We preach it out of context: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
We preach it as an evangelistic sermon, calling unbelievers to accept God’s offer of forgiveness and abundant, eternal life. And that’s not entirely wrong. That is what the Lord offers the lost, and the words aptly describe what his forgiveness will do for them.
But Isaiah was a prophet, not an evangelist. His words were — and are — directed to God’s people. Back up to the beginning of the chapter and understand both his audience and message:
— “The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me.” (v.2)
— “They are evil people, corrupt children who have rejected the Lord.” (v.4)
— “Listen to the Lord, you leaders of ‘Sodom.’ Listen to the law of our God, people of ‘Gomorrah.’ What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” (vv.10-11)
— “Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts …. I want no more of your pious meetings.” (v.13)
— “Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways.” (vv.15-16)
— “Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.” (v.17)
These are God’s people. They come to worship and offer sacrifices. But the prophet condemns them because they don’t help the oppressed, defend the cause of orphans, and fight for the rights of widows. How many of the people gathering regularly in your worship center fit that description?
Our hands are crimson with blood because we merely look out for our own interests and refuse to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then we multiply our guilt by abusing God’s Word. We cherry-pick verses like these, ripping them out of context to make our evangelistic point — and completely ignore the point the Lord is making to his own people. God Almighty is trying to warn his people about their rebellion, and instead we preach an evangelistic sermon to a room full of Christians.
We do violence to the Gospel when we divorce salvation from justice for the oppressed. By failing to preach and teach the whole truth, we put our people in danger of hearing the Lord say, “I never knew you.”
But there is hope:
“Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.”