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.
Many 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: https://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.
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.