Islam teaches that a Muslim earns Allah’s favour by doing good deeds and keeping the five pillars of Islam – testimony, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and taking a pilgrimage to Mecca. You do righteousness in order to hopefully be righteous. Is this what Isaiah is teaching?
Often we are tempted to have this same Islamic view as Christians. We often are tempted to do things to curry God’s favour and earn his love. These things may be good things like Bible reading, prayer and showing mercy, but we do them in order to be in God’s good book, to be righteous. We are constantly striving to rack up God-points in the hope that God will one day be happy enough with us to allow us into heaven.
The gospel according to Isaiah
This is not what Isaiah is teaching. Isaiah would have fundamentally disagreed with Mohammed! According to Isaiah 5:7 God looked for righteousness in his people but found none, “he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress”. Even more depressingly, Isaiah says that even our best good deeds make us look like filthy beggars before God. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”.
God demands righteousness but finds filth. What are we to do?
The astounding news, according to Isaiah, is that God – knowing we have no righteousness of our own – gives us his righteousness! Isaiah 61:10 says, “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…”
How will God do this? Isaiah tells us of the suffering servant who “after the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify (“make righteous”) many, and he will bear their iniquities.” A righteous servant will bear the punishment deserved by the unrighteousness and make them righteous instead. Jesus was that servant. A famous verse in the New Testament says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
In Isaiah 56:1 God is addressing his saved people who are returning to Jerusalem from captivity. God says, “As my saved people, as a response to my salvation and my righteousness, you in turn are to maintain justice and do righteousness”. Once we’ve been declared righteous by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, we are called to do righteousness; not to earn God’s favour, but as a response to God’s favour. Righteous living is an integral aspect of the believer’s life.
Not only on Sundays
Doing righteousness means living in the way God’s considers right. It implies not getting drunk on Saturday knowing you can ask for forgiveness on Sunday. It involves not singing in the pew on Sunday and then continuing your adulterous affair with your secretary on Monday. It entails not preaching from the pulpit on Sunday and watching porno on Tuesday. According to the next verse, it means submitting your whole life to God’s word as revealed in his covenant. (Isaiah 56:2)
This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do righteousness, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (Isaiah 56:1-2)
“The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow”. (Isaiah 62:2)