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Ezekiel 20:13 (ESV):

13 But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned.

Ezekiel 20:21 (ESV):

21 But the children rebelled against me. They did not walk in my statutes and were not careful to obey my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; they profaned my Sabbaths.

Are verses 13 and 21 saying that a person (at least at that time) was saved by virtue of their keeping the law? If so, isn't this by definition works-based salvation? How can we reconcile this with NT passages such as Galatians 3 that teach that salvation is by faith and not by works?

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  • Not at all. Your verses state merely that a person "shall live". If you want "live" to mean "be saved", where is your justification? Either way, how could what you Posted describe "works-based" anything, or any kind of "salvation"? Can you say how the Posted verses conflict with Galatians 3, et al, teaching that salvation is by faith, not works? Apr 11 at 19:35
  • @RobbieGoodwin - if by "shall live" it is meant to live eternally, then salvation is implied. And therefore, it would mean that by keeping the law someone can obtain eternal life. In other words, salvation conditioned on obeying the law / doing stuff (i.e. works-based salvation), which would contradict Galatians 3. Of course, this relies on the initial premise being true. That's why this is a question and not an answer. Feel free to post an answer dispelling the contradiction if you want. Apr 13 at 13:38
  • How does one keep the Sabbath in a manner pleasing to God ? By engaging in physical rest, or by entering a spiritual state of purity and holiness, wherein one's mind and conscience are completely at peace ?
    – Lucian
    Apr 30 at 3:12
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“Faith-based salvation” and “works-based salvation” are not Biblical terms—the text rather speaks of salvation.

I believe it is not Biblical authors but Biblical readers who pit faith vs. obedience, Paul vs. James, the God of the OT vs. the God of the NT, etc.

The rites God expected of His people were different in Ezekiel’s day than several centuries later (compare, for example, Leviticus chapter 1, Matthew 3:11, John 3:5), but that all were subject to the same Fall and dependent upon the same redemption is manifest by Paul:

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ will all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22)

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The Law

Jesus spoke harshly against many of the religious leaders of His day (e.g. Matthew 23), and Paul repeatedly taught that salvation does not come through the works of the Law of Moses (e.g. Galatians 3:19-24). This does not mean the Law of Moses was wrong, bad, a mistake, etc. Paul himself said:

Wherefore the law as our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:24)

Jesus criticized the leaders of His day who had added to the Law. The oral traditions alone were lengthy, complex, and excessive, and those instituting the additional rules were called out for missing the point (see Matthew 23:23-25, Mark 7:7-8).

It is important to note that Paul uses “works” and “works of the law” to refer to the Law of Moses (see Romans 3, esp. vs 1, 20, 28). When we speak of Jesus fulfilling the Law through His atoning sacrifice (see Hebrews 8:13, 9:7-14), this does not mean there are no more laws or rules—it means the Law of Moses has accomplished what it was given to do. The Lord gave commands both before the time of Moses (e.g. Genesis 6:14) and after the atonement had been performed (e.g. Acts 10:11-16).

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My rules

We should understand Ezekiel to be referring not to the oral traditions criticized by Jesus but to the Torah itself. God commanded His people to comply with the Torah and promised blessings to them for doing so:

my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live (Ezekiel 20:23)

What if the rules change?

Why should this be a concern? God does not command every generation to build an ark, or to flee Egypt, or to offer sacrificed animals in a prescribed manner. God never abridges His authority to give the rules & instructions needed in a given time & place. But wherever we are in the Bible—pick literally any point on the spectrum—Old Testament or New—and the principle stated by Ezekiel holds: abiding by God’s rules keeps one on the path to eternal life (see Matthew 7:21). Ezekiel says nothing about earning eternal life.

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Grace

But doesn’t that conflict with Paul’s teachings on grace? Not at all.

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15)

The Greek word usually rendered in English as “grace” is charis (χάρις). Brent Schmidt has written about the use and meaning of the word charis in Greco-Roman literature (see here) and the historical context is extraordinarily valuable.

The cliff-notes version: charis does not describe a “free lunch”; it describes an asymmetric, reciprocal gift relationship. The giver offers something that the receiver could not hope to earn, but the receiver cannot simply take the gift and run—there are expectations of the recipient. The word charis does not describe a mere transaction, it describes a relationship.

Paul’s use of charis is a very effective description of a covenant. Romans 5: 15 then describes a covenant relationship in which God provides the terms of the covenant and gives what could never be earned. The recipients enter into that covenant and take upon themselves sacred obligations—more on that below.

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All that thou hast

Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler are poignant:

Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. (Luke 18:22).

Following this, in the very next pericope:

29 And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake,

30 Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.

Paul himself understood well that being fully committed to Christ required great sacrifices (e.g. 2 Cor. 11:23-28, Acts 20:19-24).

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In this asymmetric grace relationship what did Jesus give? Everything.

In this asymmetric grace relationship what are we asked to give? Everything.

(Our everything is not money—it’s far more important than money—and our everything is not remotely comparable to Jesus’ everything)

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To build upon comments I shared in another post, if we say that we want God to forgive us but we don’t want Him to change us, we are completely missing the point. The point of Jesus asking everything from the rich young ruler, and asking everything of us, is not to pay for what He’s giving us, but to change us. To put it more poetically:

He is like a refiner’s fire

He wants to change my desire

His commands do not extract payment of a fine

They are given, His people to refine

(see also Malachi 3:3)

The things that are required of us (e.g. Matthew 7:21) do not pay for salvation; their purpose is not transactional, but transformational.

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Conclusion

Ezekiel lived at a time when the rites expected of the faithful were different than they would be several centuries later, but the principle he taught is timeless.

God gives rules and expects people to obey those rules—not in order to pay for salvation—but to bring about the transformation in people that was the point of the plan in the first place (see 1 John 3:2-3).

My thoughts on this topic are explored in greater depth here.

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  • If a down-vote indicates "this answer is not useful" (as opposed to "I don't like your post"), I'd be interested to know what portions of my answer are considered not useful--I've opened a chat here: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/122956/… Apr 13 at 18:59
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The Tanakh contrasts statutes and judgments that if an Israelite does “...he shall live by1 them,”2 with statutes and judgments that if he does he “shall not live by3 them.”4 In Ezekiel, where both phrases occur, Yahveh’s statutes in the Law were those which the Israelites would “live by.”5 On the other hand, the statutes and judgments of the rebellious fathers,6 which Yahveh allowed (“gave”), “were not good...whereby [the Israelites] should not live.”7

Footnotes

        1 or “in”
        2 Lev. 18:5; Eze. 20:11, 20:21
        3 or “in”
        4 Exo. 20:25
        5 Eze. 20:11, 20:21
        6 Eze. 20:18
        7 Eze. 20:25

Neither commandment, however, whether those by which the Israelites would live, or those by which they would not live, refer to eternal life or eternal punishment in the world to come. Rather, if the Israelites kept Yahveh’s Law, their days (i.e., life in this world) would be prolonged in the land of Canaan. This, prolonged life in the land of Canaan, was the reward in the Old Covenant for keeping the Law.

Deu. 32:46–47,8

46 and he said to them, “Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe—all the words of this law. 47 For it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life, and by9 this thing you shall prolong your days in the land which you pass over the Jordan to possess it.

Footnotes

        8 cf. Deu. 4:40, 6:2, 11:9, 17:20, 22:7, 25:15; 1 Kings 3:14
        9 or “in”

Exo. 20:12,10

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be prolonged upon the land which Yahveh your God is giving you.

Footnotes

        10 cf. Deu. 5:16

On the other hand, by not keeping the Law in accordance with their oath wherein they swore to do all the words which Yahveh commanded, Yahveh promised to destroy the Israelites. That is, their days would be cut short on earth (they would die prematurely) while incurring a host of curses.11

Deu. 4:25–26,12

25 When you shall beget children, and children’s children, and you shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt yourselves, and make a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, and shall do evil in the sight of Yahveh your God, to provoke Him to anger, 26 I invoke heaven and earth against you this day, that you shall soon utterly perish from off the land where you go over Jordan to possess it; you shall not prolong your days upon it, but you shall be utterly destroyed.

Footnotes

        11 cf. Deu. 28:45
        12 cf. Deu. 30:18

Finally, Deu. 5:33,

33 You shall walk in all the ways which Yahveh your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and so that it may be well with you, and so that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess.

This verse clearly establishes that “you may live” = “it may be well with you” = “you may prolong your days in the land.”

Summary

Upon the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the Israelites entered into an oath with Yahveh and swore, saying, “All the words which Yavheh has spoken, we will do.”13 The covenant was founded upon this very oath.

Exo. 24:7

7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that Yahveh has spoken, we will do and be obedient.”

And yet, Yahveh never promised the Israelites eternal life in the world to come if they obeyed all the words which He had spoken. Rather, He promised them—and the Torah plainly states so—prolonged life in the land of Canaan. The Torah, which is the book of the covenant, simply makes no mention of eternal life. The prophets do speak of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life,14 but such was never contingent upon obedience to the Torah. Rather, it would occur by the hand of the Messiah.

Footnotes

        13 Exo. 24:3, 24:7–8
        14 Dan. 12:2; Job 14;4; Psa. 17:15; Isa. 26:19

The Torah could give life, but not eternal life. Rather, it only offered those who kept it prolonged life in the land of Canaan. Furthermore, because all of humanity sinned and therefore died in Adam,15 not even a perfect obedience to the Torah could gain one eternal life.

Footnotes

        15 1 Cor. 15:21–22 cf. Rom. 5:12–19

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The difference between earning salvation, and qualifying for salvation

When the Apostles taught that salvation is by faith, not of works, they meant that grace comes by trust in the work of Christ on the cross, granting us space for repentance, and for bettering ourselves, and escaping hell, by providing us forgiveness - not by the 'gathering up' of grace or mercy by works of our own, by which we gradually 'indebt' God with having to give us eternal life, and payment out of hell.

What they did not mean - and what no Christian read into the Bible until the Reformation, 500 years ago - was that salvation did not involve necessary works. The proof is that St. Paul terms his argument that salvation is not by works in terms of 'if we worked for salvation, then it's not a gift.' Proving that he means a view of works which make works the means of salvation - where you earn your right to heaven by being good by yourself.

Jesus - God - taught Christians:

Luke 17:7-10 But which of you having a servant ploughing, or feeding cattle, will say to him, when he is come from the field: Immediately go, sit down to meat:And will not rather say to him: Make ready my supper, and gird thyself, and serve me, whilst I eat and drink, and afterwards thou shalt eat and drink?Doth he thank that servant, for doing the things which he commanded him? 10 I think not. So you also, when you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do.

How can the teaching be misunderstood? Jesus is the Master of Christians, of His disciples. He is their rightful Lord. So when He commands us to do what He wills - to obey God and keep the commandments - He expects those things to be done, since He provides us with the means to do so (the grace of the cross). Doing them does not entitle us to salvation - they are "Only what it was our duty to do [as servants]," and so could not possibly do such.

So the Christian IS expected to be a good servant, and to do what a servant ought to do. Not to earn reward, but to be thankful, to do what is just. This is reasonable since Christians still have free will. They are as much free agents as they were before they were regenerated. They can still choose sin - if they can't choose to commit evil, then they can't choose to love, either: and without choice, there is no love.

That God has placed absolutely no requirements on recipients of His grace (to do well with the 'talents' of His grace) is very alien to Old and New Testament Scripture.

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Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith. [Habakkuk 2:4 KJV]

And he [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. [Genesis 15:6 KJV]

It is perfectly clear from the above two texts (and many more like them), both of which are quoted by the New Testament writers, that it is faith alone which justifies.

Neither then, nor now, do the works of the law justify any, for as Paul makes clear, sin within humanity (the humanity born of Adam) causes all to be polluted and the good that one would, one does not. Only the evil is done.

Sin works in the members and pollutes every attempted good work. False motivations, pride, envy, hatred and deceit, work continually in fallen flesh and 'in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing', Romans 7:8.

Only by faith in God himself, is there justification unto life.

Had there been a law (any law) possible, by which could come life, then Christ would not have suffered, Galatians 2:21.

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  • Very good answer. +1.
    – Dottard
    Apr 10 at 22:03
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    Fair enough. But then how should Ezekiel 20:13,21 be interpreted? Apr 10 at 22:25
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator God's 'rule' is that of faith and of Spirit, in ancient times and now. 'The law made nothing perfect'. The rule of the Spirit is that life is in Christ Jesus.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 10 at 22:53
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator The classic Christian answer is that it is true that if anyone can keep the entire law of God, they will not need to be saved, because they will be perfect. But nobody can actually keep the entire law of God.
    – Nacht
    Apr 12 at 23:28
  • This is an effective & concise theological summary, but I don't think it answers the OP's question about Ezekiel 20 Apr 13 at 18:45
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Yes. At this time, both Israel and Judah were under Law. ‘Under’ the Mosaic covenant. This was the agreement their ‘fathers’ had put them under.

It was not until Jesus provided a way out from under that covenant that they could ‘escape’ the consequences laid out in Deuteronomy 28.

And, yes, that covenant was a works based covenant. Simple - “do good, get good, do bad, get bit”. It 100% depended on them, on what they did. And, their ‘works’,what ‘they did’ was measured against the 10 commandments. And, their only ‘out’, or escape was being protected by the sacrificial system.

This covenant was between God and man. Both had expectations. But only one side was ‘do-able’. Here in Ezekiel they had abandoned the sacrificial ornaments and were ‘unprotected’.

The Mosaic covenant is the only religion God ever participated in. A ‘religion’ is all about what man does, has to ‘do’. Christianity is all about what God has done.

And as per part of your Q, yes, under this covenant, their ‘salvation’ (or rather their righteousness.) came via the Law. And the sacrificial system was to protect them from their unrighteousness - as they couldn’t fulfill the requirements for righteousness. So, their ‘sin’ needed to be covered. It was their own choice Exodus 19:8. They were relying on their own ‘righteousness’, they were adamant they could do all God expected themselves.

The Mosaic covenant was never Gods intent. But the Israelites put themselves’ ‘under it’, brought it on themselves through their self righteousness, (stiff necked). (EXODUS 19)

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