on October 29, 2002
Many have commented that this book by RC Sproul represents the pinnacle work of Sproul's illustrious publishing career. Some have heralded this book as being a contemporary classic. I must respectfully dissent from both views. While I certainly hold Sproul in high regard and consider this particular book to be very good, it could have been a little better.
It is important to emphasize that this book has many more strengths than weaknesses. Sproul's discourse on the immensity, from a finite perspective, of contemplating the holiness and 'otherness' of God is outstanding and should be required reading in churches all over America. American evangelicalism has gotten increasingly soft in the opinion of many (me included), with great emphasis being paid to human abilities and worshipping a God of love that is devoid of justice. Sproul squarely and correctly provides much needed balance in this book on these questions. God is sovereign, He is infinite, He is eternal, and He is holy - we are none of these things. It would serve the body of Christ well to sincerely take some time to contemplate these things so that the American church can hopefully return to a very clear theology about who God is, who we are, and who needs who in this scenario.
Sproul's analysis of the trials and tribulations of Martin Luther is also outstanding. It's amazing to me that many everyday Protestants know almost nothing about the most prominent figure of the Reformation, what he believed, what he espoused, and what his theological and personal struggles were. Luther is not God, but He 'wrestled' with God in many ways over the deepest questions of life. Woe to the American church that we don't have many more people willing and wanting to be like Luther in this respect - choosing instead a surface level faith that is blissfully indifferent to the gravity of these issues. I thought Sproul did a wonderful job in contrasting Luther's insatiable hunger for better knowing the things of God with the current yawning condition of the modern church.
Sproul also provides good material on God's justice, His wrath, and how such things cannot be divorced from His love and mercy. His treatment of the interesting similarities of God's dealings with Jacob, Moses, Job, and Paul is very insightful.
Despite these many strengths, I am compelled to give the book 4 stars for two main reasons. First, Sproul's chapter on the 'difficult' passages of the Old Testament struck me as a bit inadequate. More verses could have been analyzed, and the analysis itself could have been significantly more exhaustive. Sproul is correct that the difficult commandments of God in the Old Testament represent a formidable stumbling block for many. But I didn't think that Sproul's analysis did much to address them. Secondly, I felt that Sproul took way too much liberty in his interpretations of Biblical texts and events. Some no doubt disagree, but I don't think it's a good interpretational technique to take a passage of Scripture and recast it in different language in our efforts to prove a point. This type of practice really lends itself to strawman arguments and fundamental misinterpretation. Sproul did this throughout the book, and I often found myself asking, "How does he know the inner thoughts of the writers, or the unwritten aspects of the event in question, etc". I have always thought that it is much better to interpret Scripture in light of what Scripture says, rather than relying on our own ability to theorize about what Scripture does not say and then using those theories to advance some point. Going beyond what Scripture says is every bit as dangerous as ignoring what Scripture does say. Does Sproul do this here? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that he leaves himself open to this charge when he didn't have to.
Overall, I would certainly recommend the book due to its many strengths. But readers should be careful to test Sproul's slangish translations of Scripture and event theorization in light of the Word of God, because this is a real disappointment of the book. Slangish translations of Scripture are common among those theologians who don't hold to the plenary (word for word) inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture and instead hold to an inspiration of concepts and big ideas. This view gives them wiggle room to play around with the actual words of Scripture. I would argue that a theologian who holds to plenary level inspiration should not be taking liberty with the text the way that Sproul does here. As a result, his translations should be meticulously scrutinized by the reader for faithfulness to the text. A very good book, but not perfect.
on July 9, 2015
Consider the following two scenarios. In the first, a pastor in an Evangelical church sings the entire song of Ariel, from the Disney movie 'The Little Mermaid', during a sermon in order to make a point. As he sings along, word for word, with the soundtrack playing through the speakers, the audience howls with laughter. Or a second scenario, where a Christian school enthusiastically shows a video of a short play to its entire assembly of students, in which a boy playing God the Father talks to the angels in heaven about how he is going to send Jesus into the world.
So what's the problem? The problem is not so much in what was done, but in what was omitted. It seems that Evangelicalism has become so comfortable in the presence of God because, after all, we do now have access through Jesus Christ, that we are setting ourselves up for distortions which have the potential of actually, through sheer trivialization, changing our understanding of the gospel itself into something foreign to the pages of Scripture.
We certainly do have access, because of Christ, into the presence of the Father, and the apostle Paul does encourage us to enter boldly into His presence. But we often take this as license to do so in a cavalier manner as if we were marching into the boss's office on blue jean Friday. We become, in Sproul's words, 'Unitarians of the Second Person of the Trinity.' And this is to show a total disregard for that attribute of God's character which the Bible elevates above all the others.
The Hebrew practice of repetition functions as the English practice of underscoring, or using boldface or an exclamation mark. When Jesus says, 'Truly, truly, I say unto you,' by His use of repetition He wants us to pay special attention. When it comes to the attributes of God, there is only one that is elevated to the third level of repetition, and that is 'holy.' God is never described as 'love, love, love' or 'mercy, mercy, mercy.' But He is described as 'holy, holy, holy.'
Well, what is holiness? We tend to think of it as 'moral purity,' and while this is one of its meanings, when applied to God, Sproul teaches us that a more primary meaning is that of 'otherness,' and of 'transcendence.' We do have points of similarity with God because we are made in His image, but nevertheless the reality that the difference between us and God is not merely one of degree but also one of kind must never been forgotten. When we are called to be holy, we are called to be not only morally pure but also to be 'other', to be 'set apart' for God's special purposes.
Sproul gives example after example of Biblical characters who had encounters with God. And their experiences had something in common ' a sense of crisis. Indeed, in Isaiah's case it was actually a sense of personal disintegration as he encountered the blazing glory of the Holy One. To be sure, God acted in mercy to restore each of them, but the point is that His mercy, His grace, and the rightness of His judgements was magnified to the nth degree in the understanding of these restored sinners after their traumatic encounter with His holiness.
A proper response to the holiness of God is not quaking in servile fear, at least not for the one who is in Christ, but it should involve reverence and a hushed sense of awe when coming into His presence. And this ought to be foundational to our posture before God. You cannot ignore that without distorting your portrayal of God. If you downplay God's holiness, He will inevitably become more like us. If He becomes more like us, the concept of His righteous wrath against sin becomes unintelligible. Our own sinfulness, the idea that every one of our sins is an act of cosmic treason against God, becomes trivialized.
We may continue to use the words, but they are emptied of their Biblical meaning. We may even continue to use the language of 'substitutionary atonement,' but it will be reduced to a slogan. I know this from experience, because as a young man I would in my prayers hurriedly thank God for sending Jesus to die for my sins. And I felt guilty for saying it so abruptly because I knew that I didn't really mean it, not in the depths of my soul, but I knew that I had to say it.
I would argue that a trivialization of the holiness of God puts us on the road to religious pluralism because it brings God down and it raises man up. It becomes intelligible to speak of 'good' people who, though they have never heard of Jesus, will likely end up in heaven. This is because our default position is to conceive of a God closer to what you would expect to hear from Oprah ' God as a kindly grandfather who loves everybody as they are ' than to what the Bible itself says, that God is a consuming fire.
I am convinced that inerrancy is the watershed issue of the day in the church today, much as the person of Christ was the watershed issue of the early church and the work of Christ was that of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, the holiness of God is a chronic issue that is constantly with us and likely lurked in the background of each of the firestorm issues listed above. And this is because our default position as fallen human beings is Pelagianism, the belief that we can get to heaven simply by living good lives. The holiness of God flies in the face of this self-assurance, and so we shield ourselves from it. We are uncomfortable in the presence of the Holy and so we like Peter in the New Testament, say 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.'
There is a sense in which the unbeliever should be made to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the presence of God, and we don't help, in this regard, when we bend over backwards to make our churches 'comfortable' to seekers. We have removed the pulpit and replaced it with a stage, the sanctuary has become the auditorium, and the congregation has become the audience. In short, as Sproul points out, we have lost our sense of sacred space and sacred time.
The old cathedrals that in our day may be more museums than centers of worship nevertheless do invoke such a sense. They cause one to whisper and hush simply by their scale and loftiness. They help to bring one into contact with the holy, with the 'other', in a way that we have forgotten when the minister greets the congregation as if he were welcoming them into his living room. Now we don't need cathedrals to create sacred space and sacred time, but we ought to be aware that we are entering the house of God and act accordingly.
R.C. Sproul has helped the church in many ways throughout his career by making complex issues accessible to lay people. But if I had to single out one issue, I would say without hesitation that his legacy is a burning desire to reawaken the church to the holiness of God so that our worship and everything about our Christian lives may take on a new depth, a new richness, and a new urgency as with reverence and awe, we live every moment before the face of God.
on August 17, 2000
This is the best book that R.C. Sproul has written (and I have read dozens of his works). Sproul probes into the depths and riches of the Holiness of God, but he does so with great reverence, respect, and honor. His theology is very sound and his illustrations are excellent. Not only does Sproul portray the true character of God but he also describes what that means to us as Christians. This book will cause you to fall on your knees and cry out to a most Holy, Holy, Holy God. Some of the better chapters are two, "Holy, Holy, Holy" where Sproul delineates just how Holy God is and describes those people in the Bible who have encountered this great Holiness and how that has effected them (i.e. Isaiah crying out that he is "undone."). Another great chapter is "The Insanity of Luther." Here Sproul describes a man who was devoted to making himself holy and desiring to be purged of any sin that would cause him to stray from any form of purity and holiness. In this attempt to do the impossible, Luther is confronted with the only Holy, namely God. Then Sproul describes the changes that Luther went through upon the discovery of true holiness and justification before God (i.e. that this can be obtained ONLY through Christ's righteousness being imputed to us). Overall, this book is in my top twenty all-time favorite Christian works. If I were you I would buy many copies of this book, because you will probably wear them all out one by one as you continue to read this classic work through the years.