Tyndale, 1985, 1998. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
Twenty-five years ago this book first appeared, and it is something of a modern-day classic. If it was an important volume when first released, it is even more so today. Perhaps the greatest lack in the Christian church today is a recognition and appreciation of this most grand of topics.
If we listed ten descriptions of the church today, I don’t think the term holy would appear. If we listed the top 50 sermon topics in our churches, I don’t think the holiness of God would be among them. Thus this book is a necessary reminder of the God we serve and the sort of life we are called to live.
Sproul is quite right to say this theme “is one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with. It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.” He reminds us that the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer is “hallowed be your name”.
Isaiah 6 of course is a great place to begin on this topic, and Sproul devotes a meaty chapter to Isaiah’s encounter with a holy God. Hebrew poetry uses repetition to emphasise a point, and the song of the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” is a prime example of this.
Says Sproul, “The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath…” Indeed, holiness does not signify just one single attribute of God. The word holy “is used as a synonym for his deity”. Thus his love is holy love, his mercy is holy mercy, his justice is holy justice, and so on.
At its root holiness means separation, to be set apart. Because we are unholy, our normal reaction to a holy God is fear, dread or revulsion. “Holiness provokes hatred. The greater the holiness, the greater the human hostility toward it.” Jesus knew all about this. Even though perfect in his love, people rejected him.
Says Sproul, “His love was a perfect love, a transcendent and holy love, but His very love brought trauma to people. This kind of love is so majestic we can’t stand it.” Indeed, in the end, the enraged mobs put Jesus to a cruel death. The real Jesus they could not stand.
Alone worth the price of the book is the chapter on Holy Justice. Here we find Sproul at his best, dismantling the misconceptions and misunderstanding of who God is and what he is like. He examines some of the episodes in the Old Testament that make us moderns so uneasy.
Consider the death penalty for various crimes. Some think this is overly harsh and vindictive. But we feel this way because we do not at all understand the nature of sin, the nature of God, and his holy justice. All sin, as Sproul reminds us, is a capital offense.
Every single time we sin against a holy and righteous God, we are bringing the death penalty upon ourselves. So it is an act of amazing grace that every sin is not listed as a capital crime. “The Old Testament code represents a bending over backward of divine patience and forbearance. The Old Testament Law is one of astonishing grace.”
We need to view sin from God’s perspective. It is “cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the 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.”
Following Hans Kung, Sproul says we should not be amazed at God’s just judgment at sin, but be amazed at how he patiently allows our heinous rebellion to continue. “What prince, what king, what ruler would display so much patience with a continuously rebellious populace?”
It is the pure mercy and grace of God that he does not punish sin instantly. “Far from being a history of a harsh God, the Old Testament is a record of a God who is patient in the extreme.” And the same portrait of God is found in the New Testament.
At the cross we find the “most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice”. We are all sinners and we all deserve to die. But Jesus was perfect, innocent, yet took our punishment for us. “If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross.”
One of our problems here is that we confuse justice with mercy. Justice is what we deserve; mercy is totally undeserved. We complain about a perceived injustice on God’s part, and whine about how we deserve more grace. But that is a contradiction in terms.
Grace is always undeserved, while justice is something due to every one of us. God is not obliged to be merciful to us in the least. Yet he chooses to be anyway. Grace is a gift, and we cannot presume upon it. None of us should demand God’s justice for ourselves – what we need is mercy.
But we dare not take God’s grace for granted. “God’s grace is not infinite. God is infinite, and God is gracious. We experience the grace of an infinite God, but grace is not infinite. God sets limits to his patience and forbearance. He warns us over and over again that someday the ax will fall and His judgment will be poured out.”
That paragraph alone needs to be shouted from our pulpits today. We are flooded with what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. What we need to be reminded of is how very costly God’s grace is, and how utterly unwarranted and undeserved it is.
Sproul argues that the “failure of modern evangelicalism is the failure to understand the holiness of God.” He is absolutely right. That is why this book is so vitally important. It was much needed when it first appeared a quarter of a century ago, and it is even more so needed today. I heartily commend it to you.