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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