12And you, human, say to your countrymen, “The righteousness of a righteous person won’t save him when he transgresses, and the wickedness of a wicked person won’t trip him up when he repents of his wickedness. The righteous person can’t go on living by his past righteousness when he turns to sin. 13When I tell a righteous person that he will surely live, and then he trusts in his own righteousness, and does evil, all his righteousness will not be remembered, and it will be in the iniquity that he did that he will die. 14And when I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die!’ but then he repents of his sin, and does justice and lives righteously, 15if the evil person restores the pledges he has taken and returns what he has stolen, if he starts to live according to my statutes without doing evil, he will surely live! He will not die! 16All his sins that he committed will no longer be remembered. He has done justice and lived righteously. He will surely live!” — Ezekiel 33:12-16
Yesterday we talked about the power of repentance, and how it is a basic principle of God’s kingdom that is taught way back in Leviticus 5:17-6:7. I think our passage today leans on that older verse. It’s easy for us to skip over the sacrifices making the assumption that someone sinned and then offered a sacrifice. Jesus is now our sacrifice, so that’s all there was to learn. If you spend time on the details, there is much more. But Ezekiel states the lessons much more plainly.
We learned from Leviticus that there are three elements to true repentance. First, we must feel our guilt, which means to know that we’ve done wrong. Second, we must confess what we have done. Third we must take the necessary steps toward restoring the wrong that was done. I believe these elements are present in the Biblical descriptions of repentance. Repentance isn’t a religious word. It’s not a church ritual. It’s not a transaction. When I repent I must acknowledge that I’m going in the wrong direction, then I must turn around and head off in the right direction.
Think of it as driving down the road. If I take off on the road to Montgomery, but then turn off on some county road here in north Florida, I’m no longer going the right way. I can loudly proclaim that I was going to Montgomery, and ask if that isn’t good enough. I went several miles toward my goal, shouldn’t I get some credit for that? You laugh, I’m sure. That doesn’t work in traveling down the road.
Supposing instead that I announce that I realize how wrong I am, that I repent, and that I will never make such a wrong turn again! If I don’t turn around and find the right road, I’m still not going to my destination.
To keep the metaphor going, suppose I’m going down the wrong road, and somebody says, â€œYou’re too far out of your way, no point turning around now. Just keep going the way you’re going.â€ What do I think? Well, I probably think they’re crazy. If I don’t turn around I’m going to end up somewhere far away from where I want to go.
Now each of these points in my driving story represent something that all of you would recognize as extreme stupidity. You know that going part of the way on the right road won’t make up for taking a wrong turn later. You know that if I don’t turn around, I will still be going the wrong way, and you know that I can turn around when I discover that I’m on the wrong path and return to the right one. We can all recognize the truth in these instances.
But I’m guessing that nearly all of us have listened to the devil make one of those same stupid statements and believed him when it applied to our spiritual life. â€œYou’re a pretty good person. It won’t hurt if you indulge in just one or two bad habits.â€ And instead of saying â€œThe wrong road leads to the wrong placeâ€ we say, â€œYes, that sounds good. On the average I’m pretty good!â€ â€œYou’re too far gone for God to save,â€ he says. And instead of saying, â€œAll I have to do is turn around and go to the right road,â€ we say â€œYes, that’s true, I guess I might as well keep on heading for the middle of nowhere.â€
We believe the devil when he whispers stuff in our ear that we would roll on the floor laughing should we hear it from another person.
Well, Ezekiel has the antidote. God says that’s not how it works. If you’re righteous, and you trust in your own righteousness and go ahead and sin, that’s sin, and sin will get you. If you’re a sinner, and you turn and repent, God’s ready to forget all about your wrong road and just keep moving you along the new road. Did you notice that your wickedness won’t even be remembered? You can have been a righteous person all your lifeâ€”no matter what you’ve done!
Repentance must be a way of life. Check the road. Turn if you need to. It’s God’s plan.