Mushy ideas about his righteousness spread wrong questions and bad theology.

For the past two decades, our writers and poets have asked questions with an angst that spreads feelings of despair throughout the culture. Only recently, with the Olympics and re-election of President Reagan and various psycho-sociological factors, has there been talk of a “mood swing” to more optimistic spirits. But it is far short of a fundamental change. Suicides continue. Confusion remains. The questions have been shoved aside or papered over.

How can a God of love possibly allow so much starvation, torture, and murder? Where is justice? For decades, books, movies, and plays—from Sand Pebbles to A Long Day’s Journey into Night—flung such questions at us.

In a nation that largely believes in God, questions about what is seen as his general malfeasance in running his world hang heavily beneath the veneer of the new optimism. “Why doesn’t God …? How can God?”

The only answers come in understanding the true nature of God and his dealings with man. Mushy ideas about God’s love and righteousness create the wrong questions and spread bad theology throughout the culturea bad theology that generates specific and damaging results.

A. W. Tozer has dealt with this subject magnificently in his classic work, The Knowledge of the Holy. We have excerpted three chapters crucial to our understanding of God in today’s context: The Justice of God, The Love of God, and The Holiness of God. The reader is cautioned to read and study slowly and thoughtfully these pivotal truths that, in the words of Carl F. H. Henry’s review of the book, are “a reason for the hope within us.”

The Justice Of God

In the inspired Scriptures justice and righteousness are scarcely to be distinguished from each other. The same word in the original becomes in English justice or righteousness, almost, one would suspect, at the whim of the translator.

The Old Testament asserts God’s justice in language as beautiful as may be found anywhere in the literature of mankind. When the destruction of Sodom was announced, Abraham interceded for the righteous in the city, reminding God that he knew He would act like Himself in the human emergency (see Gen. 18:25).

The concept of God held by the psalmists and prophets of Israel was that of an all-powerful ruler, high and lifted up, reigning in equity. “Clouds and darkness are round about him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.” Of the long-awaited Messiah it was prophesied that when he came he should judge the people with righteousness and the poor with judgment. Holy men of tender compassion, outraged by the inequity of the world’s rulers, prayed, “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud. Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?” And this is to be understood not as a plea for personal vengeance but as a longing to see moral equity prevail in human society.

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Such men as David and Daniel acknowledged their own unrighteousness in contrast to the righteousness of God, and as a result their penitential prayers gained great power and effectiveness. “O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces.” And when the long-withheld judgment of God begins to fall upon the world, John sees the victorious saints standing upon a sea of glass mingled with fire. In their hands they hold the harps of God; the song they sing is the song of Moses and the Lamb, and the theme of their song is the divine justice. “Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou alone art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.”

Justice embodies the idea of moral equity, and iniquity is the exact opposite; it is in-equity, and absence of equality from human thoughts and acts. Judgment is the application of equity to moral situations and may be favorable or unfavorable according to whether the one under examination has been equitable or inequitable in heart and conduct.

It is sometimes said, “Justice requires God to do this,” referring to some act we know he will perform. This is an error of thinking as well as of speaking, for it postulates a principle of justice outside of God that compels him to act in a certain way. Of course there is no such principle. If there were it would be superior to God, for only a superior power can compel obedience. The truth is that there is not and can never be anything outside of the nature of God that can move him in the least degree. All God’s reasons come from within his uncreated being. Nothing has entered the being of God from eternity, nothing has been removed, and nothing has been changed.

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Justice, when used of God, is a name we give to the way God is, nothing more; and when God acts justly he is not doing so to conform to an independent criterion, but simply acting like himself in a given situation. As gold can never change nor compromise but is gold wherever it is found, so God is God, always, only, fully God, and can never be other than he is. Everything in the universe is good to the degree it conforms to the nature of God and evil as it fails to do so. God is his own self-existent principle of moral equity, and when he sentences evil men or rewards the righteous, he simply acts like himself from within, uninfluenced by anything that is not himself.

All this seems to destroy the hope of justification for the returning sinner. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, sought a solution to the apparent contradiction between the justice and the mercy of God. “How dost Thou spare the wicked,” he inquired of God, “if Thou art all just and supremely just?” Then he looked straight at God for the answer, for he knew that it lies in what God is. Anselm’s findings may be paraphrased this way: God’s being is unitary; it is not composed of a number of parts working harmoniously, but simply one. There is nothing in his justice that forbids the exercise of his mercy. To think of God as we sometimes think of a court where a kindly judge, compelled by law, sentences a man to death with tears and apologies, is to think in a manner wholly unworthy of the true God. God is never at cross-purposes with himself. No attribute of God is in conflict with another.

God’s compassion flows out of his goodness, and goodness without justice is not goodness. God spares us because he is good, but he could not be good if he were not just. When God punishes the wicked, Anselm concludes, it is just because it is consistent with their deserts; and when he spares the wicked it is just because it is compatible with his goodness; so God does what becomes him as the supremely good God. This is reason seeking to understand, not that it may believe but because it already believes.

A simpler and more familiar solution for the problem of how God can be just and still justify the unjust is found in the doctrine of redemption. It is that, through the work of Christ in atonement, justice is not violated but satisfied when God spares a sinner. Redemptive theology teaches that mercy does not become effective toward a man until justice has done its work. The just penalty for sin was exacted when Christ our Substitute died for us on the cross. However unpleasant this may sound to the natural man, it has ever been sweet to the ear of faith. Millions have been transformed by this message, have lived lives of great moral power, and died peacefully trusting in it.

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This message of justice discharged and mercy operative is more than a pleasant theological theory; it announces a fact made necessary by our deep human need. Because of our sin we are all under sentence of death, a judgment that resulted when justice confronted our moral situation. When infinite equity encountered our chronic and willful in-equity, there was violent war between the two, which God won and must always win. But when the penitent sinner casts himself upon Christ for salvation, the moral situation is reversed. Justice confronts the changed situation and pronounces the believing man just, and actually goes over to the side of God’s trusting children. This is the meaning of John’s daring words: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But God’s justice stands forever against the sinner in utter severity. The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions. It hushes their fears and allows them to practice all pleasant forms of iniquity while death draws every day nearer and the command to repent goes unregarded. As responsible moral beings we dare not so trifle with our eternal future.

The Love Of God

The apostle John, by the Spirit, wrote, “God is love,” and some have taken his words to be a definitive statement concerning the essential nature of God. This is a great error. John was stating a fact, not offering a definition. Equating love with God is a major mistake that has produced much unsound religious philosophy and brought forth a spate of vaporous poetry completely out of accord with the Holy Scriptures.

Had the apostle declared that love is what God is, we would be forced to infer that God is what love is. If literally God is love, then literally love is God, and we are in all duty bound to worship love as the only God there is. If love is equal to God then God is only equal to love, and God and love are identical. Thus we destroy the concept of personality in God and deny outright all his attributes save one, and that one we substitute for God. The God we have left is not the God of Israel, nor the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor the God of the prophets and the apostles, nor the God of the saints and reformers and martyrs, nor yet the God of our theologians and hymnists.

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For our souls’ sake we must learn to understand the Scriptures. We must escape the slavery of words and give loyal adherence to meanings instead. Words should express ideas, not originate them. We say that God is love; that he is light; that Christ is truth; and we mean the words to be understood in much the same way words are understood when we say of a man, “He is kindness itself.” We are not stating that kindness and the man are identical, and no one understands this in that sense.

“God is love” means that love is an essential attribute of God. It is something true of God but not God. It expresses the way God is in his unitary being, as do the words holiness, justice, faithfulness, and truth. Because God is immutable he always acts like himself, and because he is a unity he never suspends one attribute to exercise another.

From God’s other known attributes we may learn much about his love. We can know, for instance, that because God is self-existent, his love had no beginning; because he is eternal, his love can have no end; because he is infinite, it has no limit; because he is holy, it is the quintessence of all spotless purity; because he is immense, his love is an incomprehensibly vast, bottomless, shoreless sea before which we kneel in joyful silence and from which the loftiest eloquence retreats abashed.

Yet if we would know God and for others’ sake tell what we know, we must try to speak of his love. No Christian has ever done that very well. I can no more do justice to that awesome theme than a child can grasp a star. Still, by reaching toward the star the child may call attention to it and even indicate where one must look to see it. So, as I stretch my heart toward the high, shining love of God, someone who has not before known about it may be encouraged to look up and hope.

We do not know, we may never know, what love is, but we can know how it manifests itself, and that is enough here. First we see it showing itself as good will. Love wills the good of all and never wills harm or evil to any. This explains John’s words: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.” Fear is the painful emotion that arises at the thought that we may be harmed or made to suffer. This fear persists while we are subject to the will of someone who does not desire our well-being. The moment we come under the protection of one of good will, fear is cast out. A child lost in a crowded store is full of fear because it sees the strangers around it as enemies. In its mother’s arms a moment later all the terror subsides. The known good will of the mother casts out fear.

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The world is full of enemies, and as long as we are subject to the possibilbity of harm from these enemies, fear is inevitable. The effort to conquer fear without removing the causes is futile. The heart is wiser than the apostles of tranquility. As long as we are in the hands of chance, as long as we must look for hope to the law of averages, as long as we must trust for survival to our ability to outthink or outmaneuver the enemy, we have every reason to be afraid. And fear has torment.

To know that love is of God and to enter into the secret place leaning upon the arm of the Beloved—this and only this can cast out fear. Let a man become convinced that nothing can harm him and instantly for him all fear goes out of the universe. The nervous reflex, the natural revulsion to physical pain may be felt sometimes, but the deep torment of fear is gone forever. God is love and God is sovereign. His love disposes him to desire our everlasting welfare and his sovereignty enables him to secure it. Nothing can hurt a good man.

God’s love tells us he is friendly and his Word assures us he is our friend and wants us to be his friends. No man with a trace of humility would first think that he is a friend of God; but the idea did not originate with men. Abraham would never have said, “I am God’s friend,” but God said that Abraham was his friend. The disciples might well have hesitated to claim friendship with Christ, but Christ said to them, “Ye are my friends.” Modesty may demur at so rash a thought, but audacious faith dares to believe the Word and claim friendship with God. We do God more honor by believing what he has said about himself and having the courage to come boldly to the throne of grace than by hiding in self-conscious humility among the trees of the garden.

Love is also an emotional identification. It considers nothing its own but gives all freely to the object of its affection. We see this constantly in our world of men and women. A young mother, thin and tired, nurses at her breast a plump and healthy baby, and far from complaining, the mother gazes down at her child with eyes shining with happiness and pride. Acts of self-sacrifice are common to love. Christ said of himself, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

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It is a strange and beautiful eccentricity of the free God that he has allowed his heart to be emotionally identified with men. Self-sufficient as he is, he wants our love and will not be satisfied till he gets it. Free as he is, he has let his heart be bound to us forever. “For our soul is so specially loved of him that is highest,” says Julian of Norwich, “that it overpasseth the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature that is made that may know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our Maker loveth us. And therefore we may with grace and his help stand in spiritual beholding, with everlasting marvel of this high, overpassing, inestimable Love that Almighty God hath to us of His Goodness.”

Love also takes pleasure in its object. God enjoys his creation. The apostle John says frankly that God’s purpose in creation was his own pleasure. God is happy in his love for all that he has made. We cannot miss the feeling of pleasure in God’s delighted references to his handiwork. Psalm 104 is a divinely inspired nature poem almost rhapsodic in its happiness, and the delight of God is felt throughout it.

The Lord takes peculiar pleasure in his saints. Many think of God as far removed, gloomy, and mightily displeased with everthing, gazing down in fixed apathy upon a world in which he has long ago lost interest; but this is to think erroneously. True, God hates sin and can never look with pleasure upon iniquity, but where men seek to do God’s will he responds in genuine affection. Christ in his atonement has removed the bar to the divine fellowship. Now in Christ all believing souls are objects of God’s delight.

According to the Book of Job, God’s work of creation was done to musical accompaniment. “Where wast thou,” God asks, “when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Music is both an expression and a source of pleasure, and the pleasure that is purest and nearest to God is the pleasure of love. Hell has no pleasure because there is no love there. Heaven is full of music because it is where the pleasures of holy love abound. Earth is where the pleasures of love are mixed with pain, for sin is here, and hate and ill will. In such a world as ours love must sometimes suffer, as Christ suffered in giving himself for his own. But we have the certain promise that the causes of sorrow will finally be abolished and the new race enjoy forever a world of selfless, perfect love.

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It is the nature of love that it cannot lie quiescent. It is active, creative, and benign. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” So it must be where love is; love must ever give to its own, whatever the cost. The apostles rebuked the young churches because a few of their members had forgotten this and allowed their love to spend itself in personal enjoyment while their brethren were in need. “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” So wrote John, who is known as “the Beloved.”

The love of God is one of the great realities of the universe, a pillar upon which the hope of the world rests. But it is a personal, intimate thing, too. God does not love populations, he loves people. He loves not masses, but men. He loves us all with a mighty love that has no beginning and can have no end.

In Christian experience there is a highly satisfying love content that distinguishes it from all other religions and elevates it to heights far beyond even the purest and noblest philosophy. This love content is more than a thing; it is God himself in the midst of his church singing over his people. True Christian joy is the heart’s harmonious response to the Lord’s song of love.

The Holiness Of God

The moral shock suffered by us through our mighty break with the high will of heaven has left us all with a permanent trauma affecting every part of our nature. There is disease both in ourselves and in our environment.

The sudden realization of his personal depravity came like a stroke from heaven upon the trembling heart of Isaiah at the moment when he had his revolutionary vision of the holiness of God. His pain-filled cry, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,” expresses the feeling of every man who has discovered himself under his disguises and has been confronted with an inward sight of the holy whiteness that is God. Such an experience cannot but be emotionally violent.

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Until we have seen ourselves as God sees us, we are not likely to be much disturbed over conditions around us as long as they do not threaten our comfortable way of life. We have learned to live with unholiness and have come to look upon it as the natural and expected thing. We are not disappointed that we do not find all truth in our teachers or faithfulness in our politicians or complete honesty in our merchants or full trustworthiness in our friends. That we may continue to exist we make such laws as are necessary to protect us from our fellow men and let it go at that.

Neither the writer nor the reader of these words is qualified to appreciate the holiness of God. Quite literally a new channel must be cut through the desert of our minds to allow the sweet waters of truth that will heal our great sickness to flow in. We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible, and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire his wisdom, but his holiness he cannot even imagine.

Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy. Yet as electric power flows only through a conductor, so the Spirit flows through truth and must find some measure of truth in the mind before he can illuminate the heart. Faith wakes at the voice of truth but responds to no other sound. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Theological knowledge is the medium through which the Spirit flows in to the human heart, yet there must be humble penitence in the heart before truth can produce faith. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth. It is possible to have some truth in the mind without having the Spirit in the heart, but it is never possible to have the Spirit apart from truth.

In his penetrating study of the holy, Rudolph Otto makes a strong case for the presence in the human mind of something he names the “numinous,” by which, apparently, he means a sense that there is in the world a vague, incomprehensible Something, the awesome Mystery, surrounding and enfolding the universe. This is an It, an awful Thing, and can never be intellectually conceived, only sensed and felt in the depths of the human spirit. It remains as a permanent religious instinct, a feeling for that unnamed, undiscoverable Presence that “runs quicksilver-like through creation’s veins” and sometimes stuns the mind by confronting it with a supernatural, suprarational manifestation of itself. The man thus confronted is overwhelmed and can only tremble and be silent.

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This nonrational dread, this feeling for the uncreated Mystery in the world, is back of all religion. The pure religion of the Bible, no less than the basest animism of the naked tribesman, exists only because this basic instinct is present in human nature. Of course, the difference between the religion of an Isaiah or a Paul and that of the animist is that one has truth and the other has not; he has only the “numinous” instinct. He “feels after” an unknown God, but Isaiah and Paul have found the true God through his own self-disclosure in the inspired Scriptures.

The feeling for mystery, even for the Great Mystery, is basic in human nature and indispensable to religious faith, but it is not enough. Because of it men may whisper, “That awful Thing,” but they do not cry, “Mine Holy One!” In the Scriptures God carries forward his self-revelation and gives it personality and moral content. This awful Presence is shown to be not a Thing but a moral Being with all the warm qualities of genuine personality. More than this, he is the absolute quintessence of moral excellence, infinitely perfect in righteousness, purity, rectitude, and incomprehensible holiness. And in all this he is uncreated, self-sufficient, and beyond the power of human thought to conceive or human speech to utter.

Through the self-revelation of God in the Scriptures and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Christian gains everything and loses nothing. To his idea of God there are added the twin concepts of personality and moral character, but there remains the original sense of wonder and fear in the presence of the world-filling Mystery. Today his heart may leap up with the happy cry, “Abba Father, my Lord and my God!” Tomorrow he may kneel with delighted trembling to admire and adore the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity.

Holy is the way God is. To be holy he does not conform to a standard. He is that standard. He is absolutely an infinite, incomprehensible fullness of purity that is incapable of being other than it is. Because he is holy, all his attributes are holy; that is, whatever we think of as belonging to God must be thought of as holy.

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God is holy and he has made holiness the moral condition necessary to the health of his universe. Sin’s temporary presence in the world only accents this. Whatever is holy is healthy; evil is a moral sickness that must end ultimately in death. The formation of the language itself suggests this, the English word holy deriving from the Anglo-Saxon halig, hal, meaning, “well, whole.”

Since God’s first concern for his universe is its moral health, that is, its holiness, whatever is contrary to this is necessarily under his eternal displeasure. To preserve his creation God must destroy whatever would destroy it. When he arises to put down iniquity and save the world from irreparable moral collapse, he is said to be angry. Every wrathful judgment in the history of the world has been a holy act of preservation. The holiness of God, the wrath of God, and the health of the creation are inseparably united. God’s wrath is his utter intolerance of whatever degrades and destroys. He hates iniquity as a mother hates the disease that would take the life of her child.

God is holy with an absolute holiness that knows no degrees, and this he cannot impart to his creatures. But there is a relative and contingent holiness that he shares with angels and seraphim in heaven and with redeemed men on earth as their preparation for heaven. This holiness God can and does impart to his children. He shares it by imputation and by impartation, and because he has made it available to them through the blood of the Lamb, he requires it of them. To Israel first and later to his church God said, “Be ye holy; for I am holy.” He did not say “Be ye as holy as I am holy,” for that would be to demand of us absolute holiness, which belongs to God alone. Before the uncreated fire of God’s holiness angels veil their faces. The heavens are not clean, and the stars are not pure in his sight. No honest man can say “I am holy,” but neither is any honest man willing to ignore these solemn words: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

Caught in this dilemma, what are we to do? We must like Moses cover ourselves with faith and humility while we steal a quick look at the God whom no man can see and live. The broken and the contrite heart he will not despise. We must hide our unholiness in the wounds of Christ as Moses hid himself while the glory of God passed by. We must take refuge from God in God. Above all we must believe that God sees us perfect in his Son while he disciplines and chastens and purges us that we may be partakers of his holiness.

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By faith and obedience, by constant meditation on the holiness of God, by loving righteousness and hating iniquity, by a growing acquaintance with the Spirit of holiness, we can acclimate ourselves to the fellowship of the saints on earth and prepare ourselves for the eternal companionship of God and the saints above. Thus, as they say when humble believers meet, we will have a heaven to go to heaven in.

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