Saturday, 31 March 2012

The attractive holiness of loving.




The sour centre to a sugar coated gospel?

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, you shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”
Leviticus 19:1-2

As I discussed last time. the trinity is a doctrine which we tend to either try and ignore or ‘grin and bear it’.   Holiness is another of those and so maybe writing a blog post on both of those together is just going to put people off…  But as I discussed last time, the trinity is good news, and it makes God’s holiness good news too.


You see we often see the holiness of God as a bad thing, something not to be mentioned in front of non-believers (and ideally, not in front of us either).  We like to think of God as love, God as Father and Jesus as a nice guy who taught good things and saved us.  But we don’t like to think about the fact that this same God is described as “a consuming fire” and “Holy, holy, holy”.  This doctrine of holiness is a clear focus in the Bible – R. C. Sproul, in his book “The holiness of God”, says

“The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”

So this then is important, this holiness.  Yet often we ignore it, we think it means that God is boring and stuffy and doesn’t really love us for who we are.  It seems to us to be the nasty, unexpected sour centre in what we thought was a sweet gospel confection, the bitter after-taste of cranberry juice.  I mean alright, some people like it but it’s not all that good is it?  The thing is if God was a one person dictator in the sky then that would be a true estimation of it; such a God could only be holy in an aloof, forbidding sense.  Holiness would be a matter of keeping the rules that he made.  That is not our God however, and viewed through Trinitarian glasses, we see a very different story indeed.


What does holiness mean?

What is holiness then?  R. C. Sproul again sheds some light:

“The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that meant, ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’ When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is ‘a cut above the rest.”

“When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other,’ to be different in a special way.”

To be holy then is to be separate, set apart.  Not really helping the case that the holiness of God is a good thing, it seems as if it could as easily be called the aloofness of God.  It seems like God’s holiness is like a wall around him, keeping us out.

So many Christians make that very mistake; they see verses like Leviticus 19:2 (that was quoted at the start) and think that God clearly just has a very high opinion of himself, and okay it’s deserved but he doesn’t really want to associate with us lowly folk.  And yes, that is pretty deserved as well, we’re not that great but it doesn’t really make him seem all that lovable now does it?  What then is the remedy for this?

As if you hadn’t already guessed from the introduction, it is to see God as He is. Trinity.  Fellowship and unity, three persons bound together in love.  As we saw last time, God is defined by love.  He is love.  Practically we see this in the cross, in the wonderful work of Trinitarian salvation – God the Father, willing to give up his only Son in order to bring us back into fellowship with him.  That is not the sign of an aloof God!  That is not the sign of someone who doesn’t really love us, someone whose love is only a cover for his holiness.  It is the sign of someone who is set apart from us, above us and beyond us and yet who so desperately longs to be with us that he is willing to give up everything, to cut himself off from the son that he loved for all of eternity in order to bring us back home to be with him.  Now that we know what the word holiness means, perhaps we can ask a better question.

What is it about him that sets God apart from us? Why can we not come near him?  After all he so clearly wants to be with us, we see that in the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. So many people would answer that question with ‘His holiness’ and yet that just doesn’t make sense.  God is set apart from us by his set apartness?  Really?  That just starts to sound like mysticism and mumbo jumbo.


Set apart by love

The real reason that we are separated from God is that he is perfect.  His holiness is a result of his perfect nature, a result of one simple fact.  God’s foundational nature is love.

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
1 John 4:8


And we cannot ever forget that God is love because he is Trinitarian in his character.  If God existed alone before the dawn of creation then there was nothing for him to love.  But because God is three in one Jesus can say of the Father in John 17 and verse 24 that “you loved me before the foundation of the world”.  God is first and foremost a Father, a loving, gracious and kind being – not a powerful creator and lawgiver (although He is also that).  And there is the heart of it, a single person God would be first and foremost creator and lawgiver.  Such a God, if also holy would be so because they were set apart by their creative power and their adherence to their own moral strictures.  Such holiness would indeed be aloof and unattractive.  To be holy like that God would be to follow their rules, never quite matching up.  But our Trinitarian God who is love is set apart by that love.

But how? How can love possibly set you apart? Surely love draws you in? Surely a perfectly loving being would be one who would be ready and willing to accept everyone?

God is set apart because he is perfect and we aren’t.
God is set apart because he is love and we are unloving.
God is set apart because he is light and we are darkness.
God is set apart because he is good and we are evil.

The root of our problem with the idea of God’s holiness is that, with our flawed perception of God and ourselves we always see the fault as lying with God.  We need to open our eyes to the fact that the God whom we worship is a Trinitarian God, a God who is perfectly loving.  And we need to open our eyes to the fact that we are broken, arrogant fools to think that the problem in our relationship with God is all his fault.  The problem is not that we are really actually quite lovely and God is silly and prudish to reject us but that we cannot exist in his presence.  Light cannot exist in the same place as darkness; either there is light, or there is darkness. You can have a little light in a room with shadows, but where the light is perfect the darkness is non-existent.  You cannot have both perfect light and darkness.  God’s holiness is not a wall that keeps us out, but a light that we run from.  A light that we cannot coexist with in harmony because it is so alien to our fallen nature.  There was a time when we did live in harmony with God but no longer, because we decided we preferred our own way.

God is set apart because he is perfectly lovely.  He is clean and we are dirty.  And yet he shows his love by sending his son to make us clean, to bring us safely into the light.  Because he wants to welcome us back, he wants to lavish his love upon us again.  This is not a picture of an aloof, unattractive, prudish holiness.  This is sheer perfection that far transcends us and yet longs to call us sons.


What about us?

What has it all got to do with us?  God is holy, we get that, so? Hebrews 12:14 says this:

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

This has everything to do with us.  Holiness is something which we are called to, it is a Christian command.  I want to take a slight detour here before we unpack that some more and consider a story from Numbers 20 when the people of Israel had no water.  As they’d done a hundred times before, they gathered round Moses and moaned.  We pick up the story as we see God’s response:

“Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the LORD appeared to them, 7and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” 9And Moses took the staff from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
          10Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” 13These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarrelled with the LORD, and through them he showed himself holy.”
Numbers 20:2-13

In what way did that not uphold him as holy?  Most commentators argue that it was the infraction of the command to tell the rock, Moses going ahead and doing it his way (the way it was done before) and disobeying God’s commands.  Yet it always bewildered me that a God who had shown himself to be so inestimably patient with the people of Israel, and with weak-willed Moses and idolatrous Aaron, should react so strongly to Moses’ temper tantrum here.  Surely this is only a minor slip?  After all he forgave Moses for murder earlier…

And yet remember that Moses and Aaron are God’s mouthpieces here, they are the ones who are called to represent him to the people.  To uphold him as holy.  What is the fundamental nature of holiness shown by the triune God? Love.  When the Israelites grumbled, God’s response was in love to give them water even thought their ingratitude deserved to remain thirsty.  Yet Moses’ response was to throw a temper tantrum, accuse them of being rebels and beat up an innocent rock.  Maybe I’m way out here but I think the commentators have the wrong end of the stick.  The major error that Moses made was not to fail to obey the letter of the law (although he did fail in that regard) but that he did not accurately represent the loving God to the people and that, that is serious.  “Be holy for I am holy” is the call that God made to Moses and Moses failed to uphold that holy standard of love.  But surely, we’re not prophets or leaders, are we called to the same standard?

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.””
1 Peter 1:13-16
We too are called to be holy, and not just holy (set apart from the people around us) but holy as God is.  That means firstly that our holiness is to be of the same standard as God’s holiness. Perfect holiness.  So no slacking.  Secondly it means that our holiness is to be of the same type as God’s holiness. Holiness due to love.  That means we don’t set ourselves apart as better people that everyone else but that we love them selflessly, sacrificially, like God does.  If we do that, we will be set apart – not by desire, but by difference.  There’s a fundamental fact here that we have to grasp.  You do not set yourself apart in order to be godly.  Your godliness sets you apart. 

The world sees Christian ‘holiness’ as an unattractive thing because we have failed to immerse ourselves in a trinitarian view of holiness.  If God is not trinity then he is first and foremost (as we’ve said before) a lawgiver and creator.  Such a God’s holiness demands that the rules are kept, that people respect him for his power and glory.

This non-trinitarian view says that you have to keep the rules to be holy and so therefore you should get out of society where they encourage you to break them.  A trinitarian view of holiness is all about relationship, and you can’t be in relationship with people who you try and distance yourself from.

A non-trinitarian view of holiness says that holiness is all about wearing the right clothes, doing the right evening activities, not drinking certain things, or watching certain films, or using a certain Bible version or reading certain books.  A trinitarian view of holiness says that the most important thing is to love people in how you dress, in how you spend your time, in what you eat, or drink, or watch.

The non-trinitarian view is clean and easy.  Church things are good, other things are bad – stay away from worldly people and you’ll be fine.  A trinitarian view of holiness is messy and unpredictable and difficult to live out.  It involves real people living real lives in a real world.  Set apart not by dress sense and walled communities but by sheer goodness in a world gone bad.  And that is so much more difficult a life to live.

I’m going to repeat myself here because it is important: You do not set yourself apart in order to be godly.  Your godliness sets you apart.  Just look at the rest of that chapter in Leviticus!

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. 3Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. 4Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God.
5“When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from his people.
9“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
13“You shall not oppress your neighbour or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
15“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbour: I am the LORD.
17“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.
Leviticus 19:1-18

Listen to this talk from Mike Reeves to understand the offering part; if I try and explain that here this blogpost will turn into a book…  But just look at that list of the practical applications of this God-like holiness:

1.    Leave food for the poor.
2.    Don’t steal, or cheat, or lie.
3.    Don’t oppress the weaker folk around you.
4.    Pay fair wages.
5.    Be kind to the disabled.
6.    Be fair.
7.    Be forgiving.

That is the holiness to which we are called.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you it’s stuffy or boring (or easy!).  Don’t let anyone ever say that the holiness of God, or of Christianity, is an unattractive thing.  Remember that great summary of all the law that Jesus quoted as the greatest commandments?

“And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [38] This is the great and first commandment. [39] And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. [40] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.””
Matthew 22:37-40

God is love.  His whole law depends on love.  Holiness is a good thing.

Amen, I leave you with the words of a man who understood that holiness is a Trinitarian pursuit:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Who was, and is, and evermore shall be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!


<<Written for Theology Network’s Trinity Month and blatantly ‘inspired’ by Mike Reeve’s talk on Leviticus 19 (linked above) and his book The Good God >>

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