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February 14, 1999

Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

Please turn with me to Isaiah 45, verses 21-25. The fundamental need of the human race is for salvation–deliverance from evil, in the forgiveness of sins, and the liberation from the bondage of sin and death. We need a savior, a rescuer from sin. In the our passage this morning the prophet Isaiah tells all the nations that their many gods and many lords are not saviors–that they cannot deliver them from death or rescue them from their misdeeds. The LORD alone, as the one true God, is a savior, a deliverer, a rescuer. And God is a savior, according to this passage, especially because of two attributes which He alone possesses. Now I will be preaching on one of these attributes, so I will tell you what the other one is right now: Strength. God alone is a savior because he alone is capable of saving us from our sins, delivering us from death, and rescuing us from the curse. But there is another attribute which God alone possesses of all the so-called gods, which makes Him alone the savior.

Hear the Word of the LORD:

Declare and set forth your case;

Indeed, let them consult together.

Who has announced this from of old?

Who has long since declared it?

Is it not I, the LORD?

And there is no other God besides Me,

A righteous God and a savior;

There is none except Me.

Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth;

For I am God and there is no other

I have sworn by Myself

The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back,

That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.

They will say of Me, “Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.”

Men will come to Him,

And all who were angry at Him shall be put to shame

In the LORD all the offspring of Israel

Will be justified, and will glory.

Let us pray:


Never pray for justice! Only pray for mercy. The last thing you want is justice.

Never pray for God to judge you! That would be disastrous. Plead with Him to be merciful to you.

Here’s another saying that, whether it is articulated so crudely or not, undergird the exhortations I just repeated:

God’s righteousness is of no comfort to us. We must rely on God’s mercy, not His righteousness.

These are pretty common statements in circles popularizing Reformed theology. And they make a good deal of sense. After all, there is no man or woman who does not sin, and if God was to deal with us as we deserve according to our sins, we would all be condemned by God’s judgment. That is true. That is Biblical.

Nevertheless, it is not biblical to tell Christians to “never pray for justice.” In fact, it is totally unbliblical. Christians are supposed to pray for justice. Indeed we are given public prayers in the Bible so that, when we read or sing them, we have to pray for justice from God. I’m referring, to the Psalter:

Psalm 7.8

The LORD judges the peoples; Judge me, O LORD according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me.

Psalm 10.17-18

O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear To judge the orphan and the oppressed, that man who is of the earth may cause terror no more.

Psalm 26.1-3

A Psalm of David. Judge me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity; And I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Examine me, O LORD, and try me; Test my mind and my heart. For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes, And I have walked in Your faithfulness.

Psalm 35.24

Judge me, O LORD my God, according to my righteousness.

Psalm 43.1

Judge me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation.

Psalm 96.10-13

Say among the nations: “The LORD reigns; Indeed the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

Let the sea roar and all it contains;

Let the field exult, and all that is in it.

Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy

Before the LORD fro He is coming;

For He is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

And the peoples in faithfulness [emphasis added].

I could go on and on from the Psalms alone, but I’ll stop there with that last passage. Notice that not only is God’s judgment something the whole world rejoices in, but that judgment of God is tied to His righteousness.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

And the peoples in faithfulness..

Before I go any farther, let me stress to you, that the relatively odd practice we have here of singing paraphrases of the Psalms, and reciting often from translations of the Psalms, is a wonderful safeguard of our faith from unbiblical error. You see, if all Evangelicals in America had been raised praying these public prayer-hymns, then these slogans that are tossed around so easily would never make it off the ground. Everyone would know that we are supposed to pray for justice: to beg God to judge us in righteousness, and to plead with Him to do it sooner rather than later. If we had all been brought up singing these paraphrased hymns, or, better, chanting more accurate translations, we would all know what we are supposed to pray for because we would have been doing it corporately all our lives.

Why? Why should we dare ask God to judge us in righteousness? Because, as our passage from Isaiah states rather starkly, God’s righteousness is not something which prevents us from being saved, but something that gives us our only hope of salvation.

There is no other God besides Me,

A righteous God and a savior;

There is none except Me.

Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth;

For I am God and there is no other

I have sworn by Myself

The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back,

That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.

They will say of Me, “Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.”

Here in our passage, all the nations are called to abandon their many gods and many lords because these gods and lords cannot save.

Why not? Why can’t they save their worshipers?

Well, for one thing, they simply aren’t strong enough to save their people. Since these gods are, at most, mere creatures who are being given false honors, as Romans 1.23 tells us, they are not powerful enough to rescue their people. They are not capable of delivering anyone. Only in the LORD is strength: so He alone can save all the ends of the earth.

But there is another reason why these false gods cannot save. They not only lack the strength; they lack the moral character. Even if they had the power to save their worshipers, they wouldn’t do it, no matter what promises they made. They are not trustworthy. They are not faithful. They are not righteous. Only in the LORD is righteousnes; so He alone can be trusted to save all the ends of the earth.

Now I need to dissuade anyone from making a mistake here in considering the righteousness of God mentioned in Isaiah 45.24. Because we all know that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, we might be tempted to assume that God’s righteousness here is mentioned in the context of salvation because it is the righteousness that is imputed to us.

Contextually, whatever else might be said for or against that idea, this passage will not support that interpretation. Think about it: “Only in the LORD are righteousness and strength.” Is strength imputed to us? No. The point of mentioning the LORD’s strength is that He is powerful enough to save His people. The issue in this passage is not what is imputed to God’s people, but God’s qualities which entail that He is trustworthy as a savior. God is a savior because he is strong–capable of saving His people. God is a savior because he is righteous–willing to save hie people.

God’s righteousness assures us that He is our savior. His righteousness does not jeopardize our salvation, but guarantees it. He does not save us depite His righteousness but because of His righteousness.

Again, we see this also in the Psalms. Remember the nature of Hebrew poetry as is found both in the Psalms and the prophecies of Isaiah. Hebrew poetry translates well because it does not depend on rhyming but on stating a thought and then usually presenting a closely related thought which elaborates and/or reiterates the same thing.

Psalm 36.10

O continue Your lovingkindness to those who know Thee;

And Your righteousness to the upright in heart.

Psalm 103.17

The lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him,

And His righteousness to children’s children.

Now, notice how these passages show God’s righteousness and His lovingkindness, not to be contradictory, but mutually complementary. God’s grace and His righteousness are different aspects of the same thing. In being gracious to His people, in showing “lovingkindness” to them, God is being righteous in regard to them.

In fact, because God’s righteousness manifests itself in acts of salvation, they are almost treated as synonymous.

Psalm 36.5

Your lovingkindness, O LORD extends to the heavens

Your faithfulness to the skies.

Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;

Your judgments are a great deep.

O LORD, You preserve man and beast….

See, according to Psalm 36, to talk of God’s lovingkindness, faithfulness, or righteousness, entails talk of His judgments in history which manifest his character as gracious, faithful and righteous.

Psalm 88.11-12

Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,

Your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?

And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Again we have the same theme. To talk of God’s lovingkindness, or faithfulness, or righteousness is to speak of the “wonders” that He has performed for His people.

This is all tied together in this morning’s call to worship, Psalm 98.1-3:

O sing to the LORD a new song,

For He has done wonderful things,

His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.

The LORD has made known His salvation;

He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations

He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

God’s lovingkindness, faithfulness, and righteousness are manifested through His saving deeds. Verse 2 explicitly tells us that in making “known His salvation” God has “revealed his righteousness.” Salvation does not happen despite God’s righteousness. On the contrary, Salvation is a revelation of God’s righteous character.

And Isaiah in the context surrounding our passage this morning has exactly the same concern for salvation and the revealing of God’s righteousness as we find in these Psalms:

Isaiah 45.8

Drip down, O heavens, from above,

And let the clouds pour down righteousness;

Let the earth open up and salvation bear fruit,

And righteousness spring up with it.

I the LORD have created it.

Righteousness and salvation are virtually synonyms in this passage.

Isaiah 46.12-13

Listen to Me, you stubborn-minded,

Who are far from righteousness.

I bring near My righteousness, it is not far off;

And My salvation will not delay.

And I will grant salvation in Zion,

My glory for Israel.

Saving Israel, giving Israel glory, is a manifestation of God’s righteousness. So if God’s salvation is near then God’s righteousness is near–in other words, it is about to be revealed.

Isaiah 51.6b

But My salvation shall be forever,

And My righteousness shall not wane.

Isaiah 51.8b

But My righteousness shall be forever,

And My salvation to all generations.

Isaiah 56.1

Thus says the LORD,

Preserve justice, and do righteousness,

For My salvation is about to come

And My righteousness to be revealed.

I could quote more, but I think I’ve said enough to make the general point: God’s righteousness is the reason for our salvation. We will be confident that God is the savior of the world, not despite our assurance that He is righteous, but because or our certainty that God is righteous. We are being saved because of God’s righteousness, not despite God’s righteous.

And you all know this has to be true.

I know you do because, more than once, I have read John 1.9 in the confession and absolution. Remember that verse? If we confess our sins, even though God is faithful and righteous, He will forgive us our sins anyway and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

That’s not what it says, is it?


“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Sometimes I hear Christians talk as if, God would be no less righteous even if He never bothered to forgive anyone. That makes a certain amount of sense, because none of us deserves to be forgiven. And there are people who God has not forgiven and will not forgive who will end up in everlasting torment which they will justly deserve. And those people will have no grounds for complaining that God is unrighteous or unjust. They will deserve their punishment and God will be righteous in so punishing them.

But the problem comes when we make the grace of God seem like some sort of accidental feature of His personality–as if God’s basic nature is vengeance and mercy is some sort of surface phenomenon which is nice for those who are forgiven, but not as much part of God’s personality as justice. The Bible guards against that conception. It says that God’s salvation is just as much a revelation of His righteousness as His punitive justice.

In fact, if we believe that God plans to spread salvation to the vast majority of the human race for the vast majority of history, that too reflects on God’s righteous character. God is the savior of the world because only in Him are righteousness and strength.

Now, perhaps I can give you some ways of understanding more precisely how and why God’s righteousness does not contradict His graciousness and willingness to forgive sinners, but rather upholds it. You may have noticed in some of the Psalm passages I read, that not only were lovingkindness and righteousness related to one another, but faithfulness as well. Therein lies part of the key. In 1 Samuel 26.23, David says that “the LORD will repay each man for His righteousness and faithfulness.” Solomon speaks of David’s “faithfulness and righteousness” in 1 Kings 3.6. Now, those words are mutually interpretive. For a man or woman in God’s covenant, they are not expected to be without sin, but simply to be faithful in keeping covenant with God by continuing to repent, confess their sins, and seek forgiveness, trusting in God alone. God’s covenant, after all, isn’t made for unfallen angels but for sinful men. We are expected to sin. That’s part of the covenantal arrangement.

In Luke 1.6, for example, we are told of Zacharias and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.”

Now this, is said of sinners. In fact, Zacharias sins in the very same chapter. Nevertheless, they are described as having a righteous standing in God’s sight and being blameless in keeping all God’s laws. How can that be? Because God’s Law was made for sinners to show them how to live by faith. God’s Law told them to repent and be reconciled to God and each other, after they sinned; and to trust God to forgive them and ultimately to save them.

But if God’s covenant expects those who are considered righteous and faithful to sin, then the same covenant has to also expect God to forgive, if He is to be righteous and faithful. And that’s exactly what Scripture declares:

Psalm 143.1 & 2

A psalm of David.

Hear my prayer, O LORD,

Give ear to my supplication!

Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness!

And do not enter into judgment with Your servant,

For in Your sight no man living is righteous.

Now here, we have a much more orthodox-sounding statement in the second verse. Even though in other Psalm, David pleads to be judged according to His righteousness, here he asks God not to enter into judgment against him. Here David uses the term righteousness to mean “sinlessness,” and admits that he is far from sinless.

Yet even here, David does not hesitate to remind the Lord of His own divine righteousness and faithfulness. That righteousness assures David that his sins will be forgiven.

God has revealed His character in His Word. He has told us that He is righteous and He is told us what that means, that he is faithful, loving, and willing to save. Furthermore, He has revealed that righteousness in what He did through Jesus Christ.

What are we to do with that? What does it mean to believe God is righteous, with all the implications that I have mentioned?

In Exodus 33 & 34 we have a real important moment in God’s covenantal dealings with humankind. Moses on Mount Sinai asks God to show him His glory. God answers Moses’ request by hiding him in the cleft of a rock and showing him the back of God’s glory. And with that visual revelation comes a verbal revelation as well, Exodus 34.6-7:

The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands of generations, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by now means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.

That is a declaration of God’s fundamental character. It is mentioned again and again in the Scriptures. It is even used by John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, to describe Jesus.

But with that revelation of God’s character, we have a revelation of how we should respond. Look at verse 9: Moses said

If now I have found grace in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do You pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession.

So you see what has happened here? As soon as the words are out of God’s mouth that He is gracious and forgiving, Moses is asking Him to prove it.

We all know, from cop shows at least, the Miranda rights: You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.

God operates under similar rules. He expects us to use what He says “against Him.” When He reveals to us His character we are supposed to base our prayers and our very lives on His revelation.

God wants you to know that He can be trusted to save you. That His grace and mercy are revelations of His very being. He has forgiven and will continue to forgive you because of Who He is. Our God is a righteous God, therefore He is a savior. We can remind Him of His revelation of Himself when we pray to Him, just like Moses did. If we trust His Word, we will remind Him of His righteous character, and we will have hope in Him because He is righteous.

Now, I would like to end on that note, but as God’s messenger, I do need to also issue a warning, lest God’s righteousness be misunderstood. Isaiah, in addition to declaring God a righteous savior, also declares the nations under condemnation for rejecting that savior. God’s wrath is not incompatible with His righteousness, with His love. In fact, His love explains His wrath. Remember the warning attached to the Second Commandment?

I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me.

God’s wrath is His jealousy. Hell is his burning jealousy. Song of Solomon 8.6:

Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; [or Hell]

It’s flashes are flashes of fire,

The very flame of the LORD.

Proverbs 27.4

Wrath is fierce and anger is a flood,

But who can stand before jealousy?

God is righteous. God is loving. God pursues sinners. God offers forgiveness. But He will not be patient and longsuffering forever. And the very reason Hell is hot, is because such a great love has been spurned.

But, it’s not my purpose here to dwell on God wrath, but on his righteousness. His covenant faithfulness. His love. God is a righteous God and a savior. So we can trust Him. We should fix our hope on Him because of Who He is. We should continue in covenant with Him, because He is faithful and righteous to keep covenant with us.

And as we humbly work out our salvation in fear and trembling, perhaps we should consider the implications of God’s righteousness in our own sanctification. We want, if we are Christians, to be more like God. Even though we continue to be sinners, we want the Spirit to make us more righteous, and the Spirit does.

But what does it mean to be righteous? To be righteous like God is?

It means lots of things. It means to not steal, to not commit adultery. It means to keep the commandments of God. It means not to covet. And et cetera.

But in that package, let us not forget that it means to show lovingkindness to sinners, just like God does. It means to forgive. It means to keep covenant even when people hurt us.

May God grant this to us all.

Copyright © 2002

1 Comment »

  1. All this doesnt help anyone until the grind reduces!

    Comment by gman — June 30, 2010 @ 11:10 am

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