Failing to Recognize the Holiness of God
Jerry Bridges has stated (quite accurately, in my estimation), that the most fundamental need for the church today is an ever-growing awareness of the holiness of God.1 In our previous post we talked about what we mean by God’s holiness: his unique transcendence, his supreme majesty, his moral perfection, the perfection of all his other attributes.
But what happens to God’s people when we lose sight of God’s holiness? When instead of seeing God as above us, unlike us, over us, bigger than us, and the source and standard of all that is good, just, and loving—we see him as altogether like us?
This was the problem that ancient Israel faced in Psalm 50. They had been carrying on in sin, assuming they had evaded God’s notice since he had so far said nothing in response. But in Psalm 50, God breaks the silence and calls them to account.
The whole psalm is framed in the language and imagery of a courtroom scene, where God is the judge, the whole earth is invited to observe, heaven and earth are called as witnesses, and the defendants are none other than God’s covenant people, Israel—“my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (Ps. 50:5).
After calling court into session in vv. 1-6, God charges them with two counts of fraudulent worship in vv. 7-15, and four counts of covenantal misconduct in vv. 16-21.
The problem with Israel is not their failure to show up and offer sacrifices at God’s temple. As he says in v. 8, those are continually before him. The problem is the heart with which they offer those sacrifices. They come with the wrong purposes and wrong motives; therefore their worship is fraudulent, phony. It looks good on the outside, but it’s not the real deal.
What’s fraudulent about it? The first count comes from their false sense of ownership. When they offer a sacrifice to God, they do so as though they were giving him something he didn’t already have. They offer sacrifices to God like he’s a sad toddler sitting in the middle of the room with no toys. Of course God rebukes them in vv. 9-11: he is the rightful owner of every creature; there isn’t a goat in your fold or a bull in your stall that you can offer that doesn’t already belong to him.
The second count of fraudulent worship comes from their backward sense of dependence—just who is serving whom? They approach worship as though God is somehow dependent on them. Like a needy boyfriend, if they don’t call every day he’s going to get insecure; or like an ailing parent, if they don’t cook him a daily meal (show up with their offerings at the temple), he’s going to go hungry or something. Again, God rebukes them in vv. 12-13: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”
They approached their worship as though they were doing God a favor, as though he needed them—rather than remembering that they are the ones who are dependent on him, and coming to him with gratitude and thanksgiving (cf. vv. 14-15, 23).
The second charge against Israel focuses on the gap between what they confess with their lips and what they do with their lives. In v. 16, they recite God’s statutes and take his covenant on their lips. They are professing followers of God. They agree with the statement of faith; they reaffirm their covenantal commitments to him. But what right do they have to do so, God asks, when their lives say something entirely different?
He charges them with four counts of covenantal misconduct. The first is their rejection of God’s Word in v. 17: “For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.” Simply put, they do not like what Scripture has to say about their lives and how God calls them to live. The second count comes from their celebration of sin in v. 18: “If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.” They make much of what God condemns. They look at sin and think, “Now that’s living! God doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
The third count comes from their evil speech in v. 19: “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.” Instead of honoring God with life-giving words, they despise God with deadly words saturated with deception and filth. The fourth count comes from their slanderous betrayal in v. 20: “You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.” Instead of loving their own, they eat their own. They bear false witness against their own family for the sake of selfish gain.
So what’s underneath all this? Where does their fraudulent worship and covenantal misconduct come from? God identifies the root in v. 21: “These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.” Or another possible translation: “You thought the I AM was altogether like you” (a reference to God revealing his name to Moses in Exodus). “But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”
Israel approached a lion as if it were a little newborn kitty. So God warns them in v. 22: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!” God is holy; he is not to be trifled with. Rather than worshiping him as though they were doing God a favor, they should approach him with thanksgiving and dependence, and stop living life on their own terms. “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (50:23).
What’s At Stake in Recognizing God’s Holiness?
The essence of Israel’s problem was that they overlooked or underestimated the holiness of God. They thought God was just like them.
So what happens when we fail to recognize his holiness? There are a lot of similarities between what happened to ancient Israel and what happens to us today when we forget God and think that he is altogether like us. The God worshiped by most people today, even among genuine followers, is not very holy.
A few years ago, sociologist Christian Smith released a study surveying the religious lives of American teenagers (though what he and his colleagues found is true of more than just young people), outlining what has become the functional religion of most “Christians” in America. Something he called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Author Joshua Harris offers a nice summary:
A moralistic outlook says if I live a moral life, do good things, and try not to do bad things, God will reward me and send me to a ‘better place’ when I die. For most people a good life involves not killing other people or robbing old ladies and babies. The bar is not real high. A therapeutic orientation to God says his primary reason for existing is to make me happy and peaceful. So God is a form of therapy, of self-help. He exists for me. Deism says God exists but he’s distant and mostly uninvolved. Or we could say conveniently uninvolved. He won’t interrupt my plans or get in my business. He doesn’t tell me what to do. “In short,” Smith and Denton write, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”2
What’s so interesting thing about this god is how much he’s just like me! Made in my own image. No longer is be above us and unlike us in his unique transcendence; he’s become very much like us, and a bit below us. He no longer reigns over us with authority; we reign over him, telling him what he needs to do to make life go the way we want it. He’s no longer bigger than us; in fact, he’s become rather unimpressive. He’s lucky to even be able to hang around us. And his moral perfection has become at best a moralistic ideal to shoot for, and at the end of the day, not that important (because God’s down with a little bit of sin; he wants you to have fun, doesn’t he?). Which makes it hard for us to understand how he could stand in judgment over anything.
It’s no surprise that one of the first things to go when we begin to think of God as altogether like us is his wrath—his holy anger against sin and rebellion. We don’t think that’s very nice. I thought God was nice, and we’re supposed to be nice. Wrath’s not very nice. How dare God weigh in on judgment over someone?
And all of a sudden we’ve turned Psalm 50 on its head. It’s no longer we humans who sit in defendant’s seat. We have, as C.S. Lewis put it, put “God in the dock.” We now stand in judgment over him, as prosecutors demanding that he defend his own existence, he defend his right to rule, his holiness, his Word. And we’ll decide the verdict as to whether he’s made a case.
At the end of it all, all that’s really left of Christianity is the Liberal Protestantism of the early twentieth-century, what Richard Niebuhr described as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”3
And that’s the most critical thing at stake in losing sight of God’s holiness: you no longer need the cross. It’s saying that whatever happened to Jesus two thousand years ago really wasn’t necessary. It might have been a nice example of selfless love, but you weren’t purchased by it or forgiven through it in any way. Because you’re not sinful enough to need it, since God’s not holy enough for sin to be wrong. And without the cross, there’s really no difference between Christianity and any other world religion.
Do you see how everything unravels when you lose sight of the holiness of God?
Truth be told, this is the god many of us want. But it’s not the God we need. And it’s not God as he’s revealed himself to be. We’ve lost sight of his holiness.
When we recognize God’s holiness, it’s only then that we truly see God. Moreover, it’s only when we recognize his holiness that we begin to understand his love and grace—what it cost him to shed his love on us, how truly satisfying he is, and what it looks like to follow him as his redeemed children.
Joshua Harris writes:
Most people assume it is God’s job to love them. . . . He needs us. He pines for us. And if we pay him any attention—go to church, do a good deed, recycle, or maybe meditate while listening to soothing music—then we’ve done him a really big favor. The love of God is wonderful news only when we understand his transcendence—when we tremble at his holiness, when we’re awed by his perfection and power. God’s love is perceived as amazing only when we realize that the one thing we truly deserve from him is righteous wrath and eternal punishment for our disobedience and disloyalty. Seeing God for who he is leaves us asking with the psalmist, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?’ (Psalm 8:4).4
May we never lose sight of the holiness of God.
1. “The Pursuit of Holiness: An Interview with Jerry Bridges,” Tabletalk Magazine, Jan. 1, 2012. Available at: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-pursuit-of-holiness-an-interview-with-jerry-bridges/.
2. Joshua Harris, Dug Down Deep (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2010), 40. Citing Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: OxfordUniv. Press, 2005).
3. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 193.
4. Harris, 46.