Isaiah (Part 14): Works and Faith (Ch 6-12)
Isaiah 6 through 12 presented an interesting contrast between faith and works. We noticed that God faulted those of Judah as well as Ephraim and Assyria for their works of unrighteousness. As God, then, extends blessing to the remnant, you would think that they are people who exhibited righteous works. But we had seen where those of the remnant also were guilty of sin. Instead of on the basis of works, God provides for the remnant on the basis of their faith. Why does he condemn one group based on their works, but accept another group based on their faith? Which is more important to God—works or faith? The answer is both are important.
We looked at the example of Abraham in our last discussion. We learned that it was by faith that Abraham was counted as righteous. But it was by Abraham’s work that he gained fatherhood of the covenant. Note this is not talking about salvation. He did not gain salvation by works. But the Genesis 17 covenant was a conditional one. Because Abraham showed his faith through his work in the preparation to sacrifice Isaac, God, through his oath, affirmed the everlasting covenant outlined in Genesis 17. By this instance we learn that both faith and works are necessary for relationship with God. We also learn that righteous works result from righteous faith (as both James and Christ argued – James 2:20-24; Matthew 7:17-20).
For the New Covenant, Christ’s faith translated to righteous work so that he said and did only the words and works of the Father (John 14:10), living a sinless life. By that sinless life (his works), he gained fatherhood of the New Covenant. Going even further, Christ then became our sin, dying for it, paying for it, and removing it from us. But not only that, he also gave us his righteousness—his perfect life—so that his righteousness now is part of us. So although works are important to God, we need not worry about our own faulty works, because we’ve been given the righteousness of Christ. God now reveals himself to us, and we have relationship through faith alone.
Paul explains the justice of God in condemning those of old because of their faulty works while overlooking the faulty works of the remnant in favor of their faith. Romans 3:23-25 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
But now in the New Covenant, we find a different dynamic in the relation of faith and works. Back in Isaiah 11-12, we see a picture of covenant life resulting from Christ’s rescue—his first advent. That’s a picture of us now. But that picture seems too perfect, too ideal. We look around at our Christian community and notice the oppressiveness of sin. We understand within our own lives the failures and frustrations resulting from sin. And so we see the Isaiah 11-12 picture as some sort of ideal, but not really the prophesied actuality of our lives now.
Perhaps it is not the picture that is in error, but rather our perspective. How should we look at sin within our Christian environment? How should we contend with our sin?
At the basis of everything, we must remember that our sin is paid for. We know that to be true, but often it slips to the backs of our minds as we attempt to take care of our sin. Christ paid for our sin. He took our guilt. We may sin now, but God never places the guilt for that sin on us. CHRIST PAID FOR OUR SIN.
Holding tightly to that thought, we now can address what we should do when we sin. Should we confess our sin? Absolutely. But sin against God gets confessed to God. We don’t have to—even, shouldn’t—confess sin to each other if others are not involved. Confession for the Christian means, simply, acknowledgement. Sin always has impact (even though we do not receive guilt for our sin. Remember Christ took the guilt and paid for our sin). Sin’s impact is that we lose focus on our relationship with God—on growth in our relationship with God. So when we sin, we confess—we acknowledge—so that we may turn back to God. Confession is not a means to gain forgiveness. First John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But this confession is by the unsaved in the conversion experience. Note that John is writing this to combat Gnosticism, the philosophy that associates material things including the flesh with evil and spiritual things with good. Therefore, Gnostics believed their spirits were good and their flesh was sinful. They justified sinful activity because it was of the flesh, claiming it did not harm their good spirit. But John says no. “If we say, ‘We have fellowship with Him,’ yet we walk (conduct our lives) in darkness (in sinful practice), we are lying and are not practicing the truth” (1 John 1:6). So John confronts the Gnostics with this statement, saying they are wrong. But John argues in verse 9, if we (as sinful human beings) confess our sin to God (acknowledge that we are tainted with sin and have no hope in overcoming it by ourselves), he is faithful to forgive. This confession for forgiveness is not for the Christian who has already been forgiven and does not bear the guilt of the sin. We still confess, however, to acknowledge our sin before God as preparation to turn from it.
The next obvious question is should we repent of our sin? Again, the answer is yes. Repentance includes both sorrow for the sin and a turning away from it. So, of course, although we do not bear guilt and have been forgiven, we sorrow over the distraction of Christ-centered living and turn our backs on the sin. Repentance is not a lengthy process of trying to find out the cause of the sin in our lives and working our ways to hold sin back. Repentance is turning away.
But doesn’t God expect us to work on our sin to bottle it up or construct means to hold it back? Paul answers the question in Galatians 3:1-3: “You foolish Galatians (or Christians in general)! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?”
Paul argues that just as it is the Spirit who saves, it is the Spirit who sanctifies. That is not something we are able to do. It is God working in us, not our working and then God sort of gives us a hand now and then. Our job, according to the New Testament, is not to focus on sin; it is to focus on Christ. Whether you focus on sin so as to sin or you focus on sin to keep from sinning, in both cases your focus is on sin. We are told to seek Christ, to set our affection on things above, to have a Christ-centered focus in our Christian lives. If our focus is on Christ, it is impossible to sin. In order to sin, we must first remove our focus from Christ. That’s why the Bible repeats the call to Christ focus over and over. A focus on our sin is a self-dependent, works-based sanctification process; and it will ultimately not work.
Hebrews 10:14-18 says, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. For after He says: ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws on their hearts and write them on their minds,’ He adds, ‘I will never again remember their sins and their lawless acts.’ Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.” There is nothing we can do—no offering we can make—to put away our sin. OUR SIN IS PAID FOR. We are forgiven. Now we trust Christ. Sure, we sin. But acknowledge, turn from it, and focus on our Lord. The Spirit will guide.
But what about sin involving others? The same basic process holds. Confess and repent, but this time to God and to the injured party. And here we would also ask forgiveness—not from God (our sin is paid for; we have been forgiven)—but rather from the person we offended. The injured person, God tells us, is to forgive. That is oversimplifying things somewhat, but it is the biblical ideal. In our relationships, without the benefit of omniscience, broken trust creates obstacles that must be addressed. But in our relationship to God, the sin is paid for. We must turn from it, not dive into it to process and control.
What is our responsibility if we view other people’s sin in which we are not involved? Do we say anything to them? Well, sure. The body of Christ should care about each other. Paul tells Timothy to “rebuke, correct, and encourage” (2 Timothy 4:2). The Greek means expose, exhort, and encourage. To expose is the same as what we do as individuals: we confess, we acknowledge. We also exhort to repentance. But notice in this there is no expedition in digging out sin. Many Christian counselors seem to have taken secular psychology’s digging out and regurgitation of past and deep-seated issues as the means to fight sin. But that’s not our job. God says to turn our backs on sin and fix our eyes on him, and his Spirit will guide. One noted Christian counselor says, “I will ask questions they would never ask and probe in places they would not know to probe. My questioning will flow out of biblical perspectives on people and their problems. Here I image the Messiah as I seek to end the groping in darkness. I am … helping blind eyes to see, with biblical clarity and depth, the heart’s thoughts and motives.” (Paul Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, p. 278) This is NOT the Christian’s job! This is the job of the Holy Spirit. We are not equipped as the Messiah to end groping in darkness. Our job is to expose and to exhort in order to turn away, not dwell on the sin. Then we encourage toward that focus on Christ.
If we remember the Bible’s commands on how to think, our perspective would be more in line with the Isaiah 11-12 image.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things” (Phil 4:8).