It was a wonderful week with friends at the 2007 Sovereign Grace Leadership Conference in Gaithersburg, Maryland (close to DC). The conference was well-attended and the hospitality was beyond comparison. … But it is also good to return home and let the swirling thoughts settle. This week I’ll be going back over the sessions I attended with some reflections.
Wednesday night (4/11/07 PM)
General session #1
R.C. Sproul: “The Holiness of God”
GAITHERSBURG, MD – C.J. Mahaney gave one of his trademark warm introductions to R.C. as a man committed, not to the advancement of the academy, but to explaining theology to simple folk. “No one has more advanced, explained and defended Reformation theology more than R.C.” Later he said Sproul is “Luther-like in his defense of justification by faith alone.” C.J. went on to voice his appreciation specifically for the book The Holiness of God. When R.C. came to the stage C.J. had one more display of thankfulness for by presenting Sproul with a Steelers football helmet. C.J. also pulled out a Redskins helmet. [The next night Sproul would joke that he needed the helmet to protect his head from C.J. flailing arms during worship.]
After knocking the worship music of Sovereign Grace Ministries (!), Sproul began the first general session by explaining that the holiness of God has captivated his attention since 1957 when a study of the Old Testament brought the holiness of God to the forefront of his attention. Seeing God’s holiness in Scripture was a “virgin experience” because for years this God had been “concealed” to him even in the church! It was in 1957 Sproul came to realize that “God plays for keeps” and “I must give him everything I have.”
In seminary, Sproul’s understanding of God’s holiness continued to develop. As he studied Augustine, Anselm, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Edwards the common thread that “clearly gripped each one of these titans was an overwhelming sense of God’s transcendent majesty.” They were “intoxicated by a sense of the majesty of God.” There is nothing more important than a rediscovery of the character of God as His Word is expounded.
Sproul then launched into an exposition of Isaiah 6:1-8.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called 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 shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of 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, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And 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.”
Sproul built a picture of the holiness of God in a period of personal duress for Israel. Uzziah the king reigned for 52 years and made many improvements to the nation. The nation was strong although their king turned arrogant and turned away from the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). The Lord struck Uzziah with leprosy and he died as an unclean outcast. At this time of national concern, God revealed Himself to a man named Isaiah.
This scene is the disclosure of the preincarnate Jesus Christ in His holiness. In His presence the seraphim angels covered their feet (showing their creaturliness) and covered their eyes from His holy presence. The thrice repeated “Holy” reveals God’s infinitely holy character.
This earth is filled with His glory. The world and all of creation displays the “theater” of God (Calvin). We walk blindfolded to this glory. While sinners are cold to the holiness of God, the very foundation of the temple quakes in His presence.
When Isaiah saw a glimpse of the holiness of God he immediately understood who he was – a sinner (v. 5). “Woe is me!” was a pronouncement of an oracle of doom upon himself. We don’t treat God as our “buddy” but as a holy and righteous God. No longer does Isaiah have it all together. He unravels in the presence of God’s perfection. We too must be undone before we are saved.
The seraphim angel takes a burning hot coal from the altar (so hot the angel could not touch it). The scorching coal was placed on Isaiah’s lips – not to torture – but to cauterize the wound of sin and cleanse from further corruption. This is no cheap grace. Repentance hurts and heals. Don’t cheapen grace! Here Isaiah found justification, the gift of being declared righteous in God’s sight. This became the basis of his prophetic ministry. He closed with the idea that “None of us are qualified to speak for God unless we have experienced God’s justification.”
At a leadership conference like this, it would have been great to hear an emphasis on the correlation between the holiness of God and the ministry of the Word. But overall the first general session was no disappointment. It was a great reminder of the centrality of the holiness of God for the church. We, too, must have hearts, preachers and churches that are “intoxicated” with God’s holiness.
Related 2007 SGM LC sessions: