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Ezekiel 18:20

20. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

20. Anima quae peccaverit ipsa morietur: filius non portabit iniquitatem patris, et pater non portabit iniquitatem filii: justitia justi super eum erit, et impietas impii super eum erit.

 

Ezekiel still pursues the sentiment which we have explained, namely, that God is a just judge and treats every one according to his conduct; as Paul says, As each has lived in the flesh, so God lays up a reward for him. (Romans 8:13.) But he more clearly refuted the proverb, that the sons should suffer for their fathers’ sins. He says, then, that each when he comes before God’s tribunal should be judged by his works. As far then as the general sentiment is concerned, it is in accordance with common sense that God should exact punishment of the wicked, and that they should receive the just reward of their works. But in the next clause, the question arises how the Spirit here pronounces that the son should not pay the penalty due to the father, when God so often declares that he visits the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 20:5.) That sentiment often occurs: but there are two passages peculiarly remarkable, where it is annexed to the second precept of the law, (Deuteronomy 5:9,) and then in that remarkable vision which occurred to Moses, God pronounces the same thing as before, namely, that the iniquity of the fathers should fall upon the sons. (Exodus 34:7.) These passages seem opposed to each other, but it will be easy to remove the contradiction by beginning with the fall of Adam, since if we do not consider the whole race fallen in Adam, we can scarcely extricate ourselves from that difficulty which we often feel as causing pungent scruples. But the principle of one universal fall in Adam removes all doubts. For when we consider the perishing of the whole human race, it is said with truth that we perish through another’s fault: but it is added at the same time, that every one perishes through his own iniquity. If then we inquire into the cause of the curse which presses upon all the posterity of Adam, it may be said to be partly another’s and partly our own: another’s, through Adam’s declension from God, in whose person the whole human race was spoiled of righteousness and intelligence, and all parts of the soul utterly corrupted. So that every one is lost in himself, and if he wishes to contend with God, he must always acknowledge that the fountain of the curse flows from himself. For before the child was born into the world, it was corrupt, since its menial intelligence was buried in darkness, and its will was perverse and rebellious against God. As soon as infants are born they contract pollution from their father Adam: their reason is blinded, their appetites perverted, and their senses entirely vitiated. This does not immediately show itself in the young child, but before God, who discerns things more acutely than we do, the corruption of our whole nature is rightly treated as sin. There is no one who during the course of his life does not perceive himself liable to punishment through his own works; but original sin is sufficient for the condemnation of all men. When men grow up they acquire for themselves the new curse of what is called actual sin: so that he who is pure with reference to ordinary observation, is guilty before God: hence Scripture pronounces us all naturally children of wrath: these are Paul’s words in the second chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, (Ephesians 2:3.) If then we are children of wrath, it follows that we are polluted from our birth: this provokes God’s anger and renders him hostile to us: in this sense David confesses himself conceived in sin. (Psalm 51:5.) He does not here accuse either his father or his mother so as to extenuate his own wickedness; but, when he abhors the greatness of his sin in provoking the wrath of God, he is brought back to his infancy, and acknowledges that he was even then guilty before God. We see then that David, being reminded of a single sin, acknowledges himself a sinner before he was born; and since we are all under the curse, it follows that we are all worthy of death. Thus, the son properly speaking shall not die through the iniquity of his father, but is considered guilty before God through his own fault.

Now let us proceed further. When God pronounces that the iniquity of the father returns into the bosom of the son, we must remember that when God involves the son in the same death with the father, he does so principally because the son of the impious is destitute of his Spirit: whence it happens that he remains in the death in which he was born. For if we do not consider any other punishments than those which are openly inflicted, a new scruple will again arise from which we cannot free ourselves, since this inquiry will always recur, how can the son perish by his own fault, if he can produce good fruit and so reconcile himself to God? But the first punishment with which God threatens the reprobate is that which I have mentioned, namely, that their offspring are destitute and deprived of spiritual gifts, so that they sink deeper and deeper into destruction: for there are two kinds of punishment, the one outward and the other inward, as we express it. God punishes the transgressors of his law by either the sword, or by famine, or by pestilence, as he everywhere denounces: he is also armed with other means of slaughter for executing his wrath, and all these punishments are outward and openly apparent. But there is another sort inward and hidden, when God takes away the spirit of rectitude from the reprobate, when he gives them up to a reprobate mind, subjects them to foul desires, and deprives them of all his gifts hence God is said to cause the fathers’ iniquity to recoil upon the children not only when he outwardly punishes the little ones, but because he devotes a cursed offspring to eternal destruction, through being destitute of all the gifts of the Spirit,. Now we know that God is the fountain of life, (Psalm 36:9,) whence it follows that all who are separated from him are dead. Now therefore it is evident how God throws the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, since when he devotes both father and son to eternal destruction, he deprives them of all his gifts, blinds their minds, and enslaves all their appetites to the devil. Although we may, in one word, embrace the whole matter of the children suffering for the fathers when he leaves them to simple nature, as the phrase is, since in this way he drowns them in death and destruction. But outward punishments also follow afterwards, as when God sends lightning upon Sodom many young children perished, and all were absorbed with their parents. (Genesis 19:24.) If any one asks by what right they perished, first they were sons of Adam and so were accursed, and then God wished to punish the Sodomites through their offspring, and he could do so deservedly. Concerning the young who thus perished with their fathers, it is said, happy is he who dashes thy young ones against the stones or the pavement. (Psalm 137:9.) At first sight, indeed, that atrocity seems intolerable that a child whose age and judgment is thus tender should be so cruelly slain: but as we have already said, all are naturally children of wrath. (Ephesians 2:2.) No wonder, therefore, that God withdraws his favor from the offspring of the reprobate, even if he executes these outward judgments. But how will this now be suitable, shall not the son bear the iniquity of the father? for Ezekiel here speaks of adults, for he means that the son shall not bear his father’s iniquity, since he shall receive the reward due to himself and sustain his own burden. Should any one wish to strive with God, he can be refuted in a single word: for who can boast himself innocent? Since therefore all are guilty through their own fault, it follows that the son does not bear his father’s iniquity, since he has to bear his own at the same time. Now that question is solved.

He now adds, the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the impiety of the impious shall be upon him. We said that this was the legal sentence: if God used the same language everywhere, no hope of safety would be left to us. For who would be found just if his life were judged strictly by the law? But it has already been said, speaking accurately, that God rewards those worshipers who observe his law, and punish those who transgress it. But since we are all far from perfect obedience, Christ is offered to us, from whom we may partake of righteousness, and in this way be justified by faith. Meanwhile it is true, according to the rule of the law, that the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, since God will not disappoint any, but will really perform what he has promised. But he promises a reward to all who observe his law. If any one object that this doctrine is useless and superfluous, we have an answer at hand, that it is in many ways useful, since, first of all, we acknowledge that God, although he owes us nothing, yet willingly binds himself to be reconciled to us; and thus his surprising liberality appears. Then we again collect, that by transgression we cannot profit or obtain any advantage when God offers a reward to all who observe his law. For what can we demand more equitable than that God should of his own accord be our debtor? and should reward us while he holds us bound to himself, and completely subject to him with all our works? And that pattern of Christ must be considered, When you have done all that was commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants. (Luke 17:10.) Why so? for we return nothing but what God has justly required of us. We gather, then, from this sentence, that we cannot expostulate with God, or complain of anything while the fault of our own condemnation resides in us for not keeping the law. Thirdly, we acknowledge another instance of God’s mercy in his clothing us in the righteousness of his Son, when he sees us in want of a righteousness of our own, and altogether destitute of everything good. Fourthly, we said that they are esteemed just who do not satisfy the law, since God does not impute their sins to them. Hence the righteousness of the law is not without fruit among the faithful; since on account of that blessedness which is described in Psalm 32:2, their works are taken into account and remunerated by God. So the righteousness of the righteous is upon him, just as the impiety of the impious is upon him, and it shall recoil upon his own head. It follows —

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