11 December 2021
This past Sunday at church you asked me a great question! If questions were boxers, yours would be the heavyweight champion of the world. The question had to do with the nature of sin as an individual barrier to a relationship with God. Does our sin keep us from God? Can a Holy God not co-exist with sin? What does this look like and what’s the right answer? You were specifically looking for Scripture (which I commend you for!), so I tried to include plenty of it.
I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to think about and formulate an answer for you. Just remember...you asked me. So, this is my approach to laying out for you my own framework for thinking about and attempting to answer such immense theological questions. If any of it is helpful, Glory to God! If not, then I take all the blame.
The best questions don’t have black and white answers. They require more thought and care than a quick response. Almost all great theology questions (like these) fit well into this category. My approach to these kinds of questions - since they are so humongous and their actions carry such weighty consequences - is to break one huge question down into multiple smaller (though still really big) questions. Then, the conclusions I reach from answering the smaller, related questions will help inform my answer to the huge question. So, my thought process (and my smaller questions) would look something like this:
What does it mean that God is Holy?
The only reason your question is a question is because God is, by nature, holy (Leviticus 19:2). This is such a huge and foreign concept to us that it is hard to grasp. I’ve always liked how A.W. Tozer talked about our difficulty in even having a starting point to understand the holiness of God. He said:
“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… Holy is the way God is. To be holy He does not conform to a standard. He is that standard.”
The easiest way for me to understand holiness is to say that God is completely and totally righteous, pure, and true. I believe it to be God’s central attribute: as the one characteristic through which all of His other attributes flow. In other words, because God is holy, He is just; because God is holy, He is righteous; because God is holy, He is merciful. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that His holiness is His only personal attribute reiterated three consecutive times in Scripture. Both times were recorded by men who God gave a vision into Heaven and they saw heavenly creatures surrounding the throne of God. In John’s vision of Heaven in Revelation 4, He sees these creatures around the throne proclaiming day and night, “Holy! Holy! Holy is the Lord Almighty!”. Isaiah saw the same scene in His vision (Isaiah 6:3). So, understanding God’s holiness (or as best we can) is essential to knowing Him. Equally important is understanding man’s sinfulness.
What is sin? What does it mean to be inherently sinful? Just how wretched is sin?
We really can’t understand the wretchedness of - and total depravity caused by - sin until we start to grasp the holiness of God. In light of His perfect standard, we see ourselves for what we really are. Totally and completely depraved by sin and completely dependent on God to reach down to us and redeem us from our own depravity. The most famous verse about our own sinfulness comes from Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” There just isn’t any escaping our own sinfulness. But, what does that mean? How wretched is sin? Is it really that bad?
John MacArthur summarized how Scripture talks about sin like this:
“Sin is abominable to God-He hates it (cf. Deuteronomy 12:31). Sin is contrary to His nature (Isaiah 6:3; 1 John 1:5). It stains the soul and degrades humanity's nobility. Scripture calls sin "filthiness" (Proverbs 30:12; Ezekiel 24:13; James 1:21) and likens it to a putrefying corpse-sinners are the tombs that contain stench and foulness (Matthew 23:27). The ultimate penalty-death-is the consequence of sin (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Romans 6:3). The human race is in bad shape.”
One of my favorite quotes about sin (and that in relationship to God) comes from R.C. Sproul. He wrote poignantly that:
“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, “God, Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do.”
We are always tempted to justify why our sinfulness really isn’t that bad. We think we are much closer to “cleanliness” or “righteousness” than we really are. If we operate on that assumption, it doesn’t seem like a great distance between God and man…and it minimizes the seriousness of your question. But Paul, considering his own sinful nature (even well after he began walking with Christ), said that he inhabits a body of death, where evil is right there with him every step of the way, and needs rescue and deliverance from his own wretched, sinful self (Romans 7:24-25). So, now we start to get to the crux of your question with this next question:
How do the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man relate to one another?
This is really the heart of what you asked. Scripture affirms that God is eternally holy and also affirms that man is hopelessly sinful. This paradigm is where your question stems from. How do we reconcile these two truths? J.I. Packer wrote a famous book titled, “Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God”. In it, he talks about Scriptural paradoxes that he calls “antimony”. He says that, “an antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both understandable.” The Holiness of God and the sinfulness of man are the perfect example of an “antimony”. Here’s my attempt to help unpack this “antimonious” relationship.
A holy God and a sinful world
In addition to being holy, Scripture affirms that He also knows everything (Psalm 147:5; 1 John 3:20). Since this is true, it also means that He knows of the “unholiness” (sin) present in the world and people. Ironically, the famous verse in Habakkuk (1:13) that people cite as God not being able to look upon sin is immediately followed by his acknowledgement that He does, in fact, see it. Altogether, it reads like this: “ Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?” How can God simultaneously not tolerate sin and tolerate sin? This verse is best understood (for me) as Habakkuk’s “out-loud wrestlings” with God. Much like many, many of David’s Psalms or the sections of dialogue at the end of Job between Job and God. As a verbal processor, I fully understand!
So, you have to be careful when reading certain passages (like those in Job or Habakkuk) and seeing them as prescriptive theology describing who God is and who we are. These passages are not “theology” in the same sense as much of Paul’s writings (like the passage in Romans 7). And I certainly don’t think we can say that a holy God is “unaware” of sin or doesn’t see it just because He is holy.
A holy God and sinful man
We know of God’s holy will for all people: that they would be reconciled to Him (Isaiah 45:22; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). And yet, we also know that our sin does keep us from knowing and experiencing God personally and leads to death rather than life (Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23).
What’s one example in Scripture of how our sin separates us from God? I would suggest that the way Scripture deals with prayer from unrepentant sinners shows one consequence of sin and its separating effects on our relationship with God. Scripture is clear that God does not listen to all prayers. It says that He does not listen to the prayers of those who: remain in sin (John 9:31), forsake God (Jeremiah 14:10-12), reject God’s call (Proverbs 1:24-25), do not listen to His law (Proverbs 28:9; Zechariah 7:11-13), and have no faith (James 1:6-7). Scripture is also clear that if we die in our sin then we will be separated from God for eternity (Matthew 25:41; Romans 6:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Another interesting observation of the nature of this relationship comes in the way sinful men (even, arguably, the “most righteous” of sinful men) respond when God allows them a glimpse of His holiness. Consider this: when God revealed Himself to Habakkuk, Habakkuk said that his guts trembled, his lips quivered, and decay entered his bones (Habakkuk 3:16). When God revealed Himself to Job, Job said that he hated himself and immediately repented in dust ashes (Job 42:6). In those brief encounters between God and man (which only God Himself can permit) the holiness of God has obvious devastating effects on man in his sinful state.
I came across a great quote by a fellow named Jeremy Myers about this. He said:
“Sometimes we get this crooked view of God where He cannot look upon sin or be near sin because sin would somehow taint His holiness. Such a view gives sin way too much power and gives God way too little.
God is not like a pristine white couch upon which no one can sit for fear of it getting soiled. No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His love and holiness washes all sin away. God can no more be tainted by sin than the ocean could be dyed red with a single drop of food coloring.”
So, God certainly knows of the evil and sin in this world. Our sovereign God is not oblivious to it at all. His holiness does not make him blissfully ignorant of sin. He also can choose (and has, at times) to unveil His holiness to those in a sinful body, or state. Think of it like this: our sin forbids us from looking upon His holiness, but His holiness does not prevent Him from looking upon our sinfulness. In fact, He has gone to every possible effort to reconcile those two in Christ Jesus. This brings me to my last question:
If the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man must co-exist, then how must they co-exist?
The very short answer to this is: in the person of Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
God sent His Son, the second member of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, to reconcile the holiness of God with the sinfulness of man. Scripture says that God Himself put on our human flesh and became sin so that we could become God’s righteousness in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Isaiah said that God put the weight of the sins of the world on Jesus so that He could bear them for us (Isaiah 53:5). It also affirms that the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus bodily (Colossians 2:9) and that His very nature was the same as God (Philippians 2:6). In other words, Jesus was God in the flesh and made of the very same substance as God the Father.
As a result, sinful man can know holy God through Jesus Christ. This is accomplished through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in convicting us of our sinfulness before God, of His holiness and righteousness, and of His just judgment upon us (John 16:8). Once the Holy Spirit of God works in our hearts, we respond accordingly by verbally confessing our sins to Him (Romans 10:9), repenting of our sinful nature before Him (Acts 3:19), receiving His forgiveness and purification (1 John 1:9), and living a transformed life of faith both in and through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). After this, we live our lives as holy people, constantly offering ourselves to God to continue to be used by Him for His glory (Romans 12:1-2).
This is where we get the idea of “sanctification”, which addresses your question. While we are still living, we live in these sinful bodies and inhabit this sinful nature (Romans 7, again). This never goes away as long as we live. However, when we surrender our lives to Christ and receive His, then He gives us the Holy Spirit which lives inside of us and guides us through life (John 16:13; Romans 6:10-11). This is, for the believer, the union of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. This is only possible because of the person of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, not at all because of us.
One more thing, because I think it is important for answering your question. In sanctification, a distinction is made between positional sanctification and progressive sanctification. Positional sanctification deals with what happens to us spiritually when we surrender to Jesus. Ephesians 2 talks about how when we believe in Jesus and surrender our lives to Him, thereby accepting the exchange of His life for ours, then we are raised up and seated with Jesus in the heavenly realms. Think of it as Christ “securing” our place with Him in Heaven. He’s “saving your seat” because you haven’t got there yet. In this sense, sinful man is “seated with holy Jesus” in Heaven. Progressive sanctification deals with what happens with us practically when we surrender to Jesus. He fills us with His Holy Spirit and lives inside of us. However, we still deal with indwelling sin for as long as we live. This is Paul’s struggle in Romans 7 and his encouragement to believers in Romans 6.
So, as far as how God’s holiness and our sinfulness co-exist, the best answer that I have is through the person of Jesus and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Is God holy? Yes. Is man sinful? Yes. Can sinful man initiate fellowship with holy God? No. However, God has made it possible for His holiness to co-exist with our sinfulness through the “God-man” of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, and the ongoing and indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. That being said, this union is only possible after the “Great Exchange” of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Unbelieving, unrepentant sinners do not and cannot have fellowship with holy God.
I know this is an incredibly long answer to your question, but I wanted to do my best to be thoughtful and comprehensive. However, seeking an answer to this question has been the work of theologians for millenia. But, prayerfully, here’s to providing you with a start in the form of searching and considering what Scripture has to say about this.
Thanks for the opportunity to give you an answer!
Just a man trying to save his thoughts and correspondence