“Your iniquities have separated you from your God” (Isaiah 59:2)
Perhaps the most popular evangelical leaflet ever created is one that I have used almost 20 years ago, back in my days serving with CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ) in Israel, which was led by a reformed leader. A few times a week, we went to university campuses and used this “bulletproof” method to share the gospel. This pamphlet, known as “The Four Spiritual Laws,” was written by Bill Bright in the early 1950s. When Bright was in his late 20s to early 30s, he put together a tract to help him and his friends evangelize. In it, Bright outlined what he perceived the Christian gospel to be. Its second “law” states that:
Man is sinful and separated from God,
so we cannot know Him personally
or experience His love.[i]
Apparently, our heavenly Father is so furious with our sin that he won’t even talk to us. According to David Platt, it is because God “could not bear to see your sin.”[ii] And according to Philip Ryken, God “could not bear to look at the sin” and “had to shield his eyes.”[iii]
Back in the day, almost every time I used the four spiritual laws with Israeli Jews, we would get stuck on the second Law. How come? Because in Israel, we Jews grow up soaked with Old Testament stories in our schooling system and Jewish culture. These challenge Bright’s second “law.” No doubt, as a human, I am a sinful and depraved creature who can do absolutely nothing to earn my salvation. It is, therefore, by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone – that I may be saved. All for the glory of God. However, teaching that sinners cannot experience God, that God hates them, or that he can’t even look at them merely because they are sinners is mere nonsense and well contradicted by both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, most stories in the Pentateuch prove the exact opposite — a holy God who is not afraid to maintain a relationship with the worst of sinners.
If indeed God could not be around sin, how do we explain the Book of Job? In Job, we read that God welcomes Satan (the father of all sinners: John 8:44) into his company and negotiates with him. If it was true that God cannot look at us and must be separated from us because we sin, then the incarnation never could have been possible. But the whole point of the prophets and the New Testament is to tell us that God came down to earth, manifested in the flesh, for the sake of pursuing sinners. In Jesus, God spent time with the sinner (Matt 9:10-17, Mark 2:15-22, Luke 5:29-39). Does that sound like a God who is angry and unwilling to be in touch with humanity because of their sin? On the contrary, God comes near sinners and loves them. He even “became sin for us.” (2nd Corinthians 5:21)
In contrast to an angry God who hates sinners and is about to punch us all in the face and into damnation, Jesus spoke of the Father as loving, caring, forgiving, and full of compassion. A father who’s not only able to look at sinners but makes an effort to reach out to them, deliver and save them:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
So, it is not that we cannot experience the love of God because we are sinners. Because we are sinners, we get to experience God’s love (and grace and forgiveness). If we were not sinners, we would not be able to understand what love, grace, or forgiveness are, to begin with. The fact we are sinners never caused God to separate from us or draw his love from us. Eternal separation from God is only caused by unbelief in him, not because of a sin we committed. This is what Jesus himself taught.
In John 8:24, Jesus says that the reason “you would die in your sins” is “if you do not believe that I am he.” According to Jesus, the fact we sin doesn’t change. What changes is, do we or do we not die? That is up to us if we do or do not believe. Being eternally separated from God only results from choosing to reject Christ. Eternal separation from God is out of our free choice — not wanting to be with God. He will not force himself on us against our will. If we want nothing to do with him, we lead ourselves to a place where God is indeed absent forever. We’ll get our will. No one will find themselves in heaven because they were somehow able to stop sin in their life, which is impossible anyways. Any of your favorite Bible characters will prove exactly that. Otherwise, what kind of father separates himself from his children because they are not perfect?
However, Christian preachers will often point to two verses taken out of context:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing (Habakkuk 1:13).
Your iniquities have separated you from your God (Isaiah 59:2)
In regard to Habakkuk, the key to understanding this complaint of Habakkuk is found in the Hebrew parallelism of the poetry. “To look on” is parallel with “tolerate.” Habakkuk points to God’s holiness, and essentially, he says, “You are too holy to ignore. No way you can accept this evil in your nation.” Or “You are too good to ignore the evil being done.” This is a figure of speech and not a claim by Habakkuk that literally God’s physical eyes can’t look at evil.
When taken entirely out of context, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” does sound like God is separated from mankind due to sin. For example, according to Paul Washer, God the Father and God the Son had to experience separation and alienation from one another because God the Father cannot fellowship with sinners. This, according to Paul Washer, is based on Isaiah 59:
God is morally perfect and separated from all evil. It is impossible for Him to take pleasure in sin or remain in fellowship with those who practice unrighteousness…According to Isaiah 59:2, how does sin affect God’s relationship with man? Can God have fellowship with the wicked?[iv]
Another example comes from the well-known and popular Christian website “GotQuestions,” which is operated by members of the Calvary Chapel movements. The opening statement answering the question “What are the consequences of sin?” reads:
Eternal separation from God: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).[v]
What is Isaiah 59 really about?
Isaiah 59:2, however, has nothing to do with “eternal separation from God.” Firstly, this is a national rebuke from God, not an individual being scolded by God. Humans may be separated from God eternally, but not nations. Secondly, the status of individual salvation cannot be drawn theologically from the state of affairs between the nation of Israel and God. Thirdly, the “separation” Isaiah writes about is not eternal, but a temporary withdrawal of physical protection and blessings over Israel. Fourthly, the very existence of this verse proves my point, as an active conversation takes place between God and Israel. This shows that the “separation” is not a complete cut-off (otherwise, God wouldn’t communicate to rebuke). Instead, it is a withdrawal of protection. Fifthly, Israel was a nation of sinners prior to the time of Isaiah, and yet they maintained a national relationship with God.
Isaiah, an Israelite himself, wrote, “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5). Not only did Isaiah — a sinner — see God, but the fact that God communicated through a prophet who admits to being a sinner himself proves Washer’s arguments to be wrong.
The context of Isaiah 59:2 is that God is answering Israel’s inquiry as to why His blessings and protection have vanished. Israel has sinned before God, and in response, does God disappear? On the contrary, God is actively pursuing Israel by communicating with them and explaining the consequences of their sins. This is the very opposite of “eternal separation.”
Isaiah explains to Israel that their hope for help and protection from evil (previous verse) is being denied because they misbehave. Remember, God already warned Israel in Deuteronomy 28 – if you do not behave, God will not protect you from evil. That is the sense in which Israel is “separated” from God. He is unwilling to rescue and protect them from evil (59:1).
Thus, Isaiah 59:2 has nothing to do with an individual’s spiritual/eternal condition. Isaiah speaks merely about a temporary, physical, and natural consequence for his nation due to their actions. This means God is holding back His blessings and protection from the nation of Israel due to their bad behavior. If God were to completely cut off Israel, they would cease to be His chosen nation. However, God promised Israel, “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8).
Now, try to apply Isaiah 59 to parenthood. If your child misbehaves, you will probably reject their request for ice cream until your relationship is mended again. You might even send them to their room for an hour. But you will not denounce your child, throwing them out of the house because they were not obedient. Neither will God, who is much more merciful and loving than you will ever be.
Can you now see why Jews can’t take the four “spiritual laws” seriously and why it makes no sense to them whatsoever?
This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
A free sample is available here.
[i] The 2nd of “The Four Spiritual laws.”
[ii] David Platt, “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.” Multnomah, 2010, pp 35-36.
[iii] Philip Graham Ryken, “The Heart of the Cross”. Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, 2005. Pg 87.
[iv] Paul Washer, “Discovering the Glorious Gospel”. HeartCry Missionary Society, Third edition; 2021, pp 49.
[v] My emphasis in bold; “What are the consequences of sin?”, GotQuestion website.