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Thursday, July 5, 2012


A few mornings ago I read 1 Thess. 3:12-13, which says, " . . . and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we do for you, so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

When I read this, I was struck by the connection between love and holiness. Paul prays that the Thessalonians would love people more, with the result that they would exhibit holiness in their thinking. Love is an essential characteristic of holiness.

Then I got to thinking about how sometimes I've heard people say that the supreme attribute of God is his holiness, because it is the only one predicated of him three times ("Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”—Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). Sometimes I have contested that claim with the proposition that if we have to pick a supreme attribute of God (which I don't think we should) that attribute is love, because love is the only quality that the Bible says God is (in "God is love,” not merely "God is loving”—1 John 4:8, 16). One could argue that God's triple holiness shows that that attribute uniquely reflects the Trinity. But on the other hand, the statement "God is love" reveals that the singular God is essentially plural, because love requires multiple persons, and therefore as a community God is love in his essence. Predictably, these arguments didn't go anywhere very productive.

But anyway, as I meditated on this text in 1 Thessalonians this morning, it occurred to me: What if God's holiness is his love? What if God's love is his holiness? This idea is mysterious and profound, but it also makes sense. We are told to be holy as the one who called us is holy. Likewise we are told that the greatest commandment, to love God, is inherently realized in loving people the way God loves.

I think sometimes people are prone to prefer God's holiness or God's love over the other, even when they know they're not supposed to and claim they aren't doing it. Most of the time it's accidental—we naturally gravitate toward what we were raised hearing emphasized or conversely toward what we believe has been neglected by the people around us or maybe just based on idiosyncracies of our personality. And when people gravitate toward one or the other, they usually don't reveal it in a broad, bold statement like, "The supreme attribute of God is ________," but in the general tenor of what they say when they're talking about God or about people (or perhaps in the pattern of the titles of the books on their shelves). To put it most crudely (please forgive this statement), people often seem to prefer a holy "Daddy God" or a loving "Mommy God." But of course, God is both triply holy and love-in-essence. And maybe by the common tendency to fix our attention on one or another aspect of God we miss that they are also aspects of each other, because the one-of-a-kind Triune God is the only, original, perfect actualization of both.

I think Jonathan Edwards got this, not just intellectually but experientially. He described one of his momentous mystical experiences with God around the time of his conversion at age 17 as "a sweet conjunction: majesty and meekness joined together: it was a sweet and gentle, and holy majesty; and also a majestic meekness; an awful sweetness; a high, and great, and holy gentleness.”

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