Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."
- Mark 1:14-15

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 5 - The Insanity of Luther

5 – The Insanity of Luther
If we fix our minds on the holiness of God, the result might be disturbing.  Martin Luther was one such man whose spirit was troubled by a deep knowledge of the character of God.

Love God?  Sometimes I hate Him.”  This is a strange quote to hear from the lips of a man as respected for his religious zeal as Luther.  But he said it.  He was noted for making outrageous statements.  “Sometimes Christ seems to me nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in His hand.”  And, “To the gallows with Moses.”

Was Luther crazy?  We will look at some of his life to determine why some thought that.  The first evidence was his outbursts of anger and the harsh insults of his critics.  But there was more than his speech.  His behavior was at times downright bizarre.  He was afflicted by an assortment of phobias and he thought that he was a personal target of Satan.  Yet from the vantage point of church history, Luther was likely right about being the target of sixteenth century satanic energy.

A young Luther was once walking in the midst of a severe thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning crashed so close to him that he was thrown to the ground.  He cried in terror, “St. Anne, help me!  I will become a monk!”

Church historian Roland Bainton says, “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of saints.  He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism.  A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism.  A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist.”

Shortly after the lightning bolt experience, Luther paid his vow.  He quit his studies in law and entered the monastery, much to the dismay of his father.  Luther then was to make his big debut at the celebration of his first mass following his ordination.  Luther began the ceremony with great poise.  When he came to the Prayer of Consecration—that moment when Luther would exercise his priestly authority for the first time and to evoke the power of God to perform the great miracle of transubstantiation (the changing of the bread and wine to the real body and blood of Jesus)—when that moment came, Luther faltered.

He froze at the altar.  He tried to speak the words of the mass, but no words came forth from his mouth.  He went limp and returned to the table where his father and family guests were seated.  He had failed.  He ruined the mass and disgraced himself and his father.

What happened at the altar?  Luther offers his own explanation at the paralysis that struck when he was to say the words. “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God.”  He says:

“At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken.  I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince?  Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty?  The angels surround him.  At His nod the earth trembles.  And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’?  For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal, and the true God.’”

But these episodes are minor considerations in the question of Luther’s sanity.  We must look at one of the most dramatic moments in Luther’s life (and for all of Christianity), when he was on trial for heresy at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521. 

Events had run out of control since the theological professor had tacked his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  Luther wanted to announce these points for theological debate and dispute.  He had no desire to flame them into a national or international fire.  Some people, probably students, got hold of the theses and made use of the marvelous new invention of Gutenberg.  Within two weeks the theses were the talk of Germany.  Luther engaged in debates, was censured, and his books were burned in Rome.  Finally he appealed for a hearing at the Imperial Diet of Worms.

What happened at Worms was the stuff that legends are made of.  In fact, legends have risen from the events.  Hollywood has given a touch of glamour to the scene.  The image of Luther at Worms that prevails is that of a valiant hero defying a wicked authority structure and riding off in the sunset.  It didn’t quite happen like that.

Luther spoke boldly before his arrival: “This shall be my recantation at Worms: ‘Previously I said the pope is the vicar (representative) of Christ.  I recant.  Now I say the pope is the adversary of Christ and the apostle of the Devil.’

People were expecting more bold statements, but when Luther was asked to recant, he meekly answered, “I beg you, give me time to think it over.”  As at his first mass, Luther faltered.  His confidence deserted him.  The emperor gave him twenty-four hours to think it over.

That night, in the solitude of his room, Luther wrote one of the most moving prayers ever written.  His prayer reveals the soul of a humble man on his face before God, desperately seeking the courage to stand alone before hostile men.  For Luther it was a private Gethsemene.  When he returned the next day, he was asked once again to recant.  This time his voice did not quake or quiver.  He said:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right or safe.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.

As important as this event was to the church and to the personal history of Martin Luther, it was not the chief reason future scholars would judge Luther insane.  There was something even more extraordinary, even more morbid about the man.  It has to do with Luther’s behavioral patterns while he was a monk in the monastery.

Luther set out to be the perfect monk.  He went beyond the rules of the monastery in terms of self-denial.  He wrote, “If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.

The most bizarre of Luther’s practices involved his habit of daily confession.  Confession was a requirement for the monks, but not daily.  He stayed for hours every day.  On one occasion Luther spent six hours confessing the sins he had committed in the last day! 

Concern arose that perhaps he was mentally unbalanced.  The man was radically abnormal.  His guilt complex was unlike anyone’s before him.  He was so morbid in his guilt, so disturbed in his emotions that he could no longer function as a normal human being.

One aspect of Luther is often overlooked by psychologists.  Before Luther went to the monastery, he had already established himself as one of the brightest young minds in the field of law.  Some heralded him as a legal genius.

It has been said many times that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that some people move back and forth across it.  Luther was not crazy.  He was a genius.  Once he applied his legal mind to the law of God, he saw things that most mortals miss.

Luther examined the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Then he asked himself, “What is the Great Transgression?”  He concluded that if the Great Commandment was to love God with all the heart, then the Great Transgression was to fail to love God with all the heart.  He saw a balance between great obligations and great sins.

Most people do not think that way.  None of us keeps the Great Commandment for five minutes.  We may think that we do in a surface way, but upon a moment’s reflection it is clear that none of us loves God with our whole heart or our whole mind or our whole strength.  No one loves his neighbor as he loves himself.  Our comfort is that nobody is perfect.  We all fall short of perfect love for God, so why worry about it?  It doesn’t drive sane fellows to the confessional for six hours a day.  If God punished everyone who failed to keep the Great Commandment, He would have to punish everyone in the world.  The test is too great, too demanding; it is not fair.  God will have to judge us all on a curve.

Luther didn’t see it that way.  He realized that if God graded on a curve, He would have to compromise His own holiness.  To count on God doing so is supreme arrogance and supreme foolishness as well.  God does not lower His own standards to accommodate us.  He remains altogether holy, altogether righteous, and altogether just.  But we are unjust and therein lies our dilemma.  Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question: How can an unjust man survive in the presence of a holy God?  Where everyone else was at ease in the matter, Luther was in agony.  He wrote about others who so easily dismissed their sin: “Don’t you know that God dwells in light inaccessible?...What wonder then that His majesty overpowers us and shatters!

Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question: How can an unjust man survive in the presence of a holy God?

Luther’s attitude was in contrast to the rich young ruler who in Luke 18:18 asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He called Jesus, “Good Teacher.”  Jesus did not miss the significance of it.  Jesus knew at once that He was talking to a man who had a superficial understanding of the meaning of the word good.  The man wanted to talk about salvation.  Instead Jesus subtly turned the conversation around to a discussion about what goodness was.

Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good?”  Jesus was not denying His own deity or His goodness here, but He wanted the man to know that He was good.  The rich young ruler thought that Jesus was a great teacher, but he had no idea that he was speaking to God incarnate.

Psalm 14:13 says that, “There is no one who does good, not even one.”  The only exception is Jesus, the Son of God.  We think that the Bible is wrong on this matter.  Surely this is an exaggeration.  There are many people who do good.  No one is perfect, but we do good most of the time don’t we?

The answer is “No.”  This is precisely what the rich young ruler was thinking.  He was measuring goodness by the wrong standard.  He was evaluating good deeds from an outward vantage point.  Outwardly, we do good often and conform to what God commands.  But God looks at the heart and the motivation for our deeds.

For a deed to pass the standard of God’s goodness, it must flow out of a heart that loves God perfectly and loves our neighbor perfectly as well.  Since none of us obey the Great Commandment, all of our outwardly good deeds are tarnished.  Without a perfect heart, one cannot perform a perfect deed.

The Law of God is the mirror of true righteousness.  When we set our works before this mirror, the reflection in it tells of our imperfections.  Jesus held up the mirror in the form of the “second” table of the law—the commandments that dealt with our relationship to other human beings (stealing, adultery, murder, etc.).

How did the rich young ruler respond?  He was not bothered.  He looked calmly in the mirror of God’s Law and saw no imperfections.  He said, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” 

“When Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘You still lack one thing.  Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.’”
Luke 18:22

Jesus set the challenge to the man’s obedience to commandment number one: “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.”  The rich young ruler walked away sorrowfully, for he had great possessions.  He was put to the test of the Ten Commandments and flunked the first one.

The point of this narrative is not to lay down a law that a Christian must get rid of all private property.  The point is for us to understand what obedience is and what goodness actually requires.  Jesus called the man’s bluff, and he folded.

Back to Luther.  He knew that he lacked a multitude of things, unlike the rich young ruler.  He was a lawyer and he had studied the Old Testament Law.  He knew the demands of a pure and holy God and it was driving him crazy.  The genius of Luther ran up against a legal dilemma that he could not solve.  There seemed to be no solution possible.  The question that nagged him day and night was this: How could a just God accept an unjust man. 

He knew that his eternal destiny rode on this answer.  But he could not find the answer.  Lesser minds went merrily along their way enjoying the bliss of ignorance.  They were satisfied to think that God would compromise His own excellence and let them into heaven.  They thought that surely God must grade on a curve.

Two things separated Luther from the rest of men: First, he knew who God was.  Second, he understood the demands of the Law of that God.  He had mastered the Law.  Unless he came to understand the Gospel, he would die in torment.

Then in the quietness of his own study, Luther’s “tower-experience” changed the course of world history.  It was an experience that involved a new understanding of God, a new understanding of His divine justice.  It was an understanding of how God can be merciful without compromising His justice.

Luther saw the phrase in Romans, “the justice of God,” and thought it meant the justice where God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  He said:

Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit could assuage Him.  Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him…Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies through faith…Whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”

“Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies through faith.”  - Martin Luther

Like Isaiah before him, Luther felt the burning coal upon his lips.  He knew what it meant to be undone.  He was shattered by the mirror of a holy God.  He now understood the meaning of Romans 3:26, that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”  When Luther understood the Gospel for the first time, the doors of paradise swung wide open and he walked through.

The Gospel:
God is just – He must punish sin.
God is also the justifier – He forgives sin.
How is God able to forgive sin without compromising His justice?  - Through our faith in Jesus Christ alone, by the merits of Christ alone.
The believers’ sin is still punished by God – Jesus took that punishment.

“The just shall live by faith.”  The idea that justification is by faith alone, by the merits of Christ alone, was so central to the Gospel that Luther called it “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” 

Once Luther grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans, he was reborn.  The burden of his guilt was lifted.  The crazed torment was ended.  This meant so much to the man that he was able to stand against pope and council, prince and emperor, and, if necessary, the whole world.

Was Luther crazy?  Perhaps.  But if he was, our prayer is that God would send to this earth an epidemic of such insanity that we may too taste of the righteousness that is by faith alone.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 4 - The Trauma of Holiness

4 – The Trauma of Holiness
“Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”
John Calvin

A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  The disciples woke Jesus and said to Him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
Mark 4:37-38

Their question was not really a question.  It was an accusation.  They were actually telling Jesus that He did not care if they drowned.  They were charging the Son of God with a lack of compassion.  This outrageous attack on Jesus is consistent with mankind’s customary attitude toward God.  God has to listen to complaints like these from an ungrateful humanity every day.

There is no indication that Jesus made any reply to the disciples’ question.  Instead:

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet!  Be still!’  Then the wind died down and was completely calm.  He said to His disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?’
Mark 4:39-40

Jesus controlled the fierce forces of nature by the sound of His voice.  He didn’t say a prayer, He uttered a command.  Instantly nature obeyed.  The wind heard the voice of its Creator.

Notice the reaction of the disciples.  The sea was now calm but they were not:

“They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey Him!’”
Mark 4:41

Once the danger passed and the sea was calm, it would seem that their fear would vanish as suddenly as the storm.  It didn’t happen that way.  Now that the sea was calm, the fear of the disciples increased.  How do we account for that?

It was the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud, who once espoused the theory that men invent religion out of a fear of nature.  We are not able to plead with earthquakes, negotiate with floods, or bargain with cancer.  So, the theory goes, we invent God to help us deal with the scary things.

What is significant about this story in Scripture is that the disciples’ fear increased after the threat of the storm was removed.  The storm made them afraid.  Jesus’ action to still the tempest made them more afraid.  In the power of Christ they met something more frightening than they ever met in nature.  They were in the presence of the holy.  We wonder what Freud would have said about that.  Why would men invent a God whose holiness was more terrifying than the forces of nature that provoked them to invent a god in the first place?

After Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey Him?”  They were looking for a category to put Jesus in, a type that they were familiar with, but they were not able to categorize Him.  He was sui generis—in a class by Himself.

The disciples had never met a man like this.  He was unlike anyone they had ever encountered.  Jesus was different.  He possessed an awesome otherness.  He made people uncomfortable.

Luke 5:1-7 tells the story of Jesus telling the disciples to throw their nets.  The disciples, having fished all night without catching anything, reluctantly obliged.  To their surprise, they caught so many fish that their nets began to break. 

If there was ever a time when the disciples displayed annoyance and irritation with Jesus, this was the occasion.  Simon Peter was tired.  He had been up all night and was frustrated by their lack of success in catching any fish.  Jesus told him to put down the nets one more time.  If Peter had real respect, he would have let down the nets without saying anything.  Instead he found it necessary to register his frustration. 

It was as if he said, “Look, Jesus, you are a marvelous teacher.  There is no greater theologian than you.  But please, give us a little bit of credit.  We are professionals.  We know the fishing business.  We have been out there all night and nothing—zilch.  But if you insist, if we must humor you, then, of course we will let down the nets.”

We know how it turned out.  No sooner had Peter dropped the nets than it seemed as if every fish in the sea had jumped into them.  They called for the other boat to come help them with the haul, and both boats were so full with fish that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’”
Luke 5:8

At that moment Peter realized that he was in the presence of the Holy Incarnate.  He was desperately uncomfortable.  Why did Peter want Jesus gone?  Because he said, “I am a sinful man!”  Sinful men are not comfortable in the presence of the holy.  The cliché is that misery loves company.  Another is that there is fellowship among thieves.  But thieves do not look to hang out with police officers, so also sinful misery does not love the company of purity.

Like Isaiah before him, Peter was undone. 

One of the strange facts of history is the consistently good reputation Jesus enjoys even with unbelievers—even people who are openly hostile to the church and critical of Christians.  With all the applause Jesus gets from modern man it seems difficult to understand why His contemporaries killed Him.

The Old Testament prophets also had a good reputation in Jesus’ day.  They were great folk heroes from the past.  Yet when they were alive they were hated, scorned, rejected, despised, persecuted, and killed by their own people.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, who was killed by a furious mob after he rebuked the Jews for killing the prophets and Jesus.  We might expect these stinging words from Jesus to pierce the hearts of the hearers and bring them to repentance, but they became angry and killed him instead. 

People have an appreciation for moral excellence as long as it is removed a safe distance from them.  The Jews honored the prophets, from a distance.  The world honors Christ, from a distance.  Peter wanted to be with Jesus until he got too close and then he cried, “Please leave.”

There is a book called The Peter Principle (which has nothing to do with Simon Peter) by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull that has become popular in the business world.  It says that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence in corporate structures.  This was based on the observation that new employees typically start out at the bottom, and then as they display competence, they are promoted.  Eventually, they reach a level in which they are no longer successful, and they are stuck at that level of incompetence.  The net result is that most of the higher positions in corporate structures will all be filled with incompetents.

Not everyone gets caught in the trap of the Peter Principle.  There are two categories of people who escape the trap: the super-incompetent and the super-competent.  The super-incompetent person has no opportunity to move up to his level of incompetence because he is already at his level of incompetence.  Competency is needed to be promoted, and the super-incompetent will never be promoted, but will be weeded out of the organization early.

The real irony is found in the super-competent group.  How does the super-competent person rise through the corporate structures to get to the top?  He doesn’t.  The reason is that he represents a massive threat to those above him.  His bosses are frightened by him, fearful that he will take their jobs.  He represents a clear and present danger to them that they will lose their seats of honor and power.  The super-competent is more likely to be fired than the super-incompetent, because the boss can most likely find a job that the super-incompetent can do.

The super-competent person succeeds not by moving vertically up the corporate ladder but by making jumping moves from one organization to another, moving higher up as he goes.

It is easy for to dismiss this theory.  We can point to countless examples of people who have had meteoric rises in companies and reached the very top.  There has been more than one CEO who started in the company as a stock boy.  However, these dramatic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Whatever the true statistics are, the indisputable fact remains that there are numerous occasions where the super-competent person is frozen at a low level because he threatens those above him.

Jesus Christ was the ultimate super-competent.  The outcasts of society loved Him because He paid attention to them.  But those who held seats of honor and power could not tolerate Christ.

The Pharisees were a religious sect started by men who had great zeal for the Law.  The word Pharisee literally meant “one who is separated.”  The Pharisees separated themselves unto holiness.  The pursuit of holiness was the chief business in their lives.  If any group should have rejoiced when the holy appeared it was the Pharisees.

Through their singular devotion to the pursuit of holiness, the Pharisees achieved a level of popular respect for their piety and righteousness that was without parallel.  They had no peers.  They were accorded the lofty praise of men.  They could be seen practicing their virtue in public places.  They fasted where everyone could see them.  Their “holiness” was plain for everyone to see.

Jesus called them hypocrites.

Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees was severe.  He criticized them for several counts of hypocrisy, for He knew that their holiness was a sham.

 “…Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach,” and “Everything they do is done for men to see...” 
Matthew 23:3, 5

“On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Matthew 23:28

Consider for a moment a few brief epithets that Jesus reserved for the Pharisees: “You snakes!”  “You brood of vipers!”  “Blind guides!”  “Children of hell!”  “Blind fools!”  His words were uncharacteristically harsh, though not unjustifiably harsh.  They were different from His usual style.  The normal form or rebuke He made to sinners was gentle.  He spoke tenderly, though firmly to the woman at the well.  It seems that Jesus saved His severe comments for the big boys, the theological professionals.

We might argue that the Pharisees hated Jesus because He was so critical of them.  But the venom of the Pharisees went deeper than that.  Nothing exposes the counterfeit faster than the genuine.  When authentic holiness appeared, the counterfeiters of holiness were not pleased.

The Sadducees had the same problem with Jesus.  Sadducee was taken from the Jewish word for “righteous.”  If the Pharisees considered themselves to be the holy ones, the Sadducees claimed to be the righteous ones.  With the appearance of Jesus, their righteousness took on a luster of unrighteousness.

The resentment of the Pharisees and Sadducees toward Jesus began as a petty annoyance, moved to the level of a smoldering rage, and finally exploded in vehement demands for His death.  When Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, they were unable to find a category for Jesus and could not answer their own question: “What manner of man is this?”  The Pharisees and Sadducees had a ready answer.  They created categories for Jesus: He was a “blasphemer” and a “devil.”  He had to go.  The super-competent had to be destroyed. 

The threatening power of Christ’s holiness is now transferred to His people.  As the Jews at Mt. Sinai fled in terror from the dazzling face of Moses, so people today get uncomfortable in the mere presence of Christians.  People feel trauma in the presence of the holy.  Holiness provokes hatred.  The greater the holiness, the greater the human hostility toward it.  It seems insane.  No man was ever more loving than Jesus Christ.  Yet even His love provoked men to anger.

There is a well-known story in American literature that is about a love that destroys.  It is a freakish love, a love so intense that it crushes the object of its affection.  Some suggest that the famous character Lennie, in John Steinbecks’s Of Mice and Men, was in fact a Christ figure.

Lennie is a giant of a man, but he is retarded and is virtually helpless without George, who takes care of him and speaks to him in the simplest of terms.  Lennie loves little, furry animals, but he has a problem—he doesn’t understand his own strength.  When he picks up a field mouse or a rabbit, he unintentionally kills them by squeezing them to death.  If this sounds familiar, Lennie’s character was also the basis for the Abominable Snowman from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

"I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him!"
The climax of the book is when Lennie finds himself alone with the foreman’s wife and unintentionally kills her.  It was one thing for Lennie to kill mice, quite another to kill people.  This time his strange quirk had gone too far.  George led Lennie away and shot and killed him. 

“A guy got to go sometimes,” was the line from the book.  People who crush other people cannot be tolerated.  George had no alternative.  He knew Lennie could not survive in the world.  Lennie had to die.  Lennie traumatized everyone and everything he touched.

So it was with Christ.  The world could tolerate Jesus; they could love Him, but only at a distance.  It was the judgment of the High Priest that for the good of the nation, Jesus must die.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 3 - The Fearful Mystery

3 – The Fearful Mystery
The Bible uses the word holy in more than one way.  It has been customary to define holy as “purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect and immaculate in every detail.”  Purity is the first word most of us think of when we hear the word holy.  To be sure the Bible does use the word this way, but this is at best the secondary meaning of the word in the Bible.  When the seraphim sang their song, they were saying far more than God was “purity, purity, purity.”

The primary meaning of holy is “separate.”  It comes from an ancient word that meant “to cut” or “to separate.”  The word holy also refers to transcendence, which means “to climb across.”  It is defined as “exceeding usual limits.”  To transcend is to rise above something.  When we speak of the transcendence of God we are talking about that sense of which God is far above and beyond us.  It refers to His supreme and absolute greatness in relationship to the world.  He is higher than the world.  He has absolute power over the world.  The world has no power over Him.  It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. 

When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate.  He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us.  To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way.  The same applies when the Bible refers to things as holy: holy ground, holy Sabbath, holy convocation, holy nation, holy tithe, holy word, holy ones, holy of holies, etc.  In every case the word holy refers to things that set apart and separated from the rest.  They have been consecrated (declared or set apart as sacred), separated from the commonplace, unto the Lord and His service.

None of the things in the list is holy in itself.  To become holy they must first be consecrated, or “sanctified” by God.  Whatever is holy carries a peculiar character.  It has been separated from a common use.  It may not be touched; it may not be eaten; it may not be used for common matters.  It is special.

Where does purity come in?  When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity.  They are to be used in a pure way.  They are to reflect purity as well as being set apart or separated.  Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it.  Holy means purity and transcendence.

We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes: God is spirit, loving, just, merciful, all-knowing, etc.  The tendency is to add the word holy to this long list.  But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute, but it is used as a general term for all His attributes.  His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is holy spirit.

God can “reach down” and consecrate things in this world and make them holy.  His touch on the common makes the common suddenly uncommon.  Nothing in this world is holy in itself.  Only God can make something holy.  Only God can consecrate.

Rudolf Otto, a German scholar, attempted to study the holy in a scientific way.  First, he found that people have a difficult time describing the holy.  There was something extra that defied explanation and could not be put into words.  He called the holy the mysterium tremendum, the “awful mystery, because of the fear that the holy provokes in us.

He found that the clearest sensation that a human being has when he experiences the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness.  That is, when we are in the presence of God, we are humbled and become most aware of ourselves as creatures.  This is the opposite of Satan’s original temptation, “You shall be as gods.”

There is a special kind of phobia from which we all suffer.  It is called xenophobia, which is a fear (and sometimes a hatred) of strangers or foreigners or anything that is strange or foreign.  God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia.  He is the ultimate stranger.  He is holy and we are not.  We fear God because He is holy.  It is a servile fear, born of dread.  God is too great for us; He is too awesome.  He makes difficult demands on us.  He threatens our security.  In His presence we quake and tremble.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 2 - Holy, Holy, Holy

2 – Holy, Holy, Holy
The records of the lives of the prophets reads like a history of martyrs. The life expectancy of a prophet was that of a Marine lieutenant in combat. When it is said of Jesus that He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, it is clear that He stood in a long line of men whom God had appointed to such suffering. The prophet’s curse was solitude; his home was often a cave.

Such a man was Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah was unusual. Most prophets were of humble origins: peasants, shepherds, farmers. Isaiah was of nobility. He was a recognized statesman, having access to the royal court of his day. God used him to speak to several monarchs of Judah.

What set a prophet of Israel apart from other men was the sacred nature of his call. His call was not from men. He could not apply for the job. He had to be selected—chosen directly and immediately by God. And the call was sovereign; it could not be refused. Jonah tried, but failed. Jeremiah sought to resign after a term in this office, but God refused to accept his resignation. The job of a prophet was for life. There was no quitting or retiring with pension.

When the word Lord appears in the Bible in lower case letters, it refers to the word Adonai, which means “sovereign one.” It is not the name of God. It is a title for God, indeed the supreme title given to God in the Old Testament. When the word LORD appears in capital letters, that is the word Jahweh. This is the sacred name of God, where as the lowercase Lord is simply a title. Normally this word occurs only with the use of its four consonants—yhwh, the unspeakable four letters to the Jew.

When Isaiah came to the temple, there was a crisis of sovereignty in the land. King Uzziah had just died. The eyes of Israel were then opened to see the real King of the nation. Isaiah saw God seated on the throne, the sovereign one.

Men are not allowed to see the face of God. The Scriptures warn us that no man can see God and live. God allowed Moses to see his back, but never His face. Then when Moses returned from the mountain, his face was shining. The people were terrified, and they shrunk away from him in terror. Moses’ face was too dazzling for them to look upon. If people are terrified by the sight of the reflected glory of the back of God, how can anyone stand to gaze directly in His holy face?

1 John 3:2 says we will indeed be able to look at God’s holy face: “…for we shall see Him as He is.” That is God’s promise to us, but right now it is impossible. Before that can happen, we must be purified. Jesus said who would be able to see God in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” None of us in this world is pure in heart. It is our impurity that prevents us from seeing God. Our problem is not with our eyes, it is with our hearts.

“Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.”
Isaiah 6:2

The seraphim are not sinful men, but even as angelic beings they are still creatures and they must shield their eyes from looking directly at the face of God. They also cover their feet, as Moses did when God told him in Exodus 3:5: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” The ground was made holy by the presence of God. The seraphim and Moses are both created by God and must cover their feet in God’s holy presence.

“And one cried to another, and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the earth is full of his glory.’”
Isaiah 6:3

The significance of the repetition of the word holy can be easily missed. Repetition was a form of emphasis in the Hebrew language, similar to how we would highlight, underline, or use boldface or italics. We see Jesus’ use of repetition with the words, “Truly, truly, I say unto you…” Here the double use of the word truly was a sign that He was about to say was of crucial importance. The word translated “truly” is the ancient word amen. Amen isn’t just something said at the end of a prayer, it simply means, “It is true.”

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. Only once in Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy or justice, justice, justice.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Isaiah 6:5

Jesus also used the word woe. When He spoke out in angry denunciation of the Pharisees He pronounced the judgment of God upon their heads by saying to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

On the lips of a prophet the word woe is an announcement of doom, but Isaiah’s use of the word was extraordinary. When he saw the Lord and cried, “Woe is me!” he pronounced the judgment of God upon himself. When he said, “I am ruined,” that phrase is better translated, “For I am undone.” To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. It can also mean to disintegrate, to not be a unified whole or to no longer have integrity.

If ever there was a man of integrity it was Isaiah. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a Holy God. In that brief moment all his self-esteem was shattered. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.

The sudden realization of ruin was linked to Isaiah’s mouth. He cried, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Why is this focus on his mouth? Jesus said, “It’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles a man, it’s what comes out of his mouth that defiles him.”

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…no man can tame the tongue…With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men…”
James 3:6-9

We are fortunate in one respect: God does not appear to us in the way He appeared to Isaiah. God showed Isaiah his corruption all at once. No wonder that he was ruined. Isaiah explained it this way: “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” He saw the holiness of God. For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.

“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah 6:6, 7

Isaiah was looking for a place to hide, but there was nowhere to hide. He was naked and alone before God. Relentless guilt screamed from his every pore. But the holy God is also a God of grace. He refused to allow His servant to continue on his belly without comfort. He had the seraph cleanse Isaiah by taking the hot coal and burning Isaiah’s lips. This was a severe mercy, a painful act of cleansing.

In this divine act of cleansing Isaiah experienced a forgiveness that went beyond the purification of his lips. He was cleansed throughout, forgiven to the core, but not without the awful pain of repentance. He went beyond cheap grace and the easy utterance, “I’m sorry.” He was in mourning for his sin, overcome with moral grief, and God sent an angel to heal him and take his sin away.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Isaiah 6:8

Isaiah’s vision took on a new dimension. Now for the first time he had heard the voice of God. There is a pattern here, a pattern repeated over and over again in history: God appears, man quakes in terror, God forgives and heals, God sends. From brokenness to mission is the pattern for man.

God asked, “Whom shall I send?” To be sent meant to function as an emissary for God, to be a spokesman for the deity. The word apostle means “one who is sent.” God was able to take a shattered man and send him into the ministry. He took a sinful man and made him into a prophet. He took a man with a dirty mouth and made him God’s spokesman.

No minister is worthy of his calling. Every preacher is vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the more faithful a preacher is to the Word of God in his preaching, the more liable he is to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the more faithful a man is to the Word of God the higher the message is that he will preach. The higher the message the further he will be from obeying it himself.

Because I preach about holiness, some people mistakenly assume that I must be as holy as the message I preach. That’s when I want to cry, “Woe is me.” There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to study God’s holiness is because I am not holy. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be a man sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Holiness of God - R.C. Sproul - Ch. 1 - The Holy Grail

I just finished reading a great book, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul.  I would highly recommend it. I wanted to share the notes from it, as I have spent time studying the attributes of God and the Gospel message here lately.  Holiness, as you will find out, is the key attribute of God.  

The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul:

1 - The Holy Grail
An artist must start with something.  He or she shapes, forms, or rearranges other materials.  But he or she never works with nothing.  God created the world out of nothing.  Before the world began there was nothing.  God called the world into being.  St. Augustine called it the “divine imperative” or the “divine fiat.”  It was simply by His command.  God then created man from breathing into a piece of clay.

There are modern theorists who believe the world was created by nothing.  Note the difference between saying the world was created from nothing and saying the universe was created by nothing.  The modern view is more miraculous than the biblical view.  It suggests that nothing created something.  More than that, it holds that nothing created everything!

True, they don’t say that the universe was created by nothing; they say that the universe was created by chance.  But chance is not a thing.  It has no weight, no measure, no power.  It is merely a word we use to describe mathematical possibilities.  It can do nothing.  It can do nothing because it is nothing.  To say that the universe was created by chance is to say that it came from nothing.

God alone can call worlds into being by fiat, by the power of His command.  Such power is staggering, awesome.  It is deserving of respect, of humble adoration.

My experience in the classroom, thinking about the creation of the world, was like being born again a second time.  It was like being converted, not merely to God the Son, but to God the Father.  Suddenly I had a passion to know God the Father.

Though I was deeply impressed by the notion of a God who created the universe from nothing, I was troubled by the fact that the world we live in is a place filled with sorrows.  My next question was, “How could a good and holy God create a world that is such a mess?”  As I studied the Old Testament, I was also bothered by the stories about God ordering the slaughter of women and children, of God killing Uzzah instantly for touching the ark of the covenant, and by other narratives that seemed to reveal a brutal side to the character of God.  How could I ever come to love such a God?

The one concept, the central idea I kept meeting in Scripture, was the idea that God is holy.  The word was foreign to me.  I wasn’t sure what it meant.  I made the question a matter of diligent and persistent search, and today I am still absorbed with the question of the holiness of God.  I am convinced that it is one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with.  It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.

The idea of holiness is so central to biblical teaching that it is said of God, “Holy is His name.”  His name is holy because He is holy.  He is not always treated with holy reverence.  His name is drug through the dirt of this world.  It functions as a curse word, a platform for the obscene.  That the world has little respect for God is vividly seen by the lack of respect for His name.

If I were to ask a group of Christians what the top priority of the church is, I am sure I would get a wide variety of answers.  Let’s look at what Jesus’ priorities were.  What is the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  Jesus said, “When you pray, pray like this: ‘Our Father, which art in heaven…’”  The first line of the prayer is not a petition.  It is a form of personal address.  The prayer continues: “…hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come…”

We should be praying that God’s name be hallowed, that God be regarded as holy.  There is a sequence to the prayer; God’s kingdom will never come where His name is not hallowed.  His will is not done on earth as it is in heaven if His name is being desecrated here.  In heaven the name of God is holy.  It is breathed by angels in a sacred hush.  Heaven is a place where reverence for God is total.

How we understand the person and character of God the Father affects every aspect of our lives.  If God is the Creator of the entire universe, then it must follow that He is the Lord of the entire universe.  There is no part of the world that is outside His Lordship.

We must seek to understand what the holy is.  We dare not seek to avoid it.  There can be no worship, no spiritual growth, no true obedience without it.  It defines our goal as Christians.  God has declared, “Be ye holy, for I am holy.”  To reach that goal we must understand what holiness is.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Shocking Youth Message - Paul Washer

The term "Christian" gets thrown around loosely nowadays, to the point where almost everyone claims to be a Christian.  The Bible tells us that not everyone is: "Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:14)."

Salvation does not come by repeating magical words from some prayer, but by repentance from sin and belief in Jesus Christ, which is demonstrated by a changed life.

This message, which is the most uploaded message on sermonaudio.com, has really inspired me to study the meaning of salvation and the Gospel message.  The way it starts, it is hard to tell where he is going, so don't just watch a couple of minutes, please take time to watch the whole thing and offer any comments or questions.

Here is the link if you would rather download the audio and listen to it while driving: Shocking Youth Message - Paul Washer.mp3


Here is a written transcript of the sermon, too:
Shocking Youth Message - Paul Washer.pdf