The Understated Work of God in Salvation
by Berry Kercheville
“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 the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:22–27)
These words were given by Ezekiel after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to those who had been taken captive in 597. These captives now had to deal with the jolting knowledge their nation was gone. In this extraordinary text, God revealed his plan to restore the people, a plan that could only be fulfilled through the Messiah, a plan that teaches us about God’s purpose and work toward us. This text exposes a number of flaws in our understanding of the reason God saved us and the method by which he brings us to salvation.
We Christians place a great deal of emphasis on our response to God’s call to salvation, and rightly so. God expects us to be obedient. But notice verse 27. God claims to be the cause of us turning to him. The reason we “walk in his statutes and are careful to obey his rules,” is because God put his Spirit within us and caused us to have that response. I am persuaded this is exactly the force behind Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. It is not so much Jesus telling Nicodemus what he must do as it is explaining to Nicodemus what God is doing for him to be “born from above.” Nicodemus followed the Jewish mistake of thinking circumcision, a type of the true circumcision done by Christ, was the key to being in the family of God. Jeremiah records: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jer. 9:25-26).
Though obedience to circumcision was necessary to their relationship with God, the Jews turned it into a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. They understated the work of God in bringing their hearts in line with his heart and overemphasized certain commands (circumcision, temple worship, festivals, unclean foods) as the primary ingredients to being in the family of God. We can easily do the same when we place such importance on the obedience of certain New Testament commands without the greater emphasis on the weightier matter of being born of God so that we are in his image. Ezekiel 36 exposes this flaw. Notice two critical messages in the text:
First, God’s primary purpose in saving us is not for our sake, but for the sake of his holy name which we have profaned. In Ephesians, Paul stressed that God’s purpose in saving us is for his glory. In 1:3-14, we have a lengthy list of God’s blessings toward us. However, in the midst of this description, three times Paul tells us God’s purpose: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (6), “that we would be to the praise of his glory” (12), “to the praise of his glory” (14). Even at the close of the first half his letter, Paul again states, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus…” (3:21). Too often we speak of our salvation in a very self-centered way, as if it is all about us.
Second, eight times in this text we are told that God is acting to bring holiness to his name. Nothing in the text is about any action taken by us apart from the work of God. God sprinkles clean water on us to cleanse us. God gives us a new heart and a new spirit. God removes our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. God put his Spirit within us, which causes us to walk in his statutes and be careful to obey his rules. God causes us to “loathe ourselves for our iniquities” (vs. 31).
The idea is, we could not have done any of these things on our own. Though we have the free will to respond, our response to the will of God is a result of God’s work in cleansing us and putting his Spirit within us. John stated this same principle in his prologue: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). It is a God-generated rebirth, the same rebirth Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus.
The Work of God’s Spirit
God proclaimed through Ezekiel that the Spirit would be the reason his people would change. How would God do this and how is that connected to the work of the Spirit? Paul explains:
“and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:5–6)
Throughout the prophets, God spoke of the time when his Spirit would be poured out resulting in life and blessings to the world (Isaiah 32:9-18). Paul explains that when Christ died for the ungodly, his love was poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit certainly revealed the work of God in Christ, but from Ezekiel’s point of view there is also a sense in which the work of Christ on the cross is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit gives life. He is even called the “Holy Spirit” because “spirit” in the Hebrew carries the connotation of “life.” Therefore, how did the Spirit cause us to be careful to obey him? Through the love of God seen in the cross. How did the Spirit cause us to loathe ourselves for our sins? It is the cross that melted our hearts. It is the cross that took away our heart of stone and gave us a heart of flesh. It is the cross that put a new spirit within us.
By reading the entire context of John 3, we see Jesus explaining born of water and the Spirit in a similar way to Nicodemus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:14-16). Rebirth and entrance into the kingdom is God-generated and should not be overshadowed by a quick, cold list of the “steps” of salvation as if this is the gospel message. We do not glory in the act of repentance, the act of baptism, or the act of worship. We glory in God’s work in us. God changed us! God birthed us through an “imperishable seed” (1 Peter 1:23). We who profaned his holy name, God has created us to be to the praise of his glory.