Confronted by Glory- What Isaiah 6 Teaches Us About the Process of Salvation

March 8, 2009

People are always curious what we Christians mean by salvation.  And by this I don’t mean the gospel– though surely they are curious about that as well– but genuinely what do we mean by salvation?  What does it look like?  How does it proceed?  How does it begin (ah, the Calvinism question)?  

When faced with this question, my gut reaction is always to turn them to Romans 8.30– “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  This seems about as straightforward as possible, but in reality it leaves many more questions to be answered.  Specifically we are left with what all these terms like “predestined,” “called,” “justified,” and “glorified” mean themselves, and so, unless the person is well read already, this isn’t actually the most illuminating of verses.  

However, another place I am learning to turn to is in Isaiah 6, verses 1 through 7:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 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!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

Though Isaiah 6 leaves much shrouded in mystery (at least at the time of its writing) about who made the atonement, I do not believe we have a more vivid depiction of the process of salvation anywhere else in Scripture.  

So, how does it begin?  Well, we aren’t really told.  We are introduced to this vision rather bluntly: “Someone died and I saw Lord on his throne.”  Not much information there.  Is this a waking vision or hallucination? a sleeping vision (dream)?  was Isaiah physically there or spiritually?  Not much is really offered.  But, in the end, I don’t think it matters.  

What we should focus on instead is what he sees, namely the glory of God.  There is the Lord (pre-incarnate Christ?  Again, not really important for what we are looking at), and he is seated on his throne, “high and lifted up.”  He is wearing a robe and “the train of his robe filled the temple.”  And he is surrounded by six-winged angels, all singing his praises to one another.  There is smoke and there are earthquakes caused by a calling.  This is the glory of God.  The angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts.”  The Lord is holy, and the visible manifestation of his holiness is his glory; this is what Isaiah is confronted with in this great scene.

So then, how does Isaiah respond to this glory which now stands before him?  ”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!” (v.5).  Isaiah is so overcome by what he sees that he pronounces condemnation on himself.  ”Woe is me.”  This vision of God’s glory makes Isaiah supremely aware of the fact that he himself is not glorious, that he is filthy, that he is “a man of unclean lips” from “a people of unclean lips,” and thus only deserving of death.  Yet this is his confession.  He is not worthy to be here.  He has great sin in his life which should force God, who he recognizes as Lord, to separate from him.

But what does happen?  It tells us that one of the seraphim carried a coal from the altar to Isaiah and pressed it to the prophets lips to remove his guilt and atone for his sin.  Check that.  Isaiah repents of his sin, confesses that the Lord (Christ) is Lord, and the atonement earned by a sacrifice which was already made is now applied to his sin, cleansing him from it, making him acceptable to God. This IS salvation!

Now, let’s take it from the top once more: Isaiah is confronted with the glory of God, with the utter holiness of the Lord of hosts.  This in turn leads him to repent of his own sins– which are surely to damn him in light of the revelation of God’s holiness– and to confess the Lordship of the Lord of hosts.  Instead of being damned however, Isaiah is reconciled with God through the application of the atonement already made for his sins.  At the most basic level, without any idea of penal substitution or imputed righteousness or what not, this is what salvation looks like.

Then practically we are left with the following questions, which we will pick up on tomorrow.  First, notice how Isaiah is confronted with the glory of God and from there seems to be compelled to repent and believe.  Is this always the case?  Or is it possible that someone could be confronted by the glory of God and not be led to repentance and belief in him?  Second, is it possible that someone may exercise true repentance and belief without first having been confronted with the glory of God?  I believe these are both crucial questions to answer and play a large role in how we carry out the practice of sharing the gospel with nonbelievers.