God’s Way, Not Ours: Isaiah 1
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999, 150 pages.)
This book contains nine sermons on the first chapter of Isaiah, originally delivered by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (MLJ) in 1963. While keeping the larger themes of Isaiah’s message to the people of his own day in view, MLJ primarily focuses on the one great message of the entire Bible, and he sees in Isa 1 a summary of that message. He begins with a sermon entitled God Has Spoken:
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me (Isa 1, verses 1-2).
MLJ notes that the book contains “a collection of prophecies delivered at different times, but they form one complete whole” (page 1). Isaiah wrote to people who lived in Judah and Jerusalem under these kings at various times, but who were in trouble, and who faced even worse trouble as destruction by the Babylonians loomed large on the horizon. Isaiah deals with the nature of the problem, the root cause, and in so doing delivers a message that is just as applicable to us.
This prophet, in this introduction, gives us a clear outline of his entire message. He shows the cause of the troubles, the false ways in which people were trying to deal with them and get out of them, and then announces the true and only way of deliverance…His message to the sinful Israelites at this particular juncture in history is therefore the message of God to the whole of the human race in its trouble and distress (pages 1,3).
And of course the problem for them, as well as for us, is the same: it is sin. The world as it is now is not the same as it was created, for sin entered in. God calls the heavens and the earth to witness, and He says: “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me” (verse 2). MLJ says:
We have here…a masterly analysis of sin…here is the essence of all our ills…sin is not so much a matter of what we do as of our relationship to God…sin in its essence is the very thing that the prophet talks of here: it is rebellion, revolt against God, and we must put that first (page 16).
God created and nourished for Himself a people, or as St Augustine said: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee” (page 17).
And what does sin do? It makes people stop thinking, and it leads to ignorance, which is the topic of the second sermon.
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (verse 3).
Even the dumbest of animals look to their masters for sustenance, and follow their instinct. But mankind fights against their “instinct of eternity” (page 27). Knowing within that they were not made just for this world, they nevertheless argue and reason against their instinct.
The third sermon finds “a people laden with iniquity” who have “forsaken the Lord” and who are “gone away backward” (verse 4).
The fourth and fifth sermons bring the focus to the consequences of sin—to the depth of the problem and the desolation that sin brings.
Why should ye be stricken anymore?…the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint…Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire (verses 5-8).
In all this, Isaiah paints a very realistic and very necessary picture of sin; necessary, because repentance must come first.
It is only as we understand sin, and see ourselves as sinners, that we have any hope whatsoever of being delivered. The Bible puts repentance before faith. We must go down before we can go up…So it is no use standing up and saying, ‘Come to Jesus.’ ‘Why should we come to Jesus?’ they say. And it is our business to show them why…The Bible says ‘Repent and believe the gospel’ (pages 16, 19-20).
The Bible insists upon our coming face to face with the cause of our ills, and only then does it tell us about the remedy—the gospel, the way of salvation—which alone can deal with and cure those ills (page 53).
And this was the problem with the people of Israel. They didn’t realize anything was wrong. Instead, they were listening to the false prophets who were saying “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jere 6:14).
So Isaiah went on probing and revealing the depths of sin—from the nature of sin in verse 2, to the consequences of sin in verses 5 and following. Verses 7-8 in particular picture the political, economic and social results in Israel.
Then in the sixth sermon comes the crucial ninth verse and the turning point in Isaiah’s message:
Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been as Gomorrah (verse 9) (emphasis reviewer’s).
In this verse, we are given a glimpse of hope. Isaiah had been presenting the character, nature and results of sin. But now comes a word of grace.
What a wonderful word is this word ‘except.’ It introduces the whole of the gospel…in this one verse we have a perfect synopsis of the Christian message, which is something that the Bible is very fond of doing. It likes to give a message in a summary form like this, so that we can remember it…There (in John 3:16) is the gospel in a nutshell. And it is exactly the same here…(and) I will summarize the statement of the gospel in this verse under three headings (page 86):
Sin merits and deserves the punishment of total destruction (pages 86-87)
Men and women are totally incapable of doing anything at all about their own salvation (page 92)
Our salvation is entirely of God (page 97)
The God whom we have scorned and offended, the God we have blasphemed, the God we have disobeyed and criticized, is the very One who himself delivers us. The One who has the power to consign us to perdition, this Lord of hosts, uses that selfsame power in our salvation and for our deliverance (page 98).
Then sermon seven is on the following verse with its call to repentance, as Israel is addressed in terms that epitomize evil:
Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah (verse 10).
The salvation that God offers must be on His terms, not ours, and this is the subject of sermon eight. Verses 11-15 deliver a purely negative word, dashing Israel’s hopes if they were relying on themselves:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? (verse 11).
External religious observances without the involvement of the heart earn no credit with God. Even when Israel followed right observances, they did it wrongly. And they further added observances that were not ordained by God.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth (verse 14).
So they not only did wrong things, but also right things in the wrong way and with the wrong attitude.
But in spite of all of this, grace still beckons. God still calls those who would repent and worship Him rightly. And so the title of the last sermon is God’s Final Word:
Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil…learn to do well (verses 16-17)
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (verse 18).
MLJ says that the whole message of the Bible is summed up in that one word, “Come,” in verse 18.
Is it not astonishing that the great, almighty, and eternal God, existing from eternity to eternity, self-sufficient in himself, triune, the God who made humanity and all things, should appeal to us, that he should call upon us and ask us to listen? Is it not one of the most wonderful facts in this whole universe, that God should bother with us at all? …Here is the amazing thing, that God should still say, ‘Come’ (page 136).
This means that the almighty, eternal God, against whom we have sinned and rebelled, stoops down to our level, and says in effect, ‘Come let us have a discussion’ (page 137).
In his sovereign act of salvation, God does not dragoon people, he persuades them. Let us not misunderstand the great doctrine that tells us that we are saved by grace alone. We are not knocked on the head; we are not bludgeoned. Here is a wonderful display of the final reasonableness of God …(and of) God’s infinite condescension (page 138).
This is a perfect statement of the essence of the Christian gospel of salvation (page 138).
But we are not only forgiven, we are also justified. And how does God do that?
How is the scarlet turned into the whiteness of wool? And the answer is the alchemy of Gethsemane, the blood of Jesus Christ and the sweat; and then the cross, the shame and the suffering, the ignominy, the mocking of the crowd, the crown of thorns, everything that happened on that cross on Calvary’s hill (page 148).
This book contains a rich and full exposition of this marvelous first chapter of Isaiah, and of God’s way of salvation as it was depicted in the Old Testament. There is, and has always been, only one way of salvation—-and it must be God’s way, not ours.