/ Isaiah - Justification / Andrew Kerr

Isaiah's Teaching of Justification by Faith

I've been giving some sustained thought over the last few months to the texts and themes of the Prophecy of Isaiah, a scroll also well-beloved and regarded as the Bible's "Fifth Gospel".

As the threads have untangled slowly, and thematic blurring has turned to order, it has begun to strike me inceasingly that the Book is all about the "allegedly" New Testament Pauline doctrine of "Forensic Justification through Faith by Grace in Christ - Alone".

I realize that that may seem a bit of a push to some: some of my readers might think it flies in the face of the progressiveness of revelation. Doubtless, in the Old Testament, such an error is always a risk. It would be proper therefore to concede, at least in principle, that forensic justification might not be just so transparent as we might anticipate in Romans or Galatians. Yet, as we progress, I think you'll be surprised, that the 7th Century prophet has a little more to say on this truth (savingly vital to God's whole church in every age) than you might think at first. At least, let me urge you, don't write the possibility off before we start!

The Courtroom Drama - The Nature of Justification

There still seems to be some debate about whether or not covenant lawsuit is the proper category into which we should place passages where the LORD contends with His people Israel and Judah. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are accustomed to think about justification in terms of the judicial system of Graeco-Roman courts. Surely, the proper setting for such ecclesiastical or cosmic events is the courts of the Church (or the Heavenly Court, or Zion's Mount, before the Judge of all the Earth - Chapter 2:1-5, 3:14, 11:3-4, 16:5, 24:21-23) - it is in the Assembly of the LORD, before His gathered flock, where the LORD God presides as Judge.

The book begins with the congregation summoned before its Covenant Head - there is no doubt in my mind that witnesses are called, evidence is presented, charges are filed and rebel-lawbreakers indicted:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: "Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged - Isaiah 1:2-4

In addition, we should noticed that that language of legal declaration seems prevalent enough throughout the course of Isaiah's work. In 5:22-23 it seems that the legal profession are all to fond of getting drunk at late lunches, with the passing of brown paper bags in order to defraud cases and deprive the righteous of their day in court - in this case the 'declaratory' verb is used with the sense not of making but causing a righteous verdict to be pronounced (the hiphil factitive use):

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right! - Isaiah 5:23

It is this same declarative sense which crops up again in 50:8-9 (I will mention this again a little further down the blog) - the expression 'vindicator' is a hiphil masculine participle of the verb 'to be righteous' employed as a noun to mean 'the one who declares me righteous': given an adversarial context, and the other church-court verb, added to a second verb 'declare guilty' which is more properly 'condemn' - it seems hard not to believe that it was this Old Testament text that contributed in no small part to Paul's own exposition of non-condemnation in light of forensic justification. If this assumption is correct, or approximates to the mark, the thought of the Spirit in Paul appears to be this: if God vindicates the flint-faced, obedient, servant, then all united to Him through faith, are most certainly justified!

He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up - Isaiah 50:8-9

Like the would-be accusers of the John 8 woman caught in adultery, when asked to produce evidence, faced with the finger of Christ, they all melt away into the crowd - there is no inherent sin to pin on God's beared-plucked servant Christ! He suffers this mistreatment for imputed human guilt!

If the book opens with the indictment of the people of God by Yahweh, four particular charges permeate the book, polluting and corrupting their corporate and personal life - idolatry, immorality, iniquity (merely symptoms of their core condition of pride-generated covenant infidelity - chapters 1-3). There is a frank admission that they have fallen short of the Holy One's righteous standards, are polluted like a leper (or bruised and battered, head to foot, like one that has been justly chastened), and, in their present state are less like should-be Zion and more akin to overthrown Sodom and Gomorrah - daring scarlet and crimson sinners.

Their hopeless situation is pictured in various ways throughout the book - God's chosen servant Israel is utterly unfit for purpose of living before nations and radiating light. If this can be traced back to a lack of knowledge of the truth, the root cause is pride of heart, which has become stubborn and hardened. The nation is depicted as spiritually disabled - a blind, deaf, lame servant who is in need of saving help.

Climactic confession pours forth in the well-known Gospel text - how many down the ages have, by the power of the Spirit, been convict by its truth:

You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people - Isaiah 64:5-9

If a leper is not in view, the point seems to be - as the prophet recognized from the start - when a sinner comes before God, He is spiritually, morally and ceremonially unfit to stand in His superlatively holy presence:

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!" - Isaiah 6:5

The Righteous Robe - The Nature of Justifying Righteousness

There can be little doubt at all the righteousness of God's people, the reconstituted Israel, both spiritual seed of Messiah and drawn from native Jews and Gentiles, does not come from themselves but is alien and divine. In addition to the texts which speak of Israel's undoubted, well-attested and self-confessed, historic, natural, sinful, moral plight, there are a few specific instances in which the prophet proves this fact. At the end of the 46th chapter the prophet draws the explicit contrast:

"Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory" - Isaiah 46:12-13

What follows is a rather remarkable passage, in which explicit instruction is given to seek a righteousness outside self which is located in the LORD: this divine righteousness, once again, is made synonymous with salvation, and clearly equated with redemption in a second, slave-freeing, exodus:

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed. Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool, but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations." Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. "I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the LORD, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking. I am the LORD your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-- the LORD of hosts is his name" - Isaiah 51:1-15

Again it is re-asserted, for the true believers in Israel, who are waiting on Yahweh to act:

Thus says the LORD: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed" - Isaiah 56:1

In case they begin to think that in its current state the nation is fit for purpose, self-confidence is checked - Jews, as they stand, can only be saved through faith, while Sabbath-observing eunuchs and law-keeping gentiles will be incorporated as bona fide saints:

"Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God" - Isaiah 58:1-2

Radical change, however, is exactly what is promised - this hope is expressed in different ways at various points, but Isaiah's piece de la resistance comes at the end of the 61st chapter running into chapter 62:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations. For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth ...Go through, go through the gates; prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway; clear it of stones; lift up a signal over the peoples. Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, "Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him." And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken - Isaiah 61:10-62:12

A number of years ago, some controversy arose regarding the question of whether or not the NT actually taught the counter-imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers: clear answers were given, at the time, if I recall which were popularized by John Piper, in a clear-headed, excellent book. What was missing, however (if my memory serves me correctly), was a proper grounding for this doctrine in the Old Testament system of religion (which more precisely should be viewed as the Mosaic-Davidic Administration of the Covenant of Grace). It is remarkable that few seem to have written (at least at a popular level) of the teaching of justification by imputed righteousness in the messages of God's prophets (perhaps I need to read the commentaries more in-depth to find some 'justifying meat' - in the introductions to the book I've read thus far I've drawn a blank). Moses (Genesis 15:6 - admittedly an elliptical, short-hand expression) clearly taught it. David clearly experienced it (Psalm 32:1-2). There also seem to be some tantalizing hints that much of Paul's teaching in Romans is drawn from the 5th Gospel of Isaiah (particularly on the need for genuine righteousness-holiness empowered by the Spirit, in light of non-condemnation of believers, united to the righteous Christ, in chapter 8).

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you - Romans 8:1-11

Accusation and vindication, in the ecclesiastical court-context, seems to be just the point that Isaiah is trying to stress - in the 3rd servant song Messiah protests his innocence, and entrusts his case to God who is sure to declare Him righteous (the Hebrew verbs used stress forensic declaration and non-condemnation of acquittal): it is this sinlessness which will provide the believers cloak:

He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up - Isaiah 50:8-9

All this begs the question as to what are proper grounds for the justification of believers in Isaiah: that answer is supplied by the 4th "suffering" servant song of the precious, salutary, heart-melting, cadences of chapters 52:13-53:12:

The Sin-Bearing Mediator - the Grounds for Justification

Without majesty or fuss, the royal root of Jesse poked up out of earth to revive the line of David, with which kingdom hope was bound up, 53:2. The atypical and arresting Hebrew plural shows that this grief-stricken son of Adam was a true man among men (as I think E. J. Young put it) yet despised and rejected by them, 53:3. The people of God now grasp, with hindsight, He was suffering for them, as the bearer of their sin, 53:4-5 - how blind and deaf they had been, at the time, to the true glory, magnificence, love and nature of His work! He, the Good Shepherd, was never guilty of mis-steps, but was offered, by the LORD, as a rescue-remedy for stray sheep.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned-- every one-- to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all - Isaiah 53:4-6

The striking, smiting, transgressions, wounds and stripes of the mutilated, disfigured, now-barely-human, Messiah recapitulate the depiction of rebel Israel with which the prophet began the book. He is the One now stricken with sores from head to foot - their just punishment, as the cure for Israel's sin, in the immaculate love of God, is now meted out on Him. The servant of the LORD was God's own offering for His people's guilt - the righteous for the unrighteous to secure saints righteous standing by forensically declaring them just (on the basis of His work).

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors - Isaiah 53:10-12

It is on the basis of this amazing, atoning, agony of the servant-hood of the anointed Son of David that the offer was made at the start of the book to sinners:

"Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" - Isaiah 1:18

It is the same Gospel grace, experienced by Isaiah, that was typified in the altar coal, applied to his lips with such powerful sin-purging and service-equipping effect - it was this vocational vision that the prophet never forgot, and was deeply impressed on his heart, and permeates every phrase of his graphic Gospel account.

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" - Isaiah 6:5-7


What is the point of this lengthy musing on Isaiah? Simply this: whether or not Luther gleaned this doctrine largely from the New Testament and Paul (Luther in fact came to this through study of Psalms, Galatians & Romans), it has little to do with the introspective conscience of the West (as some scholars like to pretend). Rather, the unvarnished truth is that while the Cross event brought the fulness of the doctrine of justification in the Law and Prophets to light, it was always there from the start, and the basis for saving Old Testament saints. If Luther and Isaiah were introspective at all, it was an introspective-extroverted conscience that emerged in the East, that makes sinners look out (away from themselves) and up (to the alien righteousness of Yahweh) for a solution for their guilt!

I haven't even had space to mention another key theme - or perhaps an integral part of the theme of justification - of the prophet, which is this: the need for all nations to trust God's own provision of an alien righteousness. Even the oracles to the nations seems to subserve this purpose - all nations are being taught that they aren't right with God, have broken the eternal covenant, and as God's agents of wrath proudly and ruthlessly overreach: their only escape hatch from final judgment that awaits (chapter 24) is trust in Israel's Christ, unlike faithless Ahaz (chapter 7-10), but like believing Hezekiah (chapter 36-39). This justification was and is always by grace through faith - a faith that comes from the Word, which God's prophets announce in advance, is sure to be performed, and saves those who forsakes sin and trusts in the Servant for pardon and life.

"Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon" - Isaiah 55:6-7

Believe this doctrine, contend for salvation - this is the teaching by which the church of God, Old Testament or New, falls or stands, and the hinge on which it turns. Whether you light upon it in Moses, David, Isaiah or Paul, be ready to go to the stake for for the truth of justification by grace, through faith, in Christ, alone. May God grant the grace, courage, conviction and light to stand by that same faith, if that day will come to us, to shed our blood for truth!

Andrew Kerr

Andrew Kerr

Pastor of Ridgefield Park NJ (NYC Metro Area) - Husband of Hazel, Dad to Rebekah, Paul & Andrew, Father-in-Law to Matt, Loves Skiing, Dog Walking. Passionate for Old Testament - in Deep Need of Grace

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