By Rich Lusk
In Isaiah 5:1-7, we have a typical covenant lawsuit, in which the Lord accuses his people of rejecting his grace and mercy. It is not my intention here to exegete the entire passage, or to look at the way the vineyard image used here serves as a metaphor in other biblical passages (e.g., Ps. 80; Hos. 10; Mt. 21; Jn. 15). Instead, I want to briefly look at any light this particular passage may shed on the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. As we will see, this also bears upon our understanding of salvation and apostasy. In addition, we will note how important the covenant is as a hermeneutical category.
At the heart of passage, God asks an amazing, deeply mysterious question: “What more could I have done to My vineyard, that I have not done in it?” (5:4). In other words, God has done everything on his side, but the vineyard – Israel – still has not borne good fruit. Thus, judgment must fall.
A non-covenantal Calvinist can think of a way to answer God’s question. God asks, “What more could I have done?” And the theologian has an answer: “Well, Lord, you could have exercised irresistible grace — you know, the ‘I’ in the TULIP – and that would have changed things. You have regenerated Israel – performed a secret and sovereign work of grace in their hearts, infallibly producing faith, obedience, and perseverance.”
To be sure, at some level that theological answer is correct. God could have done more. God is sovereign in salvation; his grace can and does operate irresistibly; and God can and does work in people in such a way that they inevitably believe, obey, and endure to the end. God could have prevented Israel’s apostasy; he could have granted them perseverance.
But it is noteworthy that this is not the “logic” of Isaiah 5. Isaiah indicates that God has given grace to the Israelites. Indeed, as the vineyard owner, he’s done everything needed to produce a good crop. The vineyard is well-loved (5:1). It is fruitful, so the soil must be rich in nutrients (5:1). All the rocks and stones have been removed from the soil, so the ground is broken in (5:2). The vine itself was choice; there was nothing wrong with what God planted (5:2). God was so sure of the vine’s eventual fruitfulness that he already put a tower and a winepress right there by the vineyard so the grapes could be pressed out into wine in due season (5:2).
But, alas, God’s expectations were not met. The passage never indicates this was due to a lack of grace on God’s part. Nor is there is any appeal to the decree, e.g., Israel was eternally reprobated. Instead, the blame rests squarely on Israel’s shoulders. Israel has received the grace of the Vineyard Owner in vain. God made growth and fruitfulness possible, even probable, and yet she violated the covenant and rejected all that God had given her.
I suggest that it is simply impossible to understand this passage apart from an understanding of the covenant as a two-sided, mutually binding relationship. If we only think in terms of predestination – if “elect” and “reprobate” are our only categories – then we will have to bend and twist this passage to fit our paradigm, instead of letting it speak for itself. In this context, Israel’s apostasy is not explained in terms of the decree but in terms of her own covenant breaking. She was loved and nourished by God, but nevertheless fell away.
In Isaiah 5, we have a covenantal and pastoral model for dealing with covenant members, and especially with apostates. Isaiah 5 presents us with a covenant that is both gracious and breakable. The covenant is a covenant of love. And yet it is a conditional covenant that requires a response on Israel’s part. God’s sovereignty undergirds the whole, of course, but the covenant has its own integrity and must be reckoned with. The covenant is a crucial category in interpreting this text. Without this rubric, God’s central question to and accusation against Israel make no sense.
The structure of the covenant found in Isaiah 5 is found elsewhere in Scripture, of course. Most importantly, the new covenant indicates no change in this basic paradigm. Grace can be received in vain (2 Cor. 6:1); those God desires to bless can reject the blessing by unbelief (Mk. 6:5-6); well-beloved branches can still fail to bear fruit (Jn. 15:1ff); and well-prepared soil can still bring forth an evil crop (Heb. 6:4-8). In short, those who are really and truly in a state of grace can apostatize. Covenant grace renders salvation possible for every covenant member; but salvation is only actualized in the end for those who persevere.
Now, we must be quick to add that perseverance is a gift, as well. No one endures to the end in his own strength; indeed, self-reliance is the antithesis of faithful covenant keeping. But from a covenantal perspective, perseverance is something we are very much responsible for. This is how it was for Israel; this remains the case for the church.
And, so new covenant pastors can still speak the language of Isaiah 5 when analogous situations arise in their ministries. What should a pastor do when someone teeters on the brink of apostasy? Instead of writing off apostates in terms of the decree (“You must have never received grace”), we can plead with them in terms of the covenant. We can remind them of their covenant privileges. We can urge them to keep in mind all that God has offered to and conferred upon them. We can ask them, “What more could God have done for you than he has done already? How dare you forsake such love and mercy! How can you sin in the face of such rich grace and such precious promises?”
This is true of our children as well. They are branches on the covenantal vine. They are nurtured by the Lord of the Vineyard. They need to be taught about all that they received in Christ. They need to be reminded that God has done everything for them (covenantally speaking); he can do nothing more. Now, they must simply believe and obey. And if they don’t they will face the same judgment God aimed at Israel in Isaiah 5.
This doesn’t open the door to Pelagianism; the framework is entirely different. The key is allowing both eternal predestination and the historical covenant to have the due in our theologizing and pastoral praxis. When we speak directly to our people, we need to speak to them in terms of the covenant – covenant blessings, covenant status, covenant obligations, and potential covenant curses.
John Calvin sums up the matter quite well, commenting on Deuteronomy 26:16-19: “Why He should keep His promise, when we have broken His covenant? Yet when we reject His covenant, and set light by it through our wicked life, we may not look that He should be any longer bound to us. Why? For He has become our God upon this condition, that we also should be His people. And how shall we be His people? It is not by saying simply with our mouth, “We are the people of God,” . . . but we must show by our deeds that we are the people of God, in that we obey Him.” (Sermons of John Calvin upon the Fifthe Book of Moses called Deuteronomie, trans. Arthur Golding (London, 1583), 915b). Calvin hits the covenant nail on the head with his pastoral hammer: God is our God; we are his people. That fact is settled, and that fact indicates that God loves us and cares for us, as he cared for and loved the vine that was Israel. But that also means that we must be a fruitful vineyard, lest the Owner dig us up, cast us into the fire, and cause the rain of grace to dry up (Isa. 5:5-7). We must obey or perish.
Finally, Isaiah 5 keeps before us the dark enigma of evil in God’s good world. Abraham was chosen to undo the sin of Adam. Israel was a new Adamic race. Just as God put Adam in a fruitful garden-mountain (Ezek. 28:13-14), so he put Israel on the fruitful hill of the promised land (Isa. 5:1). Just as Adam was blessed beyond measure, so was Israel. But just as Adam mysteriously turned away from God to idolatry, so did Israel. The parallels continue into the new covenant. Apostasy for “new Adams” in Christ is still a possibility, and still very much a mystery.
Interestingly, in John 15, Jesus changes Isaiah’s image a bit. Jesus is now the True Israel, the vine the Father has planted. In an ultimate sense, the new covenant cannot be broken because Christ himself is the new covenant. But note that individual branches on the vine can be cut out and burned if they fail to bear fruit. The new covenant as such is unbreakable because Christ kept it as our representative and substitute. The Vine will never again be cut down. But only as long as we abide in him, do we experience the blessings he attained for us.
In the new covenant, God’s question, “What more could I have done for you?” takes on a whole new dimension. God has given us Christ; has sacrificed his dearly beloved Son for us (Rom. 8:32). He has freely given us all things. Let us remain faithful to our covenant God. Let us abide in the Savior, that we might bear fruit abundantly.