29th January 2003
This sermon is number three in a series on the subject of ``What God is Like''. It's just about the most difficult thing there is to preach on, or at least to do justice to; but it's also one of the most important areas we need to understand. How can we ``worship in spirit and truth'', as Jesus requires (John 4:23), if we don't know the truth about who God is?
In the first week of the series we had Pete's introduction, in which he looked at the question of who or what really is our god? What is the most important thing in our lives, and where do we go for our comfort? It's easy to be misled, by the world that surrounds us, into allowing money, career or relationships to become our real god, even while nominally we are Christians.
In the second week we had Nick's introduction, explaining that the purpose of this series is not just to enable us to know more about God, but to help us to know him, to come closer to him. As the traditional prayer has it, ``to see you more clearly, love you more dearly and follow you more nearly''.
This week: no more introductions! I'm going to resist the temptation to provide yet a third overview and instead plough straight in and look in detail at one aspect of what God is like.
However, I will make one introductory observation :-)
There are many, many attributes of God - for example, Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology lists and discusses twenty-five (his independence, unchangeableness, eternity, omnipresence, unity, spirituality, invisibility, omniscience, wisdom, truthfulness, goodness, love, mercy, holiness, peace, righteousness, jealousy, wrath, will, freedom, omnipotence, perfection, blessedness, beauty and glory).
We're not going to preach a twenty-five week series :-) But we do need to find a way to break this huge list down into manageable chunks. There are different ways to do that, but I'm going to tell you how we're not going to do it. In doing so, I'm going to show you an important principle that will run through everything we teach in this series.
Traditionally, systematic theology has divided the attributes of God into the ``communicable'' and ``incommunicable'' - that is, into those attributes which are and are not also found in us. For example, God's omnipotence - his ability to do absolutely anything - is incommunicable since we are not omnipotent; but his love is communicable since we also love.
But when you look at the lists of God's communicable and incommunicable attributes, an interesting thing happens: it quickly becomes apparent that this is not really a good distinction at all. For example, Grudem lists God's eternal nature as an incommunicable attribute; but we, like God, will live forever, whether with him or without him - so in that sense we also are eternal. Conversely, Grudem lists God's wisdom as a communicable attribute; but, while we have some wisdom, it is by no means even on the same plane as God's. So the communicable/incommunicable distinction quickly breaks down.
Now this is not merely a failure of theologians: it tells us something fundamental about what kind of creatures we are. With a very few exceptions, we share all of God's attributes to some extent; and with few if any exceptions, there are no attributes of God that we possess to the same extent.
That's not an accident: we are to some extent like God because we are ``made in the image of God'' (Genesis 1:27) - in fact, you could say that this is what ``in the image of God'' means - that we share his attributes. He's put something of himself in us. The key distinction between people and animals is that humans have a moral sense, some concept of truthfulness, justice, mercy, etc. We have ``intimations of immortality'', as Wordsworth wrote, because each one of us has an inkling, deep down, that we are not made only for this world but something higher.
That's why, for example, the longing for justice is so universal. Even the most selfish people long to see, for example, the people behind the Enron fraud tracked down and punished. The popularity of revenge stories (``He got what he deserved'') is another example: our desire for revenge, though it's a small, mean thing, is ultimately derived from a higher source: we want justice because we are made in God's image and he is just. Revenge is nothing more or less than a twisted, debased version of divine justice.
You can see this like-unlike paradox in the bible, of course: Job says ``He is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other.'' (Job 9:32); but equally, God says ``Come now, let us reason together'' (Isaiah 1:18). And we'll see it throughout this series: we are both like God and unlike him. You could say that this tension in our nature is the very heart of ``the human condition'' - what it is to be a human being. For example, we long to love, because we're made in the image of the Great Lover; but most relationships fail because we are imperfect images, and our love is only a feeble shadow of the Great Love.
So this is the backdrop to the ``What God is Like'' series; the tragedy that is always lurking in the background. The nature that we inherit from our Father, our longing to be like him and our inability to be what we want to be.
It is against this backdrop that we introduce - finally! - the first of the attributes of God that we're going to focus on. Now it's our duty to preach difficult truths as well as nice, touchy-feely ones. Our style at North Central is relaxed: we try not to raise artificial barriers that make Christianity harder than it is; but parts of the whole truth are hard, and there's no point in pretending they're not. So in figuring out what to teach, our first question is not ``What do people want to hear?'', but ``What does the bible say?'' (Galatians 4:30, Romans 4:3)
So today we're going to look at God's holiness - and our sinfulness. God's holiness is one of his most alien attributes; it doesn't come naturally to us to understand it or empathise with it. It's not what you'd call a ``popular'' attribute of God. Everyone likes to hear talks on God's love, or on his healing power; but not on holiness. It feels like an ``old-fashioned'' subject; the kind of thing the old revivalists used to talk about.
But there's a reason that the Wesleys and Whitefields used to start by preaching God's holiness: it's an absolutely necessary foundation for understanding his grace and his love. God's holiness and our sinfulness are the backdrop against which God's love is seen. What would be so special about God forgiving our sin if he didn't care that much about it to start with? Grace is so wonderful because it is God's response to something that he utterly, utterly detests, not something he is merely unenthusiastic about. If God were merely loving but not holy, then he would be soppy. But because God's holiness burns so hot, his love is shown in all its power.
So let's look at one of the many biblical examples of God's holiness. For some people, this will be a familiar passage, but don't let that familiarity blind you to its power:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ``Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.'' At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
``Woe to me!'' I cried. ``I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.''
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ``See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.''
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ``Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?'' And I said, ``Here am I. Send me!''- Isaiah 6:1-8
So: God is holy. What does that mean? It's hard for us to express because it's so alien to us. Holiness is the opposite of sin. It's not merely the absence of sin, or even the hatred of sin, but a total otherness from sin. It's an uncompromising purity, a terrifying dedication to what is good and right.
It's absolutely in keeping with God's holiness that when Isaiah saw it, he expected to die - ``Woe is me!'' When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he was told that no-one was even to touch the mountain. If even an animal wandered onto the mountain, it had to be put to death! That makes no sense to us; but it's a hint, a shadow, of the utter, terrifying holiness of God. C. S. Lewis talks about the terror of falling into the hands of a higher power and finding, not that it is evil, but that it is absolutely, implacably good. And it is terrifying - that's why Hebrews 11:7 talks about ``holy fear''.
Now as though God's holiness were not reason enough to fear, we have another reason: our own sinfulness. We are ``steeped in sin at birth'' (John 9:34) David writes that ``Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.'' (Psalms 51:5) So to some degree, we inherit sin as a part of being human; but that is not a get-out clause that allows us to avoid responsibility. The truth is that every one of us sins against the holy God every single day -
``Against God and against our fellow men,
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,
through our own deliberate fault''- Alternative Service Book (ASB), Rite A
We sin both in what we do, and in what we leave undone. Don't believe me? Examine your conscience:
Honestly, when I stop and soberly consider myself, I hardly know where to start. I am a mess. I long to be absolutely dedicated to God; but when I pick it apart my life it is series of compromises, failures and a thousand tiny imperfections - each one of which is an intolerable offence to the holy God.
Our problem is this: we hate sin. We hate it, because we're made in God's image; so to some extent, we share his holiness. When we read about murders, rapes, genocide, large-scale financial fraud, we hate what we're hearing. We want to see the perpetrators caught and punished. But we know what we, too, are guilty. Not on the same scale as the Pinnochets, Saddams and Hitlers; but fundamentally we, like them, have put ourselves ahead of others and ahead of God.
That's why we hate God's holiness but are also drawn to it. We love it because the image of God in us loves holiness and longs for a holy world; but we also hate and fear God's holiness because we know that it condemns our sin. We love it and we hate it. We fear it and we are attracted to it. We want it but we're afraid of it. That's where the phrase ``holy terror'' comes from.
And as if all this were not enough, the bible clearly tells us that ``Without holiness no one will see the Lord'' (Hebrews 12:14). But we know that ``There is no one who does good, not even one'' (Psalms 14:3). So where does that leave us?
And now for a completely relevant digression:
When you're learning to ski, one of the most difficult lessons is that you need to lean down the slope. Everything in you cries out to lean up the slope instead, away from the drop. But that doesn't work: when your weight is mostly on the lower ski, you can't control your turn. But when you lean down the slope, with your weight on the upper ski, you can push the turn all the way round and stay in control. Your natural reaction is to pull away from the slope, but the right way is to head straight into what looks like your doom.
It's the same with sin. When we become aware of our sin, our natural tendency is to run away from God; but what we need to do is ``lean down the slope'' - run to God. Only he can deal with our sin. The great paradox of holiness is that the only way we can attain it is by running to The Holy One. The God who hates sin with an implacable hatred is the one who has made a way for us to cast that sin aside and be free of it forever.
We can see this in the bible. In the passage we read earlier, Isaiah - who is acutely aware of his sinfulness - is symbolically cleansed by a coal from the altar - that is, by God himself. Similarly, King David - in the deepest depths of his despair, having committed adultery, then covered it up with a murder - prays ``Cleanse me [...] and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow." (Psalms 51:7)
The awesome truth is this: the holy God, the God who hates sin with an unquenchable hatred, is also the God who has made a way. It was not cheap. It cost him the son who he has loved since before the foundation of the world; and we'll learn more about that astonishing, staggering love in another session in this series.
The bible says that everyone will stand before God in the end: ``Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment'' (Hebrews 9:27) On that day, anyone who is still in sin will be turned away for ever: it will be too late to change. But if, before that day, we come voluntarily to him, he will burn up our sin up but leave us unharmed. Let's not delay!
The best illustration I know of how deeply God works in us is the story of Eustace's transformation from dragonhood:
``Well, anyway, I looked up and saw the very last thing I expected: a huge lion coming slowly towards me. And one queer thing was that there was no moon last night, but there was moonlight where the lion was. So it came nearer and nearer. I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn't that kind of fear. I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it - if you can understand. Well, it came closer up to me and looked straight into my eyes. And I shut my eyes tight. But that wasn't any good because it told me to follow it.''
``You mean it spoke?''
``I don't know. Now that you mention it, I don't think it did. But it told me all the same. And I knew I'd have to do what it told me, so I got up and followed it. And it led me a long way into the mountains. And there was always this moonlight over and round the lion wherever we went. So at last we came to the top of a mountain I'd never seen before and on top of this mountain there was a garden - trees and fruit and everything. In the middle of it there was a well.
``I knew it was a well because you could see the water bubbling up from the bottom of it: but it was a lot bigger than most wells - like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into it. The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don't know if he said any words out loud or not.
``I was just going to say that I couldn't undress because I hadn't had any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that's what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.
``But just as I was going to put my foot into the water I looked down and saw that it was all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as it had been before. Oh, that's all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bath.
``Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
``Then the lion said - but I don't know if it spoke - You will have to let me undress you. I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
``The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse that anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know - if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.''
``I know exactly what you mean,'' said Edmund.
``Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. I smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again.- C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 7 (How the Adventure Ended), pp94-96
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/holiness.html.