The Doctrine of God (part 10)

July 08, 2007     Time: 00:31:18

We now turn to the moral attributes of God. These would be God’s attributes that would be applicable to his character as a moral being. There are two of these that we want to think about. The first of these is the holiness of God. Let’s start off by doing an analysis of this attribute by looking at some of the scriptural data concerning God’s holiness.

First of all, the Scripture indicates that God is the very standard of goodness. Romans 9:14-21. Paul says, speaking of God’s election,

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?

Here Paul is saying that no one can call into question God’s actions or God’s standards, because God himself is the standard of righteousness and goodness. He answers to no higher power than himself. God is the ultimate authority – the buck stops there. So God himself is the highest standard of goodness and right and wrong.

Secondly, the Scripture indicates that God is absolutely holy. Look, for example, at Exodus 3:4-5. This is the story where Moses first encounters God in the burning bush:

When the LORD saw that he [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Here God’s holy presence was such that Moses could not even approach God. He was commanded to put off his sandals because the very ground was holy because of the presence of God.

In Leviticus 19:2 the LORD said to Moses, “Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’” So the command to holy living is based upon the holy character of God himself.

Finally, Revelation 4:8 is the description of the throne room of God in heaven. We read, “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” So God is absolutely holy in his character.

Thirdly, God’s holiness serves to expose man’s sinfulness. Isaiah 6:1-5.[1] This is the description of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord in the temple. Here he says,

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Here Isaiah is confronted with this magnificent vision of God, and the holiness of God is extolled by the angels around him. Isaiah in seeing this immediately falls down and confesses his own sin. His own sinfulness and inequity are made so apparent in the face of God’s terrible holiness.

Finally, number four, God’s holiness separates man from him. Look in the book of Habakkuk 1:13. It says, “Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Here, the prophet is puzzled by how the wicked continue to prosper in the world because he says God has eyes that are too pure to behold evil. He cannot look upon wrong. Thus, there is a purity of God that cannot even bear to countenance evil in his sight. The result of this is a separation relationally between us as sinful persons and God. This is spoken of by Isaiah the prophet in Isaiah 59:1-2: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear.” Here Isaiah says it is not that God is lacking in power or in omniscience that he cannot save us or hear our prayer. But he says it is our sin, our moral failings, that have made this separation between us and God so that he does not hear and does not act.

So God’s holiness separates us from him relationally. God’s holy presence dispels evil just as light dispels darkness. In the same way that when the light comes on in a room the darkness is dispelled. So evil is dispelled from the very presence of God when he is there.

That is the scriptural data that is pertinent to God’s holiness. I think you can see that God’s holiness is something that is essential to him, it is part of his character, and yet it is something that drives us away from his presence. His holiness is something that we cannot bear to endure because, as darkness is dispelled from light, so we in our sinfulness and evil are separated from his presence.

Let’s do a systematic analysis and try to understand what we mean by the holiness of God.

I think that God is what Plato called The Good. On the Christian view God is Plato’s Good. That is to say, God himself is the source and standard of all value and is the very embodiment (the paradigm as it were) of goodness itself.[2] So God is the source of the moral law. He issues the moral law to us, and he acts in perfect conformity with his moral character that is reflected in the moral law.

Here we confront a dilemma that is often posed by non-theists or persons who don’t believe in God, and this is a dilemma that comes from Plato’s dialogue called The Euthyphro. That was one of the characters in the dialogue. This is very frequently called The Euthyphro Dilemma. The question that Plato raised was: do the gods do what is good because it is good, or is something good because it is what the gods do? Do the gods will something because it is good or is it good because the gods will it? This confronts a dilemma for Christian theology as well. Is the moral law or is goodness based upon God’s will or God’s nature? That is to say, how should we understand the relationship of goodness to God?

If we say that The Good is something that God wills – that whatever God wills is The Good – then it follows that God’s commandments are arbitrary and that there is a possible world in which God willed that adultery would be good, that cruelty instead of love would be good, to love someone else would be evil and sinful, that we should act to try to hurt other people, and that that would be the good thing to do. It would be right to harm children and to hate other people. Thus what is good and evil seems arbitrary. God could have just willed anything. So if you say that The Good is based simply in God’s will – that whatever God wills is good – you seem to be landed in making goodness arbitrary. That surely doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right to say that God could have willed a world in which hatred and cruelty would be good, and compassion and kindness would be evil. Think of it this way: could God have willed to create a world in which we would be morally obligated to hate him and to worship some other god? That, again, seems inconceivable. How could God have willed that we should love and worship some other God before him? Surely that doesn’t make sense. So on the one hand it doesn’t seem that we want to say The Good is just whatever God wills.

But then the other side of the dilemma is to say: is The Good then something that is above God? Is there something to which God is himself subservient? The reason that God wills compassion and love and loyalty and kindness are because these really are good in and of themselves and God therefore wills that we do them. If we say that then it seems there is something higher than God to which God is obligated. That God himself would be morally duty-bound to do these things and that there would be some source of morality that would be higher than God and outside of God. That seems incompatible with God’s being the ultimate being and being the standard of goodness itself.

How do we escape this dilemma of making The Good either arbitrary or something that is outside of and higher than God? I think in a sense Plato answered this dilemma in his dialogue himself. What Plato says is that God just is The Good. The Good is the moral character of God. God by his very nature is kind, loving, holy, just, compassionate, generous, and so on and so forth. He has by his very essence these moral attributes or virtues as part of his character. Because these are necessary there is no possible world in which God exists and God would lack these virtues, that he would either be cruel or hateful or disloyal or break his promises or be morally neutral. Because these are part of God’s essence, God’s very nature, these moral qualities characterize God in any possible world.[3]

If God is The Good and he is so essentially then that means that his commandments are necessary expressions of God’s character. That means that his will is not arbitrary but rather flows necessarily from his essential character. So God’s commandments “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and strength, and mind, and soul; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” are not arbitrary commandments. Rather, these are necessary expressions of the moral character of God himself. There is no possible world in which God would have commanded us and willed that cruelty and hatred would be goods and compassion and kindness would be evils because that would be contrary to the very nature of God himself. We’ve already seen in our discussion of divine omnipotence that God cannot act contrary to his own nature.

So God’s commandments flow necessarily from his nature and therefore they are not arbitrary. These commandments constitute for us our moral duties. Our moral duties are determined by God’s commandments to us. That is the source of moral obligation. On the Christian view of divine holiness we have a basis for the affirmation of objective moral values in the world. That is why Christianity is incompatible with moral relativism. It is not just “true for you but not true for me.” It is not just your interpretation. Rather, The Good is grounded in the essential nature of God himself and expressed toward us in terms of his commandments which flow necessarily from his nature. Therefore we have objective moral duties to perform. There are goods and evils that are objective and real in the world, and there are certain things that are right and wrong based upon God’s objective commandments to us. These are not just a matter of human opinion, rather they are rooted in God himself. Thus, the Christian who believes in God has a basis for the objectivity of moral values and duties which I think is lacking to the atheist who just seems lost in a sea of socio-cultural relativism.

What application does this attribute of divine holiness have to our lives today? Let me mention a couple of things.

First of all, it means that we, too, should strive for personal holiness in our lives. I think that as Christians today, especially in Western society where the church is so geared toward bringing in numbers, it tends to soft-pedal anything that might offend potential recruits. We need to be reminded of how much God hates sin, of God’s holiness. Read the book of Revelation sometime for example about the wrath of God. We don’t hear much these days about God’s wrath, but this is a strong component of the biblical picture of God. For example, read a passage like Revelation 14:18-20, describing God’s judgment upon the earth. The writer says,

Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has power over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, “Put in your sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle on the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God; and the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for one thousand six hundred stadia.

Here is this awesome, terrible image of the wine press of the wrath of God from which Steinback got his expression “the grapes of wrath.” It describes this wine press – this image of God’s wrath that crushes the grapes until the blood flows as high as a horse’s bridle for about two hundred miles all around. This terrible image of God’s hatred for sin. One sin kept Moses from the Promised Land. One sin kept Ananias and Sapphira from living in the early church; it destroyed them.[4] God hates sin. Read Psalm 50:21 – God is speaking, “These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.” I think this is the problem that too many of us have. We think that God is like ourselves. But he is not. We too often have great thoughts of men but we have small thoughts of God. We fail to understand the terrible holiness of God and his hatred upon sin.

I hasten to add that doesn’t mean that God hates you. On the contrary, we’ve seen God loves you infinitely with an infinite passion. But he hates your sin. Your sin stains your life and makes you repulsive to God. Therefore we should strive to do all that we can to live lives that are holy before him. We need to try to live lives that are without blemish before God. Look at 1 Peter 1:14-16. There Peter says, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,” – don’t continue to live as you did when you were a non-Christian – “but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” He is quoting the passage in Leviticus. Because God is holy we should seek to honor him by living lives that are without blemish and holy, uncompromising in their righteousness.

I believe that this kind of lifestyle paradoxically is the secret to happiness. Look at what Matthew says in Matthew 6:33. This is from the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus says, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Here Jesus advises his disciples, don’t seek after fine clothing, don’t seek after riches, don’t seek after length of life, don’t seek after all of the material things that people look for as the means of happiness. Rather, he advises his disciples to seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. And he says, “all these things will be yours as well.” I think that happiness is a thing that you cannot find by pursuing it directly. It is like a will-o'-the-wisp – the more you strive after it the more it will elude your grasp. But I’ve found, as Jesus says here, that holiness is really the secret of happiness. As you seek the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and try to live a holy life, even if that means making hard choices, doing things that are against what seem to be in your self-interest, acting in ways that would seem to be sacrificial to your own happiness, what you will find is that as you live a holy and righteous life before God, happiness has snuck upon you unawares and has accompanied you in your life. The secret to finding happiness is not to pursue happiness. The secret to finding happiness is to pursue God’s holiness in your life. Then happiness will come along as a byproduct. So the first and foremost application of divine holiness is that we, too, should seek for personal holiness in our lives.

The second application is that in Christ, God’s holiness becomes our justification. You see, to those who are outside of Christ, God’s holiness is an awful terror. Why? Because it is the source of God’s justice and wrath. This was the thing that Martin Luther as a Catholic monk found so paralyzing, so absolutely terrifying.[5] He realized that as a sinner before a righteous and holy God he was utterly undone. He had no hope. Just sheer despair because he could never be righteous enough to measure up in the sight of a holy God. Thus, for those who are outside of Christ, God’s holiness is a terrible, terrible prospect. It is the source of God’s wrath and justice upon them. But paradoxically and wonderfully, to those who are in Christ God’s holiness now becomes the source of their salvation. The very holiness of God that condemned them now becomes the source of their justification. This was Martin Luther’s great insight into Romans 1:16-17. There Paul says,

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

What Luther came to see was that in Christ, as we are justified by faith, God’s righteousness is imputed to us and our sinfulness is imputed to Christ. At the cross there took place the greatest transaction in human history. His righteousness for my sin. So as Christ takes my sinfulness and his righteousness and holiness is imputed to me, God sees me clothed in the holiness and righteousness of Christ. Therefore I am righteous and justified before him. Paul writes in Romans 3:21-26,

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

This is really the wonder of the holiness of God. The very holiness of God which once condemned us now becomes the source of our justification and salvation as it is imputed to us. Therefore, the holiness of God is something that we dare not neglect or sacrifice in our preaching and teaching today. Stephen Davis, who is a prominent Christian philosopher, has written the following:

I think we ignore the concept of the wrath of God at our cost. Indeed, I would argue for the radical proposition that our only hope as human beings is the wrath of God. (It is also true, of course, that our only hope is the grace of God, but that is another matter.) The wrath of God shows that we do not live — as so many today suppose that we do — in a random and morally neutral universe. . . .

God’s wrath shows us that right and wrong are objectively real; they are to be discovered, not created. . . . The wrath of God is our only hope because it teaches us the moral significance of our deeds and shows us how life is to be lived.

I would also add that the wrath of God is our only hope because it is the holiness of God which is the source of his wrath, and it is that very holiness which is imputed to us and becomes the source of our eternal salvation and justification in Christ.

Therefore, this first attribute of God so often neglected in our day is one that we dare not neglect. We should strive for personal holiness in our lives, and in Christ God’s holiness becomes our justification. That is the application of holiness to our practical Christian living.

Next time we will look at the second of God’s moral attributes which is God’s love. That will bring us to the conclusion of our study of the divine attributes and the nature of God.[6]

[1] 5:02

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:02

[4] 20:01

[5] 25:01

[6] Total Running Time: 30:34 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)