We understand that God is not obligated to save anyone. But this truth does not diminish in the least the fact that God takes "no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11 NASB). Infralapsarian Calvinists (by far the majority of Calvinists today, in my estimate) would have us believe that God proclaims, "Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die . . . ? (Ezekiel 33:11 NASB), but has no intention of enabling those sinners to turn from their evil ways.
II. Selective Logic
I assume Birch is suggesting that Reformed reprobation is logically inconsistent with the intent of passages like Ezk 18:23 & 33:11. However, unless you have steady hands, logic is a dangerous weapon. If (arguendo) Ezk 33:11 is logically inconsistent with Calvinism, then by the same token it’s logically inconsistent with Arminianism as well–just in a different way.
In Arminianism, God knows ahead of time who will believe and who will disbelieve. Who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. If God takes no pleasure in the outcome, then God can preempt that undesirable outcome by never making hellbound sinners in the first place. It’s not as if God was acting at gunpoint when he made the world. Arminians presumably don’t think anybody was forcing God’s hand when he made the world.
The undesirable outcome is both foreseeable and avoidable. Yet by making them, God seals their fate. God had that outcome in mind when he made them. So he had no intention of saving them. That’s the Arminian dilemma.
Unless we’re Mormons or open theists, we must make allowance for the fact that Scripture uses anthropopathic expressions (e.g. "pleasure") for God.
It’s exegetically unsound to jump straight into passages like Ezk 18:23 & 33:11 and then draw inferences about God’s ulterior intentions. For these passages have their background in Ezekiel’s commission (Ezk 2-3). That’s the proper place to start:
4The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD.' 5And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them (Ezk 2:4-5).
7But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart (Ezk 3:7).
In these programmatic passages, God discloses his expectations and intentions. God does not issue these warnings with the expectation or intention that Israel in general will respond favorably. To the contrary, Israel in general will spurn the warning.
However, that very reaction serves God’s purpose, for that confirms the prophetic judgment. They were duly warned. They flouted the warning. (For detailed exegesis, consult the commentaries by Allen, Block, and Duguid.)
So one of God’s primary reasons for issuing these warnings is to aggravate their culpability. Ezekiel succeeds by failing.
V. The Remnant
Although these warnings won’t result in national repentance, the OT has a doctrine of the remnant, and that motif is also present in Ezekiel. As one scholar explains:
Ezekiel pleads with God to mix mercy with well-deserved judgment so that some Israelites might survive (Ezk 9:8; 17:13). Indeed, a historical remnant will survive national destruction (6:7-9; 7:16; 14:22f.; 24:26f) and be scattered among the nations (5:10-12; 12:15f.; 17:21). From these Yahweh will gather those who by His grace will receive a “new heart” and a “new spirit” (11:16-21; cf. 36:26) so that He can call them “my people” (11:20). This faithful remnant will constitute the nucleus of a religious rather than political community, “Remnant,” ISBE 4:133.
Likewise, Ezk 37 is a locus classicus of remnant theology–where God promises to restore the exilic community.
So passages like Ezk 18:23 & 33:11 are directly effective in reference to the remnant. The remnant will heed the warning. And it’s ultimately for the benefit of remnant Israel. Therefore, that’s another reason that God issues these warnings. A divine command or warning can serve more than one purpose.
VI. Speech-Act Theory
In assessing the intended force of passages like Ezk 18:23 & 33:11, we need to be sensitive to different types of discourse. In particular, we need to draw a broad distinction between illocutionary discourse, which is primarily intended to furnish factual information, and perlocutionary discourse, which is primarily directive rather than assertive. Hortatory passages like Ezk 18:23 & 33:11 are performative language, designed to have a perlocutionary effect. To persuade, deter, elicit a response.
It’s not meant to unveil God’s psychological state, but to induce a psychological state in the listener.
Lest this be dismissed as special pleading in the interests of Calvinism, notice how Arminian commentator Ben Witherington interprets the warnings in Heb 6 as perlocutionary discourse rather than illocutionary discourse:
The wise rhetor will pull out the emotional stops, use more colorful language, engage in rhetorical hyperbole, up the volume on “amplification”…One of the issues that many commentators misunderstand, because of failure to read the rhetorical signals, is that our author to some degree is being ironic here and engaging in a preemptive strike. That is, we should not read this text as a literal description of the present spiritual condition of the audience…One of the key factors in analyzing this section is to realize that our author is trying to put the “fear of God” into his audience by using rhetoric to prevent defections, and so one is not sure how far to press the specifics here, since it is possible to argue that some of this involves dramatic hyperbole…our author is deliberately engaging in dramatic rhetorical statements for the purpose of waking up the audience…In other words, these words were intended to have a specific emotional effect, not comment in the abstract about what is impossible, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians (IVP 2007), 203-214.
I’m proposing that we take the same basic approach to Ezk 18:23 & 33:11.