Exaggerated Grace and Forgotten Judgement
Isaiah 26: 9-10 My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgements come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness. Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the LORD.
The western Church has largely forgotten that judgment, righteousness and grace are intertwined. A straightforward reading of Isaiah 26:9-10 exposes the shortcomings in much that passes for Christian understanding and action today. The average Christian skips over verses like this and yet they capture some very important points. This paper looks at the understanding mature Christians glean from these verses, before contrasting that wisdom with the failings of the contemporary Church.
The passage begins with an acknowledgement of those who love God–who seek to remain close to God by night and by day – constantly. Then God expounds on the nature of his judgments. They teach the peoples of the world the importance of righteousness, even if they are at the expense of whole nations – read the first three chapters of Amos. Anyone who does not remain obedient to God is going to suffer the consequences of judgement. Verse 10 laments the fact that even in an environment where God is known his grace will not draw people to righteousness. They will go on doing whatever seems right to them without regard for the God with which they have some tacit knowledge. They will distain the need to accept him. They make no connection between God and their earthy existence. They refuse to accept that actions always carry consequences.
The great propositions of Christianity, borne out factually in Man’s history, are captured in these verses. To ‘born again’ Christians they are statements of both philosophy (wisdom) and doctrine that accord with their overall understanding of God’s full revelation contained in the Bible:
- Those who earnestly seek God will understand great truths and see them at work in human society.
- God actively measures his holiness against Man’s actions and executes his judgements accordingly.
- God’s uses his judgements to direct people towards righteousness. Judgement is not primarily about punishment, but about instruction and redemption.
- Anyone who contrasts their actions with Gods commands and judgements will learn what it really means to be righteous.
- In a fallen world, grace (favour) shown to the unsaved, will be insufficient to draw people to God.
- Even in a land where the people have been exposed to a knowledge of God, evil will still prevail over many. Most will persist in remaining unsaved.
- Embracing righteousness avoids eternal judgement.
These two verses, like so much in the Bible, says a great deal without assuming the need to progressively explain each nuance of meaning. The born again Christian instinctively understands the import of verses like these, because they have sought to understand the whole council of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They are the people referred to in the opening sentence of Verse 9. They know what Isaiah is saying, because it is implicit in an overall knowledge of God. Verses 9 and 10 can be teased out still further:
God’s judgements are visited on all peoples and at various levels. God has always been and always will be the judge. Under the right circumstances God can exercise judgement on an unsaved individual, through some trial, or other adverse event. The circumstances cause the individual to question or inquire into, their relationship with God. They will, under the work of the Holy Spirit, recognise the gulf between their ways and God’s holiness. They then have a free will choice to follow him or reject him, but God will have used the circumstances to persuade the person to accept him. If they refuse, it is because the perversity of fallen-ness has hardened them against truth. Equally, God’s judgement can come upon those who follow him, to awaken them to sin and the need to get back on the ‘narrow path.’ His judgement in such cases is rehabilitative.
God has convicted and condemned whole nations, destroying them, or relegating them to the lower reaches of the table of nations, determined by things like their prosperity, peace, governance and independence. They have been judged according to God’s standards of righteousness. Cases of individual salvation come out of the trauma but in learning of righteousness, the people in general have faced condemnation and punishment. This process will reach its zenith at the time appointed by God for the final judgement of all nations.
God’s grace is all embracing. It goes out to all peoples, but it is a grace bounded by love and that love cannot, by its very nature, coerce. It must persuade. Because humans are made in God’s image, God cannot impose his will on anyone, because no-one can impose their will on him. This applies in a salvific sense too. He can make his reality so real to an individual that they feel compelled to submit themselves freely to the will of their maker. Grace is found primarily in salvation – in the forgiveness of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the cross. No human work is necessary, other than an acknowledgement of fallen-ness and sin and a plea for forgiveness. God’s grace is then manifested in unmerited and unconditional forgiveness.
The presence and exercise of God’s grace provides no guarantees. Even an individual or a nation who knows of God can still exercise their free will and reject him. Even after the whole exodus experience and the obvious presence of God the people of Israel still, in various ways and at various times, let perversity and disobedience triumph over obedience to God. How much more, therefore, is it possible for an individual or a people, to eschew the love of God, continue to reject him and follow the paths of sin?
All of this will be understood by the born again believer, who knows their Bible and therefore understands the nature of God and the nature of Man. Their knowledge of God is both expanded and confirmed by the forth-telling nature of prophetic passages like Isaiah 26:9-10. That knowledge automatically overlays such passages.
But, what if the truths implicit in the passage, are not accepted by today’s Western Church? What does it look like and what does it tell the discerning Christian?
Isaiah 26:9-10 go the very heart of the Church’s mission in a world striving to reject its creator. Its role is to make a fallen world aware of God’s commands. As Psalms 19 and 119 make explicit, the church is to so love God’s commands and so revere his holiness that it puts these things at the centre of all it is and all it does. Sadly that is no longer the case. Ecclesiastes tells the Church that everything that forms the daily stuff of living is not the place to look for anything lasting, or truly worthwhile. Happiness, meaning and purpose cannot come from culture, employment, recreation, wealth, poverty, dreams, church life, politics, or consumerism. Fearing God and keeping his commands is the only wellspring of life (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Out of them comes a love for neighbour and out of that comes the prophetic role the Church should be performing in society–warning it of judgement, if it fails to respect the commands of God. The Church’s role as God’s ambassador is to warn and encourage the world to learn from the law of God. It is his schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24; Psalm 19:7; Psalm 119:127-128) for the saved and unsaved. Recognising its legitimacy puts people on the road away from judgement and takes them towards Christ.
There is little emphasis placed by today’s Church on an active public square ministry aimed at warning of God’s judgements, if righteousness is not respected. There is, as a consequence, an abrogation of the Church’s prophetic role in society. Instead, the Church chooses to either remain mute, or plays on the God is love message, without reference to his holiness, his commands, or his righteousness.
What about Verse 10? Having isolated love as the main message, the Church has little choice but to insist that a God of love exercises his grace so liberally that homosexuality, divorce, sexual immorality, abortion, idolatry, false gods, parental disrespect, crime and covetousness are all so bathed in God’s grace that sin is no more than an inconvenient fact of life. The Church has forgotten that God’s grace is conditional. It does not cover over disobedience and sin, it provides a way, by faith alone, through Christ alone and in accord with Scripture alone to forgiveness and transformation through repentance. The Church has so hijacked grace that it has become a catch cry for a false gospel of tolerance. Prominent leaders in the Church bend over backwards to excuse sin and avoid the hard questions concerning the legitimacy of so many apparent conversions. They also refuse to translate a God of judgement, into a church that discerns good from evil and tries to convince the unsaved of their need to flee from unrighteousness in all its manifestations. They exacerbate these glaring failures by failing to lead churches into being counter-cultural Christian communities that model righteous living. The rate of divorce amongst Christians is the most glaring example. During the recent debate on same sex marriage the Church’s defence was undermined by its poor marriage record.
When you have Christians like David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons writing a book called Un-Christian, bemoaning the fact that people don’t like Christians because they are against sin, you know something is badly amiss in the Church. They are, in effect, calling on Christians to ignore judgement. ‘Judge not’ becomes the catch-cry. When other leaders like Graham, Schuller and Osteen refuse to publicly confirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to God is it any wonder that the unsaved continue in their sin, despite their exposure to a knowledge of God. Too many in the Church refuse to see that real grace is exercised by God, for salvation, not for tolerance. They refuse to accept that Christians are not here to commiserate with peoples weaknesses, but to expose them to God’s impending judgement over both them and the world.
Christians are not supposed to cry wolf, they are supposed to expose the wolf and scare off the rest of the pack. Reading Isaiah 26: 9-10 reminds us that exposure to the knowledge of judgement for sin leads people to the gospel and truth. There is no escape for any individual, unless they ‘learn righteousness.’ Claiming that grace conquers all does not lead to righteousness, only the fear of a holy God can do that. It is for this reason that Truth Watch supports using the law to bring people to repentance. Make them aware of their sinful state and they will see their need for Christ.
Grace, exercised for salvation, remains the sole preserve of God and cannot be used to excuse unrighteousness, or preach a false gospel of love and tolerance. Christians have not been saved to help people feel good about themselves, but to draw their attention to the terrible consequences that follow the rejection of God. Isaiah 26:9-10 reminds today’s Church that the world is a wicked place, destined for continual and final judgement. The only way out is Jesus Christ and the only way to him is by direct appeal to his grace through an acknowledgment of sin, repentance and a subsequent love for God’s commands.