Ezekiel 36:25-28 is a powerful message of the changes that were to come in the New Covenant. One of the biggest changes that is communicated is the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of all believers, something that only the anointed experienced in the Old (Numbers 11:29). But what would be the Spirit’s role in the life of New Covenant believers? The position that many evangelicals take based on these passages is that the Holy Spirit is solely responsible for believers’ obedience. As John MacArthur puts it, “The New Covenant also carries an internal power to cause obedience to the Law of God.”1 In a similar vein, John Piper says, “Unless God enables our obedience, we work and serve in vain. All true obedience flows from the strength he supplies.”2 Phrases like ‘all you have to do is believe’ or using John 3:16 as an entire gospel presentation are the natural result of such thinking. If this is indeed, however, how the Holy Spirit functions in the lives of believers under the New Covenant, we would expect to find significant support for this in the New Testament (NT) when examining passages that speak to the Holy Spirit’s role and what obedience in the lives of believers looks like. What we actually find is just the opposite.
Let us look first to Hebrews 10:22 where we have a clear allusion to Ezekiel 36:25, yet, just 4 verses later, in 26-39, the author launches into a warning about the consequences of disobedience and the eternal and fearful punishment that awaits those who continue in it. If the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant brings obedience without the believer having to do anything, would not a warning about the dangers of disobedience be one of the last things you would expect to find in a book that is celebrating the superiority of that covenant now being realized?
This theme of obedience being tied to the Holy Spirit, but not in the way you would expect if the evangelical position is the correct one, is not exclusive to Hebrews. In Philippians 2:12-14 we have the famous quote from 13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure”, which provides a brief glimmer of hope for this position. That is until you read the verses on either side where imperatives to obedience are directed at the believer. Consider also the choice of words, ‘God working in you’, not ‘working for you’. Next, consider 1 John 3:23-24 where John talks about how we can be assured of our salvation. This assurance comes when we are being obedient – and only when we are being obedient – will the Holy Spirit continue to dwell within us. Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from Acts 5:32, where we find something even more explicit. Peter and the apostles state that the Holy Spirit is “given to those who obey”, not as the means to obey.
That being said, one cannot deny the relationship that exists between the Holy Spirit and obedience. The question is, what is that relationship? Let us look to where Jesus gives the promise of the Spirit. In John 14:15-26, Jesus first tells His disciples that if they love Him, they will be obedient. He then launches into the promise and role of the Holy Spirit as a Helper. Since Jesus talks about obedience and then moves immediately into the promise of a coming Helper, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit’s role is that of helping believers to be obedient. Consider the major departure this represents from the evangelical line of thinking. The Holy Spirit is the Helper in our obedience, not the author of our obedience. We see something similar from Paul in Romans 8:12-13:
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Notice the Spirit’s role in our fleshly mortification is not that of author, but instrument. “By the Spirit” we are helped in our endeavor to “put to death the deeds” of the flesh.
Though this should be sufficient to understand the role of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant, let’s take it a step further and consider a couple implications created if it were true that the Holy Spirit is the author of our obedience. The first one is that no one in the Old Testament (OT), except for the few that were blessed with the Spirit, could have been obedient. Yet, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 warns against this exact line of thinking and carries all the more weight when considering that it follows closely on the heels of 54 verses dedicated to various curses promised to those who are disobedient (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). If it is only through the Holy Spirit that “God enables our obedience”, He set up generation after generation of Israelites to fail for thousands of years and added insult to injury by punishing and killing them for their failures. We also have a myriad of examples of OT saints who were faithfully obedient without the Holy Spirit’s help (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Rebekah, Joseph, Job, Rahab, Ruth, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Saul/Paul). Consider also Jesus’ Apostles, are we to believe they were never obedient until after His death and ascension, since they did not receive the Spirit until Acts 2?
This leads into the second, similar, consideration we have under the NT. If the Holy Spirit is the one that is responsible for our obedience and we have no control over it, He is the one that should be held accountable for any failure, not us. In other words, whenever we are disobedient, it is only because the Holy Spirit failed to cause us to be obedient. What we see in Scripture, however, is us, as fully capable, freewill individuals, who are given imperatives to be obedient (2 Peter 3:14, 17; 1 Peter 3:10-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 5:19-22; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 1:13 w/4:25-30; Romans 8:12), warned about disobedience (Hebrews 6:1-6; 10:25-32; 2 Peter 2:20-22), and told the coming judgment will be according to our deeds (Romans 2:6-8; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8; Jude 1:21). If we bear no responsibility (or ability) to be obedient, why are we the object of these imperatives and warnings instead of the Spirit? These passages become nonsensical or pointless unless we actually have the ability to do it. Jesus will condemn to hell many Christians because of their disobedience (Matthew 7:23) – what kind of unrighteous, unjust monster is created if He sends to eternal torture those who were never able to do what He asked of them?
With all this in mind we can now bring it full circle to how we must understand what is being said by Ezekiel. First, let us look at another passage in Ezekiel where similar words are spoken about the promise of the coming Spirit and His tie to obedience (11:19-21). This passage has an additional piece though – a warning to those who choose to be disobedient that God will “bring their deeds upon their own heads”. No doubt Ezekiel intends us to have this warning in mind when reading about the same promise of the Spirit in chapter 36. As we have seen from the NT, the Spirit’s role is not that of author of our obedience, but helping us in performing our obligation to be obedient. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit is not a cause of obedience, it is simply saying that He is not the sole or primary cause of obedience. That is why Ezekiel can say He will cause obedience and simultaneously warn us about disobedience since we, who do have the primary role in our obedience, continue to bear the consequences for any failure to be obedient. Though this helps us to understand what Ezekiel is saying, to make it even clearer, we can consider the translation of the text. The word that is used in Hebrew (עשה) which the translators chose to interpret as “to cause” has a semantic range that can also mean ‘to prepare’ or ‘to equip’, which we see in Exodus 12:16 and Jeremiah 3:16. With that information and given what we have learned about the fulfillment of this prophecy in the NT, the way we should understand Ezekiel 36:27 is this:
“And I will put my Spirit within you, to equip you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules”.