To the ORIGINAL audience while Ezekiel was still living, the new covenant has not yet come. So the operative covenant here was still the Mosaic law. The new heart has just been promised, but because it will not arrive for a few hundreds years, the Deuteronomic punishments for breaking the law are still in effect BUT not entirely (see below about Ex 34:7 in DOTP quotation). What this chapter highlights as in so many passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, is that God has freedom to withhold full punishments if only his people repent, either corporately (represented by the king) or individually, as in Eze 18, because those prophets made very clear as to the purpose of why Israel was chosen: to become light unto the nations which in turn cause their God to be honored and exalted so other nations will want to worship Israel's God too. But the plan was totally messed up because of idolatry and injustice by the upper classes and the rulers, so after Babylon exile God has to make Plan B without violating the Mosaic covenant. Tricky.
The plain meaning of Eze 18 should be clear if we place the chapter in the original larger context. Basically, before proceeding with the Babylonian exile punishment of Judah and destruction of Jerusalem, God sent many warnings through several prophets including Ezekiel. But the people refused to repent, so God carried out the judgment. However, God doesn't want the exiled people to misunderstand the character of God (who is merciful if people repent) nor lose hope in him (thinking that parent's sins caused the returnees to still be under curse, cf. Ex 34:7), because one day (under the Persian empire), God will bring them back to Jerusalem even though not everyone will repent yet because God's name is at stake (Eze 36:16-24).
So through Ezekiel God announced that he changed his mind about Ex 34:7: during the return, those who repent will not have to carry the sins of their parents anymore, but of course the children who are STILL rebelling during the return period, will still be punished. But then Ezekiel anticipated people's response of how God is inconsistent in offering this new grace (18:25) and defended God's change of mind by reminding them it's God's prerogative to do so, especially since protests about God's justice should not come from unjust rebellious people (like the pot calling the kettle black)! Furthermore God made a NEW promise that people will be given new heart that doesn't rebel against God anymore (Eze 11:19, Eze 36:26, Jer 31:33), which was fulfilled by Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the NT era, i.e. New Covenant.
I think the above interpretation of Eze 18 (to the ORIGINAL audience) should be relatively similar among Protestant denominations. I was freely paraphrasing the 2 Protestant commentaries below, which vary essentially only about whether the passage is talking about corporate, generational (ESVSB) or individual (OSSMP) responsibility.
But how do PROTESTANTS TODAY interpret Eze 18:20-32 now that Jesus and the new covenant has come? You brought up:
This seems to teach that sin directly corresponds to condemnation, and righteous living directly corresponds to life. However, this would seem to be at odds with the Protestant doctrine of simul justus et peccator (at once a sinner and just[ified]).
I believe your anticipated responses already cover the answer. simul justus et peccator is Luther's famous formula that Jesus's righteousness is imputed to us when we have faith in Him while at the same time we are still sinners (concise explanation here). While I cannot find direct interpretation of this passage by recognized Protestant authorities (like Martin Luther, Calvin, confessions, or theology professors who are committed to Protestant doctrines) I believe the Protestant application for people TODAY are quite straightforward:
- Jesus offers salvation to everyone (V. 23)
- If you accept Jesus as your Lord then your situation will be like the wicked who repented in V. 21-22, 27-28
- To take the offer you need to repent and God will give you eternal life and send the Holy Spirit to create the new heart within you (V. 30b-32)
- But if you don't accept Jesus, God will judge you accordingly (V. 30a)
- The same applies to someone who "accepted" Jesus but then relapsed; the person will die (V. 24). (Maybe the conversion was not genuine, like the one Paul excommunicated in 1 Cor 5:1-5, the believer who lived and slept with his stepmother).
- Luther's doctrine simul justus et peccator applies only to those who accepted Jesus (bullet point #2 above). In that state of faith, according to Protestants, sin no longer leads to condemnation and righteous living does NOT contribute to your righteousness, AS LONG AS THE CONVERSION IS GENUINE. Hence the anxieties of Calvinists who sometimes don't know for sure whether they are included in the elect.
Below are the quotations that I referenced above:
The entirety of Chapter 18 (18:1-32) is part of Eze 1-24, material preceding the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC (OTSSMP, DOTP), titled "Moral responsibility" (ESVSB), "The Proverb of the Sour Grapes" (OTSSMP), "The Justice of a Righteous God" (NLT), "The Soul Who Sins Shall Die" (ESV).
Commentary of Chapter 18 (OTSSMP):
As indicated earlier (cf. 12:22), the people of Israel responded to
the preaching of men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel with cliches and
proverbs, not with reasoned argument. In chapter 18 Ezekiel refuted
another such proverb: “The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the
children’s teeth are set on edge.” The Lord expressed shock that
anyone would think that he would punish one generation for the sins of
another. When all the events unfold and the full implications of the
judgment were known, they would not use this proverb any longer in
Israel (18:1–3). In refuting the implications of this proverb Ezekiel
touched on two basic doctrines of Scripture:
A. Doctrine of Personal Responsibility (18:4-20)
The basic principle of divine justice is simply this: “all souls are mine.” Each person is a separate entity before God. “The soul who sins will die.” Each person is accountable for his own life (18:4). After stating this basic principle, Ezekiel offered three illustrations of what he meant.
The fate of a righteous man (18:5–9). A man who was righteous by the standards of the Old Testament law would live. Ezekiel cited sixteen identifying marks of a righteous man. Seven are negative characteristics, or things a righteous man did not do. A righteous man did not (1) eat on the mountains in pagan rituals; (2) lift up his eyes to idols; (3) defile his neighbor’s wife; (4) approach a menstruous woman; (5) oppress anyone through fraudulent dealings; (6) commit robbery; nor (7) lend money to a needy person on express condition of receiving interest. On the other hand, the righteous man possessed nine positive attributes. He (1) executes justice; (2) practices righteousness; (3) restores to the debtor his essential collateral; (4) feeds the hungry; (5) clothes the naked; (6) keeps his hand from iniquity; (7) executes true justice between men; (8) walks according to the law of God; and (9) deals faithfully, i.e., he is sincere.
The fate of the wicked son (18:10–13). A righteous man might have a wicked son who was so violent that he actually shed blood. He was the exact opposite of his father. Concerning this man the verdict must be death! Although temporal judgment is in the forefront here, in the light of the New Testament the eternal consequences of his actions cannot be overlooked. His blood would be on him, i.e., he must bear full responsibility for his conduct.
The fate of the righteous son (18:14–18). Occasionally a wicked man might have a son who repudiated the deeds of his father. He manifested all the characteristics of a righteous man. In no case would he die for the sins of the father. The wicked father, however, would “die for his iniquity” because he practiced extortion and robbery and “did what was not good among his people.”
The basic question, then, was this: “Why should the son not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity?” Simply because God is impeccably fair. The son who was just, righteous and obedient to the law of God would live. “The soul that sins,” however, would die. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, nor shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” Each person bears the ultimate responsibility for his own conduct. The “righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.”
B. Doctrine of Free Will (18:21-32)
Men are not locked into a life of sin. They can change. A wicked man can turn from all his sins. He may determine to live his life by the Book, i.e., the law of God, and to deal justly and righteously with his fellow man. The penalty for that man would be canceled. None of his transgressions would be remembered against him. Because of his righteousness he would live. God had no delight in the death of the wicked. On the contrary, the Lord has always delighted to see a wicked man turn from his evil way (18:21–23).
A righteous man may choose to turn from his righteousness to iniquity, to all the abominations of the wicked. Such a man’s righteousness would not be remembered because of his “treachery.” He would die in his sin (18:24).
This raised the objection that “the way of the Lord is not right.” The argument seems to be that if a man once saved is subsequently lost, then God is inconsistent. Ezekiel responded to this argument decisively. God’s ways were consistent; Israel’s ways were inconsistent. Backsliders would die in their sin. Penitent sinners would live. God would judge each individual separately. A man’s fate is determined by his own free choices (18:25–30a).
The doctrine of free will implies that a sinner can repent. Ezekiel concluded this section of his book with a strong appeal for repentance. He urged Israel to “return,” to go back to the point where they got off the path. He exhorted those who repented to cause others to turn from their transgressions. He called upon his audience to “cast away” all their transgressions. On the positive side, he encouraged them to make for themselves “a new heart and a new spirit,” i.e., develop a firm resolve to be faithful and obedient. The alternative to such repentance was death. Yet God did not delight in the death of the wicked. Therefore, he urged them one last time to repent so that they might live (18:30b–32).
Commentary of Chapter 18 (ESVSB):
Chapter 18 is sometimes thought to present a novel understanding of
Hebrew ethics, as the high politics of chs. 17 and 19 give way to the
lot of ordinary people. Some view the notions of corporate
responsibility (cf. Josh. 7:19–26) and accumulated guilt (cf. 2 Kings
23:26) as the primary context for Ezekiel’s teaching and observe that,
here in Ezekiel 18, he appears to depart from that context and focus
on the moral responsibility of the individual. Of course, this reading
sits well with modern individualism (which rightly stresses individual
moral accountability) but it misses the primary communal focus of
Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s “you” addresses are consistently in the plural
(note also “house of Israel” in vv. 25, 29). The primary focus of this
chapter is not so much on legal individual culpability as on divine
justice resting afresh on each generation in accord with what that
18:19-24: "Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?" Ezekiel anticipates his audience clinging to their traditional understanding encapsulated in the now defunct proverb (vv. 1–2).
18:20-24: "The soul who sins shall die." Verses 21–24 explain this teaching in what might seem a surprising way for Ezekiel. Verses 21–22 consider the wicked person who then repents and lives rightly before God. Verse 24 considers the opposite scenario. Sandwiched between these is the central declaration of God’s “pleasure” (v. 23) in repentance, and a denial that he has "any pleasure in the death of the wicked" (see note on 33:11).
18:25-29: "The way of the Lord is not just". The second objection, repeated in vv. 25 and 29, appears to be oriented to the immediately preceding teaching on repentance, rather than being a second objection to the main teaching of the chapter. “Just” (Hb. root takan, vv. 25, 29) has the sense of “weighed” or “measured,” that is, in conformity to a standard (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3). The irony of this objection is rich, coming from people whose lives have not accorded with justice.
18:30-32: Conclusion: Repent! Repentance is not being urged on Jerusalem, for the preceding chapters affirm that its destruction is assured. Rather, the exiles are pressed to repent and take responsibility for their moral lives. Thus the appeal is to "make yourselves a new heart and spirit", in contrast to 11:19 and 36:26, where these are the gift of God. The restatement of God’s displeasure in anyone’s death (18:32; cf. v. 23 and note on 33:11) is the basis for the final entreaty to "turn, and live".
From DOTP:"Exodus Imagery", Ezekiel section:
2.3. Ezekiel. Compared to Isaiah and Jeremiah, in Ezekiel’s message to the exiles the exodus plays a more limited and somewhat different role. Ezekiel shares the idea that their, and their ancestors’, failure to keep the law (Ezek 5:6–7; 11:12; 16:59)—again notably their apostasy to other gods—is the covenantal cause of their desolation (Ezek 5:14–17; 7:2; 9:1–11; 14–16; cf. Ezek 33:23–29). As Yahweh had bared his arm at the exodus, so too Ezekiel will bare his arm in prophesying that God’s hand was now against his people (Ezek 4:7; 6:14; 13:9; 14:9, 13; 16:27) (on Ezekiel as a new Moses, see Idestrom). Jeremiah’s rebuke of Judah’s whoredoms finds an extensive and intentionally shocking counterpart in Ezekiel’s account of Jerusalem’s lewdness (Ezek 16; cf. Hosea [see 4.1 below]). But there is also a message of hope to those dispersed among the nations (Ezek 11:16). Yahweh will, in language reminiscent of Jeremiah (Jer 30–31), regather them in a new exodus (Ezek 20:33–34; cf. Ezek 25:7, 13, 16), giving them a new heart and new spirit so that they will keep his commandments, and they will be his people and he their God (Ezek 11:16–20; 16:62), blessing their land (Ezek 36:6–12).
But there are new developments. Elements of the prophet’s opening vision seem to echo the Sinai theophany (Ezek 1:4, 22; cf. Ex 19:16–18; 24:10, 15–17)—a kind of anti-Sinai presaging judgment?—and only in Ezekiel is there such an emphasis on the reversal of the high point of the exodus wherein Yahweh’s presence departs from his temple (Ezek 10–12; cf. Ezek 25:3). While covenant obedience continues to lead to life and disobedience to death (Ezek 18; 33:10–20), the Exodus 34:7 tradition is modified so that the sins of the parents will be visited no longer on their children but rather upon the perpetrators themselves (Ezek 18:2–4, 20; cf. Ezek 33:10–20). [emphasis mine]
More remarkable is Ezekiel 20:5–38, the prophet’s most extended engagement with the exodus. Beginning with the customary traditions of Yahweh’s self-revelation and gift of a land flowing with milk and honey (Ezek 20:5–7, 15b, 19–20), Ezekiel’s exodus is one of Israel’s unrelenting rebellion (cf. Ezek 2:5). It begins, uniquely, with Israel’s refusal to reject Egypt’s gods even while in bondage (Ezek 20:7–8a; 23:8, 19–20, 27; cf. Josh 24:14)—this might partially explain the extended diatribe against Egypt (Ezek 29–32)—countered by Yahweh’s commitment “for the sake of his name” to continue with their deliverance (Ezek 20:8b–10; cf. Ex 32:11–14). This initiates a threefold cycle, repeated throughout the wilderness journeying and into the land: (1) Yahweh’s gift of his life-giving statutes and Sabbath as a testimony to his holiness (Ezek 20:11–12, 18–20), (2) Israel’s refusal to obey, breach of Sabbath and persistent idolatry (Ezek 20:13a, 21a, 27–32), (3) Yahweh’s withholding of his *wrath (Ezek 20:13b–14; 21b; cf. Ex 32:10–14; Num 14:11–20) while passing suspended sentence upon them (Ezek 20:15–16, 23–24; cf. Ex 32:34; Num 14:21–23), a sentence now meted out in the exile. The reference in Ezekiel 20:25 to God giving “bad statutes” in the exodus remains enigmatic, but it may be an ironic polemic against the people’s perverse twisting of the law of the firstborn (see Ex 13:12–13) to justify their sacrificing children to Molech. If they insisted on this diametrically opposed reading, then Ezekiel would carry it through to its conclusion such that instead of intending life, Yahweh intended their devastation and death.
In another striking development and perhaps addressing the continued rebellious unbelief implied by Isaiah 40–55 (see 2.1.2 above) (Ezek 36:20, 23), Yahweh will enter into judgment even with the exiles (Ezek 20:36; cf. Ex 32:25–28, 35; Num 11:1–3, 33; 16). Bringing them back to the wilderness, he would cause them to “know” in a new “face-to-face” revelation that “I am the LORD” (cf. Ex 29:46), imposing the bond of covenant and pouring out his wrath not on the nations but instead on the rebels among them, who, he promises, will not return to the land (Ezek 20:33–38; cf. Ezek 11:21; Num 14:21–23; 20:9–12; Deut 5:4).
But for the rest, concerned, as in the exodus, for his holy name (Ezek 36:21–23, 32; cf. Ex 32:11–14), Yahweh will cleanse them (Ezek 36:21–25; cf. Ezek 16:9) and give them a new heart and spirit to follow his commands, blessing them and their land (Ezek 36:26–38; 37; cf. Ezek 34:25–31) (see Kohn). Through his “hand” he will again display his glory, causing both Israel and the nations to know that he is “the Holy One of Israel,” showing his people mercy (Ezek 39:25) and never again hiding his face from them (Ezek 39:21–29). And as in Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s new exodus also envisages the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25). Finally, picking up on his earlier vision of Yahweh’s departing presence, this renewed relationship results not in a moveable tabernacle (Ex 25–31, 35–40) but rather in a new, fixed temple (Ezek 40–48) from which Yahweh’s presence will never depart (Ezek 48:35) (Levenson).
- OTSSMP: Old Testament Survey Series - The Major Prophets, James E. Smith, 1985
Smith, J. E. (1992). The Major Prophets (Eze 18:1–32). Joplin, MO: College Press.
- ESVSB: ESV Study Bible, 2008
- DOTP: IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, 2012 : Dictionary entries "Exodus Imagery", "Ezekiel: Book of."