Carl Henry on the Holiness of God
One can never write too much about the holiness of God. It may well be his overriding and overarching attribute. I have already penned articles about Ryle on holiness, and Lloyd-Jones on holiness, and I will likely pen many more. Here I want to look at Henry on holiness.
Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) was one of American evangelicalism’s greatest theologians. A prolific author, an esteemed teacher, and one of Christianity’s great elder statesmen, he made a huge impact on Christianity not just in the US, but overseas as well.
In addition to being the founding editor of Christianity Today, he penned a number of important volumes over nearly a half century. He wrote his magnificent 6-volume, 3,000-page work, God, Revelation and Authority over an 8 year period (1976-1983).
Volume 6 of this magisterial work contains a short chapter on “The Holiness of God” (a mere 15 pages). But it contains more solid and substantial material on this topic than found in most books written today by popular preachers.
The best thing I can do here is simply quote a number of passages from this terrific chapter, which is part of a terrific book, which is part of a terrific set. I strongly encourage readers to get the books in one format or another.
He opens his chapter as follows:
God himself is the living center of holiness, and is so especially because of his separateness from all else. To think of the holy is to think first and foremost of God; to think of God is to think of the holy. . . . Only God is holy in himself; only in relation to him can anything else become holy….
The Bible opens not with God’s love for man as a fallen sinner as the context in which God’s mercy is to be understood, but with creation and with God’s sovereign instruction to Adam and his flaming indignation over the fall of man. It does not begin, like liberal theology, with an emphasis on divine love for the sinner to which divine wrath is and must be subordinated. . . . Nonevangelical critics of the Bible have sought to impugn its representation of the holiness of God and have instead advanced sentimental alternatives supposedly grounded in divine love.
He traces the holiness of God through the biblical storyline. Concerning Israel he writes:
Holiness is not an intrinsic human quality. God is the Holy One of Israel not because he is attached to Israel but because he attached Israel to himself. Only in and through God’s revelation of this fact does Israel become a holy nation, a holy people, a holy seed, a holy congregation, a holy kingdom of priests.
He also notes how divine wrath is intimately linked with divine holiness:
Efforts to expel divine wrath from the Bible as an illegitimate element of revealed religion are grounded mainly in exaggerated and distorted concepts of divine love. . . . But both the New Testament and the Old emphasize that wrath and love are not incompatible attributes in the nature of God. . . . Any attempt to reduce the scriptural representations of divine wrath to mere metaphor or anthropopathism is precluded by the biblical prophets’ insistence that God’s wrath is intrinsically grounded in his nature.
He examines the NT evidence about this in detail and says:
The New Testament begins (Matt. 3:7, 10-12) and closes (Rev. 19:15) with “the coming wrath” of God and points to faith in the Messiah-Redeemer as the one and only escape. A crucial consideration is that while yet enemies of God we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10; cf. Col. 1:21 f.). If Jesus Christ is the revelation of divine love, no less is he the revelation of divine wrath.
He goes on to list a number of examples of this, but then reminds us of some very good news:
The Bible extends to rebellious mankind the astonishing possibility of restoration to fellowship with God and to holiness, a possibility grounded on gracious divine deliverance from the penalty, guilt, power and ultimately also the presence of sin. Jesus liberates the sinner from the dread wrath of God. Divine love and mercy open a way of escape from divine wrath. . . . Messiah took upon himself the wrath of God, bearing it in himself and in our instead. To receive Christ is to be free from wrath; to reject Christ is to remain under the wrath. Outside faith in Christ sinful man has no expectation but the wrath of God (Rom. 3:19 ff., 23).
He puts together all this by looking more closely at the wondrous work of redemption on our behalf:
The Christian doctrine of atonement is distinguished, then, by two important considerations. For one thing, the sacrifice is both provided by God and offered to God; God offers himself in the gift of his Son to achieve a just and merciful forgiveness of sinners. It is God himself who makes the complete sacrifice. The other consideration is that the historical fact of Christ’s death, like that of his resurrection, towers above all other events in the history of religion as that moment in time when an alienated God and sinful humanity were reconciled by the provision of the objective sacrifice necessary for the forgiveness of human sin. As P. T. Forsyth says, “the Cross of Christ was the world’s great day of judgment, the crisis of all crises for history. . . . The race’s sin was covered and atoned … by the God who bore it.”
He concludes his chapter with an examination of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the community of God’s people. He writes:
“Be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18, KJV) is the apostle Paul’s driving exhortation to daily renewal. Many fillings, many deepenings, many enablings follow the initial yielding of one’s life to God. Yet the New Testament says even more. It assures us that even here and now in this life God’s people may live victoriously over sin. “Sin shall not have dominion over you . . . under grace,” Paul writes the Romans (6:14, KJV). Amid the conflict of rival powers to subdue him, the believer whose life is open to the fullness of the Spirit will live a life of victory and in the expectation of growing conformity to the indwelling Christ. The Spirit points not to ourselves but to the Crucified and Risen One.
In these fifteen short pages Henry gives us a detailed, balanced and helpful overview of the holiness of God, one which is worth reading in its entirety. For those who lack the six hardback books, this chapter can be read here:
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