As calls for, “justice,” and, “social justice,” grow in intensity within (and outside) the church today (with some special focus on sins of our forefathers), I’d like to examine what God says about such matters using Ezekiel 18 as a template.
Israel’s Sins Prior to Ezekiel 18
The prophet Ezekiel lived when God’s people reached a historically low point.
Not long before Ezekiel, 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel (those living in the North) were expelled from the land due to their exceeding wickedness. It was so bad that 20 out of 20 of their kings rejected God and promoted idolatry.
In fact, remember that whole golden calf episode in the desert with Moses (see Exod. 32)? Well, they basically “resurrected” the calf and set him up all over again for the people to worship instead of God.
So finally, after sending prophets for hundreds of years to warn them, and yet seeing no repentance, God had enough of it and brought Assyria to kick his people out of their land.
That left only Judah (the “Southern Kingdom”) in the land. They had a few good kings sprinkled in there, and sometimes removed their idols, so God let them stay a little longer.
But they were still prone to wickedness. Thus, God sent many prophets to them as well. And, similar to the Northern Israelites, there was little true and lasting repentance. So God sent Babylon to take them out of the land.
This is where Ezekiel comes in. He is a prophet speaking to Judah from Babylon (where God’s people were being sent, due to their sin).
Israel’s Sins During Ezekiel 18
As bad as the Northern Israelites were, God shows Ezekiel that Judah (i.e. the Southern Israelites) had become worse. Consider Ezekiel 16:
- Ezek. 16:1-14: God had shown love to redeem, forgive, and glorify his undeserving people.
- Ezek. 16:15-43: Instead of honoring Him, though, they took all these great things God gave them, and used them to reject God and worship nations and idols. In fact, God says, “you were different from other women in your whorings. No one solicited you to play the whore, and you gave payment, while no payment was given to you,” (Ezek. 16:34).
- Ezek. 16:44-47: It gets worse. Remember how bad the Northern Tribes of Israel were (see above)? And remember how Sodom was destroyed by God’s fire for their unthinkable wickedness in Genesis (chaps. 18-19)? Well, God tells Judah that, “within a very little time you were more corrupt than they [Northern Israel and Sodom] in all your ways,” (Ezek. 16:47).
- Ezek. 16:48-58: Sodom’s sins included pride, self-centeredness and comfort at the expense of their poor neighbors (while also intending to homosexually gang rape Lot’s visitors, see Gen. 19). But Judah, guilty of similar sins (cf. Ezek. 16:47a), went even further by committing gruesome idolatries, including sacrificing their very sons and daughters as “worship” (Ezek. 16:20-22). Thus, in justice, God had to punish them (Ezek. 16:58).
- Ezek. 16:59-63: Spoiler: God was still willing to forgive and restore them even after all this. More on that later.
Free From Your Ancestors’ Sins
In the midst of such sinfulness, God’s people cluelessly repeated this proverb to themselves: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” (Ezek. 18:2).
In other words, they thought they were innocent victims, and it was their ancestors’ sinfulness that was bringing God’s judgment on them.
But the Lord said, “This proverb shall no more be used…” (Ezek. 18:3).
Because God is truly just. He judges you for your sins, not your parents. The Israelites of Ezekiel’s day were not the innocent victims they claimed to be.
And in case this wasn’t clear, God paints a scenario:
- A righteous man (Ezek. 18:5-9) has
- a wicked son (Ezek. 18:10-13) who has
- a righteous son (Ezek. 18:14-18).
The righteous grandfather and grandson in this scenario will live because they chose justice (Ezek. 18:9, 17), while the wicked son will die because he chose wickedness (Ezek. 18:13, 18).
This doesn’t mean there are no consequences passed down generationally based on how we live today. God seems to indicate as much in the 10 commandments when stating that God will visit, “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,” (Exod. 20:5). Though also note that God’s love passes to thousands (or “to the thousandth generation”) when we love and obey Him (Exod. 20:6). See, God’s mercy always bleeds out (figuratively and literally) even in the midst of his call for justice. In fact, God’s “mercy triumphs over judgment,” (James 2:13).
Similarly, God warns Israel in Leviticus 26 that He will eject them from the land if they continue in sin (fulfilled during Ezekiel). But even then, after they are kicked out of the land, God still says: “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers [that is, they repent of, and break from, the ways of their ancestors]…then I will remember my covenant…I will remember the land…” (Lev. 26:40-42). Yes, they will still have to stay longer in foreign land as consequence for what their forefathers did (Lev. 26:43), but God will return to them regardless of how dark their past was, when they repent. In fact, this very thing is shown in detail in Daniel 9. Further still, again, God’s mercy, in the face of our unrighteousness, bleeds through later in Leviticus 26 when He proclaims: “Yet for all that [the consequences of their sin]…I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them…” (Lev. 26:44-45).
But, and I pray we hear this, Ezekiel 18 helps us see that in terms of our standing before the living God (which is the very point of the gospel), you and I are free in regards to what our ancestors did. America (and every nation) is free in regards to what our ancestors did. Instead, we must answer for our own sins.
Your dad was a murderer and great-great-grandfather a slave master who mercilessly beat his slaves? They must answer God for that. But you? You are free! You are a completely clean slate. You can choose to follow the sins of your forefathers or break from that, confessing those things formerly done as sins and completely repenting from following those ways.
Of course, this freedom cuts both ways.
Maybe your forefathers feared God and lived righteously. Is that merited to your account? Absolutely not. You have to answer to God for yourself, today. Not for your ancestors of yesterday.
Further, Israel’s arrogance in quoting the proverb about fathers eating sour grapes reflects their belief that they were innocent. That God was only judging them based on their fathers’ sins. And God is making absolutely clear they know that this is not the case. You/they/we all have to answer to God for our own sins.
Free From Your Own Sins
Continuing in Ezekiel 18, the opportunity to get a clean slate goes even further.
Not only are you free in regards to any sins of your forefathers. You also can be free from all of your own past sins:
“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him…” (Ezek. 18:21-22).
Did you catch that? Anything you did unjustly will be forgiven and forgotten by the Lord if you turn to Him after committing these sins. In fact, even if you sin repeatedly in the same day and in the same way, and yet still repent, you would be forgiven (Luke 17:3-4). This is also true at a national level (see Jeremiah 18:5-11).
Because God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He wants them (that’s you and me) to live (Ezek. 18:23)! In his justice he could punish all of us in an instant for our sinfulness. But His mercy and love persist in giving us chances upon chances to repent and live instead.
Though, this too cuts both ways:
“But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice…shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered…he shall die.” (Ezek. 18:24).
So if you live for the Lord for 89 years, then turn away from him in the 90th year, you can’t say, “Just forget about that last year.” Sadly, “in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie,” (Ecc. 11:3). In other words, where you are at with the Lord at the end of your life is the ultimate determiner of your judgment. Said in another way, Paul celebrates that he “finished the race,” (2 Tim. 4:7), not that he merely started it.
So far, I hope this sounds amazing. Truly, the gospel (that Jesus died for your sins, and you receive this total forgiveness through repentance and faith) takes these truths and extends them even further.
But apparently, the Israel of Ezekiel’s day didn’t think this sounded so great.
We read, “Yet you [Israel] say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’” (Ezek. 18:25, 29). When in reality their ways were unjust, (see Ezek. 18:25, 29).
Pause for a moment.
This is one of the saddest things we could read. Consider it. Israel was guilty of pride, self-centeredness, gross idolatry (even including killing their children for their “gods”), and more.
Of all people, they should have been overjoyed to know God offers them forgiveness if they repent. But instead, intoxicated by their sin, deluded that they are good people (not like their “bad forefathers”), they have the audacity to charge God with being unjust. They seemed to think they didn’t need to repent.
And a similar phenomena occurs with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (see Luke 18:9-14). Surely they weren’t the “sinner” (or “sick”) that needed Jesus’ help (cf. Matt. 9:12-13). The very thought that their hearts were wicked was offensive to them (Matt. 15:12). Rather, they were the champions of justice of their day. The first to desire God’s just judgment for others, assuming, of course, that they were already just themselves (e.g. John 8:1-11). Thus, they rejected the offer of the gospel to forgive their sins in Christ—the only way to be truly justified in God’s sight.
Grace Still Prevails
And yet…and yet…
Even after Israel had been rightfully charged as arrogant, self-centered, idolatrous murderers by Ezekiel…
Even after they told God they knew more about justice than Him…
God still says: “Repent…cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live,” (Ezek. 18:30-32).
God didn’t want these self-righteous, hypocritical, idolatrous people bearing his name to die.
What’s more, earlier (in Ezek. 16 when God declared them pretty much as wicked as one could be), God said he would be faithful to His covenant toward Israel, even where they were unfaithful (Ezek. 16:59-63, see also 2 Tim. 2:13). Again, God’s mercy literally bleeds out, even when pronouncing righteous judgment against sin.
And later God will say to Israel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
So not only does God offer his wicked people a chance to repent and change their heart to obey Him (thereby being forgiven of previous sin), but He Himself grants them repentance; He produces the change of heart; He gives them the ability to walk in His ways through His indwelt Holy Spirit. Hallelujah!
We Are Not So Just
After saying all this, maybe we should back up for a moment and see how God defines justice/righteousness (“justice” and “righteousness” are used interchangeably in Ezek. 18).
Though He doesn’t give an exhaustive definition, He does highlight some salient traits of a just/righteous person. Namely, the just person:
- Rejects idolatry (Ezek. 18:5-6)
- Is sexually pure (Ezek. 18:6)
- Pays back what they owe (Ezek. 18:7)
- Doesn’t steal (Ezek. 18:7)
- Sacrificially helps the poor and needy among them (Ezek. 18:7-8)
Perhaps, at first glance, some reading this list may think they have met this criteria and are just in God’s eyes.
But is it possible that, like Israel in Ezekiel’s day, and like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, you, too, may be self-deluded in how just you really are?
Consider, for instance, only the first 2 elements:
#1 – Rejects idolatry (Ezek. 18:5-6)
When God told them to reject idolatry, this encompassed rejecting their ritual of worshipping idols on hills and mountains, where they would sometimes kill their sons and daughters as part of their sacrifice (see Ezek. 16:15-22).
Today in the U.S. we may not have physical idols like Israel, but, among other things, I’d argue that we worship the idol of self. We choose self-comfort, self-preferences, self-preservation, etc. over honoring Jesus as Lord. We even preach a false gospel where Jesus is here to make your life better, as opposed to the true gospel that we exist to glorify God. And, sadly, I believe the wickedness of this idolatry has its fullest expression in our abhorrent practice of killing our unborn sons and daughters because they make life too difficult for us. In this very sobering reality, there is little difference between Israel’s child sacrifice for handmade idols and our child sacrifice for the idol of self.
And whether you have killed sons and daughters to worship self, or have chosen other unholy paths to worship self, it is all considered idolatry in God’s eyes. You/we are guilty.
Further, Jesus followers are called, “the salt of the earth,” (Matt. 5:13). Salt in biblical times was an agent that kept its surrounding elements from corrupting. Thus, when we see our culture grow more corrupt alongside the church, we must conclude that the church, in some measure, has lost its saltiness. That is, we the church must take a good measure of responsibility for wickedness in our surrounding culture. Even Sodom, amidst all of its wickedness, would have been preserved if only 10 truly righteous people remained there (Gen. 18:32).
And further still, there are many other ways that the U.S. has left worship of the true God. From what I’ve read, there are historically low rates of people claiming Chrisitanity while new age and occult philosophies are on the rise.
Even more, Jesus tells us that, “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth,” (John 4:24). Thus, it is idolatrous worship if it is not truthful. Yet, again, historically low rates of viewing the Bible as truthful and authoritative, as well as understanding the biblical gospel, also exist among even the declining percentages of those who still claim they are “Christian.” Again, even if you have preserved a true understanding and respect for the gospel and Scripture in yourself, we have to share blame for erosion of this among the church in our midst. Surely this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You/we are guilty of false worship where we believe and promote untruth and do nothing to change the cultural erosion of true worship around us.
#2 – Is sexually pure (Ezek. 18:6)
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day claimed they were faultless in committing adultery, because they didn’t physically have sexual encounters with others out of wedlock. But Jesus rebuked their self-righteousness, saying, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matt. 5:27-28).
Here is God’s standard for sexual purity: your heart and body are exclusively reserved for a man and woman to sexually fulfill within the covenant of marriage. If you’ve thought or acted sexually outside of your exclusive man-woman marriage covenant, you are guilty in God’s sight and will be judged as an adulterer.
Even more, as stated in reference to worship, while you may not be guilty as an individual, you share guilt in watching your nation erode in these areas without doing anything. Currently, the U.S. has had a proliferation of homosexual sexuality, sexuality outside of marriage, unbiblical divorce and remarriage, and pornography, to name a few. This is happening in record numbers, as I understand, by those claiming “Christianity”, just as it is happening in record numbers by those who don’t claim “Christianity”. Again, even if you may be pure on your own in these areas, could God look at your life and say you have truly been “salt” that has kept this trend from corrupting and getting worse?
We’re all guilty
I’ve only touched on some considerations of the first 2 of 5 elements listed in Ezekiel 18 (which is not in any way an exhaustive list in itself). I will leave you to reflect on how you/we/the church/the U.S. measure up with all 5 elements. But be warned: “A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart,” (Prov. 21:2). When you answer to God on judgment day, it will not suffice to say you didn’t think you were guilty. Even human judges do not ask if someone thinks they are guilty, but they judge on whether the person is actually guilty.
And according to God’s word, you and I are unjust and deserving of death.
The point of the gospel is that no one lives up to God’s justice: “None is righteous, no, not one;” “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Rom. 3:10; Isaiah 53:6).
The Gospel (“Good News”)
And yet, after realizing we’re not so great. After all those unjust things we’ve done and self-righteously been blind to. After all that… God still remains standing there as the ONLY Just One; the Only One who has every right to obliterate all of us for our wickedness. And yet He says He doesn’t want to. He wants us to live. He tells us to repent. And even provides the means for us to repent and follow Him through His gospel. He died the death we deserve, “so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith [with repentance, see Rom. 2:4] in Jesus,” (Rom. 3:26). We are 100% justified only because our faith in Jesus completely covers us with his righteousness.
Though we all like sheep have gone astray, “the Lord has laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all,” (Isaiah 53:6).
Even more, He gives his church (those who receive His gospel) his Holy Spirit inside of us to begin, by his grace, stepping toward his just decrees. This is not unlike God (1) commanding Ezekiel to “Stand on your feet,” (Eze. 2:1) only to (2) immediately send His Holy Spirit to “set” Ezekiel on his feet (Eze. 2:2). So God alone can help you walk toward God’s justice through God’s life living inside you.
He alone is just. His righteousness is 100% imputed to us sinners the moment we repent and believe the gospel. And He living in us is the only hope we have of walking toward His just standards in our own experience (called “sanctification”), as imperfect as that walk will be so long as we are still in this fallen, sinful flesh (see Rom. 7–the struggle is real!).
We Are Israel
As you see, this story isn’t confined to Israel in Ezekiel’s day. No, it’s too easy to see the irony of those self-righteous Israelites claiming God is the unjust one.
This is about us self-righteous people today in danger of ignoring, minimizing, or perverting the gospel of grace amidst zeal for justice.
May we never forget that God’s gospel teaches that God’s righteous standard can only be satisfied through our repentance and faith in Jesus and His sacrifice (Rom. 3:22):
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus…He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:22-26).
Truly, this is good news when we all have been unjust, deserving worse than the death penalty before a just God.
In fact, there’s never been a better time to be forgiven and made righteous in Christ than now:
For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.Ezek. 18:32