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February 19, 2024

The Holiness of God

In Isaiah 6 we are given a hair-raising vision of God:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
       “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
       the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 
–Isaiah 6:1-8

Nothing in this vision is ordinary. In it God is lifted up on a throne. God is transcendent above everything. His garments are so majestically royal that they fill the space around God’s throne. Meanwhile seraphs attend to God–six-winged angels who use two of their wings just to stay aloft.

What’s remarkable is what they do with their other four wings. With one pair they cover their feet—the unmistakable sign of their creatureliness. The gap in loftiness between Creator and creature is so wide that signs of it are embarrassing. With the other pair they cover their faces! They would otherwise be stricken by God’s blinding radiance.

Three times in a row the seraphs proclaim who God is. Holy. Holy. Holy. Early teachers of the church thought they detected a hint of the Holy Trinity in this triple proclamation. More likely it is an italicizing device: you repeat what you want to emphasize. And what these angels want to emphasize is that God is unique, other, apart. God is mysterious, tremendous, blazing with light, weighty with importance. God is morally pure at the core.

What’s most important in Isaiah’s vision is its effect on Isaiah himself:

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips
and I live among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! 
–Isaiah 6:5

John Calvin comments that here we see the “dread and wonder” saints feel in the presence of God. They are “stricken and overcome;” they are filled with “consternation” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:38-39 (1.1.3)). The center of their distress is the deep realization that they are unclean.

According to biblical tradition, after the prophet Nathan had rebuked King David for his adultery with Bathsheba, David composed Psalm 51 with its famous plea for cleansing:

Have mercy on me, O God,
              according to your steadfast love;
       according to your abundant mercy
              blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
              and cleanse me from my sin.  
–Psalm 51:1-2

David is unclean. He needs a thorough washing. So do we.

Accordingly, biblically faithful Christians confess their sins. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it’s mortifying. Especially when it’s done honestly. Not “God, I sometimes finesse the truth a little in order to preserve my self-image.” O, no. That’s not an honest confession. The honest version is more like “Gracious God, I lied to Fred today to shore up my damnable pride.”

Biblically faithful public worship of God includes frank confession of sin. Sad to say, unlike Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal liturgies, contemporary evangelical worship often includes no penitence at all. If you check out the content of the most popular songs used in churches with subscriptions to CCLI, you will find very few penitential songs.

We may speculate about the reasons for this remarkable development. One reason is surely that evangelical churches are set up to grow. This means they want to be seeker friendly. Mindful that seekers come to church from a no-fault American culture in which tolerance is the big virtue and intolerance the big vice, worship planners in evangelical churches often want nothing in the service that sounds judgmental. And so, lots of evangelical church services these days are almost unrelievedly cheerful.

Of course, evangelical worship that is emptied of sorrow over sin makes thanksgiving for God’s grace just baffling. Grace is God’s unmerited favor for sinners, for people who grieve God, offend others, and sully themselves.

How do we thank God for forgiving our sin when we won’t talk about sin?  How would that go? “Amazing Grace” is the all-time most popular Christian hymn and it has me confess that such grace is for “a wretch like me.” How could this classic hymn fit in churches that throw a furniture blanket over the topic of sin and move it out of the sanctuary?

The sober truth is that honest confession of sin is one of the healthiest things we can do and that now would be an excellent time to retrieve and practice it.