Do Jeremiah and Ezekiel teach that God causes us to obey?

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”.

Is Apostasy Real?

“For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt…Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.”

Hebrews 6:4-6, 9

The doctrine of eternal security for all true believers has been a pillar of evangelical christianity since the reformation. Hebrews 6 is a text that, when taken at face value, stands very opposed to this doctrine and, as such, is often one that must be explained away in defense of it. John MacArthur in his commentary states, “…the writer of Hebrews is speaking to the unsaved who have heard the truth and acknowledged it, but who have hesitated to embrace Christ… The believer need never fear he will lose his salvation. He cannot. The Bible is absolutely clear about that.”1Similarly, John Piper commenting on verse 9 says, “they really are ‘saved’ and that therefore they will not commit apostasy… the writer really believes that they have salvation and therefore will have the things that always accompany salvation.”2 Martin Luther took it leaps further, going so far as to deny the authority of Hebrews as inspired Scripture, part of which was taking issue specifically with the warning passages in Hebrews.3

How then are we to understand what is being spoken of in Hebrews 6? Let us first establish whether the passage is speaking of true Christians or unbelievers by examining the markers used to identify who the writer is addressing. The first phrase, “Once been enlightened” is speaking of those who were saved from the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13-14) and brought into the light. When compared with how it is used again in 10:32 – “after you were enlightened” ‘you endured severe persecution for your faith’ – it’s even more clear this is speaking of someone who is saved. Next, “Tasted the heavenly gift” when compared to John 4:10 or Ephesians 2:8 show that this is speaking of salvation itself. The third phrase, “Shared in the Holy Spirit” follows a similar suit. Acts 2:38 or Galatians 3:2 make it clear that sharing in the Holy Spirit indicates salvation. Likewise, the last phrase, “Tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” also speaks with reference to the Holy Spirit or salvation (Romans 8:2, 26; John 14:16, 26; Luke 11:13; Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16;) and the good promises that are given to God’s obedient children (Psalm 1:1-3; 19:11; Proverbs 15:5-6; Luke 12:22-34; 18:29-30; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Philippians 4:19; 1 Peter 2:3).

Next, a brief consideration of the immediate context is appropriate. This set of verses is a continuation of the conversation started in chapter 5 where the author tells his audience they should be teachers by now instead of needing to be taught again the “elementary doctrine[s]” of repentance, baptism, and coming judgment – 5:11-6:2. First, how could the author make such an assertion if he’s speaking to unbelievers? Second, it makes logical sense that his argument would flow from this concern into a warning about apostasy given the stagnancy and immaturity mentioned in the previous verses. Like the second soil in Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mat 13:18-23) these believers possess shallow roots and stand in grave danger of abandoning Christ the moment tribulation and persecution arrive.

That being said, the strongest support is found in verse 6. According to the author, if anyone has “fallen away”, you cannot “restore them again” because that would be “crucifying once again the Son”. How can an unbeliever do any of these things? What is an unbeliever ‘falling away’ from or being ’restored’ back to if they were never a Christian? How has an unbeliever become a partaker in Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4)? To take the position this warning is directed toward unbelievers is completely nonsensical and ignores the author’s clear intent. After closely examining this passage, zero doubt should remain of who it is speaking to – fully saved individuals!

That Hebrews 6:4-6 is indeed speaking of true believers is further confirmed when we examine the familial and salvific language used by the author throughout Hebrews. In several places he speaks of his audience as “brothers” (2:11-13; 3:1; 10:19). He also calls them “children” or “sons”, including a reference to how to rightly receive the discipline of God as their Father (2:11-13; 12:5-11). His warnings in other sections of the book are also equally clear that it’s written to believers because of the explicit salvific language used – “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3), “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:12), or warning not to “[profane] the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (10:22-32). Finally, in chapter 13 the author asks them for prayer, which is only possible for believers. Knowing this warning is to true believers should not come as a surprise when considering other passages such as 1 Corinthians 5:12 that make it clear God and the authors of Scripture are concerned first and foremost about the conduct of His people.

Now that we have confirmed the audience to be believers, we are now ready to consider the assertion that this warning of apostasy is being softened by verse 9 into a hypothetical. Reading just a few verses later we can see this is not the author’s intent at all. In verse 11, the author says that the only way for them to retain their assurance of salvation is to continue to perform the same “work and love” spoken of in verse 10 “until the end.” The author is not softening the warning from the earlier verses into a hypothetical, but rather providing his readers with the answer to the natural question that would arise from such a warning, “How do I not become guilty of this?”, and encouraging them that their current obedient lives are evidence they’re on the right track. It is interesting to note that the author says he is confident about their salvation because of their obedience (10). If saving faith is the sole basis for assurance, why does the author not mention faith at all? Consider also the, at best, futility, and, at worst, outright manipulation the author (ultimately God) would be guilty of if this were a hypothetical. Either the author has negated his previous argument (futility) or he is using the warning of serious punishment, that’ll never actually be possible, to scare his readers into compliance (manipulation).

Looking at the example the author quotes in chapter 3:7-18 regarding Old Covenant Israel is further evidence this warning is not hypothetical. Jesus’ Old Covenant people, who were continuously disobedient, had very serious and very real judgment executed against them. The author uses this example to explicitly warn his readers not to be like them. This warning too falls flat or is manipulation if it’s not something that can actually happen to the New Covenant Christian. Given what the author says about Jesus being “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8) should we expect He will treat His New covenant people any differently?

Contrary to what Luther believed, this understanding of Hebrews is consistent with the remainder of the New Testament. Every major New Testament preacher has warnings about those who refuse to be obedient:
Jesus – Matthew 7:21-23; 10:33, 38; 12:31-32; 13:41-42; 18:9, 35; 22:11-14; 25:31-46;
Paul – Colossians 1:21-23; Romans 11:20-23; Philippians 3:12-15;
Peter – 1 Peter 1:13-17; 4:17-18; 2 Peter 1:9-11; 2:17-22;
John – 1 John 5:2-3 w/ 13; 2 John 1:9; Revelation 2:5-7, 10, 16, 26; 3:3, 11, 21; 21:7-8;
Jude – Jude 1:12, 20-21;
James – James 1:12, 22-25; 2:14-24; 3:4-5;

As we’ve seen, Hebrews 6, along with the New Testament, teaches that apostasy is a very real possibility for, and serious warning to, true believers. From Genesis, with Adam and Eve, who were permitted to remain in the Eden only while they remained obedient, to Revelation, where Christ warns His churches over and over ‘to endure to the end’, God’s saving relationships with man have always existed where their salvific position is fully obtained in the present, yet still at risk of being forfeited through disobedience. Any Christian who continues in willful disobedience, ignoring these grave warnings, will be guilty of apostasy and all too quickly experience the awe inspiring, terrifying, eternal wrath of an incredibly righteous and angry God.

“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven…for our God is a consuming fire”

Hebrews 12:25, 29

“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’. And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Hebrews 10:30

The Thief on the Cross

The thief on the cross is perhaps one of the most frequently used examples to support the doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Many believe he is perfect to show how someone can do nothing besides make a profession of faith in Christ to seal their eternal destiny. To quote John MacArthur,

“No doctrine is more important to evangelical theology than the doctrine of justification by faith alone… the church stands or falls on this one doctrine… The thief on the cross is the classic example. On the most meager evidence of his faith, Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). No sacrament or work was required for him to procure salvation.”

John MacArthur, Jesus’ Perspective on Sola Fide

However, is that what is actually being communicated by Luke in his account of the thief on the cross? Was faith the only thing present for the thief’s salvation? Let us dive into Luke 23 and examine the whole picture.1

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

Luke 23:39-42

The first exchange we see taking place is between the two thieves, the first ‘railing’ at Christ and asking for deliverance from their current situation.2 He is then rebuked by the second thief, but it is critical to note what he is rebuked for: appealing for deliverance from the justice he deserves – “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly…” The second thief acknowledges and embraces justice and recognizes the injustice being done to Christ Who is receiving the same treatment as they are, though He had done nothing wrong. Only after affirming that they are receiving the “due reward of our deeds”, does the second thief appeal to Christ for mercy, but again, it is critical to note where that appeal of mercy is: mercy from judgment in the next life, not this one. He recognized that it is only through serving justice in this life that he could appeal for mercy in the life to come. Only after this takes place does Jesus affirm the thief’s salvation. How ironic that this “classic example” used by evangelicals to support that justice isn’t needed to obtain mercy, actually teaches that very thing.

We see the same order of commitment to justice before salvation earlier in Luke’s gospel with Zaccheus, where Jesus proclaims “salvation has come to this house” only after Zaccheus makes his commitment to repay those he had defrauded (Luke 19:1-10). This account is also incredibly similar to that of Joshua and Achan, where Joshua instructs Achan to “give glory to God” just before they stone him (Joshua 7:10-26). In other words, acknowledge and embrace the justice you deserve now so that you can receive mercy in the next life. In short, justice always precedes mercy.

Next, we examine the idea that the thief had no acts of obedience or partaking of the sacraments. Let us consider what repentance is, a commitment to stop sinning, make your wrongs right, and change going forward (Matthew 3:1-8; Luke 3:3-14). Since following Christ is not optional and repentance is the first step in following Christ (Mark 1:15; 6:12; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 19:4), this means repentance is itself an act of obedience. This ties in closely with the thief’s baptism. At first glance, it seems like an obvious argument that the thief was not baptized, however, considering what baptism is and what it represents tells a different story. Romans 6:3-6 teaches that baptism represents us being united with Christ in His death, our old self being crucified with Him, and being “raised… to the newness of life.” So while we are baptized in order to join Christ in His death symbolically, the thief was joined with Christ in His death literally. The thief’s was the truest form of a baptism, whereas ours, though not any less powerful, is a symbolic baptism. This is further supported by Jesus Himself who spoke of His death in this way – as a “baptism to be baptized with” – Luke 12:50 (see also Mark 10:38). We also know that baptism is where we are saved (1 Peter 3:21) and receive our initial washing from all sin in our previous life (John 13:1-30; Matthew 26:26-29). This understanding allows us to make sense of Jesus’ confident assertion that the thief would be with Him in Paradise. The thief was in the midst of his baptism, so long as he remained obedient in his repentance, any sin in this life would be cleansed upon his death as his baptism was completed and ushered him directly into Paradise. This is also why the thief did not (and had no need to) partake of the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Table is provided for our continued cleansing from sin in our lives after we have received the initial washing from baptism. Since the thief was in the midst of receiving his initial baptism and cleansing from sin as he died with Christ, there was no new sin that he was required to have cleansed through partaking of the Table.

If the account of the thief was not recorded to communicate that salvation is through faith alone, what is being taught by this account? It is demonstrating what needs to be present for a deathbed conversion to be legitimate. The thief’s proclamation about Jesus – “this man has done nothing wrong” – and appeal to Him for salvation in the next life is clear evidence the thief knew Who it was that Jesus claimed to be and had intimate knowledge of His teachings. Similarly, his understanding and embracing of the justice he was serving and the defending of Jesus against those mocking Him show his love, loyalty, and obedience to Christ. This account, similar to the one in James 5:14-15, shows that someone must have an existing knowledge of Christianity and relationship with those who are responsible for dispensing salvation (in this case Christ, in the case of James 5, “the elders”). This teaching dispels the widespread idea that one can use Christ as their fire insurance policy: having no real interest or desire to follow Him, they simply make a profession of faith and go to heaven. Anyone thinking this is taught in Scripture will be badly (and eternally) burned.

After a very brief examination, the “classic example” of Sola Fide, on which “the [evangelical] church stands or falls”, has gone the way of Humpty Dumpty. How then should we understand the story of the thief on the cross? As we have seen, the thief did far more than have faith alone. He embraced the justice he deserved, responded in obedient repentance during the life he had left, and was baptized into Christ’s death. Much more took place than a simple profession of faith that so many Evangelicals today rely on. The point not to miss, like the thief on the cross, embrace the true gospel and recognize the real Jesus who only brings with Him into paradise those who practice both faith and faithfulness, or join the many who will go to Hell for embracing the false gospel of Sola Fide.