A Puritanical Notion

How do you view the call to holiness in the Christian life? If you, like me, have grown up in a so-called Christian setting, you might have gathered that the Christian life is about learning to do a bunch of things that you really don’t want to do, and letting go of all the things you would prefer to do. Or if you’re not a Christian, perhaps you’re wondering why you would ever want to go to heaven, if heaven consists mainly of an unending monotone chanting of “Holy, holy, holy!”

We tend to think of holiness in the same way we might think of a kale salad–with a bit of a sigh and a resigned sense of responsibility, because after all, it would be much better for us than that bag of chips or slice of chocolate cake. (If you love kale salad, I apologize for using it in such a derogatory manner here!) So if we’re “being good” we’ll skip the junk food and eat the kale salad, even though we’d rather have the cake.

If that’s how we tend to view holiness, then when we read of someone who says: “Holiness is a most beautiful and lovely thing. [It] is of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm and still nature,” we might roll our eyes and wonder where they got such a crazy notion. But that is in fact what Jonathan Edwards wrote about holiness.

In the same note, Edwards admitted the reality that is often still the case for us as well: “We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing…” In other words: like kale salad. So how could Edwards move from a childhood notion of holiness as morose or unpleasant, and come to see it instead as sweet and lovely and serene?

From what I’m learning about Jonathan Edwards, he viewed holiness as only a divine attribute, and therefore impossible for us as humans to attain. Therefore the only way for Christians to grow in holiness is for us to participate in the holiness of God. But that is in fact what we do! In regeneration, we are united to Christ, and in that union, as I Peter 1:4 says, Jesus “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…” Christ is holy, and because we are united to Him, we partake in His holiness. And that holiness is not sour, but sweet; not morose, but delightful.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis wryly comments on how the satanic powers have successfully hijacked the word “puritanical” to bend it to their own deceptive schemes. Though it technically means “that which is characteristic of Puritans,” it has come to be synonymous with “strait-laced, stuffy, prudish, prim.” But that is not at all what characterized the Puritans, and certainly not the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, as is clear from his depiction of holiness as “sweet and ravishingly lovely.”

May God open the eyes of our hearts to see the beauty of holiness, that we would not merely resign ourselves to it as an unpleasant but necessary thing, but long for it and strive after it (Hebrews 12:14) as a sweet fruit of our union with Christ.

God’s Holy-Love

I really appreciate what my pastor preached this past Sunday, emphasizing the importance of God’s holiness and God’s love existing together. It seems that the culture around us, including much of the presumably-Christian culture, delights to focus on one attribute of God while minimizing another attribute. In particular, God’s love often takes center stage and God’s holiness is relegated to the wings (or ignored altogether). But that perspective is not only untrue to what Scripture says about God, but is also completely illogical–because in seeking to elevate love it actually lowers it to a wimpy sentimentality.

God’s attributes are the essence of who He is as God. They are not “parts” in differing percentages which together make up the “whole” God. Rather, if He had less of one attribute or more of another, He would cease to be God. His attributes exist in perfect harmony–there is no conflict between one attribute and another. Therefore God’s love and God’s holiness are not competing elements of His nature, but both are vital for God to be God, and both are integral to one another.

God’s holiness apart from God’s love would result in fully justified wrath and condemnation toward sinners. God’s love apart from God’s holiness would result in mushy “niceness” toward sinners. Neither one would be a true expression of love. Instead, it is only when we see the depths of God’s holiness that we begin to grasp the depths of His love. The cross of Christ was pointless if it was only a demonstration of love. But it wasn’t. The cross was also a demonstration of God’s holy wrath. Jesus’ death in our place satisfied God’s holy requirement, and through that expressed His great love for sinners like us by taking on Himself what we rightfully deserve. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I John 4:10)

Kevin DeYoung elaborates on this in his extensive review of Love Wins, on The Gospel Coalition website (emphasis added):

God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God-complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.

The good news…is not that God loves everybody everywhere… The good news is that God over and over makes a way for his unholy people to dwell in his holy presence….

And this from Trevin Wax’s book Counterfeit Gospels:

What the judgmentless gospel leaves us with is a one-dimensional God – a sappy, sanitized deity that we can easily manage. He nods and winks at our behavior, much like a kind elderly man who is not seriously invested in our lives. But the evil of our world is much too serious for us to view God as a pandering papa.

The picture of God in the Bible is much more satisfying. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent girls, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he – out of love for the creation that reflects him as creator – is rightfully and gloriously angry. Real love always wants the best for the beloved.

The God who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god of the judgmentless gospel, who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores it in the name of “love.” What kind of “love” is this? A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship.

The problem isn’t that the judgmentless God is too loving; it’s that he’s not loving enough.  

[see also this blog post from the same author]

May we marvel at the immensity of God’s love as we bow in awe of His holiness.