(This is the text of the speech given to faculty and students of the Protestant Reformed Seminary on the occasion of registration at the beginning of the 1994/1995 school-year.)
The work of the seminary that we take up again this morning is preliminary and basic to the call to the ministry of the gospel. You young men who study for the ministry are not yet called. You believe yourselves to have the inward aspect of the call. But God has not yet called you by His church, so that you are commissioned officially to bring His Word to His people. God has not yet said to you what He said to Isaiah the prophet in verse 9: “Go, and tell this people.”
A certain preparation is necessary for the call and the task that belongs to it. This is the place and purpose of our seminary.
The question is: “What is this preparation?” More specifically, the question is: “Is the preparation in the Protestant Reformed Seminary only academic and intellectual, or is it also spiritual and experiential?” The charge, or fear, today is that all Reformed seminaries give only academic and intellectual preparation. If this is true, it is a devastating indictment of the seminaries. There is reason for this charge, or fear, in existing seminaries and their graduates. We may acknowledge that the charge points to a real danger also for our seminary.
Let us guard against this threat, and be reminded of the necessity of a spiritual, experiential preparation for the ministry, as well as an academic, intellectual preparation, by taking heed to the Word of God inIsaiah 6:5-7.
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.
Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live .coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar;
And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
The passage is the account of the preparation of the prophet for the LORD’S call of him to his office and for the work that belongs to this office. It is the account of a necessary preparation for the call and the office. The chapter describes the call of Isaiah to the prophetic office, the original call that lay behind his entire prophetic ministry. There is some question about this, since this account of the call is given after the record of some of the prophet’s labors in chapters 1-5, but mistakenly. Verses 8, 9 leave no doubt that this is the original and basic call to the prophetic office that preceded also the labors recorded in chapters 1-5: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me. And he said, Go.” The postponing of the account of the original call, with which Isaiah’s ministry began, to chapter 6 can be satisfactorily explained.
The call is immediately followed by the prophet’s mandate in verses 9b, 10: “Make the heart of this people fat.” The divine purpose with the mandate is given in verses 11-13: “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant . . . but yet in it shall be a tenth.”
Preceding call and mandate is the prophet’s vision of the thrice holy LORD of hosts in verses 1-4.
In this description of the vision of the LORD and of the call of the prophet occur the prophet’s outburst, “Woe is me!” and the seraph’s putting the live coal to the prophet’s lips. The outburst expresses the personal misery of the prophet; the seraphs placing of a live coal to his lips is the deliverance of the prophet from his misery.
The description of the prophet’s personal misery and salvation refers to an aspect of the LORD’S preparation of him for the task to which he will at once be called. It is commonly recognized that there is a relationship between Isaiah’s vision of the LORD and his call by the LORD in that the holiness of Jehovah explains the message and mandate of the prophet. But there is also this relationship between the vision of the LORD and the call of the prophet, that the vision of the LORD prepares the prophet for his call, prepares him, obviously, spiritually and experientially. This preparation is necessary for the prophetic office in every age. The Reformed minister must have been prepared in this way also.
This necessary preparation of the minister consists of the experience of forgiveness in the way of a heartfelt knowledge of one’s misery as a foul sinner.
The prophet Isaiah was forgiven. This took place by the symbolical act and the word of the seraph of the LORD God. Although the cleansing of sanctification is implied, the act of putting the coal to the prophet’s lips and the accompanying word represent justification. Especially the last part of the angel’s word makes this clear: “Thy sin is purged.” The Hebrew word translated “purged” refers to the covering of sin’s guilt in the act of pardon. That forgiveness is applied specifically to the lips of the prophet, just as in verse 5 his wickedness is concentrated in his lips, is indicative of the fact that the purpose of God with His people is that they confess and praise Him with the mouth. Their great sin, therefore, is a sin of the lips.
Forgiveness was personal and experiential. It was a living spiritual reality in the prophet’s consciousness. Forgiveness was seared there. It could never be forgotten.
God’s forgiveness of the prophet was the application to him of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God in the death of Jesus Christ. This comes out in the symbolic act: a coal from the altar was laid on his mouth. The altar with its fire typified the offering of the propitiatory sacrifice.
The prophet knew the cross! He knew the cross as his own redemption! It was not abstract to him, or only academic. The cross of Christ was for him personally, and it was his life.
This belongs to your preparation for the ministry. You hope to preach to others the cross and its pardon. You must speak what you yourselves believe.
The preparation that consisted of forgiveness was accomplished in the way of Isaiah’s profound conviction of his misery of sin: “Woe is me!” etc. (v. 5).
This was personal. There was no isolation of himself from the people to whom he ministered. He, as well as the people, was a man of uncleanness, and the filth of the people aggravated his own unworthiness.
This was experiential. Confession of sin was the lament of a broken heart. It was the Old Testament equivalent of the apostle’s groan in Romans 7: “O, wretched man that I am.”
The prophet knew his own depravity. This depravity rendered him guilty and shameful in the judgment of the LORD. It was guilt, for it meant “woe,” and the woe was nothing less than being “undone.” As guilty, he was very really exposed to the wrathful punishment of the LORD. This was his “woe.” Apart from the grace of pardon, the end was that he was “undone,” that is, perished.
Without this living shattering knowledge of one’s own guilt before God, there is no forgiveness.
If those who would proclaim the gospel must know forgiveness, it is also necessary that they know their misery, that they know experientially this “woe is me!”
But the knowledge of misery depends squarely upon the vision of the LORD God: “for mine eyes have seen the King the LORD of hosts” (v. 5). Isaiah saw Jehovah God in His glory. He saw the triune God. This is the significance, in part, of the “trisagion“; “Holy, holy, holy” (v. 3). This is indicated by the plural in verse 8: “Who will go for us?”
He saw the triune God as God of holiness. This holiness was not only His separation from impurity, but also His difference from all created reality, His transcendence, His exaltedness, His Godness. Awe at the holiness of God marked all of Isaiah’s ministry. More than any other prophet, Isaiah called God, “the Holy One.” Delitzsch says that this was Isaiah’s “prophetic signature.”
Isaiah’s was the vision of Jehovah God triune as the Holy One in Christ. Isaiah saw Christ! We are told this explicitly in John 12:41: “These things said Esaias when he saw his (Jesus’) glory, and spake of him (Jesus).” No man ever sees the naked substance of the Godhead. But Christ is the revelation of God as triune and holy; Jesus Christ is the glory of God.
We ministers of the Word must have seen, and indeed constantly see, Christ. Shall we preach Him, and never have seen Him ourselves? We see Him in the gospel, by the Spirit, but in a personal, spiritual, experiential manner: the way of faith.
Reformed pastors and teachers must have this knowledge of God in Christ with its effect of repentance leading to forgiveness. It is not yet the call, but it is basic to the call. Since the seminary prepares men for the pastorate, this spiritual, experiential preparation is an aspect of the task of the seminary. The work of the seminary is not only the academic and the intellectual. With the academic and the intellectual, the work of the Reformed seminary is spiritual and experiential. The seminary accomplishes this work, in the power of the Spirit, by teaching the doctrine of the triune, holy God as made known in Jesus Christ according to the Holy Scriptures. It teaches this doctrine as the doctrine that the professors and seminarians themselves believe and by which they themselves have been saved. Then, and only then, is it taught as a doctrine that must be delivered to the people of God in the congregations.
God grant that in school this year, our eyes see the Ring, Jehovah of hosts in Jesus Christ.