Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Persuing Holiness: the Impossible Dream

A trishagion is a Hebrew literary device used to denote an extreme form of emphasis. The thing being emphasized is repeated three times. It is used only a few times in scripture, such as in
As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!" (Rev. 8:13)
It’s not bad news for the inhabitants of earth, or really bad news, or even really, really bad news. It is really, really, REALLY bad news.

More commonly in scripture we find the use of the weaker yet still powerful, in terms of its emphasis, bishagion. Jesus used it, for example:
Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Only once is the pent ultimate trishagion used to describe an attribute of God. It occurs in Isaiah:
And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:3)
The attribute is holiness. To me, it is the most important of God’s attributes, and for me, the least understood.

We are called to be holy. And are made holy (sanctified). But I think God’s holiness is of a different kind altogether. There are blue M & Ms (I think). And the sky is blue, for different and more complicated reasons. And then there is the concept of blueness. All the same, blue, but all different. So it is with holiness.

The reason I say this is twofold. And both reasons are nebulous.

First, for all other attributes of God, such as mercy, love, patience, etc., I have seen and understand the attribute when I see it in men. I have seen men be merciful, loving, and patient.

I never met a man and then said to myself, this man is holy.

Second, I think that God’s holiness is what necessitates a redemptive plan that involves Christ dying a substitutionary death on our behalf. Because to me, the greatest mystery of all is: why. Why did Christ have to come to die in our place? God is all powerful. He is a God of mercy. Why not just forgive us as we are and accept us into heaven. Why did there have to be a perfect atonement? What demanded it?

The usual answer refers to another attribute of God, his justice. Justice, so it is said, demands payment. But mercy exactly nullifies that: an undeserved avoidance of punishment; a suspension of the sentence. In some sense God was not merciful at all, he demanded and received payment. Just not from the guilty party, but from His Son. Of course that is just a strange way to look at it. In truth He was/is infinitely merciful to provide a plan of redemption for a fallen race.

But that is a rabbit trail. To say that God requires the Cross because of His justice is, to me, a tautology. A reformulation of the question as a statement—He demands it because He demands it.

No, I think the answer lies in God’s holiness. There are lots of mind games people play about "is there anything an all powerful God cannot do". They are always poorly formed dilemmas. The real question is: is there any power that can thwart God’s sovereign will? The answer is no. But are there things God cannot do? There surely are—anything that violates His character. He cannot lie. And His holiness cannot be sullied by the presence of sinful creatures. He cannot accept us without the atonement not because He is a God of justice, although indeed He is, but because His perfect holiness simply cannot accommodate us as we are.

There is only one passage in the scriptures that gives me any sense of insight into the incomprehensibility of God’s holiness. Again from Isaiah:
Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah felt the awesomeness God’s holiness, or at least a vision of it, and his response was almost suicidal. God’s holiness is not like ours, only better. We are the blackest black, He the whitest white.

We are to pursue holiness, but in all honesty I don’t know how. It is like chasing a forgotten dream.

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