CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Uncoupling God’s Love and Holiness

May 28, 2014

One of the main reasons why the church is in such a mess today is because we have managed to uncouple the love of God from the holiness of God. Of course these things cannot be uncoupled in God himself: his attributes are all of a piece, and are never divisible.

But modern Western Christians have regrettably managed to convince themselves that God’s love can be celebrated, promoted and extolled, while we can simply ignore or downplay his holiness. But of course this just cannot be done. To seek to remove the holiness of God from the love of God is to present a distorted, truncated and deformed God – a God of our own making, but not the God of the Bible.

All this is of course simply the basic teaching of biblical Christianity. But unfortunately we live in an age where basic biblical doctrine is all but lost, if not spurned, by so many believers today. Instead we are sold a bill of goods from the pulpits about how we can feel good about ourselves, get rich, have better self-esteem, and lose weight for Jesus.

wellsMany have bemoaned this unbiblical and dangerous uncoupling. One author who has hammered away at this theme for decades now is American theologian David Wells. I have just reviewed his new book, where I speak to his concern about presenting God as he really is, a God of holy-love: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/05/26/a-review-of-god-in-the-whirlwind-by-david-wells/

But I wish to speak to this topic a bit more, given its overwhelming importance. As I mentioned, Wells has been speaking to this for many years now. Back in 1994 for example in his very important volume, God in the Wasteland, he was dealing with these matters.

There he argued that God’s holiness weighs so lightly upon us today. Yet until recently it was accepted that “holiness fundamentally defines the character of God, and that love is not an alternative to it but, rather, an expression of it”. He argued that we need to “recover the biblical emphasis on the fact that God is in his very essence holy”.

He goes on to say that “God’s holiness and majesty belong together and interpret one another” and that God’s people must respond accordingly. But that is mostly lost in contemporary Christianity:

In the church today, where such awe is conspicuously absent and where easy familiarity with God has become the accepted norm for providing worship that is comfortable and consumable, we would do well to remember that God is not mocked. It is true that the New testament encourages a bold confidence in our access to God through Christ’s holiness and by his work, but in our confidence we must never be careless of the purity of God or the requirements he has established for his people. The holiness of God begets and requires in those who approach him the echo of his holiness. Ananias and Sapphira learned that the hard way (Acts 5:1-11).

He then says this:

So it is that when we succeed in cloaking the holiness of God, in focussing on his love to the exclusion of his wrath, we unsettle the whole moral universe. We create a God who may be patient, kindly and compassionate, but who is without the will to resist what is wrong, without the will to judge it, and without the power to destroy it. Such a God lacks the moral earnestness to attract our attention, let alone inspire our belief or warrant our worship. Such a God is not the God of the Bible, and is not the God of Jesus Christ. We may place him at the center of our faith, but he cannot be the great protagonist in the moral drama of the world, the conflict between good and evil, for without holiness there is no drama and there is no hope….
A God who is not holy cannot deal with the great darkness of corrupted human life, the darker forces behind it, and the whole societal fabric in which this rebellion has become normative (Ephesians 2:1-10). He can scarcely comprehend the damnation that has already settled subliminally on the human psyche, and he is even less able to do anything about it. The best he can hope to do is offer counsel like a Rogerian therapist, listening carefully but non-judgmentally, necessarily detached in his kindness from the deepest pains, the most destructive realities of our lives. Such a God produces a Christianity that is attractively amiable and civil but utterly unable to come to terms with the suffering of this fallen world because it is simply not on the same moral scale as the transgressors to whom it presumes to speak a word of grace….
Without this holiness of God, sin has no meaning and grace has no point, for it is God’s holiness that gives to the one its definition and to the other its greatness. Without the holiness of God, sin is merely human failure but not failure before God, in relation to God. It is failure without the presumption of guilt, failure without retribution, failure without any serious moral meaning. And without the holiness of God, grace is no longer grace because it does not arise from the dark clouds of judgment that obscured the cross and exacted the damnation of the Son in our place. Furthermore, without holiness, grace loses its meaning as grace, a free gift of God.

Image of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World
God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World by Amazon logo

In his most recent book he makes much of this theme. He reminds us that love without holiness degenerates into antinomianism, while holiness without love leads to graceless legalism. We need to affirm both fully and simultaneously. Let me offer another quote from the book:

Disengaged from holiness, love would be indifferent to sin. It would be unmoved by what is wrong except, perhaps, that it might be sympathetic to the suffering that comes from what is wrong. Would it be God’s kind of love, then, if it were willing to overlook despicable human behavior? Would it really be love if it were untouched by what is cruel and depraved? This looking the other way might masquerade as loving forgiveness. But is this not actually moral indifference? Let us not forget that those who are unmoved and untouched by cruelty are psychopaths. No. This is not love! Nor is it love to allow any accommodation to what is wrong simply because we do not want to be “judgmental.” This kind of moral weakness, one that wants always to be “tolerant,” is at best a soft, boneless sentimentality….
Real love is never morally indifferent because it is always part of the vision of what is right. It can never be untouched by what has gone wrong in life. It can never be uncaring at a moral level. And the reason is that God’s love is never indifferent, uncaring, or disengaged. It is forever bonded to holiness. Love, indeed, is an expression of that holiness. We must have both love and holiness, and we must have them in the union that they have in the being of God.

It seems to me this explains perfectly just why we are so messed up as a church today, and why so many Christians have got it so very wrong in the culture wars. Because they have wrongly uncoupled the holiness of God from his love, they forever go on about how we must accept homosexuals, drug users, and so on, just as they are, because this is just the loving and non-judgmental thing to do.

Of course there is nothing loving about this at all. Leaving people lost in their sin, chains and darkness is not loving – it is cruel in the extreme. It is an act of moral cowardice. We are so concerned to be liked and to not offend anyone, that we are allowing people to suffer greatly in this life, and then go off to a lost eternity.

Because we want to be seen as “nice”, we are treating people in a most unloving fashion. As I keep saying, the most loving thing we can do for a drug user is tell him he can be set free from his deadly addiction. The most loving thing we can tell a homosexual is that he does not need to be trapped in this dead-end lifestyle.

But because so many Christians have thrown away or trampled upon the holiness of God, all they have left for lost sinners is a message of acceptance, approval and endorsement. But we can never approve of what God condemns. Sin is always to be opposed, not championed, molly-coddled, and excused.

Thus we must get back to God as he really is, and as he truly has revealed himself to us. He is a God of holy-love, and that is the God with whom we have to do, and the God that the world is so desperate to meet. Anything less is a damnable fraud, and will help no one.

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8 Responses to Uncoupling God’s Love and Holiness

  • Two of our children went to school fully dressed in uniform when a Rainbow Day Mufti was organised by the school to promote homosexuality. They were of course in the minority.

    My kids both knew they’d be questioned about this and had their answers ready. The “Christian” kids were surprisingly the ones who kept pressing as to why only “our” religion did not condone homosexuality …

  • Good article mate, its true, and as you know, it also now has a name, “Hyper-grace”.

  • Well rounded article Bill and a perfect example of issues myself and my wife find ourselves in with some of our christian friends.

    It’s difficult also to openly dialog with them and us state that we don’t believe “The Gospel of Love” to be the answer solely and then just end up agreeing to disagree. Is that something we should be doing or should we be removing ourselves away from such friendsships that are clearly endorsing “The Gospel of Love” in other peoples lives which is of course a false impression of what “The Big News” really is?? That’s a hard one…

    I must say that in Perth here sadly this is a line that is held by most (and I underline most) Uniting, some Anglican and nowadays even more so baptist churches which I was affiliated with when I was younger. Solid teaching is indeed becoming harder to find.

    Having said that there are of course exceptions to the rule, a few specifically I can think of are quite the opposite which is a grat encouragement. We need to pray that God will use us through our connections (all of us) to dispell this misconception that God’s love is the trump card to play in all situations.

  • Holiness are love can both be a problem if they are not given their proper content. Both are summed up in Scripture this way:

    “This is the love of God that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)

  • The Love of God is rarely explicitly referred to in the Bible and explicit references were to believers. To understand the nature of God’s love one has to understand the character of God and consider also the love we are to have for God and each other.

    Would a God of Love want to wait till we die for us to be holy? Never. Time and again we see God took pleasure in men who lived holy lives. They may have sinned but they had real victory over sin. God’s holiness is imparted. Without God’s grace we could not have holiness.

    If God did not want holiness in us, then the Holy Spirit would not have come.

    When David acknowledged his sin what did he fear losing most? Being cast from God’s presence and having the Holy Spirit taken from him.

  • Bill

    Good article – Holiness is so missing and the understanding of what the Christian walk is. Reading Ken Symington’s latest book The Challenge of Really Following Jesus lays it out in black and white the real costs and benefits of the discipleship journey is. It is great short book but real – a book you can read over and over again.

  • Without Holiness love is not love, at least not the love of God we need to be reconciled with God, for that is eternal life, isn’t it? “Without holiness no one can see the lord”. Our relationship with God begins in this life, though it will of course be complete and perfect in eternity. IF we do not hate sin in our lives, I am not sure how much of a real Christian we can be. God’s grace will reveal a lot of things in order to cover them with His blood, the only justice true forgiveness can accept in order to be true forgiveness.
    If we accept anything less, God is neither glrified, nither are we helped. Many blessings

    Ursula Bennett

  • Psalm 85:10
    Mercy and truth have kissed each other.
    It’s fulfilled in Jesus.

    Mercy in all its glory must never be reduced by truth.
    Truth in all its glory must never be reduced by love.

    Both, in full glory kiss each other in Jesus

    Our little minds can’t fully handle the concept and that’s OK by me.

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