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Law-Gospel in Isaiah

Isaiah Future- William_Strutt_Peace_1896Isaiah is the tale of two cities. Both of them are Jerusalem.

There is the old Jerusalem with its temple - the House of God. It represents the pinnacle of human and religious strength. If anywhere could be safe from the coming judgement, it would be Jerusalem. Yet the LORD repeatedly asserts that Jerusalem is first in line for divine judgement.

A few examples:

In Isaiah 5 there might be a 6-fold "woe" pronounced on the people in general, but it culminates in the temple with the LORD's own prophet (Isaiah 6:5).

When the LORD commissions Isaiah to preach to Jerusalem, his preaching will completely cut down the tree until only the Holy Seed is left. (Isaiah 6:13)

When Isaiah pronounces oracles against the nations (Isaiah 13-21) they culminate with Jerusalem (Isaiah 22; 29-31).

In Isaiah 51, it is Jerusalem that will drink the cup of the LORD's wrath first (cf Jeremiah 25).

Yet on the other side of this judgement comes a salvation that is also "to the Jew first."

Isaiah is cleansed by fire from the altar (Isaiah 6:7)

The holy Seed will come as a shoot from the stump of Jesse to be universal Ruler (Isaiah 11).

After cosmic judgement, our hope will be manifest "On this mountain" (Isaiah 25:6) but "On that day" (Isaiah 25:9).

After drinking the cup, the LORD takes it out of Zion's hand and comforts them (Isaiah 40:1ff; 51:22)

So we see that judgement and salvation as preached by Isaiah is not like this:

Judgement&Salvation1

It's not that good behaviour could ever avert the judgement of God that rests on Jerusalem. Instead it's like this:

Judgement&Salvation2

Or, to be more precise, it's like this:

salvation-judgement2

Judgement begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Israel is the house(hold) of God. The temple is the house of God. And, in fact, the world is the house of God. But it's all scheduled for demolition - from the top down.

Yet what about this holy Seed? What about this Offspring of Jesse? Surely He will sum up Israel - isn't that what a King does? Represent people?

What about this Servant King who is the covenant (Isaiah 42:1-6)? What about this Anointed One who takes up the lost cause of His people? (Isaiah 61).  He will bring salvation to Zion, light to the nations, peace to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 11). First He must suffer in a very temple-kind-of-way (Isaiah 53:1-10) and then be glorified (Isaiah 53:11-12). In this way He will sprinkle clean many nations (Isaiah 52:15). They will stream to the true House of God (Isaiah 2:1-4) and so salvation can reach the ends of the earth (Isaiah 65-66).

salvation-judgement31In this way the preaching of Isaiah is classically law-gospel. There is the righteous judgement of God which cannot be evaded by any of our own righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). And there is one hope for us - the Divine, Davidic Christ of God. He alone bears our punishment and rises to give life. We who receive His word are brought into His eternal covenant and blessed with all His divine blessings (Isaiah 55:3).

Luther did not invent such a paradigm. It pulses through the Scriptures. Because all the bible preaches salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

23 thoughts on “Law-Gospel in Isaiah

  1. A3B7A29B44 BW 4,6 some part of me with 1 Adam

    Thank you as always. We are always being tempted to take our eyes off of Jesus for counterfeit substitutes. I like your opening art work. It is a refreshing reminder of our glorious future of God reflected natural laws as they were meant. Of course all light will radiate from the God head.

  2. Jonathan

    Trouble was, Luther wasn't thinking salvation-historically with his law-gospel distinction. He turned it into a kind of timeless truth. He never seems to have got clear which time in salvation history he was living in. Talked as if both times were now. Isaiah was thinking of history. He identified his own time as the before, and looked ahead to the after. Thank God we live in the after!

  3. Glen

    Hey Jonathan,

    Wouldn't Galatians 3 (and Galatians more generally) tell us that living under law is a contemporary problem believer's face which means, effectively, living in the before. But in the placarding of Christ, the 'after' (which is *now*) is announced.

    Which is to say: yes to 'before-after' but either reality can be experienced now. Law-gospel is a way of waking us up to 'before' living and pointing us to the 'already' of Christ's completed work.

  4. Jonathan

    Glen, it's not easy to discuss exegesis in a comment. But in very brief, in Galatians 3-4 there are clear signs that Paul is mounting a salvation-historical argument about what has happened to the world - not primarily an existential argument about what has happened in the lives of the believers. It's all about what happened 'when the fullness of time arrived, and God sent his son...to redeem those under law, to bring adoption to sonship.'

    Paul's abbreviation for this is to say 'When faith came' - not meaning when the Galatians believed, but 'when the gospel faith about Jesus arrived on the scene'. 'Faith' here is the opposite to 'law': it's an objective thing.

    'Now that faith has arrived, we are no longer in the hands of that tutor, the law.' God is not dealing with humans in that way any more. Now it's through Christ.

    The whole argument is couched in redemptive-historical terms, not existential ones.

    My comment was that Luther never knew how to let this big-picture apostolic approach direct his thinking. He flattened out the ages so Paul's eschatology couldn't really function in his ministry.

  5. Howard

    Jonathan wrote: "Paul’s abbreviation for this is to say ‘When faith came’ – not meaning when the Galatians believed, but ‘when the gospel faith about Jesus arrived on the scene’. ‘Faith’ here is the opposite to ‘law’: it’s an objective thing".
    Isn't the argument, in Galatians and elsewhere (i.e. Hebrews 11, Romans 4) that the Gospel about faith precedes law. Didn't Adam and Eve express that same faith in God's promise of a 'seed' in their naming of their first-born? The lines have always been drawn between this faith and unbelief.

  6. Jonathan

    Howard, what you're saying about faith (=trusting God's promise) is true. It has always been the way God's people have responded to him. This subjective faith (a thing you do) has its opposite in unbelief, as you say.

    In Galatians 3-4 Paul doesn't use the word 'faith' in that way. He uses it to mean something different - a kind of technical term. Here it is an objective thing, which arrives in time. Although it is foreshadowed in promise to Abraham etc, the actual time of arrival is later, with Jesus' coming.

    "3:23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.

    this faith defines a whole new age, and so has its opposite in the thing that defined the previous age: law.

    This 'faith' is really another word for Jesus and his redemption, so Paul can say the same thing again in these words:

    "24 So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came"

    The effect of this faith coming, for Paul's argument, is not to cast out unbelief: it's to cast out the 'law' system - since Christ came the tutor's services are no longer required:

    25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

    Of course it is true that we must respond to this 'faith' that has arrived by putting our faith in it! But that's not quite what Paul is highlighting at this point. He's talking about the great event of the 'turn of the ages'.

  7. Glen

    Howard and Jonathan, could we agree that "now that faith has come" is a salvation-historical statement. But that, of course Abraham and the other OT saints trusted the promise that preceded the law (Gal 3:16). But the fulfilment of that promise occured "when the time had fully come" (Gal 4:4).

    And in addition to this, it's possible for NT believers (whether Jew or Gentile) to live 'under law' (Gal 4:8ff). And to them it's appropriate to point them to the obligations of the law's regime (Gal 5:3) as well as give them a history lesson?

  8. Jonathan

    Hi Glen, thanks for helping us clarify this.

    I can agree with your first para, but not sure what you mean in the second one, or how you are reading those Galatians texts you cite.

    If you mean that Christians can get guidance from Israel's law in how to live to please God, then yes.

    But maybe you're saying more than that?

  9. Glen

    Hi Jonathan, more, in that if a NT believer wants to establish a righteousness of their own according to the law, Paul is happy to tell them they need to fulfil it all. In this way I'd argue that Paul is preaching law to a NT believer in order to put the old man to death that they might wake up to the truth - Christ has come, they are not under law. i.e. I'm saying, Paul preaches an "existential" law-gospel to wake them up to the historical law-gospel.

    Or so it seems to me.

  10. Howard

    Jonathan wrote: 'In Galatians 3-4 Paul doesn’t use the word ‘faith’ in that way. He uses it to mean something different – a kind of technical term. Here it is an objective thing, which arrives in time. Although it is foreshadowed in promise to Abraham etc, the actual time of arrival is later, with Jesus’ coming".

    Thanks for your reply, Jonathan. I've always believed that we share the same faith as Abraham and the Old Testament saints (hence Jesus' words regarding Abraham seeing His day and rejoicing in it) - isn't that why we are told that those who 'have not seen' (in the manner that the disciples did) are blessed?

    Glen wrote: "of course Abraham and the other OT saints trusted the promise that preceded the law". Certainly, but isn't the New Testament teaching that we also are children trusting in those same promises - the fulfillment of what Christ will bring as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world?

  11. Glen

    Howard, I agree with what you're saying. And, from what I can tell, I don't think Jonathan would disagree much or at all. I'd just say, in addition to an acknowledgement of Abraham's faith fixed on Christ, the actual coming of Christ as the Seed is an important point in Galatians 3-4. Paul is teaching a history lesson. Part of that lesson is to say that promise predates law. Part of it is to say that the fulfilment of the promise "at just the right time" puts the law into honourable retirement.

    I think Paul is saying both and in these comments it looks to me like you are emphasizing the former part of the history lesson and Jonathan is highlighting the latter part. But both are true and complementary.

    Or am I just far too Anglican and conjured a via media from nowhere?

  12. Howard

    Thanks, Glen. I fully agree with what you're saying regarding Christ's coming and the impact of this on the Law (hence, the history lesson you mention), but just wanted to clarify that 'the way we may see the faith of our forefathers in the Old Testament and ours in the New is all one" (Luther on Galatians 3:7).

    It's always good to know that we're all on the same page :)

  13. Glen

    :)

    "All the promises of God lead back to the first promise concerning Christ of Genesis 3:15. The faith of the fathers in the Old Testament era, and our faith in the New Testament are one and the same faith in Christ Jesus… The faith of the fathers was directed at Christ… Time does not change the object of true faith, or the Holy Spirit. There has always been and always will be one mind, one impression, one faith concerning Christ among true believers whether they live in times past, now, or in times to come." (Luther’s Commentary, Gal 3:6-7)

  14. Jonathan

    Sorry guys to be the burr under your saddle, but Luther here doesn't seem to be doing justice to Paul's thought. The problem is language like 'there has always been' It's too flattened out, not picking up the structure and how Paul differentiates between different things.

    Paul owns Abraham, and disowns Moses.

    The promise to Abraham functions like a 'gospel in advance' represented by Isaac the free son of promise. So it is fulfilled in Jesus and in us.

    The law of Moses comes in later, and the best Paul can say about it is it doesn't destroy the gospel Abraham had. But it is a completely different animal, Paul goes as far as to represent it using Ishmael the slave child. A shocking insult. The thing to do with Moses is to 'cast out the slave from among you.' For we share the faith of Abraham - we are like Isaac. But we don't share the approach of Moses - we are not like Ishmael.

    These of course are comments about the faith-systems these men are attached to, rather than about the character of the men themselves.

    If we don't differentiate we miss our connection with Abraham and our disconnection with Moses. Not sure if Luther got on Paul's wavelength at this point.

  15. Howard

    Jonathan wrote: 'Sorry guys to be the burr under your saddle, but Luther here doesn’t seem to be doing justice to Paul’s thought".

    No worries, Jonathan - that's what places like this are here for :) I think I must be missing what you're trying to say here....

    "The problem is language like ‘there has always been’ It’s too flattened out, not picking up the structure and how Paul differentiates between different things".

    OK...

    "Paul owns Abraham, and disowns Moses".

    Paul disowns the manner in which the Law given by Moses is being used amongst by those who are seeking to impose its keeping upon the Gentiles, and in so doing, declares the Laws purpose now is to drive us to Christ. Luther agrees with this, and also speaks of the Law (as does Paul) as a civil restraint.

    "The promise to Abraham functions like a ‘gospel in advance’ represented by Isaac the free son of promise. So it is fulfilled in Jesus and in us".

    Hence, Glen's and my comments above (re: OT faith).

    "The law of Moses comes in later, and the best Paul can say about it is it doesn’t destroy the gospel Abraham had. But it is a completely different animal, Paul goes as far as to represent it using Ishmael the slave child. A shocking insult. The thing to do with Moses is to ‘cast out the slave from among you.’"

    Surely, the 'ejection' here is with regards to, first, the version of the Law those who troubled them had brought - a slavery to something which had no claims upon them - which would then, naturally, be followed by a rejection of those who taught such bondage. The insult is not with regards to Moses and his ministry (Paul affirms a value and a role for this), but to those who have sought to miss-appropriate and apply the Law.

    "If we don’t differentiate we miss our connection with Abraham and our disconnection with Moses".

    I'd agree regarding our 'disconnection' from the Law as a means of Justification and thereby salvation, but I would argue that this is an imperative separation from an interpretation of the Law which certain men had brought into the church on the basis of a perceived authority (coming from the church at Jerusalem, etc). Paul's entire argument through Galatians is that their warrant, on the basis of God's revelation from Eden on was bogus.

    Great to be thinking this through, Jonathan.
    I look forward to your thoughts.

  16. Brian Midmore

    I would like to comment on the judgement or salvation versus the judgement leading to salvation analysis. There are examples in the gospels of a clear judgement or salvation situation that depends on a doable choice. When Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell what he had and follow Him he went away sorrowful. This I contend is not because he couldnt to what was commanded but because he could and didnt want to. This is a case of judgement or salvation. This is the case for us too. When we are commanded to be baptised and become followers of Christ it is not an undoable thing but the choice we make results in judgement or salvation. We cannot therefore say that all commandments are given to be undoable in order lead to judgement and through to salvation.

    To summarise much of the above discussion: Paul is talking covenantally.

  17. Glen

    Brian- to be baptised is to be buried with Christ and raised (Romans 6:4). The saved go through judgement too (in Christ).

    "He who falls on this Stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed." Matt 21:44

  18. Brian Midmore

    Clearly what you say is true. What i was saying is that sometimes in Scripture we get a judgement or salvation situation rather than a judgement that leads through to salvation. Naaman is a good example. He was commanded to wash in the Jordan 7x (a very doable command). His salvation (healing) was contingent upon his obedience. In the same way our salvation is contingent upon our obedience in being baptised (1 Pet 3v21). This I believe is what James says when we need works too for justification. A doable work that God gives us to do for our salvation is to be baptised.(Just like Naaman).

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