Is God Holy? Not the Beginning of the Gospel

A few weeks ago in a blog comment a certain DJ wrote:

How is the point of the bible not Gods holiness??

In a follow-up comment, responding to me, he or she wrote:

I’m sorry but if you think Gods attribute for love is greater than his attribute for holiness open up your bible read it and repent because THAT is nothing but heresy.

Could DJ be right? Well, possibly if his or her Bible consists only of the Old Testament. But if he or she is a New Testament believer, then the facts are clearly against DJ, as shown by a quick look through a New Testament concordance. The main word group meaning “holy”, hagios and its cognates, is used about 188 times, excluding the phrase “Holy Spirit”; of those only about 11 refer to God the Father (including three in Revelation 4:8) and about 14 to Jesus Christ. Another word group hosios is used about 13 times, but only twice of God the Father and four times of Jesus Christ. The vast majority of the uses of both word groups refers to holy people, as individuals or as a group.

Perhaps most tellingly, the only place in the teaching of Jesus where either “holy” word group is used of the Father is in the Lord’s Prayer, where the verb is usually rendered “hallowed” (Matthew 6:9 || Luke 11:2). The only other apostolic teaching focusing on the holiness of God is in 1 Peter 1:15-16, where the apostle expounds the Old Testament passage “Be holy, because I am holy”.

So it was interesting to see Scot McKnight tackling this same issue in his post today Gospel and Rhetoric. Scot asks (his emphasis):

How do we “present” or “explain” or “preach” the gospel? Where do we begin? Do we begin with God as utterly holy and perfect and demanding total perfection to enter into his presence? [By the way, a Reformed theologian told me the other day he doesn’t believe this is taught in the Bible.] Or do we begin with God’s love? Or where do we begin?

The Torn VeilWell, the Reformed theologian is right, at least concerning the New Testament. There is no sign there of “God as utterly holy and perfect and demanding total perfection to enter into his presence”. I can see where the idea might be found in the Old Testament, e.g. Psalm 24:3-4 and Isaiah 6:5. But the picture we see in the New Testament is quite different: the way into God’s presence has been opened up, the veil of the temple has been torn from top to bottom, and holiness is no longer a condition for drawing near to him.

By contrast, the New Testament refers, using the agape and philia word groups, to the love of God the Father for humanity more than 30 times, and to the love of Jesus for humanity about 40 times. The picture is clear: at least under the new covenant, God’s love is a far more prominent characteristic than his holiness.

Yes, God is holy. The Bible clearly teaches us that. But it is only a minor theme, at least in the New Testament. Far more central to its teaching is that God is love, and that out of that love he gave us his Son so that his demand for holiness need no longer be a barrier to people coming into his presence and enjoying the fullness of life which he offers.

So why do so many preachers continue to present the holiness of God as the starting point of the gospel? Is it because their theology is that distorted and their concept of the gospel is that narrow? Perhaps this is true of some, like DJ. Or is it, as McKnight suggests, that they can turn this message into a powerful rhetorical device? Maybe, but I think that device is losing its effectiveness. Frightening people into committing their lives to Christ still works with some of them. But probably more widely effective these days is the kind of positive feel-good message and rhetoric associated with Joel Osteen and with prosperity gospel preachers. However, what McKnight says about the former applies equally to the latter:

this rhetorical bundling into what some call the gospel is designed to be a species of what I am calling persuasive rhetoric, at times (but not always) even emotionally manipulative rhetoric. Sometimes, sadly, it seems aimed at precipitating an intense experience. … One reason so many make decisions and don’t follow through is because the rhetoric was aimed at an insufficient response and appealed to a decision on the basis of an emotional story.

In either case some of those who make decisions for Christ continue into discipleship classes where they receive further and hopefully better balanced teaching, and go on to a mature Christian faith. But sadly very many of those who respond, if they don’t fall away, continue to let their ears be tickled by the same kind of basic preaching which first grabbed their attention but fail to move beyond it.

So McKnight argues that we need to preach “the original apostolic “rhetoric” [which] was declarative in shape instead of this kind of persuasive rhetoric. … It called people to respond, but it was not shaped to create that response. It was shaped to tell us something compelling about Jesus and they trusted the power of God’s Spirit to awaken people”. He concludes:

Many evangelists don’t trust the message so they resort to rhetorical bundles aimed at precipitating responses, which they can do but which will not very often stick. The music played during an invitation is a tip-off, don’t you think? We need to learn to trust the sheer power and glory of the good news that Jesus himself is, and we need to learn to step back and wait on God to attend and to act and get our own persuasive rhetoric out of the equation.

We are on the threshold of a new kind of evangelism, a kind that is consistent with how Jesus, Peter and Paul “gospeled.”

0 thoughts on “Is God Holy? Not the Beginning of the Gospel

  1. I find it funny for someone to tell you, of all people, that you are ignorant of the bible.

    If we are considering “quantity of narrative”, I’d say there is an awful lot of narrative in Hebrew Scripture that doesn’t present God as remote and holy and entirely unable to look on sin. God has mercy on Cain. Abraham argues with God. Moses argues with God. David argues with God. Job argues with God. Doesn’t sound like a far-off deity who wants his children to be seen and not heard to me!

    If I’m going to be really dismissive, I’d say that the notion of God as entirely other comes from the Neo-Platonic roots of the Reformed movement and not from Scripture. I wouldn’t, however, want to dismiss much good theology that comes out of the Reformed movement. But I think all good theologies come from a place of balance rather than from a place of extreme.

    God is holy, but not remote and angry. God is gracious and merciful but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about sin.

  2. Thank you, Pam. I think I agree with you. You make a good point about neo-Platonism. I wasn’t trying to make a dualism between a holy Old Testament God and a loving New Testament God. I think they basically teach the same, that there is access to God through faith, but the emphasis is different.

  3. Interesting debate. I have for some years felt that we will struggle to appreciate the depths and extent of God’s love – and grace – until we better appreciate his holiness. Then more recently, influenced to an extent by Tom Wright, to see in Scripture a big singel picture, I see God’s [rpgressive revelation of himself from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, So it is of no surrise if that happens to show an apparent emphasis on holiness first and then grace in the NT. And as Pam says there is plenty of grace in the OT, and also warnings in the NT.

    So God abhors sin and amazingly offers us the way for it to be dealt with in full. God’s riches At Christ’sExpense – What a God!

    So I like the observations Pam makes. Especially of the pitfalls of being too much influenced by human philosophy..

  4. Thank you, Colin. Yes, progressive revelation is an important insight here. God’s love was taught in the OT, but is revealed far more clearly in the NT, most of all of course in the work of Jesus.

  5. Peter – What about Revelation 4:8? Based on what you have written I would expect to read “love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.”

  6. Jeff, you make a good point, and one I need to deal with. But we need to look at Revelation 4:8 in context. This verse, unique in the New Testament, is clearly an allusion to, and in part a quotation of, Isaiah 6:3, where six-winged creatures also appear. Within the story of Revelation it precedes the coming of the Lamb. This roots it firmly in the Old Testament. After the coming of the Lamb, the song of worship to the Father is no longer “Holy, holy, holy” but “praise and honour and glory and power” (5:13).

    Again, this is not to deny that God is holy. It is just to put this attribute in its proper context.

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