(Preached at Dingwall)
“Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” — Ezekiel 33:11.
This message from God contains, in the form of an oath, a declaration regarding Himself, and, with earnestness most intense, conveys a call to the house of Israel. The declaration and the call are therefore the two things to which the text demands our attention.
I. In considering the declaration, we must first attend to the import and then to the form of it — to what God tells us, and to how He tells it.
1. The import of the declaration. It contains two statements. The first tells, in what He hath not, and the second, in what He hath, pleasure. Let us consider each of these separately.
“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” And yet the wicked dies. He who saith, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” is He from whom came the message, “O wicked man, thou shalt surely die.” The death of the finally impenitent is taken for granted. It is the mind of God regarding that certain event which the text calls us to consider. This passage gives no countenance to the idea that the death of the wicked is inconsistent with the mercy of God; for we have divine mercy proclaimed right over it. In full view of this awful fact, Jehovah asserts His benevolence. Nor is it required, in order that we may reconcile it with the character of God as He is good, that we think of the death of the wicked as something less calamitous than eternal misery. Surely it is not mere temporary suffering, nor annihilation, over which Jehovah is exhibiting earnestness so intense. Only those who know not sin can be disposed to modify the retribution.
If a stranger, visiting this country, looked in on the homes made wretched by vice, some of which are not very far removed from the palace; or into the cells of our prisons, which are so prominent and so costly as government institutions, throughout our land; or on the sad scene of an execution, at which agents of the crown were present: — would he be justified in coming to the conclusion that our Sovereign was not benevolent — that such a state of things under her government was an evidence of our Queen’s lack of clemency? If the crime, on account of which the wretchedness, the bondage, and the execution were elements in the condition of the kingdom, was ignored, it would be no wonder if a conclusion, adverse to the character of our Queen, were drawn from these facts. But let the crime be taken into account — trace to crime these instances of misery, and then not a shadow of suspicion appears to rest on the throne of our kingdom, nor on the name of our Sovereign. A ruler that would forbid the exact exercise of justice in dealing with crime, would, in effect, be quite as oppressive as the most cruel of all despots. The mercy that winked at crime would produce more calamitous results than the sternest tyranny. Even goodness demands a restraint on crime, and punishment for the convicted criminal.
And let it never be forgotten that the death we are now considering, in relation to the government and character of God, is “the death of the wicked.” We must think of his crime when we think of his death — of his having resisted the will, disowned the authority, dishonoured the name, hated the being, and defied the power of God. Can we think of God as infinite in His being, glory, and goodness, without being constrained to conclude that eternal death is the wages due to all who thus sin against Him? Could we worship a God who, in the full knowledge of what He was, would award a punishment less than this? A God not necessarily to this extent just to Himself, could not be infinite, and could not be worshipped. Such awful justice as finds expression in the eternal death of the wicked, you must discover in the divine mode of government, ere you can either revere or love Him who is “over all.” If you accept in faith the truth of God’s infinity, you must accept as true the awful fact of the eternal death of all the wicked who remain unsaved.
At any rate, the existence of sin furnishes an occasion for the infinite display of the very attributes of God on which it seems to cast a shadow — His holiness and His goodness — and a proof that God alone is necessarily infallible; for it appears that no creature can become so, either in heaven or on earth, except when, by a sovereign exercise of His goodness or of His grace, He involves their life in His own unchangeableness. If the existence of sin forms a dark background before which the glory of Him who alone is immutable all the more brightly appears, let our thoughts regarding its relation to Jehovah’s sovereign will produce the calmness of adoring silence behind the awe which overwhelms us as we think of its moral hideousness and of its everlasting results.
There is no malevolence in God which could be gratified in the death of the creature of His hands. It is not because He delights not in mercy that sin has been permitted to exist, and death has been awarded as its wages. This is sufficiently proved by His providence and by His gospel. Does He not cause His goodness to abound even to the evil and unthankful? Is not the earth, at any rate, a scene on which He makes manifest in His providential dealings with sinful men that He is “long-suffering and slow to wrath?” Each moment between birth and death is a fresh proof of this. And if, after a life made up of moments, each of them brightened by the goodness of God, the wicked dies at last, this calamity must be traced, not to lack of benevolence in God, but to impartial justice. And how ample the proof given in the cross that God hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked! There, the death of wicked persons is seen dissociated from them, and endured by a person who is the only begotten Son of God. There are the deaths of a countless multitude of wicked persons in one great retribution; and in the light of that awful fire, in which the wrath of God is exhaustively expressed, you may read the lesson of this text. They must die, but they so die in Christ that they shall surely live. Their deaths are swallowed up in the death of Him who is their Substitute; and because He alone is crucified they shall live. Here we see God dealing with sin apart from the person of the transgressor; and instead of the guilty criminal there stands at His bar a person who is his only begotten Son. O, how infinitely strong is the proof this affords that it is from impartial justice, and not from malevolence towards the persons of the guilty, that the sentence comes forth which awards death to the wicked!
But there is more than this in the first statement, in God’s declaration regarding Himself, which we have in the text. It tells us that such is the character of God, as revealed in the gospel, that it is impossible for Him to find pleasure in the death of the wicked.
Now, it is not by ignoring the stern aspect of His character presented by the law that you can be enabled to have before your mind the view of His character given in the text. Whatever was, is, and must for ever be, the character of God. He can never cease to be all He was revealed as being in the days of old. And by the law He reveals Himself now, just as He did then. You, as a sinner, have to do with Him under the same aspect of His character, and in the same relation, as Lawgiver and judge, as they who were under the former dispensation. And only in a way which was quite consistent with all He was, and with all He claimed, and with all He threatened, as the God of Sinai — only when His name is so before you, that you can recognise Him by the same glory which made awful the place of His presence on “the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire” — can you possibly attain to hope in His mercy.
Nor is it by concluding that because God is love, therefore He loveth all, that you can have before you the view of His character presented in the text. Beware of being content with a hope that springs from believing in a love of God apart from His Christ, and outside of the shelter of the cross. It may relieve you of a superficial fear. It may excite a feeling of joy and gratitude in your heart. It may beget in you what you may regard as love to God. This love, too, may be the mainspring of very active movements in the bustle of external service; but it leaves you, after all, away from God, ignoring His majesty and holiness, dispensing with His Christ, and enjoying a peace that has been secured by a cheating, instead of a purging, of your conscience. The time was when men openly preached an uncovenanted mercy as the resort of sinners, and laid the smoothness of that doctrine on the sores of the anxious. “Universal love,” in these days in which evangelism is in fashion, is but another form in which the same “deceit” is presented to the awakened. This is something from which an unrenewed man can take comfort. It is a pillow on which an alien can lay his head, and be at peace far off from God. It keeps out of view the necessity of vital union to Christ, and of turning unto God; and the hope which it inspires can be attained without felt dependence on the sovereign grace, and without submitting to the renewing work of God the Holy Ghost.
“God is love;” but when you hear this you are not told what must imply the declaration that He loves all, and that, therefore, He loves you. This tells us what He is, as revealed to us in the cross, and what all who come to Him through Christ will find Him to be. It is on this that faith has to operate. You have no right to regard that love, which is commended in the death of His Son, as embracing you…. It is only with the character, not at all with the purpose, of God that you have in the first instance to do. What right have you to say that He loves all? Have you seen into the heart of God that you should say He loves you, until you have reached, as a sinner, … the bosom of His love in Christ? “But may I not think of God loving sinners without ascribing to Him any purpose to save?” God loving a sinner without a purpose to save him! The thing is inconceivable. I would reproach a fellow-sinner if I so conceived of his love. Love to one utterly ruined, and that love commanding resources that are sufficient for salvation, and yet no purpose to use them! Let not men so blaspheme the love of God. “But may I not conceive of God as loving men to the effect of providing salvation, and to the effect of purchasing redemption for them, without this being followed out to the result of His purpose taking actual effect in their salvation?” No, verily. For the love of God is one, as the love of the Three in One. The one love of the One God is the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. If that love generated in the person of the Father a purpose to provide, and in the person of the Son a pupose to redeem, it must have generated in the person of the Holy Ghost a purpose to apply. You cannot assign one set of objects to it, as the love of the Father, and a different set of objects to it, as “the love of the Spirit.” And there can be no unaccomplished purpose of Jehovah. “My counsel shall stand,” saith the Lord, “and I will do all my pleasure.” “The world,” which the Father loved and the Son redeemed, shall by the Spirit be convinced “of sin, righteousness, and judgment,” and thus the Father’s pleasure shall prosper, and the Son’s “travail” be rewarded, through the efficient grace of God the Holy Ghost.