Read Isaiah 1:10-20
Today is Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday in October and the nearest to October 31st, All Saints Eve, the day traditionally understood to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on that day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses – academic assertions concerning the church’s practice of selling indulgences – to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg where he lived and worked as a university professor and, utterly unknowing by his deed, lit what was to become a firestorm that would sweep across Europe and change the face of Christianity, and then the entire world. You know something of that story.
But to understand what happened in the 16th century it is important to realize that the same thing had happened before, a number of times before in fact. What is more, the same thing has happened again later in the years that followed. The Reformation is perhaps the greatest instance of this phenomenon, eclipsing others in scale, but it was by no means a unique event. The Reformation was a typical recovery of a biblical understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Martin Luther described it this way.
“The state of the church was terrible under the pope. Then nothing was seen or heard which could encourage a heart in….distress, except that each year the story of the passion was taught, (he means the story of the death of Christ and his resurrection from the dead) though quite indifferently. This faintly indicated where pardon was to be sought. Everything else led away from the promise of forgiveness towards one’s own righteousness. And so in many monasteries we saw stricken and despairing people passing the entire time of their lives and in the end wearing themselves out in the conflict (he’s talking about the conflict within ourselves, our knowledge of our own sinfulness, a desire to be forgiven by God) by their worries and griefs. Because this doctrine was unknown, the rest of the brothers did nothing more than stand nearby and try to obtain the protection of saints with their idolatrous prayers… Nothing is more terrible than to be in sin and yet to be remote from, or ignorant of, the forgiveness of sin or the promise of grace. But the pope was responsible for the concealment of the forgiveness of sins, because sound doctrine and true forms of worship were not maintained in the church. If some in faith were saved, it was the bare reading of the passion of Christ accepted in faith which saved them, against the will and opposition of the pope.” [Works, i, 179-180]
In other words, Luther is saying, the church had lost her chief treasure: the knowledge of salvation had slipped through her hands. She had become intellectually and spiritually corrupt at the key point and could no longer tell her own sons and daughters, much less the rest of the world, how to find forgiveness, and entrance into everlasting life.
Strange to say, once the treasure had been found again, it would soon be lost again. Two hundred years later, in the Protestant churches of Europe, the churches that came from the reformation and had been shaped by the reformation, very much the same situation prevailed again that had prevailed in Luther’s day.
John Wesley had been a curate in the Church of England, a churchman, a man educated in the Christian faith at Oxford and yet could say of himself at that time, “I had no more true love of God than a stone.” In other words, his personal history recapitulated the personal history of Martin Luther and many of the other Reformers. And when Wesley and others discovered the way of salvation as Luther had through personal, living faith in Christ and began to preach that message, that good news of everlasting life through faith in Christ, it caused as much of a stir in England as Luther had caused in Germany two hundred years before. “Sir, if this be Christianity,” said one astonished hearer of John Wesley who preached a sermon “Jesus Christ is the Savior of Sinner and the Need for Us to Believe in Him”, “I never saw a Christian in my life.” [Cited in I. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 158] What an astonishing thing for someone to say who belonged to a church that originated in the Protestant Reformation!
Indeed, Wesley, together with his great partner George Whitefield, were condemned by many English churchmen for preaching precisely the same message Luther had preached two centuries before. The Bishop of London accused them of preaching a “new gospel unknown to the generality of ministers and people.” And it was unknown. What was preached in most English churches at the end of the first third of the 18th century was the importance of living a good life, being honest, not doing others harm, with the expectation that Christ would make up the difference, if difference there proved to be. The idea that a man or woman, boy or girl, needed to turn to Christ himself or herself, seek God’s mercy and forgiveness as a free gift, and then live life in gratitude for such a great gift, I say this message was virtually unknown in so-called Christian England in the 18th century, just two centuries after the rediscovery of that same gospel at the Reformation. How quickly the truth can be lost and how easily.
Whether the 18th century in England or the 16th century in Germany the situation was the same. There was a church, to be sure – an impressive, substantial church, with ministers and congregations, with sanctuaries and services – but people did not understand the way of salvation and the church herself had conspired to confuse them and leave them ignorant of the main thing the Bible is at pains to teach us. Ministers and priests themselves were usually unsaved men who had no knowledge of how to obtain the forgiveness of God, or, worse, had little or no interest in obtaining forgiveness for themselves or others. People knew that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the Savior, that he had died on the cross, but they had themselves no personal knowledge of him, they were not placing their own faith, confidence and trust in him as their Savior, they did not love him, and they were not following him gladly, cheerfully or gratefully as their Lord and Master. Christ was a distant figure to the people and his relation to themselves vague and uncertain. They would have thought themselves Christians, to be sure, but that would have meant merely that they considered themselves moral people; it would not have meant that they thought themselves sinners who had been saved by the grace of God because of what Jesus Christ had done for them in their place—suffering and dying on the cross. Nor would it have been the case that the grace of God and love for Jesus Christ was the principal motivation of their lives. The Christian religion had become a set of public rites and outward practices that supposedly left everyone who participated in them acceptable to God. Jesus Christ himself remained removed from personal life and was neither known nor loved. In fact Luther will tell you he was more feared than he was loved.
We have need for Reformation in our own day. While there are millions of people who do know the Lord and love him, while the way of salvation is being faithfully proclaimed in many places, nevertheless in Western Europe and North America in particular – and in many other parts of the world – erstwhile Christian churches are either largely empty or are full of people who haven’t the vaguest idea what God has done for them to provide them salvation, what Jesus Christ means to a human being, or what God is summoning them to be and to do in regard to this salvation. They do not know how they might come to obtain the forgiveness of God themselves, how they might come to live a truly happy, holy and fruitful life. It does not occur to these people because they have not been taught or told that Jesus Christ must transform a person’s heart and life, that saving faith is a gift that God alone can give, and that all men and women are summoned to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And it is supposedly Christian ministers who are keeping them in the dark about all of this. Vast numbers of people in our time think of themselves as Christians and yet have no more and perhaps less understanding of Christ and salvation than did Luther’s contemporaries or Wesley’s.
Were there to be a Reformation in our time those churches would fill up, preachers would return to the Bible to find their message, great joy would fill countless hearts as men and women discovered the love of God for them, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on their behalf, and the way of faith. Transformed themselves, they would excitedly proclaim the transforming power of God’s grace to others and the entire society would begin to change as more and more people were changed themselves.
The greatest encouragement that I know of to believe that such a thing is possible in our day, in our world is the simple fact that it has happened before, a number of times before. Not just in the 16th century or the 18th, but many times including a number of times in biblical history. It was, in effect, a Reformation that occurred under Moses at the exodus and at Mt. Sinai. We think of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century as both a revival of spiritual life and as a correction of theological error. The two things happened together: false teaching about salvation and the Christian life was unmasked and teaching faithful to the Bible was put in its place and, as a result, many people came for the first time to true and living faith in Christ and saw their lives transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is what happened under Moses. The idolatry of Egypt that had thoroughly infected the religious life of Israel was purged by the revelation of the truth that God gave to Moses at Sinai and that truth began to make its way into people’s hearts. The truth did not win out as quickly and as thoroughly as Moses would have liked to see, but over the next generation the number of faithful people in Israel, people who loved God and depended upon his grace multiplied greatly. For that matter, the same thing happened at the time of the Reformation. The correction of doctrinal error came much more quickly than the transformation of the church’s heart and life. A century after Luther, faithful preachers were still at work bringing the rediscovered gospel home to the hearts of millions of European church-goers. So it had been in Moses’ day and in Joshua’s.
A similar correction of doctrine and blossoming of spiritual life in Israel occurred during the reign of King David and his son Solomon. As Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliffe and John Huss had prepared the way for Luther, Samuel had prepared the way for David.
Another such Reformation – both in doctrine and life – occurred in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah and one of shorter duration and less lasting effect in the days of King Josiah.
All of these movements of reform presupposed several facts, three of greatest importance. First, the church had been corrupted by errors of thought that had, over time, killed her spiritual life. People continued to belong to the church and continued to participate in her rites and ceremonies, but without understanding, without conviction, without true faith, and without the love of God animating their worship. Second, the need was not to invent a new message that no one had heard before, but to recover a message that had once been known but had been forgotten.
A Roman Catholic, attempting to prove his church’s position by its antiquity, asked a Lutheran, “Where was your church before Luther?” the Lutheran answered with a question of his own: where was your face this morning before it was washed?” [Cited in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, i, 358] His point was the true church was there; it had always been there; it had simply increasingly been covered over by and hidden under layers of error of thought and practice and life. All the Reformers saw themselves as calling the church back to her true and ancient heritage. Most of them, Luther, Calvin, and Bullinger among them, were scholars of patristic Christianity, the Christianity of the first four or five or six centuries after Pentecost and they were masters of demonstrating that the Christianity of their own time in the early 16th century was nothing like that of the early church in teaching, in worship, or in life. The church had become something else, something false.
And, third, the great issue was always the gospel itself, the message of salvation in Christ through faith. That was the principle message of the Christian faith. Lose this and you lose everything. Keep this and other mistakes, other differences of opinion, will not matter so much. That is why the Reformers of the 16th century were generally speaking so ecumenically minded. They disagreed about a number of things, even some important things, but they agreed that forgiveness came to sinners through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and through a sinner’s personal, genuine, active faith, trust and confidence in Jesus himself. And agreeing about that, they understood they could disagree about other things and still maintain harmony and brotherhood.
Indeed this is why Protestant Christians in general have had no difficulty asserting that they have brothers and sisters in Christ in the Roman Catholic church. Let a man seriously and sincerely believe in Jesus as the Savior of sinners and let him place his trust in Jesus and follow him, and he is my brother and she is my sister no matter they belong to a church I judge to be in serious error about very fundamental things. No friend to Roman Catholic theology itself, no friend indeed, he was an enemy of Roman Catholic theology, even Robert McCheyne, the celebrated Scottish pastor of the 19th century, said he would have been happy to have the Roman Catholic priest Martin Boos preach in his Presbyterian pulpit at St. Peter’s Dundee because Boos was known as a firm believer in and powerful preacher of salvation, forgiveness, and acceptance with God through personal faith in Jesus Christ.
These three presuppositions of any and every Reformation applied equally in Moses’ time, in David’s, and in Isaiah’s, who was the great prophet in the days of King Hezekiah, during whose reign a great Reformation occurred. You have a specimen of Isaiah’s preaching before you this morning and, truth be told, it is not very different from a sermon that Martin Luther might have preached or Charles Wesley might have preached.
The situation in Isaiah’s day was the same as it would become in Luther’s day and later than still in Wesley’s day. People were still church goers. There was a church, a large, impressive church. It had its rites and ceremonies, its priesthood, and its preaching. But the life had gone out of the church. And the proof of it was that the people no longer reckoned with God according to the truth revealed in his Word. Evangelical life had gone out of the church’s people; their thinking and living were no longer shaped by God’s love to them, his condescension to be merciful to them in defiance of their sins; and the extraordinary gift it was to be numbered among the people of God. And the proof of that was two-fold: they entertained false principles in their thinking and their lives remained unrenewed. They had become, as the vast majority of so-called Christians had become in Europe by the beginning of the 16th century, ritualists. They believed in the power of the rituals themselves. So much so that this had become the teaching of the church in Isaiah’s time as it would later become the teaching of the church in Luther’s time. Priests told the people in Luther’s day that baptism made them righteous; the mass kept them righteous; confession and penance restored their righteousness if they lost it; and so on. The idea of knowing God himself, of walking with God, of counting directly for one’s own life and one’s own sins in Jesus Christ, loving him as one’s Savior, walking with him and serving him day after day, this was mostly unknown. There was precious little Christian faith but people were still scrupulous about their rituals. They continued to observe them but no longer as an expression of their own faith in the living God and of their love for him, but rather as boxes to check and squares to fill. Religion had become a matter of outward performance, not of personal faith and love.
Amazing as it may be, that is an idea that human beings find very easy to accept. That God can be, as it were, pacified, even gratified by the mere performance of rites. It was the theory that everyone else in the ANE embraced and so it was constantly a temptation to the spiritual life of Israel. And in Isaiah’s time, it was the theology of every one of the peoples that surrounded Israel. It was popular; it was politically correct. It is always easy to be like everyone else; it is always hard to be different. The theories and practices of the surrounding paganism were increasingly penetrating Israelite religion. True enough, in Isaiah 1, it is the still the practices of Israel’s ancient faith that are being observed, but now according to a different theory and a principle. God himself is now at a remove and the rituals are being counted on for themselves. There was thought to be, as it were, a technology of salvation. Do this and that and it should be enough because, after all, they had come to think of Yahweh as a god like the so-called gods of the nations round about them, man made gods; small gods; limited gods; gods made in the image of man. As the Lord would say to his people at this time, “You thought that I was altogether like you!” [Ps. 50:21] How easily human beings invent gods for themselves and invent an idea of who and what God is! What is more, the idea of God’s grace, mercy and love and of man’s sinfulness and need for forgiveness, a forgiveness that God must give them because they don’t deserve it at all, those things too had largely disappeared from the Israelite mind. Man is proud and it is the easiest thing of all for him to think either that he doesn’t need forgiveness or that he deserves it.
Such was the theological error in Israel in Isaiah’s time. But there was also an attendant consequence in the life of the people. Doctrines, teaching tells and bad teaching always produces bad living. It was so in the16th century Europe. It was an awful time to live, people were terrible to one another in Luther’s day and it was so in late 8th century B.C. in Israel. When Paul will later talk about the importance of sound doctrine, he doesn’t mean simply right, correct, orthodox, or biblical teaching; he means as well by sound teaching teaching that produces healthy, godly, and happy lives.
Isaiah’s contemporaries went to church, participated in the rituals and then went home utterly unmindful of the God whom they had supposedly just served. They gave no thought to his holiness or to his love and lived as if neither mattered at all. They were worldly, selfish, cruel, faithless, and indifferent to others and they were sensual people who ignored God’s commandments confident that having performed the required rituals all would be well. Such was the life of so-called Christian people in Luther’s day. Injustice everywhere, sexual sin on every side, indifference toward the needs of others, unfaithfulness to one’s commitments, dishonesty in one’s business practices, and all the rest. Europe was corrupt.
Well so it was in Isaiah’s day. And so the sermon that we have read an excerpt of this morning. Isaiah pulls no punches. Reformation preachers rarely do. Isaiah begins in verse 10 by saying that Israel might just as well be Sodom and Gomorrah, the ancient cities notorious for their wickedness that were suddenly and catastrophically destroyed by God on account of their sin. To call the church Sodom and Gomorrah is some indication of how far she had fallen. But we have erstwhile churches in our day trumpeting sexual license of every kind, heterosexual and homosexual. How is that different from Sodom and Gomorrah? Like Reformation preachers in the 16th century, Isaiah descended to particulars. What were the sins of the people in those days? Well, we read in vv. 15ff, they were unmindful of others. They lived for themselves. They were willing to oppress others for financial gain. We know from other texts in Isaiah that there were many others sins. This is a précis of a sermon, not the entire sermon as Isaiah preached it. They were sexual sinners. They sinned against their marriages. They sinned against their parenthood. They sinned as businessmen, as tax-payers, and as neighbors. They lived for themselves. Because their fundamental religious principle was tit-for-tat, that is how they lived.
When divine grace and God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice for others is the fundamental religious principle, grace, mercy, and love become the principles of one’s daily life and one’s relations with other people. But there wasn’t much grace in Israel’s daily living because there wasn’t much grace in their theology. Just as there wasn’t much in the Europe of Luther’s day or the England of Wesley’s day.
And what was the result of that? Isaiah puts it in verses 11-15 as bluntly as any prophet or any Reformation preacher ever did. These people would be better off never going to church, never praying, never posing in any way as the people of God. It offends God to be worshipped by a people who give no thought to God’s great salvation, accomplished at such great cost to himself, the death of his own Son. It offends God when people take this entirely for granted, as if it means nothing and then go on to live in ways that make a mockery of God’s law and his will. It was all as revolting and as distressing to God, Isaiah says, as it would be to a parent who had loved his children and faithfully raised his children but then watched them express contempt for everything they had been taught, all that their parents believe, all that they hoped for in the life of their children who showed no appreciation for all that they had been given because their parents loved them so. To have the love of your heart and the apple of your eye despise you is heartbreaking. It is, it has always been for God, so the Bible says.
The Reformation was and all similar reformations are the renewal of faith and love in the church by means of a reacquaintance with the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ, God’s Son sent into the world for our salvation, a story that is told in Holy Scripture. So long as the church is not moved, not impressed, not captured by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, she will have nothing to offer the world and will be herself no recommendation of the truth. Let her find Christ as the King of Love and the Savior of sinners and her life will be transformed to her own blessing and that of the world. So it has always proved.
So what is Isaiah’s admonition and exhortation to us? What but this in verse 18: acknowledge the truth about yourselves as sinners and then turn to God who stands willing to forgive you and make you clean. The greatest literary performance of the Protestant Reformation was without question the great book of the reformer John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a work that went through many editions in both French and Latin in Calvin’s own lifetime and a work that still exercises a great influence over the thinking of the church today, some half a millennium later. Its first sentence, from the first edition to the last, was this, one of the most famous sentences in all of Christian theological writing:
“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
And that is what Isaiah is saying here. Face the truth about yourself and about your moral failure and then hear the truth that God is a God of love and mercy and stands ready to forgive those who trust in him. Calvin goes on to say in that magnificent first paragraph that it is in the true knowledge of ourselves as sinners that we come to know God as he truly is:
“Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty…depravity and corruption we recognize [that] the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness [all these things] rest in the Lord alone.
“We are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”
“…the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”
So fundamental, so life-changing, so surpassingly wonderful, so supremely important, is this recognition – that we are sinners and God is merciful – that when it finally impresses itself upon the mind and heart of the church, she changes and the world is changes!
Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow!