Holier than thou

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Isaiah addresses the blindness of human unbelief.  He proclaims the LORD’s word to a “people walking in darkness.”  But while he insists that human wickedness is a disease, he never prescribes human religion as the cure.  No, healing is found only in the Righteous King- He is the LORD of the temple vision, He is Immanuel, the Prince of Peace, the Spirit-filled Branch and our Sacrificial Lamb.  The Messiah alone is our salvation.  Only He can bind up the brokenhearted.  Therefore we cannot save ourselves and all our own efforts at righteous living fall under this damning indictment from the prophet:

“We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”  (Isaiah 64:6)

Notice that Isaiah does not declare our unrighteousness to be like filthy rags.  It’s our righteousness that is the problem!  Isaiah is a tireless campaigner against human religion because human religion is the carrier of that foulest of diseases: self-righteousness.

And so Isaiah begins and ends by opposing this dreaded enemy.  Chapter 1 sees the LORD taking aim at the religion of his day.  His soul hateth their “vain oblations” and “solemn assemblies.”  (Isaiah 1:13-15).

Now at the end of his prophecy, he returns to this theme.  The LORD preaches against those religious folk

which say, Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.  (Isaiah 65:5)

“Holier than thou” is the slogan of the self-righteous.  A “holier than thou” person curls their lip at the unwashed heathen.  They consider sin to be beneath them.  They are apart from the masses and above reproach.

And the tragedy of these kinds of people is that they claim to represent God.  Even more tragically, the world tends to believe them.  Thus, a world that despises “holier than thou” Christians, feels roughly the same way towards God.

But here is what God wants the world to know:  He also despises the “holier than thou” types.  You see our verse continues with the LORD’s verdict on these religionists:

These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.  (Isaiah 65:5)

His soul hates the “holier than thou” religious.  Essentially they commit two grievous errors.

Firstly they have no actual interest in holiness.  Did you notice what it is they take pride in?  Not their holiness per se, rather their holiness in comparison to you.

CS Lewis put his finger on this issue beautifully in Mere Christianity

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

The same can be said of holiness.  Those who are “holier than thou” are not interested in holiness.  They simply use it as a tool for exalting themselves over you.

That’s the first problem with these people.  The second is this: they completely misunderstand holiness.

Their holiness is about standing apart and keeping others at bay.  Yet the truly holy person is not estranged from others, but committed to others.  We know this because we have already met the One who is superlatively holy.  In Isaiah 6 we saw the LORD Jesus who is “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  While His holiness makes Isaiah cry “woe is me” that’s not because the LORD wants separation.  The problem is Isaiah!  And so in His holiness the LORD makes forgiveness fly to him.  He sets Isaiah on his feet and commissions him to preach to the people.   This is not a shut-off holiness – this is an outgoing holiness.

His name throughout Isaiah is “the Holy One of Israel” and yet this title is consistently used in conjunction with His redeeming activity.  It’s about His going out to save a people.  His holiness certainly constrasts with our sin.  But that’s not because He shuts Himself away from us, rather the opposite.  While we shut ourselves down, He pursues us with a fierce and relentless passion.  This is His holiness – His complete commitment to the salvation of His people.

And so, in contrast to those who claim to be “holier than thou”, Isaiah 65 begins with a picture of true holiness:

I have spread out my hands all the day unto a rebellious people.   (Isaiah 65:2)

From early in the morning until late at night the LORD Jesus holds out His arms to reconcile His people.  His holiness is not about seeking distance from sinners.  It’s not about erecting an insulating wall against sin.  It’s not about standing aloof from the unwashed.  It’s the very opposite.  Holiness is an arms-wide offer to the wicked.  It’s about pursuing the rebellious with steadfast love.

May we all reject the “holier than thou” self-righteousness.  And may we learn true holiness as we contemplate the outstretched arms of the Holy One of Israel.

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