A Review of The Holiness of God. By R.C. Sproul.
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.
8 Replies to “A Review of The Holiness of God. By R.C. Sproul.”
In forgetting or overlooking the holiness of God, we present a form of worship which is beneath the Sovereign of the Universe. Reverence and awe of YHWH through His grace, is what causes us to worship Him acceptably. Heb 12:28-29.
Great stuff Bill.
–“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”.
I love how this is demonstrated in the simple but profound story of the Syrophoenician woman. Mark 7:24-30.
She pleads with Jesus for a miracle, (having no right to because she wasn’t a Jew) but shock horror he refuses and instead gives her what she deserves, justice (judges her) however instead of whining and complaining, naming and claiming and throwing up verses at Him, she humbles herself and agrees with Jesus (Yes Lord) that his justice is righteous.
Then the most amazing thing happens, the door of grace flies open and the daughter (who is not even present) is delivered of the horrible demon.
Oh my, what a wonderful story and lesson for us all.
The judge who is to be feared but who loves us and wants whats best for us, a God who deals out death, brings us down and to the end of our strength but then resurrects, not a legalistic monster who hates us but a loving father who uses the law as a means to bring us to Christ.
His Judgment is his mercy which is His grace.
just want to say amen to this…oh God give me a a greater understanding of all of this…Ithe mercy of God being properly understood like it is here helps us to understand why we desercve eternal separation from God… our (my) sin was so terrible it required the most terrible solution… knowing the wisdom of Gof God I am sure God would have thought of another solution, but He couldnt…therefore my sin is so terrible…so I live every day with great thanksgiving and with no rights just bathing in more of his mercy…thanks Bill for putting this up…love it but am humbled again by it.
Yes the message of who God is and the message of the cross should blow us all away, and keep us forever on our knees in wonder and amazement and gratitude and humility. It is too easy to lose sight of all this.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Great Bill, this book has been a revelation to me this year.
Is the failure of modern evangelicalism the failure to understand the holiness of God as RC Sproul wrote in 1985, or is that failure merely a symptom of a wider malaise in Christianity?
Consider the rampant rejection or avoidance of God’s word where God himself wrote that he created the world (very good, or perfect) in six days. If we accept evolution, then logically, as atheists delight to point out, Genesis is wrong. If we say God used or guided evolution, we promote a god who ‘created’ by countless millennia of death and extinction and then blamed us for the evil he used to create us. That, as Dawkins writes, is “barking mad”! No wonder we can’t understand the holiness of God: we don’t really believe it, unless leavened with other pre-breakfast impossible myths!
Hmmm! Perhaps that’s why Sproul, in a more-recent work (Truths We Confess: A layman’s guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Volume I, 2006) says he has changed his mind and become a 6-day young-earth creationist (as reported at http://creation.com/famous-evangelical-apologist-changes-his-mind-rc-sproul).
So is the failure of modern Christianity the failure to believe the Bible – sola scriptura?
I just finished reading it and it was very good. The book is a quick read (not in a “I just want to say I read it type of way).
Many of us miss the holiness of God. Our churches need more Holiness preached at the altar. We need more reverence and gratitude for his grace given to us every day.
Sounds like there are some very important things to learn in this book – have just purchased it online. Thanks for the review.