Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Excerpt on Holiness from draft of Chapter 6

Here is the first lengthy excerpt from the book. Having moved (for now) beyond the introductory chapters that are so important for setting up the rest of the book, the work is going much more smoothly on the editorial side. This is also causing the progress meter (left sidebar) to rise much faster. Remember that your chances to preorder Brian's book for $5.00 ends when the meter tops 30% (details in right sidebar). As you read the following excerpt you will see that Brian does a fine job of bringing Scripture directly to bear in ways that bring fresh illumination.


Novelist Flannery O’Connor once said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” She did this in her fiction, often ending her stories with unusual, even shocking, twists that force the moral of the story upon her readers.

Our gracious God knows we are almost blind and hard of hearing. And in Scripture, he shouts and draws large, startling pictures to help us understand his holy nature and the character he wishes to form in us. Let’s take a brief survey of these pictures of holiness in Scripture.


The first occurrence of the word “holy” in Scripture is in the second chapter of Genesis. Having completed the six days of creation, God rests from his creation work on the seventh day. Verse 3 says, “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3). The phrase “made it holy” is a single verb in Hebrew which means to consecrate, separate, or set apart. God set apart the seventh day from the other six, making it unique.

The next occurrence of the verb in the Old Testament conveys a similar meaning. After instituting the Passover meal in the inaugural event of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God instructs Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exod. 13:2). The word “consecrate” is the same word we saw in Genesis 2:3. God is commanding Moses to set apart the firstborn children and animals in Israel for himself. “Whatever is the first to open the womb . . . is mine.” The noun form of this word expresses the same idea; it means that which is “set apart” or “consecrated” to God.

God himself is set apart from all others. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exod. 15:11). To put it simply, God is in a class all by himself. God is other than we are. He is called the Holy One of Israel (Psa. 89:18), has a holy name and dwells in a holy place (Isa. 57:15; Psa. 99:3; Deut. 26:15; cf. Psa. 20:6, 24:3). His Spirit is holy (Psa. 51:11) and he does holy works (Psa. 105:42) and makes holy promises (Psa. 145:17). God does everything for the sake of his holy name (Ezek. 36:22). Psalm 89:35 says that God swears by his holiness “because that is a fuller expression of himself than anything else.”

But God also sets apart for himself various people, places, and things. When Moses heard God speak from the burning bush, he was on holy ground (Exod. 3:5). God chose Israel to be a holy nation, set apart as his special people (Exod. 19:6). The garments of Aaron, the high priest, were holy garments (Exod. 28:2, 4). The priests made holy sacrifices on a holy altar (Exod. 29:37) in a holy place, while the ark of the testimony was kept in the Most Holy Place (Exod. 26:33-34). Even the furniture and utensils used within the tabernacle were holy (Exod. 30:27-29). Because Jerusalem housed the temple, it was known as God’s holy city (Isa. 52:1). Anything set apart for God’s special use was holy.

This, then, is the first picture of holiness: being set apart or consecrated for God.

Moral Perfection

Closely connected to the idea of consecration is that of ethical purity and moral perfection. As we saw above, God is other than we are. But this otherness is not merely metaphysical. It is also moral. God is unique in the perfection and purity of his character. As the prophet Habbakuk said, the Holy One is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:12-13).

This moral dimension to God’s holiness consists in the excellence of his nature, the integrity of his justice, and the purity of his wisdom. As a seventeenth-century theologian said, God’s holiness is the glory of his perfections.

As his power is the strength of [his perfections], so his holiness is the beauty of them. As all would be weak, without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them . . . [holiness] is the rule of all his acts, the source of all his punishments. If every attribute of the Deity were a distinct member, purity would be the form, the soul, the spirit to animate them. Without it, his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtlety. It is this gives a decorum to all.

Holiness, then, is not merely one of many attributes of God. It is the sum and substance of all the attributes. All of God’s perfections are holy perfections. Holiness is the beauty, the splendor, the “fearful symmetry,” of God’s infinitely flawless character.

God’s utterly self-consistent holiness demands a corresponding purity in those created in his holy image. Moral perfection is the condition for a relationship with God. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” asks the Psalmist (Psa. 24:3). The answer is found in the strict ethical requirements which follow. Because God is holy, only those who have clean hands, pure hearts, and honest lips can stand in his presence (Psa. 24:4-6; cf. Psa. 15:1-5). God’s holiness demands ours. “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 20:7; cf. Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:16).

Yet we are human, inherently sinful, placing all of us in a deep moral crisis. Our God is holy, and we are not. When we see our sinfulness in the light of God’s holy character, we tremble.

When God gave his law to Israel at Sinai, the people of Israel “saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking.” They “were afraid and trembled and stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us lest we die’” (Exod. 20:18-19). Isaiah the prophet, perhaps the most righteous man of Israel in his day, was reduced to psychological shambles, when he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up,” surrounded by winged seraphim, who covered their faces as they cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:1-5).

Job, despite his initial confidence as a plaintiff desiring audience before the Almighty’s throne (Job 23:1-7), lost all self-esteem when he heard the living Lord speak. In self-abhorrence, he confessed, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). Reflecting on these kinds of biblical stories, Calvin wrote of the “dread and wonder with which Scripture commonly represents the saints as stricken and overcome whenever they felt the presence of God.” He concluded that, “man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”

The emotions of awe, dread, and fear are appropriate responses to God’s holiness, because he is holy and we are not. He is pure, clean, righteous, and true. We are soiled with guilt and deceit. His character is holy. Ours isn’t. This realization should give us pause when approaching our God. As Annie Dillard once wrote,

On the whole, I do not find Christians . . . sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Fully Realized Human Holiness

These pictures of holiness emphasize the transcendence of God, evoking responses of awe and dread. But Scripture provides another picture—a picture of incarnate holiness, immanent holiness, holiness drawing near to us in the person of Jesus.

Everything about Jesus’ life was fragranced with the aroma of holiness. Prior to Jesus’ miraculous conception, an angel appeared to his mother Mary saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy— the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). John the Baptist, the herald and forerunner of Jesus, pointed to him as one who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Demons, possessing insight more keen than Jesus’ own companions, recognized him as “the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34). Peter proclaimed Jesus as the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14), and the early disciples acknowledged Jesus to be God’s “holy servant” (Acts 4:27, 30). Like “a lamb without blemish or spot” Christ ransomed us for God (1 Pet. 2:18-19) by offering himself “without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14). He is our great high priest, “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). He was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4). In raising Jesus, God did not let his Holy One see corruption (Acts 2:27).

The greatest and clearest picture of holiness in Scripture is this Jesus of whom we sing and teach and preach. Every aspect of Jesus’ life exuded the beauty and splendor of God’s moral perfection and ethical purity. Though he experienced the full scope of temptation, he remained completely sinless (Heb. 4:15). Jesus literally embodied what Sinclair Ferguson calls “fully realized human holiness.”

Shuddering Yet Aglow with Fire

In his fully realized human holiness, Jesus shows us what we were made for. The beauty of his moral flawlessness is irresistibly attractive and resonates in our hearts. Perhaps this is one reason why children loved Jesus and felt safe in his arms: They sensed his intrinsic goodness and purity.

Yet his untarnished perfection is also threatening, even terrifying. In Mark 5, when Jesus was in a fishing boat with his disciples during a dangerous storm, the disciples were understandably frightened. But when Jesus stilled the wind and waves with his mere words, his fearful disciples became terrified! They had come face to face with his transcendence. This is also why Peter, having glimpsed the majesty of his Lord displayed in a miraculous catch of fish, cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

There is something about holiness that provokes both of these responses: attraction and alarm, delight and dread. Augustine expressed this combination of emotions when he wrote, “What is that light whose gentle beams now and again strike through to my heart, causing me to shudder in awe yet firing me with their warmth? I shudder to feel how different I am from it: yet in so far as I am like it, I am aglow with its fire.” Augustine’s words explain why we are so conflicted in our feelings about holiness. We shudder, because of our sin. We are not holy, so we feel threatened by the dissimilarity between our hearts and our holy God. Yet at the same time, we are aglow with the fire of the Holy One, because holiness is what we were made for.

As we have seen in previous chapters, the good news is that God credits the Christ’s perfection to all who trust in him. Ultimately, Jesus alone can ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in his holy place. But we stand there with him. His obedience is ours. His perfection counts for us. Christ is our holiness, our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30).


Bonnie October 22, 2009 at 7:57 PM  

I just want to let you know that I do find this interesting. I have written a little for publication and am interested in doing so again. I will look forward to following this blog--and I am not usually a blogger.

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