One of the problems with many contemporary incarnations of Christianity is the casual stance they often encourage in approaching God. This “chumminess” has infected the church’s worship, preaching, and prayer. God is seen as more friendly than holy. He is portrayed as a jilted lover who wants nothing more than for us to pay him some attention. I remember often being told to have a quiet time because God longs for nothing so much as to be with me. My heart strings were strummed by the notion of God sitting by the side of my bed all day just waiting for me to spend time with him.
As I think back I cannot help but wonder how these ideas affected my understanding of God. Who was truly supreme in this relationship? Was there even room for supremacy? Was there room for true lordship? Or was God just one more responsibility? Was he just one more needy person demanding my time? Theologian David Wells is right when he critiques modern evangelicalism by saying that God rests far too inconsequentially upon the church. He has become “weightless.”
The church desperately needs to recapture a biblical vision for the holiness of God. We need to behold God in all of His undiluted purity and unapproachable light. I am not calling for ecstatic experiences or mystical journeys. I am calling for a fresh apprehension of what the Scriptures clearly reveal about the nature of God. The Bible holds forth a God who is far different from the greeting card deity that infects much of modern Christian spirituality.
The Hebrew word for holy is qadosh which means something like “cut off” or “separate.” One theologian has written that holy refers to “that which is marked off, separated, withdrawn from ordinary use.” God is profoundly separate from His creation. Donald MacLeod writes that “God is utterly different. He is separate from angels, separate from men and, above all, separate from sinners.” God says to His people in Leviticus 20:26, “You shall be holy unto me, for I the Lord am holy and have removed you from other people, that you should be mine.”
In one very important sense God’s holiness means that He is unapproachable. This is seen clearly in some of God’s earliest dealings with His people. When God gave the law He did so by calling Moses into His presence but keeping the people at a distance. In fact to breach the boundary would mean certain death. From that moment God established a pattern of relating to His people through the means of a mediator. The elaborate rituals of the Old Covenant religious rites communicated just how difficult it was for anyone to approach God. Only through a priest at an appointed time and place could the people relate to God.
Does the New Covenant in Christ change any of this? Certainly Christ changes the situation but He does not remove the unapproachableness of God. God’s holiness is not diminished in the New Testament. His purity is no less terrifying to sinners. Jesus has not made approaching God something we can simply assume. Coming to God is a privileged given only to those who by grace through faith are justified (Rom. 5:2). Approaching God is possible not because He has changed in character but because Jesus has made Himself our great High Priest (Heb. 4:14). As MacLeod writes, “The supreme achievement of Christ is that He is the Way – the only way – to God; and He is that only through His broken humanity – the rent veil of His own flesh (Heb. 10:20).”
This is why we preach and sing the gospel. It is why we continue to revel in the truth that Christ died for sinners. Every time we acknowledge that we now have access to God we are acknowledging Christ as our sin-bearing substitute; the One who died in our place. Jesus did not die to make salvation a mere possibility. He did not shed His blood so that God’s redemptive plan could be a potential. Jesus, slain before the foundations of the world, truly died in the place of all those who believe. For them the justice of God has been satisfied. For them God’s righteous wrath has been assuaged having been poured out on His beloved Son.
For this reason and this reason alone can we speak of approaching God. This is why we sing the words of John Newton:
Let us love and sing and wonder
Let us praise the Savior’s name
He has hushed the law’s loud thunder
He has quenched Mt. Sinai’s flame
He has washed us with His blood
He presents our souls to God