understanding of God’s disposition toward the lost and the well-meant offer of the gospel?

God Prefers Mercy Over Judgment

The Scriptures clearly teach that God angry with the wicked every day (Psa 7:11), and he will eventually judge every impenitent sinner (Rom 2:5-16; 6:23; Rev 20:11-15). Moreover, when the Lord Almighty enacts justice, he finds a holy and righteous satisfaction (Exod 34:7; Deut 28:63; Jer 9:24; Ezek 5:13; Rom 2:4-16; 3:24-26; Rev 15:3; 16:7).

Nevertheless, Ezekiel 33:11 teaches us that God’s wrath and judgment are his “strange” or “alien” work. In contrast, God’s love and salvation are his “proper” or “more natural” work. God prefers the repentance and salvation of wicked over their demise. “In a vehement protest,” says Leslie Allen,

Yahweh objects to being cast solely in the role of punitive destroyer. It does not express his ultimate will, which is to bestow life on those who turn from the bad lifestyle that occasioned the punishment. The judgment was a means to this very end.20

The Preacher’s Compassion is Not Blind!

In an article entitled “The Language and Theology of the ‘Free Offer,’” Paul Helm disagrees with John Murray support of the well-meant offer, and he sides instead with John Gill. Helm asserts,

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The Well-Meant Offer: God Begs the Wicked to Repent (Ezek 33:11), Part 4

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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.

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The Well-Meant Offer: God Begs the Wicked to Repent (Ezek 33:11), Part 3

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An Impassioned Entreaty

Having provided an oath-bound affirmation of his preference for mercy over judgment, God now turns to the wicked and entreats them: “Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11b, ESV).

1. We should view this entire response as an entreaty.

Some commentators and preachers divided the second half of Ezekiel 33:11 into two parts: an entreaty and a question. Syntactically, that’s correct. First, God gives a double imperative: “turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” Then, God asks a question, “For why will you die, O house of Israel?”

However, the question in this case is rhetorical. When God says, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” he is using a question to tell them quite emphatically, “I do not want you to die!”

This kind of rhetorical question is found elsewhere in Scripture. In Numbers 32 Moses urges the Reubenites and the Gadites to help their brothers take the land west of the Jordan. He uses two rhetorical questions:

But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (Numbers 32:6–7, ESV)

The question “Why will you discourage the heart of the people” is equivalent to “Don’t do that! Don’t discourage their hearts!”

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The Well-Meant Offer: God Begs the Wicked to Repent (Ezek 33:11), Part 2

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God instructs Ezekiel to respond to the people’s complaint, and the Lord’s response has two parts: first, God makes an oath-bound affirmation; second, he issues an impassioned entreaty. Let’s consider each of those in turn.

An Oath-bound Affirmation

Yahweh begins his response to the people’s complaint by swearing an oath. In the ancient Near East, people would sometimes swear by the life of their deity or by the life of the king to add solemnity to what they were about to say. They also did it to underscore the absolute truthfulness of their affirmation. It was roughly equivalent to the modern practice of placing one’s hand on the Bible and saying, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We would think it sufficient to say, “I will tell the truth.” How in the world is “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” more truthful than just the “truth”?! It’s like saying, “I promise to be completely honest” instead of saying, “I promise to be honest.”

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The Well-Meant Offer: God Begs the Wicked to Repent (Ezek 33:11), Part 1

The Prodigal Son, Nikolay Losev, 1882.

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The setting of Ezekiel’s prophecy in general and of our text in particular is the exile. The first phase of the exile took place around 605 B.C. The second phase of the exile took place about 7 or 8 years later, around 597 B.C. And the final stage of the exile took place in 586 B.C. This is when the Babylonians destroyed the walls and temple of Jerusalem.

Ezekiel was part of the group of people who were deported in the second phase of the exile, and God called him to the prophetic ministry in the fifth year of that second phase, which puts the beginning of his ministry at somewhere around 593 B.C. The specific prophecy that we’re going to examine was given sometime during the siege of Jerusalem, which began in 588 B.C. (see 24:1-2), and just prior to the third and final deportation in 586 B.C. (see 26:1; 33:21-22). So the nation of Israel has already experienced God’s judgment, and they are about to experience another phase of God’s judgment.

Into that context, God calls Ezekiel to serve as a “watchman” (33:1-9).

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The Well-Meant Offer: God May Desire What He Doesn’t Decree (Deut 5:29), Part 3

Detail from The Prodigal Son, Nikolay Losev, 1882.

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Several rejoinders may be offered to the “anthropopathic” interpretations represented above.

1. God is Not Pretending

One may affirm that the text has a rhetorical function while also insisting that the human behavior enjoined is predicated on the divine disposition described. In other words, the inferred imperative (“you people should fear God always”) is based on an implied indicative (“God wants you to fear him always”).

When my wife says, “Honey, I wish you’d take me out for a date tonight,” she does not intend for me to interpret her expressed wish as “feigned” or “pretended.” Nor is her aim simply to define my duty. Instead, she expects me to infer (rightly) that she really wants me to do what she has expressed in the form of a wish. Similarly, God is not “faking it.” Every Israelite in covenant with God should obey him because he genuinely wants them to obey.

Ironically, after affirming Calvin’s depiction of God’s wish as “feigned” or “pretended,” Matthew Winzer goes on to affirm it as a real desire by narrowing the scope of the text to elect Israel:

The divine expression of desire for His commandments to be obeyed and for His promises to come to fruition [in Deut 5:29] is not an unfulfilled desire at all. For God undertakes on behalf of elect Israel to put His laws into their minds and to write them in their hearts, so that the promise to be their God and to bless them as His people comes to fruition (Heb. 8:10).

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The Well-Meant Offer: God May Desire What He Doesn’t Decree (Deut 5:29), Part 2

Detail from The Prodigal Son, Nikolay Losev, 1882.

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The Objections Addressed

Some object to the exegetical and theological conclusions above. On the basis of texts like Psalm 115:3, they argue that God’s desires must be coterminous with God’s decrees. That is, all that God desires he must decree. Or, all that God decrees exhausts all that God may desire. Accordingly, they impose one or more of the following limitations on the text.

God Desires the Good of the Israelites Only

John Gill denies that this text supports the notion that “God has vehemently desired the salvation of all mankind” on the grounds that “these words can be no proof since they only regard the people of Israel, who were the fewest of all people.”5

There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.

First, even if it were true it would still establish the point that God may desire what he does not decree. Thus, one of the primary arguments against the well-meant offer is removed. For if God may desire the salvation of certain Israelites whose salvation he does not sovereignly bring to fruition, what objection can there be to the notion of God desiring the salvation of certain non-Israelite sinners whose salvation he does not sovereignly bring to pass?

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The Well-Meant Offer: God May Desire What He Doesn’t Decree (Deut 5:29), Part 1

Detail from The Prodigal Son, Nikolay Losev, 1882.

Unlike you and me, God has both the power and prerogative to bring all his desires to fruition. “Our God is in the heavens,” declares the psalmist, “he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). Nevertheless, the Sovereign God of all creation has not chosen to fulfill every one of his wishes he has disclosed to us.

God expressly desired that Adam and Eve refrain from eating the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16-17), yet he ordained their Fall (Gen. 3:1-6). He plainly wants all moral creatures on earth to conform to his revealed moral standard, as do the moral creatures in heaven (Matt. 6:10). Yet he not only allows men to break his law but also uses their evil deeds to accomplish his plan (Gen. 50:20; Acts 4:27-28). And the Lord wants sinners to turn from their sinful autonomy, embrace him as Lord and Savior, and enjoy his saving blessing. But God has not chosen to bring to fruition the salvation of every sinner. In other words, while God fulfills all his decreed desires, he hasn’t chosen to fulfill every one of his prescriptive or revealed desires.1 This mysterious reality2 is underscored in a text like Deuteronomy 5:29.

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