Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Isaiah 52:15 - The Effective Atonement

Thus He will sprinkle many nations,
Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him;
For what had not been told them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.

The cross was astonishing not only in what occurred, but in the resulting effects. Christ accomplished the redemption of His people, paying the full price to buy them back from sin's dominion and absorbing all the wrath of God against them. His work on the cross not only puts us in a state of shock; it also washes away our sins, closes our proud mouths, gives us new sight, and imparts godly wisdom to us. Without the cross, we would remain condemned by sin, infernally proud, blind and stupid - and all of this without any means of remedy or change. The cross defeated our sin and depravity by effectively accomplishing its intended ends.

Many Nations were sprinkled

Sprinkled. Despite the varying interpretations of this verse by diverse commentators, it is certain that it refers to a ceremonial sprinkling of blood following the atonement which Christ made for sin. The word for sprinkle, Heb. NAZAH נזה, refers exclusively to ceremonial sprinkling, as confirmed by the other 23 instances of the word in the Old Testament. When Christ was marred by our sin, His blood was shed, and that very blood was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Wonder of wonders in this paradox of the cross!

Many nations. This is the Hebrew term GOYIM גוי, which is the common word for "Gentiles". The point being made here is that the Christ's sacrifice reaches beyond the boundaries of national Israel. The extent of the atonement reaches to all mankind, and God's intent in the atonement was not directed toward Israel only, but to His entire world, to Gentiles as well as Jews. However, the ultimate saving effectiveness of this work is limited to those who believe, who are the elect of God in Christ. For Biblical writers, a universal atonement never meant universal-ISM. But neither would any Biblical writer strip the atonement of its heart-conquering power by limiting it unnecessarily. The meaning of "many" is fully apparent in the New Testament, where we find statements such as this:

Revelation 7:9-10 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Isaiah's "many" became John's "every" and "all". The matters of the extent and intent of the atonement must be studied carefully and without prejudice, lest we dig for ourselves a nice theological pit - a false foxhole which we defend with our lives, as we argue needlessly over issues that weren't even part of the Holy Spirit's intent when the Words were inspired! Limited atonement (in its strictest form) is a man-made doctrine. A study of the larger Biblical picture would never lead one to preach about limits where God has thrown the door open to all. But there's a nice balance right in the middle, found only when we build our theological house on the pillars which God Himself has set in place. These pillars are clear:

1. God's love and kindness extend to all people
2. There is sufficient power in the atonement to save each and every sinner

3. The ultimate factor in a saved person's salvation is God's choice
4. Not everyone is ultimately saved, so the effectiveness of the atonement is not universal
5. The ultimate factor in a sinner's damnation is his own choice

These are the Biblical limits. The danger lies in trying to force fit certain ideas and philosophies onto the text. Friends, let us not so violate the Word of God. I am not saying that this particular passage teaches universal atonement, but it certainly doesn't set the limits demanded by some higher and hyper Calvinists. We say that Christ died for the sins of all people, and especially of the elect. Let's not be deceived by the subtlety of human philosophy that wants to tamper with this simple Truth. Not everything called "Calvinism" is Truth, but every word of Scripture is ABSOLUTELY RELIABLE AND TRUE. So, in a sense, I would go very far down the road with the anti-credal Biblicist and even the heavily credal Scripturalist in affirming the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture - but there is a need for balance in these matters as well. The wisdom of God has been given to many faithful men down through the ages, yet all of their words must be measured by that ONE Great WORD which is from God: the Bible. Nothing trumps it. It is not limited, but we are, even at our best.

Kings were silenced

Kings = Heb. MELEK מלך - "MELEK is simply the most common word for chief magistrate and is similar in meaning to several other words usually translated lord, captain, ruler, prince, chief and such like." (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)

Kings. Kings represent the epitome of human pride, accomplishment, and power. Ancient Near Eastern kings held absolute sovereignty over their domains. Their word was law. The lives of all their subjects was in their hands. They needed only to speak, and their wishes were carried out precisely. None but a more powerful king could threaten their rule or thwart their wishes. Within their own realm, they reigned supreme and unrivaled. It would require the most significant and startling event imaginable to cause one of these monarchs to close his mouth, stop his boastful exercise of authority, and sit silent. We do not know exactly where or how the fulfillment of this prophecy took place, but if a king represents the highest in human potential, what effect should Christ's death have on the rest of us?

Even those of us who have relatively little authority and power are prone to boasting. We boast about our strengths, and also our weaknesses. About our victories, and sometimes about our losses. We tell what we could have done, or what we should have said, and we love to display all the things we KNOW. We naturally speak with reference to ourselves. We inevitably venture into subjects about which we know little, and make definitive statements based on our mere guesses. We use our tongues to let others know that we are knowledgeable, good, influential, significant, effective, and wise. But we aren't any of those things, really. Not apart from Christ's gift.

God responds to all of this pride by giving us a Law we cannot keep, and He asserts the proof of our undeniable guilt as the best means of getting us to finally shut our mouths and start listening to Him. When it comes to God, every one of us has Attention Deficit Disorder, so He has to shock us back into focus.

Romans 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

The Law can only condemn us with this knowledge. It is in the cross alone that we find enough mercy to face our sins head on - and enough grace to start fighting against them. And through the cross, we are inspired to keep on in the fight as we see Christ's own victory over sin. He was fully tempted, but fully sinless. Every true believer longs to be sinless, like Jesus! Thus, through the faith of the Gospel we do not nullify the Law, but rather uphold it (Romans 3:31).

The most potent demonstration of our sinfulness, and of God's righteousness, is the cross of Christ. His suffering in our stead is a silencing revelation of God's wisdom, mercy, and justice.

Sight was given

"What had not been told them" = Heb. SAPAR, ספר - "to number, count, proclaim, declare." (Unger/White)

What had not been told them. Kings are great planners. They know what is happening in their domain, and they keep a staff of advisers on hand to help them accurately predict what will happen next. Political wisdom and knowledge are essential when one is in a position constantly threatened by massive armies outside and by dishonest rivals within. Each of us has defended his own "kingship" and self-rule against the loving onslaught of our Creator's rightful rule. But in all our strategic defense, the cross was not taken into account. It is God's stealth attack on man's depraved ingenuity. Everyone who truly sees it is taken by surprise, and our ongoing growth in grace and sanctification depends on our being overthrown by the message of the cross again and again. Walking the aisle or raising a hand or praying a prayer 5 years ago simply won't do. We don't merely walk TO Christ; we walk WITH Him and IN Him and FOR Him. And we must come TO Him over and over again, for our hearts are ceaselessly prone to wander. When we stop coming to the Lord as needy sinners, we've grown entirely too righteous! Let us flee back to the cross, dear friends!

They will see. Besides the obvious spiritual meaning, these words predict the historicity of the cross. Christ's work was not only spiritual - it took place in time and space, able to be seen and sensed by onlookers. For many hundreds of years, God had left the Jews in suspense under the Law. Then, in the wisdom of God, the Son was very physically manifested with perfect timing . . .

Galatians 4:4-5 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

Christ was manifested for all to see . . .

Galatians 1:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?

I John 1:1-2 What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life — and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us . . .

The literal and physical historicity of the cross was an important facet of early preaching, for it refuted Gnostic notions of a "spiritualized" Christ who was not truly God Incarnate, but more of a "fully evolved" human, or a divine phantom. Biblical eyewitnesses describe the historic cross as an eternal, spiritual sacrifice, in which the transcendent God gave Himself to die on the cross as a real man - and it took place in real time, for all to see!

Wisdom was imparted

"What they had not heard" = Heb. SHAMA, שמע.

Sin not only blinded us; it stopped up our spiritual ears. At the fall, we simply stopped listening to our Creator. Adam fell when he listened to the voice of his wife, Eve fell when she listened to the serpent, and no one was listening to God anymore. Ours is a willful deafness, but we cannot remedy it because within us, apart from the work of God's Spirit, there is no will to hear God again. This is why "seeker sensitive" ministry is a farce. The cross is God's means of restoring our hearing, and the cross (in message and symbol) is conspicuously absent from many Evangelical churches today. If "missional" means cross-less, cross-free or even cross-avoidant, then "missional" is a synonym for "powerless" and "unbiblical" and "man-centered" and "anti-Christian." Nowadays, most Evangelicals don't have the stomach or the backbone to preach the Gospel. The cross was blood sacrifice, whether our modern sensitivities like it or not. Do we think our sins - and God's holiness - warrant anything less? Do we fail to realize that Christ bore the horrific penalty of separation from the Father, which was much worse than the physical shedding of blood? Do we forget that Christ bore the full weight of divine wrath in our place? Or have we replaced the Biblical doctrines of substitutionary atonement and divine hatred for sin with something more palatable? God help us Evangelicals to repent before we're judged - or is our new, post-modern, "missional" approach itself the judgment of God? We've given ourselves over to heresy in the name of "reaching the lost." Reaching them with what? If the Gospel message is the only means God uses to convert souls, we should be terrified about what's coming. Our harvest will be that of a farmer who has sown only pebbles in his fields. Until we sow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can only expect to have false converts.

It is significant that the great call of the law is for us to "HEAR!" (Deut. 6:4). Yet it is only by Gospel grace that we are given the will to hear and obey God again. We only start being "seekers of God" at the cross.

Ephesians 4:20-21 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way [in context,"that way" refers to the darkness of mind resulting from sin]. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.

Romans 8:2-4 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

"Understand" = Heb. BIYN, בין - "to discern, understand, consider" (Brown-Driver-Briggs), "The Hebrew term BIYN is used 247 times in the Old Testament and has been translated in various ways, sometimes translated discern, sometimes distinguished, sometimes understand, but it has the idea of being able to separate. It is related to the noun BEYN which means space between. . . . So the word then has the idea of being able to put space between things. You can't mix these...this is over here and this is over here, they don't mix. That means you're separating two unmixable realities. And that is a separation process which is what discernment is all about . . . separating something from another because there is a difference and there must be distinction made. Discernment then we say is the skill in reaching understanding and knowledge of God's truth by a process of separation." (John MacArthur - source)

Understand. Sin is the ultimate folly. It is a mixing of things that ought never to be joined. It is a separating of things that should always be united. It is foolish in its very nature, and it is foolish in its effects. The choice to disregard the command of God is a foolish choice. The result of that choice is a darkening of the mind and a hardening of the heart, such that one loses the ability to think straight. Sin leaves us mixed up in our own minds and separated from the life of God.

Ephesians 4:17-18 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart . . .

Only Christ's work on the cross undoes the foolishness of sin and imparts God's wisdom to fallen creatures. It opens our ears and eyes and hearts to see and hear and obey the wisdom of the all-wise God. In the Gospel, we hear the commands AND the promises of God, and faith rises up by grace to take hold of His Truth. Through the power of the cross, we are able to ponder the matters of sin and redemption, grace and judgment, love and truth. And we are able to KNOW the truth about these things. Let no one ever doubt this on the grounds of apparent "humility". True humility accepts God's Truth, embraces it, believes it, trusts in it, and stands firm on it despite all the sly attacks of unbelievers who wear collars or stand behind pulpits preaching.

This truth-laden verse in Isaiah teaches us that the cross is a matter of sight and insight, historical reality and eternal Truth, not mere words. Paul said all of this again at the start of his beautifully cross-centered letter to the compromised Corinthians . . .

I Corinthians 1:17-30 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.”

In other words . . . Solus Christus! Sola Scriptura! Sola Gratia! Sola Fide! Soli Deo Gloria!


  1. This is a great series, Derek. I think you've got enough material here to write a book!!

  2. Barry,

    Thanks brother, I appreciate your encouragement.

    A book? Someday I hope to write one - Lord willing.


  3. I'll be first in line to buy it.


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