In his book, “The Holiness of God” RC Sproul has a chapter entitled, “The Insanity of Luther.” While the whole book is worth the pittance you would pay for it, this chapter in particular is of great intrigue. If he were alive today, Martin Luther would not have been tucked away in a German monastery. He would have been committed to an asylum for the insane. People would have him sedated with all kinds of drugs in order to stabilize an apparent chemical imbalance in his head.
As a young man Luther was a crazed individual. He obsessed over minute details of religion, sometimes spending up to 6 hours in the confessional with his preist. Many would call him demented because of the way he fasted for days on end and physically whipped himself. It is no doubt that he was a troubled individual. But his turmoil was not because of some mental trauma or some psychological Freudian disturbance. It was induced by his knowledge of God.
Luther understood God rightly. This is why he did what he did. This is why he once was reported to have said, “Love God? Sometimes I hate Him.” You may also know of the time when he went to serve his first communion. All night before he spent in great agony. And when the day came, he was ghastly white with terror. Then when he took up the elements to concecrate them, he shook so violently that he actually spilled the contents of the cup—which, to those who believed that the elements actually became the body and blood of Christ, was woeful thing.
But why? Why was he so distraught? What would ever leave a man so paralyze with fear? For sure, it was not a traumatic childhood or an abusive father who would haunt his conscience. Neither was it simply some religious fanaticism. It was one thing, and one thing only. It was his knowledge that God was holy.
Luther’s insanity was a direct result of his having fixed his attention on the holiness of God. To be sure, there is a danger in reading the Scriptures. For when you read them, you come to realize that God is not one with whom you may have any old contact. His nature demands respect. And as we have seen in times past, it may even demand death.
Scripture makes it clear that God is holy. And the passage before us this morning is one such example. In this passage, it is as if we entered upon Ground Zero. We’ve been traveling through these first 6 chapters. And as we have done so, we have been approaching the epicenter of all the fallout that we have witnessed so far.
And in this passage we see the brilliance of the atomic reaction that has caused all the preceding carnage. God here is revealed in his state. Though no eye can behold it, we are made to gaze upon the true character of his being. And so we are taught one awesome lesson: God is holy.
And my friends, it is my hope that you will come to understand why Luther’s insanity. It is my hope that by studying this passage, you will come to regard God in a much more solemn and awe-filled way.
I’ve said before, there are some passages that I simply wish I did not want to preach. Not because they are hard, but because I don’t think that I could do them justice. This is one such passage. For I believe that I will only defile that which is well beyond all purity.
But this message must be preached, because the message is of the utmost importance. All must know, even as Isaiah came to know, that God is holy.
In the first three verses we see this awesome confrontation Isaiah has with this thrice holy God.
I. Confronted with it [1-3]
The curtain is pulled back and Isaiah is allowed to see right into the very inner chamber of God’s dwelling place. And what he finds there is so extraordinary that even angels cannot even begin to behold it. They must cover themselves in humility. Perhaps even sheilding themselves from the immensity of his infinite holiness. Even though they are perfect and spiritual creatures, the nature of God is simply too much for even for them to behold. This is why they cry out three times “holy holy holy.”
Remember that the holiness of God is used to denote both God’s absolute moral perfection and his complete transcendence. That is, his separateness from all other creatures. Nothing can even begin to come close to being identified with him, let alone replicate him in any small way.
In theology, we talk about the communicable and the incommunicable attributes of God. The communicable attributes are said to be those attributes that we share with God. For instance, we say that God is merciful. And we know that we as humans can be merciful. However, while we might possess a degree of mercy, God’s mercy infinitely transcends ours. It is like a drop in the sea by comparison because God is holy or distinctly other. And because he is holy he infinitely surpasses any amount of mercy that we might show.
And it is this radical, substantial difference in the nature of God that reminds us that God is not one who should be dealt with lightly.
You should notice that this confrontation with the holiness of God is not placed here in the 6th chapter for no reason. It is here because it helps us to make sense of all that has gone before and all that will come after.
I’ve mentioned a number of times that these opening chapters are simply an extended introduction to the book of Isaiah. These words are the climax of that introduction. They are the theme verses that will continue to resonate throughout the book.
Remember where we left off last time. All through this series we have heard about a God who is angry. We’ve talked about a God who judges. And last week we ended with a horrific scene. Bodies were left strewn throughout the streets of Judea. Corpses were flung here and there without proper burial. To hear how God tore through their midst makes you think that what he did in Egypt on the night of the Passover was child’s play.
And here we find out why God was so incensed. God is Holy! And he cannot tolerate the least ounce of evil. He must lash out against it because conflicts with his superlative nature. And throughout this book, as God contends with his people, you will hear God referred to as “the holy one of Israel.” It is simply a signal that God demands our respect. He deserves all reverence and honor because he is the Holy One.
We all know that CRF will soon come to a close. But if I might summarize what I have sought to do in these 6 years, it would be this: I have sought to put the holiness of God before you every time we have gathered together. It has been my repeated prayer that the moment we descend into worship each week, you would be confronted with the awesome purity and transcendent majesty of our God. In all my prayers and in all my preaching I have attempted to impart something of Isaiah’s vision. I have wanted you to behold his incredible holiness. I’ve wanted you to stand in awe of his glory, I have done my best to help you experience the one you must revere.
You can testify that I have not begged for your money. Neither have I asked for greater contributions to support this ministry. Because I know that such things are meaningless. Even if I cared for your money, I know that you would never part with a dime if you had not a view of God that makes the walls of the temple shudder or the columns of Rome’s palace’s crumble.
And even now, it is my hope that you are coming to grasp—even if it might be, just the coattails of our God’s resplendent greatness. It is my hope that you would be overcome by his spotless purity. At the very least it is my hope that the gravity of his overwhelming nature would begin to permeate your every understanding of his being. For this must be the God that you worship. This must be the God you encounter. Otherwise you worship him in vain. Ultimately, I believe that if this is not the God you encounter here, then you do not worship him at all.
If there is one thing that Isaiah wishes to communicate to us, it is that God must be regarded as holy. As Isaiah confronts him, we see it ever so clearly.
But as Isaiah confronts the holiness of God what happens is that he is convicted by it.
II. Convicted by it [4-8]
In verses 4 and following Isaiah expresses this conviction. He begins by saying that the foundations shake at the sound of his voice. You get the idea that even the earth and inanimate objects fear him. But in verse 5 you see terror of a much more extreme form. Isaiah cries out. And notice what all is said in this one verse.
First, thing he says is “Woe is me.” Now the term woe is one we should be quite familiar with by now. It is a word we’ve looked at quite in depth for the last several weeks. It is the word hoy, the expression of inexpressible agony. Even righteous Isaiah cannot even stand in God’s presence without fear!
But then he goes on to say, “for I am lost.” The word for “lost” could also be translated “undone.” The word has to do with quilting and the seams you would sew. When you make a mistake you have to go back and rip out the threads that made that seam. Isaiah is in complete fear that his life is about to end. The very seams of his body are about to ready to shred. This encounter with a holy God is simply too much for him.
Then he tells us why this is so: he is a man of sin. He is a man of unclean lips and he lives among a people whose lips are unclean. Of course, it is not just his words that he is talking about—though that would certainly be enough to condemn him. He is talking about the cesspool of his heart, the overflow of which his mouth speaks.
Of course this conviction was necessary for what would come next. His being touched with the coal from the alter. This symbolizes his cleansing and justification before God. The alter was the place of atonement. It was where sacrifices were made and where sin was covered before the eyes of God. It represents for us the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Where on the cross our sins our purged and our guilt is taken away.
But this was all instigated by the holiness of God. Before Isaiah could be cleansed, he needed to be convicted. Before he could be justified, he must see that he was guilty. And the only way that could happen is if he encountered the holiness of God.
I submit to you that this is why we don’t have many true conversions today: because people are not encountering the holiness of God. They are not cut to the heart and made to mourn their sin because they do not come face to face with a God who is holy. They do not come to a state of repentance because they do not believe they have anything reason to repent.
But if they heard about the true nature of God, this would not be so. They would recognize that even the smallest offense would inflame this God and evoke his wrath and displeasure.
This is why I admire the work of RC Sproul and Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Sproul was deeply burdened by the fact that people did not regard God as holy. He understood that if this attribute of God was lost then Christianity would be in great peril. So he began Ligonier for the purpose of promoting the holiness of God.
And any who would wish to be a Christian must come to the point where they recognize the sinfulness of their sin. They must recognize that they are guilty before this holy God. We hear so much today about coming to Jesus and accepting him into your heart. But we very rarely will hear someone say, “I was a sinner and I deserved to die.”
This is the deep seated conviction that you must have though. And of course, you will only get it if you come to recognize God for who he is.
I don’t know if I have ever told you how I first came to Christ. It was by being confronted with the holiness of God.
My parents will tell you that I was never a rebellious kid. I was mama’s boy. All through my younger days I was the teacher’s pet. For the most part, my life was rather moral. At least in comparison to my brother, who, in my eyes, was quite rebellious, I was a saint.
Then I went to a summer festival with my youth group. And it was there that I heard a minister preaching about the need to come to Christ. He first talked about Romans 3 where it says, “There is no one righteous, no not one.” I thought, “That’s absurd. He doesn’t know me. I’m an OK guy.” Then he went on to quote verse 23 where it says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I said to myself, “Ok, I know I’ve done a few things wrong. It’s never been anything all that terrible though.” But then he quoted Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.”
Deep down I knew that I could not escape that one. I knew that I was going to die, just like everyone else. As I sat there I came to understand all my life I had been comparing myself to my brother. But I had never compared myself to God. When I began to consider that, I saw that God was holy. And it did not matter how good I had been. Even if I had just one sin in my life (and I had many), it would be enough to condemn me.
I was convicted, and, for the first time in my life, I sought Christ as my Savior and asked him to forgive me.
The good news of this passage is that this same forgiveness can be yours. If you are convicted of your sin and guilt, you do not have to tremble before the holiness of God. You do not have to fear being condemned by him. He has provided a way for sinners like us to be cleansed of our sin. It is through the Lord Jesus Christ. In the cross the wrath of the holy God is appeased. And when we put our faith in him we receive the cleansing Isaiah received. Our sins are purged from us and put upon Christ so that we can stand before God justified.
Now I believe that the editors of our Bibles have done a great injustice here. If you have a Bible like mine, they put a big break in between verse 7 and verse 8. I wish they had not done that. I believe that verse 7 should flow right into verse 8. For verse 8 shows how Isaiah was conscripted into the service of God through this vision of God’s infinite holiness.
III. Conscripted through it 
In verse 8 the Lord calls out, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” and Isaiah responds by saying, “Here I am! Send me.” It was after having beheld the holiness of God and coming to receive something of that holiness himself that Isaiah was persuaded to respond to the call to be a prophet. You might even say that it coerced him to respond.
It wasn’t as if asked what the payoff would be. He didn’t first inquire if the job came with any benefits, a pension, or if he would have a nice sized congregation. It didn’t matter to him. After having experienced what he experienced he could not choose otherwise. That’s why I say that he was conscripted by the holiness of God. He knew that he would not be able to do anything else. He was compelled to do it because he had witnessed what he witnessed.
It is the holiness of God that makes a minister of Christ and minister of Christ. It is not a seminary degree that makes him qualified to take the pulpit. It is not his eloquence or his people skills either. It is his having met with God and been exposed to his true nature. Only then is he fit to do the work of Christ.
Before every presbytery meeting, when the ministers and elders come together, we have a worship service. And one of the ministers will have a chance to preach in that time of worship. Someday I hope to have that chance to speak to my brethren. And when that time comes, I already know the text that I am going to speak on. It is 2 Corinthians 5:11, which says, “Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”
Paul makes it clear there that there is only one prerequisite for the ministry. It is the fear of God. In order to persuading men that the only remedy for their lost condition is Christ one must first come to grips with who Christ is himself.
I actually like the old KJV’s rendering of that passage. It says, “Therefore knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.” We typically don’t like that language and a lot of newer versions soften it. But that is an accurate way of translating it. We know of course that the fear of God has to do with reverence and awe. But we should not neglect the fact that the fear of God has something to do with a real and true terror of him. The Greek word there in 2 Cor. 5 is phobea, and I probably don’t have to tell you that’s where we get the word phobia, as in claustrophobia (terrified of the dark) or arachnophobia (petrified of spiders).
A right terror of the Lord is good. Isaiah had it. Paul experienced it on the road to Damascus. Moses, at the foot of Mt. Sinai when God came down, is said to have trembled before the Lord. Everyone who was a spokesman of God had first come to grips with God’s radical holiness.
And that should be no different for you too. I often hear churches having classes on evangelism. And that’s a good thing. We need that. But I never have heard of an evangelism class begin where it probably should: with understanding something of God’s essential nature. I’ll tell you this: If you want to become a better evangelist, don’t study different methods of evangelism, study the holiness of God. Begin with a study of the law of God (Westminster Larger Catechism). Once you start in there you will begin to notice that God is different. And as you begin to behold him as such, you will be more incline to speak (and you will have a better understanding of what you should speak!).
It wasn’t long ago that I used this illustration, but I think it is appropriate here again. There is a scene in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that depicts well what goes on here in Isaiah 6. The two girls, Lucy and Susan, are getting ready to meet Aslan the lion (who represents Christ). Two talking animals, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, are preparing the children for the encounter.
Upon hearing that he is a lion, Susan says, “Ooh, I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie,” said Mrs. Beaver. “And make no mistake, if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Lucy responds by saying, “Then isn’t he safe?” Mr. Beaver broke into hysterics, “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. He’s a lion! But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you!”
Isaiah wants to remind us that God is not a safe God. He is holy. All the carnage that has gone before this passage leads to this vision. Here we make sense of it all. God is holy.
But we do not look merely to the corpses strewn on the hills of Judea. One corpse is particularly to catch our attention. It is Christ that I am talking about. His death reminds us of God’s holiness. His corpse reminds us that we do not have to say, “woe is me.”
And it is by his encountering the holiness of God that we can enter past the veil that was torn in two. We can enter God’s presence, into the holy of holies itself.
The interesting thing about that scene in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is that Lucy and Susan did not run away. They were drawn ever more towards the unsafe lion. And as they experienced it, they became bolder in their allegiance to him. For those of us who believe, the same is true. The holiness of God, while being something that urges us to caution, also will be something that we find irresistible.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.