The Old Testament prophets preached against sin-often and strenuously. Some have used this to attempt to support their faith-plus-works view of the Gospel.
I taught a course in the Old Testament prophets at Multnomah School of the Bible as part of my teaching load there in the 1986-87 school year. The first assignment I had the students do was write a paper on the Gospel according the Old Testament with particular attention being paid to the OT prophets. I did this because I wanted to make sure up front that the students confronted the issue of OT salvation.
How were people saved prior to the Cross? The same way people are saved after the Cross! There was, is, and always will be only one Gospel. The Gospel Abraham was saved by is the same one by which the Galatian believers were saved (Gal 3:8-9ff.). The means of eternal life has always been the death of the Messiah. According to Romans 3:25 the death of Christ applies even to those who lived before the Cross. That is, all who believed that the coming Messiah would take away their sins and give them eternal life obtained eternal life as a result of the Messiah’s substitutionary work. When Simeon saw the baby Jesus in the temple he rejoiced at having seen the salvation of Israel. He was looking for the One who would come to take away sins and give eternal life. Simeon is an example of an OT believer.
Yet we are still faced with all of the passages in the Old Testament which speak against sin. Do they not teach that turning from sins was also a requirement for eternal life? The answer is clearly no. The Mosaic Covenant spelled out blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev 26; Deut 28). These blessings and curses concerned the quality of this life-not eternal life. It is a gross misreading of the Old Testament to conclude that it conditioned eternal life upon obedience to the Law of Moses. The Lord Jesus made this point emphatically over and over again in His interaction with the scribes and Pharisees.
Ezekiel 18 is not really a tough chapter at all to the person who understands the difference between eternal life and physical life. When God said through Ezekiel that “the soul that sins shall die” (vv. 13, 18, 20), He meant just that. That is, the more one sins, the more one comes under God’s judgment and the more likely it is that he or she will die. This same principle is restated in the New Testament as well (e.g.,James 1:15, 21). The wages of sin is death. While the believer escapes the eternal death which is part of sin’s wages, the believer does not escape temporal death which comes from sin.
It is interesting to note that if Ezekiel 18 is dealing with eternal life, then it teaches that eternal life can be gained and lost and gained again. For we find that God says both that if a wicked man turns from his wicked ways he will live (vv. 21-23) and that if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and does evil, he will die (v. 24).
It doesn’t take an advanced theological degree to ask the simple interpretive question, “What type of life and death is in view in Ezekiel 18 eternal or temporal?” Any student of the Bible can easily see that physical life and physical death, temporal blessings and curses, are in view. Only one with a theological axe to grind could find in this chapter evidence that one must turn from his sinful ways to obtain eternal life.
The soul that sins shall die. To put it another way, to save your soul, your life, you must live a godly life. The more we sin, the more we invite our own deaths. While death may well not be immediate, sin clearly never pays.
This theme is prevalent in the Book of Proverbs. Over and over again we read statements like the following: “The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened” (Prov 10:27). “In the way of righteousness there is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Prov 12:28). “Evil pursues sinners” (Prov 13:21). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death” (Prov 14:27). “Harsh discipline is for him who forsakes the way, and he who hates correction will die” (Prov 15:10). “He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow” (Prov 22:8). For the believer, as well as for the unbeliever, sin never pays.
I have low blood sugar. Whenever I eat pies or cakes or things laden with sugar I have a few minutes of joy followed by several hours of headaches, fatigue, pain, and suffering. I no longer eat sweets. It just isn’t worth hours of suffering for minutes of joy. In the same way sin’s few passing moments of pleasure just aren’t worth it when compared to the long term grief they cause us.
Of course there are other reasons for believers to obey God: gratitude, eternal rewards, the Judgment Seat of Christ. However, the promises of blessings for obedience (often inner blessings like love, joy, and peace–the really valuable ones) and curses for disobedience are also powerful motivations not to be overlooked.
Sin never pays. The soul that sins shall die.