25 February, 2019

Isaiah 1:18-20—“Come now, and let us reason together”

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it (Isa. 1:18-20).

God, through the prophet Isaiah, is sending a message to a people who have rebelled against Him, who want nothing to do with Him and who shake their fists at Him. According to the horrifying description of their wickedness in verses 2-15, they hate His law, trample underfoot His statutes and desecrate His public worship by heartless religiosity. Though He has the right to judge these reprobates by sending destruction upon them for their iniquities, God instead offers them a chance to escape potential judgement. He “puts the cards on the table,” as it were, and graciously sets before them a proposition: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (v. 18). He calls them to consider this great and wonderful proposition He has for them, by the words “Come now, and let us reason together.” In the very next two verses, God offers this rebellious people the choice: “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword.” This choice is said to be God’s gracious and kind offer to them (well-meant) of a chance to rectify their position before Him and be saved. Their salvation from impending judgment is conditioned upon their being “willing and obedient.”

In our day, in our time, the equivalent message is that God, through the preaching of the gospel, after declaring and expounding to them their sins, graciously offers sinful and rebellious men and women, boys and girls, a choice: repent and believe in Jesus Christ and be saved, or refuse and continue in rebellion and perish. The same proposition (i.e. sins being washed away in the blood of Christ) is set before mankind today, but the ultimate outcome is dependent upon the choice that men make in response. For, how else are we to interpret Isaiah 1:19-20? Is not God, in these two verses, offering them a choice? And is not the presenting of this choice, essentially, an offer of salvation?


Isaiah 1:18-20 is not an example of the “general gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to a sinful and rebellious people.” Rather, Isaiah 1:18-20 is the gospel call to all men to repent and believe. That is, it is not a well-meant offer of the gospel, but is instead the righteous command of the gospel, or the serious call of the gospel.

The “common grace argument” above is erroneous in these respects:

1. The argument refers to the audience in Isaiah as “these reprobates.” It may be that many of them were reprobate, but God had his elect remnant in the audience as well. See Isaiah’s call to the prophetic office in Isaiah 6, especially 6:13, to see that Isaiah’s audience as he prophesied did include “a tenth” who were “the holy seed.”

2. The argument claims that God was offering the people a choice, which amounts to the choice to obey and be saved or to rebel and be damned. This claim is false. It is not true that God is offering people a choice, as if he is offering them the option on the one hand of being “willing and obedient” or on the other hand to “refuse and rebel.” There is no hint of a choice in the text, especially when the text is read in the context of 1:16-17. Rather, God comes with a command, with a demand, with a mandate, with an imperative: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” God is not giving man a choice to obey, but is solemnly commanding everyone to obey. In 1:19-20, God is not offering a choice after all, but is revealing the judgment that awaits those who do not obey him, while also revealing the promise for those who do obey him. There is nothing of a choice in the text. There is only God’s command, which men heed by grace or disobey to their peril.

3. The argument claims that God’s supposed offer of a choice was “gracious and kind” to every single person who heard. This claim is false. What grace of God is there to those who would be “devoured with the sword?” That is a strange grace! Or if God was gracious and kind at first, and then destroyed them afterward, of what use was his grace? It must have been impotent. That is a strange grace! The truth is that God’s grace is particular and that it sovereignly, powerfully redeems the elect.

4. The argument claims that man’s salvation was “conditioned on their being ‘willing and obedient.’” According to the argument, in Isaiah’s day and in our day, “the ultimate outcome is dependent upon the choice that men make in response.” This claim is false. Throughout Isaiah 1, God speaks with absolute sovereignty and authority. He condemns the sins of Israel and demands their repentance. How is it that this God suddenly becomes a beggar in 1:19-20, as if he suddenly depends upon man to make the correct choice? The truth is that God is never a beggar, not in Isaiah 1:19-20 either. In those verses, God is not waiting for the people to make their choice, but is sovereignly declaring the judgment that awaits the disobedient and the salvation that he gives to his people.

Briefly, the correct exegesis of Isaiah 1:16-20 is this:

1. This passage is a sovereign, powerful call of God to Israel to repent of their rebellion. That sovereign call/command is issued in 1:16-17.

2. God promises to the people that he will forgive all of their rebellion in his grace. This promise is made in 1:18.

3. God identifies those to whom this promise is being made in 1:19. It is not a promise or offer to all of them, but is a promise only to those who are “willing and obedient.” That is, a promise to those who are elect and who have been given the gift of faith, since they and they alone are willing and obedient.

4. In verse 20, God announces to all who do not heed his call that he will judge them with death and destruction.

Briefly, the theology of the passage is the four “P”s: God’s Promiscuous Proclamation of his Particular Promise. That is, the call of the gospel to repent and believe is proclaimed promiscuously. It is declared far and wide to whomever God sends us to preach. The promise that is proclaimed is particular, that is, it is only for the elect, who are characterized by being “willing and obedient.”

This is also the theology of the Canons of Dordt, Head 2, Articles 5-7:

Article 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.

Article 6. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel, do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.

Article 7. But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God, given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.

(AL, 25/02/2019)



More to come! (DV)

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