Book Review | The Holiness of God

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R.C. Sproul, well-known author of The Holiness of God, was the founding pastor of Saint Andrews Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and the founder of Ligonier Ministries. Ligonier Ministries is committed to the authority of scripture and equips Christians and the Church around the world with resources and was formed to teach and defend the holiness of God. Although he recently passed away,  Sproul can be heard on “Renewing Your Mind,” a daily podcast. Sproul, a theologian of Reformed tradition, has also produced numerous books on Reformed theology and continues to influence Evangelicals around the world

 

In The Holiness of God Sproul conveys the absolute transcendence of our Lord in all His holiness, along with the necessary grace in Christ alone extended to serve as a mediator to this Holy God.

 

The holiness of God is often described as one attribute of God, alongside His love, grace, mercy, justice, and wrath. However, God’s holiness is the very essence of His being. As Sproul’s book so brilliantly puts it, the word “Holy” should be placed in front of each one of God’s attributes. His HOLY love, His HOLY justice, His HOLY wrath, and so on. His attributes are encompassed by His holiness. But what is holiness? What does it mean for God to be holy? As Sproul states in his book,

 

“The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from the ancient word that means ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ His holiness is also transcendent. The word transcendence means literally ‘to climb across.’ It is defined as ‘exceeding usual limits.’ Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness.”

 

God’s holiness is the thing that we are drawn to, but the very thing we wish to escape. There should be something wonderful, yet terrifying about God’s holiness. In our fallen state we cannot look upon God as He is in His fullness. Apart from Christ, there is no access to a Holy God. Sproul then points to examples of the creature in the presence of the Divine Creator. In the book of Isaiah, we read about Isaiah’s vision:

 

“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

 

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!’”

 

As Sproul explains, the seraphim are angelic beings but still created beings. The Lord created them with six wings. Two of which are created to shield their eyes from gazing directly in the radiant face of God. Their primary job is to declare the Holiness of God. In verse 3, we see the song called the Trisaigon, which, Sproul explains, means “three times holy.” The repetition of the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is to emphasize the Lord’s transcendent holiness. He transcends all things. At this point Isaiah feels his utter inadequacy. Isaiah declares, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.” Isaiah was essentially pronouncing judgement upon himself. Sproul says that Isaiah had the “radical understanding of sin.” Isaiah recognized his creatureliness. Isaiah saw the holiness and loftiness of the Lord.

 

But the Lord is also a God of holy grace and holy mercy. God did not leave his servant Isaiah without comfort. Sproul says, “He took immediate steps to cleanse the man and restore his soul.” Isaiah was being cleansed when the seraphim touched his lips with tongs from the altar. He was experiencing forgiveness. His guilt and sin were taken away. He was being refined by holy fire. This was an act of holy mercy.

 

Sproul goes on to talk about God’s holy wrath and holy justice. Sin is the thing that separates us from God. The smallest sin is cosmic treason against God. What is the cure for this? How can we be reconciled to God? The Lord provided a way to atone for sin. He sent His eternally begotten Son as a substitute to atone for our sin. On page 121, Sproul says,

 

“The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen in the Cross. [Jesus] was the only innocent man to ever be punished by God. The cross was at once the most horrible and beautiful example of God’s wrath. It was the most just and gracious act in history. God made Christ accursed for the sin He bore. Herein was God’s holy justice perfectly manifest. Yet it was done for us.”

 

Sproul has made clear in his book that there is the problem of our sinfulness and God’s holiness. Although, as believers we are declared righteous and holy, God’s holiness transcends ours. Believers are set apart and called to be holy. This call to holiness was originally given to Adam and Eve. We were made to reflect God’s character and His holiness.

 

This doctrine of God’s holiness is not something we commonly hear spoken about today in evangelical churches. This has affected the way we approach God and how we approach Him in our worship. This can be seen in the architecture of church buildings as well. Historically, they were built vertically to draw our attention upwards, but rather than being vertical they are today more like a fellowship hall where the attention is horizontal. Our attention in worship becomes directed to a stage of actors instead of a holy God acting to draw our eyes heavenward. Sproul ties this together by saying that what is lost in these “functional church designs is the profound sense of threshold” which is a place of transition. The transition should be from the “profane to the sacred.”

 

Sproul seeks to recover this doctrine of God’s holiness as it touches every aspect of our lives including how we worship. Reading The Holiness of God gives a profound understanding of who God is and encourages the reader to think more deeply about how we approach God and worship Him.