Date: February 24, 1935
Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. – Isaiah 1:18
IF it were possible to have the host of our Christian friends who are now receiving this message cast a ballot to decide which in their opinion is the most beloved passage of the Old Testament, we should be safe in concluding that, together with David’s immortal Psalm of the Good Shepherd and Isaiah’s deathless fifty-third chapter, Christians from all parts of the country and even from the remote corners of the globe to which the short waves carry these words would acclaim the promise that I have just read to you as one of the most treasured of the merciful pledges in the Old Covenant.
This preeminence is not undeserved. The abrupt summons of God “Come now and let us reason together” rivets our attention; the contrast of colors, “scarlet,” “red,” “crimson,” opposed to the dazzling brightness of mountaintop snow or the stainless white of immaculate fleece, leaves its vivid impress upon us; and the electrifying change from guilt to innocence, from stain to purity, makes us breathe an ardent prayer of gratitude to God for this limitless love.
A court scene, a bar of justice, is portrayed in this startling passage. God’s people, as the opening verses of Isaiah’s poignant prophecies remind us, had proved itself ungrateful, spurned the mercy of Heaven, and loaded its national conscience down with heavy, damnable sins. Sinister days dawned upon Judah and Jerusalem, the nation that preferred foreign alliances to the pledged help of God, that substituted human programs for the divine direction by their sovereign Lord. Violence and crime stalked through the land unchecked; trade and industry were stagnant; agriculture was paralyzed; Israel was sore from head to foot, the country devastated, its glory gone.
In that crisis—and do you realize how the power and love of God is most strikingly manifest in the pivotal points of all history?—the summons of our text is issued: “Come now and let us reason together,” or, to bring the full force of the original Hebrew: “Come and let us take our case to court.” And here, as the apostate nation, answering this summons, cowers at the divine tribunal before the sentence of doom that it deserves and expects, this breath-taking decision of pardon and forgiveness resounds with the promise of hope and life: “Though your sins be as scarlet,” that is, if they are the deep, bloody sins of glaring guilt, “they shall be white as” the new-driven “snow”; they shall lose their hideousness and be washed of their vermilion stain. And then, to add assurance to assurance, the Lord gives the startled nation the repeated promise: “Though your sins be red like crimson,” the deepest red known to the art of the Orient, “they shall be as wool,” the immaculate fleece that pictures the stainless, blemishless color of innocence and purity.
It is an electrifying climax, this dramatic conclusion of God’s case against Israel. Yet it is not an isolated instance of Heaven’s mercy; it is rather an imperishable foundation-fact of Christian faith that assumes majestic proportions particularly in the present crisis; for this verse of ancient prophecy has survived the ravages of twenty-six centuries to present to us the picture of our country with all its inhabitants
AT THE BAR OF DIVINE JUSTICE
and to tell us these two priceless truths: We still have the same pledge of this pardon; we still find the same magnificence of this grace.
WE STILL HAVE THE SAME PLEDGE OF THIS PARDON
Our country, proud in its self-sufficiency, has been subpoenaed to appear before God’s court in answer to the charges of moral and spiritual delinquency. We have been selfish in our relation to our fellow-men; we have been unbelieving and ungrateful in our relation to our God. Don’t blame the specters of these last, anxious, disquieting years, the ghastly tragedies that have banished much of the peace and tranquility which previously crowned this nation, on overproduction or underproduction, gold standards or silver standards, machine labor or hand labor, hoarding, or wasting, or on any of the many external causes regularly cited as the reasons for collapse. Whatever these factors may have contributed is only incidental to the basic charges which America must now answer before the bar of justice: selfishness, godlessness, sin.
Let us be clear on this one focal point. This is no time for minimizing our national and individual transgressions, for disguising iniquity, for excusing immorality. The ravages of crime and the prohibitive price we pay for the consequences of lawlessness present a scathing indictment. American cities are often dominated by gang rule; corruption in our political life is so frequent and deep-rooted that we have ceased to become alarmed at the new evidences of official dishonesty. American courts and jurists have never before retarded the course of true justice more successfully. American business must continually battle the inroads of moral bankruptcy, theft, and fraud. American homes that are too preoccupied for the Word and counsel of God; American amusement that caters to the lowest animal impulses; American books and magazines that revel in the sin and degeneracy of a decadent age,—all these combine to raise the charge that as a nation we have lived and played as though there were no God in heaven.
Now, since you and I and 125,000,000 more of us make up these United States, there is a personal and individual summons for every one of us in this divine subpoena: “Come now and let us reason together.” And when we hear this summons, every time we contemplate the holiness of God, every time His Law hurls its indicting charges against us, every time our conscience asserts its accusing voice, let us not deny our sin; for the Scriptures warn: “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” Let us not join the modern trend of ridiculing sin; for the Sage of the Old Testament warns: “Fools make a mock of sin.” Let us not minimize sin, disguise sin, excuse sin, or ignore sin, but let us step before the bar of divine justice and plead an unhesitating, unreserved, unconditional “Guilty.”
I repeat: We have no defense—our guilt is written in large, indelible letters. Yet because of that unfathomable love with which God loved us “while we were yet sinners,” we know that here at the bar of justice, as the apostle assures us, “If any man sin, we have an Advocate,” a legal representative, “with the Father.” Our Intercessor is “Jesus Christ the Righteous.” In that fateful hour when the doom of the sinner, who is stained with the purple and scarlet of deep-dyed sins, is to be pronounced, our Advocate steps before the bar of God’s unswerving justice and pleads: “Father, I have borne their griefs and carried their sorrows. I was wounded for their transgressions; I was bruised for their iniquities; the chastisement which secured their peace was upon Me, and by My stripes they were healed.” And in the closing appeal our Advocate becomes our Substitute; and there on the rough, gory, barbarous cross the Son of God, crushed by the tugging, clutching, overpowering weight of all sins of all history, —that suffering, dying Savior of the world,—marshals all His vanishing strength; and His feeble, faltering lips gasp this plea, scarcely heard above the rumbling and the sullen jeers of His crucifiers: “Father, forgive them.” That dying gasp closes the case of humanity at the bar of divine justice. The Judge of the eternities rises to pronounce sentence. And—wonder of wonders!—because of the sin-atoning self-sacrifice of Christ His verdict is the same as that which is emblazoned in these letters of imperishable love: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
WE STILL FIND THE SAME MAGNIFICENCE OF HIS GRACE
Pause, then, to picture to yourself, as far as our puny intellect permits, the magnificence of this forgiving grace. Think first of all of the unlimited sweep of these words of pardon as they address themselves to all, regardless of the many and artificial barriers which we have erected to separate men almost as effectively as they are segregated in caste-ridden India. At the bar of justice it does not matter who you are, whether you belong to the blue-blooded Four Hundred or to the thin-blooded regiment of the hungry and homeless; your name may be in Who’s Who, or your finger prints may be on record at police headquarters;—all have this pledge: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” It does not matter where you live, in a municipal lodging-house or in a Southland villa; it does not matter what your cultural status is—you may be a university graduate or an illiterate who has to sign his name with a cross; it does not matter what your past has been, whether you think you can join that earnest young man who once came to Jesus believing that he had kept all the requirements of God’s Law or whether you come as a prodigal who herded swine and fed on husks; whoever you are and whatever you are and wherever you are, in absolute disregard of every difference of race and color, position and authority, money and wealth, learning and culture,—God comes to all of you with this sacred pledge: “Though your sins be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
Think, too, of the free and unconditional offer of this magnificent grace. There is no semblance of any condition attached to these words. We do not read: “Your sins shall become as white as snow if you do something, if you say something, if you give something.” Take any and all religions that exclude Christ as the sin-atoning Savior, and you will find that the one prescribes a pilgrimage to this sacred tomb or to that holy city. Another regulates diet. A third insists that you must wear this clothing or perform that ceremonial rite. But all, whether you go back to the judgments of stern-visaged Osiris in ancient Egypt or forward to the requirements of the most ethical of our modern religious cults, unite in demanding salvation by character, by accomplishment, by human cooperation in some marked and essential degree. Yet here, at the bar of divine justice, we conclude with St. Paul “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law”; here we learn that without money and without price, without character or contribution, without merit or worthiness, simply by the purest, freest, widest grace of which even Heaven conceived, we are granted the divine pledge of a pardon that is positive in its promise and unquestionable in its power.
Positive and unquestionable, I repeat, because here, at the bar of justice, there is a divine pledge, “Thus saith the Lord.” God speaks. Human promises are often lightly given and then quickly forgotten. Even the signed, sealed, and witnessed word of men of high repute and integrity may sometimes not be worth the paper on which it is recorded. Governmental assurances may be repudiated, as the last days have demonstrated. Even the assured results of scientific investigation may prove disappointing. Think of the prophecies of prosperity that have been issued as the result of careful analysis, but that are cruelly contradicted by the harsh realities of our day. Then take heart as you remind yourself that here are words of God, raised above all possibility of change or alteration. Here you have the one permanent pledge of eternity; for “heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” Yes, “the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord.” Here, in short, is the absolute, unshaken foundation that can weather all the storms that may arise in your life; the bright beacon-light that remains undimmed amid the darkness of your particular problems; the truth of Heaven which will remain constant and unsullied in your heart and soul, even though the host of human errors rises to besiege it.
And there have been bitter attacks. In the latest translation of the Bible, the so-called American Bible, the very words of our text, against all the requirements of translation and the demands of Old Testament grammar, have been reduced to a question, robbed of their force, stripped of their promises, and changed into a sarcastic query. Can you imagine what would happen if each sentence of the Declaration of Independence were ended with a question-mark, if the documents in our national archives were wilfully and savagely mutilated as the translators in Chicago have butchered this sacred word of God? Our country would be thrown into chaotic confusion. And I tell you that by changing divine promises into questions, divine pledges into cynical doubts, the souls of men would be plunged into a hideous nightmare of black spiritual despair, from which they could never even begin to recover.
I ask, then, that you who have experienced the undeserved mercy of God in Christ, which has miraculously washed your crimson, scarlet sins into white, stainless innocence, pledge yourselves to live in grateful acknowledgment of this renewing mercy. I ask that, before you leave this bar of justice where forgiveness has again been pronounced upon your soul, you raise your hand in the oath of allegiance and commit yourselves to this pledge: “With all the strength that God gives me, with all the powers of my intellect and resources, I will fight the good fight of faith for the upbuilding of Christ’s Church, for the defense of His Gospel, and for the defeat of damning, soul-destroying error. So help me God!” Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.