“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.”
In meditating on this chapter in Isaiah, I came to realize something. We have Isaiah in a vision or epiphany of the throne room of God, with sereaphim all around. The sense of holiness was so profound that Isaiah was undone, crying out “Woe is me!”
So a seraphim flies out with a burning coal from the altar. It is a burning coal, on fire and red hot, but not consumed. And of all things, he touches the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. We think it would burn his lips, but instead it has an unexpected result: it heals him. It takes away his iniquity and forgives his sin.
Here’s what I think: the altar is the altar of Christ. It is the law, and it is the gospel, at once. It is, so to speak, the cross. The holiness of God is poured out there. The example of a perfect life perfectly lived in perfect obedience to the shedding of blood is there. And it is such a degree of holiness that if we understood it, if we saw it truly, it would strike utter terror into us. If it touched us, surely it would burn us to a crisp. We think grace means that we paint Christ as a fluffy nice kitten. We think grace means that He is harmless and unthreatening. But He is a burning fire, and if He touches us, we think surely we will be burned and die. He is threatening. He is, as C.S. Lewis would show us, an untamed lion. If we do not see Him in His holiness with this terror we do not truly see.
But here is the unexpected thing: when He touches us, we do not die. We are not burned. We are lit on fire, but we are not consumed, because it is not a consuming fire. It is the fire of grace – so we are healed. We are profoundly forgiven. We are cleansed, and this opens the door to our commission. Before we are touched by His burning holiness which heals, we only cower in fear and beg mercy. But having been touched, we cry out, “Here am I! Send me!” And in the eyes of God we are worthy of the commission. We are accepted as holy, as worthy of the throne room of God and of the purposes of God. Far from being burned with His holiness, we are set free to beg for obedience. Forgiveness frees us from unholiness and disobedience to a have a heart which begs for mission and obedience. This is the way of true grace, and the way of the holiness of the gospel of Christ Jesus.