God’s Justice and Righteous Behavior
What does righteous behavior look like? Ezekiel 18:5-18 emphasizes individual responsibility, and states that God will not reward a wicked son because he has a righteous father or punish the righteous son of a wicked father. In this discussion, the passage lists righteous/wicked behavior in three lists that are very similar. Here is the first one:
“5But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, 6and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period— 7if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, 8if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, 9if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live,” declares the Lord GOD.”
Benchmarks of Righteousness
This passage begins and ends with a general statement about practicing justice and righteousness. Between these two statements are a number of specific behaviors that describe a righteous lifestyle:
- No idolatry (v. 6)
- Sexual purity (v. 6)
- Does not take advantage of the poor and powerless (v. 7) — the opposite to this quality in v. 12 is “oppresses the poor and needy”
- Does not not take what is not his (“robbery,” v. 7) — in v. 15 this is described as not taking a pledge, and the opposite quality in v. 12 is “does not restore a pledge, so this probably refers to holding onto collateral for a loan to the poor
- Provides material assistance to the poor (v. 7)
- Does not lend money [to the poor] to collect interest (v. 7) — loans to the poor at a high interest rate seem to be in view here, because the restatement in v. 17 has “he keeps his hand from ?1?the poor, does not take interest or increase.” The opposite behavior is described as “extortion” in v. 18.
Obviously this list is not intended to be a complete description of a righteous life, but rather to provide a representative sample of what righteous behavior looks like. The striking thing about this list is that with the exception of the first two items the list revolves around our treatment of the poor and powerless. I wonder how many church people today would come up with a list similar to this one when asked to describe a righteous lifestyle? Again, there are many other things that could legitimately be included here from elsewhere in Scripture, but the fact remains that the treatment of the poor receives major emphasis in the OT. I wonder how righteous we are by this standard?
Salvation by Works?
This passage clearly states that if we conduct our lives in this way we will live, while if we do the opposite we will “die,” because “the soul who sins will die” (v. 4, cf. vs. 19-20). How should we understand this passage in the context of the NT? Is this salvation by works?
There are two approaches to this question that I find extreme and reductionistic and which I am unable to reconcile with Scripture:
- Salvation by works in the OT
- Impossible standards designed to drive us to Grace
Some argue that in the OT salvation was by works while in the NT it is by grace. But even in OT times, could anyone be saved by good behavior? No, because we all fall short of God’s standards (Rom. 3:9-10,23). Abraham was justified by faith, not by works (Rom. 4:3-5).
Some see the OT law as nothing more than a device to show us that we can never meet God’s righteous standards on our own. Certainly one important function of OT law is to reveal God’s righteous standards, but what was an OT reader of Ezekiel supposed to make of these verses? Is their only function to cause us to despair of living a righteous life?
But we must take this passage seriously in its own context, and not use our NT theology to force it to mean something that it does not say. I think that the focus of these verses is on the characteristics of a righteous life rather than the means of salvation. A more complete study of the Scriptures would reveal that God is concerned with our hearts as well as (not “rather than”) our behavior. James argues that Abraham was justified by works in the sense that he had genuine faith that produced righteous behavior in his life, rather than the dead faith of mere intellectual assent (James 2:21-24). In other words, the Ezekiel passage describes the characteristics that should be evident in the life of a genuine believer. If they are missing, there is legitimate cause for concern.