Is God a Legalist?

"None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them.  Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live" (Ezekiel 18:22, NIV).

When I was a Baptist Christian, long before I had even heard of Adventism, I was familiar with this verse and the surrounding chapter.  As a matter of fact, my entire theology was formed around a Sunday school lesson on Ezekiel 18.  

At one point I even formed a Bible study group on Facebook to share what I was learning--with my friends.  My favorite subject to share was repentance.  My essential message was turn or burn.  I still believe this, but  I no longer believe in the eternal torment of hell, and God's final retribution on sin and sinners is not my leading emphasis!

Nowadays, I find myself confronted with a most perplexing difficulty.  I meet Seventh-day Adventist Christians who would call God's message in Ezekiel 18 legalistic.  What's worse is that some will supply other Bible references and Ellen White quotations to prove that Ezekiel 18 presents a legalistic message.  But is this the case?  I say no, but let's explore to know for sure.

There are other classes of people who will denounce God's message with sophistication.  Consider the following examples.  Some will say:

"Ezekiel is the Old Covenant.  There was actually a time when God's people were saved by doing righteousness.  Thankfully, it's no longer that way because Jesus died for our sins."

However, we know that "the Holy Scriptures... are able to make you wise unto salvation" and that "all Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Tim. 3:16).  Moreover, we know that there is only one gospel.  God has one way to save sinners (Acts 4:12; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:30; Gal. 1:6-9).  Therefore, it cannot be that Ezekiel is an inspired prophet of God preaching some other Gospel that Jesus would come later to reverse.  By the way, Ezekiel in chapter 18 seems to be giving a transcript of what God Himself said.  Others will say:

"God said that, but the larger context will reveal that he did not mean that."

There are times where the ideas that surround an idea prove the meaning of that idea to be just the opposite of what it appears (i.e. Col 2:21).  But is that the case here?  What is the context?

God has a charge against His people for misapplying a proverb. The proverb essentially taught that the sins of one generation predisposed the next generation to sin to the extent that God was unjust for holding people accountable for sin.  After all, they reasoned, sin is inevitable, so our guilt is not our own, but our fathers'.  In other words, the doctrine of original sin predates Augustine.

God calls His people to do away with the proverb that leads to this sort of thinking.  God explains that each individual is accountable before Him for their own sin, not the sin of another. God then gives a most reasonable explanation.  If a man is righteous he will live.  If this righteous man has an unrighteous son, the righteous father will live and the unrighteous son will die.  If the unrighteous son has a righteous son, the righteous grandfather will live, the unrighteous son will die, and the righteous grandson will live.

God premeditates and answers the question, "Why does the son not share the guilt of his father"? (Ezekiel 18:19).  God explains,

"The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.  The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness pf the wicked will be charged against them" (Ezekiel 18:20).

God goes on to defend His justice in desiring repentance and life over retribution and death. He calls His people to repent and live.  The point is that the context reveals that God was teaching that works of righteousness play a vital role in salvation.  So, this argument also falls.

However, some sincere Christians who believe that while we cannot save ourselves, that we must work to be saved by Jesus, still aren't as comfortable coming out as plain as God does in Ezekiel 18.  We don't feel comfortable just being plain and saying, "you must turn from sin and do what is right in order to be saved."  We honestly wonder how these plain words of Ezekiel 18 fit into the gospel.  We don't think that God is a legalist, but we're not sure we convince someone else of that.

God understands that salvation is salvation from sin.  God's saving work delivers us from the penalty, the power, and ultimately the presence of sin (Matt. 1:21; Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:11-14).  God never offers piecemeal salvation.  There is no one who is saved from the penalty of sin who is not saved from its power.  I don't care how much you try to convince yourself or your preacher tries to convince you that you are forgiven for sins that you still commit, it's just not true.  The same faith that claims God's mercy for past sins claims God's power to resist temptation in the present.  All who receive salvation from the penalty and the power of sin in this life will be delivered from the presence of sin when Jesus returns.

The problem is that many Adventists have been poisoned by the various false, incomplete gospels that circulate around our church like athlete's foot in the boy's locker room.  Satan works through these false gospels to frighten God's true people from preaching the true gospel with a loud voice out of fear of being referred to as legalistic.  The false gospel essentially boils down to making salvation a matter of forgiveness only.  God's mercy in rescuing believers from the penalty of sin is exalted while salvation from the power of sin is considered either impossible or unnecessary.

The reality is that many professed Christians will be lost on this very point.  I used to be a Sunday keeping Baptist.  I find it disgustingly problematic when Adventists give the same reasons for justifying friendship with the world in terms of lowering lifestyle standards that other Christians give for keeping Sunday instead of Sabbath.  Why do I keep the Sabbath?  I keep the Sabbath because I believe the gospel that God forgives me for my law-breaking for the purpose of restoring me to perfect law keeping.  Too many Adventists cling to the Sabbath and other doctrines out of cultural convenience and fear to explore other options.  Too many Adventists don't have a knowledge of or an experience with the everlasting gospel.  Too many don't see that our primary commission is to preach the true gospel and expose the false gospel of Babylon that teaches salvation by works and salvation in sin.

What's the result?  Many, although they would never say it with their lips, in their heart think God is a legalist.  They don't like messages like Ezekiel 18.  They'd rather not remember how similar Jesus' preaching was to John the Baptist's.  They hate the God that tells them that they must have the kind of faith that thoroughly repents and forsakes all sin in order to be saved.  They create an image that tells them that they will be saved without such a deep and thorough repentance and they bow down all the while saying "tomorrow will be a feast to Jehovah" (Ex. 32:5).  Many will only find out their deception when it is too late to be sanctified by the truth.

God's not a legalist.  He's a Savior.  He's wise and intensely practical.  Everything He does and says is relevant, if only we could have more of His Spirit to discern His relevance.  

Let me end by talking about my Lord Jesus.  He died on the cross.  His death promises me that He will save me from sin (Rom. 8:32).  His resurrection assures me that He can (Rom. 1:4; 8:11).  But there's more than that.   I'm not saved by believing in a list of tasks that Jesus accomplished.  I'm saved as I trust in the living Jesus.  I'm not saved by believing that Jesus died.  I'm saved by believing in the Jesus who died.  And just where is He?  He's in His Sanctuary above (Heb. 8:1-2).  He lives to make intercession for me (Heb. 7:25).  And that doesn't just mean that He prays for the Father to forgive me every time I sin, even though He does that (1 John 2:1-2).  His "intercession" also means that He ascended on high to give me the gift of His Spirit who will perfectly reproduce His image in me (Eph. 4:7-8; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).  

Look to Jesus.  He'll cleanse you from your past and keep you in the present until you're in His immediate presence.

Anthony Burrell

Anthony C. Burrell is currently a student at Southern Adventist University majoring in theology. He is anticipating graduation in December 2018 and pursuing a career in pastoral ministry.  He is happily married to Avery Burrell and together they have a son Zion Burrell.  He finds his highest joy in partnering with Christ in making disciples in the everlasting gospel.