We hear that God is holy, but what does that mean. What does holiness really mean? What does the wrath of God mean? In this conclusion post of the Essential Background of the Cross, these questions will be answered.
We have considered the seriousness of sin as rebellion against God, the continuing responsibility of humanity for our actions, and our guilt in God’s sight and the liability to punishment. The essential background to the cross is not only the sin, responsibility, and guilt of man but the just reaction of God to these things-in other words, His holiness and wraith. The idea that God is holy is the foundation of the Bible. So is the knowledge that sin is incompatible with God’s holiness. Habakkuk 1:13 says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor.”
Our sins separate us from God, so that His face is hidden from us and He refuses to hear our prayers. The biblical authors were aware that no human being could set their eyes on God and survive the experience. All those who were granted a glimpse of His glory were unable to endure the sight. Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God. When Isaiah had his vision of Yahweh enthroned and exalted, he was overwhelmed by the sense of his uncleanness (Isaiah 1). Job’s reaction when God revealed Himself to him was to despise himself and to repeat in dust and ashes. The list of people who saw just a glimpse of God, all reacted in similar ways. Even the angels around His thrown have a pair of wings to hide their eyes from Him and a pair to hide their feet since His presence is holy.
Closely related to God’s holiness is His wrath which is His holy reaction to evil. We cannot say that God’s wrath was an Old Testament thing and His love a New Testament thing because God’s love is clearly shown in the Old Testament and His wrath can be seen in the New. The biblical concept of the holiness and wrath of God is that He cannot coexist with sin. Sin cannot approach God, and God cannot tolerate sin. There are several metaphors used in the scriptures to illustrate the stubborn fact.
The first is HEIGHT. Psalm 97:9 says, “For You are the LORD Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” His lofty exaltation expresses both His sovereignty over the nations and His inaccessibility to sinners. The high exaltation of God is not literal and was never meant to be taken literally. The biblical writers used height as a symbol of transcendence.
The second picture is that of DISTANCE. God is not only “high above” us but “far away” from us. We dare not approach too close. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God told Moses not to come any closer. When God gave instruction to building the tabernacle and later the temple, He promised to live among the people but they were not allowed to come into the Holy of Holies except the High Priest and that was only once a year and he had to have the blood of the sacrifice with him. Sinners cannot approach the all-holy God with impurity-Jesus’ blood allows Christians to approach God but that’s because He no longer sees our sins; they are covered by the blood of the Lamb.
The third and fourth pictures of the holy God’s inapproachability to sinners are those of LIGHT and FIRE.
1 john 1:5 says, “. . . God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” Hebrews 12:29 says, “for our God is a consuming fire.” Both discourage too close approach. All these metaphors illustrate the utter incompatibility of divine holiness and human sin. HEIGHT, DISTANCE, LIGHT, and FIRE all say that God cannot be in the presence of sin and that if it approaches Him too closely it will be consumed.
The four basic biblical concepts of The Gravity of Sin, Human Moral Responsibility, True and False Guilt, and The Holiness and Wrath of God we just unpacked are needed in order for us to understand the heart of the cross. The truth about God is a foreign notion to modern-day man. The kind of God who appeals to most people today would be the easygoing in His tolerance of our offenses. They see God as an old man with a white beard; almost like a Santa Claus. He would be gentle, kind, accommodating, and would have no violate reactions. That is not the God of the Bible and sadly to say some churches have lost the vision of the majesty of God. All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and humanity.
If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to His, we see no need for a racial salvation, let alone for a racial atonement to secure it. On the other hand, when we glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge what we are-hell-deserving sinners-then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before. The essential background to the cross is a balanced understanding of the gravity of sin and the majesty of God.
NOTES: Parts of this post have been taken from John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ.”