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Luther on Ezekiel 18:23 and 32

February 13, 2008

Luther:

See now how the Diatribe treats that famous verse of Ezekiel 18: “As I live, says the Lord, I desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn and live.” First, Diatribe says: “In every case the words ‘turns away… has done… has performed…’ are repeated again and again, in the matter of doing good or evil, and where axe those who deny that man can do anything?” Notice, please, the remarkable consequence. She was going to prove endeavor and desire on the part of free choice, and she proves a complete act, everything fully carried out by free choice. Where now, I ask you, are those who insist on grace and the Holy Spirit? For this is the subtle kind of way she argues: “Ezekiel says, ‘If a wicked man turns away from all his sins and does what is lawful and right, he shall live’ [Ezek. 18:21]; therefore, the wicked man forthwith does so and is able to do so.” Ezekiel intimates what ought to be done, and Diatribe takes it that this is being and has been done, again trying to teach us by a new sort of grammar that to owe is the same as to have, to be required as to be provided, to demand as to pay.

Then she takes that word of sweetest gospel, “I desire not the death of a sinner,” etc., and gives this twist to it: “Does the good Lord deplore the death of his people which he himself works in them? If he does not will our death and if we nonetheless perish, it is to be imputed to our own will. But what can you impute to a man who can do nothing either good or ill?” This is just the song Pelagius sang, when he attributed not merely desire or endeavor, but the complete power of fulfilling and doing everything, to free choice. For it is this power that these inferences prove if they prove anything, as we have said, so that they conflict just as violently and even more so with Diatribe herself, who denies that free choice has this power, and claims for it only an endeavor, as they conflict with us who deny free choice altogether. But not to dwell on her ignorance; we will confine ourselves to the point at issue.

It is an evangelical word and the sweetest comfort in every way for miserable sinners, where Ezekiel [Ezek. 18:23, 32] says: “I desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn and live,” like Psalm 28[30:5]: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.” Then there is Psalm 68[109:21]: “How sweet is thy mercy, O Lord.” and “For I am merciful” [Jer. 3:12], and also Christ’s saying in Matthew 11[:28]: “Come unto me, all you who labor, and I will give you rest,” and that in Exodus 20[:6]: “I show mercy to many thousands, to those who love me.” What, indeed, does almost more than half of Holy Scripture contain but sheer promises of grace, in which mercy, life, peace, and salvation are offered by God to men? And what else do words of promise have to say but this: “I desire not the death of a sinner”? Is it not the same thing to say, “I am merciful,” as to say, “I am not angry, I do not want to punish, I do not want you to die, I want to pardon, I want to spare”? And if these divine promises were not there to raise up consciences afflicted with the sense of sin and terrified with the fear of death and judgment, what place would there be for pardon or hope? What sinner would not despair? But just as free choice is not proved by other words of mercy or promise or comfort, so neither is it proved by this one: “I desire not the death of a sinner,” etc.

But our Diatribe, again making no distinction between words of law and of promise, takes this verse of Ezekiel as an expression of the law, and expounds it thus: “I desire not the death of a sinner,” that is, “I do not want him to sin mortally or become a sinner liable to death, but rather that he may turn from his sin, if he has committed any, and so may live.” For if she did not expound it so, it would not serve her purpose at all. But this means completely throwing overboard the loveliest thing in Ezekiel, “I desire not death.” If that is how in our blindness we wish to read and understand the Scriptures, what wonder is it if they are obscure and ambiguous? For he does not say, “I desire not the sin of a man,” but, “I desire not the death of a sinner,” plainly showing that he is speaking of the penalty of sin, which the sinner experiences for his sin, namely, the fear of death. And he lifts up and comforts the sinner from his affliction and despair, so as not to quench the smoking flax and break the bruised reed [Isa. 42:3], but to give hope of pardon and salvation, so that he may rather be converted (by turning to salvation from the penalty of death) and live, that is, be at peace and happy with an untroubled conscience.

For this also must be observed, that just as the voice of the law is not raised except over those who do not feel or acknowledge their sin, as Paul says in Romans 3[:20]: “Through the law comes knowledge of sin,” so the word of grace does not come except to those who feel their sin and are troubled and tempted to despair. Thus in all expressions of the law you see that sin is revealed, inasmuch as we are shown what we ought to do, just as you see in all the words of promise, on the other hand, that the evil is indicated under which sinners, or those who are to be lifted up, are laboring. Here, for instance, “I desire not the death of a sinner” explicitly names death and the sinner, that is, the evil that is felt as well as the person who feels it. But in the words “Love God with all your heart,” we are shown the good we ought to do, not the evil we feel, in order that we may recognize how unable we are to do that good.

Hence nothing could have been more inappropriately quoted in support of free choice than this passage of Ezekiel, which actually stands in the strongest opposition to free choice. For here we are shown what free choice is like, and what it can do about sin when sin is recognized, or about its own conversion to God; that is to say, nothing but fall into a worse state and add despair and impenitence to its sins, if God did not quickly come to its aid and call it back and raise it up by a word of promise. For God’s solicitude in promising grace to recall and restore the sinner is a sufficiently strong and reliable argument that free choice by itself cannot but go from bad to worse and (as Scripture says) fall down into hell, unless you credit God with such levity as to pour out words of promise in profusion for the mere pleasure of talking, and not because they are in any way necessary for our salvation. So you can see that not only all the words of the law stand against free choice, but also all the words of promise utterly refute it; which means that Scripture in its entirety stands opposed to it.

Martin Luther, “Bondage of the Will,” in Luther’s Works, 33:135-138. [C.f., Calvin’s Commentary remarks.]

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