Friday, April 2, 2010

God's Love Defined by His Holiness

A couple of Fridays ago I posted some of my own ruminations on the relationship between God's love for us and His glory. I argued that it is wrong to say that God created us for His glory because of His love for us, because such a statement confuses God's end with His means. It makes His glory subordinate to His love, when really it is His love that is subordinate to -- indeed, it serves -- His glory. And I demonstrated that that is Biblical based on 2 Corinthians 4:4 and 4:6. If you haven't read that post, read it.

An objection that I'd expect to hear regarding that post goes something like this: "Mike, I appreciate your zeal for God's Word and for His glory. Those are good things, and we should be talking about those things. But you cannot say that God's love is subordinate to His pursuit of His glory. In fact, you can't say that God's love is subordinate to anything. It's true that God is glorious, but it's not true that God is just loving. He is love, as 1 John 4:8 says. Love is not merely another of His attributes, it is His very nature!"

The problem with this argument is that it ignores the other two "God is" statements in the Bible. Not only does Scripture reveal that God is love (1Jn 4:8), but also that He is spirit (Jn 4:24) and He is Light (1Jn 1:5). It is the latter of these three that we must consider if we are to order our thinking aright in this matter.

To say that God is Light is to declare that He is utterly holy, pure, and righteous. "In Him there is no darkness at all," the Apostle continues (1Jn 1:5). Just as much as love is essential to the very nature and character of God, so is holiness so essential. This means that, simply within the context of these two absolute statements, there is no reason to subordinate one attribute to the other. God is love, and God is holiness. However, if we turn to the rest of the Biblical witness, we do find a reason to subordinate one to the other, but it's not in the direction that many 21st-century American evangelicals think it is.

Isaiah chapter 6 chronicles Isaiah's call to the prophetic ministry. We know the story. In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw a vision of heaven. He saw the Lord Jesus sitting on His throne, high and exalted in His glory. And he saw six-winged angels above him, covering their face and their feet in humility. And those angels had a perpetual song as they beheld the glory of the Lord. They cried out in acclamation and exultation: "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

As you may know, a way to express emphasis in Hebrew is to repeat that which you want to emphasize. One way to use the superlative in Hebrew is to repeat what you want to say multiple times. So if you wanted to say something was exceedingly good, you might repeat the word 'good.' And here in Isaiah 6, the angels call out, "Holy! Holy! Holy!" It's the only word in Scripture that's repeated three times.

This is what occupied the angels' worship as they beheld the glory of the Lord God high and lifted up on his exalted and glorious throne. This aspect of his nature. This attribute. The Bible never says that God is "love, love, love!" The one time the Bible gives this kind of emphasis to a particular attribute of God it is His holiness.

So how does this fit with my previous post?

God's holiness, or righteousness, consists in His doing what is right. He must love what is most worthy to be loved, delight in what is most worthy of delight, regard what is most worthy of regard, and esteem what is most worthy of esteem. For Him to not do any of those things would be for Him to fail morally. He would become an idolater, and would no longer be holy. So God's holiness demands that He treasure that which is most worthy to be treasured.

So what is most worthy to be treasured? The answer must be God Himself, for He is perfect. God must treasure Himself above all things, because He Himself is actually worthy of being treasured above all things. The way God treasures Himself above all things is to be unwaveringly committed to upholding the glory of His name. He pursues His glory in everything He does. This pursuit is at the foundation of the most foundational attribute of His nature. What it means for God to be God is that He is holy. What it means for God to be holy is that He pursues His own glory. That is what He is about. That is what is at the heart of His nature.

But what about love? Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to downplay the love of God. I'm trying to downplay the man-centered love of man that we attribute to God and call God's love. I'm trying to explode the idea that love is making much of someone, and instead present the Biblical truth that love labors, and, if need be, suffers to enthrall the beloved with what will make him eternally happy and satisfied. And reality is, we will not be eternally happy and satisfied with a God who makes much of ourselves. We are not worthy of being so magnified.

He, however, is. He is worthy of being so magnified, such that His very act of seeking His own glory (that is, manifesting and communicating the beauty of His manifold perfections to people) is love. Do you see how God's glory defines what it means for Him to love? Strictly speaking, God's seeking His own glory and His acts of love that benefit us are the very same thing. When God shows Himself off, that is love, because my seeing that beauty will most fully and abidingly satisfy me.

But even though they are manifested in the same action, God's love is logically dependent on His pursuing His own glory. If you try to reverse those and make His glory dependent on His love, you wind up with the small, pitiful God I described at the end of the original post. But if you rightly see God's love as a means to glorify Himself, you see more of God as He's revealed Himself, and not how 21st-century evangelicals have imagined Him to be.

As it seems to challenge an excellency above all His other perfections, so it is the glory of all the rest; as it is the glory of the Godhead, so it is the glory of every perfection in the Godhead; as His power is the strength of them, so His holiness is the beauty of them; as all would be weak without almightiness to back them, so all would be uncomely without holiness to adorn them. Should this be sullied, all the rest would lose their honour; as at the same instant the sun should lose its light, it would lose its heat, its strength, its generative and quickening virtue. As sincerity is the luster of every grace in a Christian, so is purity the splendor of every attribute in the Godhead. His justice is a holy justice, His wisdom a holy wisdom, His arm of power a "holy arm" (Ps. 98:1), His truth or promise a "holy promise" (Ps. 105:42). His name, which signifies all His attributes in conjunction, "is holy," Psalm 103:1.
- Stephen Charnock -

A true love of God must begin
with a delight in his
and not with a delight in any other attribute;
for no other attribute is truly lovely without this.

- Jonathan Edwards -

And I will be glorified in your midst.
Then they will know that I am Yahweh
when I execute judgments in her,
And I will manifest My holiness.
- Ezekiel 28:22 -

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