Wednesday, January 18, 2006

When it's good to be self-centered

"Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his own conduct," declares the Lord GOD. "Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you. Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies," declares the Lord GOD. "Therefore, repent and live." (Ezekiel 18.30-32)

The book of Ezekiel blew me away the first time I read it: it is simply saturated with the portrait of a sovereign and holy God who means business and whose word is as good as done. And the number of times God makes it known that he acts as he does for the sake of his name or so that "they will know that I am the LORD" is like counting the grains of sand on the shores of Lake Michigan. Being the self-centered person I am, I first hated passages like this that didn't take into account my presumed worth and volition (which also caused me to balk at predestination and election). Now, by God's grace, I've come to accept and even cherish some of Scripture's more difficult doctrines, predestination and election being among them. But we are all at different stages of growth, and I'm by no means "holier than thou" (in reality, at least; in my mind, it may be a different story).

In Ezekiel 18.30-32 we see that God commands the rebellious people ("house") of Israel to make a radical turnaround: away from their sins and their old selves and to the living God. God doesn't beat around the bush: the cost of not doing so is nothing short of death. But anyone who has read his Bible or watched The 700 Club knows this.* But why does he do this? Why does he command people to "repent and live"? Is it because we are worth so much as humans? Is it because death is so horrible and we ought to avoid it at all costs? Though the latter is true, the answer given here is an emphatic "No!"

Rather, God commands repentance unto life because he takes no pleasure in anyone's death. He says, "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies. … Therefore, repent and live." The "therefore" makes the statement about God's pleasure the basis of the commands to live (v. 32) and to turn away from their transgressions and make themselves a new heart and a new spirit (vv. 30-31). God desires life not because of Israel's inherent worth, but because of God's delight and pleasure. God's work in salvation is radically God-centered.

This is seen also in the New Testament in the three parables of Luke 15, where Jesus says that "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (15.10; also v. 7). Now it would make no sense if Jesus meant that the angels of God find joy in repentant sinners but not God himself. No, Jesus means to say that all of heaven—and his Father above all—delights in saved sinners. This is made clear in the parable of the loving father (see v. 32).

Now at first this sounds like selfish, childlike behavior on God's part, but the fact is that he is supreme in the universe and thus he has first place in his concerns and affections. In fact, his pleasure and joy are the basis of all he does: "Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and all deeps" (Psalm 135.6). God says, "My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure" (Isaiah 46.10).

But God's exaltation of his pleasure becomes the incredible basis for our hope in his grace, as seen in Ezekiel 36.22-28:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, "Thus says the Lord GOD, 'It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,' declares the Lord GOD, 'when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.'"

In Ezekiel 18.30-32 we see God command people to repent and "make [themselves] a new heart and a new spirit." But in the New Covenant promised here in 36.22-32, God says that he himself will give Israel a new heart and he will put a new spirit within them, in fact, his very own Spirit. You see, because his foremost concern is his own happiness and pleasure—here in life and not in death—in his grace he fulfills the very demands for wholehearted obedience to him, thus guaranteeing Israel's life and God's pleasure!

The sinners of Israel didn't deserve such gifts and merited them not in the least; but because God cares about himself more than people, his grace is outpoured in their regeneration ("new heart" and "new spirit") and in the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, the living breath of God. This is why the apostle Paul breaks into doxology and praise when recalling how God has put his Spirit inside all believers in the gospel (Ephesians 1.3, 13-14).

Ephesians 1 is central to bolstering the truth that God's pleasure in being praised is central to his works in salvation and pouring out on us, in Christ, "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (v. 3). When speaking of the blessings of election, predestination, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, the lavishing of his grace, knowing the mystery of Christ, and being sealed with the deposit of the Holy Spirit, Paul says this is all done "according to the good pleasure** of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace" (vv. 5-6, 9, 12, 14). Paul goes into more detail that this saving work that happens entirely "in Christ" is part of the "good pleasure which He [God the Father] purposed in Him [Christ]" and that God "works in all things after the counsel of His will" (vv. 9, 11). So we can see that the entire plan for our salvation has been purposed from "before the foundation of the world" (v. 4) and carried out in every detail—no one can thwart God's plans—for the sake of God's pleasure and praise.

Therefore we can be assured that to the degree God seeks his own joy, our salvation rests secure. This is why God's very self-centeredness is such an amazing, comforting blessing! How can we not live to the praise of the grace, mercy, love, and sovereign freedom and power of such a glorious God?

For a related post, please see my past entry here.

*I am in no way saying that the opinions of Pat Robertson or The 700 Club are necessarily aligned with biblical judgments on the ways and purposes of God.

**The Greek eudokia ("good pleasure"; NASB "kind intention", but see margin notes) has the meaning of a purpose, intention, or desire in which its author finds pleasure or satisfaction (cf. Matthew 11.26; Luke 2.14; 10.21; Romans 10.1; Ephesians 1.5, 9; Philippians 1.15; 2.13; 2 Thessalonians 1.11).

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