The Just Mercy of the Lord

If a wicked person turns away from all his sins … and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die… . Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (vv. 21–23).

- Ezekiel 18

Contrary to popular-level criticisms of Reformed theology, fatalism and Calvinism are not synonymous. There is a superficial similarity: both systems say the future is predetermined. Yet that is no more significant than the common affirmation of monotheism in both Islam and Christianity, for the unitarian Allah is not the Holy Trinity of the Bible. Likewise, the predestination of fatalism is not the predestination of Calvinism.

Fatalistic views of predestination rule out the true impact of our choices. In fatalism, all reality is ultimately impersonal, and impersonal forces cannot act with purpose. Neither a purposeful first cause—the personal God—nor purposeful secondary causes—you and me—determine the future. Everything happens by chance. Calvinism—biblical Christianity—demands secondary causes who act under the sovereignty of the personal God for His final purpose, namely, His glory. Fatalism says, “Whatever will be, will be. We cannot escape our fate. It does not matter what we do.” Scripture says, to paraphrase it: “God has foreordained the future and has left it mostly unrevealed to us. But God holds the future in His hands, and what we do, under His providence and in conjunction with other agents (including the Lord Himself), brings about the future He has ordained.” I am no slave to fate but a personal agent, and if I do not pray and act, my hopes will not come to pass (James 4:2c). What I do is not incidental to God’s plan for eternity; rather, “right now counts forever” (R.C. Sproul).

Ezekiel 18 records the prophet’s response to the Babylonian exiles who had embraced fatalism instead of biblical determinism. The community loved this proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 2). Essentially, the exiles were ignoring the prophet’s call to repent because they believed the Lord was judging them only for their fathers’ sins. Since their teeth were being set on edge for their fathers’ eating of sour grapes, they could do nothing to escape their predicament.

In all likelihood, this view was birthed from a misunderstanding of the Lord’s will to visit the sins of a people unto the third and fourth generation (Num. 14:18). But God never intended this to mean later generations would suffer for their parents’ sin regardless of whether or not they turned from their forefathers’ sin. That is Ezekiel’s point throughout today’s passage. The Lord is just and will not visit the sins of our ancestors upon us if we embrace His mercy and turn from our sin (Ezek. 18:21–23).

Coram Deo

God does not visit the sins of our parents upon us if we repent and turn from them. That is, we only bear the wages of our parents’ sins if we make these sins our own. The Lord is pleased to show mercy to His people when they forsake their wickedness and turn to Him, so we must never think that something we or our parents have done in the past can prevent our Father from forgiving us today—if we seek Him with all of our hearts.

Passages for Further Study

Job 5:17–18
Jeremiah 5:14
2 Corinthians 7
Hebrews 4:12–13

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