January 05, 2024

A Life-Changing Experience

Sinclair Ferguson
A Life-Changing Experience

Many of us can remember an experience that changed our lives forever. The prophet Isaiah had such an encounter with the holiness of God. Today, Sinclair Ferguson considers what Isaiah’s unforgettable experience teaches about our own relationship with the Lord.


We’ve been thinking all week about the new year. And as the years pass, sometimes they become a bit of a blur. Sometimes we watch politicians on television, for example, and we’re staggered by their remembrance of dates and places and what was discussed at meetings. And most of us forget more than we ever remember, it seems. But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that events that transform our lives—events that shape our destiny or that change our future, even though we may not have thought too much about them at the time—are events that we remember forever. And I suppose most of us can point back perhaps even to a single moment, a single hour, an experience, somebody we met, that has radically changed the direction of our future lives.

Often at the beginning of the new year, I think about the experience that the prophet Isaiah had in this connection. If you imagined all the prophets before Jesus climbing a mountain to look over the summit and to see the coming of the Lord Jesus, then John the Baptist would be the man standing on the summit, wouldn’t he? But I rather suspect the man standing just behind him would be the prophet Isaiah straining his neck out to see who the Suffering Servant of his fifty-third chapter really was. And God prepared him for that ministry very early on in his career.

If you’re familiar with the ministry of Ligonier over the years, there are two passages in the Bible that you think of instinctively. One is Romans 12:1–2, which speaks about us being transformed by the renewing of our minds. And an even more fundamental one is probably Isaiah chapter six, the great biblical chapter on the holiness of God—Isaiah’s encounter with God and the manifestation of God’s holy majesty, the Holy, Holy, Holy One. Isaiah never forgot that year. It was the year that King Uzziah died. It was a year of sadness for the people. But it was a new year that shaped every year of Isaiah’s future life and, indeed, every single day that he lived from that point onwards.

Yesterday, we were thinking about the fact that sometimes you might be reluctant to wish someone a happy new year when you know that people can’t really be happy unless they are holy. And I think it was Isaiah’s encounter with God that made him realize he could never be truly happy until he was really holy. And, for that reason, if you read through the rest of his prophecy, you’ll notice that his favorite description for the Lord becomes “the Holy One.”

So many things to learn from Isaiah chapter six. One of them is how to respond to God. And you’ve probably noticed that Isaiah’s response seems to have been three-dimensional. One dimension was an awareness of his own sinfulness. He felt as though he was disintegrating before God. And what interests me, I suppose, as a preacher is that he was undoubtedly the most eloquent prophet of his day—perhaps, for that matter, of any day in the Old Testament. But what he felt his sin had polluted was the very instrument God had given him to proclaim His word. He says, “I am a man of unclean lips.” It’s very telling, isn’t it, that he was conscious that his sinfulness was not just to be found in what he or others regarded as one of his weaknesses, but actually it embedded itself in his greatest gift and his greatest strength.

If you read through Isaiah from the beginning, you’ll notice that in Isaiah chapter five, he had already pronounced six woes on others. And where there’s six in the Old Testament, you’re always looking for the seventh. And now in chapter six, he pronounces the climactic seventh woe. And it’s not on others; it’s on himself. Those God uses have always been those who have been conscious of their sinfulness.

The second dimension of his experience, of course, is his experience of God’s pardoning grace. That electric moment when the seraph takes the burning coal from the altar with tongs and puts it on Isaiah’s lips and cleanses him. That’s exactly what he needed and what we need at the beginning of the year: cleansing. As the hymn teaches us to sing, “Be of sin, the double cure. Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”

But then, the third dimension of his experience was this: an unreserved willingness to serve the Lord without question. He didn’t even know what God wanted him to do, but he was willing to say, “Here am I. Send me.” What more do I need to say? May this new year be one in which God marks our lives, too, the way He marked the life of the prophet Isaiah.