The Holiness of God
Introduction: “Remember,” writes J.I. Packer, “the unity of the Divine character. God in Scripture regularly uses the word holy with a global meaning, to bring together and hold together in our minds both the metaphysical perfections and the moral glories characterizing the triune Lord, who in all his words and deeds is unchangeably wise, just, pure, good, and true. Every time he says he is holy or calls himself the Holy One of Israel, the adjective carries this full weight of meaning. In this broad sense, therefore, holiness is the attribute displayed in all God’s attributes; and thus the love of God is holy love, and must be viewed so, in explicit relation to the other aspects of God’s being.”[i]
John Wesley, the famous evangelical Arminian, took exception to this kind of theological perspective, stating that love, not holiness, was “the attribute that God peculiarly claims, wherein he glories above all the rest.”[ii] More recently a growing number of contemporary evangelicals (particularly those who identify themselves as Open-View theists) are likewise making this point. David Basinger has even coined a new term to express the notion that the defining attribute of God is not holiness but omnibenevolence.[iii] Richard Rice says that love is the first and last word in the biblical portrait of God.[iv]
I certainly do not want to minimize the Bible’s teaching on the love of God, but as Church historian Gerald Bray has cautioned, this perspective that characterizes so much of evangelicalism “has been disastrous for the church, whose members often have little awareness of the seriousness of their own sinfulness. A lopsided view of God’s love, as something which excludes the notion of wrath, has prevailed against the clear biblical testimony.”[v]
We certainly should not pit one attribute against another. But we also should not allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by our own sinfully inclined bias. “The ‘god’ which the vast majority of the professing Christians ‘love’ is looked upon very much like an indulgent old man, who himself has no relish for folly, but leniently winks at the ‘indiscretions’ of youth. But the Word says, ‘Thou hatest all workers if iniquity’ (Psa. 5:5). And again, ‘God is angry with the wicked every day’ (Psa. 7:11). But men refuse to believe in this God, and gnash their teeth when His hatred of sin is faithfully pressed upon their attention. No, sinful man was no more likely to devise a holy God than to create the Lake of fire in which he will be tormented for ever and ever.[vi] The holiness of God is attested in this passage by the following.
I. The Action of the Seraphim: The Seraphs (literally, burning ones, cf. Hebrews 1:7) are celestial spirits (angelic beings) in whose ministry God’s holiness is prominent. They are personal, spiritual beings described figuratively as having faces, feet, and wings. They employ human speech and possess moral understanding. “As a sign of reverence and awe before the holy Lord, each seraph covered his face with two of his wings. The sight of God wrought humility in the beholder, and the covering of the face would also preclude any irreverent beholding of the Lord.”[vii]
II. The Proclamation of the Seraphim: Their message is the threefold repetition of the word holy. This angelic anthem is called the TRISHAGION, “three times holy.” What is the significance of this? One popular explanation is that it is a reference to God’s triune nature. This is possible, but a better explanation is given by R.C. Sproul. The Hebrew language doubles a word to give an emphatic statement. “On a handful of occasions the Bible repeats something to the third degree. To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree, to attach to it emphasis of super importance. For example, the dreadful judgment of God is declared in the Book of Revelation by the eagle in midair who cried with a loud voice: ‘Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth…’ Or we hear it in the mocking sarcasm of Jeremiah’s temple speech when he chided the people for their hypocrisy, by which they call out, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”[viii]
II. The Confession of Isaiah: Note how this vision of God’s holiness and glory fills the prophet with absolute dread. This personal assessment arose from a deep-seated conviction of sin. Note particularly that Isaiah is bemoaning the corruption of his nature. The puritan William Perkins declared, “As with all men, his is a sea of iniquity, and that always appears greater the nearer a man comes to God. It was therefore now unveiled in the prophet when he was in the presence of the Lord himself.”[ix]
IV. The Presence of the Altar: The altar speaks not only of God’s mercy but especially of His holiness. In the earthly Temple coals of fire were taken inside the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement when sacrifice was made to atone for sin. (Leviticus 16:12). In a symbolical sense the altar, the fire, and the coals are all regarded as having a purifying significance, pointing to forgiveness and cleansing.
Conclusion: Robert Schuller, the most watched preacher on television, has long contended that sin is not rebellion against God, but rather sin is simply “a lack of self-esteem.”[x] More recently one of the leading church-growth advocates has argued that, due to low self-esteem that currently afflicts most people, doctrinal sermons which underscore human sinfulness and God’s holiness would be inappropriate today.[xi] We may follow a similar line of thought today and contend that we have to tone down our preaching if we are to have any impact on our generation. We may in the process re-define important biblical words like sin and holy in order to make them more palatable to people who otherwise will pay us no attention. We may speak of God as a benign cosmic grandfather figure – but it will not be the God that Isaiah saw. Once we are confronted with this Holy God, we find, as Michael Horton has written, we are devoid of any sense of personal integrity. “It is easy to think that we are leading lives of righteousness before the world when we are not falling into gross public sin. However, when we are in the presence of God, we are suddenly aware of the deep depravity of our wicked hearts and affections.”[xii]
[i] J.I. Packer, “The Love of God: Universal and Particular” in The Grace of God, The Bondage of the Will II, eds. T.R. Schreiner and B.A. Ware, (Baker, 1995), p.416
[ii] The Works of John Wesley (rpt. Baker. 1979), p.210.
[iii] D. Basinger, “In What Sense Must God Be Omnibenevolent?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (14,1983). Basinger categorically states that since love is what defines God, then God is “obligated to maximize the quality of life for those beings He chooses to create.” (p.3)
[iv] Richard Rice, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (IVP, p. 18) He later adds: “The crucial importance of love requires us to revise a great deal of conventional thought about God. According to standard definitions, “gods” are beings who surpass humans in power and intelligence, and the Christian concept of God is one that includes love in its list of divine attributes. Such an account is misleading, however. According to the Bible, God is not a center of infinite power who happens to be loving, he is loving above all else. Consequently, when we enumerate God’s qualities, we must not only include love; to be faithful to the Bible we must put love at the head of the list.” (p.21)
[v] G. Bray, The Doctrine of God: Contours of Christian Theology (IVP, 1993) P.221
[vi] A.W. Pink, The Attributes of God (rpt. Baker, 1975), p.44
[vii] E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah I (Eerdmans, 1965) p. 241
[viii] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Tyndale, 1985), p.39
[ix] W. Perkins, The Art of Prophesying With the Calling of the Ministry (rpt. Banner of Truth, 1996), p.132
[x] R. Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation (Word, 1982), p.98-99. Earlier in the book Schuller matter of factly stated, “It is precisely at this point that classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’” (p. 64)
[xi] Doug Murren, The Baby Boomerang (Regal 1990), pp.214-218. Murren emphatically claims that he has not compromised the gospel – rather he maintains that he preaches the truth of the gospel “from a positive angle” (p.225).
[xii] M.S. Horton, In the Face of God: The Dangers & Delights of Spiritual Intimacy (Word, 1996), p.17.
This encyclopedic resource provides biographical sketches of all the major Puritans as well as bibliographic summaries of their writings and work. Meet the Puritans is an important addition to the library of the layman, pastor, student and scholar. Beeke and Pederson leave no Puritan untouched; they include famous, less famous, and not famous at all in their comprehensive overview of Puritan authors. After each biography is a guide to modern reprints of that author’s works, which makes finding Puritan books much easier than scouring the internet or GoogleBooks. Especially helpful is the preface written by the authors and the seven-page introduction, “A Brief History of English Puritanism.”
While ignorance of the Puritans is at an all-time high in the modern church, a resurgence in interest has been taking place over the last several years. Books like Meet the Puritans make rediscovering the wisdom of the past easier and less daunting. 19th century theologian, J.C. Ryle, had this to say about the legacy of the English Puritans and why they must never be forgotten:
“The Puritans were not unlearned and ignorant men. The great majority of them were Oxford and Cambridge graduates many of them fellows of colleges, and some of them heads or principals of the best colleges in the two Universities. In knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, in power as preachers, expositors, writers, and critics, the Puritans in their day were second to none. Their works still speak for them on the shelves of every well-furnished theological library. Their commentaries, their expositions, their treatises on practical, casuistical, and experimental divinity, are immeasurably superior to those of their adversaries in the seventeenth century. In short, those who hold up the Puritans to scorn as shallow, illiterate men, are only exposing their own lamentable shallowness, their own ignorance of historical facts, and the extremely superficial character of their own reading.
The Puritans, as a body, have done more to elevate the national character than any class of Englishmen that ever lived. Ardent lovers of civil liberty, and ready to die in its defence mighty at the council board, and no less mighty in the battlefield feared abroad throughout Europe, and invincible at home while united, great with their pens, and no less great with their swords fearing God very much, and fearing man very little, they were a generation of men who have never received from their country the honour that they deserve.”
Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson have given us a priceless treasure in this introduction to the Puritans and Puritan literature. I have often wished for just such a resource. An encyclopedic wealth of biographical and bibliographical information has been distilled here in a simple, readable, understandable, and wonderfully useful compendium. For the novice lay person who wants a reliable introduction to the Puritans, this is the perfect handbook. And for the seasoned scholar seeking a catalogue of the best available Puritan literature, this is also an indispensable tool. My prayer is that it will help spark a new wave of interest in the Puritans, a new appreciation for their theology, and especially a revival of their passion for careful biblical exposition.
DR. JOHN MACARTHUR
Finally, the resource weve always needed! Meet the Puritans is one of those books that raises the question: Why has this not been done before now? We are in Joel Beeke and Randall Pedersons debt for giving us the best introductory book on the Puritans ever made available. Meet the Puritans is nothing less than a whos-who of the Puritan tradition.
DR. R. ALBERT MOHLER, JR., President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky
The PuritansEnglish, Scottish, American, and Dutchare being read again! In an era of superficial discipleship and erratic, impotent, ailing, and dying churches, this is indeed a hopeful sign. And this wide-ranging handbook of backup information about the writers themselves, their special strengths, and modern reprints of their books, is another hopeful sign. Meet the Puritans is a fascinating compendium, scholarly yet popular and accessible, that Puritan-lovers will value very highlyand justly so.
DR. JAMES I. PACKER, author of Knowing God and A Quest for Godliness
As furnaces burn with ancient coal and not with the leaves that fall from todays trees, so my heart is kindled with the fiery substance I find in the old Scripture-steeped sermons of Puritan pastors. A warm thanks to the authors of Meet the Puritans for all the labor to make them known.
DR. JOHN PIPER, Pastor, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota
The recent revival in interest in and commitment to the truths of Reformed theology is due in large measure to the rediscovery of Puritan literature. The Puritans of old have become the prophets for our time. This volume is a treasure for the church.
DR. R. C. SPROUL, President of Ligonier Ministries