Holiness and Justice: The Holiness of God with R.C. Sproul


If we look at the period of the eighteenth
century on the American frontier we notice that there was a recurring motif during
the Great Awakening in the preaching that was found at that time, and there was a —
sort of a dual emphasis. On the one hand the message of the preachers was that man
is very, very, very bad and that God is very, very, very mad. In other words there
was such an emphasis on the sinfulness of man and the wrath of God that almost what
some have called a “scare theology” that dominated that period. And then in the
nineteenth century we saw a dramatic reaction against that kind of accent in
preaching so that now the message was well, man’s not quite so bad, and God’s
not really quite so mad. And there the emphasis was upon the love of God and the
goodness of man. Well at the turn of this century, in the beginning of the twentieth
century, there was a response to that reaction on the continent in the world of
theology with the advent of a theology called “crisis theology,” and it was
called crisis theology because it borrowed the term from the Greek word krisis, which
means judgment. And these theologians on the continent said that if we’re going to
take seriously the biblical portrait of God, we must once again take seriously
what the Bible says about the wrath of God. Now there were some extremists in
that group who said that what we see in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old
Testament at certain times and places, is an expression of something that is
irrational in the character of God himself. In other words, they said that
yes, we do see unavoidably and unmistakably a manifestation of the anger
of God in the pages of the Old Testament, but that anger is not so much a
manifestation of God’s righteousness or of His holiness as it is a manifestation of a
defect within God’s own character. Believe it or not I’ve read some theologians that
speak about the shadow side of Yahweh, saying that there resides within God the
element of the demonic, and this demonic aspect of God shows itself, displays
itself by sudden, unprovoked manifestations of a whimsical, capricious,
arbitrary anger. Some of the passages that are in view would include a narrative that
we read in the book of Leviticus, which I’ll read briefly for you. At the
beginning of the tenth chapter of Leviticus, we read this account: “Now
Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, took their censors and put fire in them and added
incense, and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to His
command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them,
and they died before the Lord.” Now in this understated, terse description of the
death of the sons of Aaron, it seems to indicate for us an example of this swift
and capricious manifestation of God’s wrath. When I read this, I try to read
between the lines, and I ask myself, “How did Aaron react to all of this?” Imagine
it! You remember earlier in the Scriptures the elaborate ceremony that God ordained
when He consecrated Aaron as the high priest of Israel, how God ordered the
minute details of the design of the garments that were to be worn by the high
priest, that were designed for glory and for beauty. And then we could imagine how
Aaron felt when he saw his own sons consecrated to the priesthood, and here
are these young priests, who, they do something — and we’re not exactly sure
what it was — but somehow they came to the altar, and they did as young
clergy will often do, try a little experimentation, innovation, play a little
almost adolescent-type pranks as they’re fooling around in their job, and in a
sense of immaturity. And without warning, and without rebuke, as they offer this
strange fire in the altar, wham! God strikes them dead instantly. Can you hear
Aaron? He goes to Moses, and he says, “What’s going on here? What kind of a God
is it that we serve? I’m devoting my entire life to the ministry and to the
service of Yahweh, and what are the thanks that I get? Like that, He takes my sons
for a small transgression! What kind of a God is this?” Listen to what Moses said.
“Moses then said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke of when He said, “Among
those who approach me I will be regarded as holy, and in the sight of all of the
people I will be honored.”‘” And then we read these words: “And Aaron held his
peace.” You’d better believe Aaron held his peace. When the Almighty comes down
and said, “Look, Aaron, I know that this is crushing to you that I have taken the
lives of your sons, but do you remember when I established the priesthood? Do you
remember the day I set you apart and consecrated you for that holy task that I
said that there are certain principles I will not negotiate with my priests? I will
be regarded as holy, from any — by anyone who dares to presume to minister in my
name. And before the people I will be treated with reverence.” And when God
spoke, Aaron shut up. But there are other occasions like that, aren’t there? One of
the most blood-curdling stories in the Old Testament is the story of Uzzah, the
Kohathite. You all know the story of Uzzah. You tell it to Fuzzy-Uzzah — no,
that’s about a bear. It’s the story of the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant.
Remember the Ark of the Covenant was the throne of God. It was the most sacred
vessel in the holy of holies, and it had fallen into the hands of the Philistines;
and then through a series of amazing incidents it had been returned to the
Jewish people and kept in safe-keeping for awhile until it was the appropriate time
had come to pass for the Ark of the Covenant to be restored to its place in
the sanctuary. And David ordered a celebration and called for the Ark of the
Covenant to be transferred into the city, and the people lined the streets, and they
danced and they sang as they moved and saw the procession of God’s throne before him.
And we are told that the Ark of the Covenant was transferred by virtue of
being placed in an ox cart, and the Bible tells us that as the cart was moving down
the road the Kohathites were walking along beside it protecting it, watching over it,
one whose name was Uzzah. And in the midst of the procession, suddenly one of the
oxen stumbled, and the cart began to teeter and to tilt, and it looked as if
this holy vessel of Israel was about to slide from the ox cart and fall into the
mud and be desecrated, and so instinctively, involuntarily Uzzah
stretched forth his hand to steady the Ark, to make sure that this throne of God
would not fall into the mud. And what happened? The heavens opened, and a voice
came down saying, “Thank you, Uzzah.” No, as soon as Uzzah touched the holy Ark of
God, God struck him dead. I remember reading a Sunday school curriculum in one
of the denominations I used to work with. It came from our headquarters, and I
looked at passages like this, and it said, “Now we understand that these kinds of
stories that we read in the Old Testament, like Uzzah and Nadab, like God’s
destroying the whole world with a flood — men, women, and children — of God’s
ordering the herem, telling the Jewish people to go into the land of Canaan and
to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Canaan — men, women and children — that
this can’t possibly be a manifestation of the real character of God, but we have to
understand these stories in the Old Testament simply as ancient, primitive,
pre-scientific, semi-nomadic Jewish people who interpreted the events that they saw
in light of their own peculiar theology. Probably what happened was that Uzzah had
a heart-attack, and he died, and the Jewish writer attributed the cause of his
death to an unmerciful expression of this vicious wrath of God.” In other words, it
was unthinkable to the authors of this curriculum that God himself could actually
have anything to do with the death of Uzzah. Yet if we look carefully at the Old
Testament and see the history of the Kohathites, I think the answer is made
apparent to us. You remember that in the Old Testament that the twelve tribes of
Israel were given certain tasks and certain allotments of the land, and the
tribe of Levi was set apart for God as the family that would be responsible for the
priesthood and the matters of the Temple and of education and so on. And Levi was
the tribe, and within that tribe of Levi there were certain other major families,
and each family was given a particular task. Now Kohath was one of the sons of
Levi, and the family of Kohath were separated by God for a specific task.
Their job, their whole reason for being, their life’s vocation was to take care of
the sacred vessels; and they were trained and disciplined from children with all of
the prescriptions and the meticulous details of the law of God about how these
sacred objects and vessels were to be treated. And the one absolute,
non-negotiable principle that every Kohathite had drummed into him from the
time he was a child was this: Never, never, never, never, ever touch the throne
of God, and God said, “If you touch it, you die.” In the first place, we wonder
why in the world the Ark was being transported in an ox cart. It was to be
transported on foot. There were loops at the edge of the throne to which stays were
inserted to make sure that no human hand touched that throne, but instead they were
in a hurry, and they put it in the ox cart. And they’re going down, and Uzzah
did the unthinkable. He touched the throne of God. But we say, “So wait a minute. Why
did he do it? His motive was pure. He was trying to preserve the throne of God from
being desecrated by the mud” — that the presumptuous sin of Uzzah was this ladies
and gentlemen: He assumed that his hands were less polluted than the dirt. There
was nothing about the earth that would desecrate the throne of God. The earth was
lying there on the ground doing what God has called earth to do — being dirt,
turning to dust when it’s dry and turning to mud when it’s mixed with water. It
obeys the laws of God day in and day out, doing exactly what dirt is supposed to do.
There is nothing defiling about the earth. It was the hand of man that God said, “I
don’t want on this throne.” In a word, Uzzah broke the law of God, and God killed
him. But still it seems, doesn’t it, that this is a manifestation of cruel and
unusual punishment? If you look, for example, in the Pentateuch and see the
list of capital crimes that are set forth in Israel, there are over thirty offenses
for which God commanded the death penalty among the Jews — not only for
first-degree murder but for homosexual acts, for adultery. If a child was unruly
in public and sassed his parents he could be put to death. It was a capital crime
for a Jewish person to go to a fortuneteller. Over thirty offenses God
ordained that people should be killed, and again, the theologians look at that, and
they say, “How primitive, how bloodthirsty, how severe. That can’t
possibly be the word of God, particularly in light of the New Testament’s spirit of
mercy and love.” One of the fascinating chapter or footnotes of church history is
the historical incident that provoked the formal compilation of the Bible as the
canon of sacred Scripture — remember this is a book that’s made up of many separate
books, twenty-seven books in the New Testament. These individual epistles and
gospels that were written very early were circulated in the church and were
recognized as Scripture and functioned as Scripture, but nobody bothered to put them
together in one binding and said, “This is the Bible,” until a man by the name of
Marcion came along and produced the first formal edition of the Bible — the first
canon of Holy Scripture. It was a very strange canon. The Old Testament was
absent, and most of the gospel materials was absent, and just a few remarks from
the apostle Paul were comprised in this canon because Marcion’s working principle
was this: that any reference to the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah, couldn’t
possibly be sacred Scripture because Jesus in the New Testament reveals a different
deity from that explosive, hot-tempered, ill-willed deity that thundered from Sinai
in the Old Testament. Have you ever wondered about that? I hear it today all
the time. There are Marcions all over the place saying to me, “Well I like the New
Testament, but that God of the Old Testament is more than I could handle.”
When we compare the Old Testament to the New Testament, the Old Testament seems
severe. I’ve had help in dealing with this from the writings of a very important
theologian who’s very controversial in the Roman Catholic church. His name is Hans
Kuhn. In one of his earlier and most important writings written in German under
the title Rechtfertigen, translated to English under the title Justification. Dr.
Kuhn deals with this very question of the seeming injustice of God’s wrath that we
find in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, and he makes this point: He
said, “You know, the real mystery of iniquity, the real puzzle is not that a
holy and righteous God should exercise justice. What is mysterious about a holy
creator punishing willfully disobedient creatures?” He said, “The real mystery is
why God, through generation after generation tolerates rebellious creatures
who commit cosmic treason against His authority.” Did you ever think of it like
that? And Kuhn goes on to say this: He said, “Remember that even though there are
thirty-some capital offenses in the Old Testament, that doesn’t represent a cruel
and unusual form of justice at the hands of God. It already represents a
massive reduction in the number of capital crimes.” He said, “Remember the rules that were
set forth at creation, when God, the omnipotent ruler of heaven and earth
breathed into dirt the breath of life and shaped a creature in His own image and
gave that creature the highest status in this planet and the greatest blessing and
gift that He owed them — not at all — the very gift of life, and stamped His
image on that piece of dirt and gave them life. He said, “The soul that sins shall
die.” All sin was viewed in creation as a capital offense and not that this
punishment would be death sometime after you’ve had your threescore and ten, but
what are the terms of creation? “The day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Now I know people look at that, and they say that what the text is saying there is
that the day the transgression takes place we suffer spiritual death. That’s not what
God said. That may be true — that man suffered spiritual death the day he
transgressed the law of God, but the terms of creation were, “The day that you eat,
you die biologically. It’s over.” Now is there anyone who could convict a holy,
perfectly righteous creator, who out of sheer mercy creates a creature, gives him
all of this blessing — is there anything wrong with that God extinguishing a
creature who has the audacity to challenge God’s authority to rule His creation? Have
you ever stopped to consider what is involved in the slightest sin? In the
slightest sin, beloved, I am saying that my will has a right that is higher than
the rights of God. It terrifies me in our culture that people do things like
abortion and say they have the moral right to do it. If I know anything about God, I
know God never has given anyone the moral right to do something like that, and I
shudder to think of what will happen when a person stands before God and says, “I
had the right to do that.” Where did you get that right? But even the slightest sin
never mind a heinous sin like abortion in the slightest sin (what we could
call a peccadillo), in that sin I defied the authority of God. I insult the majesty
of God. I challenge the justice of God. But we are so accustomed to doing that and
so careful to justify our disobedience that we have become recalcitrant in our
hearts. Our consciences have been seared, and we think it no serious matter to
disobey the King of the universe. I call it cosmic treason. But God did was this,
as Dr. Kuhn points out when he says that instead of destroying mankind in the
moment of that act of revolt and rebellion of God’s authority, God reached forth and
extended His mercy. Instead of justice, He poured out His grace, and the history of
the Old Testament, beloved, is the history of repeated episodes of the manifestations
of God’s gracious forbearance and merciful forgiveness towards a people who disobeyed
Him day in and day out. And Kuhn speculates. He said, “Now granted, I don’t
know the secret counsel of God. I can’t read the deity’s mind, but,” he said, “I
wonder if what it is, that why we find periodically in Scripture this swift and
sudden exercise in justice. Perhaps God finds it necessary to interrupt His normal
pattern of longsuffering, forbearing, grace, and mercy to remind us of His
justice. He himself complains that His forbearing mercy is designed to give us
time to repent; but instead of repenting we exploit it, and we come to think that
God doesn’t care if we sin, or even if He does care there’s nothing He can do about
it. I saw a young ma once defy God screaming to the heavens, “If you’re up
there, strike me dead!” challenging the Almighty like that. I didn’t want to look,
but I saw his dead body the next day, and I’ll never forget it. But ladies and
gentlemen, we become so accustomed to God’s normal patterns of grace and mercy
that we not only begin to take it for granted, we begin to assume it, we begin
to demand it, and then if we don’t get it we’re furious. This morning I spoke at
Dallas Theological Seminary. I spoke from a passage on the New Testament where Jesus
spoke to this very theme, and I used my favorite illustration of this. When I was
a young college teacher, I had the task of teaching 250 freshman in a college,
Introduction to the Old Testament; and on the first day of class I had to give out
the assignments, and I had to be very careful about what the requirements were
because they’ll twist them any way they can to get out from under them. And I
said, “Look, we have just a few little term papers here, three to five pages or
two to four pages — short little papers” I said — “four of them. If you don’t
turn them in on time you get an “F” on the assignment unless you were confined to the
infirmary or a death in the immediate family — had to spell that all out for
them.” I said, “Does everybody understand?” “Oh yes, we agree.” “The
first one’s due September the thirtieth.” September the thirtieth 225 students
diligently came forward with their term papers. Twenty-five of the students were
standing there shivering and shaking in fear, and they said, “Oh, Dr. Sproul, we
didn’t get our papers done. We didn’t budget our time. We didn’t make the
transition from high school to college. Please let us — don’t give us and ‘F.’
Let us have a couple days extension.” I said, “Okay. I’ll let you have it this
time, but don’t let it happen again. Now remember now,next month I want those
papers here on time.” October thirtieth came. Two hundred students came with their
term paper. Fifty of them don’t have their term paper. “So where’s your term papers?”
They said, “Oh, professor! Everybody’s term papers were due this week, and this
week was homecoming, and we were busy with floats and all that stuff, and please give
us one more chance.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll give you a two-day extension.” And
you know what happened? They began to sing spontaneously, “We love you, Prof. Sproul,
oh, yes we do.” I was the most popular professor on campus until November the
thirtieth. November the thirtieth 150 students came with their term papers. The
other hundred walked in like they were going down the street for a loaf of bread.
They were casual, relaxed. I said, “Johnson?” He said, “Yes, sir?” I said,
“Where’s your term paper?” He said, “Hey, hey Prof., you know? Don’t worry about
it. I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.” I took out the black book, and I
said, “Johnson?” He said, “Yes?” I said, “F.” “Ewok, where’s your paper?” “I don’t
have it, sir.” I said, “F.” “Cunningham, ‘F.'” About that time someone in the back
of the room shouted out — you can guess what they shouted, what? “That’s not
fair!” “Patrick, did you say that?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “You said that’s not
fair?” And he said, “Right.” I said, “Do I recall that you didn’t turn your paper
in on time the last time?” He said, “That’s right.” I said, “Okay, if you
want justice you’re going to get justice, ” and I wrote “F” for both. I said,
“Anybody else? Anybody else want justice?” Ladies and gentlemen, we need to
understand the difference between justice and mercy. The minute you think that God
owes you mercy a bell should go off in your brain that warns you and tells you
that you’re no longer thinking about mercy, for by definition mercy is
voluntary. God is never obligated to be merciful to a rebellious creature. He
doesn’t owe you mercy. As He has said, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have
mercy.” And I’ll close with this: A holy God is both just and merciful, never
unjust. There is never an occasion in any page of sacred Scripture where ever, ever
punishes an innocent person. God simply doesn’t know how to be unjust. I thank Him
every night that He does know how to be non-just because mercy is non-justice, but
it is not injustice. And so I’ll leave you with this: When you say your prayers,
don’t ever ask God to give you justice. He might do it, and if God were to deal with
us according to justice, we would perish as swiftly as Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah
and Ananias and Sapphira in the New Testament; but we live, beloved, by grace,
by His mercy, and let’s never forget it. Let’s pray. Our Father, forgive us for
presuming upon your loving-kindness, for demanding it, for being angry when we
don’t receive it. Oh Father, help us to be amazed by grace. For we ask it in the name
of Christ, amen.

36 comments

  1. Praise God for His Mercy and Grace! "It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not."
    "Thank you Heavenly Father for not dealing with us according to what we deserve, but according to your loving kindnesses, amen."

  2. I greatly appreciate how God is using these videos and men like R. C. Sproul to solidify and align my understanding. Though I have a strong theological foundation I still have glaring gaps that today's leading theologians help to fill in. It's a lifelong pursuit.

  3. I would that Pentecostals and Charismatics would listen to this series. And that they would do a serious study on the Holiness and Sovereignty of God…..

  4. We cannot have a mouth that sings praise to God with a life that openly accuses HIM. It is not our mouth that best reflects our love of God. (It is our life)

  5. There is an awful and awesome relevance of the Holiness of God in the Christian walk. This man was a teacher I would of liked to have seen and heard in person.

  6. Thank God for teaching that brings clarity to His word. The lay person simply doesn't have the time to study to this depth on their own.

  7. Absolutely amazing teaching! Praise Yahweh for remebering his people and appointing and empowering shepherds for his flock, even today!

  8. justice and mercy will one day will kiss one to another in just one dramatic act and this one took place in the cross of calvary , Gods own wrath demanded by men sins fell upon his very back in Christ his only begotten son.

  9. Wonderful, powerful sermon. Am so grateful to have access to these.
    Seems through at least the last few centuries we've been blessed with at least 1 to a few wonderful ministers. It's my belief that R.C. was one of them. Thank you Father for allowing me the opportunity to enjoy his sermons even today. Through Jesus' name I pray, Amen.

  10. Can’t wait to see all the “progressives” in America stand before God’s judgement. They’ll get annhilated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *