John Calvin remains one of the most significant theologians in all of church history. His biblical commentaries continue to provide insight into the meaning and application of the Word of God, and pastors routinely consult them in sermon preparation. Calvin’s teachings on worship, the doctrine of the church, and other matters reshaped the church in the West. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the work he produced to give a systematic summary of Protestant doctrine: Institutes of the Christian Religion.
In the Institutes, Calvin presents the essential doctrines of the Christian religion with theological depth, intellectual rigor, and warm pastoral reflection. Some of his most profound insights can be found in his discussion of the contrast between human beings and the Lord. For instance, he writes in the Institutes that “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (1.1.3). Among the texts that the Reformer offers in support of this observation is Isaiah 6.
We have already seen the Lord’s dramatic and convincing revelation of His holiness to the prophet Isaiah in verses 1–4. Isaiah 6:5 records Isaiah’s response to his vision of the holy Creator. Though the prophet sees but a glimpse of the Lord in all His holiness and glory, he is undone. He is filled with fear and pronounces woe upon himself, recognizing that in light of God’s holiness, he is a creature most unclean.
It would be easy to pass over the significance of Isaiah’s response. As a true prophet and perhaps the greatest of all the writing prophets, Isaiah certainly stands as one of the holiest servants of the Lord to have ever lived. In an era when many of God’s people were flagrant covenant breakers, Isaiah would have stood out for his righteousness. Yet when Isaiah saw the holiness of God with his own eyes, he realized that his goodness was but nothing in comparison to the Lord’s. He may have been holy in comparison to other people in Judah, but Isaiah was not holy as the Lord is holy (Lev. 11:44). Little wonder, then, that later in his book he proclaims that our righteousness is nothing better than polluted garments before God (Isa. 64:6).
How different is Isaiah’s response from the attitude of so many people today. Even in the church, men and women are apt to take sin lightly and to think that God will simply overlook it. But to break even one of the Lord’s commands is to violate all of them (James 2:10). Even the smallest sin renders us worthy of God’s judgment.