Many human needs are subtle yet lead to serious illnesses if left unmet. One example is scurvy, a disease common among sailors for centuries until its cause was identified. Scurvy initially appeared as spots on the skin, lethargy, and bleeding from the gums. Left untreated, it led to more serious things like loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy, and death. Then the cause was identified—lack of vitamin C—citrus fruit was added to the diet and it all but disappeared. Spiritual needs are like that too. Though not readily apparent, left unmet they lead to spiritual illness. One such need is an understanding of God’s holiness. In what positive ways does it meet the needs of our souls? Let me name three:
1. It prevents idolatry. You say, “No one worships idols today!” But idolatry is not simply carving a statue out of wood and bowing down to it in worship. It is treating anything ordinary as if it is holy thereby robbing God of the glory He deserves. And by that definition, there has been a huge revival of idolatry in our day, especially in what’s called the New Age Movement. For what is the New Age idea of God? That God is in everything and that everything is a part of God. But if that is true, then what does that make God? Not holy and unique, but common. And that’s contrary to everything we’ve been learning about Him.
2. It preserves justice. A common topic of religious speakers is love. And that’s good, because if there’s anything the world has too little of, it’s love. But there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on God’s love and grace. That is the danger of becoming unbalanced in our thinking and instead of believing in a holy God who hates sin, but loves sinners, we can find ourselves believing in a god who’s like Santa Claus—ever giving but never holding us accountable for anything we do. R.C. Sproul illustrates this in his book, The Holiness of God.
Our tendency to take God’s grace for granted was driven home to me while teaching a freshman course in Bible college. On the first day of class, I went over the assignments carefully, knowing that term papers usually require a special degree of explanation. I explained that this course required three short papers and that the first one was due the last day of September. No extensions were to be given except for students who were physically ill or had deaths in their immediate families. If the paper was not turned in on time, the student would receive an “F.” The students said they understood the requirements.
On the last day of September, 225 students dutifully handed in their papers while 25 students stood quaking in terror, full of remorse. “Oh, Professor. We are so sorry. We didn’t budget our time carefully and make the adjustments from high school to college. Please don’t give us an ‘F.’ Please give us an extension.” I bowed to their pleas for mercy. “All right, I’ll give you a break this time. But remember, the next assignment is due the last day of October.” The students were profuse in their thanks and promised not to let it happen again. But when the last day of October came, only 200 students came with papers in hand. 50 were late. They were nervous but not in a panic. “Oh, Professor, it was Homecoming Week. It’s also midterm, and all our other assignments are due as well. Please give us another chance. We promise we’ll be on time with the next paper.” Once more I relented. “OK, but this is the last time. If you’re late for the next paper, it will be an ‘F.’ No excuses. No whining. Is that clear?” “Yes. You’re terrific, Professor, and we all love you,” the class began to sing.
Can you guess what happened the last day of November? 150 students came with term papers, while the other hundred strolled into the lecture hall utterly unconcerned. “Where are your term papers?” I asked. One student replied, “Don’t worry, Prof. We’re working on them. We’ll have them for you in a couple of days. No sweat!” I picked up my lethal black grade book and began taking down names. “Johnson, do you have your paper?” “No, sir,” came the reply. “F,” I said as I wrote the grade in the book. “Muldaney, do you have your paper?” Again, “No sir,” was the reply. I marked another “F” in the book.’
The students reacted with unmitigated fury. They howled in protest, “That’s not fair!” I looked at one of the students. “Lavery, you think it’s not fair?” “No,” he growled in response. “I see. So it’s justice you want? I recall that your last paper was also late. If you insist on justice, that’s what you’ll get. I’ll not only give you an ‘F’ on this assignment, I’ll also change your last grade to the ‘F’ you so richly deserved.” The student was stunned. He had no more arguments to make. He apologized for being hasty and was suddenly happy to settle for one ‘F’ instead of two. The students had taken my mercy for granted, and when justice fell, they were unprepared for it. It came as a shock, and they were outraged. And this, after only two doses of mercy in the space of two months.
So it is with God’s justice. Something inside us tells us that He owes us His mercy and that He’s cruel if He judges us for our deeds. But then we study His holiness, and we find that there is a balance in His character. Not only is He merciful, He is also “holy, holy, holy,” and unable to tolerate sin in His presence. So what did He do both to satisfy His justice and prove His love to us? He sent His Son to die for our sins. The Cross is both the greatest display of God’s holiness and the perfect evidence of His love, because it not only reminds us that a holy God must punish sin, but that He also loves us so much that He sent His Son to die in our place. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
3. It provides security. Our first reaction to God’s holiness is fear, because it reminds us how sinful we are. But when we come to Him repenting of our sins and trusting Jesus as our Savior, our fear is soon replaced by a sense of security and comfort, because it means we now have something certain we can rely upon. You see, with a sinful father, there is never any consistency. What he requires tonight, when he’s tired and hungry, may be entirely overlooked tomorrow when he’s rested and well-fed; and what he overlooks tomorrow, when he’s rested and well-fed, may be greeted with the back of a hand when his stress level skyrockets. You just never know, because the standards are always changing. But with a Holy Father, you never have to worry where you stand. His holiness assures us that He’ll be the same yesterday, today, and forever.
So let me encourage you in summary. Do not shrink away from God’s holiness in fear. Embrace it as one of His life-giving attributes which cures our idolatry and assures us of His consistent character and love. Tomorrow, one more look at God’s holiness in a post called, “Ministers are rarely the life of the party.”