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Worshiping a Not-So-Holy God

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Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the annual (bi-annual as of 2021) G3 Conference in Atlanta. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and, as always, my favorite part was meeting so many of you. On the opening day of the conference I participated in a Q&A session that included John MacArthur, Paul Washer, Voddie Baucham, Steve Lawson, and Josh Buice. Those who watched the session undoubtedly saw that most of us deferred to John MacArthur for most of the answers—a position we all acknowledge he has earned. Still, there was one question we were each asked to answer and it related to worship. It was along these lines: What book has greatly impacted you and helped you in the area of worshipping God?

Since I was sitting at the end of the row, I had to answer first. I knew the question was coming, so had given it a little thought. I assumed most of the other speakers would point to books that relate specifically to worship—perhaps Worship by the Book edited by D.A. Carson, or maybe Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell, or even Worship Matters by Bob Kauflin (who had been leading worship that very morning). At the very least I expected most would mention something that would be filed “worship” on the shelves of a Christian bookstore.

But as I thought about the book that had proven most important to me when learning about the meaning and purpose of worship, I thought of something else: R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God. If you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly come across references to it and know how important it has been to me. It was one of those books that quite literally changed my life. But until I was on that panel, I hadn’t quite considered how it also changed my worship. What surprised me was that as we went down the row, several others mentioned the exact same book.

Here’s what’s interesting: The Holiness of God is not a book that typically gets filed under “worship” at the Christian bookstores. Look at the back cover where the publisher marks the categories they think it best fits and you’ll see Theology/Doctrines. At Amazon it lands in categories like Christian Apologetics and Christian Spiritual Growth, but not Worship. At CBD it is under Christian Living. Even the publisher’s description doesn’t mention worship: “Central to God’s character is the quality of holiness. Yet, even so, most people are hard-pressed to define what God’s holiness precisely is. Many preachers today avoid the topic altogether because people today don’t quite know what to do with words like ‘awe’ or ‘fear.’ R. C. Sproul, in this classic work, puts the holiness of God in its proper and central place in the Christian life. He paints an awe-inspiring vision of God that encourages Christian to become holy just as God is holy. Once you encounter the holiness of God, your life will never be the same.” So why would it have so shaped our understanding of worship?

I think it’s because one of our great failings as sinful human beings is that we are prone to make God small and safe. We invent the kind of God who makes us feel good about ourselves. As we discuss worship at this time and in this context, we are surrounded by churches who treat God as if he’s a buddy, not as if he’s transcendent; they treat him as if he’s chill, not as if he’s serious; they treat him as if he’s interested in our fulfillment, not his glory; they treat him as if he’s ambivalent about how he’s worshiped, not as if he’s been known to strike dead those who worship him wrongly. We are surrounded by churches that are content to manufacture a God who appeals to ignorant Christians or rebellious non-Christians. Their God is small and safe. Actually, when you look closely, you see that their God bears an uncanny resemblance to them.

Their small worship proves they worship a small God.

But the brilliance and the power of Sproul’s book is that it shows us a God who is holy, holy, holy. And really, there’s nothing the English language offers that can adequately explain what’s bound up in that three-fold repetition of “holy.” There’s no adjective that better expresses it. There’s no comparative or superlative that better captures it. God is holy, holy, holy and he both demands and deserves to be worshiped as such. When I look at much of contemporary evangelicalism, I see churches that so obviously do not regard God as holy, not to mention holy, holy, holy. Their small worship proves they worship a small God. They have a worship problem because they first have a holiness problem.

In that way, this book about holiness transforms our worship. It shows God as he really is. And when we see God as he really is, we learn to worship God as he really deserves to be worshiped. A great and holy God simply cannot be worshiped in trite and trifling ways.


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