We are saved for the sake of God-exalting good works.
We are saved for the sake of God-exalting good works. This is the aim of our justification—not the ground, but the aim and the fruit. We have been saved not merely to avoid evil, but to do good. Therefore the people of Christ should not be known primarily for what we don’t do, but what we do do.
Paul said it in Ephesians 2:10: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
He said it again in Titus 2:14: “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
And you remember the words of Jesus: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
And we do not do just any good works, but good works in the name of Jesus: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
I want to offer a simple call to be doers of justice, lovers of mercy and people who walk humbly with our God in Jesus’ name (Micah 6:8).
Pointing Ahead to the Redeemer as Sin-Bearer and Way-Shower
The beginning of Isaiah 58 is all about social justice and practical mercy.
Before we apply this text, let’s make sure two things are clear. One is that Isaiah, writing just before 700 B.C., knew that the Redeemer had not yet come, but that He would come, and that when He came He would bear our sins of injustice. The other is that when He comes He will bring the very justice God demands.
We see this in Isaiah 53:5–6:
“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This Redeemer is our sin-bearer.
But He is also our way-shower. He brought the very justice He demands. He lived perfectly not only to become our righteousness and our spotless sin-bearing lamb, but also to show us how to live.
When He arrives in His hometown and speaks at the synagogue (Luke 4:18–19), He takes up the scroll of Isaiah and reads from what became chapter 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In other words, all the justice and righteousness and mercy that Isaiah demanded of God’s people, Christ is now bringing into the world in His own person. A new decisive time and power for justice and mercy has arrived.
Therefore when we read Isaiah’s prophetic indictment of God’s people 2,700 years ago and His call for justice, we hear it as Christians on this side of Jesus Christ the promised Messiah. He came to bring justice with His power, and He came to buy it with His blood.
When we hear Isaiah call us to do justice and to love mercy, keep this in mind: Christ has come and shown this justice with His life so we could see it, and bought this justice by His death so that we can do it.
Piety Without Justice and Mercy Is Worthless
The point of Isaiah 58 is this: Piety that does not produce a passion for God-exalting social justice and practical mercy is worthless. Or, to put it positively: God promises that we will break forth like the dawn (vs. 8) if our piety produces a passion for social justice and practical mercy.
Isaiah writes a strong indictment of piety without fruit, devotions without deeds.
“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.” (vs. 1–2)
They are pious, religious, Bible-reading, praying folk—they even enjoy being this way. They delight in their religious practices. But they don’t enjoy God and His ways; they enjoy self-justifying religion, while forsaking the judgments of God.
These pious people ask in verse 3: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
And God answers that their fasting and their self-afflictions are a religious cover for finding pleasure in unjust gain:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (vs. 3–5)
We fast. We make yourself look low and pious and prayerful. But God says, “I see your business practices. I see your attitudes. I see your merciless, harsh, oppressing ways of dealing with people at your work.”
The authenticity our worship on Sunday is shaped by our justice on Monday.
Will the Piety of Sunday Produce a Passion for Justice on Monday?
There is a well-known sermon about the pain of Good Friday turning into the joy of Easter, called “Sunday’s comin’.” The refrain occurs over and over, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’!” Well, we need another sermon to become well known—namely, “It’s Sunday, but Monday’s comin’.”
We’re at church with our voices lifted and our heads bowed and our prayers rising. What does God think of it? You’ll find out tomorrow: “It’s Sunday, but Monday’s comin’!”
Will the piety of Sunday produce a passion for justice on Monday? That’s the question of Isaiah 58.
Isaiah tells us what the social justice and practical mercy look like that please God.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? … If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” (vs. 6–10)
Five Kinds of Human Need for Passionate Concern
In addition to the all-important need for faith and forgiveness and personal holiness, there are five kinds of human need that Isaiah—and Jesus—are passionately concerned about.
1) The need for freedom from bondage and oppression. Four times in verse 6 and once in verse 9 he hits on this. Verse 6: “Loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the straps of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke.” Verse 9b: “Take away the yoke from your midst.”
2) The need for food. Verse 7a: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?”
3) The need for housing. Verse 7b: “[Is it not] to bring the homeless poor into your house?”
4) The need for clothing. Verse 7c: “[Is not this the fast I choose:] When you see the naked, to cover him?”
5) The need for respect. Verse 9b: “Take away … the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness.” In other words, stop accusing unjustly and belittling and exploiting.
Isaiah preaches justice to the people of God, and Jesus displays justice to the people of God and suffers to cleanse and empower the people of God, so our piety will produce a passion for social justice and practical mercy. If it doesn’t, our piety is empty.
And if it does—if our faith and love and devotion to Christ do produce a passion for freeing the oppressed and feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, and clothing the naked and putting away belittling talk and demeaning gestures—then we will break forth like the dawn.
We know from the fulfillment of this prophecy in Jesus that this does not mean we earn God’s blessings. God Himself, through Christ, purchases them for us at the cross and empowers us to fulfill the conditions for them.
And what are these blessings? All the rest of this text is promise for what good things happen in our lives when we give ourselves away to others in the cause of justice and mercy.
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ … Then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” (vs. 8–12)
Descriptions and Dreams of Who We Want to Be
Is this not a beautiful description of what we would like to experience as a people who follow Christ:
• Light in darkness
• Healing for wounds
• Righteousness in front and the glory of God behind
• A God who hears when we cry to Him
• Guidance from the Lord
• Satisfaction for our souls in scorched places
• Our very bones made strong for battle
• Being so watered by the Lord that we become a spring of water for others to drink and find refreshment
• Being used by God to rebuild what has been destroyed and make a place of life and hope
All this and more is promised to people whose piety produces a passion for God-exalting justice and practical mercy. So dream a dream for you and your family and your friends for how you can
• free the oppressed,
• feed the hungry,
• house the homeless,
• clothe the naked,
• and put an end to belittling gestures and words.
This is the will of God, this is the work of Christ, and this is the way to break forth like the dawn.