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The Cross: The Victory of God’s Holiness


Mark 15:33-37
1 Peter 2:22-25

[1] There’s no word in biblical Hebrew for “doubt.” Are you surprised at this? Biblical Hebrew has no word for “doubt.” Isn’t it odd, then, that for the past several decades so much preaching has tried to assuage people’s doubts. Modern preaching often aims at identifying people’s doubts, voicing their doubts, classifying their doubts, illumining their doubts. On the one hand I understand why preachers think they have to address people’s doubts. On the other hand I have heard many sermons on doubt that ended up legitimating doubt, ended up confirming doubt. And I have heard more than one sermon where the preacher himself voiced his own doubts and many listeners went home relieved, since they now felt their own unbelief was all right.

We should rather understand why biblical Hebrew has no word for “doubt”: for our Hebrew foreparents God was the immediate, intense, intimate atmosphere in which their life unfolded, and to doubt him would have been as nonsensical as doubting the air they breathed and the fact of breathing itself and the necessity of breathing.

If you came upon someone who told you he sincerely doubted that there was air to breathe, sincerely doubted that he was breathing at this moment, sincerely doubted that it was important to breathe, you wouldn’t mobilize all your powers of suasion and argument and reason with him. You would telephone for an ambulance and whisper to the operator at least two attendants should come with the ambulance, for plainly the doubter was in a bad way.

If a fish could reason and talk, no one would attempt to persuade the fish swimming in the aquarium either that there really is water or that there really isn’t. The fish would know that water is that in which all fish live and move and have their being; without it they perish instantly.

There’s no word in biblical Hebrew for “doubt” just because God is the environment as immediate to them as water is to fish or air (breathed air) is to any of us. And therefore I’m not going to begin the sermon by identifying and voicing doubts. I’m going to begin with the immediacy and intensity and intimacy of God. Specifically I’m going to begin with God’s holiness.

[2] God’s holiness is God’s own Godness, that which constitutes him uniquely God. In the first place God is holy in that he’s utterly distinct from his creation. God is not to be identified with any part of his creation or any aspect of it.

In the second place God’s holiness means that he can’t be measured or assessed by anything other than himself. God is the absolute standard of himself.

In the third place God’s holiness means that God’s character is without defect or deficiency. God’s character is free from taint of any sort. God’s love is free from sentimentality; God’s anger is free from ill-temper; God’s judgement is free from arbitrariness; God’s patience is free from indifference; God’s sovereignty is free from tyranny.

In the fourth place God’s holiness means that all the aspects of God’s character just mentioned are gathered up into a unity. Just as every shade of the spectrum from infra-red to ultra-violet is gathered up into what we call “light”, so every dimension of God’s character and God’s transcendence is gathered up into God’s holiness.

God’s holiness is what scripture is actually about from cover to cover. To be sure, scripture is also about the holiness of God’s people, but always about his derivatively, secondarily. Primarily scripture has to do with God’s resolute assertion of his uncompromised holiness. If everything in scripture has to do with this, then Good Friday has to do with this as well. In other words the cross of Jesus has to do with God’s holiness.

[3] This lattermost point is important, for in our era the cross isn’t seen to be about God’s holiness. In our era the cross is viewed simply as one more instance of human virtue. The world has never been without its martyrs, for instance, and the cross of Jesus bespeaks his martyrdom. The world has never been without those possessed of the courage of their convictions, and Jesus plainly possessed the courage of his convictions. The world has never been without those victimized by political and religious power-brokers, and Jesus is one more victim.

But the apostles never speak like this of the cross of Jesus. John the Baptist was victim; John possessed the courage of his convictions; John was a martyr; yet the apostles never speak of the death of John as they do of the death of Jesus. The cross of Jesus has a force, a significance that the beheading of John doesn’t approach.

What’s more, the cross of Jesus is that one, singular event that looms over everything in scripture. While the public ministry of Jesus lasted up to three years, over 50% of the written gospels concerns one week (the death-week) of Jesus. The apostles see that the older testament anticipates the cross on page after page, from the story of Abraham and Isaac to the pronouncements of the prophets. They insist, together with Paul, they will preach only “the word of the cross.” They understand the resurrection of Jesus to seal the sacrifice of the cross; they understand the Holy Spirit to vivify the preaching of the cross. Then what it is about the cross that renders it the event in human history, the event in drama of salvation, the event in the life of God himself apart from which, say the apostles, there is no possibility of life eternal in us?

[4] Here we return to he centrality of God’s holiness. In view of the centrality of God’s holiness, everything about him and us must be understood in terms of his holiness. Our sin is our defiance of God’s holiness. God’s anger (his reaction to our sin) is the reaction of his holiness. God’s patience with us is the persistence of his holiness. And his love? God’s love is his holiness refusing to refusing to compromise itself even as it refuses to abandon us. If God’s holiness refuses to compromise itself even as it refuses to abandon us, where does it all come to expression? What is the outcome? It all comes to expression in the cross. And the cross, the outcome of it all, is the triumph of God’s holiness.

Let’s be sure we understand something crucial. Because God is holy, he is jarred by our sin. Jarred? Sin does more than assault him; sin offends him. He’s repulsed by it. He finds it loathsome, so very loathsome, in fact, that he can’t tolerate it. Since there’s no sin apart from sinners, God finds sinners loathsome and can’t tolerate them. Then he has only two choices: either he annihilates sinners, or he remedies their sinfulness. It’s plain that God has chosen not to annihilate sinners (for the time being, at least.)

To be sure, he has every right to annihilate us. For we are ungrateful, defiant, insolent people who owe him our existence and our every blessing, even as we persist in ignoring him, all the while thinking that our ignoring him is reasonable on account of our “doubts.” After all, doesn’t everyone have doubts? Surely we can no more help doubts from settling on us than we can help ‘flu “bugs” from alighting on us! But our doubting him and his goodness is no more reasonable than someone’s doubting the air she breathes and the act of breathing. Such a person we don’t congratulate; such a person we pity, even as we take steps to make sure she doesn’t hurt anyone else.

Our society assumes that to ignore the God whose holiness is his very Godness; our society assumes that to ignore him is merely an option, a preference, a taste. A few people seem to relish “religion”; most do not. But any case there’s no disputing taste. Fools! To ignore the one to whom we owe our existence and our every blessing is colossal ingratitude, inexcusable ingratitude, as offensive as it is unreasonable. Such ingratitude is never mere ingratitude; it is also contempt. Yet our contempt of God is also folly for us. To perpetuate such folly when God sustains us moment-by-moment, and sustains us despite our folly; this is more than folly; this is folly-induced blindness. In view of our ingratitude, insolence and self-willed blindness it shouldn’t surprise us that God finds us loathsome. Anything else would mean that his holiness had disappeared; which is to say, that he himself had ceased to be God.

Revulsion, we should note in this context, is an affective reaction to human sin: it’s how God feels about us. Anger, on the other hand, is a volitional response to sin: it’s what God does about us. What does he do? He disbars us; he denies us access to him. He can’t pretend that we are glad and grateful, obedient sons and daughters when we aren’t. He can’t pretend that we are fit to enjoy his presence when we are not more fit for him than a deaf person is fit to enjoy a concert or a blind person fit to enjoy an art gallery. God’s holiness has brought us to this point: either in his holiness he has to annihilate us or he has to remedy us.

Because God’s love is holy too he is going to provide what the apostle John calls “the remedy for the defilement of our sin.” To say that God’s love is holy is to say that his love isn’t sentimental. Because his love isn’t sentimental his love won’t let us off; yet also because his love isn’t sentimental (and therefore isn’t petulant) his love won’t let us go. Not only is God’s love righteous, it’s also resolute. His holy love will provide the remedy for the defilement of our sin.

The reason that the cross dominates all of scripture is that in the cross God’s holy love absorbs his holy anger and his holy revulsion. In the cross the judgement of the holy God is enacted and displayed. In the cross of Jesus the judgement of the holy God is borne by the Son of God — which is to say, borne by the Father himself, for Father and Son are one in nature, one in judgement, one in its execution, and one in its absorption. The cross is the triumph of God’s holiness in that God’s relentless opposition to sinners and his unending love for them; his revulsion before sinners and his patience with them; his authority over sinners and his self-willed humiliation beneath them; all of this is concentrated in the cross and finds pin-point expression there.

I have said that in the cross the judgement of God is seen to be operative: his face is set against sin, and sin must issue in alienation from him. Were there no judgment upon sin, God would cease to be holy. Yet if there were judgment only, the wrath of God would be fulfilled but the purpose of God would be frustrated, for now God would have given up that for which he made us in the first place, a people dear to him who live for the praise of his glory. In the cross, however, God honours all that his holiness entails even as he fulfils his purpose in fashioning a holy people who love him, obey him, serve him and lend glory to his name.

Much has been said about Moderator William Phipps’s denial of the incarnation. I hope that those who are upset are upset for the right reason. We shouldn’t be upset at his denial chiefly because he’s denying a fact; of itself this is no more upsetting than the denial of any other fact. We should be upset, rather, in that the incarnation is essential to the atonement. We can be made “at one” with God only as God the judge does two things: one, as God the judge exercises his judgement on sin and the penalty (alienation from him) is enforced; two, as God the judge absorbs that judgement in himself. Without the first, God’s character has degenerated and he has ceased to be holy; without the second, God would remain holy but our predicament would remain hopeless. God can condemn sin and absorb that condemnation himself only if the human bearer of that judgement is also the divine bearer. Apart from the incarnation the cross is nothing less than monumental injustice: Jesus is punished undeservingly by a God who is simply unfair. Apart from the incarnation the cross has nothing more to do with our destiny and our future than has the death of John the Baptist. In light of the incarnation, however, the just judge whose holiness will not permit him to wink at sin is also the loving father whose absorbing his judgement in himself creates a future and a hope we should otherwise never have. This is the point Phipps never gets.

In the cross God’s judgement is unsoftened, as our Lord’s cry of dereliction makes plain. In the cross too God’s love is undiminished, for how much more could he himself love us than to submit himself to humiliation, torment, and self-alienation in the Son?

In denying the incarnation Phipps isn’t merely getting rid of something that he regards as excess baggage, an encumbrance in the 20th century. In denying the incarnation, rather, Phipps is cutting the nerve of faith, for the only God there is to believe in is the one whose holiness can’t be compromised; and the only future we sinners can have depends on the God who in the Son incarnate bore his own judgement on us and bore it away. No incarnation, no atonement; no atonement, nothing but annihilation for humankind without hope of reprieve.

The atonement, the cross, is the triumph of God’s holiness in the face of human sin as God’s character is unimpugned and his truth is unaltered and his purpose is fulfilled and his people are recovered to be and remain the apple of his eye.

[5] At the commencement of the sermon I said there was no word in biblical Hebrew for “doubt.” There are, however, many words in biblical Hebrew for “wonder.” There’s no word for “doubt” just because God’s inescapable holy presence, charged with his power and purpose, renders doubt groundless. There are many words for “wonder” just because God’s inescapable holy presence, charged with his power and purpose, calls forth no end of wonder.

We hear such adoring wonder in the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”:

And when I think
That God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die,
I scarce can take it in.

And in a hymn older still Isaac Watts exclaims, “When I survey the wondrous cross” only to conclude,

Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all.

God’s holy love is brought to effectual focus in the cross. The cross in turn is the triumph of God’s holy love over sin and ingratitude and unbelief. Then why not suspend your unbelief? Why not suspend your unbelief, especially since unbelief is as groundless, as unsubstantial, as the psychotic person’s raving about an imaginary world that doesn’t exist. Why not suspend your unbelief, more especially, since God hasn’t suspended his mercy but rather prolongs the day of grace?

Faith is our grateful surrender to God’s holiness, therein to be rendered holy ourselves and made fit to glorify him and enjoy him forever.

Victor Shepherd
April 1998