"Again, when I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; if he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right; if the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live." (Ezekiel 33:14-16)
MY thoughts, says God, are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways. The above text has been much on my heart during the past week, and it seemed that I should not be satisfied till I had spoken from it. Whilst it was working in my mind, I indulged a hope that benefit might be reaped by some who were, after all, prevented attending; thus our thoughts are sometimes broken off, yea, the thoughts of our heart.
"When I say unto the wicked, thou shalt surely die." This was the first threatening delivered, which fell upon our first parents on breaking through the bounds that God had fixed. It stands against every sinner that is in his natural state; and, since the fall, the hearts of all are declared to be deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. (Jer. 17:9) This threat is the first that affects the conscience of a convinced sinner, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." Convictions, wrought by the Spirit, bring about what is contained in the next part of the text,--"if he turn from his sin." Soul-trouble always precedes our turning from sin, and turning to God: "when thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the LORD thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice." (Deut. 4:30) We have a description of this turning by the mouth of Jeremiah,--"let us search and try our ways." The Lord says, I search the hearts and try the reins; and this all the churches shall know: he also makes us search and try ourselves,--"examine yourselves,"--and in his light our evil deeds are made manifest; "it is light which makes manifest." How many evils do we see, when he is searching our hearts, and making us try our ways! and here we are brought in guilty of ten thousand talents due, without one mite to pay. All outward forms of godliness give way, and we see and feel the need of lifting up our hearts with our hands to God in the heavens, and to confess "we have transgressed, we have sinned, and thou hast not pardoned;" at which we continue, till we obtain what the publican craved when he cried, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"
In this our turning to God there is also mourning and weeping and rending the heart, instead of rending the garments: David says, "My heart is smitten, or broken, within me." It is also attended with repentance:--"John preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;" Paul also, "that men should repent and turn to God." This repentance is God's gift; and although at first our repentance is mostly legal, and much of it under slavish fears, yet when God appears gracious to us, we abhor ourselves, and repent in dust and ashes. These things attend our turning from sin to God.
But some will say, after all this, I have backslidden; so have I; but the return of a backslider is as much the work of God as that which went before; it is he that visits our sin of backsliding with the rod, according to his word; and whilst this rod is on us, he says, "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity;" thou hast fallen from thy first love; thou hast fallen from the power that kept thee lively in thy profession; and not only so, but, what is still worse, thou hast fallen by thine iniquity into heart-idolatry, or into some besetting sin. But the mercy of this backslidden Israelite is that God has made him sensible he is fallen, and given him to feel the evil thereof; and also that he puts words in his mouth, in order to his return:--"Take with you words and turn to the Lord; say unto him, Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously; so will we render the calves of our lips." (Hos. 14:2) We tell him of our false gods, and of our foolishness in following them; and from all creatures help is vain, "for in Thee only the fatherless findeth mercy." (Hos. 14:3) God is pleased with our return in this way; and says this backsliding Ephraim is still a pleasant child, and his dear son. (Jer. 31:20) What could he say more for the encouragement of such unworthy creatures? But he still adds,--"I will heal (forgive) their backslidings and love them freely;" (Hos. 14:4) this makes all up: be of good comfort, for thus he speaks to such. But to return to the text.
"If he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right; if the wicked restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed." This is to show us the fruits of turning to God, and genuine repentance; or works meet to show it so. In Exod. 22:25-27, we find a law made and provided in this case. If money was lent, and raiment given as security for it; if the money was not returned by the borrower, he not having any, the lender of the money was not to keep the raiment after the sun went down; it was the raiment of his skin, in which he should sleep. If the lender was avaricious and did not return it, and the poor man cried to God, he said "I will hear, for I am gracious." We have this repeated Deut. 24:10-13; where it is seen that, if this law was complied with, the poor person would bless him that returned his raiment, and it was to be righteousness unto him before the Lord God: it would be a right work in God's sight. This is here said to be doing what is lawful; or according to the law made in that case, it was right before the Lord; it is esteemed as a fruit of the fear of God, and a part of the fruit of that repentance that is to salvation in gospel days. We find this set forth by the example of Zaccheus; he was willing to restore, where he had robbed, fourfold, which also was a law made in the days of Moses: if a man had stolen a sheep and killed it, he was to restore four sheep for one. God makes a man honest when he turns him to himself; for if he has nothing to make restitution with, and having before done any of these things, the scripture injunction is,--"Let him that stole steal no more."
"If he restore the pledge, give again that he had robbed, and walk in the statutes of life." By the statutes of life we are not to understand the commandments of the moral law, although it is said,--"which if a man do he shall live in them;" but this law we have all broken, for all have sinned; and instead of its being a statute of life, it is become the ministration of death. (2 Cor. 3:7) "If there had been a law given that could have given life, verily righteousness had been by the law; but if righteousness come by the law, Christ is dead in vain:" (Gal. 3:21; 2:21) which at once proves that both righteousness and life are to be found only in Christ. Then that which commands and directs us to look to Christ for both these, is the statute of life. This was showed to Israel of old by the ordinance of the Passover; by the keeping of which they were saved from death. In Psalm 81:3,4: we have it set before us as a statute; "blow up the trumpet in the new moon, in the time appointed (to keep the Passover) on our solemn feast day: for this was a statute for Israel, and a law of the God of Jacob." Also in the wilderness, when the waters were so bitter that they could not drink; by a tree cast into the waters they were made sweet, or good and healthful. Here he made a statute for them, which directed them to look to Christ alone for healing and for health: and I hope many among us know that all waters besides those which flow from the fountain of Christ are but waters of death. According to our own experience, then, we may defy all the world to find any statute of life which does not command and direct us to look to Christ, that we may live. This is God's commandment, "that we believe on the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and he that believeth hath everlasting life, but he that believeth not shall not see life." (John 3:36)
To believe in Christ and walk in the faith and love of him, is walking in the statutes of life. This is seen by various scriptures: David says, "thou hast delivered my soul from death, that I might walk before God in the light of the living:" (Ps. 56:13) "in him (Christ) was life, and the life was the light of men;" (John 1:4) "he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) Again, says David, "teach me thy way (of salvation), and I will walk in thy truth." (Ps. 86:11) "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." (John 1:17) "I am the truth," (John 14:6) says Christ. "As you have received Christ Jesus, so walk ye in him." (Col. 2:6) "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood dwelleth in me and I in him." (John 6:56) Christ also is called the way,--"and a highway shall be there;" but no unclean nor ravenous beast was to be found in this way; "but the redeemed shall walk there." (Isa. 35:8,9) These are the statutes of life: he is not only the way and the truth, but also the life: "in the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof is no death." (Prov. 12:28)
In Jeremiah's day, they were exhorted to ask for the old paths, and say, Where is the good way? in this they were to walk, with a promise that they should find rest for their souls. Since the fall of man there have been no statutes of life but such as these; our first parents were raised up by them; Abraham, the father of the faithful, took his steps in this path of life; and all quickened souls, blest with life and faith, walk in the steps of their father. We know also that when he believed God's testimony of Christ,--"so shall thy seed be;" it was the best step he ever took; and righteousness was imputed to him, and he was called the friend of God; and our friendship with God comes the same way: it is true we are but hobblers in this path; "but the wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err therein." We are kept in this path by nothing less than the power of God.
"Statute" means an edict of the legislator, a law; and in scripture these statutes of life are set forth by the laws of truth, faith, liberty, and life. Paul calls these statutes "the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which made him free from the law of sin and death." (Rom. 8:2) The Spirit's testimony of Christ was so powerful, in Paul, that, through faith therein, he felt his freedom from sin and death; and we have no freedom but in this way. The law of truth was in the mouth of Levi (Christ), who had with him God's covenant of life and peace; and with this truth in his mouth, he was blest to the turning many away from iniquity. (Mal. 2:5,6) If the truth makes us free, it shows that nothing else can, and where real truth is not preached, there is no statute of life made known. This statute of life is called the law of liberty, which Christ came to proclaim,--"liberty to the captives," who think they shall die as prisoners in the pit; but by the blood of the covenant their release is proclaimed; and by this they come up out of the pit, where is no water. (Zech. 9:11) By this blood, also, the prison is opened in which they were bound,--bound with the chain of their sin,--shut up in unbelief; but that blood which cleanses from all sin looses the chain, and opens the prison doors. It is also called the law of faith, which Paul calls "the word of faith which we preach;" (Rom. 10:8) and when this law of faith is written in the mind and heart, which God promises to do in all that he teaches, the effects are sure to follow, and are what Paul describes,--confessing as Peter did, who Christ was; and, in the next place, believing in him with the heart; which brings a sense of interest in him as the whole salvation of the soul:--"Christ is all, and in all." (Col. 3:11) So says Paul, Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God." (Gal. 2:20)
The text says, "and walks in the statutes of life, without committing iniquity." Iniquity is sin in general; but who can say, I am pure from my sin; I have made my heart clean? "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar; and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10) Again, there is no man that liveth and sinneth not; nor a just man upon the earth that doeth good and sinneth not. In many things we all offend; and, what is more express to this part of the text is noted in Ps. 119:2. "Blessed are they that keep his testimonies, and that seek him with the whole heart; they also do no iniquity, they walk in his ways." "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." "Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not." (1 John 3:6-9) The text says, "without committing iniquity;" which is to show us that all those that walk in the statutes of life, or, in other words, have been enabled to believe in Christ, are new creatures, converted persons. They have a new man as well as an old man,--an elder and younger. "Old things (in the scripture sense of these matters) are passed away, and all things become new:" (2 Cor. 5:17) notwithstanding which, his old man is not gone.
It is true, he has got new eyes and new ears; a new heart, and a new spirit; a new tongue or language,--the language of Canaan,--which once he could not speak; new worship,-worship in the Spirit, instead of worshipping with the body only; a new song,--the song which none can learn but the redeemed; a new way, in which he walks, which once he knew not: he also has got, by God's blessing, a new foundation for his house; he formerly built upon the sand, and saw no danger; he has now built upon the rock, and is quite out of the danger of having his house fall; it could not fall by winds or waves, "because it was founded on a rock;" hold fast here! He has new relations; mothers, sisters, and brothers; and loves these more than all relations that are in the flesh: he has also new wine to drink,--the new wine of the kingdom, that makes glad his heart, whenever he drinks it; and the invitation is, "Drink abundantly O my beloved: here may we drink and forget our poverty, and remember our misery no more!"
The wine we used formerly to drink was squeezed from the grapes that grew on the vine of Sodom, whose clusters were bitter; and how bitter none know but those who have felt their sin. He has also got the new covenant in his heart, and is delivered from the old, under which he labored in vain. But God not only puts his new covenant in his heart, but also opens its contents to his mind, and sweetly entertains him to the satisfaction of his soul; so that he can say, this "is all my salvation, and all my desire." (2 Sam. 23:5)
I said, these words, "without committing iniquity," show us who are new creatures: "put on the new man, which after God, is created in righteousness and true holiness;" (Eph. 4:24) he is born of incorruptible seed; his seed remaineth in him, and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. Here we may see the graces that compose the new man in us are all holy: and this new man, thus composed, never sins; for love is the soul of this new man, and charity thinketh no evil; and if it thinketh none, it doeth none. "Without committing iniquity:" this, I think, in another sense, is plain from the scripture:--"He that committeth sin is of the devil, for the devil sinneth from the beginning;" by which is meant one in the flesh only, and under the dominion of the devil, and who lives in a constant trade of sinning. Again, whoever sinneth [or lives in a constant course of sin], hath neither seen him (Christ) nor known him; which will appear clear if we consider the effects that followed in Paul, who, while appealing to the Corinthians respecting his character as an apostle, says, "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" which we all know effectually cured Paul of his old way of living; and it does the same in all that see him in the same way. Again, "he that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love: but he that loveth God is born of God, and knoweth God:" and we know those that love God hate evil; therefore this last sense of the word is that they which are new creatures are not under the dominion of sin; it does not reign in their mortal bodies; for sin shall not have dominion over such; they are not under the law, but under grace; and grace is to reign in and for these, through the righteousness of Christ, to eternal life:--"Know you not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life?" (Rom. 6:4) Again, "But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness, for when ye were the servants of sin" [in the flesh and under Satan's control, for he that sinneth in this manner is of the devil]: then, says Paul, "ye were free from righteousness." (Rom. 6:17,18,20) Again, he draws the contrast:--"But now being made free from sin (in its guilt and dominion), and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." (See Rom. 6:3-22) Both these senses, as it respects the new man that never sins, and the reign of grace in the saints, may be put upon those words, "without committing iniquity."
"He shall surely live, he shall not die." The promise of life is made to this man; by faith in Christ he is passed from death unto life, and lives by faith in the Son of God; who says, because I live, ye shall live also; and he has eaten of that bread, of which a man may eat and live for ever. "He shall not die;" "he that believeth in me, who am the resurrection and the life; though he were dead, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth on me, shall never die." (John 11:25,26)
"None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him." When the Lord writes his law in that man's heart, by which he believes in Christ; he then says, "I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sin and their iniquity I will remember no more:" (Heb. 8:12) and if he will not remember them, he will not mention them, neither at death nor judgment. In fatherly chastisement for our folly, he will use his rod; but his mercy, manifested in the forgiveness of sins, he will not take from his children:--and if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And as he will not take his mercy away, neither will he suffer his faithfulness (towards them) to fail. Again, "thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin:" (Ps. 85:2) and will he uncover them again? No; he passeth by the "transgression of the remnant of his heritage," (Micah 7:18) and "when the iniquity of Judah and the sins of Israel shall be sought for, they shall not be found; for there shall be none; for I will pardon them that I reserve;" (Jer. 50:20) and pardon by Jesus' blood makes scarlet sins as snow, and crimson sins as wool. (Isa. 1:18) "Thou art all fair my love, there is no spot in thee." (Songs 4:7)
Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, to present it to himself holy, and without blemish; without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." (Eph. 5:25-27) "Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation, and shall not be ashamed nor confounded, world without end." (Isa. 45:17) We do not want testimonies for the truth of this part of the text, but faith to believe them; and for want of faith in exercise, and looking back on a thirty years' profession, attended with so many infirmities, sins, slips, and falls, we are ready to doubt, yea, our confidence sinks at the sight; fearing this is enough to prove all our profession vain: and with many a groan we cry to God, that he would pass by all, and give us a token for good. This was my case very lately, with all my failings in view; but whilst in confession before him, and pleading on my knees, these words came softly on my mind--"None of his sins which he hath committed shall be mentioned to him." Quite suitable to my case and feelings were these words; and never did they prove so sweet to me before. May we not say, "gracious is the Lord, yea our God is merciful," who will not so much as even mention any one sin to us! "O how great is his goodness, how great is his beauty! corn shall make the young men cheerful, and new wine the maids." (Zech. 9:17) Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth and cometh out of the mouth of the Lord: "my word is spirit, and my word is life;" (John 6:63) and life revives when he speaks, and shows us a token for good.
The next thing in the text is, "He hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live." If a man strive for an incorruptible crown (according to Paul), he must strive lawfully: but it is not lawful for any man to strive to enter into life by the deeds of the moral law. Some have pretended to do this; but, not being a lawful way, they could not succeed. To one of these pretenders the Saviour sets the task, saying, "Thou hast answered right, this do and thou shalt live;" but his conscience failed him, and he failed in his work. "If the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise; but God gave it Abraham by promise." (Gal. 3:18) Again, "if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:" (Rom. 4:14) "whatsoever is not of faith is sin:" (Rom. 14:23) "without faith it is impossible to please God." (Heb. 11:6) That no man is justified by the works of the law in the sight of God is evident: "for the just shall live by faith;" (Gal. 3:11) then all that is not done in faith is unlawful. When they that had been fed followed Christ over the Sea of Tiberias, because they had eaten of the loaves and fishes, he says to them, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endereth to everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you; for him hath God the Father sealed. They said unto him, What shall we do that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, they ye believe on him whom he hath sent." (John 6:27-29) This is doing what is lawful.
"Strive to enter in at the strait gate: I am the door, by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved." (John 10:9) "We who have believed do enter in:" (Heb. 4:3) this is lawful strife, and lawful doing. As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; (Gal. 3:10) but if this was lawful doing, the curse would not hang over their heads. Again, "he that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him to a wise man that built his house upon a rock;" (Matt. 7:24) we know that this rock is Christ, who is laid in Zion for a foundation, and he that believeth, or builds upon him, shall never be confounded: (Isa. 28:16) this is lawful building. But to build upon the sand of human works, paying no regard to Christ's sayings, is unlawful building; and so it will prove, for the Lawgiver will throw down the house thus built contrary to law, and the ruin of it will be great. But the will of the great Lawgiver is--"that every one that seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I (saith the Saviour) will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:40) This is the man that shall be blessed in his deed--"blessed with everlasting life, and at the last day his body shall rise to a glorious immortality.
"He has done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live." That which is lawful is also right; Paul tells us that faith worketh by love, and without these two things nothing avails. When the Saviour said to the lawyer, "What is written in the law, how readest thou?" He answered, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength, and thy neighbour as thyself. Thou hast answered right," (said the Lord), "this do and thou shalt live." (Luke 10:26-28) But he had no love of God in him. "I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you." (John 5:42) To do what is right comes to God's elect by promise,--"I will circumcise their hearts to love me, that they may live:" (Deut. 30:6) and we love him because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19) The love of Christ constraineth us; (2 Cor. 5:14) he also that hath much forgiven, loveth much. Thus the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us, and love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. None but those that have faith in Christ's blood and righteousness to save them, and whose hearts are circumcised to love God, do that which is lawful and right. These ways of God are right, and the just shall walk in them. We walk by faith, and we walk in love, and these are right, both by gospel and by law: but we are indebted to grace for both: "by the grace of God I am what I am. (1 Cor. 15:10) He shall surely live."
The application is,--Have we been convinced of our wickedness? have we laid it to heart? have we turned from sin to God, with confession and supplication? has God ever appeared gracious to us, in answer to our importunity? have the fruits of genuine repentance been found in us?--such as loathing ourselves for our iniquity,--self-abhorrence,--and debasing thoughts; for he that humbles himself shall be exalted. Has God made us honest, and kept us so? because the word is received in an honest and good heart; and this is God's work: have we walked in the statutes of life? have we been brought (after trying all other expedients) to believe in Christ for salvation of our soul? have we found our sins removed by faith in his blood; and has the righteousness of Christ delivered us from the yoke of the law, so as for it to say nothing to us? for whatsoever the law saith, it saith to them that are under it: have we looked into the law of liberty, and rejoiced in it, hoping to continue in it to the end? has the precious knowledge of the truth brought freedom to our souls? has the law of faith given Christ a dwelling in our hearts? has the law of life brought us from spiritual death; from condemnation to eternal life; and produced in us the hope of the resurrection of our body to glory and immortality? have we the inward witness that we are born of God? "he that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God:" do we delight in the law of God after the inward man, consenting unto the law that it is good?--the carnal mind can never do this for want of that change of heart which those are the subjects of to whom a new heart is given.
The graces of the Spirit received in conversion are all holy:--that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Has God brought us back from our backsliding? have we experienced his rod? for "as many as he loves he rebukes and chastens." Do we believe he has done this for our profit? do we know that in faithfulness to his word he has afflicted us? has he done this that we might be brought back to the shepherd and bishop of our souls, and keep his word? have we any confidence that he has healed our backslidings, and, notwithstanding all, loves us freely? do we believe grace has had the dominion, and that he has not suffered sin to reign?--if so, brethren, we are debtors--debtors to Him that causes us to walk in the statutes of life (in the scriptural sense), without committing iniquity. Have we any good reason to believe he will never mention any of our sins to us, at death or judgment? and does this reason arise from his removing these from us by the blood of sprinkling, and God's promise to remember them no more? by this blood applied are they become like snow, and white as wool? Every Christian's hope of this is founded upon what Christ has done for us, and the promise and word of God; and so is ours.
Have we done that which is "lawful and right?" has God delivered us from striving for life in an unlawful manner? has he convinced us of our unbelief; and that, without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please him? did he show us who he was, and what he had done; and fully convince us that all salvation was in him, and there was no Saviour beside, nor any other way of life; and that once to attempt any other way was the ready way to destruction; and that an interest in Christ would secure us for ever? did we strive by supplication to enter this strait gate and door of life?--this was lawful strife: to ask that we might receive; to seek that we might find; and knock that the door of mercy might be opened to us: and as soon as ever we were enabled to lay hold of Christ, we had the approbation of God; "for he that findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain the favour of the Lord." (Prov. 8:35) Do we understand the lovingkindness of the Lord? do we know the love of God? have we felt any thing of the dying love of Christ?--any thing of that faith that purifies the heart, as love purifies the affections? that it is that enables us to do right. He that has the experience and power of these things "shall surely live"--shall certainly, undoubtedly, have everlasting life.