Isaiah 1:16-20: Washing and Cleansing

Today's reading will be much more familiar to evangelicals than the first half of Isaiah 1. We quote God's promise to wash us and make us clean on a regular basis (v. 16). It is likely you also know that this passage contains the invitation of the Lord God Almighty to come and reason with him and walk away as white as snow (v. 18).

Awesome verses, but if you're an evangelical, you probably don't know what's in between and around these verses. We like the idea of staying clean without doing the good works Paul said we should be careful to maintain (Tit. 3:8). We like the idea of those being optional.

God doesn't like or endorse that idea.

God likes the idea that right after you "wash and make yourselves clean" that you "put away the evil of your deeds from before my eyes" (v. 16). God likes the idea that after you have come to him to be washed white as snow, you become "willing and obedient." In fact, you must do so if you want to "eat the good of the land" (v. 19). If you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword "because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it" (v. 20).

An obedience response to God's mercy is not optional.

Or perhaps a more scriptural way to phrase it is that repentance in response to God's kindness is not optional (Rom. 2:4). Refuse to repent at his kindness, and you will learn the truth of the verses that follow.

An excellent cognate passage to Isaiah 1:16-20 is Jesus' letter to the church in Sardis at the beginning of Revelation 3.

The Church in Sardis

Revelation 3:1-5 is a letter to a church. Thus, Jesus addresses them as though they all had been given clean garments ... because they had. They had been washed "white as snow." Some, however—or possibly most—had defiled those garments.

So while Jesus addresses the letter to the whole church (v. 1), the whole church only receives exhortations and a warning, no promises (vv. 2-3). It is the few who have not defiled their garments who receive the promises. Those promises are that they will walk with him in white and not have their name blotted from the Book of Life (vv. 4-5).

It is Jesus who does the cleansing, both in Isaiah 1 and in Revelation 3, and it is Jesus who demands that once we are cleansed, we walk in his ways.

We are saved by grace, which results in our being "created in King Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:8-10). God does not require us to trust in our own strength, for apart from Jesus we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). He does, however, require us to expend our own effort (Col. 1:29; Php. 2:12-13; 1 Cor. 9:27; Php. 3:8-15; 2 Pet. 1:8-11).

Among evangelicals, grace is typically confused with mercy. Revisiting Grace is one of several posts I have done trying to correct our understanding of grace. I expect to release a booklet on grace throughGreatest Stories Ever Told™ within a couple months.

We have to see both sides of the coin. God has enabled us, and we must tap into his grace that removes sin's power over us (Rom. 6:14). His strength (grace), our effort. Both must be present.

Perhaps the best New Testament passage illustrating this truth is one most of us are familiar with:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Php. 2:12-13)

Symbiosis. God and man working together.

Paul talks about our effort combining with God's power in ministry to others as well. "Whom we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom so that we can present everyone complete in King Jesus, striving according to his energy, which energizes me" (Col. 1:28, emphasis added).

To bring that back to today's reading, God cleanses us white as snow, but once he does so, he expects repentance in return. If we want the benefits of being cleansed, we must turn our hearts and become "willing and obedient."

Isaiah 1:16-20 and the New Covenant

Verse 16: Born Again Apart from Works

Isaiah 1:16 is a perfect prophetic picture of the New Covenant. God says to come and wash, a reference to baptism. Coming out of baptism we are clean. This happens without any good deeds on the part of Israel except obedience to the command to "come."

We have seen in the earlier part of this chapter that Judah was as evil as Sodom and Gomorrha in God's eyes under King Ahaz. Yet God calls them to be cleansed and washed. Repentance is the only thing that God asks them to bring to the laver.

In the same way, when the New Covenant was instituted on the day of Pentecost*, Peter asked only one thing of the Jews who heard him: repentance (Acts 2:38). Repentance leads to life (Acts 11:18). Repentance would admit them to the washing waters of baptism, where they would receive the promises of God: forgiveness of sins and the infilling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

*Not everyone will agree with me that the New Covenant was instituted on the day of Pentecost when the apostles received the Holy Spirit. It is possible that it was instituted earlier at the cross or at the resurrection of Jesus. That's a technical point, though, which does not affect the point I am making.

Verse 17: A New Life

After we wash and cleanse in baptism (v. 16), God then gives some more specific commands in verse 17, letting us know what is important to him: doing good, rendering honest judgment, and taking care of the oppressed, orphans, and widows (cf. Jam. 1:27). We are to "learn" to do good.

This, too, prefigures the New Covenant. Peter says exactly the same about our Christian walk in 2 Peter 1:3-8. We are empowered by God, verses 3-4, and then we learn. We add virtue to our faith, then knowledge, and we progress from there (vv. 5-7). These things are to be "in us and increasing" (v. 8).

Like Isaiah 1:17, we are to "learn to do good." Hebrews tells us strong meat belongs to those that have "exercised" their senses to discern good and evil (5:14). Paul is even more direct, telling Timothy to "train himself toward godliness" (1 Tim. 4:7).

Let's add a couple more because this is an important topic. The Christian life is one of pursuit, diligent pursuit. Besides the passages we've already seen, in one of which we are told to "diligently do these things" (2 Pet. 1:10), we read:

  • "Pursue peace with all men, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).
  • "Flee youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Tim. 2:22).
  • Finally, there is Paul's example of "pursuit" in Philippians 3:8-14, which he urges all of us who are mature to imitate.

Isaiah 1:18-20: The Bigger Picture

While Isaiah 1:16-17 gives us a picture of our beginning in the life of Jesus, verses 18-20 talk to us about our ongoing life in Jesus. In verse 16, we are washed, a reference to baptism. We don't repeat baptism, so when we need of the Lord's forgiveness after baptism, God calls us to come "reason" with him.

The reasoning together we should do with God is to bring him our broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:16-17; see "Sacrifices"). If we do so, he will make us white as snow, even if our sins have stained us like crimson.

Again, Isaiah foretells the New Covenant. His words send us to 1 John 1:7-9, where we are told that we need the blood of Jesus constantly cleansing us (v. 7), that we should not lie to ourselves about our sin (v.8), and that if we will confess our sin—reasoning with Lord by declaring our broken heart and our repentance—we will be forgiven and cleansed by the blood of Jesus (v. 9).

But again, performing even this very spiritual ritual of repentance and prayer and cleansing from God is only effective if we are "willing and obedient." Only then will we eat the good of the land (Isaiah 1:19). If we refuse and rebel, the sword will devour us (v. 20).

Again this sends us back to 1 John. After the emphasis on God's forgiveness in 1:7 through 2:2, verses 3 and 4 give us the fear-inspiring news that if we claim to know the Lord without an ongoing practice of obeying his commandments, we are liars.

In other words, we must become willing and obedient so that we can eat the good of the land.

1 John

It is desperately important than we understand the verbs in 1 John. It is desperately important because of our great need in this modern age of John's message that can boil down the watered-down message so often preached in today's churches.

We cannot hear that desperately important message, however, if it seems to ask of us things the rest of Scripture says are impossible for Christians. In fact, even 1 John tells us that we are lying to ourselves if we think we never sin (1:8).

So why does John say that he who is born of God does not sin? (3:9).

Well, he doesn't.

In Greek, there are several verb tenses that convey continual or repeated action. One of those tenses is the present tense, and John uses it constantly. We were taught in Greek class to always translate it into English as a present participle, such as "we are running" rather than "we run."

For some reason, most translators do not do this despite how significant it is, especially in John's Gospel and letters. First John 3:9 for example should read, "He that is born of God is not committing sin," or "He that is born of God does not continue sinning." It's speaking of a general practice, not one individual sin.

Let us honor the Lord. Let us hear his Word, which calls us to come humbly before God in repentance, seeking him for both mercy and grace*. But let us not ignore his warnings, that it is the willing and obedient who will eat the good of the land.

*The "Grace" page is not completed yet, so this link doesn't work yet. I am finishing a booklet on grace, and then I will put up the "Grace" page on this site.

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