Monthly Archives: November 2016

Isaiah 59 – The Cure for Perfectionism: The Gospel!

Chapter 59 is another litany of Israel’s sin. I think we kind of get the point by now, is how many people reading Isaiah would take yet another chapter on Israel’s sin. What they might miss, though, is that it really isn’t about Israel at all. We are Israel, if we are honest.

Reading through the entire book of Isaiah, it becomes impossible to believe in perfectionism. There was a time in Christian history, most prominently in the 19th Century, when a large swath of the Protestant world believed that Christians could achieve perfection. Perfectionism teaches what it sounds like: Christians can lead a sinless life. This teaching was found in what was called the “Higher Life Movement,” or the “holiness movement.” Other phrases the refer to basically the same thing are “victorious Christian living,” and the “Keswick Movement.”

I struggled with this in my early years as a Christian until I was introduced to Reformed theology in 1984. Without a solid theological framework it’s difficult to deal with such a counter intuitive (not to mention counter our experience) notion that we can completely conquer sin in our lives. What sealed the deal was reading B.B. Warfield’s Studies in Perfectionism. Warfield logically and step-by-step dismantles the ideas of numerous 19th Century perfectionist thinkers.

Fortunately perfectionism is no longer with us, but its progeny still is. That would be something called moralism. Too much Christian teaching assumes that the purpose of the Christian life is to become more moral. The ideas is that we must jump through certain hoops to gain God’s acceptance. Our relationship to God becomes all about what we either do, or don’t do. Of course we hear talk of forgiveness of sins and the gospel, but deep down many Christians think God will like them just a little bit more if they don’t do X, Y, or Z, or if they do A, B, or C.

Some reading this might be thinking about charging me with promoting antinomianism, which technically means against law. If not doing X, Y, or Z, or doing A, B, or C doesn’t matter for my relationship to God, why not do whatever the heck I want! Paul dealt with this charge in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Of course not, he says, we’re dead to sin. But why do we still sin? I know that the answer will be earth shattering to some: because we’re sinners! That’s what sinners do, they sin. The point here is that sin isn’t so much what we do, but who we are. If we think its the former we will fatally externalize sin, and thus trivialize it. I say fatally because it will kill the very idea of sin as an ontological state, or more easily understood, as a state of our being. That’s why we need a Redeemer, as the Lord declares in this very chapter of Isaiah! 

This is very important, and a point I don’t want anyone to miss who may come across this blog post: we can only have a clear and completely clean conscious before a living and holy God if we utterly reject the idea of earning such a thing by anything we do or don’t do. We call this the Gospel! The Good News! And that’s why it is good news: we can do nothing, zip, zero, nada, nothing to earn it. We just have to trust it, or more accurately the God behind the promise of it. The writer to the Hebrews says it best:

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

The doing or not doing flows out of a clean conscience, which can only be had by trust in the provision of a righteousness utterly alien to our base, sinful nature. That’s why Isaiah tells is after the umpteenth litany of Israel’s sins:

16 He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
    and his own righteousness sustained him.

And what is the nature of this intervention, this salvation that somehow consists of his own righteousness? It almost gives me chills reading it a few verses later:

20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.

21 “As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit,who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.

This is nothing less than a supernatural work of God in the soul of man! And woman too! (That’s kind of assumed in “man”:) Some might insist that verse 20 means our redemption depends on our repentance, but this has it exactly backward (and is Arminian and Pelagian). We repent because we have been redeemed! We long to not sin, and long to do good because we have been supernaturally raised from spiritual death (the wages of sin, remember) by the Holy Spirit himself! We have been purchased with a price, the priceless blood of Jesus (it’s all there in Isaiah 52 and 53). We repent because we have already been transformed, not to be transformed.

And notice this transforming faith is generational. As I’ve said over and over since I came to accept infant baptism, our children are not strangers to the covenant, but intricately bound up in it! Our God is faithful to accomplish in our children the faith he bequeaths to us.  Oh what a great God we serve!

 

 

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Isaiah 58 – True Fasting: It’s Not All About You!

It seems that the people of Israel were doing religious stuff to put God in their debt. They thought it obvious that when they did those these things, God should recognize it and pay them back for all their hard work:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

This is the essence of the sinful human heart, and the basis of all the religions of the world save one. We do X, Y, and Z, God, and you owe us. We don’t do A, B, and C, God , and you owe us. But the chapter in a way seems to confirm this, and thus contradict the gospel. In isolation this same assessment can be found throughout Scripture. Seen, however, in the entire context of Redemptive history, we know God never owes us anything except condemnation and judgment.

The reason for this seeming contradiction is the Lord’s description of a the fast of his choosing:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

In other words, true fasting exhibits itself in a focus on others. A true fast is a fast of the heart, where we no longer look to be rewarded for what we do, or engage in religious activity because of what it will do for us. We are no longer at the center of our own universe. Of course this is impossible without the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, and even then we’re not very good at it. If we do get good at it, chances are we’ll be proud of that fact, and we know what pride comes before.

But the Lord does seem to connect this true fasting with his blessing. The final seven verses of the chapter explain what this will look like. It starts with this:

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousnesswill go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

And ends with this:

14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

I’m sure most Christians do not see these works as gaining us salvific favor with God. Rather these works, as James tells us, flow out of a saved heart. Some Christians, however, interpret this chapter as saying that caring for the poor is the essence of the Christian life, it’s summum bonum, if you will. I recently finished Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and he seems to come to this conclusion. He could very well be right because caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan are a theme throughout Scripture. But I have a little different perspective: this is just another thing we have a problem living up to.

After the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Most Christians go right by these words without meditating on the absurdity of Jesus’ command. Either the whole purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is you can do all these things perfectly, which every honest person knows is impossible. Or, you can try your best, but you’ll never pull it off because perfection is the standard. Thus the gospel.

Yes, it is true if we do these things we will be blessed. We do live in a cause and effect universe where doing good is mostly rewarded, and doing evil mostly punished. But the joy of the Lord will never be attained by our performance, but by trusting what God did for us in Christ, for he is our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption.

Isaiah 57 – The Great Either/Or of Existence

This chapter continues God’s accusation of the wicked from the previous chapter, with a pause in the first two verses where Isaiah explains that the death of the righteous spares them from evil. This verse brings to mind the thoughts I had at my cousin Anthony’s funeral back in 2010:

Those who walk uprightly
    enter into peace;
    they find rest as they lie in death.

Life is hard and often feels like a burden. It weighs on us. Sin’s gravitational pull often makes us weak in the knees. Death means we no longer have to bear that burden. But no one walks uprightly, as Isaiah himself tells us in chapter 53. The peace he refers to here can only be had for those in Christ who have been reconciled to God by his death. The righteous he speaks of in verse one are those who have been given God’s righteousness as we saw in the last chapter. While the final verse makes clear that there are only two types of people in the world, the righteous and the wicked:

21 “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”

This has nothing to do with how “nice” people are, and everything to do with those who are “in Christ” and those who are not. The righteousness we need to enter into God’s peace is only had by faith in Christ, as Paul tells us in Romans 3. This is made all the more clear from the middle verses that set out the stark contrast between these two kinds of people:

10 You were wearied by all your ways,
    but you would not say, ‘It is hopeless.’
You found renewal of your strength,
    and so you did not faint.

11 “Whom have you so dreaded and feared
    that you have been false to me,
and have neither remembered me
    nor taken this to heart?
Is it not because I have long been silent
    that you do not fear me?
12 I will expose your righteousness and your works,
    and they will not benefit you.
13 When you cry out for help,
    let your collection of idols save you!
The wind will carry all of them off,
    a mere breath will blow them away.
But whoever takes refuge in me
    will inherit the land
    and possess my holy mountain.”

This is the great either/or of existence. It is either trusting in the Lord and his righteousness, his work for and in us, or trusting in our own. Blessing and peace from Almighty God are only for the hopeless. Apart from him all is vanity. The contrast between these two kinds of people is the theme of this chapter. We read:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
    he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
    and to revive the heart of the contrite.

All we have to bring to such a holy and exalted God is offense, and the only right response is contrition. How different is this than the average sinful person who demands that God recognize that he’s really not all that bad. He’s never murdered anyone after all, he exclaims. Then he gets mad at God when God says, “Them’s nots the rules.” Oh, Lord, help me to always know and acknowledge how hopeless I really am.

The Lord seems to say toward the end of the chapter that this dynamic sin, confession, and forgiveness will not end on this earth:

17 I was enraged by their sinful greed;
    I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
    yet they kept on in their willful ways.
18 I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
    I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners,
19     creating praise on their lips.
Peace, peace, to those far and near,”
    says the Lord. “And I will heal them.”

In spite of our sinful ways, he will heal us, creating in us a heart of praise. As I’ve heard it put many times: guilt, grace, gratitude. A true Christian would never willfully take advantage of God’s grace, his totally unmerited grace (as we see graphically illustrated here) a la Romans 6. We understand the Christian life lived in a fallen world, in a fallen body, is a life of continual repentance, and trust in God’s declaration of our total and complete forgiveness in Christ.

Isaiah 56 – The Gospel of His Rigteousness Revealed

The first verses of the chapter start with a counter intuitive recitation of the gospel:

This is what the Lord says:

“Maintain justice
    and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
    and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this—
    the man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it,
    and keeps his hands from doing any evil.”

Most Christians, I gather, would look at these verses and wonder what the heck I’m talking about. The gospel? What these Christians would do is focus on the imperative, which means, “of the nature of or expressing a command; commanding.” Here’s what the Lord commands:

  • Maintain justice
  • Do what is right
  • Hold fast to these things
  • Keep the Sabbath perfectly
  • Don’t do any evil
  • And if you do these things you will be blessed.

The problem comes from one minor detail: we can’t do these things! Maybe some in fits and starts; we try, we fail, we try, we fail. We can’t live up to our own standards, let alone those of a perfectly holy God. No, our focus in these verses should be on our utter helplessness to do these things, and on what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ:

  • My salvation
  • My righteousness

I imagine this would have been difficult for God’s people to reconcile prior to the resurrection and the gospel being explained in detail in the New Testament. Paul tells us in Ephesians that salvation is “not by works, so that no one can boast.” The Israelites before Christ must have been confused because they didn’t know this. Isn’t it, they likely thought, all about works. Just look at this verse, do these things and you will be blessed. You will be happy, you will receive God’s favor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and too many Christians today think it does because their Christianity is more moralism than gospel.

There are several places where Paul clearly explains the meaning of the gospel. In Romans 3:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Or in 1 Corinthians 1:30:

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

What the Lord is saying in verse 1, and which is fully revealed in the New Testament, is that his salvation is his righteousness, freely given to us in Christ. It is, as Paul says, “apart from the law” because we simply can’t do all those things these two verses require to earn God’s blessing. More to the point, we we can’t satisfy God’s requirement that sin be punished, as we read in Isaiah 53. His salvation requires punishment of sin, that his wrath be satisfied. The wages, we know, is death. Jesus paid it all!

Isaiah spends the next five verses proclaiming the universality of this gospel of his righteousness. We even see the famous words Jesus used prior to cleansing the Temple here: “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This message of universality was and is completely missed by the Jewish nation, even though it is declared from the very beginning in God’s covenant promises to Abram and the Patriarchs. Only in Christ could it be fulfilled.

Verses 9-12 are really part of chapter 57 with God beginning his accusations against the wicked.

Isaiah 55 – The Blessings to Come

The Lord implores those who are thirsty and broke to come and buy what ultimately satisfies, but money is not needed, for there is no cost. Thus does this chapter start with an invitation to listen and “give ear” that our souls might “delight in the richest of fair,” and that our souls “may live.” Nothing money can buy, or nothing we can do, will satisfy us like what the Lord provides us in his “everlasting covenant.” He relates this covenant to  the “unfailing kindness promised to David,” but then says something strange for a man who died more than 500 year before Isaiah wrote this:

See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
    a ruler and commander of the peoples.

This is present tense. Whatever the Lord did for David, it relates to the everlasting covenant. Obviously it has Messianic overtones. Jesus is referred to as the Son of David numerous times in Matthew, and in Mark, so there is a direct connection to Jesus whenever David is mentioned in historical/redemptive context.

Then the Lord continues his invitation to seek him while he is near and call on him while he may be found (which assumes one day he won’t be). The wicked and evil should forsake their ways and turn to the Lord who will freely pardon. Right after the reference to this free pardon he says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

If we are to come, to seek, to find, it will only be done when we give up our own thoughts, our own interpretation of things, and depend wholly on God’s revealed will. He’s basically saying here that there is an infinite qualitative difference between his thoughts and ours. Christianity is from first to last a revealed religion. What I think about X, Y, or Z is irrelevant. What is relevant is trusting what God has revealed in creation, Scripture, and Christ, who is the fullness of that revelations. As Paul says in Col. 2:9, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

After affirming the infinite superiority of his ways and thoughts, he assures us that like the rain and snow from heaven that bring life to earth,

11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

And what is that purpose? Our blessing!

12 You will go out in joy
    and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
    will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
    will clap their hands.

And as he says in the last verse, for “the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign that will not be destroyed.” How many times, surely hundreds, maybe thousands, are we told that God’s working in salvation only makes sense from an eternal perspective. Everything he does for us, with us, to us, and through us is for eternity. How pathetically easy is it for us to treat things and circumstances and situations in this life is if they were of infinite importance apart from God’s working in our lives. All of it, every single moment, he works for our good and his glory, forever!

Isaiah 54 – God’s Covenant of Shalom for His People

The Lord continues to make it very clear that salvation is alone his doing. The chapter starts with a metaphor of a woman who cannot bear children. In the culture of that time a barren woman was considered cursed by God. It was a disgrace. But it will be this woman who will have more children than than a woman who has a husband—there will be no doubt it is of the Lord. He implores this woman to “burst into song, shout for joy.” In fact, her “descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” This is God turning things upside down from normal human expectation. He’s good at that. And that is as it should be because a man made up religion would fall in line with normal human expectations. In redemptive history we see this inversion of human expectation happening consistently for some 2000 years, which is yet another indication of its authenticity.

In verse 5 he leaves no doubt that salvation is his alone to accomplish:

For your Maker is your husband—
    the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;
    he is called the God of all the earth.

And the following verses are yet another recitation of God having rejected Israel, then in his faithfulness bringing them back because of his “covenant of peace.” I don’t think it is a coincidence that this chapter and this reference to peace comes after chapter 53, which tells us what exactly this “covenant of peace” is:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.

This peace, shalom in Hebrew, is an overarching concept that applies to every area of human existence. It isn’t just a nice peaceful feeling, but the right relationship of all things in the created order. It can only be had when our sin has been dealt with, when the penalty has been paid, and we are right again with our maker. It is a comprehensive peace of everything in it’s right relationship to everything else. And isn’t it fascinating that this putting everything back right the way it was before the fall, before the distortion of sin screwed it all up, starts with the payment for personal sin. It actually starts with the satisfaction of God’s wrath so that a holy God can now commune with a sinful human race in a way he never could before Christ took that punishment.

I love verse 13 because it confirms yet again that Children are not “strangers to the covenant”:

13 All your children will be taught by the Lord,
    and great will be their peace.

And there it is again, shalom. Our children just by virtue of their being our children partake of the shalom that was purchased for us the way it was in Isaiah 53, by a Suffering Servant. This is why we baptize infants: they partake of the covenant promise of God to us!

And the final verses of the chapter sees the Lord building confidence in his people that he can pull all this off. And has he not! I imagine it was a real challenge for the people of Israel to have confidence amidst the shadows of God’s promises. But we have Jesus! And he raised from the dead! And we have eye witnesses who claimed and gave their lives that he really did! Thus:

17     no weapon forged against you will prevail,
    and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
    and this is their vindication from me,”
declares the Lord.

the word vindication brings to mind David’s obsession in the Psalms with being vindicated. It all pointed to God’s eternal vindication that his plans in redemption would be accomplished, and that all the world would ultimately know and confess that his plans will not fail. We know, and our hope is in, that one day every knee will bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord (Yahweh himself) to the glory of God the Father. Amen!

 

Isaiah 52 & 53 – The Suffering Servant

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How could a blog post ever capture the profundity of these chapters, especially from 52:13 through the end of 53. The first 12 verses of chapter 52 declare the salvation to come, and the rest describe what that salvation will include. The NIV titles that section, “The Suffering and Glory of the Servant.” He is addressing Zion and Jerusalem, the holy city, and that is what is to be redeemed, but it is not a place; it is what he calls in 52:5 and 6, “my people.” Zion is where God dwells with his people. This salvation will be brought to God’s people by one man, a man who will be beaten and maimed and despised and rejected and punished and crushed, all for us! How a Jew could read this and deny that it points to Yeshua I have no idea.

There was nothing special about this man. His appearance told us nothing about the earthshaking, and eternal, things he would accomplish. Jesus was a nobody peasant from some obscure village in the Middle East. When he was born, was the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords heralded in Rome and other great world capitals? No, it was heralded to a few smelly, dirty shepherds in a field. How subversive! Even his own family thought he was nuts, literally. Nobody believed him; even his own disciples! Those closest to him obviously thought he was a fraud; the supposed great Messiah, the Savior of Israel, hung on a Roman cross, cursed of God, as a common criminal. But they also obviously hadn’t deeply studied these two prophetic chapters of Isaiah.

Chapter 53 starts out typically skeptical, “Who has believed our message”? Well, nobody, unless it is revealed to them by God. The verse finishes, “and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” As Jesus says to Peter when he proclaims Jesus the Messiah, it was done by the Father. And just prior to that question, we read this at the end of chapter 52:

For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.

From first to last, Christianity is a revealed religion. Unless God opens our eyes and ears, we will never get it. In our natural state of spiritual death, we can’t raise ourselves! We can’t inject life into the rotting core of our spiritual selves. These declarations of revelation are how the Lord prefaces the prophecy of what his Suffering Servant will do for his people. And what will he do? Pay the price for our sins, and the wage is death.

There are so many references here to penal substitution, i.e. a substitute will pay the penalty demanded by the law for someone else.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

In verse 8 it says, “for the transgression of my people he was punished.” Verse 10 calls his life a “guilt offering.” Verse 11 says his “righteous servant will justify many.” And we read these final words of the chapter:

For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

I think it is a challenge to wrap our minds around how radical this is, and how much it makes Christianity unique among all the religions of the world that are based on works and not grace.

The essense of Christianity, it’s core, is that a holy God must punish sin, and that the wages must be paid. We can either pay them ourselves, or accept that he took it upon himself to pay those wages in our place. The payment, the transaction, is critically important to understand. The cross is for sinners, and as the word implies, sinning is not just something we do, it is who we are. And we and our sin must incur God’s wrath. That wrath we deserve was poured out on Jesus, as it is graphically portrayed in these chapters. He did this so he could have a relationship with guilty sinners who continue to sin! As Luther put it, simul justus et peccator: we are simultaneously justified and sinners. 

To me the most important words in all this are, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” This is the peace Paul talks about in Romans 5 that we receive when we are justified through faith. It is the peace he talks about in Philippians 4. God is no longer our judge, and he has given us his very own righteousness that he might be our Father. It’s what RC Sproul calls in the video linked to above as “double imputation”: he gets our sin, we get his righteousness. What a deal! This means practically that we can have a certifiably clean conscience, not based on what we have or have not done, but on what he did for us in Christ! Talk about revolutionary! In Hebrews 9 we read this:

14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

In chapter 10 this:

22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

How many Christians go through their daily lives with nagging guilt because they don’t really buy into what’s going on in Isaiah 52 and 53. In Christ before God we are as pure as Jesus himself, or God would have to destroy us. As I’m contemplating this the voice of the Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltry, popped into my head, I’M FREE!!!! They lyrics, strangely enough, fit perfectly:

I’M FREE- I’m free,
And freedom tastes of reality,
I’m free-I’m free,
AN’ I’m waiting for you to follow me.

If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no one had the guts to leave the temple!

I’m free-I’m free
And freedom tastes of reality
I’m free-I’m free
And I’m waiting for you to follow me.

[Chorus:]

How can we follow?
How can we follow?

As Christians we ought to feel like Daltry swimming and running through the field, exhilarated, almost out of our minds with joy that we are right with our Maker! And it is not based on anything we did or could do or have done, but all on what the suffering servant did for us in our place. As we might have said in the 60s, that’s heavy, man.