The Trauma of Holiness
“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!’” (Isa. 6:5).
Nearly five hundred years ago, the task of systematizing the biblical doctrines recovered during the Protestant Reformation fell to John Calvin. His Institutes of the Christian Religion remains one of the most important and influential theological works ever produced.
Calvin devoted his life to Bible study, refining and expanding the Institutes before his death. Near the beginning of this work, Calvin succinctly encapsulated what the encounters between God and man in Scripture tell us about human nature. He writes, “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (1.1.3).
The Genevan Reformer lists today’s passage as one of many that proves this statement. In Isaiah 6:5, the prophet, having been exposed to the incomparable holiness of the Lord, trembles with fear and pronounces a woe upon himself. Such is the normal response of all who encounter such theophanies (for example, see Job 42:1–6).
Isaiah’s statement is quite remarkable given the office of prophet. These men and women who were ordained by God to be his mouthpieces are uniformly recognized as the most righteous servants of the Lord in their day. The average citizen of Israel or Judah may have been a flagrant covenant-breaker, but the prophets were not. Isaiah was doubtless one of the holiest Israelites during his lifetime.
However, in comparison to the Almighty, Isaiah realized his holiness was nothing. He understood his righteousness before other men, and he also understood it was nothing before the absolute perfection of God Himself (Lev. 11:44). Even our best deeds, he later writes, are more like polluted garments (Isa. 64:6).
Today most people in the world comfortably assume the Lord grades on a curve. Arrogantly man parades about, confident God will disregard our “mistakes.” But Isaiah, like the other biblical authors, knew that to violate even one commandment was to be guilty of them all (James 2:10), and so he fell prostrate before the splendor of God’s holiness. We too would respond this way if we saw what Isaiah saw.
How do you view your own good deeds? Have you convinced yourself that you are as holy as the Lord has commanded you to be? Maybe you take sin lightly, imagining that God is inherently obligated to forgive unrepentant transgressors? Take some time today to consider how you have lived up to the standards set in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7). Spend some time in repentance for sin and confess your absolute dependence on the Spirit to make you holy.
Passages for Further Study
- Deut. 32:1–4
- Ezek. 1:28
- Matt. 5:17–20
- John 7:53–8:11