The Holiness of God

Desiring God 2007 Conference for Pastors

The Holiness of God

I think the supreme irony is, John, that most of the people in America thought that the Super Bowl was last night. But if we are to desire God, it is imperative that we desire the God who is and not a God of our own imagination. What I’ve so appreciated with John’s ministry over these many decades is that he knows who God is, and he doesn’t seek to hide the true God from people for convenience sake, but has been relentless and courageous, as we all must be, to proclaim and set forth before the people of God, the character of God in all of his glory.

The Vision of Isaiah

It’s already been mentioned, but I’d like to read to you my favorite text that sets forth the holiness of God. Isaiah chapter 6 gives to us the record of Isaiah’s call to be a prophet. You know that to be a prophet in ancient Israel was a lonely task because at the forefront of that vocation was to be a prosecutor of God against people who have violated the terms of their covenant with God. So the life expectancy of a prophet in Israel was about the same as the first Lieutenant in combat. It was not a pleasurable enterprise and the land was filled with false prophets who made the task of the authentic prophet all the more difficult.

The thing that distinguished the false prophet from a true prophet was not simply that the true prophet was faithful to the word that God had given him, but that the true prophet was called directly and immediately by God. That’s why the prophets were so zealous to record the circumstances of their call, which Isaiah has done for us here in this chapter. I’m not going to read the entire chapter. I’ll read Isaiah 6:1–11, and I would ask if you would please stand for the reading of the Word of God.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
     the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
     keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
     and their ears heavy,
     and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
     and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
     and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
     without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
     and the land is a desolate waste . . .”

What you have just heard is the unvarnished Word of God. This is not an insight delivered from an ancient Hebrew teacher. This is a word that comes from heaven with all of its inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy, and before which word we as mortals should tremble. Please be seated.

The Death of the King and the Prophet’s Call

It was in the year that King Uzziah died. I don’t know what exact year that was. It was sometime in the eighth century BC. Historians have noted a certain irony when they pinpoint the year of the king’s demise as corresponding to the same year that a little village was founded across the Mediterranean. The village that would be named Roma, the city that centuries later would provoke an intersection between the force of the mightiest empire of antiquity with the man that was the chief subject of the future prophecy of Isaiah. The year Rome was born, Isaiah was commissioned as a prophet of God.

We don’t know, dear friends, whether this call took place before the death of Uzziah or after the death of Uzziah. All we know is that it took place in the same year that Uzziah died. If you want a summary of the life of King Uzziah, I invite you to look in your Bibles to 2 Chronicles 26, which most of you frequent with your daily devotions.

If we’re familiar at all with the Book of the Kings and of the Chronicles, we know that they read somewhat like a rogues gallery because the vast majority of monarchs in Judah and in Israel were men of unspeakable wickedness and infidelity. We are hard-pressed to find even a handful of godly kings during that period. But if we were to rate the great kings of that nation, surely David would be accorded first place. And in any important list of monarchs, we would include Josiah and Hezekiah. But we should never exclude from that list this man whose name was Uzziah.

Uzziah came to the throne when he was 16 years old and he reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years. Many people were born, were married, had children, and died during the regency of Uzziah. And perhaps the only king in the history of the Jewish people that had greater accomplishments on the battlefield than Uzziah was David himself. Uzziah built the strength of the military to a level rivaling that of David. His agricultural projects and reforms brought unprecedented prosperity to the land. He involved himself in a great many public projects that were astonishing in the ancient world, including forms of irrigation and towers of strategic defense for cities. And the Bible says of this king, for most of his reign, that he did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord.

The Fall of Uzziah

Unfortunately, toward the end of his reign, he became full of himself and ended his life like a Shakespearean tragic hero. He got so puffed up with his own authority that he regulated to his own province the right to perform the tasks of the priesthood. And so he entered with his censer into the temple and moved to offer incense there, which absolutely shocked the priests and horrified them in fact. And they moved as one man to stop the king from this act of sacrilege. And they pleaded with him saying, “King, you are not permitted to minister here in the sanctuary. God has set us apart for that task.”

When they protested this intrusion into their domain, Uzziah became furious and demanded that they give way so that he could perform what he wanted to do. And at that instant, God struck him with leprosy and forbade him any further entrance into the temple. He could no longer be the king, he could no longer worship in the presence of his people, and he was consigned really to solitary confinement in his dying days. So this man’s 52-year reign ended in shame and disgrace.

However, when he died, it was truly the end of an era. And when a monarch of this duration passes from the scene, there’s a sense of unsettled spirits among the people. They don’t know what the future will bring. I don’t know if that was the psychology that provoked Isaiah to enter into the temple — and we don’t even know if he was in the earthly temple or if the vision that he records here was a vision into the heavenly temple — but in any case, for all intents and purposes, the throne of Israel was vacant.

We read that in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah said, “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne” (Isaiah 6:1). He didn’t see Uzziah. He didn’t see a successor. He saw the Lord. And if you’ll notice in your Bible here in Isaiah 6:1, when he said, “I saw the Lord,” the word “Lord” is printed here L-o-r-d. If you go down to Isaiah 6:3 where we have the song of the seraphim, it says, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” you’ll see the word “LORD” there printed in your Bibles is L-O-R-D.

The Title and Name of God

Well, maybe speaking to clergy and Christian leaders I’m carrying coals to Newcastle as I take a moment to explain that difference in printing. It’s not because the publisher lost his mind for a moment here and forgot what he was printing, but the English translator is calling attention to us that even though they’re using the same word (“Lord”) in the text, there are two different Hebrew words that stand behind that translation.

As a general rule, when you see the word “Lord” in Scripture the translator is indicating that the Hebrew behind it is some form of the word Adon or Adonai, which by the way, I believe was the most exalted title given to God in the Old Testament. Here’s just a little excursus on that. The word “LORD” indicates that in the text behind it is the memorial name of God, which God revealed to Moses in the Midianite wilderness. It’s the sacred name of God, the ineffable name of God — Yahweh.

Now, here’s the difference, “LORD” (Yahweh) is the name of God, and “Lord” (Adon or Adonai) is the supreme title for God. Now, God has many titles in the Old Testament, but the title that I say that was most exalted is the title Adonai, which means “the one who is absolutely sovereign.” When I wrote the book The Holiness of God many, many years ago, I followed it shortly thereafter with the book Chosen by God. I had many people since say to me, “Oh, I loved reading The Holiness of God, but I sure didn’t like Chosen by God.” And I said, “Then you didn’t understand one of those two.”

Because the God who is holy is the God who is sovereign. He is Adonai, the supreme ruler of heaven and earth. And you know that the normal translation in the New Testament of the Old Testament Adonai is the Greek word kyrios, the title “Lord”. And you know that title can be used in different ways simply as a polite form of address like “sir” or “mister”. The secondary sense refers to one who owned slaves. In that sense, a kyrios was one who had duloi (slaves) that he had purchased. But the highest, imperial use of the term kyrios in the New Testament is an affiliation that transfers the Old Testament Adonai to the New Testament “Lord.” What is astonishing is that that title, which for the most part is reserved for God in the Old Testament Scriptures, is now given to the Son of God.

Paul writes to the Philippians and gives the Kenotic Hymn (Philippians 2:6–11), where he says:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or tenaciously held into), but emptied himself (not of his divine attributes, but his prerogatives), by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . . (Philippians 2:5–9).

Now, here’s what I find with Christians. I’ll say to Christians, what is this name that is above every name? Do you know what I hear people say? “It’s Jesus.” And I say, “No, that’s not what Paul is saying.” The name that is above every name is the name Adonai, the name Kyrios, which is given to Jesus. And so Paul concludes this by saying: “So at the name of Jesus, let every knee bow and every tongue confess that he is Adonai (Philippians 2:10). He is Kyrios, to the glory of God, the Father.”

The Lord Upon His Throne

John tells us that really the content of this vision that Isaiah beheld was of the exalted Son of God on the throne prior to his incarnation (John 12:41). But in any case, he said:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple (Isaiah 6:1).

I love that phrase because, again, as you know in the ancient world, the status of a ruler, the loftiness of a king in many ways was measured by the stuff and substance of his garments. Were they purple? Were they white? Were they ermine? Were they mink or simply wool? How big was the train of his garment? I remember something few of you who are here today remember. It was one of the first international broadcasts on television that I was able to witness along with my wife before we were married, and it was the coronation of Princess Elizabeth to the throne of England as Queen Elizabeth II of England, and Queen Elizabeth I of Scotland. Of course, I made that error in Scotland once and never got over that.

But one of the most amazing things of the pageantry that only the British can manifest was this glorious coronation robe that she wore. As she made her way in Westminster Abbey to the front of the church, I don’t know how many pages it required to hold up her garment as she approached the altar. It was regality with a vengeance.

The closest thing I come to it intellectually is my wedding day when I stood at the front of the church and waited for the strains of the organ to change from the processional of the bridesmaids to the entrance of the bride. I looked as my wife came around the corner, my wife to be, and walked down the aisle and I saw the grandeur of her gown. We had to have that white stuff on the floor to keep it clean. It was magnificent. But here what Isaiah sees when he looks up there is this monarch on this elevated throne, high and lifted up. And the train of his garment is so massive that it furls over the side of the throne into the front of the sanctuary and encompasses the entire interior of the sanctuary. There had never been a king like this before where the train of his robe would fill a temple. That’s what Isaiah saw as he gazed into heaven.

The Burning Ones

Above him, he said, “stood the seraphim.” What follows is an anatomical description of the seraphim. It says, “each had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (Isai One of the most remarkable aspects of God’s work of creation is the efficiency with which God makes his creatures. He makes them and shapes them suitable for their environment.

When he makes the birds that soar in the air, he gives to them wings, feathers, and extremely light bone structures that’ll be able to go into the air because that is their natural habitat. In like manner, when he makes the fish of the sea, he equips them with gills, scales, and tails so that they can live underwater. He makes them suitable for the environment in which they live. And likewise, when he makes the seraphim, he creates them with an anatomy that has a utility, a function for their natural habitat, for their environment, because the immediate environment of the seraphim is the presence of God. And to be in the presence of God, in the presence of his unveiled glory every moment of the day, requires a certain anatomical apparatus.

First, they’re given two wings to cover their eyes. Remember when Moses was on the mountain and he made the great request, the request that you sang about this evening. He said, “Lord, let me see your face.” He said, “I’ve seen some fantastic things. I can’t believe what you did at the sea when we were between the chariots and the waters. There was no way out and how you opened up the sea. I’ll never forget the plagues that you visited on Egypt, or the Passover night when the angel of death passed over all of us because we had the blood of the lamb on the doorpost. There are incredible things that we’ve seen, O God. But let me see the big one. Let me see your face.”

And you know what God said to Moses: “I don’t think you understand what you’re asking for Moses.” He said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’m going to carve out a hollow place in the rock, and I’ll place you there in the cleft of the rock, and I will pass by and I will let you have a momentary glance at (literally what the Hebrew says) ‘the hind quarters of Yahweh,’ but my face shall not be seen. To look upon my face is to die.” Looking into the face of God is banned from our eyes from the first sin. And the reason why we cannot see God is not because there is an innate deficiency with our eyesight. The problem is not with the eye, it’s with the soul.

When we go to the Beatitudes, certain promises are given to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, that they’ll be filled (Matthew 5:6). Those who are merciful, they’ll get mercy. Those who mourn, they’ll be comforted (Matthew 5:4). Well, who is given the promise of the Visio Dei, of the vision of God, of being able to see God? He says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Moses’s heart was not yet pure. He wasn’t allowed to see God. We have that eschatological promise that John tells us:

Beloved . . . what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).

That is, we shall see him in his essence, not by way of some refraction of glory, not by way of a simple burning-bush theophany or pillar of cloud or pillar of fire, but we will see him as he is, which is called the Beatific Vision. It’s the vision that will give to our souls its supreme blessedness. But in the meantime, he remains invisible, hidden from our eyes in light inaccessible. And the refulgence of his glory is so intense that even when the shekinah is manifested on this planet to the eyes of people like Saul on the road to Damascus, he’s blinded by it. And it is so glorious in its intensity that even the angels who are made to live in the immediate presence of God every day have to shield their eyes from the brilliance of his glory.

A Symbol of Creatureliness

Then he says, “with two he covers his feet” (Isaiah 6:2). Why is that? Well, the feet biblically are symbols of creatureliness. Again, think back to Moses in the Midianite wilderness when he is taking care of the flocks and he notices to the side this bush that is burning but is not being consumed. He steps aside to look at it and suddenly the voice comes out of the bush saying to him, “Moses, Moses, take off your shoes from off your feet, for the ground on which you were standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

What made it holy? It wasn’t Moses. It was the intersection, the visitation, when God came into his presence. So he said, “This is holy ground, Moses. Take off your shoes because your feet are a symbol that you are of the dust. You are of the earth. Your frame is of dust and your feet are of clay. And in my presence, you cover your creatureliness.” And even the angels, the seraphim in heaven, as exalted as they are, are still creatures. And so they cover their feet in the presence of God.

The Song of the Seraphim

The other two wings are for flying, but the real import of this vision that Isaiah records is not found in the anatomy of the seraphim but in their message. It says, “one called to another” (Isaiah 6:3). I imagine that this was some kind of heavenly chorus, an antiphonal response. One called to the other one, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the God of the heavenly armies. The whole earth is full of his glory (kavōd), his weightiness, his substance, his majesty.” And it provokes the angels to sing, “Holy, holy, holy.” That’s what we call the Trisagion, the three-times holy. What’s the significance of that to the Jew?

Well, the Jews had all kinds of literary devices just like we do. If I want to express emphasis in something I write, I have various ways to do it. The cheapest way is to append several exclamation points. And if you ever write, let me say to you that exclamation points are to be used for exclamations, not for an impoverished vocabulary. In any case, we have other ways — we underline words or use bold type or italics or put quotes around terms. Well, the Jews did all of those things, but they also had another technique that they used to communicate stress or emphasis, and that was the simple device of repetition.

You can think of the apostle Paul when he writes to the Galatians and he says, “If anybody preaches any other gospel to you than that which you have received, let him be anathema, let him be damned” (Galatians 1:8). And then the apostle says, “In case you didn’t get it the first time, let me say it to you again. I say, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than the one which you’ve received, even if it’s an angel from heaven, take that angel from heaven by the seat of his celestial pants and kick him out, and let him be anathema” (Galatians 1:9).

So Paul repeats himself in order to indicate emphasis. Our Lord did it all the time. Now, Jesus never spoke a desultory comment in his lifetime, but even in his mission as a rabbi, there were times where he had to stress the importance of certain things that he was teaching his disciples. So he used the device where instead of waiting until the end of his declaration for the people to say “amen”, he would preface his words by saying, “Amen, amen I say unto you.”

Or as some translators give it to us, “Truly, truly,” or, “verily, verily I say unto you.” He’s just using the word amen. Now, when the disciples heard that, they knew it was like the captain of the ship coming over the intercom after the whistle: “Now here this. This is the captain speaking. What you’re about to hear is of sobering importance.” And so Jesus would preface certain teachings by repeating the word amen, saying it twice. He took it to the second degree.

Alec Motyer, the Old Testament scholar from Great Britain talks about literary device of this matter in the 14th chapter of Genesis where you have the record of the kings in conflict where one translation reads that the kings of one group got bogged down in the “tar pits” (Genesis 14:10). Another translation says they got bogged down in the “bitumen pits”. Another one says they were caught in the “asphalt pits”. Still, another translation says they were caught in the “great pits”. And I said, “What’s with these translators? Is it an asphalt pit, a bitumen pit, a tar pit, or just simply a great pit?” The material says that what you have in the text is a virtual repetition of the same word where the exact translation would be that they got bogged down in the “pit-pit”.

Now, that wouldn’t make any sense to us, but the Jew understood there were pits and then there were pits. If you get caught in a pit, chances are with the help of your friends, you may be able to get out. But if you ever fall into a pit-pit, you’re in serious trouble because the pit-pit was the pitiest of all pits. And so, that’s the form that we find throughout Scripture of that emphasis by way of repetition.

The Three-Times Holy

But do you notice here dear friends that the seraphim don’t say that God is holy, nor are they content to declare that he is holy, holy. But the heavenly song that celebrates the character of God declares that he is holy, holy, holy.

You see, it’s taken now to the third degree, taken to the superlative degree. Nowhere else in Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. The Bible does not say that God is “love, love, love,” or “mercy, mercy, mercy,” or “justice, justice, justice,” or even “sovereign, sovereign, sovereign,” but it says that he is “holy, holy, holy.”

I only was in this city once before and it was about 25 years ago. I was on the board of a prison fellowship and I went to the maximum security prison here in this city with Chuck Colson and also with us that day was Lem Barney, who for nine years was all-pro defensive back for the Detroit Lions. Some of you remember that. And Lem got up and talked about Jesus to the most hardened types of human beings I’ve ever seen in my life. He stopped in the middle and he said, “Gentlemen, if this doesn’t turn you on, you don’t have any switches.” And that’s what I think of when I read this text. Even the dumb, innate, impersonal structures of wood and stone had the good sense to be moved in the presence of the holiness of God. It says, “The foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:4).

The Prophet’s Response

And then briefly, consider the immediate response of Isaiah. I don’t have time tonight to go into the fullness of his response, but the text says this: “Woe is me” (Isaiah 6:5). Then this translation says, “For I am lost.” Another translation says, “For I am ruined.” Another translation says, “I am undone.” I like the word “undone”. Here is a man who was regarded as the paragon of virtue in Jerusalem. He was thought to be the model of integrity. To have integrity, the dictionary tells us, is to be uncompromising with respect to principle. It is somebody who is integrated in truth, who has it together, who is whole and complete. And yet the experience of Isaiah when he catches one glimpse of the elevated holiness of God is the experience of disintegration. He comes apart at the seams.

John Calvin, early on in The Institutes talks about this sort of thing when he says, “As long as our gaze is fixed on this world, on the horizontal plane of this earth, we have no problem with our self-images. We flatter ourselves and address ourselves as something only less than demigods until if for one second we lift our gaze to heaven and contemplate what kind of being God is. In that second, that former security and smugness is annihilated.” He said, “This is the uniform testimony of holy men in the Old Testament, who are reduced to trembling with but one glimpse of the character of God.”

Weal and Woe

Now, how does Isaiah express this? When the prophets announced the word of God to the people, the principle device they used was what was called the oracle. There were two kinds of oracles used by prophets and agents of revelation. Those oracles were oracles of weal, or good news and prosperity, and oracles of woe, which were oracles of judgment. The oracle of weal, the good news, pronounced God’s word of benediction. The psalmist use it at the very beginning of the first psalm says:

Blessed is the man
     who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
     nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
     and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1–2).

God pronounces his benediction. He says, “He’s blessed.” Our Lord used the same vehicle of communication in the Beatitudes when he pronounced the divine benediction upon certain people, saying, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4), or, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:8), as we’ve already looked at. But the antithesis of the pronouncement of blessing is the pronouncement of curse. Let me take this for a second to remind you of the benediction of the Jews in the Old Testament. You all know it. You probably use it in your services frequently.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24–26).

What you have there are synonymous parallelisms. The three stanzas mean exactly the same thing. It says, “May the Lord bless and keep.” So to understand blessedness to the Jew, let’s look at it. “May the Lord bless you” means to the Jew, concretely, that to be blessed ultimately is to have the Lord make his face shine upon you, to have the Lord lift the light of his countenance upon you. That’s what it means to be blessed supremely to the Jew. And out of that comes preservation, graciousness, being kept, being forgiven, and having the experience of shalom, peace.

So if you don’t want to know what the Bible means by curse, you look at the antithesis of that. You would turn it around and say something like this, “May the Lord curse you and abandon you. May the Lord turn his back upon you and treat you only with judgment. May the Lord cause you to walk in darkness with nothing but trouble in your soul.” That’s the curse which was given to Jesus when he became the curse for us. You see the announcement of that curse came through the oracle of judgment, the oracle of woe. Amos says, “For three transgressions and four, Damascus . . . For three transgressions and four, Gaza, Edom, Moab . . . For three transgressions and four, Judah . . . For three transgressions and four, Israel.” The prophet Amos was called to deliver the oracle of doom to the nations.

Falling Under the Curse

In the New Testament, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees who were supposed to be the righteous leaders of the day, and he says:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27).

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).

The strongest way that Jesus ever brings the judgment of God to bear on people is through the use of the oracle of woe. Do you see what happens here? When Isaiah discovers who God is, he pronounces the oracle of woe on himself. He says, “Woe is me. I’m ruined.” Because for the first time in his life, Isaiah knew who God was, and the moment he found out who God was, it was the first time in his life that he knew who Isaiah was. And the first thing he was aware of was his mouth, anticipating the writings of James and of the tongue.

A Man of Unclean Lips

He said, “I’ve got a dirty mouth, and it’s not just my mouth that uses curses and lies and blasphemies, but it’s epidemic, pandemic. I dwell in the midst of the people of unclean lips.” If a man came to the church today crying like that we would say, “Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re going to have a bad self-image.” God was not cruel. He didn’t allow his servant to grovel in the dust there with this lamentation of destruction.

God acted in mercy. He nods for the seraphim to go to the burning fire, and he takes a coal that is white-hot with the tongs. The coal is so hot that even the angels can’t touch it. They have to use the tongs from off the altars. He comes over to Isaiah, who’s groveling in the dust and confessing his sin, and puts that coal on his mouth, on his lips, one of the most sensitive areas of the human skin. That’s why we kiss with our lips because of the nerve endings, the feelings, the sensations that are there. Imagine having a hot coal put on your lips. I mean, you can hear the flesh sizzle and burn, the muffled scream of Isaiah. It says:

And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7).

Never talk to Isaiah about cheap grace. There is something intensely painful about true repentance and that pain is the precursor to the liberation and the peace of forgiveness.

See, the point of this exercise was not for God to torment Isaiah, but to cleanse him. He cauterized the lips of his servant. He purified the lips of the man whose mouth was unclean with these words: “Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for.”

Here am I, Send Me

We don’t have time to go for the rest of the account, but to simply say this: he heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). I don’t see how Isaiah can even speak other than through an almost incomprehensible mumble with swollen lips and a burning mouth. God says, “Who shall I send?” What does Isaiah say? He doesn’t say, “Here I am,” indicating his location; he says, “Here am I. Send me.” Every one of us who has been ordained into the ministry of Christ has that vocation. I want you to think back during the next couple of days while you’re here of your own ordination, when that vocation was established in your consecration.

Every year in the United States of America’s 16,000 clergy leave the ministry, some for moral reasons, but the vast majority out of sheer discouragement because they discovered there’s no glamor in the ministry and they will never be fully appreciated. That’s why you have to keep going back to who it is you serve. We are one beggar to another beggar, telling them where to find bread. We have filthy lips just like everybody else. The only thing that qualifies you to be a minister and qualifies me to be a minister is that we’re forgiven people and we know what that forgiveness means. And we know the majesty, the sweetness, and the grace of the God who has cleansed our lips.

(@RCSproul) (1939–2017) founded and chaired Ligonier Ministries, pastored Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and authored more than one hundred books.