When we lose the holiness of God, sin loses its meaning, and the gospel becomes meaningless. This is what has happened; the church has lost a sense of God’s holiness. How did it happen and how can the church regain it? These are the questions this article will answer.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2002. 3 pages.

No Fear or Favour Lack of Reverence Enfeebles Christians in Worship and Practice

The loss of God is the outstanding fact and experience of western Christianity and culture today. Towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, the prophet of modern secularism, could already see signs of the death of God in European culture. Now we are enveloped in a Nietzschean world of unreal images and freedom from absolute truths in what we believe and how we live. In the process, God is being pushed to the margins of life and no longer counts for anything mean­ingful to a majority of people.

Naturally, this culture of change affects the churches and the individual Christian. After all, God is the fundamental reality of truth that shapes everything else that we believe and live by. What we believe about God and how we picture him shapes our views about the world, human beings, morality, and the future. So if our hold on God is weak or our image of him is wrong, then all these other realities will be affected badly. This is why it has rightly been said that the question of our time in the modern West is the question of God.

To be more specific, what we have lost in this generation is a conviction about the holiness of God. God’s holiness means that he is different from us because he is the infinite Creator of all, the One who has always been there, and is morally per­fect in his purity. The prophet Isaiah has forever captured the message of God’s holiness in his encounter with the King, the Holy One of Israel, high and lifted up, his glory filling the temple and the whole world (Isaiah 6:1-8). Since even the sinless angels shrouded their faces in his presence, how much more a sinful man! The holiness of God is like a blinding light and a lava flow that penetrates and burns up everything in its path. Only the Lord’s own cleansing through forgiveness and renewal can fit us for his service and keep us standing in his presence (Isaiah 6:5-8). The holiness of God is a call to gratitude, reverent trembling and praise (Hebrews 12:28-29).

This loss of God, especially his holi­ness, cripples everything else in Christianity. Without it, our sin becomes only anti-social behaviour, our message becomes one among many in the market­place of ideas, our message of grace becomes a therapy that heals our human hurts, our morality becomes a matter of good advice in the light of private interest, and our worship becomes a drama in which we act out our pleasures for the sake of our felt needs.

On the other hand, where Christians attach themselves to God’s holiness everything in the Christian landscape of faith and knowledge comes to life. As Presbyterian theologian David Wells, puts it:

The holiness of God is the very cor­nerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outwork­ing and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.

How are we to explain this loss of God? We can identify four powerful movements that have converged to bring about the cultural and religious milieu of this century.

First, there has been the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment with its turn to the human subject, a belief in the powers of reason and the limits of religion. Immanuel Kant was the one who more than any other redrew the map of human consciousness by pushing the idea of an objective and supreme God to the margins of thought. Instead, he focused on the “real” world of historical experience.

However, the failure of the Enlightenment project of creating an utopian society based on freedom, equal­ity and fraternity among the peoples of the world through human reason, tech­nology and science has led to postmod­ernism. This dominant culture of our time is rooted in the rejection of all values. In spite of being a protest against the pre­tensions of the culture of modernity, which came to an end symbolically with the collapse of communism, just like modernity it also denies the possibility of the objective reality of a transcendent Creator-God.

Second, we are seeing in the realm of western culture the coming of a global economy of capitalism and consumerism, a way of life pandering to a growing demand for leisure and pleasure, created and stimulated by the market and the media. But this in turn erodes still further the belief in a sovereign and holy God who sets limits to our freedoms by calling us to the higher goods of self-denying love in the service of others. This form of late capitalism is irreligious to the core. Ours is the first civilisation in the story of humankind that has found its rationale within itself by dispensing with the belief in the transcendent world of God to sus­tain its vision, morality and communities.

Thirdly, in the world of theology there has been a loss of the transcendence of God. The transcendence of God refers to his being outside the creation he has made as the One who dwells apart in his Self-generated being. The God of the Bible is also immanent which means that he is engaged with and towards the world, interacting in the lives of men and women and the future of the whole creation. During the 20th century, theology largely collapsed God’s transcendence into his immanence with the result that Christians and churches have lost their vertical awareness of God by becoming one-dimensional in their faith and worship.

Lastly, in the realm of the human spirit there is a withholding of the divine Presence from a civilisation that abandons God in the service of its pagan and selfish cravings for power and pleasure. Romans 1:18-32 is the classic account of this devel­opment within the soul of a people.

Since the 1960s western generations have progressively thrown off what remained of the centuries-old legacy of historic Christianity, experimenting instead with the new gods of drugs, free love and social engineering. Two generations later we have descended to the legalization of drugs, hardcore pornography throughout all the media, euthanasia and the reproductive cloning of the human species. Through all of this God seems silent, but his silence is our self-inflicted judgment for exchanging the truth about him for a lie.

People begin by pushing God out of their lives and their laws. However, they end up indulging every kind of sordid pas­sion and destroying one another. The result? As the poet W. B. Yeats says: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

How should Christians respond to the loss of the transcendent in their culture and their churches?

First, we can begin by reading our Bibles and looking out for the whole doc­trine of God contained there. Be alert for passages that describe God’s attributes, his three-Personed being, as well as the various acts and promises of God. Take up a book like Revelation with its ethos of heavenly worship where God sits upon his throne and the whole of creation engages in endless adoration of the timeless God.

Second, we can pray for the God of heaven to move in our times and in our local scene in such a way that his people will shine like lights in the world, holding forth the word of life (Phil. 2:14-16). Let us keep on asking for reformational revival.

Third, we can compensate for the loss of God’s transcendence today by tapping into that long history of Christian writing on this subject from the church fathers to the present day. For example, we may think of God as the One than whom nothing greater can be imagined, of the God who is hidden even in his revelation, of the holy One whose presence awakens an awe that both repels and attracts, of the God who is wholly Other, of the One who is ultimately unfathomable Mystery, of the perfect Community of hallowed Self-giving Love.

Fourth, if we are pastors/teachers we can preach through a series of sermons on the Persons, the attributes, the promises, the covenants, and the works of God.

We can and should promote God-centred acts of worship.         

As David McCullough helpfully reminds us:

Sometimes, what passes for worship is more human-centred than God-centred. We want to make sure everyone 'gets something' out of the experience, and for good reason: this tends to be the standard most of us use to judge whether a service was “meaningful” or not. Was I inspired? Were the sermon and music to my liking? Were my needs met? If not, well, there’s always another church down the street to try next Sunday ... But what difference does it make if God is not at the centre?

Fifth, we can plan a reading course dealing with the remarkable works of God, those times of special mercy when God rejuvenates his church throughout the world. The history of real revivals, beginning with the book of Acts and coming on to our own day in countries like China, changes the tone of our spiri­tual lives and lifts our expectations and prayers for what God can do.

Finally, we should try to retrieve the fear of God as a central Christian virtue. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of real wisdom in any age. It was the heart of Old Testament piety, but it is no less essential for Gospel living in personal relationships like marriage and the con­gregation (Eph. 5:21), as well as for everyday holiness (2 Cor 7:1).

David Wells has seen the challenge that lies before us:

Our culture has never been riper to hear a Word about a God large enough to provide meaning rooted in his own transcendent character and forgive­ness that is objective because of Christ’s cross ... This is no time for the evangeli­cal world to lose its nerve. It is a time to recover a faith strong and virile enough to offer to our culture the alternative that it needs to hear.

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