RPM, Volume 16, Number 1, December 29, 2013 to January 4, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Foundation
Isaiah 6
(Sermon Number One)

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church 411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


Today I am beginning a new sermon series on Covenant Theology. In this Introduction, I am going to cover three preliminary matters: first, I will explain why I think this series is necessary; second, I will offer a definition of Covenant Theology; and third, I will tell you what I think is the foundational concept upon which Covenant Theology rests. It is this third point, The Foundation of Covenant Theology, which will be the subject for the body of this sermon.

I believe this sermon series is necessary for two reasons: first, Covenant Theology is the most significant theological formulations in history (I make this declaration without apology and with the belief that all other interpretive schemes are unbiblical.); second, a large portion of the modern evangelical Church is completely ignorant of Covenant Theology and, regrettably, has been denied the manifold benefits that come from this wonderful interpretive perspective on the Bible. Covenant Theology, as we will see, incorporates every facet of our Christian experience, from our conversion to the daily fulfillment of our duties before God.

Obviously, in a sermon series on Covenant Theology, it is important that we all understand what a covenant is, Biblically speaking. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, which generally includes stipulations mutually agreed upon by the parties.

The approach to interpreting the Bible is the method that Scripture, itself, requires if the Bible is to be properly understood and applied. The nature of the revelation we have in Scripture is covenantal; that is, God's revelation in the Bible comes through an unfolding series of covenants (such as, His covenant with Adam in the Garden of Eden, His covenant with Abraham, His covenant with Moses, His covenant with David, and His covenant with Jesus Christ). Any proper interpretation of God's revelation, therefore, must reflect the nature of that revelation. Covenant Theology is the systematic arrangement of Biblical theology.

Covenant Theology has a long and admirable history, as I indicated. The names of Zwingli, Bullinger, Ursinus and, of course, Calvin, are just a few of the many associated with the development of Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology was given confessional status, however, with the production of the Westminster Standards.

Adherence to this method of interpreting the Bible was made mandatory if a man declared his subscription to the Standards because the theology in the Standards reflects the manner of interpreting the Bible, which I have been describing. I would add that this method of Biblical interpretation is presented in finest form in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Before I begin this exploration of Covenant Theology, I want to acquaint you with what I believe is the key to understanding this system of interpretation. In the Westminster Confession, chapter VII, paragraph I, we read:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

This paragraph represents the foundation for what is known as Covenant Theology. The writers begin with the presupposition that God, the Creator, and man, the creature, are separated; they are separated not by measurable distance, but by a moral chasm opened in the Garden of Eden when Adam disobeyed God and brought a far-reaching corruption to the soul of man that left him unable and unwilling to have communion with God. This is the state identified in the Bible as "being lost."

After his fall, man became a blind and senseless prisoner of darkness; as such, he was destined for wrath because of his rebellion against his Creator. The Bible teaches that man would have remained in that horrible condition forever had God not voluntarily and lovingly come down to man, as it were. It is this gracious condescension on God's part, His willingness to come to man when man could not and would not come to Him, that is expressed in the Bible through a series of covenants.

Throughout the Bible, God is pictured as coming to fallen man, not vice versa. He is always described as reaching out for man and embracing man, even though man, in his state of darkness, wants nothing to do with God. Our salvation, in one sense, rests on God's willingness to come after us once we, as His creatures, had been lost.

The perspective represented in this paragraph from the Confession is the key, as noted, to understanding Covenant Theology as a system. Covenant Theology is built upon the recognition of the distinction between a holy, pure, all-powerful God and an unholy, impure, helpless human race. And, as already stated, at the center of Covenant Theology is that amazing, generous, and selfless act whereby God condescended to lowly man in order to save us.

While we could turn to numerous passages that illustrate this notion of God's condescension to man, there is one text in the Bible that, perhaps more than any other, beautifully portrays all of the essential elements of Covenant Theology. That passage is found in Isa. 6. This portion of Scripture emphasizes the utter purity of God and, by way of contrast, the utter depravity of man; this chapter also shows that the only solution to man's dilemma is God's willingness to provide for man's restoration.

Isaiah 6:1 In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory."4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven." 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

1. Isaiah's Vision (vv. 1-4)

Isaiah writes: "In the year of King Uzziah's death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne..." At the age of 16, Uzziah became the 11th king of Judah, the southern kingdom. He reigned for approximately 50 years and his death falls between 748 and 734 BC. Unlike many before him who manipulated their way to the throne, Uzziah appears to have been the happy choice of the people.

After defeating the most threatening of enemies, Uzziah turned his attention to fortifying Jerusalem. The city walls were strengthened and guard towers were added. At various posts outside the city, the king ordered "early warning" posts by which a pending attack would be discovered before the enemy reached the city.

In addition, during Uzziah's reign, the southern and northern kingdoms of Israel generally enjoyed prosperity and peace with one another. But moral decay was prevalent and increasing at an alarming rate. The epitome of such corruption was the conduct of Uzziah late in his tenure. He determined to take to himself the duty of the priest and God struck him with leprosy as a result. The king spent his last days in seclusion. When Uzziah died, the spreading corruption intensified.

This background information establishes for us the context in which Isaiah served the LORD. This vision of Isaiah amounts to a call to the ministry. Isaiah would be God's prophet during those dark days of Judah's moral decline. In his vision, Isaiah witnessed the manifestation of the glory of God in such a way that he feared he would die there on the spot. This experience left him shaken; eventually, however, the experience proved to be the resource from which Isaiah drew courage to begin his labors among the wayward people.

Let's consider in detail what the prophet saw. The first verse provides a magnificent description: "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple." Every detail related by Isaiah impressed upon him the glory, power, and majesty of God. God's appearing, judging from Isaiah's report, was stunning in beauty; at the same time, this disclosure of God's perfection was terribly frightening.

The throne is the place from which a king or judge rules; it is a seat of one who has undisputed authority. The phrase "lofty and exalted" refers to the LORD's actual physical elevation above the prophet and to the figurative exaltation of God in His eminence. From there, Isaiah adds, the train of God's robe filled the entire room.

Even with such an exhilarating eye-witness account, it is difficult for us to capture the brilliance of that moment. There are things that surpass our ability to represent fully in our language. The manifestation of God's glory in Isaiah's vision is one such example. He does the best he can to report on that scene. What is described is a setting absolutely dominated by the presence of God. His magnificence is the focal point of the vision and Isaiah's recollection of it. The splendor of the LORD overwhelmed Isaiah and demanded his complete attention.

In the second verse, Isaiah mentions "seraphim," which means "burning ones." In the entire Old Testament, these heavenly attendants are mentioned only in this passage. According to Isaiah's testimony, the seraphim were rational creatures capable of thought and speech. The one and only responsibility of these seraphim was attendance upon God. They surrounded Him and uttered His praise again and again.

The seraphim expressed deep reverence and humility by covering their faces and feet with their wings. Even these creatures that existed for the express purpose of serving God could not look upon His glory. This truth emphasizes the immeasurable purity of God. And in the midst of this scene stood Isaiah, a mere man—and a sinful man at that. He was allowed to view this event.

As these creatures wait upon the LORD, they cry out to one another: "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." (v. 3) The word "holy," is a term that refers to the divine perfections that separate the Creator from the creature. The three-fold repetition is a Hebrew way of emphasizing the point conveyed in the single term. The words of the seraphim are not only a declaration of God's majesty and moral perfection, but also an equally significant pronouncement concerning the character required of any who would dwell comfortably with the LORD.

The glory of God indicated in the words of the seraphim is extended to the work of God's hands: "The whole earth," they proclaim, "is full of His glory." As the Bible teaches elsewhere, the works of God reflect or are marked by His attributes. They are testimonies to His power, wisdom, and beauty. This idea is first introduced in the creation account where the stages of God's activity are judged to be "good."

Isaiah adds that at the sound of this declaration regarding God and His creation, "the foundations of the thresholds trembled... while the temple was filling with smoke." (v. 4) This part of the description stresses the absolute purity of God; it almost overwhelms the very creation of God. God's brilliance is something for which there is no fully suitable container, so to speak. The place where Isaiah stood reverberated with the words of the seraphim and smoke, which signaled God's presence, added to the sacredness of this scene. Isaiah stood in the presence of God and, please note that, to this point, he hasn't spoken a word.

An important question occurs to me at this point: Why did Isaiah see this magnificent vision of God? And we might add: How did the prophet have this vision? Given the incredible description we have read, it's clear that God's appearance was an event that shook the earth. Why was Isaiah, a man of no particular distinction, allowed to witness this display?

In answering these questions, we find ourselves touching upon the heart of Covenant Theology. Isaiah viewed the majesty of God only because God chose to reveal Himself to this man. There was nothing in Isaiah that commended him to God, nothing for which God was bound to give this man the privilege described in this chapter. However this scene is analyzed, the one fact that cannot change is that it never would have happened unless God was pleased to let it happen; and Isaiah never would have been a witness had God not determined to make him a witness.

This, as I just said, is the heart of our system of interpreting the Bible. Our system relies on the truth that God must come to man, God must draw man to himself, awareness of God must be given to man. In short, God must accommodate man's inability if man is ever to have a fruitful relationship with Him.

2. Isaiah's Confession (v. 5)

Finally, Isaiah speaks. The first thing that came to his mind was not an expression of joy or excitement. The words from Isaiah's mouth communicated sheer dread. As a quick aside, let me say it is not uncommon to hear some television evangelist or mega-church personality talk about seeing God or seeing some aspect of God's glory in a dream or state of altered consciousness. They present the most glowing image of the experience; they talk about how joyful they were and how delightful it was to see God's glory.

I have yet to hear one report that sounds similar to what Isaiah experienced. Isaiah said: "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." This display of God's glory instantly revealed Isaiah's sinful condition. In contrast to what he saw, the prophet became immediately aware of his own character. And he cried out "Woe is me, for I am ruined." This is a cry of despair.

The word Isaiah uses (dama) is translated in the following ways: "to cut off," "to cease," "to perish," "to bring to silence," "to destroy," "to be undone" and "to cut down." This is an intense term. Isaiah realized that there was nothing good in him; he realized, in the brilliant light of God's glory, that everything about him, every part of him, was corrupted by sin. The depth of his corruption could only have been revealed by such an encounter with the unqualified holiness of God.

Isaiah experiences a revelation of the true extent of his own sin; and this is done in preparation, as we will see, for a particular ministry. Whatever Isaiah believed about himself before this vision was shattered by the shocking disclosure of his depravity, a disclosure necessitated by God's perfection. Sin is shown for what it is, it is revealed in all of its evil infamy when confronted by the LORD's purity.

Isaiah's words reveal what he now understands: "For I am a man of unclean lips." And there was more to be said. Isaiah realized that all those with whom he lived were also corrupt: "I live among a people of unclean lips." The many incidents of wicked behavior Isaiah had witnessed in his life now stood out in a shocking manner against the backdrop of God's holiness. Sin was bold and undeniable when compared to the character of the LORD.

It was now painfully apparent to Isaiah that sin separated him from God; and the same must be true for his fellow-countrymen. Isaiah's glimpse of God's glory gave him an instantaneous perspective on the state of fallen man.

Finally, Isaiah adds, "For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." It seems that Isaiah expected to die there on the spot. If even the sinless seraphim covered their faces in the presence of God, what would become of Isaiah who had just confessed his depravity?

3. Isaiah's Commissioning (vv. 6, 7)

We have in this scene a holy God, lofty and exalted, who is being praised by mysterious creatures; and we have Isaiah, a man whose true sinful condition has just been made known to him. Far from even thinking of reaching out for God, Isaiah is overwhelmed and stricken with terror as he absorbs the revelation of his depravity and his unfitness in the light of God's glory. There was no movement of Isaiah toward God, no movement in thought or step. But, as I indicated earlier, what happens is a wonderful illustration of the concept behind Covenant Theology.

As Isaiah continued contemplating the scene before him, "One of the seraphim flew to me," he says, "with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, 'Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.'" God dispatched a servant who came to Isaiah and announced his cleansing. The stone, taken from the altar, was a symbol of God's forgiveness, forgiveness extended to Isaiah, forgiveness necessary if Isaiah were to serve God. This act symbolically depicted Isaiah's preparation for his calling.

Isaiah's experience illustrates an important theme that runs throughout the Bible. Fallen man, who is sinful, helpless, and without hope of deliverance, is forgiven, restored, and even made useful by God. This is mercy and this is the message of Covenant Theology. Our faith is anchored in the truth of God's condescension to fallen man. Isaiah serves as a picture of what God has done for the human race in Christ Jesus. He came after us, and He draws us to Himself, and He provides a remedy for our sin, and He lifts the sentence of condemnation—all this happens apart from our effort and all this happens in spite of the ugliness of sin that envelopes us. Again, this is mercy in purest form and it can come only from the One who is pure Himself, and that is the LORD.

The rest of the chapter speaks of Isaiah's ministry to the wayward people. The verses teach that Isaiah was sent by God with a particular message of judgment, on the one hand, and a message of hope, on the other. (cf. vv. 8-13)


In our application, I want to make a couple of points related to the study we have undertaken. First, I want to call attention to the image of God described in Isaiah's vision. If we are going to interpret and apply the teaching of Scripture properly, if we are going to understand and fulfill our duties in our respective roles, we must begin not with ourselves, but with God and His character. It is God's holy nature that calls for our reverence for God and our dedication to His will and our determination to serve Him wherever He places us.

Therefore, any system of theology that fails to exalt God and fails to present Him just as He appears in Isaiah's vision is a faulty system. One of the most destructive characteristics to be found in the contemporary evangelical Church is a lack of acknowledging the view of God found in our text. Without realizing God's frightening perfection, without feeling the sting of our own depravity in the light of His holiness, we will never experience the pressing concern for His glory in all that we do. But when that vision is captured, our journey of humble service can begin.

To our shame, we tolerate views of God that are not Biblical. These faulty views influence our thinking and, ultimately, our entire system of theology. And that, of course, determines the character of our lives. In all of our relationships, in all of our various positions in life, our responsibilities are defined by God and the degree to which we take those responsibilities seriously depends on what we think about God. Before we dedicate ourselves to obedience of God's life-giving Law and before we dedicate ourselves to honor Him at every turn, we have to have the proper understanding of God's character.

This, again, is a pivotal issue in the modern Church. The holiness of God is not a topic studied frequently. It is all of those signs of dysfunction that receive most of the attention. Instead of concentrating on the evidence of a warped perspective on God, we should be concentrating on His character. That is what will bring order to our lives. The sins that trouble God's people in church after church in this age are related to an unbiblical view of life and that comes from an unbiblical view of God.

You see plainly what happened to Isaiah when he was exposed to the purity of God. He expected to die because that experience so sharply distinguished between God's character and his own. It was shocking.

How might the modern Church be shaken if God should give us such insight? Can you imagine the impact? We spend so much time complaining about the state of our culture—the fracture of the family institution, the rise of wicked boasting, and the general disintegration of morality. Our assessment is true, but there is an issue that must come first and that is our view of God. Until our hearts resound with the chant, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts," we will not feel the weight of this nation's depravity. But if the day comes when God's people unite in that vision of His purity, the result will be stunning.

Covenant Theology begins with the exalted and holy character of God and proceeds from that starting point to interpret and apply all of Scripture. In Covenant Theology, the holiness of God dominates our thinking and determines our understanding of our place before God. In Covenant Theology, we see this holy and pure God condescending to fallen man and we see fallen man bound to be grateful and obedient toward this merciful Creator who has loved him in spite of his sin.

And here is the essential point to take with you: the approach to Scripture that I am describing is the approach Scripture itself demands. Covenant Theology, as a system, constantly brings before us the holiness of God and its implications. In this system of Biblical interpretation, we ask questions about our responsibilities in light of God's purity—and that makes a tremendous difference in our reaction. This method of studying the Bible and learning of our responsibilities leaves us right where we should be, which is at the feet of God our Father and Jesus Christ our Savior seeking to know the will of God.

I asked the question, "Why did Isaiah see this magnificent vision of God?" I answered, "Only because God chose to reveal Himself to this man." Let me emphasize, therefore, some basic truths that we must embrace before we will be able to gain all there is to be gained from the study of the Word. First of all, understand that God owes us nothing! Every gift from Him and every kindness He expresses to us, therefore, is an act of underserved favor. God is not bound to help us, He is not bound to save us, He is not bound to preserve us. God does not exist to serve mankind.

As a method of interpreting the Bible, Covenant Theology maintains the distinction between God, the Creator, and man, the creature. This system of theology ensures that we relate rightly to God. In every portion of the Word, Covenant Theology portrays God as coming to the aid of those undeserving. It may be Adam after his fall, Noah before the destruction of the world, or Abraham who was to become the father of a redeemed humanity, but throughout the Bible we find God coming to help us in the context of His covenant relationships with people.

That is what the Bible is about; and that is why our method of interpreting the Bible must reflect the great truth of God's condescension. This system of theology teaches, as does the Bible, that God, while under no obligation to save fallen man, loved fallen man in Christ. It teaches that He showed mercy to us even after we disregarded His word and rebelled against Him. Love that is shown when there is no obligation to love is real love. Mercy that comes when there is no obligation to show mercy is true mercy.

From God, we have received unmerited love, acceptance, and mercy in Jesus Christ. You can hardly read a chapter in the Bible without being confronted with the fact of God's gracious condescension to helpless man. And the person who approaches God with this knowledge, the person who contemplates his duties with the knowledge of the unmerited help of God in Christ, is a person who will love God, a person who will serve God, a person who will be forever grateful for what has been received.

I must ask you all: Do you know of this love of God? Do you know what He has done for us? Have you come to understand that Jesus is the supreme expression of God's condescension to us and is, therefore, our one and only Savior? Man was a miserable creature bound only for wrath when God appeared on this earth in our flesh. What would move God to do such a thing except love—love that cannot be earned or bought?

If you sit here today and find yourself outside of the community of the redeemed, please call on God for salvation. You need not fear. Everything revealed to us about God in His Word tells us that He is kind and will hear the earnest plea of the sinner.

I mentioned that whatever Isaiah believed about himself before his vision was shattered by the shocking disclosure of his depravity. Let us take from this a needed reminder that it is easy to go through life thinking that, yes we are sinners, but we're not all that bad. As long as we don't measure ourselves by a perfect standard, we are going to appear acceptable. But if we use God's standard, things change. Examining ourselves in the light of God's character, as Isaiah did, strips away all false assumptions.

If you are walking with the company of the redeemed, then be quick to examine yourself. Make sure you are studying the Word as the Word requires—that is, with God's character providing the illumination, as it were, for your eyes and mind.


Hymn for Communion


I have stressed the holiness of God and the contrasting sinfulness of man as illustrated in Isaiah's vision. Our salvation makes sense and our salvation appears in all of its greatness only in light of the difference between a holy God and an unholy people. In salvation, those unholy people are reconciled to the holy God and this is something that should leave us happily astonished.

What can we say when we think about God loving us when we were sinners, when we were the very opposite of His holy character? What response do we make to what He did for us?

All that I've said should make us even more adoring of Christ, even more thankful for His atonement. When we read a passage like Isa. 6, we should be all the more astonished by the grace given to us in Christ and we should be all the more determined to honor God with the lives He has given us.

As you prepare to receive the elements, think about the holiness of God. Contemplate His perfection and then recall that this perfect and pure God loved you with an everlasting and unmerited love in His Son, Jesus Christ. Be thankful for the righteousness supplied for you by your Savior; be thankful for His Spirit who indwells you and keeps you even now.

In his account of the institution of this sacrament, Matthew says:

26:26 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." 27 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."

We have in these verses instructions regarding this sacrament. Jesus tells us what the elements represent and He shows us how they are to be received. He also makes a promise, a promise that is the hope of every believer. Jesus promises to join us in a great feast of celebration one day in heaven. This is the truth that provides hope for the covenant people of God. The blessings we have known in this world will be multiplied beyond belief in the world to come. Amen!

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