“Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”… they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army. [Ezekiel 37:3, Ezekiel 37:10]
In this well known vision the prophet Ezekiel is placed in a valley filled with dry bones and questioned by the Lord, “Can these bones live?” His answer is both tentative and certain; tentative (“only you know”), because the reality is that these bones are old and dry, scattered and in pieces. These bones, in other words, are the remains of a people long dead, and everybody knows that people who are dead do not live again. Yet certain also (“O Sovereign Lord”), because the Lord is Sovereign and what that means is that the Lord can do whatsoever he wants.
This fascinating episode is followed by an interpretation; there is little room for speculation: the people are the “whole house of Israel” who is “dead” in exile (“we are cut off”). But the Lord (who is Sovereign), will “open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel… I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live.” [Ezekiel 37:11-12]
What’s interesting is that in this vision regeneration, to go from death to life or exile to restoration, is an act of the “Sovereign Lord” quite apart from any act of repentance or faith on the part of those regenerated.
But that is not all that Ezekiel has to say on the subject of regeneration:
“What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The father eats sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel… if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live, he will not die… But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live?.. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.” [Ezekiel 18:1-3; Ezekiel 18:21-24]
There seemed to be a common saying among the Judeans in captivity which conveyed the idea that they were in exile because of the sins of their forefathers; they are the children whose teeth was on edge (in exile) as a result of their fathers eating of sour grapes (constant rebellion).
The Lord says through Ezekiel that this is simply not the case. They are in exile not because of the sins of their forefathers alone, but because of their own sins as well. The point of this chapter is that God does not judge one person guilty on the basis of his father’s sins (“The son will not share the guilt of the father”). But then the Lord goes further to say that if the wicked person repents (“turns away from his sins”) and obeys the Lord, that he will live (be regenerated); while the righteous person who acts wickedly will not live (will he live? He will die), he will – evidently – lose his regenerated status when he loses faith (“unfaithfulness”), which is evidenced by his sins.
The observation I want to make here is that unlike the episode of the valley of dry bones where regeneration is all of God apart from any act of repentance (i.e. “faith”); here regeneration is completely dependent upon repentance. The wicked that repent “will live”, while the righteous who acts unfaithfully (“unfaithfulness”), he will die. And while the Lord is just as sovereign here as he is in chapter 37 (“declares the Sovereign Lord” – Ezekiel 18:3), he does not cause or will the deaths of those who repent or do not repent: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” [Ezekiel 18:32]
So which is it? Does regeneration come without repentance (Ezekiel 37), or as a result of repentance (Ezekiel 18)? The answer (as it usually is) is not either/or, but both/and. Chapter 37 deals with a people (“the whole house of Israel”) while chapter 18 deals with individual Israelites, (“if a wicked man” “if a righteous man”).
God will accomplish what he has set out to do through the people Israel (corporately) sovereignly, but those who are “in Israel” (individually speaking) – those who are in God’s covenant in other words – well that is dependent upon repentance and obedience which are the fruits of faith.
To word it another way: God will sovereignly accomplish what he plans through a people (Israel), but those who belong to the people of God are those who “Repent and live!”
It seems regeneration in Ezekiel’s thinking follows faith and a life that bares its fruit. And so Ezekiel captures nicely – in my opinion – the biblical motif of the sovereign working of God on the one hand, and of man’s faithful responsibility on the other.