Notice the order of God’s work
“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
- Divine intervention: “I will give, put, remove, give…”
- Life transformation: “Then they will follow.. and be careful to keep…”
- Personal relationship: “They will be my people….I will be their God”
Divine intervention: “I will give, put, remove, give…”
Aside from specific application of these words to Israel, and the timing of their fulfillment, they provide a window into God’s answer for the human problem. These words reveal the deeper need we all face as humans. What is the answer to our endless course of self-destruction? What will help us with our personal and relational crises? More to the point, what is the answer to our wayward rebellion and sin? Do we need more laws? Better education? Civil rights?
These things are not necessarily wrong but they often prove to be merely external adjustments. What we learn from the Word of God through Ezekiel is that our real need is for Divine intervention.
God says, “I will give them, I will “put a new spirit in them” “I will remove from them… and give them…” We need nothing less than divine intervention. We need profound inner transformation not just a few external changes. And only God can give someone an undivided heart and a new spirit. Only God can remove a heart of stone (a hardened and stubborn heart) replacing it with a heart of flesh (a humble and teachable heart).
“It is a peculiar feature in our holy religion that it begins its work within and acts first upon the heart. Other religions, like that of the Pharisees, begin with outward forms and ceremonies, perhaps hoping to work inwardly from without, although the process never ends, for though the outside of the cup and of the platter is made clean, the inside still remains full of rottenness as before. No truth of God is more sure than this concerning all the sons of men, “You must be born again.”
“There must be an entire and radical change of man’s nature or else where God is he can never come—the Gospel does not flinch from this, but enforces the declaration. The Holy Spirit does not attempt to improve human nature into something better, but lays the axe at the root of the trees and declares that we must become new creatures—and that by a supernatural work of the Omnipotent God.”
“Scripture does not mince matters, or say that some men may be better than others, naturally, and by an improvement of their Excellencies may at last become good enough for God. Far from it! It declares concerning all, “Except you are converted and become as little children, you shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of Heaven.” True religion begins, then, with the heart, and the heart is the ruling power of manhood. You may enlighten a man’s understanding and you have done much, but as long as his heart is wrong, the enlightenment of the understanding only enables him to sin with a greater weight of responsibility resting upon him. He knows good to be good, but he prefers the evil. He sees the light, but he loves the darkness and turns from the Truth of God because his heart is alienated from God. The heart, when renewed by Grace, is the best part of manhood. Unrenewed, it is the very worst” (Charles Spurgeon).
Divine intervention and inner transformation:
“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
God’s focus on the heart:
What a good word! God gives a new heart— an undivided heart. He removes a heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh—a tender heart. He will see to it himself. (see: Prayers for the heart)
Yet it’s sobering to recall that the God who removes obduracy of heart by gracious intervention also hardens calloused hearts in judgment.
God hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:13); God says that he will harden the hearts of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:17); the LORD hardened the spirit of Sihon, king of Heshbon (Deuteronomy 2:30); the LORD to harden the hearts of the northern kings in Canaan (Joshua 11:20), Isaiah asked why God hardened Israel’s heart (Isaiah 63:17), and the apostle Paul wrote “whom God wills He hardens” (Romans 9:18). God, who kindly gives ears to hear: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16). “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). But sometimes God blinds the eyes and dulls the ears of those who refuse to listen (Jeremiah 5:21-24; 6:9-15 Isaiah 6:8-11; Matthew 13:11-17).
What kind of person receives divine intervention?
Apart from divine intervention, the heart remains unchanged. But does Scripture provide insight into the kind of person who receives this gracious intervention of God? Yes. Consider the story Jesus gave in Luke 18:9-14 and look closely at the contrast between two types of people. One has a heart hardened in prideful self-righteousness; the other, a heart overwhelmed with unworthiness and need for mercy.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
The self-righteous see no need for intervention. They’re doing quite well in their own estimation. They leverage self-promotion by looking with contempt on others, thus validating their deluded sense of superiority. They boast in their deeds. By contrast, Jesus pictured chest-beating, mercy-pleading sinners who are not even sure they’re supposed to be in a place where God dwells. They keep to a distance and feel the weight of their wretchedness. These people know they need intervention. They boast of nothing and only appeal to God based on mercy. While the first man builds a case for justification before God, the second pleads with God to withhold the judgment he knows he deserves. This man, rather than the other, receives the gift of divine justification before God.
“A heart of flesh is a gift of Sovereign Grace and it is always the result of Divine power. No heart of stone was ever turned into flesh by accident, nor by mere Providential dispensations, nor by human persuasions. You might argue with a rock a long while before you would persuade it into flesh. Neither is such a change worked by a man’s own actions. How shall a stone, being a stone, produce in itself flesh? A power from above the man must work upon him. According to the language of the Scriptures, “Except a man be born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The Spirit of God must change the nature, or the heart of stone will never become a heart of flesh! Note that the first works of the Spirit of God upon the soul tend towards this tenderness, for when He comes to a man He convinces him of sin and so softens him. The man convinced of sin does not laugh any longer at sin, neither does he despise the wrath of God on account of it. When the Spirit of God darts the arrows of conviction into the soul, then the heart begins to bleed and the man is conscious of feelings and emotions to which he was a stranger before” (Charles Spurgeon).
“Oh, to think that salvation should be of the Sovereign Grace of God! How it humbles us. How it lays us in the dust. No more talking about man’s rights as a creature, man’s claims and what God ought to do! We are broken down and feel that the Lord may do exactly what He wills and thus we are made tender before His face. Oh, to know that there is no pardon except by faith in a Substitute! To understand that God must and will punish sin—how it makes us feel that sin is no trifle! How it leads us to abhor sin as a great evil and makes us jealous lest we should offend again! When we read that all our help was laid on Jesus Christ, how it cuts away, by the roots, all our self-confidence and makes us lie low at the foot of the Throne of God!” (Charles Spurgeon).
Intervention as new birth
The work of intervention described in Ezekiel would parallel the New Testament emphasis on being born of God or made new creations in Christ.
Dead people receive life:
Part of the way the New Testament explains salvation is God giving life to people who are dead in sin. “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, …. but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1,5)
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (I John 5:11-12).
Dead people born of God
Salvation is also described as a birth. The life received is identified as a new birth or being born of God. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (I John 5:1). “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). “Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’” (John 3:3).
Consider the way the apostle Paul describes this intervention:
“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).
Our first birth was of perishable seed, conceived in sin; our second birth, of imperishable seed. After this intervention of new birth, is it right to expect changes in the one who believes in Christ?
“No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (I John 3:9). How can they persist in sin if they were pleading for God’s mercy about their sin? It’s not that they never sin (a misleading translation of the KJV), but that they cannot persistently remain in sin. Nor do they deny being a sinner: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Instead they come clean with God: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). They also know the basis for forgiveness of sin: “if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 2:1-2).
Intervention and inner transformation come before outward transformation:
“Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” And it is all to be based on personal relationship: “They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).