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THE CONVERSION OF ISAIAH

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Saturday Evening, January 21, 2012

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

“Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isaiah 6:7).

“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).


Before we look at the call of the prophet in Isaiah 6:1-8 we need to consider two questions: (1) Where does this passage fit into the chronology of Isaiah’s life? and (2) Is this Isaiah’s experience of conversion, or is it a call to further consecration after his conversion?

First, where does Isaiah 6 fit into the life of the prophet? John Calvin (1509-1564) himself admitted that “some think that it [Isaiah 6:1-8] is the beginning of the book itself” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, volume I, Baker Book House, 1998, p. 198; note on Isaiah 6:1).

Dr. Edward J. Young said that “the view is now more generally held that the chapter presents Isaiah’s original call...and it is difficult to escape from this impression... there appears to be a very definite reason why the chapter is in its present position. Isaiah’s purpose apparently is first to present the heart of his message [in chapters 1 through 5], and only then to relate the account of his own prophetic call” (Edward J. Young, Ph.D., The Book of Isaiah, volume I, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, pp. 232, 233).

Dr. Franz Delitzsch also gave that explanation in the Keil and Delitzsch Commentary when he said, “Chapter VI must make the impression upon every unprejudiced mind, that it relates to the prophet’s inaugural [original] vision” (Franz Delitzsch, Ph.D., Commentary on the Old Testament, volume VII, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973 reprint, p. 188).

Thus, we say that Isaiah 6:1-8 gives the prophet’s original call by God, and that it describes what happened to him at the very beginning of his ministry.

Second, is this passage a description of Isaiah’s conversion, or is it a call to further consecration after his conversion? I have become convinced that the sixth chapter of Isaiah is one of the great passages of Scripture dealing with conversion. It certainly resembles the conversion of Paul in Acts 9, and other conversions in the Bible, and in Christian history. But unfortunately that view has been obscured by what the great Reformer John Calvin wrote about it. Calvin thought that Isaiah’s experience was given to him to confirm and strengthen him in his preaching ministry (John Calvin, ibid., p. 199).

Great as he was, I think John Calvin was wrong on this point. Calvin’s view has been handed down as the correct interpretation to nearly all the commentators that followed. Thus Calvin’s error on this point has colored the thinking of many. For instance, John MacArthur said, “Spiritual cleansing for special service to the Lord, not salvation, is in view” (John MacArthur, D.D., The MacArthur Study Bible, Word Bibles, 1977 edition, p. 963; note on Isaiah 6:7).

Even the renowned commentator Dr. Edward J. Young said, “Isaiah had been a true believer and had served the Lord. We are not reading the account of his conversion. Now he is to be promoted...so he can serve the Lord in greater measure than heretofore” (ibid., p. 250). Immediately after Dr. Young made that statement he quoted Calvin to support it (ibid.).

Although Calvin’s view has influenced the commentaries, I believe it is an incorrect interpretation of Isaiah 6:1-8. Yet it is Calvin’s view that was behind all the sermons I have ever heard on this passage of Scripture. But, to be fair, it was Calvin’s view stripped of original sin and salvation by grace alone. It was Calvin’s view changed into a self-help message. I have heard it preached to young people in church camps, to “get them” to “consecrate” themselves to greater service, or to “dedicate” themselves to the ministry, or to “dedicate” themselves to be foreign missionaries. To me this is all wrong. Since so many young people are religious, but unconverted, it would be far better to preach the passage to them evangelistically. Yet it is usually preached exactly as Dr. MacArthur expressed it, “Spiritual cleansing for special service to the Lord, not salvation, is in view” (ibid.). But I am convinced that this view is not supported by the very words of the passage. I would say the exact opposite of what Dr. MacArthur said, “Salvation, not spiritual cleansing for special service to the Lord, is in view!”

Yes, I think Isaiah was something of a “believer” before he had this experience. He undoubtedly believed in God theoretically. He undoubtedly tried to serve God. He may even have preached before this experience. And yet I am convinced he was not converted. Didn’t Martin Luther preach and try to serve the Lord before he was converted? Didn’t John Wesley and George Whitefield preach and try to serve the Lord before they were converted? I myself started preaching over three years before I was saved. Doubting Thomas, Christ’s own Disciple, also preached and tried to serve the Lord for three years before he was truly converted.

Thomas ran away when Jesus was arrested. After Jesus rose from the dead Thomas vehemently refused to believe the Gospel. He was not converted, in any meaningful sense of the word, until he encountered the risen Christ! And no matter what shallow belief Isaiah had before his experience in the sixth chapter, he too remained unconverted – until God Himself opened the eyes of his understanding, and saved him, as we are told in Isaiah 6:1-8. Isaiah’s experience is similar to what usually happens when people undergo real conversions. The problem we have today is that we have seen very few real conversions. Most people make a superficial “decision” and remain unconverted. But Isaiah’s experience clearly follows the pattern of true conversions, such as those that occurred during the three Great Awakenings. And this is the way people are truly saved.

I. First, you must experience the reality of God.

Look at verse one.

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

Dr. Delitzsch said, “It was the year of Uzziah’s death, not the first year of Jotham’s reign; that is to say, Uzziah was still reigning, although his death was near at hand” (Delitzsch, ibid., p. 188). Isaiah gives us the very time when God became real to him. Before, God was only a theory to him. He had spoken about God, but now he experienced the reality of God. He suddenly became God-conscious. For the first time in his life Isaiah was made aware of God. “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” The “Lord” spoken of here was the pre-incarnate Christ, for we are told in the twelfth chapter of John,

“These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him” (John 12:41).

Have you ever had a similar experience? You can come to church for years without sensing the reality of God and Christ. God Himself must give you such an awareness. If you are an unawakened sinner you live your life without ever perceiving the reality of God.

God must make Himself known to you or you will never be converted. Without such a God-given experience you have no hope, “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Jacob was as sinful as Esau. But God made Himself known to Jacob. Esau never had an encounter with God. Oh, he knew about God, but God was never real to him. Esau never spoke of God as a real person. You cannot be converted if you have no experimental knowledge of God! My associate Dr. Cagan said, “I suddenly knew, deep down inside, that God was real...But I was not a Christian. The experience I had with God was very real to me, but I was not ready to believe in Jesus Christ...I had felt the presence of God. But I was still not a Christian. It was two more years before I was converted” (C. L. Cagan, Ph.D., From Darwin to Design, Whitaker House, 2006, pp. 17, 18).

I recently saw a photograph of some people who used to come to our church. They looked like wild heathens! They came to church. They learned the Bible. They memorized Bible verses. They said words of prayer. But they never experienced the reality of God. God was not in their thoughts. All they thought about was their connection to each other. They only saw each other. They could never say with Isaiah, “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). That is why they were never converted!

You come to the inquiry room to speak with us about salvation. But since you have never been given an awareness of God, there is nothing we can say that will help you. How can you feel guilty in the sight of God if you have no awareness of God? It is impossible. How can you feel the need for Christ to pardon your sins in the sight of God, if you have no experience of God? All you can do is learn something about Jesus and mumble the words of a so-called “sinner’s prayer.” Since God has never revealed Himself to you, you will go on as Isaiah did before this experience, with no inward knowledge of God, no spiritual vision, and no hope! Isaiah said, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found” (Isaiah 55:6). Seek God when you are alone. If you fail to do that you will go on as you are. Nothing I say to you will do you any good unless you are given a vision of God, unless you are made conscious of the God of Jacob!

God is sovereign. He may never give you an experience of His reality. But if you strive, seeking to know Him, you will discover Him, if you seek for Him “with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). Yet if you do experience the reality of God it will be a painful encounter.

II. Second, you will feel sinful in the presence of God, and sense your need for pardon.

Look at verse five.

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

When the prophet saw the reality of God, he was made to think of his own uncleanness. He cried, “Woe is me!” In this piercing utterance we see his self-condemnation. He said, “I am undone.” The Hebrew word translated “undone” means “I am cut off, I am destroyed, I am doomed” (Young, ibid., p. 247). Dr. Delitzsch translated it, “I am lost” (Delitzsch, ibid., p. 195). His vision of God made him feel utterly doomed. Delitzsch said, “Isaiah therefore regarded himself as lost” (ibid.).

This is what the Puritans and their heirs called “awakening.” Awakening happens when you are made to feel cut off from God and doomed. Only when your sinful uncleanness makes you feel “undone” in the sight of a holy God, will you truly feel lost. Only then will your heart say, “I am doomed! I am lost!” Before you feel the horror of such an “awakening” you remain asleep in sin. You can come to the inquiry room a thousand times, but you will not be converted until you are made to feel in your heart that you are lost and doomed in the sight of “the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). Some people go on for a long time in an unconverted state. They are sad about being unconverted, but they are not horrified by their sins in the sight of a holy God. If they truly felt that they were doomed, they would have no trouble fleeing to Christ!

It is only in a doomed, lost condition that God can heal your sin. It is at this point, and not before, that Christ will become altogether lovely, and very important to you, and you will be drawn to Him by faith. And He will then say to you, as was said to Isaiah, “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isaiah 6:7).

I have left out the “Seraphims,” and other details in the passage. These things no doubt happen in the realm of the spirit, but I see no need to dwell on them in this brief sermon. It is enough to say that there are real parallels between Isaiah’s transforming vision and true Christian conversion.

You must be made to see the dreadful majesty and sovereignty of God. You must be made to feel lost and undone in the sight of a holy God. You must come to Jesus to have “thine iniquity...taken away, and thy sin purged.”

The passage ends with “the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” “Us” gives a hint of the blessed Trinity. “Who will go for us?” “Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8). When you are truly converted you will gladly go to win the lost, and you will do so, as Isaiah did, no matter how difficult it is for you. And, like Isaiah, you will never turn away from doing so. This is the perseverance of the saints!

(END OF SERMON)
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THE OUTLINE OF

THE CONVERSION OF ISAIAH

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

“Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).

“Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isaiah 6:7).

“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

I.   First, you must experience the reality of God, Isaiah 6:1; John 12:41;
Ephesians 2:12; Isaiah 55:6; Jeremiah 29:13.

II.  Second, you will feel sinful in the presence of God, and sense your
need for pardon, Isaiah 6:5, 7, 8.