Why “Good” Isn’t Good Enough

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about God’s holy character being the standard of goodness.

Evil Rationalized: Isaiah 5:20-23.

[20]  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! [21]  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! [22]  Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, [23]  who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!  [ESV]

Doctrine and ethics are close partners. When one no longer believes the doctrine of a judgment one turns aside from moral distinctions. Those who would subvert all moral distinctions in effect introduce chaos and in place of true ethics substitute expediency and utilitarianism. Of course, even the most depraved of men will pay lip service to the truth and to right, but in their actions will eradicate all moral distinctions. At the same time, not only did men approve of the evil, they manifested a positive antipathy toward the good, for they called it evil. In their hearts they hate the good, to them the only good is evil. These people also make darkness to be light. In the place of light they put darkness. So that it is regarded by them as light itself. As great as is the contrast between darkness and light, so great is that also between good and evil. Perversion is of the very essence of sin; for sin is the transgression of the law. He who transgresses the law thereby tacitly proclaims that the law is wrong and that the opposite of the law is right. In so transgressing the law a man is declaring good to be evil and evil to be good, darkness to be light and bitter to be sweet. With verse 20 there begins a series of three uninterrupted woes. The breakdown in moral distinctions is probably to be found in the fact that the nation no longer relied upon the wisdom of God but upon its own wisdom. True wisdom derives from God and is to be found alone with Him. To neglect the source of true wisdom leaves open only one other source, namely, the unaided human mind, and that wisdom which comes from the human mind does not originate with God. What we have in verse 21 is a general condemnation of reliance upon the supposedly autonomous mind of man. Utterly lacking is a heeding of the command,  Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil [Prov. 3:7]. Here in verse 22 is an ironical tone. In Judah there were mighty men, heroes, men of valor. This valor was not directed to battle or war, wherein they might have brought profit to their country, but to the drinking and mixing of wine. They were, it would seem, drunken, unjust judges. At the same time the sin which they committed was not that of drinking wine; it was the sin of dereliction from duty. It was not that they drank wine, but they drank to excess. Wine drinking became with them a habit and took from the time which should have been devoted to duty. The thought of verse 22 is continued in verse 23 where the identity of the “heroes” are identified as judges. Here is a further example of calling light dark and day night. The judges justify the wicked; they declare that the wicked person stands in a right relation to the law; they pronounce upon him a sentence of justification, all for a bribe. This they have no right to do. There is only One who can tell the wicked that he stands in right relation to the law, and that is God Himself, and God can only so declare when it is the truth. Only when the claims of the law have been satisfied, and the wicked man actually possesses righteousness, may God tell him that all is well. This He can do on the grounds of the perfect righteousness of Christ. For a man to declare a wicked person righteous, however, when such a wicked one possesses no righteousness, is to do a heinous thing. The wicked one is the man who has broken the law and consequently stands condemned. He is the one who in fact is actually guilty and so in a wrong relation to the law. The judges, however, tell such a one that he stands in a right relation to the law, and hence are declaring what is contrary to fact. Their sentence of justification consequently is false. When God pronounces a sentence upon the wicked, He pronounces a sentence that accords with the facts; for the wicked whom God justifies possesses the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Holiness Recognized:  Isaiah 6:1-5.

[1]  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. [2]  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. [3]  And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" [4]  And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. [5]  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!"  [ESV]

[1]  King Uzziah had brought many benefits to the country and had introduced an era of prosperity and peace. But now he had died and Judah was without the king. It was a critical time. It was a weak and decaying Judah that Isaiah was called to serve as prophet. In the year that Uzziah died, Isaiah had a vision where God appeared to the prophet. This, however, was no seeing with the bodily eye, for God is invisible. No physical eye can see Him. It is not the essence of God which Isaiah sees, for, inasmuch as God is spiritual and invisible, that essence cannot be seen by the physical eye of the creature. At the same time it was a true seeing; a manifestation of the glory of God in human form, adapted to the capabilities of the finite creature, which the prophet beheld. Isaiah saw the Lord, but in a vision. In mysterious manner the power of God came over the prophet, so that he became unconscious to the outside, external world, and yet with the inner eye saw what God revealed to him. It was thus a divinely imposed vision, one that was objective to Isaiah in that it was not the product of Isaiah’s mind. Sitting upon a throne emphasizes that God is both king and judge. He is ready to exercise His kingly prerogative of pronouncing judgment upon the people in whose midst He had appeared. The long, loose, flowing robes or skirts of the robe were filling the temple, so that there was no room left for anyone to stand. It is a scene of glorious majesty. As the vision is seen by Isaiah, he is silent, and his silence simply focuses attention upon the unspeakable exaltation of the Lord. Isaiah is to be called to a ministry in which the sovereign power of God will be displayed, and in which judgment is to be prominent. In preparation for such a ministry there must be a vision of God’s holiness. Indeed, the entire scene befits the solemnity of the message. Our attention is directed immediately to the Lord as Him who alone is sovereign, who can both create and destroy, and in whose hands are the times of all men and nations.

[2-3]  The heavenly attendants are described as seraphim, or burning ones. This is the only passage in the Old Testament in which they are mentioned. The seraphim are personal, spiritual beings, for they have faces, feet and hands; they employ human speech and understand moral concepts. The seraphim are not to be identified with the cherubim, for the functions of both were quite different. The cherubim are over the mercy seat, and in Ezekiel they are represented as having four wings. The seraphim are simply those creatures that were standing about the throne in the vision, and Isaiah immediately recognizes them as attendants. They are seen as standing above the throne, and thus the relative position of those who are sitting and those who are standing is expressed. In that the seraphim stand above they are not to be thought of as superior to Him, but simply as being in the position of waiting upon Him as His attendants. Each seraph had three pairs of wings or six in total. As a sign of reverence and awe before the holy Lord, each seraph covered his face with two of his wings. The sight of God wrought humility in the beholder, and the covering of the face would also preclude any irreverent beholding of the Lord. Perhaps also we may not be wrong in assuming that the glory of the Lord was so great that just as one cannot look directly at the sun for its brightness, so one could not look directly at the majestic figure seated upon the throne. The covering of the feet by the seraphim is an expression of humility and unworthiness. With two wings also the seraphim flew in order to carry out the will and orders of the Lord. Thus the seraphim represent the attendants of the Lord who are always ready to serve Him. The continuous occupation of the seraphim is the blessed work of praising God. Holy signifies the entirety of the divine perfection which separates God from His creation. God is the Creator who exists in absolute independence of the creature. This is the heart and core of Isaiah’s theology. Also included in the word holy is an ethical element, the thought of complete freedom and separation from what is sinful. In their song of praise therefore the seraphim set forth what was the distinguishing characteristic of God, namely, His holiness. Their hearts burst forth in praise of His very essence. Our greatest service to Him also is to be found in praising His name. This includes deep mediation upon God and His attributes and the living of a life of humility in accordance with the precepts laid down in His Word. It is, in other words, the life of faith in Jesus Christ, lived for the glory of God. Why is the word holy uttered three times? The number three seems to be employed primarily for the sake of emphasis. God is the threefold Holy One. The vision made a tremendous impression upon Isaiah, and his favorite designation of God was the Holy One of Israel. And His glory fills all of creation. What is God’s glory? It is the revelation of His character or attributes. By regarding the universe which He has created we behold His glory, His perfection and His attributes. Wherever we turn our eyes, we see the marks of His majesty, and should lift our hearts in praise to Him who is holy.

[4-5]  The effects of this praising God was that the foundations of the thresholds shook. It is a scene of incomparable majesty. The entire scene occurs within a vision, and it is the very glory and strength of the song of praise that the seraphim constantly utter which causes the thresholds to tremble. In addition to this shaking, the temple was being filled with smoke. In the Bible smoke is often represented in connection with the divine presence. The shaking and smoke produced a solemn reverence and awe in Isaiah. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord upon His throne causes him to think only of his own uncleanliness. He bursts out into an agonizing cry. Woe is me he cries out. In this one piercing utterance lies his whole self-condemnation. And he immediately appends the reason why this woe will come upon him. For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips. Isaiah sees himself as cut off, undone, doomed to die. The seraphim had praised God with pure lips, and this Isaiah could not do. His lips were unclean, and that means that he as a man was unclean. What Isaiah must do is praise God as the seraphim were doing, but because of his sinfulness, he could not do this. Not only is Isaiah unfit to praise God, but the same is true of the nation in whose midst he dwells and which he represents. Because of its sinfulness, the entire nation is unfit to praise God. The theocracy, the kingdom that was intended to be the servant of the Lord, was not fit to utter His praise. Praise is a privilege, not granted to all, but only to those whose guilt has been removed. A second reason why Isaiah believes himself to be undone is that he has seen the King, the Lord of hosts. The Lord is the King, the true King of the theocracy, who will further manifest His kingdom in the reign of the Messiah and the subjection of all nations. In these two expressions, the King, the Lord of Hosts, there is united the thought that God is the covenant God, the King of the theocracy, as well as the fact that He is the Creator, the living and true God. It is not only that Isaiah has seen God, but it is the infinite distance between the Holy God and the sinful creature which produces this prostrating effect. Indeed, even pure beings such as the seraphim must veil their faces before this holy God.

Righteousness Realized:  Romans 3:21-26.

[21]  But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– [22]  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23]  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24]  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25]  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. [26]  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.  [ESV]

In what is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written, Paul brings out something of the grandeur of Christ’s saving work. He speaks of the righteousness of God, the sin of man, and the salvation of Christ. He views this salvation in three ways: as justification (imagery from the law court), as redemption (imagery from the slave market), and as propitiation (imagery from the averting of wrath). The argument of the epistle up to this point has emphasized that the natural man, Jew or Greek, is a sinner who stands under the wrath of God. But now God has intervened. The human predicament has been radically transformed because of the saving act of God in Christ, which Paul proceeds to develop. He speaks of a righteousness of God, and the context makes it plain that here this means the right standing that comes from God. Righteousness does not primarily designate the ethical standard but the religious standing, the status of being right with God. It is not so much goodness as God-acceptedness. This right standing is given quite apart from the law. It has been part of Paul’s method to demonstrate in the section leading up to this point of the argument that that law cannot bring salvation. It can show up the problem; it can and does make clear that all are sinners. But it can do no more. The way to God is not the way of law. Paul is making the point that the gospel is not an afterthought. God had always planned to save people by the way of grace. It is the making of this known (manifested) that is recent. That it was always God’s way is clear from the fact that testimony is borne to it by the Law and the Prophets, an expression that means the whole Old Testament. Paul moves to an explicit statement of Christ’s involvement. This righteousness is one that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the first time in this epistle that faith is specifically linked to Christ. Paul is linking faith to the one who came to earth to die for sinners and thus brought about justification and redemption and propitiation. Paul puts his trust in the Savior whose activity on behalf of sinners is so clear, so costly, and so decisive. So important is faith, and so opposed to the way of law, that it is emphasized with the addition to all who believe. Through points to the fact that faith is not a merit, earning salvation. It is no more than the means through which the gift is given. From the human side faith and faith alone is the indispensable attitude for receiving this righteousness. All have sinned sums up the human tragedy. For gives the reason for the lack of distinction. The common factor is sin. The linking of God’s glory with man’s sin is intriguing. It would seem that God intended people to share in His glory. But sin cut Adam off from all that, and sin cuts his descendants off still. This clear statement of universal sinfulness is basic to Paul’s understanding of the human predicament and also of the salvation Christ brought. Were it not for our sin there would have been no need for Christ’s redemptive activity; because of our sin there is no possibility of our achieving salvation by our own efforts. No one has anything to offer which could elicit the love of God. In verse 24, people who could not help themselves are justified or declared to be in the right. This does not mean that they are “made righteous” in the sense “made virtuous”. It is a declaration that, on the basis of Christ’s saving work, believers are right with God. That this is due to no merit of their own is brought out in more ways than one. First, it is done freely as a gift. It is not earned; we receive it as we receive gifts. Second, it is by his grace. This points to free, unmerited favor, to the generous goodness of God towards those He has made. The grace of the Father operates through Christ’s redeeming work. In verse 24 we have two of Paul’s great categories for the interpretation of the work of Christ. At the beginning of the verse he speaks of that work in justification, a metaphor from the law court. He is saying that when believing sinners are tried at the bar of God’s justice they will be acquitted because of Christ’s saving work which they have appropriated by faith. Paul is sure that one day we will all face God and that we will have no merits of our own to plead. But it is Christ’s wonderful gift to us that He has met the law’s full claims on our behalf and therefore we will be acquitted. Paul goes on to speak of redemption, which he says is in Christ Jesus. This statement had its origin in the release of prisoners of war on payment of a price (the ransom). It was extended to include the freeing of slaves, again by the payment of a price. This tells us that a great price was paid to purchase sinners out of their slavery to sin, out of their sentence of death. Now they are to live in freedom. Propitiation, in verse 25, means the removal of wrath. What God did in Christ averted the divine wrath from sinners. Once more Paul reminds us of our inability to do anything to merit our salvation. We receive the propitiation by faith. Thus propitiation is effected by the blood of Jesus and is received by faith. God did this in order to show his righteousness. The saving act did many things, one being that it showed that God is just. The point is that God is a forbearing God. He does not hurry to punish every sinner, and the sins committed beforehand he had passed over. This passing over differs from forgiveness. It means that consideration of the sins in question is set aside for the time being in order to be taken up again at a later time. The Cross shows us God’s inflexible righteousness in the very means whereby sin is forgiven. The sins were done at an earlier time, but the demonstration of God’s righteousness is present in the Cross. This demonstration of His righteousness is done so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. There is no antithesis between God’s justice and His mercy. If God had simply punished sinners, while that would have left no doubts about His justice, it would have raised questions about His mercy, and the God of the Bible is both just and merciful. What Paul is saying is that the cross shows us both. It is the fact that he forgives by way of the cross that is conclusive. Grace and justice come together in this resounding paradox. God saves in a manner that is right as well as powerful. The claims of justice as well as the claims of mercy are satisfied. The person who is saved is the one who has faith in Jesus. This means not simply the person who believes, but the person whose characteristic is faith, whose whole position proceeds from faith.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         There are three “Woes” given against the nation of Israel in 5:20-23. How do you see these woes applicable to our country today? In what way do you see the moral climate of our world the result of the separation of Christian doctrine from ethics?

2.         Describe Isaiah’s vision of God in 6:1-5. What impact did Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness have on his life? What does God’s holiness refer to and why is it described as His distinguishing characteristic?

3.         In Romans 3:21-26, Paul views salvation in three ways: justification, redemption and propitiation. Explain what Paul means by these three terms. What is the meaning of the righteousness of God? What is the only way we can receive the benefits of this great salvation?


The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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