The Sin of the Religious Person-Isaiah 58-59

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Questions: Does God see you the way you might try to appear to other people? Do you live freely without trying to be something other than who you truly are on the inside?

What the sin is: Trying to manipulate and control God and others to get what we want is in essence the sin of the religious person (including Christians). Seeing the problem in others and in the church rather than in ourselves (Isa 59:2).

Empty ritual and formalism: In Isaiah 58, God exposed the emptiness of two religious rituals that were practiced in Isaiah's day: fasting (58:3-6) and Sabbath keeping (58:13-14). Both of these are expressions of not doing things. In fasting, you don't eat. In Sabbath keeping, you don't work. Isaiah shows us that what we don't do isn't enough to make us right before God. Our walk with God shouldn't only be defined by what we don't do. What do we do for the LORD?

"For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities:13 rebellion and treachery against the Lord, turning our backs on our God, inciting revolt and oppression, uttering lies our hearts have conceived" (Isa 59:12-13).

 “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail" (Isa 58:9b-11).

The "worst" sin: It is unfortunate that Christians have historically applied the Bible to others--to non-Christians and even to other Christians in the same church--rather than to themselves (Isa 59:2). We seem to naturally confess the sins of others (Isa 58:9b; 59:3b), rather than our own sins. We naturally think that others are worse than we are. We see how much others need to change, without knowing or realizing how much we need to change. Thus, the "worst" sin in the Bible could very well be self-righteousness, even and especially when one is "right." When one thinks that they are right and others are wrong, WATCH OUT! The most unpleasant person is not necessarily the obvious sinner that everyone can see and know. Rather the most unpleasant person in Scripture is the self-righteous Pharisee who thinks and talks as through they are better than others. In this regard, the self-righteous religious person are like the blind who are completely unable to see and know the true reality--especially of themselves. "Face sin and death (within yourself) or be out of touch with reality." (Tim Keller) The self-righteous person is not only blind to themselves, but to God whom they think are blind like themselves.

Isaiah 58-59 touches on the sin of the religious person, the person of the church, the temple or the synagogue:

  1. Outwardly Religious (Isaiah 58): Out of Touch with Reality
    1. Don't eat: Outward show of being religious ("Christian") that others see (1-12; Lk 18:9-14; Mt 23:23). But God looks at who the person is on the inside (1 Sam 16:7; Rom 2:28-29). The people give every appearance of piety and genuine concern to know God's will, but Isaiah declares that they are in "rebellion" and "sins" (Isa 58:1). Only twice in the OT does God command people to fast. But in hundreds of places he commands them to treat other people, especially those weaker than they, with respect, justice and kindness. So stop oppressing the poor (58:6-7) before fasting. God calls for behavior that is self-forgetful and outward looking, acts of self-denial for the sake of others and not for one's own sake (Isa 58:6).
    2. Don't work: False Sabbath keeping to show one's outward faithfulness to God (13-14; Col 2:16-17; Gal 4:9-11; Heb 4:9-11). We might not "guard our heart" while we do our best to appear "Christian" at church. At its root the problem is not delighting in God and thus we say and do whatever we please (Isa 58:13-14). This invariably results in a lack of doing justice and righteousness, which is to care for the weak and helpless in society (Isa 58:6-7; 1:23; 56:1).
  2. Inwardly Sinning (Isaiah 59:1-15a): Mutual Alienation
    1. "You"--the cause of sin: Blaming God and others (1-2). This passage (59:1-15a) is one of the most poignant statements of human sinfulness and fallibility in the entire Bible. Their lack of blessing is not God's fault (Isa 59:1) but theirs (Isa 59:2). As Isaiah 57-58 have shown some of their sins are their very religiosity. This leads to a broken social sysstem of violence and injustice.
    2. "They"--the effect of sin: Violence and lies (3-8)--Lying naturally and comfortably (Isa 59:4b) followed by deeds of darkness (Isa 59:5ff). Religious people lie and often have no clue that they are lying, perhaps because they believe the lies to be true. Their very religiosity leads to a broken social sysstem of violence and injustice (Isa 59:3-4). They follow religious forms with some vigor while its relational content is dismissed with hardly a glance.
    3. "We"--the confession of sin (9-15a).
      1. Incapable of justice and righteousness (9-11): Confess and admit that we are helpless to change.
      2. Our sins are primarily against God (12-15a; Ps 51:4).
  3. The Solitary Rescuer (59:15b-21): What God sees and does for our sins. God sees that we are helpless and he acts on our behalf.

Blaming God (Isa 59:1) and others when the problem is within ourselves. In what way does sin separate us from God (Isa 59:2; cf. Mt 27:46)? Sin does not necessarily separate us from the presence of God, because God is present everywhere (Ps 139:7) and even Satan can have an audience with God (Job 1:6). Sin does not separate us from the love of God, because God loves sinners (Rom 5:8). But sin still does separate. How and in what way?

  • Sin separates us from fellowship with God, because at the point of our sin, we no longer think alike with God.
  • Sin separates us from the blessing of God, because at the point of our sin, we are not trusting God and relying on Him.
  • Sin separates us from some of the benefits of God's love, even as the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) was still loved by the father, but didn't enjoy the benefits of his love when he was in sin.

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that be penitent, according to thy promises declared unto mankind, in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy name." A General Confession of Sin, The Book of Common Prayer.


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