Rediscovering the Holiness of God
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with righteousness and a limitless capacity to delight in God’s holiness. On the hill of the Lord, they were to worship and work, as they extended the boundaries of God’s garden-temple. For Eden was more than an ancient garden for planting; it was an arboreal sanctuary where God’s priestly children daily walk in the presence of God’s holiness.
Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against his word (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. In the fall, they traded God’s holiness for the profane. Ever since, humanity has been chasing glory with impure hands and unholy hearts.
In Scripture, sin finds its source in idolatry. Borrowing imagery from the fall, Paul speaks of humanity’s plight: “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom. 1:21-23).
As image-bearers, we abound in worship. Humankind has worshiped beasts, birds, business ventures, and ballplayers. Even Israel turned God’s holy law into an idol (see Romans 2). In short, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s holiness.
In response, God warns those who worship false gods. He also indicts those who worship God falsely. For instance, 3,000 men died when Israel worshiped God by means of a golden calf (Exod. 32). Of note, Aaron didn’t lead Israel to stray from Yahweh (the first commandment); he led them to break the second commandment—the fashioning of a graven image.
Likewise, leprosy broke out on Uzziah’s forehead when he presumed to worship the temple (1 Chron. 26). And before him, Uzzah perished by putting his hand out to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling (1 Chron. 13). Apparently, the dirty ground was cleaner than Uzzah’s flesh!
Each of these episodes speaks of God’s holiness and man’s profane attempts to approach God on our own. God will not stand for sinful men to worship him as they choose. Rather, he is looking for worshipers who tremble at his holiness and humbly receive his cruciform grace.
Where Did Holiness Go?
Evangelicals who only speak profusely of God’s love have, I fear, too often discarded his holiness. As A. W. Tozer observed more than a generation ago, “we lack reverence—not because we are free in the gospel, but because God is absent, and we have no sense of His presence.” We offer to others a message of salvation from judgment, when we ourselves do not tremble before God.
Adopting the mindset of our culture, many preachers offer a therapeutic gospel to a people who are told from birth that they are good and capable of doing anything. Accordingly, church culture too often resembles popular culture. And popular evangelicalism can look too much like the liberalism it once decried.
In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher reduced the Christian faith to a romantic religion of absolute dependence on a generic God. He wrote volumes on “doctrine,” but in the end he denied the Trinity and questioned whether it was possible to know a God “out there.” For him, Christianity was an interior religious experience. Oddly, what scandalized nineteenth century Protestants has become commonplace today.
In an age where feelings trump truth, some who denounce liberalism, unwittingly follow in the footsteps of Schleiermacher. By not giving pride of place to God’s holiness, they settle for a romantic religion that feels very much like Protestant liberalism. By contrast, the wrath-satisfying love of Isaiah, Paul, and John is lacking.
When this happens, doctrine become lightweight, even if it is confessionally correct; statements of faith morph into statements of purpose; and emotional highs take the place of Spirit and Truth worship. Such a change eclipses God’s holiness, and as a result modern worshipers dance for joy without also bowing their hearts in contrite worship. Yet, such effervescent dancing lacks the gravitas that David had when he danced in the wake of Uzzah’s demise (compare 1 Chronicles 13 and 15:29).
A Call to Holiness
Admittedly, what I observe in the American church, I also detect in my heart. Incubated in an era of commodified Christianity (the 1990s), where “radical faith” was proven through Christian tee shirts and WWJD bracelets, my view of God still lacks weight. Too few have been the times when I have trembled at the thought of God’s holiness. Too many have been the occasions when sports, books, or social media have drawn my heart from God. And in both cases, I’ve placated my fears with a flippant reminder of God’s grace.
Yet, by meditating on the cross and those Old Testament stories of God’s lethal holiness (e.g., Nadab and Abihu [Lev. 10]; Korah’s Rebellion [Num. 16]; Isaiah’s disintegration and cleansing [Isa. 6]; etc.), I have begun to see that grace is not a lightweight fix. No, grace itself has weight. Indeed, extending from the bleeding hands of a holy God, grace is as violent as it is loving.
Therefore, in a world whose spiritual weight class continues to plummet, we need to preach, teach, and believe a heavyweight gospel. We cannot be featherweight fighters playfully punching at a god like us. We need to endlessly ponder the cross, and we need to be unashamed of reminding a fallen world of God’s holiness and wrath. Because it is only in his holiness that we see who God really is and who he really wants us to be—worshipers who have turned from idols to serve the one, true and living God; worshipers who stand amazed at God’s kindness and severity.
David Schrock (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Pastor of Preaching and Theology at Occoquan Bible Church (Woodbridge, Virginia) and Associate Fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission. He blogs at Via Emmaus.