Missing the Holiness of God

“For I, the Lord, do not change.” We have it in black and white. With God, we don’t have to guess. His character today is the same as it has always been, revealed throughout the Bible in increasing clarity and confirmed over thousands of years of history. Christianity, on the other hand, does change. Every generation in this constantly unfolding story glimpses certain aspects of God’s nature and misses others. In the past, generations of Christians have grasped devotion and service but forgotten grace. Other generations have seen the value and significance of the scriptures, yet lost the supernatural. 

In our generation we’ve found the compassionate love of the Father, yet we stand in danger of missing His Holiness. It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous mistake.

If what we emphasize in the Church changes with the fashion of the times, the only way to remain rooted in the Truth is to keep comparing the way we live and the things we believe with the standard of the Bible. Two specific mindsets in today’s church stand consistently at odds with the character of God revealed in scripture: our attitude to the Presence of God, and our attitude to sin. The ancient Jews encountered a Holiness that terrified them. When the Presence of God came down on Mount Sinai, anyone who touched it perished. When the Ark of the Covenant was being transported by cart to Jerusalem, a man called Uzzah was struck down dead for simply touching it. When Isaiah saw God in a vision he cried out “Woe to me! I am ruined!” because he knew himself to be a sinful man in the presence of a Holy God. But in our culture this kind of response to God has become alien to us.  Verses like “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” leave us cold.

Why would we fear God? Why would his Presence increasing around us be a cause for fear?

The truth is, we relate to God completely differently because of Jesus. And that is incredible. Through Jesus, we have the kind of access to God that the prophets and kings in the Old Testament only dreamed of. We’ve gone from “a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; …(and) such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them” to God in the flesh, reclining at a Pharisee’s dinner table, letting a ‘sinful woman’ wash his feet with her tears. 

Jesus turned the world upside down. However, we need to understand exactly what has changed, and what has remained the same. God has not become less holy. He has not changed his attitude towards sin. He has not mellowed over time and decided to give up hating evil and punishing those who practice it. Instead, through Jesus’ sacrifice and our repentance, God has made it possible for us to become the righteousness of God. 

The Bible teaches that Jesus takes our sins away. I’m worried we’ve come to expect Jesus to take away, not the sin itself, but only the guilt of that sin. I mean that we count on Jesus to forgive us, but we fail to take seriously Jesus’ command to, “Go and sin no more.” We think we can have forgiveness without obedience. We think we can dictate the terms of the deal.

I remember being taught that everyone sins every day, almost as if there’s nothing we can do about it. But that isn’t actually what the Bible teaches. Do you know we’re expected to stop sinning when we give our lives to Jesus? Grace isn’t a new system under which we somehow ‘get away’ with things that people in past ages were punished for. Instead it’s the power to overcome sin and darkness entirely! 

John lays this out for us so starkly that it’s tempting to try to explain his comments away: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:6) He goes on to warn us that we cannot continue to sin and yet call ourselves children of God:

“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.  No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.  This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” (1 John 3:7-10)

Is this what we teach? When was the last time someone told you that your true identity is shown, not by what you say, claim or call yourself, but by what you do? When was the last time someone told you that you cannot call yourself a Christian and continue to live like the world around you: having sex outside of marriage, getting drunk, hoarding money, living in fear, putting your own interests first? Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child. Those who truly believe Jesus put their faith into action.  As Jesus so candidly said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46).

The truth is, by downplaying the significance of sin and the Holiness of God, we misrepresent God’s character and put the people listening to us in danger. This might seem controversial, but it really isn’t. It’s the basic teaching of the New Testament. It jars with us because it doesn’t fit the Christianity of our times. 

Here are some New Testament soundbites that are unlikely to be made into 21st century bumper stickers:

“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”  (Hebrews 10:26-27).

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God”. Paul (Galatians 5: 19-21) “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven."  (Matthew 18:7-8).

These warnings were written, not to the world, but to those who call themselves followers of Jesus. We have made an incredible deal with God, a deal made possible not by our own efforts but by the inconceivable mercy of Jesus. However, it’s a deal that requires everything of us. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will save it.” We don’t get to keep our old lives.

God’s grace doesn’t give us license to sin, but instead calls us to a standard of right living beyond anything we’ve ever known.

In my community in the small town of Oroville in Northern California, we are preparing for a move of God we believe will surpass anything we have so far experienced. We are chasing a promise from God given to us 40 years ago and confirmed over and over again throughout the years. We believe we are going to encounter the Holiness of God.

Jesus said the Holy Spirit would bring conviction in regard to sin, righteousness and judgement. As a community, we are asking God every hour for more of his Holy Spirit. We have made the commitment to him and to each other that we intend never to sin again. What we are receiving as a result could well be described as ‘more conviction’.

God is calling us to a complete change of heart. An uncomfortable light is shining on every aspect of our lives. Held up against Jesus’ standard of total purity, habits we’ve tolerated in the past are suddenly no longer acceptable. We’re having to face those sides of our character that we don’t like. It’s hard, but it’s real. 

We don’t know what is around the corner, but there is one thing we can say for certain. Without widespread, heartfelt repentance, we will be unable to withstand the Presence of a Holy God.