How does one become born again? How does a sinner become transformed into a new creature who loves God and his law? Does God alone transform him (monergism)? Or is regeneration a cooperative work between God and the human being (synergism)? Does human free will play any role at all in a person coming to God (synergism)? Or is the human will so marred by sin that it cannot turn to God without divine intervention (monergism)? This is the Calvinist/Arminian debate.
Ezekiel has both views. Its monergist passages are Ezekiel 11:19-20 and 36:24-28. There, God says that he will return the Jews to their land after their punishment in exile. After he does so, God will place his spirit within them and give them a new heart, causing them to walk in his statutes. Here, regeneration is a unilateral work of God. The people have a heart of stone that is hardened to God’s ways, so they need a new heart in order to obey God’s commandments.
I think that these passages make the same point as Jeremiah 31:32-33 (the new covenant, where God writes his laws on the Israelites’ hearts): God wants the Israelites to dwell in the Promised Land, since his covenant with Israel is unconditional. At the same time, their doing so is contingent upon their obedience to God. God, after all, is holy and will not dwell with the Israelites in a moral cesspool. God, therefore, makes the Israelites walk in his statutes so that they will dwell in the land. God gets to keep his promise, and the people fulfill the conditions for remaining there. Everyone is happy! So monergism is God’s way of keeping the land promise.
A synergist passage is Ezekiel 18:30-32. There, God emphasizes free will. He tells the Jews to repent so that they will avoid death, since God does not want them to die. God says, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Here, the people themselves acquire the new heart. God does not program them for obedience. Their will is free, and the future is open. If they repent, they will live; if they rebel, they will die. And God wants them to repent and live.
How can one harmonize these passages? An evangelical approach is to maintain that God knew all along about the Israelites’ inability to obey his law. In this scenario, God was trying to show that the law does not give life because people cannot keep it. They need a new heart, which was to become available through Christ. This proposal has merits, but why would God tell the Israelites to do something that was impossible for them? Was his impassioned plea for them to choose life a mere game?
Another possibility is that different rules applied to different times. Before the exile, there was free will. The Israelites could obey God, or they could rebel. But after the exile, God went the programming route. He saw that entrusting his covenant to the Israelites’ free will was not a sure thing. They could obey, but there was always the possibility that they would not. The problem with this proposal is that it presents God as a trial-and-error sort of deity.