A Severe Mercy: Rediscovering the Holiness of God

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Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen,
but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.
— Romans 11:22 —

When God created Adam and Eve, he endowed them with a holy calling to worship Him. In fact, made for God’s glory, it was the chief design of humanity to worship and serve the Creator—not only in holy assembly but in every human endeavor (cf. Col 3:17, 23).

Sadly, this original design was lost when the first couple rebelled against God (Gen 3:1–6). Seeking to be like God, they spurned their Creator. As Paul puts it, “For although they knew God, they did no honor him as God or give thanks to him, . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” of created things (Rom 1:21–23).

The Idolatry of Self

In context, Paul is speaking about Gentiles, but indeed, he is using the backdrop of the Garden to explain the source of humanity’s sin. In a word, sin finds its source in idolatry (cf. Jer 2:13). Human hearts are compelled to worship, but after Eden, the Adam’s offspring worship what their hands can make, what their minds can imagine. Even the most avowed atheist cannot stop worshiping—even if he only worships himself.

Scripture is not ambivalent about idolatry. God condemns those who worship false gods, but it also indicts those who worship God wrongly. For instance, 3,000 men died when Israel worshiped God by means of a golden calf (Exodus 32). Of note, Aaron did not lead Israel to stray from Yahweh and break the first commandment; he led them to break the second commandment by fashioning a graven image.

Likewise, leprosy broke out on Uzziah’s forehead when he presumed to worship in precincts of the temple reserved for priests (1 Chronicles 26). And before him, Uzzah perished by putting his hand out to keep the ark of the covenant from falling (1 Chronicles 13). Apparently, the dirty ground was cleaner than Uzzah’s flesh! Each of these episodes teach Israel (and us) that God is holy. He has communicated to us in no uncertain terms how he will be approached, and he will not stand for sinful men to worship him as they choose. Rather, he is looking for worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).

Where Did Holiness Go?

Evangelicals, I fear, have forgotten this truth. As A. W. Tozer observed more than a generation ago, “we lack reverence—not because we are free in the gospel, but because God is absent, and we have no sense of His presence.” We offer to others a message of salvation from judgment, when we ourselves do not tremble before God. Peddling the wares of our culture, many preachers offer a therapeutic gospel to a people who are told from childhood that they are good and capable of doing anything. Why are we surprised people float in and out of church?

Church culture too often resembles popular culture. And popular evangelicalism has become too much like the false teachers it once sought to denounce.

In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher defended Christianity from its cultural critics. But in defense of the faith, he reduced the faith to a romantic religion of absolute dependence on a generic God. He wrote volumes on ‘doctrine,’ but in the end he denied the Trinity and questioned whether it was actually possible to know a God ‘out there.’ For him, Christianity was entirely an interior religious feeling. Today, Schleiermacher’s emotive brand of Christianity has returned.

What may be most surprising is how his road to liberalism has been followed by many who abhor liberalism and believe the Bible to be inerrant. By not revering the holiness of God and approaching Scripture as a daily dose of sunshine and solace, too many evangelicals have settled for an interior religious experience much the father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

As a result, doctrine has become lightweight, even when it is confessional correct. We have lost a vision of God that shuts our mouths (Rom 3:21), bends ours knees (Phil 2:9-11), and postures our heart to worship. We need to see again—and maybe for the first time—the jaw-dropping holiness of God.

A Call to Holiness

Most depressing of all, what I observe in the American church, I also detect in my heart. Incubated in an era of commodified Christianity (the 1990s), where “radical faith” was proven through audacious Christian tee shirts and WWJD bracelets, I still suffer from a lightweight view of God. Too few have been the times when I have trembled at the thought of God’s holiness. Too many have been the occasions when sports, books, or social media have drawn my heart from God. And in both cases, I’ve placated my concerns with a flippant reminder of God’s grace.

I need a greater vision of God’s holiness. And I do not think I am alone. As lovers of the gospel, we need to see the sharp edges of who God is, both in his kindness and severity (Rom 11:22). We need to reject the generic God of cultural Christianity, and we need God to impress on our hearts the weight of his glory and the severity of his grace. In a word, we need heavyweight worshipers, not featherweight evangelicals.

*****

These were words that I addressed to my church last summer as we considered the holiness of God in the Old Testament. Reading them a year later, I am even more convinced that what we need is a fresh experience with the holiness of God. To paraphrase David Wells, the church suffers from a sense of divine weightlessness.

May God grant us a greater grasp on God’s severe mercy and tender holiness. For further considerations into the weightiness of God’s holiness, let me recommend a few books, plus the sermon series I preached last summer.

Books

Sermons

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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