Monday, August 20, 2012

A Divine Quest - The Doctrines of Grace in Isaiah 6

Almost forty years ago I heard Malcolm Smith speak on the Blood Covenant at Perrow Presbyterian Church.  For me this was like the breaking of the dawn of a new day inexorably drawing me out of the darkness of legalism’s illegitimate claims.  Yet with having no sense of fully arriving I can concur with the words of Ed Silvoso: “The Process is the product.” As I remarked to Pastor Jack Dabney recently via Face Book message, I have been Reformed theologically since then, but have only recently begun to realize it.

As for me this has been and continues to be a safari; let’s embark on the journey of a brief excursus into the application of the sovereign grace of God in Isaiah’s life all the while keeping in mind our own state. 
Total Depravity

The seraphim - fiery beings - declared what Isaiah was seeing: And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." 6:3 This served to convict the prophet of his utter depravity: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." 6:5 At this point he becomes very aware of whom he is and his current condition.  This marks the beginning point of God’s dealings with man–repentance. We know that we are desperately insufficient in ourselves and unless God intervenes we are at a total loss.

Yet Isaiah is not without hope and neither are we.  “God does not reveal himself to destroy us, but to redeem us.”  If we come to the Father with one iota of merit, then we are unworthy of His redemptive plan in the Son of His Love.  Somewhat of a conundrum is it not?  It is fitting that these heavenly messengers are ablaze with the jealous righteousness of Almighty God - purging us of the last vestige of self-righteousness.

And he (the seraphim) touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this (the burning coal from the altar of the Lord) has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." Isaiah 6:7 This is all of grace.  God has chosen - elected - Isaiah based on no condition whatsoever.  It is all of Him, and to Him - and for Him. Otherwise, it would not be holy - but unclean. “So it is by fire, the fire of God’s own purity, that the repentant are made like himself.” R.C. Sproul writes: “You can hear the flesh sizzle and burn, the muffled scream of Isaiah. His guilt was taken away. Never talk to Isaiah about cheap grace. He cauterized the lips of his servant. And forgave his sins.”

Limited Atonement

Does this take the form of a general call to all?  No, it is limited to Isaiah alone.  To believe otherwise would be the folly of presumption.  We might as well start trudging up the stairs of the temple toward its pinnacle preparing to cast ourselves into utter oblivion. Even the focus of it is limited to a specific people.  Though there are things here for all to hear–there is no hint of universalism.

In his autobiography The Spirit Bade Me Go, David du Plessis who came to be known as Mr. Pentecost, entitled one chapter “God Has No Grandsons.”  His point was that we cannot live on the experience of those before us.  Our Sovereign Father  is more than capable of creating a new and refreshing revelation of Himself in each one of His children.  It has also been said this way, “One man’s experience becomes another man’s doctrine.”  Unfortunately the shelves of our Christian bookstores are lined with a plethora of books whose basic premise is, “If you will buy my book and do the same things I did you will be blessed just like I was.”  Paul has encouraged us to pay attention to the traditions that we have been taught - yet we are not to get stuck there which results in traditionalism.   

We are reminded also of Christ’s call of His disciples: "You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain,...” John 15:16  Even in His great High Priestly Prayer He did not pray for all: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” John 17:9 ESV

Irresistible Grace

God has remained silent until now: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" There is a bit of the rhetorical here for though it seems to be addressed to the divine beings - for which it had no relevance - it is unequivocally intended for the ears of Isaiah.  In this sense it is limited - also in this sense it is irresistible. “Having received an unsought for, and unmerited, complete cleansing, what else would he rather do than hurl himself into God’s service?”  This is an interesting statement by the commentator in that irresistible grace seems to exist in cooperation with volition.  The finite wisdom of man is categorically unable to grasp such a concept.  It can only exist in the unfathomable wisdom of the Sovereign God.  From Paul gleaning from Isaiah: ‘but just as it is written, "THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM."’ 1 Corinthians 2:9

John Wimber tells of his conversion experience in a home group something like this.  “At one moment I was sitting in my chair and the next I was on the floor crying out to God.  Now, I do not know whether I got down there on my own or was pushed.  I have now come to understand that is significant.”

Perseverance of the Saints

Isaiah’s readiness to serve speaks to divine motivation - the perseverance of the saints.  He would be kept on course the rest of his life. Gratitude is the factor that would keep Isaiah going, even when he would cry out: “Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” Isaiah 53:1    Once again from the commentator: “Such a grateful offering of themselves is always the cry of those who have received God’s grace after they have given up hope of ever being acceptable to God.”  R.C. Sproul: “The only thing that qualifies us to minister is the knowledge of our forgiveness. And that we know the sweetness and majesty of the God who has cleansed our lips.”

I recently asked Nancy what she thought about the possibility of falling away from such a merciful God.  Her succinct answer was: “Why would I want to?” After having seen what Isaiah saw - why would he want to?  In one of the most difficult passages of Scripture in the New Testament - the interpretations of which are from horizon to horizon - I believe the writer to the Hebrews addresses this very issue.  Most are quick to call to mind when this topic is broached: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost,...If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. Hebrews 6:4, 6 KJV  I would like to note here that the word “If” is vital to our understanding of this passage, for following is: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Hebrews 6:9 KJV Once again we have a vital word here “persuaded” for it calls to mind Paul’s exhortation to his young disciple Timothy: “for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” 2 Timothy 1:12b KJV It is with this confidence that Paul looked toward the Roman arena.  Also here the readers are addressed as “beloved” and it is the love of God that cannot fail. I am convinced that persuade trumps if on any day. For our purposes here we will conclude with: “Enough said!”

Isaiah did not question the ways of the Lord.  His final words in this chapter speak to the enduring purpose of God: “Then I said, ‘How long, O Sovereign?’” Isaiah 6:11 The life he was called to live out would be one of worship - the true worship of the One and Only God.  He is the  source of true life.  “Unless that experience issues in some form of lived-out praise to God, it will turn upon itself and putrefy.”        

This stark pericope concludes - within the context of judgement - a germ of redemption. “But as a terebinth or oak tree leaves a stump when it is cut down, so Israel's stump will be a holy seed."  Isaiah 6:13b NLT This imperishable hope passes through the Cross into the New Covenant and we read: He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. Galatians 3:16b

Unconditional Election

The purpose of our Sovereign will be accomplished - in His way and in His time.  We can have this confidence: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;...” Romans 8:29 There is nothing that can come our way that is outside of the bounds of this promise.

A genuine vision of the sovereignty of God cannot possibly engender certainly did not in the life of Isaiah.  Instead, he was divinely propelled forward.  Motivation is a personal quest - the search is in itself motivating.

Divine election is not manipulation.  It is transformation. “who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” Titus 2:14

Richard Phillips writes: “So where did Isaiah gain these peculiar views in which God is truly God? The answer is that Isaiah learned of God’s sovereignty through his personal experience of the Lord.”

We can tell people they must have a vision of God - but it cannot be conjured. It must come from God and God alone.  Our requirement may be to come to an end of ourselves as seen in Habbakuk who was expecting to be reproved.  “And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.” 2:1b That must say something about his heart attitude. Then the answer of the Lord came: "For the vision is yet for the appointed time; It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.” 2:3 As a result of the enduring Word of the Lord the prophet was empowered to persevere.

This foundational truth is carried forth into the New Covenant for John writes: ‘For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.” These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.’ John 12:39-41 And then once again hope springs forth as a holy seed out of a decaying stump which provides the environment necessary for the bursting forth of the new sprout: “And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me.”  John 12:45 The prophet also speaks of the Messianic lineage and hope: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11:1 NIV

There is no greater declaration of the sovereign purpose of God than that which He declares through Isaiah concerning Himself:

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
         And the government will rest on His shoulders;
         And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
         Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
         On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
         To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
         From then on and forevermore.
         The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:6-7

With this we do not conclude, but continue...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

“Are we committed to the Sovereignty of God?”

“El Shaddai”

“Of course I do!” was the immediate reply to the question, “Do you believe in the sovereignty of God?”  We evangelicals are quick to say that we believe in God’s sovereignty - but the next words out of our mouths often deny this truth.  We launch into a description of God’s dealings with man that is completely man-centered–having no connection whatsoever to the full council of the revealed Word of God.

The conjecture of man quickly attempts (futilely) to usurp the omniscience of God - with the speaker barely taking a breath.  Descent into the wisdom of men is swift and slippery.  The God of eternity becomes the god of our imagination. Paul speaks to the philosophers of Athens: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”  Acts 17:29 ESV

What is the source of such double-speak? We are equating the wisdom of God on par with our own.  The result is a shift from God to self as the central focus of faith.  The mind of man is incapable of grasping the fullness of all that He is. This is nothing more than the age old temptation: “in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,...” Genesis 3:5 The serpent, in his attempt to deceive the woman, had said - “For God knows...” - thus claiming to know what God knew!  The audacity of such a lie staggers the imagination–yet we succumb to its allure over and over again.  What is original sin?  This is it!

Perhaps we should ask ourselves: “Am I doing what I am doing - or saying what I am saying - expecting God to respond to me; or am I responding in worship to the divine creative initiative of Almighty God?”  Almighty God or God Almighty in Scripture is El Shaddai.  “the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless.” Genesis 17:1 Albert Barnes defines this name:  "El," the Lasting, Eternal, Absolute. "Shaddai," the Irresistible, Unchangeable,...”  And John Gill: “sufficient in and of himself, and for himself, and stands in no need of any, or of anything from another;...”  Again Paul at Athens: “and human hands can't serve his needs--for he has no needs.” Acts 17:25 NLT  This is Who God says that He Is!!!


Once as I was watching Christian programing the speaker was telling us how we could get what we wanted from God by exercising “our faith.”  Behind him on the stage the back curtain boldly proclaimed “Jesus Is Lord!”  I must admit that I was left a bit perplexed. 

The programing changed and the next speaker began to extol Christ as the ultimate despot of the universe.  He did not have to have a sign behind him proclaiming “Jesus Is Lord.”  From what he said and with the awe that he said it, you had no doubt.

Let’s pause here a moment.  Does that word despot trouble you?  I must admit that on first hearing it in relation to Christ it caused me some consternation - but that is exactly what I am talking about.  It takes us into unchartered territory - beyond the narrow confines of our own reasoning.

This pastor’s teaching was rooted in scriptural passages such as this: “And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them,...’” Acts 4:24 ESV Peter and John had reported to their friends that the rulers of their day had told them to no longer speak or teach at all in the Name of Jesus.  With the voice of one - in worship - this was their plea to God.  And they summed up all of the events of their day in this acknowledgment: “to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”  Acts 4:28

The Greek despotes is translated here as Sovereign Lord.  Vine’s Dictionary defines it as “a master, lord, one who possesses supreme authority.”  And from the commentator Adam Clarke: “Sovereign Lord, supreme Ruler; one having and exercising unlimited and uncontrolled authority.”  Our English dictionary has nothing but negative connotations for the word despot–once again making my point. He is more than willing and capable to offend our minds that He might reach our hearts.

The use of the word despotes take the form of a confession or a petition.  The voice of the martyrs: They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Revelation 6:10 NIV Simeon’s confession as he took the infant in his arms: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.” Luke 2:29 NIV

There are three other instances of the use of this word in the New Testament in reference to the Lord Christ and they are usually translated as Master.  One of my dear pastor friends who is African-American begins his prayers with: “Master!”  Once his ancestors were forced to serve earthly masters, but now he has been set free to serve the one and only true Master.


Most are probably aware that the most common Greek word for Lord is kurios used in such passages as: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Romans 10:9 NIV There is no doubt from the context as to how this word is used, but there are those who are unstable who would distort its true meaning.  It is similar to senor in Spanish or bwana in Swahili - both of these words can either be used to mean a term of respect such as mister or can refer to the Lord Himself.  The term Bwana Asifiwe in Swahili means Praise the Lord and we readily understand what is meant here, but if you have seen any Tarzan movies you know that the term bwana can also mean the leader of the safari.

Once - actually more than once - while street witnessing we were infiltrated by members of what we would call cult groups who denied the deity of the Lord Christ.  When I challenged one of these deceived ones I was taken aback when it seemed that he confessed Jesus as Lord.  But what he really meant was Mister Jesus - not the Lord Jesus. His conscience had not been offended by the ultimate despot of the universe.


One of the most striking instances we see of God’s sovereignty occurs in the vision received by the prophet as recorded in Isaiah 6.  Indeed, one commentator translates verse one: “It was in the year of King Uzziah’s death, that I saw the Sovereign sitting on a throne,...”  The Hebrew word is Adonai which means the one who is absolutely sovereign.

Uzziah - for the most part - had been a great and good king.  He had ruled Judah for fifty-two years–and now he was gone.  Most of the people had known no other king - including Isaiah himself.  A curtain of uncertainty had fallen across Judah–there was no clear vision for the future of the nation.  R.C. Sproul writes: “The king was dead. But when Isaiah entered the temple he saw another king, the Ultimate King, the One who sat forever on the throne of Judah. He saw the Lord.”  The Sovereign Lord Himself became Isaiah’s vision - not a person, not a thing, not a place.  And Isaiah would never be the same.  

This encounter calls to mind the words of the great Celtic hymn from the Sixth Century. It begins: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, Be all else but naught to me, save that thou art;” And concludes: “Great heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.”

Isaiah was taken from a sovereign to the Sovereign - no figure of his imagination.  There was no longer any room for conjecture.  This One was He who was and is absolute all within Himself.  As the saying goes, “He is God all by Himself.” Our help is not required. The prophet would later write: "Remember the former things long past, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, `My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure';” 46:9-10.

There is some question as the whether Isaiah received a vision or this was a dream.  Reminds us of hearing a prophet-seer once being interviewed concerning something he had received from the Lord.  He was asked, “Now, was this in a vision or a dream?”  His immediate reply, “I was there!”  And we must say of Isaiah also: He was there!  A commentator writes: “How he saw the Sovereign is insignificant.  What matters is that he saw him and saw him in such a way as to change the shape of the rest of his life.”       

Ego Eimi

The sovereignty of God will offended your natural sensibilities - it must.  At the same time it will create a desire that can only be satisfied by the Lord Himself.  A thirst that can only be slaked by the Fountain of Living Water. Interesting, as I just typed those words they were sung on the radio by one who is referring to Him as the I Am.  The artist is centering on Christ’s use of the term ego eimi to refer to Himself.  This translation of John 8:28 may be the clearest example of this usage: "When you have lifted up The Son of Man, then you shall know that I AM THE LIVING GOD (Ego Eimi), and I do nothing for my own pleasure, but just as my Father has taught me, so I am speaking.” Aramiac Bible in Plain English This is a direct reference to I AM WHO I AM of Exodus 3:14.  It is not possible to conceive of a statement any more descriptive of absolute sovereignty.

In Isaiah 6:3 and 5 we have the word Lord - translated as Lord of Hosts or Lord Almighty.  This is also the Ego Eimi sometimes called the Tetragrammaton - the unpronounceable name of the Lord often Anglicized as Jehovah.  It is derived from the verb “to be” as expressed in Exodus 3:14 and written as YHWH.  Adonai is his title, while YHWH is His Name: "Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it, the LORD is His name,” Jeremish 33:2

When confronted with such a revelation mankind cannot remain neutral.  He must either believe and worship - or he must reject and pick up stones.  Regarding this passage Augustine wrote, “It is well for us, thank God, that He said except ye believe, not except ye understand.”  The Apostle Paul who was confronted by Absolute Truth wrote: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” Romans 11:33.  And then he called on the words of Isaiah: “For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR?”  Romans 11:34 (Isaiah 40:13). 

Yet we persist in our vain attempts to be the counselor of the Lord.  How so?  When we try to define Him in terms of mankind, that is exactly what we do, “Well, my god wouldn’t do...”  We had a friend who called this “mind idolatry.”  In effect creating God in our own image, rather than us being created in His image. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” 1 Corinthians 2:14 Yet we have hope: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God,...” 1 Corinthians 2:12

"I am the Alpha and the Omega--the beginning and the end," says the Lord God. "I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come--the Almighty One." The Revelation of Jesus Christ 1:8 NLT