A Lesson from Isaiah on the Sovereignty of God in Evangelism

A Lesson from Isaiah on the Sovereignty of God in Evangelism July 23, 2020

I have the firm belief that every single genuine Christian has the desire to preach the gospel. They want to be found faithful to the Great Commission, and a very large part of that is simply because God has placed this burden on the hearts of His people. How can one who has genuinely experienced the grace of God in their life not desire others to experience that same grace? I just don’t believe that’s possible, and yet when you talk to Christians about sharing their faith, you find that many of them haven’t spoken to an unbeliever about the gospel in some time. If you ask them how many have given the explicit gospel, that number grows increasingly smaller.

Many reasons come up as to why it doesn’t happen, but the reason, according to Scripture, is that the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37-38). It is not that the harvest isn’t plentiful and ready (Jn. 4:35); it is not for a lack of a call for Christians to be laborers and to take part in the harvest (Matt. 28:16-20); it is not out of want of the Lord to prepare the elect to receive the gospel. There may be underlying motivations as to why the laborers are few, but nonetheless, the issue is in essence, a disobedience to the call to bring the gospel to unbelievers. When I discuss with people why they don’t evangelize though, there are a few reoccurring reasons that come up time and again.

One of which is simply that they don’t know how to do it. They want to be faithful; they want to bring the gospel to their friends and family, yet every time they try, they end up with their foot in their mouth out of sheer awkwardness. We can debate on whether or not the use of specific tactics in evangelism are helpful, but that’s not really the point of this post. I can understand and sympathize with these people simply because at the heart of the issue, they just want to know how to turn a conversation toward the gospel, and to do that well.

The number one reason why people don’t evangelize is not owing to lack of the “how-to’s” though, but fear. Whether that fear manifests itself in rejection, the loss of that relationship, their own ability, or something else, it all boils down to fear. I can easily look at someone and tell them that they ought not to fear man, but most often, people already know this. In some cases, people need to hear this, but in others, I sense there is simply a deficiency in understanding that there is a twofold purpose to evangelism. What results from this is a set of expectations that don’t align with those purposes, and often, reality itself. What I mean by this is that people often go into the task of evangelism with a host of assumptions, all surrounding the idea that they are responsible for the outcome in some capacity or another. When the outcome is negative, they sense this as a failure, and that colors every attempt at evangelism thereafter because they are afraid to fail again.

I recognize though that behind the fear of rejection is the fear of losing relationships that people hold dearly. This is not an unfounded fear. I’ve witnessed it firsthand, and lost many friendships myself as a result, some rather quickly, whilst others faded over time. There is a real cost associated with seeking to be found faithful—but let me ask: is keeping the friendship worth the price of their eternal damnation? Surely, you may lose your friendship and not see them ever come to faith, but you also may lose your friend now only to find him as your brother in eternity. You have a guarantee though to see that person perish in eternal fire if you withhold the gospel from them, unless God is pleased to save them through someone else’s faithfulness. My simple question to you is why you wouldn’t want to be part of that process, if God is pleased to use you as the vehicle to bring the gospel to your friend.

“If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.” Charles Spurgeon

If we go into the duty of evangelism with the expectation that it will not be received by many, this might help us reconcile with the prospect of rejection. In one sense then, it means we must take God at His Word when He says there are many who will go through the wide gate that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). We likewise ought to reconcile with the notion that there are different responses people have to hearing the Word of God, just like the Parable of the Sowers maintains. We don’t know whether or not the person we bring the gospel to will accept it or reject it, but we do know that nonetheless, God is presently at work in either case. This should be the comfort to the one who evangelizes, namely, because it removes the evangelist from the seat of power, and therefore, places the onus on God to save through the power of the gospel itself rather than the messenger.

Likewise, if we go into evangelism understanding that in some cases, God actually uses the proclamation of truth as a means to close one’s mind from repentance, we can guard our hearts by recognizing that God ordains whatsoever comes to pass. What that means with respect to evangelism is that sometimes, the preaching of the gospel actually serves as the means through which an individual’s heart is hardened against God. In other words, not every instance of proclaiming a message of repentance is designed by God to bring the people who hear it to repentance and faith. In fact, Scripture often demonstrates the opposite is true—that the proclamation serves to condemn the recipients rather than restore. A great example of this is found in the commissioning of the prophet Isaiah:

8Then 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!”

9He said, “Go, and tell this people: Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand. 10Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”

11Then I said, “Lord, how long?” and He answered, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people and the land is utterly desolate, 12the Lord has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, and it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump” (Is. 6:8-13).

Many tend to focus on Isaiah’s answer to the commission, but the focus of the passages itself is on the content of the commission, which is fleshed out in vv. 9-12. The Hebrew denotes the continuing nature of the commands to be given to the people in v. 9, yet also the subsequent result. The Israelites will be commanded by the prophet to continually be in a state of listening, but they will never come to understanding; they are to be continually in a state of seeking out understanding, but they will never come to an understanding. They are to constantly seek after God—yet they will not find Him. In other words, they will be given an impossible task and the preaching of the prophet himself will only solidify this reality. In v. 10 the prophet is actually commanded—the imperative form of the verbs is used here—to render their hearts insensitive (lit. fat), their ears dull (lit. heavy), and their eyes dim (lit. pasted shut). As Brevard Childs puts it, “The prophet is to be the executor of death, the guarantor of complete hardening. His very proclamation is to ensure that Israel will not turn and repent.”[1]

Notice the prophet doesn’t ask any questions concerning the fairness of God’s edict in v. 11, but rather the duration for which he is to heed this commission. The answer, of course, is devastating. The prophet’s work of preaching a message that will only harden the hearts of his people will not be completed until the Lord has rendered the capital cities desolate and carried the Israelites away to captivity. While I do not agree with Childs and G.K. Beale on their commentary regarding v. 13[2], in that I do see it as dealing with a remnant that will be re-established at a later point in redemptive history, the scope of this blog post is not going to deal with those implications for now.

Rather, what I want to draw attention to is the fact that this passage plainly suggests the purpose and result of the prophet’s commission is to be an agent God uses to harden the hearts of those who hear him. In other words, his message, though one riddled with calls to repentance and faith in Yahweh and a future restoration of the nation, will never be heeded by the people because it only serves to intensify their immediate judgment. The promise of v. 13 still carries with it the tones of judgment simply because like their fathers before them who died off in the desert, they will die off in captivity. Thus, even this promise serves as a means of hardening their hearts against the Lord.

This theme comes up time and again throughout not only throughout the book of Isaiah, but the other prophets as well, and likewise, in the New Testament. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah are called to a similar path as Isaiah, where they will preach a message of judgment and salvation, yet they will not be heeded (Ez. 2:7; Jer. 7:27). Christ Himself taught in parables for the express purpose of concealing the truth of the Kingdom of God, lest those whom it was not granted to would hear and repent (Matt. 13:10-16; Mk. 4:10-12; Lk. 8:9-10). The apostle Paul even picks this idea up when he speaks of God giving mankind up to the lusts of their hearts, dishonorable passions, and a debased mind (Rom. 1:18-32). When you look through the entirety of the Old and New Testaments, what is plainly seen is that God is at work to harden the hearts of whom He desires, which is most clearly expressed in Rom. 9:6-29. In every instance where the edict is rendered a “lost-cause” against the recipients of the message, the truth of God has been made self-evident so that man is without excuse.

None of this is a matter of controversy in Scripture. Instead, election and reprobation are simply part of the cosmic reality of judgment and salvation unfolding before us as the plan of God is revealed. In the midst of this, Scripture unabashedly upholds the tension between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility without much qualification. The important thing to note in all of this is that it is not as if those under this severe indictment from the Lord are under it without cause. In every instance, the people have either forsaken the covenant or rejected their Creator willingly. The commission of Isaiah serves to show us this reality quite clearly, in that chapters 2-5 give clear evidence that the people plainly rejected the terms of their covenant with God, and as a result, He would send the prophet to seal their fate.

To put it in as blunt of terms as I can: there was no hope for their escape of judgment, as God made it an impossibility for them to hear the words of His prophet and repent. The fullness of the consequences had come upon that generation, showing the patience of the Lord had long been extinguished. The only thing one is left to conclude then from the call given to Isaiah is that his words would not serve to be a message of hope; his words we be to go to this people and tell them, “I have been given a command by Yahweh to preach in such a manner that your hearts become hardened, your ears become blocked, and your eyes become darkened.”

What all of this means for the church then is that we are simply to be found faithful to the task of heralding God’s message. We are to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, which for most people, means you are to bring the gospel into your workplaces, friendships, families, and so forth. All that is required of you is to look to where God has placed you currently and simply be found faithful to the task of proclaiming the good news to those who are dead in their sins. It requires that we not be ashamed of the good news of the gospel, which includes not being ashamed of the bad news of God’s judgment against sin. Whatever the result of that proclamation of the gospel may be, whether a hardening or a softening of the heart, God effectually uses this message for His purposes. We may not necessarily like the implications of God using our proclamation of judgment and salvation to effectively harden an individual’s heart. We may not believe the implications of this are even fair—but we ought to remember in the midst of everything that we don’t want fair, because our idea of what’s fair doesn’t square with God’s.

What’s fair is God condemning every man, woman, and child to an eternity in Hell. What’s fair is that the only blameless One to have ever existed would not be put to the cross to pay for the sins of others. What you and I desire is mercy and grace, because mercy is not giving people what they deserve, which is condemnation, and grace is giving people what they don’t deserve, which is no condemnation. The gospel is a scandal to the world because it sees the murderer, rapist, racist, and the like, on equal footing with the sweet old lady who doesn’t confess Christ—and offers them all the same grace of God in Christ. What that very simply means is that the gospel is not barred from anyone on the basis of their own doing or choosing, but rather, on the sovereign choice of God Himself. If those who struggle with evangelizing were to focus on the sovereignty of God in evangelism, it would free many a burdened soul up to take joy in the work that God has given them, realizing that whether the person they share the gospel with rejects or receives it, God is glorified in accomplishing His work through the preached word.

[1] Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. Westminster John Knox Press, (2001): 56.

[2] Both Childs and Beale see the imagery related to further indication of final judgment on Israel rather than a preserved remnant, but this doesn’t quite fit with other passages in Isaiah that indicate otherwise, such as Is. 10:20-23.

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