This morning’s devotion comes to us from magician and pyro, Jim McNeely.

“Woe is me, for I am ruined! / Because I am a man of unclean lips, / And I live among a people of unclean lips; / For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; / Keep on looking, but do not understand.’



In this passage we see Isaiah in a vision or epiphany of the throne room of God, with seraphim all around. The sense of holiness was so profound that Isaiah was undone, crying out “Woe is me!”

So a seraphim flies out with a burning coal from the altar. It is a burning coal, on fire and red hot, but not consumed. And of all things, he touches the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. This is surely more frightening – surely it will burn his lips! Instead it has an unexpected result: it heals him. It takes away his iniquity and forgives his sin.

I think the altar is the altar of Christ. It is the law, and it is the gospel, at once. It is, so to speak, the cross. The holiness of God is poured out there. The example of a perfect life perfectly lived in perfect obedience to the shedding of blood is there. And it is such a degree of holiness that if we understood it, if we saw it truly, it would strike utter terror into us. It is not a room-tempurature welcoming altar. If it touched us, surely it would burn us to a crisp. We think grace means that we paint Christ as a fluffy nice kitten. We think grace means that He is harmless and unthreatening. But He is a burning fire, and if He touches us, for all we know we will surely be burned and die. He is threatening. He is, as C.S. Lewis would show us, an untamed lion. If we do not see Him in His holiness with this terror we do not truly see Him and we worship an idol.

But here is the unexpected thing: when He touches us, we do not die. We are not burned. We are lit on fire, but we are not consumed, because it is not a consuming fire. It is the cleansing fire of grace – and so we are healed. We are profoundly forgiven. We are cleansed, and this opens the door to our commission. Before we are touched by His burning holiness which heals, we only cower in fear and beg mercy. But having been touched, we cry out, “Here am I! Send me!” And in the eyes of God we are worthy of the commission. Forgiveness frees us from unholiness and disobedience to a have a heart which begs for mission and obedience. This is the way of true grace, and the way of the holiness of the gospel of Christ Jesus.

Where is the gradual sanctification here? Notice that the touch of the coal accomplishes the simple removal of guilt. It achieves mere forgiveness. It is not declared that it removes more than that. Forgiveness is profound, because guilt is the main barrier to service and being set on mission.

The perception of holy glory undoes us with regret and guilt—born from powerful adoration and desire—and yet God’s forgiveness allows us entrance into this glory and the opportunity to be set on mission. This is how the gospel works – it is simple forgiveness unadulterated by law, and holiness driven by the freedom of real desire.

As believers, we are baptized with this fire. The cross is a frightening red-hot altar, and this no-holds-barred example of perfect obedience and holiness will surely burn us if it touches us. But behold! We are like walking burning bushes, aflame but not consumed! The law which condemns has become grace which saves. The cross which burns is also the cross which forgives. We are profoundly undone, and profoundly reborn. Isaiah saw only the shadow of the cross, but we see it all. Christ is the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:2), and seeing it we greatly fear. But His radiance heals, and grace is the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 18). Forgiveness is burned into us, and grace is the brand with which we have been marked forever.