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Friday, June 24, 2016

The Problem of Holiness

In his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." It begs the question. What comes into your mind when you think about God?

I'm not asking about the unbeliever. I'm talking about Christians. I'm sure a lot of Christians would say "God loves me" or a more generic "God is love." (We'll simply guess that the God who is love loves me.) I'm sure some will hearken back to that mealtime prayer that begins with "God is good." These are fine. There are lots more. He is (and I capitalize because it is God of whom we speak and He is the consummate version of each of these) Eternal, Faithfulness, Immutable, Impartial, Infinite, Justice, Longsuffering, Love, Merciful, Gracious, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Righteous, Self-existent, Self-sufficient, Sovereign, Transcendent, Truth, Wise, and even Wrathful. And more. In fact, I skipped one. I wonder if you can figure out which it is.

The title answers the question. It is "Holy." This key attribute of God is not one of the more popular. I mean, why think of "holy" when you can opt for "God loves me"? It is, I would suggest, a key problem for sinful humans. God's holiness is a problem and we would like to set it aside. We start out easily enough. We define "holy" as "separate from sin" and we nod and say, "Yeah, yeah, God doesn't sin" and we're okay. Except that's not what the word means.

The interesting thing is that nowhere does the Bible say that God is "love, love, love" or "good, good, good" or anything like it. It does say in two places (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8) that He is "holy, holy, holy". This is the standard method in writing in those days that we've replaced with italics, bold print, underlines, and exclamation marks. It is emphasis. In fact, in Revelation it says that the seraphim around Him "never cease to say, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!'" (Rev 4:8) When Aaron protested the deaths of his two sons, Moses reminded him that God's requirement was "By those who come near Me I will be regarded as holy." (Lev 10:3) So the most emphatic attribute of God in Scripture is ... He is holy.

So what does that mean? The Old Testament word is qâdôsh, referring to that which is clean, consecrated, set apart, sanctified. Most literally, it is that which is "other". It is "entirely set apart". He is unique, distinct, sacred. Yes, yes, that includes separation from sin, but it means so much more. It means that He is without rival, without equal. He alone is worthy of worship.

Now, in truth, this is somewhat frightening to any normal human being. He is alien and superior. So we diminish that "holy" and shrink it down to "sinless". This is a mistake, because God is, above everything else, "other". When we diminish that, we diminish God because He's more like us. And we diminish sin because it's not such a big deal anymore since the Lawgiver is more like us. And now that He's more like us, we're pretty sure He's a nice guy and won't really be too mad at us for breaking a few rules now and then. And, hey, look, we're pretty sure that He'll overlook most of our errors (because we've managed to shrink it from "sin" to "mistakes" by now). And, when you look at it that way, we're not doing too badly after all.

Humans are naturally xenophobic; we have a natural aversion to "different". It is the natural source of racism, sexism, ageism, and whatever you would call it where rich people don't like poor people and vice versa. Humans naturally prefer that which is like us. God is not. So we minimize that and make Him more like us which would be less like Him. He is not like us (Psa 50:21) And, more like us, He surely shares our values and perceptions, right? So we end up thinking of ourselves as more like Him and diminishing Him and His commands to be more like ours until it isn't much like God at all that we're seeing. That is the problem of holiness. We don't grasp holiness as it applies to God. Because when we do, we are very, very afraid (e.g., Isa 6:1-5; Luke 5:1-8; Job 40:3-4; Job 42:1-6; Heb 12:29).


Bob said...

I noted the response of Isaiah when he experienced the presence of God.
fear and trembling. until he was cleansed. what are we to do about the command "be ye Holy as i am Holy"?

Stan said...

What are we to do? Fail ... and go to the only Solution we have -- Christ.

Marshall Art said...

Bob's question was pretty much where I was going to go. I feel your response is less than satisfying. So I will change the question to, "What does that mean, that we are to be holy because God is holy?"

I would suppose, with your post in mind, that we are to work towards separateness ourselves that to the best of our ability, mirrors the separateness of God. The "in but not of" concept at the least. Would you agree with this?

To seek better understanding of "holy" would necessarily impact the encouragement to "be holy".

Stan said...

Yes. (Is that a better answer? Kidding.)

We are to be separate, distinct, set apart. (That is the meaning of the word "sanctified". That is the meaning behind the term "the church" -- the called out ones.) Our lifetime aim ought to be to become distinct. Distinct from sin, distinct from the world, "to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27). Like Christ. If we understand "holy" to mean "separate from sin", that would be a good start. But if "holy" means "other", "separate from sin" is only a start toward an entire character and lifestyle.

Marshall Art said...

Thanks. That's how I understood it as well.

Bob said...

when we think of Holiness, there is a tendency to place a great deal of emphasis upon the actions of the Man. if we study what it is that made anything Holy in the first place, we would see that it is the separation that God provides. we are Holy because we are Called out by God to be in Christ. all those in Christ are Holy before God by virtue of their position.
so what does that mean for everyday life? i believe it means, since we are already Holy in Christ, then we must act accordingly. since we are already Kings and Priest, we should behave as such. our acts do not qualify our Position, but rather our position "in Christ" qualifies our actions as holy.

Stan said...

Yes, our holiness is provided in Christ. Our sanctification (the process of being made holy) is the process of the rest of our lives -- living out the holiness already applied. It is, in fact, what Paul said. "Only let us live up to what we have already attained." (Phil 3:16) (In that passage Paul's "already attained" was a reference to perfection.)