Calvinists will often quote Ezekiel 36:26-27 as a proof text for regeneration preceding faith. The Calvinist doctrine insists that one must be given a new heart before that person can believe the gospel. For that reason, Ezekiel 36:26-27 is often called into service to demonstrate this principle. Below is the passage with verse 25 included:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)
Does this passage give the Calvinist what he needs to defend his doctrine? Does it truly demonstrate that regeneration precedes faith and that God must give a sinner a new heart before he or she can believe unto life?
As with many Calvinist proof texts, this passage does not give them all that they need to establish their doctrine. In order for this passage to fit the bill, it must teach that God gives one a new heart and fills that person with His Spirit unconditionally. The text does not teach that. It is a mistake to assume that whenever a condition is not stated it therefore means that the actions being described take place unconditionally. A promise stated without explicit mention of a condition does not necessitate the conclusion that said promise is unconditional.
While we can find promises in Scripture that are unconditional and promises in Scripture that are made without immediate reference to a condition, one will look in vain for a single passage regarding conversion that states that one gets saved unconditionally. Such a passage does not exist, and this is big trouble for the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. But the Bible everywhere describes faith as the God ordained condition for receiving salvation, and this condition must then be assumed even in places where no condition is stated. Indeed, the context of such passages usually implies the condition of faith even if it is not expressly stated.
With that in mind, let’s examine the text in question. It is widely held that this passage looks forward to the new covenant that God will make with His people. This new covenant was fulfilled in the New Testament through the shed blood of Christ. One comes to participate in this new covenant through faith in Christ’s blood (Rom. 3:25). The text of Ezekiel 36:25-27 describes those who will come to participate in the new covenant. First, the passage tells us that God will cleanse those who participate in the new covenant:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
In the new covenant, this would have reference to the cleansing of Christ’s blood. His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness and we are forgiven from our past sins on that basis (Heb. 10:18-22, esp. verse 22 as compared with Ezekiel 36:25, 33; 1 Pet. 1:2, 22, 23; 2 Pet. 1:2-9; 1 John 1:7-9; Rom. 3:25). The Bible is clear that forgiveness is a primary element of justification. No one can be justified in God’s sight and declared righteous prior to the removal of sin. No one can be justified while still under God’s wrath for past sins. Justification is impossible to separate from the cleansing of forgiveness, just as the passage says, “you shall be clean from all your uncleanness.” (cf. Ezekiel. 36:33) Already we see a problem with the Calvinist interpretation of this passage. The passage cannot be teaching a cleansing unto faith since the New Testament is adamant that one is forgiven and justified “by faith”. God forgives and justifies (makes righteous) in response to faith and repentance:
Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)
And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
…being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus…for we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:24-28)
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. (Romans 4:5)
Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. (Romans 5:1, 9)
But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. (Romans 6:22)
[All Scriptures taken from the NASB- emphasis mine]
Passages like these could be easily multiplied. One need only read Galatians to see that justification comes by faith. In fact, Galatians and Romans are very much concerned with how one comes to participate in the new covenant. Justification, regeneration, sanctification and adoption are all benefits of the new covenant. All of these spiritual blessings become ours when we come to be united to Christ through faith (Eph. 1:3-13, esp. verse 13 which says that we are sealed in Christ upon believing the gospel). The benefits of the new covenant are represented as the “promise” given to Abraham and his descendents, and this promise is received by faith (Rom. 4; Gal. 3). With the promise comes adoption as children of God and the reception of the Holy Spirit, all of which are received by faith:
Therefore, the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ…And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:24-29)
This one thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Gal. 3:2)
Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 3:7)
…in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:14)
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:14-17)
…so that Christ might dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:17; cf. 2 Cor. 13:5; Rom. 8:9)
…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith. (Acts 26:18)
[All Scriptures taken from the NASB- emphasis mine]
There is no question when we compare the promise of New Covenant blessings described in Ezekiel 36 with the fulfillment of those blessings in the New Testament, that all of these new covenant blessings are received by faith. The cleansing described in verse 25 is by faith and the reception of the Holy Spirit described in verse 27 is by faith. Even the promise of a new purified and circumcised heart is by faith (Acts 15:8, 9; Col. 2:11-13; Heb. 10:18-22). But the “new heart” described in Ezekiel 36:26 has primary reference to a heart that is dedicated to God and empowered to obey His law through the indwelling Holy Spirit:
And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
It is only through participation in the new covenant and reception of the promised Holy Spirit that the believer is enabled and empowered to please God, fulfill His law of love, and put to death the deeds of the flesh (Heb. 8:7-12; 10:10-18). Paul powerfully describes this aspect of the new covenant promise in Rom. 8. Through the power of the indwelling Spirit (received by faith) the believer can now put to death the misdeeds of the flesh and live according to the Spirit:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you…So then brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh- for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. (Select verses from Rom. 8:2-14- emphasis mine)
Through the working of the Spirit within us, our desires are turned away from the flesh to the ways of God. The Spirit regenerates and re-orientates our being so that we are now devoted to pleasing God rather than our fleshly passions. The Spirit of God gives us the desire and power we need to overcome the flesh and live for God (Gal. 5:17-26; 6:7-9). This is the fulfillment of the promise given in Ezekiel 36:26-27, and the fulfillment of that promise is dependent on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit who is received by faith (Gal. 3:14).
Conclusion: We can therefore conclude that Ezekiel 36:26-27 fails as a proof text for the Calvinist doctrine of regeneration preceding faith. Ezekiel 36 looks forward to the time of a new covenant effected by Christ’s blood through which believers are cleansed of sin and made new in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; cf., Eph. 2:8-10 ). It tells us that those who will participate in the new covenant (through faith in Christ) will receive the promised Holy Spirit, through whom the new covenant believer will be empowered to live for and please God by overcoming the passions and desires of the flesh.
When we compare the promise of Ezekiel 36:26-27 to the fulfillment of that promise in the New Testament, we find that all of the promises and benefits described in Ezekiel 36 are conditioned on faith. Therefore, it is impossible to construe this passage in such a way as to teach that one receives a new heart empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit prior to putting faith in Christ. Rather, the passage is in perfect harmony with the New Testament (and Arminian) teaching that the promises and benefits of the new covenant (which includes a new heart and the reception of God’s Spirit) are received by faith.