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The Holiness of God & the Holiness of God’s People




I: — “I have been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to me,” the apostle Paul declares in his Galatian letter. (Gal. 6:14) Is he boasting? Is he putting himself forward as a spiritual super-achiever whom we are to recognize and congratulate?

On the contrary, he insists it’s by the cross of Christ he’s been crucified to the world and the world to him. He claims no credit at all for whatever has happened to him. The crucified One has turned him from Saul to Paul, from persecutor to apostle, from someone who bragged “blameless” in terms of the law to someone who shamefully acknowledges he’s the “chief of sinners” in light of the gospel. Boasting about himself is the farthest thing from his mind. If he’s going to boast at all he’s going to boast in – that is, extol – the cross of Christ and this only.

Crucifixion always has to do with rejection. At the cross our Lord was rejected by religious authorities and civil authorities alike. He was even rejected by uncomprehending disciples. Not least, he was rejected by his Father – “Why have you forsaken me? – even as Father and Son alike owned the Just Judge’s judgment on sin and alike absorbed the Just Judge’s condemnation of sinners, thereby pardoning all who cling to the Son in faith and find themselves at home with the Father. Crucifixion always entails rejection of some sort.

When Paul exclaims that the world has been crucified to him he means he’s rejected the world’s tinsel and trifles and toys. None of it appeals to him. The world’s superficiality, its tawdriness, its hollow promises; he craves none of it.

What doesn’t appeal to Paul can’t ‘hook’ him. Since there’s nothing in the world Paul craves there’s nothing in the world that can seduce him or seize him. He can’t be ‘hooked.’

At the same time Paul insists he has been crucified to the world. The world has rejected him. The abuse he’s received over and over amply attests the world’s rejection of him. To say he’s been rejected by the world is to say there’s nothing in him the world wants. Therefore there’s nothing in him he can sell. There’s nothing in him the world can co-opt.

Think about it. There’s nothing in the world the apostle craves and by which he can be ‘hooked.’ There’s nothing in him the world wants and by which he can be co-opted. If he can’t be ‘hooked’ and he can’t be co-opted then he’s free. It’s only as we are crucified to the world and the world crucified to us that we are free. As long as there’s something in the world we crave we risk being enslaved by it. As long as there’s something in us the world can co-opt we risk being swept up into schemes that aren’t God-honouring. But insofar as we are beyond such risks we are free.

“Am I not free?” Paul cries to his detractors in the church in Corinth. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” It’s his sight of the crucified One and his transformation by the crucified One and his public identification with the crucified One: this has made him free. He is free by the cross of Christ.

II: — What is freedom? Most people think of freedom as the capacity to choose among alternatives; i.e., we are free if we can choose to watch TV or study Hebrew grammar or attend an event at Tyndale. Choosing among alternatives, however, is mere non-determinism. Non-determinism has nothing to do with freedom.

According to Scripture to be free is to be freed from every impediment that hinders us from acting in accord with our true nature. When Paul declares in Gal. 5 “For freedom Christ has set us free” he doesn’t mean that Christ has made us able to choose between obeying him or disobeying him, honouring or not honouring him. Paul means only that Christ has removed every impediment to our obeying him; therefore freedom is obeying Christ. Christ has removed every impediment to our honouring him; therefore freedom is honouring Christ.

Think of it this way. If a de-railing switch has been placed on railway tracks, a train running over the switch will come off the tracks and stop. However, if someone removes the derailing switch, the train will be free to run along the rails. Now if someone says “But is the train free to fly like a bird?” we must hasten to answer that it isn’t a train’s nature to fly like a bird; it’s a train’s nature to run on rails.

You and I were created as sons and daughters of God. Our nature is to obey God and love him and love all whom he has made to live with us. On account of our depravity, however, we don’t obey and we don’t love. We are self-absorbed. Our self-absorption is a giant impediment to our acting in accord with our true nature. The impediment has to be removed. Only Jesus Christ can remove it. For this reason the apostle John exclaims, “If the Son makes you free you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

Because Paul is the beneficiary of Christ’s cross he and the world are crucified to each other. He is free. He has been freed from every impediment to acting in accordance with his true nature: he is a child of God called to be an apostle.

Who called him into the company of Jesus Christ? Who called him to be an apostle? God did. Not deity-in-general; not one deity among others. The God who called him is the God who is unique, comparable to no one; the God who admits no rivals and whom no one else approximates; in a word, the God who called Paul is the God who is holy.

III: — To say that God is holy is to say that God is incomparably himself. He belongs to no class. He is predicated of nothing. He isn’t one among several deities; he isn’t even one among several deities albeit the best or the greatest or the most important. He, Yahweh, alone is God.

Everyone is aware of how crucial Deut. 6:4 is to Israel’s faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” If this text (“…the Lord our God…”) is read by itself, however, it might suggest that Yahweh happens to be Israel’s God but Shiva could be no less the deity of Hinduism and Devas of Buddhism. In order to avoid this misunderstanding we must always read Deut. 6:4 alongside Zech. 14:9: “And on that day Yahweh will be king over all the earth. On that day Yahweh will be one and his name one.” Yahweh isn’t a deity among the deities or even the highest of the deities. Yahweh alone is God. Foundationally God’s holiness is God’s uniqueness. The Holy One of Israel alone is God.

[i] Because God’s holiness is God’s unique Godness; because God’s Godness is derived from nothing else and is shared with nothing else, God is not to be identified with his creation as a whole or with any part or dimension or aspect of his creation. While pantheism maintains that God is the essence of all that is, prophet and apostle insist that God is not the essence of anything God has made. The being of God is divine. The being of the creation is creaturely. There is a qualitative discontinuity here, an ontological discontinuity that can’t be compromised. The being of God is infinite and necessary. The being of the creation is finite and contingent. Any suggestion that a creaturely item is divine is an affront to the holiness of God.

A minute ago I spoke of pantheism, the notion that God is the essence of all that is. Panentheism, a near relative, insists that God is in the essence or of the essence of all that is. If God is the essence or of the essence of all that is, then there’s nothing that isn’t divine. And if there’s nothing that isn’t divine, then by definition sin and evil can’t exist. (Now we understand why our secularite ‘yuppie’ friends flirt with or are even devotees of the New Age Movement. The New Age Movement, pantheistic or at least panentheistic, legitimates, even divinizes, all human behaviour while denying any human behaviour to be sinful or wicked.)

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

[iii] 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 kind.
Whereas human love is often mixed with sentimentality, God’s love is devoid of soppiness of any sort.
Whereas human anger – even genuinely righteous anger, the sort of anger that God mandates – nonetheless remains mixed with irascibility or petulance, God’s anger is devoid of ill-temper of any sort.
Whereas human judgement, however just, is never without bias, God’s judgement is devoid of arbitrariness at all times.
Whereas human patience can masquerade indifference or detachment, God’s patience is never disguised detachment or disguised indifference.
Whereas human sovereignty is usually little more than coercion, God’s sovereignty is utterly devoid of tyranny. (What, after all, is less tyrannical, less coercive than God the Son dying between two criminals at the city garbage dump, abandoned by friends and Father?)

[iv] In the fourth place, God’s holiness means that all aspects of God’s character are gathered up into a unity. Just as every shade of the spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet is gathered up into what we call ‘light,’ so every aspect of God’s character and God’s loftiness and God’s lordship is gathered up into God’s holiness.

IV: — The God who is holy insists that his people be holy too. Needless to say, we can’t be holy with God’s Godness, since God’s Godness he shares with no one. Nonetheless we are appointed to reflect God’s holiness, to reflect God’s character, in a way that is appropriate to us whom he has made in his likeness and image. To say we are made in God’s image is to say we are to mirror God in such a way that when people look at us they see God imaged in us.

It should surprise no one, then, that from cover to cover Scripture is preoccupied with holiness. Scripture is preoccupied, we have to admit, where the church hasn’t been. For instance, Christians have contended vociferously over predestination. We should note, however, that the predestination word-group occurs approximately fifteen times in Scripture, while the holy/holiness word-group occurs 835 times. Scripture is obsessed with holiness, both God’s and ours.

I am convinced that the overarching, all-inclusive theme of Scripture is two intertwined matters: God’s re-assertion of his holiness in the face of our denying his, and God’s re-establishing our holiness in the wake of our contradicting ours. We deny God’s holiness and we contradict our own. According to Scripture God is ceaselessly at work to re-assert his holiness and re-establish ours. The holiness of God and the holiness of God’s people are Scripture’s preoccupation.

Both these concerns are gathered up in what I call the ‘root’ commandment of Scripture. The ‘root commandment’ is found in Lev. 19:2 and repeated elsewhere: “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” This commandment is heard over and over throughout the bible. It’s the bass note; it’s the downbeat; it’s the refrain; it’s the pulse: “You shall be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.”

The ‘root’ commandment, I have called it? But look at the grammatical form: “You shall be….” “You shall be” can be read as command or as promise. Read as command it means “You ought to be holy, you had better be holy.” Read as promise it means “One day you will be rendered holy; I guarantee it: you will be found holy.”

It is our friends, the seventeenth-century Puritans, who insist that all God’s commands are “covered promises.” The Puritans always knew that what God requires of his people God gives to his people. What God commands his people to exemplify God promises his people will display. Put another way, “You shall be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy” is the command of God underlying all Scripture and no less the promise of God crowning and adorning all Scripture.

V: — Holiness is both God’s gift and humankind’s task. What God gives us, we are to exemplify. Holiness is both by grace and by grit. How gritty is the grit? Very gritty, according to the single most protracted discussion of holiness in all of Scripture. The single most protracted discussion of holiness is found in Leviticus, chapters 18-27. Leviticus 18 begins, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” Plainly holiness has everything to do with our doing. It doesn’t matter how we feel or what we intend or what ecstatic religious experiences we have undergone if we fail to do.

Do what? Holiness, so far from being so heavenly as to be of no earthly good, is startlingly mundane, according to Lev. 18-27. Consider the following. We are never to disrespect the elderly but rather to stand up when we meet them in order to honour them. We are to treat the stranger (the stranger is always vulnerable, lonely and anxious) as one of us. If we are merchants we are to use just balances and weights and measures. If we have to go to court we mustn’t attempt to bribe the judge. And if we happen to be the judge then we must judge justly, favouring neither the rich nor the poor.

We mustn’t offer up our children to pagan deities. Surely the discussion of holiness in Leviticus is irrelevant right here, for who would sacrifice their own children today? As a matter of fact millions offer up their children to pagan deities every day. How many parents are there in Thailand who have consigned their children, more or less twelve years old, to a horrific sex-trade catering to wealthy Europeans and North Americans while the Thai government looks the other way, so incomparably lucrative is the tourist sex-trade for the Thai economy?

Do you think children today aren’t offered up to pagan deities? Surely a child is sacrificed to a pagan deity when the little boy is told from infancy that he must become an NHL player, and everything in the family is given over to this all-consuming preoccupation.

Do you think children today aren’t offered up to pagan deities? Then why is it a handicapped child has the right to special education and the right to social assistance and the right to special access in public buildings and, not least, the right to her own toilet – but she doesn’t have the right to be born? The government of Canada (the people of Canada) will ensure that she has her own washroom but won’t ensure that she gets to use it.

Leviticus says more. God’s people aren’t to reap a field of grain right to the border or gather the gleanings after the harvest. Why not? Food has to be left for poor people and sojourners (resident aliens) lest they go hungry. Employers must pay the worker his wages at the end of the day (not next morning or next week) since the worker needs money the same evening in order to feed his family. The deaf aren’t to be cursed or a stumbling block put in the way of the blind. Vengeance is not be exacted upon the offender and no one is to bear a grudge. In short, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but…you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Lest we think that such down-to-earth holiness is a peculiarity of the book the church manages to avoid (when is the last time your pastor preached on Leviticus?) we should look at holiness in the book of Exodus: “You shall not boil a kid (young goat) in its mother’s milk.” (Exod. 23:19) Why not? A she-goat would never be aware that her offspring was being boiled in her milk.

There are two considerations here. One, even though the goat isn’t aware that it’s her offspring being cooked in her milk, anyone who has watched a mammal nurse her offspring tenderly and defend it fiercely would be utterly insensitive if he did what the command of God forbids. In the second place, in the ancient world to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk was to invoke a foreign deity. If God forbids us now to boil a kid in its mother’s milk then God is forbidding his people now to call upon foreign deities.

Tell me: what deities, so-called, are invoked right now? What deities are invoked when a baseball player who fails to get a hit seven times out of ten is guaranteed ten million dollars per year for the next five years while homemakers are selling daffodils on street corners because cancer patients needing treatment have been told there’s a six-month waiting list for the equipment?

And while we are talking about earthly holiness we might as well talk about earthy matters, like sex. Everywhere in Scripture it is deemed ludicrous to speak of holiness in any respect if sexual integrity is lacking. If you read the Newer Testament carefully you will find that sexual integrity is found in all the apostolic discussions of the holiness of God’s people. Think, for instance, of the apostle’s statement in Colossians 3: because Jesus Christ is the life of any follower of Christ, any follower is by definition a new creation in Christ. The old man or woman has been slain at the cross as surely as Christ was slain. Yet the old man, Martin Luther reminds us, doesn’t die quietly: the corpse still twitches. For this reason, says Paul, we have to keep on putting him or her to death. On the one hand, it makes no sense to speak of slaying what’s already been slain. But Luther, like his Lord before him, relishes paradox. And for this reason Luther glories in Paul’s insistence that we who have already put on Christ must continue to put him on (every morning, in fact), while we whose old man has already been slain must continue to slay him.

When Paul renders more specific what’s involved in slaying the old man/woman he begins with “fornication, impurity….” In case we think his insistence in Colossians 3 no more than Paul’s intrapsychic oddity he says the same in Ephesians 5: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….but fornication and impurity….Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

Here Paul is accurately reflecting the Master who electrified him on the Damascus road and scorched him forever. For when Jesus says that nothing going into us makes us unclean; what makes us unclean is what comes out of us, out of the heart – when Jesus speaks of this matter he cries, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication….” (Mark 7:1-23) To aspire to holiness without aspiring to sexual integrity is oxymoronic.

Yet we mustn’t become one-sided, lopsided, in our understanding. In one and the same sentence Paul speaks in Ephesians 5 of both fornication and covetousness, even pronouncing covetousness to be idolatrous (something he doesn’t predicate of fornication.) And when Jesus speaks of what defilements come out of the human heart, he follows “fornication” immediately by “theft.” It’s obvious that our integrity concerning money says as much about holiness as our integrity concerning sex.

In a discussion of the holiness of God’s people we need to remember that Jesus says more about money, in the written gospels, than he says about any other single topic. Jesus says more about money than about anything else (sex included) for one reason: money is a graver spiritual threat than anything else. In the synoptic gospels money is mentioned in one verse out of ten; in Luke’s gospel, one verse out of eight. (And in the epistle of James, one verse out of five.) Money, we should note, receives an attention in Scripture that it appears not to receive in the contemporary church’s conversation.

Let’s ponder money and its spiritual force. According to 1st John 3:8 the purpose of Christ’s coming is to “destroy the works of the devil.” According to Hebrews 2:14-15 the purpose of Christ’s coming is to “destroy him who has the power of death…and to deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” And then in Luke 16:13 Jesus says briefly and bluntly, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” In other words, according to Jesus the power of God and the power of mammon (mammon isn’t merely a commodity; it’s a spiritual power) are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. God and mammon are rival powers who will agree to no truce in their seeking to win the loyalty of everyone they touch.

John opposes God and the evil one. Hebrews opposes God and the power of death. Jesus opposes God and mammon. Plainly the devil, the power of death, and mammon are related; they are three different angles of vision pertaining to the one actuality, the looming actuality that strives to loom larger than God in his immensity. These three powers – devil, death and mammon – how do you think these three powers are related?

To speak of the devil is to highlight the Christian life as spiritual conflict. To speak of death and bondage to death is to highlight Jesus Christ as resurrection and life. To speak of mammon is to highlight Christ’s exposure of mammon as the chief vehicle that the death-dealing, evil one deploys. In other words, the devil deals out death; and the devil deals out death chiefly through mammon.

If you think me overstated let me refer you to someone wiser than I, John Wesley. So very profoundly had Wesley observed the connection among the three powers that he pronounced mammon to be the talent that gathers up all other talents (intellectual gifts and athletic gifts, for instance, are different kinds of talent. Don’t most people sell their talent to the highest bidder?) Mammon is the temptation that underlies all other temptations; mammon is the snare, “a steel trap that crushes the bones,” Wesley wrote graphically, having in mind an eighteenth-century bear trap. Mammon is the poison that kills the most ardent discipleship. In Scripture money is related to holiness as money isn’t related to holiness in today’s church.

VI: —  Yet in our discussion of the holiness of God’s people we must beware at all times of why so very many people are nervous as soon as they hear the word ‘holiness.’ They are nervous because they have seen first-hand, and seen first-hand too often, an uninformed zeal for holiness pursue the holy (so-called) at the price of the human. It’s as though a zeal for holiness were inherently dehumanizing. We must renounce all such nonsense. The truth is, the purpose of God’s sanctifying grace is to render us authentically human. Some people have foolishly spoken of God’s sanctifying grace in terms of their becoming superhuman. But to aspire to be superhuman is to aspire after sin. To want to be superhuman is to disdain God’s gift of humanness. And not to put too fine an edge on it; to aspire to be superhuman is to behave like a subhuman. It is the purpose of God’s grace to render us authentically human.

What does this mean? A few minutes ago I spoke of the ‘root’ commandment of Scripture: “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Now recall the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God without qualification or reservation or hesitation, and you shall love your neighbour with total self-forgetfulness.” How is the root commandment related to the great commandment? The connection is plain: holiness is freedom to love. To be holy is to be human (authentically human); to be authentically human is to be free to love.

We must be sure to grasp that the great commandment mandates we love God and neighbour, not that we understand God or neighbour. To be sure, we must understand something of God or else it’s nonsensical to say we love him. It’s ludicrous to say “I love x, and I don’t have a clue as to who or what x might be.” At the same time, we can understand relatively little of God yet love him profoundly. And, regrettably, we can understand a great deal about God yet not love him at all, thanks to our sin-shrivelled heart.

Don’t misunderstand me: I never belittle understanding. God isn’t honoured by human ignorance, and above all never honoured by ignorance of the truth concerning him. In case anyone needs to be reminded, I have spent my entire working life teaching Christian doctrine; that is, I have always endeavoured to help people understand the truth of God. After all, the more we understand of God the greater our capacity to love him. Yet we must never think that the ‘A’ student in systematic theology loves God exceedingly well by virtue of the grade she received in the theology course.

In the same vein I’ll never be found decrying the place of the will in Christian discipleship. I’m saddened to see people who have a wishbone where they ought to have a backbone. Yet I’m aware that love governs willing as surely as love governs understanding. Just as we understand most thoroughly what we love most profoundly, so we do most consistently what we love most profoundly.

In the short run we can always will what we don’t love. If we don’t love studying Greek but we do love basketball, in the short run, tonight, we can always study Greek anyway instead of watching the Raptors’ basketball game because there’s a Greek test tomorrow and if we don’t study we won’t pass. But what happens in the short run never happens in the long run. In the long run we always end up willing, doing, what we love; and in the long run we always come to understand most profoundly what we love. In other words, what we love integrates our understanding and our willing; which is to say, what we love integrates us. For this reason the great commandment isn’t that we understand God; the great commandment isn’t even that we obey him. The great commandment is that we love him, for if we genuinely love him we shan’t fail to understand him and obey him.

What about holiness and love of the neighbour? Once again, we are called to love the neighbour, not understand her. Regardless of what we might understand of her there remain oceanic immensities in her that we don’t understand and never will. When people tell me they can’t understand me, I remind them they should try loving me. In our depravity we prefer to understand the neighbour, and prefer this for two reasons: one, if we understand her we think we’ll have legitimate reason not to love her; two, if we understand her we’ll be able to manipulate her. But the great commandment forbids us to excuse our lovelessness and forbids us to manipulate. We are mandated to love.

Thomas Chalmers, a nineteenth-century Church of Scotland minister, spoke often of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” He meant that only a qualitatively new affection – Holy Spirit-quickened love of God and neighbour – could expel the old affections and passions that haunt us and hurt others. What’s involved in a new affection I have learned most profoundly from my friends who are addicts. The men and women of Alcoholics Anonymous distinguish between someone who is chemically sober and someone who is contentedly sober. The chemically sober person is the addict who is alcohol-free at this moment, in the short run, thanks to his short-run force of will. But everyone knows he’s going to relapse in the long run, still in bondage to his addiction. The contentedly sober person, on the other hand, can continue to will his sobriety just because he’s intimately acquainted with “the expulsive power of a new affection.”

Holiness is finding through God’s grace the integration of the affections together with the integration of affect and understanding and will.

VII: — We began tonight with Gal. 6:14. We noted that to be crucified to the world and to have the world crucified to us means there’s nothing in the world we crave and by which we can be hooked, at the same time that there’s nothing in us that the world can use and by which we can be co-opted. We said too that to find ourselves in this situation is know ourselves free because freed by Jesus Christ.

As we are freed by Jesus Christ we are free from the world and its blandishments precisely in order to be free for the world in its need. Over and over the psalmist insists that God is for us. God is for the world. God so loved the world – and continues to love it – that he embraced the world so as never to disdain it or spurn it or abandon it.

Next we probed the nature of God’s holiness, God’s unique Godness wherein his being is free from the being of the creation in every respect. Now, however, we must be sure to grasp that God as God is free from the world in order to be free for the world. The God whose holiness means he must never be confused with the world is the God who so loves the world as never to fail it or forsake it.

By God’s grace you and I have been freed from our bondage to unbelief. Freed from our unbelief and its attendant self-absorption, we are freed for our immersion in God and our immersion in God’s world. It is God’s holiness that renders him singularly helpful to the world. It is no less our holiness that renders us salt and light in the midst of the world.

In a word, as we are crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us we are profoundly holy and pervasively a blessing to that world which we now love with a love that mirror’s God’s.

VIII: — The Newer Testament characteristically speaks of Christ’s people as hagioi, ‘holy ones,’ ‘saints.’ Saints aren’t spiritual super-achievers of any sort. Saints are simply exemplary human beings. Saints are human beings, restored by God’s grace to human authenticity, who exemplify him who went about doing good inasmuch as he knew that One alone is good, and this One alone is good just because this One is Yahweh, and Yahweh alone is God.

Victor Shepherd 7 June 2012