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The holiness of God

Back to all sermons Revival

Date: January 9, 2022

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Revival

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1–6:8

This morning, we are in week 2 of a sermon series that I have entitled Revival. My hope in this series is to lead us into a deeper experience of God, that God would give us greater spiritual life and vitality both individually and collectively, that we would experience more of His love and power, and that through us, He would bring His salvation and redemption to our world.


This morning we will be in Isaiah 6:1-8, a vision that Isaiah has of the throne room of heaven:


Isaiah 6:1-8 - In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.  3 And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."  4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.  5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."  6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."  8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"


There is a whole back story to this of course about what was going on in Israel in the 8th century BC, about King Uzziah and Isaiah. But for the sake of this sermon series, my concern is strictly on what Isaiah witnesses in his heavenly vision and what that has to teach us about revival.


In Isaiah’s vision, he sees God seated on his throne. Although God is spirit and has no physical body, it is clear from the description that God’s glorious presence fills the room. God is surrounded by angels called seraphs, who because of the holiness, the majesty, and the glory of God, need extra wings just to cover their eyes and feet. And the angels are crying to one another: “Holy, holy, holy. The whole earth is full of his glory.” Now, I wasn’t there, but I would venture to say that it wasn’t a monotone “holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of his glory” but an awe-inspired cry. Do you see how glorious God is? How beautiful? How incredible? Do you see His glory? Can you see how every part of creation reflects His glory?


Isaiah sees all of this, and what is his response? “Woe to me! I am ruined!” I am undone. I am coming apart. I am disintegrating. He says “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah sees a vision of the holiness of God, the glory of God, and recognizes how filthy he is, and he feels like he is coming apart at the seams.


But although he feels as if he is coming undone, he doesn’t fall apart. The angel takes a hot coal from the altar and purifies his filthy lips, taking away his sin and guilt.


This is followed by God asking for someone to be his messenger to bring God’s message to Israel, and Isaiah volunteers to go.


There is so much I could say about this passage. But since our focus is on prayer and revival, let me say that there are two elements clearly represented in this passage that are often seen as the two necessary precursors to revival. Richard Lovelace, who passed away last year, writes about this in his classic book on the history of revival, “Dynamics of Spiritual Life.” They are two things that must be present in order for personal or communal revival to happen, for spiritual life to spring up. They are:


An awareness of the holiness of God, and

An awareness of the depth of sin.


These elements are very clearly seen in Isaiah 6. Let’s take these one at a time.


  • An awareness of the holiness of God.


The greatest book on the subject of holiness is R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God, from which I will be drawing a lot of insights and quotes this morning.


What is the holiness of God? The word holy, or holiness, is used in different ways throughout Scripture. At times it is describing purity or sinlessness, at other times it emphasizes separateness or otherness and at other times it is about transcendence, that God or something is a different class of being or object.


God’s holiness means that God is transcendentally separate from us in His perfection. He is not like us. He is perfect in every way, on a whole other level.  


You might think of a specific event in the life of Jesus and the disciples that illustrates just how our God is transcendentally separate from us in His perfection:


Matthew 8:23-27 - Then Jesus got into the boat and his disciples followed him.  24 Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.  25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Lord, save us! We're going to drown!"  26 He replied, "You of little faith, why are you so afraid?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.  27 The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!"


What kind of man is this? There is something different, something “other” about Him that frightens us. God is holy. Jesus is holy. He is not like us. He is transcendentally separate from us in His perfection.


In Isaiah 6, the angels are calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy.” In Jewish literature, if you wanted to emphasize something, you did not use bold or italics, but repetition. God’s holiness is the only attribute repeated in triplicate. He is not “love, love, love” or “just, just, just,” but “holy, holy, holy.” This is the attribute above all other attributes that describes our God. He is transcendentally separate from us in His perfection.


It’s ironic, isn’t it? These days, in our desire to make God relevant, we can be guilty of minimizing His otherness and His majesty. We want to make God approachable, understandable, like Buddy Christ from the movie Dogma. We want to reduce God and His Holy Word to another self-help manual. But when we minimize His otherness and majesty, we lose His holiness, the fundamental thing that makes God God, the thing we desperately need.


God is holy. He is transcendentally separate from us in His perfection. He is not like us. He is perfect in every way.


The second necessary precursor to revival is an awareness of the depth of our sin.


Spiritual revival happens when we recognize not just that God is holy, perfect, majestic, but that we are rebels who have transgressed God’s holy standard and deserve eternal punishment. Consider what R.C. Sproul wrote about Isaiah:


If ever there was a man if integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed- morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.


Even a good man, when face to face with the holiness of God, comes undone as he realizes just how sinful he is. Consider again the words of Sproul:


“[A]s fearsome as death is, it is nothing compared with meeting a holy God. When we encounter Him, the totality of our creatureliness breaks upon us and shatters the myth that we have believed about ourselves, the myth that we are demigods, junior-grade deities who will try to live forever. … When we meet the Absolute, we know immediately that we are not absolute. When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a powerful study in contrasts.”


To see God is His holiness is to realize that all this time you have been fooling yourself. You thought you were independent, making your own decisions and doing what you want. But now you realize that you would not take your next breath apart from the permission of the God who reigns over everything. Or maybe you think of it this way. You can be an athlete, living under the illusion that you are a really talented wrestler or gymnast or soccer player. But what happens when you come up against a real professional? You are exposed as an amateur, a pretender. Your pride is destroyed. Or what if you consider yourself a beautiful or stylish person, taking great pride in your appearance? What happens when you run into someone truly beautiful and stylish? Or what if you consider yourself a virtuous person, and then you meet someone who lives on pennies and gives their life in service to the least of these? What if you consider yourself a praying person and then you meet someone who spends hours a day in passionate prayer?


This is what happens to Isaiah times a million. And this is what happens when we come to understand the holiness of our God. His holiness exposes us as the frauds we are, and we come undone. Our pride and self-esteem are destroyed, and we feel ruined, reduced to nothing.


Not only does his holiness expose us as frauds, but our sin problem is so much far deeper than we want to admit.


Matthew 5:21-22;27-28 - "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'  22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, 'is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell… 27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'  28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


The seeds of murder and adultery are in our hearts, even if we never carry them out. What’s worse, even our most holy moments are full of self-centeredness. This is what the theologians call “total depravity.” There is not one part of us that is not tainted by sin. My story of someone stealing my prayer.


Our sin is so much worse than we want to believe. We can not rescue ourselves. And sin is not “no big deal.” As R.C. Sproul put it:


Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.”


Sin is cosmic treason. It is rebellion against the one to whom we owe everything. And so God is justified in His judgments. We have no right to be offended when we read about God displaying His judgments in the Bible, or in this world, or in our lives, because God owes us nothing but punishment for our sins.


When God’s justice falls, we are offended because we think God owes perpetual mercy. We must not take His grace for granted. We must never lose our capacity to be amazed by grace.


The truth is that because of our sin, we are all deserving of God’s judgment:


Romans 3:22-23 - There is no difference,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,


The two preconditions of revival are an awareness of the holiness of God and the depth of our sin. On an individual level, this means realizing that we are shot through and through with a sinful self-centeredness, that we do not desire what would bring us life, that we are rebels, that if we were alive when Jesus were in Jerusalem, that we would have killed him too. And collectively, this means realizing that we have fallen so short of what God’s desire is for His church. That we have allowed our self-centeredness, our fears, our lust, our greed, to put God on the periphery and ourselves in the center, as if God should serve us instead of the other way around. And as a society, that we have made a mess of things, pushing God off the throne and making ourselves, our political leaders gods. Consider the speeches about January 6th. This is not who we are? This is exactly who we are. A people who have elevated political leaders and parties above God, who think violence and rioting are justified if the ends are noble, who have lost respect for other human beings as God’s image-bearers. Let’s be honest about the depth of our sin and rebellion, both individually and collectively. Consider these words of R.C. Sproul:


God’s kingdom will never come where His name is not considered holy. His will is not done on earth as it is in heaven if His name is desecrated here.


Those of you who are half paying attention while checking your social media or getting your chores done, stop and consider what I just read. Check your heart. Check your attitude. What are your actions communicating about how you view God? God is holy. And he will not be present where His name is desecrated.


The two precursors of revival are an awareness of the holiness of God and an awareness of the depth of sin.


What is it about this dynamic that is so powerful? To many modern ears, it sounds primitive or even harmful. Why would anyone want to understand the depth of their sin and brokenness? Wouldn’t that lead to depression and despair and self-loathing? Why not instead focus on boosting your self-esteem through positive affirmations? Wouldn’t that lead to a healthier person, a healthier society?


Think of the plot of so many romantic comedies. Girl meets guy. They fall in love. But girl has a secret. She is hoping boy does not find out. And things are really great for a while. But eventually he finds out. And it seems that everything is falling apart and the relationship is over. But then – probably during a scene in the rain – he realizes that he does love her, even with her secret. And they both live happily ever after.


Now think carefully. There is a reason that plotline is used so often, because it touches on something very true about us. What does that familiar plotline tell us? I think it tells us that we have a deep-seated fear that if people really knew us, they would reject us. If they really knew what we thought, what we desire, what we have done, then they would be horrified and run screaming from us. I think it tells us that one of our deepest desires is that someone perfect and beautiful would know us completely, including all our faults and flaws, and still choose to love us and never reject us. But we are afraid that is impossible. And so most of us hide our faults and flaws. And although we may get someone to love us, deep down we know that they don’t love the real us, just the parts that we are brave enough to share. Or, maybe we are completely honest, and in the process we scare people away. I mean, just think about social media. We criticize it for being a place where people present curated versions of themselves, only putting forward the best parts. But when someone is brutally honest, it tends to be really awkward.


I think the movies we love tell us something true, that we long for someone perfect and beautiful to see us and know us completely, with all our faults and brokenness, and to not reject us but to choose us, to love us, to show us unending grace, and by their love to transform us into someone better. But outside of the movies, no human being can perfectly do that. All of those stories point to the gospel. There is one who is perfect and beautiful in every way. And He does know us completely, with all our faults and brokenness, better than we even know ourselves. And in the light of His holiness, in His presence, we come undone, as we recognize ourselves for the frauds we are, the pretenders, the broken and hopeless sinners who can not redeem themselves. But that is not the end of the story.


6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." 


There is forgiveness. There is grace. There is atonement. There is a perfect love that knows us fully but still chooses us and never rejects us. The angel with the atoning coal points us to the cross, where Jesus died for us, and by His blood atoned for our sins.


Romans 3:21-24 - But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.


Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.


You see, there is a reason that Jesus begins the beatitudes in Matthew 5:3 with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who know they have nothing to offer God, who have come to the frightening realization that before a holy God, they are spiritually bankrupt, frauds, pretenders, hypocrites, completely in need of God’s grace to save them. An awareness of the holiness of God and the depth of our sin is the place where revival starts.


When we come to understand the holiness of God and the depth of our sin, here is what happens: we come to realize that we are so sinful that nothing less than the death of the son of God could save us. And that humbles us. But we are so loved that the Son of God gave his life willingly for us. And that lifts us up as we realized how loved we are. What do these two things do? They give us a humble confidence. We know that we are loved with a perfect love that does not depend upon our performance, because Jesus died for us when we were rebels against God. We know that the one who knows us perfectly has not rejected us and will never reject us. But we also know that His love is not based on what we have or have not done, and so we can not look down on anyone else.


And so a deeper understanding of our own sinfulness does not destroy us, does not lead to miserable self-loathing, but instead liberates us. It magnifies the grace of God as displayed in Jesus’ death for us. It magnifies the daily mercy of God, continually forgiving us. It increases our gratitude, and joy, as love is poured out into our hearts. It increases our ability to show grace and mercy and love to others, even when they don’t deserve it. It increases our desire for holiness, to be like Christ, to honor the one who gave His life for us. It brings spiritual life, and love overflowing. It brings revival!


Oh God, show us your holiness. May your beauty and majesty expose us for who we truly are, humble us into a recognition of our desperate need for your grace. Search us, O God and know our hearts. Not so we can end in despair and self-loathing, but so that we might live honestly, with authenticity and integrity, coming to recognize our desperate need for God’s grace and mercy. That we might receive His merciful salvation and forgiveness. That we might love Him, live in gratitude towards Him. And that we might be holy as He is holy.