By Peter Corney
Our Father in heaven holy is your name. (Mathew 6:9)
A passion for the preaching of the Cross, a desire for a holy life and the pursuit of social justice has a common source. The spring from which these three are refreshed and renewed in the church is an acute awareness of the holiness and love of God.
These three vital elements of the Church’s life and mission are notably weak in the contemporary Western church, and the reason is clear, it is because our sensitivity to and awareness of the holy love of God is dull. We are like the man in Plato’s story who was chained in a cave so that all he could see of the brilliant world outside were passing shadows on the rear wall. Occasionally he was aware of a bird flying past or clouds passing over and the indirect light of the sun or moon. The experience of the reality of the world beyond his cave, the beauty, colors, and vastness were all inaccessible to him because he could not get to the entrance of his cave. His imagination, his understanding and his sensibilities were dulled, stunted and distorted by the limitation of his vision.
Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name: worship the Lord in the splendour (beauty) of his holiness (Psalm 29:1-2)
It is only when we break our chains and go to the entrance of our cave and once again gaze out upon the biblical vision of the holiness and love of God that we will recover a true understanding of and passion for these three vital elements of our life and mission.
Let me explain.
1. The preaching of the cross and the priority of grace.
Our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12;29)
We need to re-establish in our minds and hearts that God in his blazing purity can not co – exist with evil (Habakkuk1:13, Psalm 5:4-6); that our God is a consuming fire of holy righteousness. We need to understand afresh that fallen humanity is unholy and we are unable to approach Him because of our impurity, our selfishness, greed and violence, and our persistent inhumanity to others. When we re-establish this understanding, then will we see the preaching of the Cross return with urgency to the centre of the churches message. That is because a true vision of God in his holiness will drive us to see that the only point at which we, in our unholiness, can meet Him and live, is in judgment and grace, and the place where judgment and grace intersect is in Christ and the Cross. This is the heart of holy love (1John 4:10). This is where God’s glory, which is his holiness and love, is revealed (John12:23-33, 13:31-32). The only entry point for us to the most holy place, the presence of God, is at the Cross (Hebrews 9:12- 14, 10:19-22).
If we reject God’s holy love in Christ and his Cross then we meet God only in judgment and for unholy people it is “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. (Hebrews 10:31). We have to feel the force of the question that earlier generations asked themselves with awe and trembling: ‘How can a Holy God co-exist with an unholy and impure people?’
When Isaiah experienced the overwhelming vision of God in all his holy glory in the temple he cried out: Woe to me! 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: 1- 5)
When we re-assert the holiness of God, by contrast, we feel and see with greater clarity the “heart of darkness” that infects us all. The pervasive monstrosity of evil, its immense destructiveness, and the absolute necessity for its judgment is pressed in upon us again, breaking through our carefully constructed distractions and diversions.
Should we be tempted to think this approach is all too negative and unnecessary, then a brief reflection on the horrors we have inflicted upon each other in the recent past will correct that temptation, e.g; the genocides of: the Jewish holocaust, Armenia, Kurdistan, the Ukraine, the Balkans, Ruanda, Kampuchea, the Sudan, the list goes on with a terrible monotony. We cannot escape the call for accountability, no one is innocent!
The Spanish artist Antonio Saura has a painting of the crucifixion that captures not just its physical brutality but something of the terrible significance of what the Cross means and represents when God in Christ bears the cost of accountability for human sin and evil. (1) The picture is very large and confronting, painted in stark black and white. The body of Christ is distorted to the point of destruction. The face has become a hideous grimace. The picture has a feeling of malevolence. The figure has become almost robotic, as if it’s become something of what it bears – a weapon of destruction, a killing machine. Here, in a way that language struggles to express, is graphically depicted the concentration of human sin and evil, violence and cruelty, and there is Jesus, carrying, bearing, becoming that for us and absorbing its judgment. It is only this radical primal message of the cross that can heal the wounds of evil in the hearts of us all.
As the call for accountability for all our inhumanity to one another rises up to God so also another cry goes up, the desperate cry for forgiveness and redemption. We hear that cry over and over again in contemporary literature and film. (2) We also hear it in the pain of those who have become aware of how their selfishness has fractured or destroyed a relationship. Anyone who has had the responsibility to sit with and council those confronting the folly of their addictions or their selfish and cruel decisions that have hurt others irreparably, or their betrayal and abandonment of those to whom they once promised faithfulness for life, will also have heard the desperate cry for redemption. Only the radical meaning of the Cross can meet this desperate longing for the removal of guilt and the need to be forgiven. ‘Can I be loved in my unloveliness?’ ‘How will I face the moment of accountability?’ ‘Is it possible to be forgiven?’ This is the cry for grace and there is only one place where it can be found – the Cross.
We are tempted to feel today that the very primal nature of the Cross is alien and alienating to contemporary people. That death, blood, vicarious suffering, substitutionary sacrifice, atonement and redemptive suffering are all concepts that either repel or puzzle them. At this point we may have been most subtly seduced by modernity.
Ironically the most widely sold and read novels of our time are Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and close behind them C S Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, both now made into blockbuster films seen by millions of viewers. These stories are full of primal myths and symbols of sacrifice. Their popularity may well represent the hunger of a generation starved of spiritual realities and old wisdom by the closed box of scientific rationalism, the emptiness of secular humanism, materialism and the failure of the church to faithfully proclaim its transcendent message.
The temptation to reduce the radical meaning of the Cross is ever present in the contemporary church, to turn away from the biblical ideas of God’s uncompromising holiness and his provision of atonement in the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ. As I write this a new debate is raging about these very matters as many Christian teachers turn away from historic orthodoxy’s teaching on the Cross.(3) There is also an unconscionable and wide spread practice in our churches where the original symbols are retained but their classical first order meaning is denied or changed. This may be our greatest act of theological treason, when we preserve the appearance of the biblical concepts in our worship, in the language we employ, the symbols we use, the celebration of Communion and the words of our songs, but empty them of their biblical meaning. No wonder so many of our people are spiritually undernourished and our churches dying. This process leaves us with signs without substance, the wrapper without the content. It is this process that hollows out our message till there is no substance or power left. We hold the form of religion but deny its power. (4)
P.T. Forsyth, an important English theologian of the early twentieth century, wrote: “Christianity is concerned with God’s holiness before all else, which issues to man as love, acts upon sin as grace, and exercises grace through judgment. The idea of God’s holiness is inseparable from the idea of judgment as the mode by which grace goes into action. And by judgment is meant….the acceptance by Christ of God’s judgment on man’s behalf and its conversion in him to our blessing by faith.”(5)
In re-asserting the preaching of the Cross, we need to take care not to create a false dichotomy and pit God’s holiness and love against each other. God’s love is not an alternative to his holiness, or his holiness an alternative to his love: they are expressions of each other. The atoning death of Christ on the cross is the ultimate expression of God’s holy love. When we recapture our awareness of that blazing holy love we will return to the preaching of the Cross
2. Holiness of life and the distinctive Christian lifestyle.
Just as he who has called you is holy so be holy in all you do: for it is written, ‘Be holy for I am holy’. (1Peter 1:15-16)
As we re-establish in our minds the biblical vision of the holiness of God, we will find ourselves re examining our life style. We will realize how far we have drifted with the current of our society and how far back we have to row.
We live in a self-indulgent excessive society preoccupied with comfort, pleasure, leisure, possessions and security. We live in a society dominated by a popular entertainment media that is saturated with the portrayal of violence, conflict and promiscuous sexuality. The advertising that fills our lives is centered on the creation of discontent to drive our consumerism – this mobile phone is better than your old one. It uses covetousness, greed, self indulgence – why deny yourself? – and the false promise of creating an identity through possessions – succesfull people drive a … as its driving motivations. Living in the midst of all this is deeply corrosive to Christian values. To live a distinctively Christian lifestyle is a constant challenge and requires deliberate and conscious choice.
The constant underlying pressure of consumerism makes us self focused, we expect to be served rather than to serve. It feeds the drive for instant self gratification rather than self discipline and delayed gratification. One of the implications is that the development of character is affected and the end result is often character that is stunted and deeply flawed, producing self obsessed and narcissistic people.(6) To pursue the call to be like the suffering servant Jesus in such a culture requires real commitment and sacrifice.
The foundational idea of holiness in scripture is to be set apart and consecrated for a specific purpose. God has called us, reconciled us to his holy self in Christ so we will be consecrated to serve his purposes in the world. We are called to be a sign that points people to God and his kingdom. Our lives are to express the character and purposes of God and the values of his kingdom. Peter expresses it in this way in his letter:
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light…..I urge you as aliens and strangers in the world to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. (1Peter 2:9-12)
When we set apart a utensil for some special task such as a baking dish, we do not use it to mix paint in and we make sure we keep it clean! In the same way we must set ourselves aside for God. (2Tim 2:20 – 21) Paul goes on in the same passage to say that we are to run away from evil and pursue goodness. The original word he uses suggests the idea of a hunter pursuing their prey. We are to hunt down goodness! (2Tim 2:22)
In another arresting image Paul says that our lives are to shine like stars in a dark night sky as we hold out the word of life to the culture in which we are set. (Phil 2:14-16)
Our personal lives, our family life and our Christian communities are to reflect God’s holy love. We are set apart to serve God and his world, but to do that we need to maintain our Christian distinctiveness. There is always of course a fine line between distinctiveness and disengagement from the culture, between being a strong community with a clear identity and a ghetto.
In reasserting the call to a holy life that reflects the Holy God we serve we need to take care that we do not repeat the past mistakes of legalism, exclusivism and disengagement from the culture. Our prayer should be:
O Lord, grant us:
A holiness without legalism,
Discipline with celebration,
An unworldliness that is life affirming,
A simplicity of life that is aesthetically aware,
A frugality that is not mean,
A distinctiveness that is hospitable,
A clarity of belief that is gracious.
3. Social justice
The Lord Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.(Isaiah 5:16)
There is a very close link in scripture between God’s holiness, righteousness and justice and the ethical demands he makes on his people, especially in their communal relations. In Leviticus 19:1-37 and 1Peter 1:15-2:1 the command “Be holy for I am holy” is followed by ethical and moral directions particularly focused on community relations.
The moral source of social ethics and social justice is in God’s holiness. It is located in the heart of God who hates injustice, who defends the poor and exploited who loves goodness and truthfulness and is repelled by all immorality and hubris. (Psalm 146:7-9, Proverbs 6:16)
These are the things you are to do: speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this declares the LORD.
Biblical faith is essentially relational, it is about our relationship with God and our neighbor. We are commanded to love God and our neighbor. (Mark 12:29-31. Deut. 6:4. Lev.19:8) The way we are to relate to our neighbor is determined by the character of God, with whom we are in relationship, the God who is holy love, who is righteous and just.
To achieve social justice in a society requires, enough people who have a sense of responsibility to others and personal accountability. Personal accountability declines when we subtly move sin from being an offence against God’s holiness to “personal failure” or “a mistake” or merely the result of social and environmental forces.
Personal motivation to strive for justice and goodness increases when we reassert the holiness of God.
We live in a culture that increasingly sees legislation as the way to generate public morality. But as P.T Forsyth wisely said, “Public liberty rests on inward freedom and the cross alone gives moral freedom.” (7) Gratitude for God’s grace to us in Christ is a far better and stronger motivation for public morality than the coercion of the law. The person moved by grace does that which is good when no one is looking! Without inner freedom we are driven by all sorts of selfish and dark agendas.
When we have glimpsed the vision of God’s holy purity, absolute goodness, truthfulness and justice, when we realize afresh his implacable opposition to injustice and all moral corruption (Habakkuk 1:13, Zechariah 8:16-17, Isaiah 1:10-17, 30:12.), we will be driven to two actions; to our knees in repentance and to our feet in justice for the world. (Micha 6:8)
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “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 6:1-5)
It is this vision that we must reclaim if we are to see a renewal of these three key elements of our mission.
- “Crucifixion” by Antonio Saura, 1959 Valencian Institute of Modern Art.
- “Atonement”, first a book by by Ian Mc Ewan (2001,Jonathan Cape),then a filmin 2007. “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Saving Private Ryan”, The Terminator series, etc.
- “Pierced For Our Transgressions” by S. Jeffrey, M. Ovey and A. Sach. (IVP 2007.) See part two p.205f . See also “Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross” Ed. Mark Baker. (Baker Academic 2006)
- 2 Tim. 3: 5
- P.T Forsyth “The Cruciality of the Cross”, (Paternoster 1997) P.8.
- See the very popular 2008 Australian novel by Christos Tsiolkas “The Slap” for a disturbing picture of contemporary Australian self obsession and narcicism. (Allen and Unwin 2008)
- P.T Forsyth IBID p.25
Biblical quotations are from the NIV Inclusive language version, 1996.