The Holiness of God by R. C. Sproul“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself…The slightest sin is an act of defiance against cosmic authority…It is an insult to his holiness.”
If you are paying attention at all, it should be evident how little God is respected in today’s society. If He is acknowledged to exist at all, He’s viewed as “The Big Guy Upstairs,” or His name is merely used as an expletive. People say, “Thank God” and “God Bless You” without even really giving God a thought. And what about the term “OMG” that everyone uses? Even Christians! Really?? It seems to me that God is not taken very seriously at all, and that includes by many Christians. People expect certain things from God without considering (or caring about) what it is that He expects of them.
Some people incorrectly develop a dual view of God as He is presented in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament they see a fierce, angry God who imposes random laws on people and doesn’t hesitate to destroy anyone who opposes Him. This caricature God seems to be demanding and difficult to please, ready to suddenly display His wrath in various and creative ways. Then they read the New Testament and see a God of love and forgiveness, a God who doesn’t want bad things to happen, and is doing everything in His power to help and save people. A gentleman who never imposes Himself on anyone, but merely invites them to come to Him. God may be holy, possibly even just, but even so “we need not fear because His love and mercy override His holy justice.” The most important truth is that “God is Love,” right?
It certainly is very important to understand who God is as He is revealed in Scripture. A very worthwhile study is to consider the attributes of God, and there are several good books that have been written on the subject, such as The Attributes of God by A. W. Pink. But of all of God’s attributes, the one that stands above all the others and sets God apart is His holiness. In his book The Holiness of God, R. C. Sproul discusses what holiness is, how it applies to God, and why it is important to us. He observes, “How we understand the person and character of God the Father affects every aspect of our lives…His holy character has something to say about economics, politics, athletics, romance — everything that we are involved with.” God commanded, “Be holy, even as I am holy” (I Pet. 1:15-16). As a Christian, my understanding of holiness affects my worship, my spiritual growth, and my obedience to God. Not only do we need to know that God is holy, but it is also very important that we truly understand what holiness is and what it means because holiness is what God expects of us.
Sproul begins by exploring the Holy God as He revealed Himself to the Old Testament prophets, specifically Moses and Isaiah, and the response of these prophets when they came face to face with the holiness of God. For example, Isaiah’s response was to exclaim, “Woe is me, for I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5). Sproul remarks,
“In that single moment all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness…God normally reveals our sinfulness to us a bit at a time. We experience a gradual recognition of our own corruption. God showed Isaiah his corruption all at once. No wonder that he was ruined.”
But God didn’t leave Isaiah in that state. As He always does, God responded to his humble repentance with forgiveness and healing. He then gave Isaiah a purpose. As Sproul puts it, “God was able to take a shattered man and send him into the ministry. He took a sinful man and made him a prophet. He took a man with a dirty mouth and made him God’s spokesman.” God doesn’t destroy men’s identities, He restores them and makes them useful.
Sproul explains that the term holy, meaning “separate” or “set apart,” applies to God because He is completely separate from us, completely “Other.” When we read in the Bible about things which are called holy – holy ground, holy place, holy city, holy seed, holy nation – we need to realize that these things are only holy because God has set them apart for a special purpose. In the New Testament, God’s people are called “saints,” which means “holy ones.” What an amazing thought – that the Holy God reaches down, touches a common, filthy sinner, then consecrates him and sets him apart for His special purpose! Only God can consecrate something which is common and call it holy because He alone is holy. On the other hand, Sproul reminds us that calling anything holy that God has not called holy is idolatry: “giving to common things the respect, awe, worship, and adoration that belong only to God.”
Sproul examines the human feelings and responses that true Holiness may generate: Fear, Hatred, Anger and Resistance. We often experience fear when we are faced with something strange or unfamiliar, or when we don’t know or understand something, like death or the future. The more familiar we become with it and the more facts we have, the less fear we have. It is healthy and appropriate to fear God because He is completely unknown, unfamiliar, and different from what we are and know. And the more a person comes to understand God’s holy character, the more he becomes aware of his own sinfulness. This awareness should instill in us a sense of awe and dread. We see many examples in the Bible where getting a glimpse of the holiness and glory of God had this affect on individuals. Even men who were close personal friends of the Lord Jesus while He walked on this earth were brought to their knees when they saw Him for who He really was.
There were many who hated Jesus in His day, enough to kill Him. Did they hate Him for his love and kindness? For His wisdom and good advice? For His power? No – they hated Him for His holiness. The same goes for unbelievers today. People are comfortable accepting Him as a wise man, a good teacher, a moral example, or even as a great healer. But acknowledge Him as the Holy Son of God – no, that’s where they draw the line. The Question every individual must answer is: “Who do YOU say that He is?”
I found the chapter on God’s Holy Justice extremely helpful in addressing the depiction of God in the Old Testament as a harsh Judge that many people are uncomfortable with. Sproul reminds us of just a few of the instances in which God’s punitive response to disobedience (even what we would consider minor “errors in judgment”) was quick and severe. Sometimes people speak as though God acted as a tyrant, was in some way unfair, or over-reacted to trivial infractions. But they say that because they don’t have a true understanding of what it means to be a holy God. Sproul remarks, “God’s judgments are always according to righteousness. His justice is never unfair, never whimsical, nor tyrannical. It is impossible for God to be unjust because his justice is holy.” Interesting enough, while people complain against the wrathful acts of God seen throughout the Old Testament, they seem to overlook the most violent display of God’s wrath that ever took place – at the cross of Calvary. When Christ died, God’s justice and mercy were carried out simultaneously. He judged and punished the sins of all those for whom Christ was dying, at the same time extending His mercy and grace to sinners who did not deserve it. This is truly an amazing thought to ponder!
In fact, not once has God punished or destroyed an innocent person. Each and every person who has ever been punished by God deserved His wrath. Any act of disobedience against God is an act of defiance, ingratitude, and treason against the Most High and Sovereign King of the universe. Sin is an insult against God’s holiness because Man was created to bear the image of God, and when Adam (and we) sinned that image was and is defiled and corrupted.
But fortunately for us, God does not always choose to act justly. (Does that sound wrong to you?) What I mean is, He sometimes chooses to set aside His justice and instead shows mercy. He is not obligated to do so; in fact, if He were it would not be mercy, would it? “We cannot begin to understand divine mercy until we first have some understanding of divine justice.” God’s acts of righteous judgment in the Old Testament actually show us clearly what man deserves, preparing us to appreciate – no, wonder at – the mercy He extends to us in Christ. The Psalmist reminds us:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities. (Ps. 103:8-10)
We, however, take this patience and long-suffering mercy of God for granted. Men act presumptuously in their sin before the face of God, almost daring Him to strike them down. Sproul shares the observations made by a theologian named Hans Kung, that “the most mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is not that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist…The issue is not why does God punish sin, but why does He permit the ongoing rebellion of man?” And later he remarks, “Grace no longer amazes us. We have grown used to it; we take it for granted.”
The final chapter of The Holiness of God takes a look at the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This style of preaching is not one our modern-day churches can stomach. The reaction of Edwards’ audience was predominantly one of fear and trembling, leading to repentance and starting a great spiritual revival. Common reactions of people who read or hear this sermon today is more likely to be offense, anger, disdain, or mockery. People now only tolerate a God of love; they have no tolerance for a God of wrath and judgment. But here’s what Sproul has to say about that: “If we despise the justice of God, we are not Christians…If we hate the wrath of God, it is because we hate God Himself…A God of love who has no wrath is no God. He is an idol of our own making…” The holiness, justice, grace and mercy of God is sort of a package deal – it all goes together.
To sum up: I cannot fully understand God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness until I first really understand God’s holiness. It is then that I will finally stop resisting and fighting against His holiness. I will embrace his holiness, realizing how far His mercy extends to such as me. I will stop trying to achieve my own holiness and will be able to receive His provision, the Lord Jesus, and trust in His holiness credited to my account.
R. C. Sproul’s writing style is easy to read; he purposely tries to keep it accessible by avoiding the use of technical or difficult theological terms. There are other great parts in this book and applications for the Christian life that Sproul offers, but I will leave it to you to discover them in your own reading of the book.
P.S. The Holiness of God is also available as a video/DVD series. In an interview with pastor and author Paul Washer, he had this to say about it: “I must also mention a video series that greatly impacted my life when I was a young missionary in Peru — The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. I watched portions of that series on my knees. At times, I would have to pause the tape and simply lie prostrate on the floor. It was a pivotal moment in my life.”
Note: This title is included on my list of non-fiction works I believe every Christian should read.
Other books on holiness
- The Attributes of God by Arthur W. Pink
- The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer
- Holiness by J. C. Ryle
- The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges