Purification of the Church is God’s Own Work

by John Calvin

25" And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin:26 And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city.27 Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.28 And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed." - Isaiah 1:25-28

25. And I will turn my hand upon thee This is an alleviation of the former threatening; for though he still proceeds with what he had begun to state about his severity, he at the same time declares that, amidst those calamities which were to be inflicted, the Church would be preserved. But the principal design was to comfort believers, that they might not suppose the Church to be utterly ruined, though God treated them more roughly than before. The Spirit of God, by the Prophets, continually warns the children of God, who always tremble at his word, not to be overwhelmed and lose heart on account of terrors and threatening; for the more daringly that wicked men practice licentiousness and scoff at all threatening the more do those who are affected by a sincere fear of God tremble at them.

Besides, the turning of the hands of God denotes generally a token of his presence, as if he should say, I will display my hand. This he is wont to do in two ways, either by chastising the wicked, or by delivering believers from their distresses. Since, therefore, it is evident from the context that God purposes, by applying consolation, to mitigate the severity of punishment, the turning of the hands must here be viewed as referring to the restoration of the Church; for although he declared in general terms that all were his enemies, he now modifies or limits that statement by addressing Jerusalem or Zion by name.

When he adds, I will purge away thy dross, though he points out the fruit of correction, that believers may not be immoderately grieved or distressed on account of it, yet we learn from this expression that the purification of the Church is God’s own work. For this purpose he always lifts up his hand to punish transgressions, that he may bring back wanderers into the road; but rods would be of no avail, if he did not make them useful by touching their hearts inwardly. And, indeed, since he points out here a special favor which he bestows on his elect, it follows from this that repentance is a true and peculiar work of the Holy Spirit; for otherwise the sinner, instead of profiting in the smallest degree, would be more and more hardened by chastisements.

The pure purging, so that no dross remains, must not, however, be understood as if God ever cleansed his Church entirely in this world from every stain, but must be regarded as spoken after the manner of men; as if he said that the condition of his Church will be such that her holiness will shine like pure silver. These words, therefore, indicate real purity, for the Jews had formerly been too well satisfied with their filthiness. This is a highly appropriate comparison, by which the Prophet declares, that though the Church was at that time polluted by many defilements, still some remnant would be left, which, after the removal of the pollution, would regain its brightness. In this manner he also connects both clauses; for when he formerly spoke of their crimes, he said that their silver had become dross. (Isa 1:22.)

26. And I will restore thy judges as at the first He now speaks without a figure; and having said that the source and origin of the evils was in the princes, he shows that a divine hand will purify that rank, when the Lord shall be pleased to restore the Church to perfect health. And, indeed, when they who rule are good and holy men, public order is maintained; for when wicked men have power, everything goes to ruin. By judges and counsellors are evidently meant any kind of magistrates; and when he promises that they will be such as they were at the beginning, he brings to their remembrance the extraordinary goodness of God, of which they had been deprived. God had graciously raised up the throne of David, and in that government was pleased to give a bright resemblance of his own parental love. Though the authority of the family of David had degenerated into the grossest tyranny, yet they continued to boast of a false title; for they still vaunted of the reign of David in the same manner as the papists of the present day plume themselves on a false pretense of the Church. Justly, therefore, are the people reminded of the happiness from which they had fallen by their own fault, that they might not be displeased at a diminution of their numbers, by means of which they would again possess that order which God had established

Then shalt thou be called He describes the fruit of that reformation, of which he has spoken, as extending to the whole body; for, having said that Jerusalem, before she revolted from God, was a faithful city, full of righteousness, the Prophet now says, that when she shall have been chastised the same virtues will be illustriously displayed in her. Here, too, is expressed the sum of true repentance; for by righteousness is meant uprightness, when every man obtains what belongs to him, and men live with each other without committing injury. The word faithful has a still more extensive meaning; for when a city is called faithful, it means not only that justice and honesty between man and man are observed, but that the purity of God’s worship is maintained and therefore the chastity and purity of the mind are included under that designation.

It must also be observed, however, that from this faithfulness springs justice; for when we adhere to truth in our mutual intercourse, justice easily gains the ascendency. And, indeed, when I closely examine the whole passage, I think that the Prophet now employs the word faithfulness in a more limited sense than formerly, and connects the two virtues as leading to the same object, so that, while truth goes first as the cause, justice is the effect of it. Isaiah promises not only that she will be righteous and faithful, but that she will also be distinguished by these commendations; by which he means that the knowledge or reputation of it will be everywhere diffused. We know that hypocrites, too, are adorned with honorable titles; but Isaiah, having introduced God as speaking, takes for granted that the city will actually be righteous, as it is foretold that she shall be. In the meantime, as I have said, he describes the fruit of a true conversion; as if he had said,” When Jerusalem shall be brought Jack to true godliness, men will be persuaded that she is renewed.”

27. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment He confirms the same doctrine; and because the restoration of the Church was hard to be believed, he shows that it does not depend on the will of men, but is founded on the justice and judgment of God; as if he had said, that God will by no means permit his Church to be altogether destroyed, because he is righteous. The design of the Prophet, therefore, is to withdraw the minds of the godly from earthly thoughts, that in looking for the safety of the Church they may depend entirely on God, and not cease to entertain good hopes, although instead of aids they should see nothing but obstructions. It is a great mistake to consider justice and judgment to refer to the Church, as if Isaiah were speaking about the well-ordered condition of a city; for the plain meaning is what I have stated, that though men yield no assistance, the justice of God is fully sufficient for redeeming his Church. And, indeed, so long as we look at ourselves, what hope are we entitled to cherish? How many things, on the contrary, immediately present themselves that are fitted to weaken our faith! It is only in the justice of God that we shall find solid and lasting ground of confidence.

And they that return to her  30 This second clause points out the manner of their deliverance; namely that the exiles, who had been widely dispersed, will again be gathered together.

28. And the destruction of the transgressors Lest hypocrites should imagine that any fruit of these promises belongs to them, and should indulge in vain boasting, he threatens that they shall perish, though God redeem his Church. For hypocrites have always been mingled with the Church, and indeed are connected with it in the closest manner; but they form their estimation of it from outward show. All that God promises they at once apply confidently to themselves. The apostle tears from them this trust, if indeed it deserve the name of trust, which springs from pride and the arrogance of a haughty mind. Here we ought to observe how great wisdom is needed by godly teachers, that, while they terrify the wicked by the judgment of God, they may at the same time support good men, and strengthen them by some consolation, that they may not be cast down and discouraged. On the other hand, when believers are encouraged be the promise of God, and when wicked men falsely apply it to themselves, and puff up their minds with vain confidence, the method and course which we ought to pursue is, that we neither give occasion to wicked men to become proud, nor depress and discourage the minds of the godly; as Isaiah does in this passage. For while he speaks of the redemption of the Church, he at the same time threatens that sinners, that is, wicked men, shall be destroyed, that they may not suppose that these acts of God’s kindness belong at all to them.

And yet, while he pronounces destruction against the wicked, by this comparison he exhibits more fully the favor of God towards believers, which is far more distinctly seen, when God allows the reprobate to perish, but preserves his own in safety, as it is said,

A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. Ps 91:7.

Besides, he mitigates the grief and anguish which the diminution of the numbers of the Church might produce in godly minds; for he shows that there is no other way of imparting health to the whole body than by removing its corruption.


From Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah

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