GOD’S HOLINESS AND FORGIVENESS —

RADICAL CONDEMNATION AND RADICAL AFFIRMATION

If you, Lord, should keep account of sins, who could hold his ground? But with you is forgiveness, so that you may be revered. Reading in Psalm 130— [Revised English Bible] These verses point toward two fundamentals of God’s dealings with us in this existence: radical condemnation; and radical affirmation. In the first two lines of these verses we see radical condemnation. Because of our sinfulness, we cannot possibly stand before the holy Lord. We stand utterly guilty before God in his holiness, and we have no hope. At root we are condemned. In the second two lines of these verses we see radical affirmation. With God is forgiveness. Amid our sinfulness, we experience God’s inestimable grace, embracing and enlivening us. At root we are affirmed. There is a great mystery in the conjunction of these verses. It is the compound mystery at the core of the Gospel—the mystery of the divine amalgam of holy judgment and loving forgiveness. In the heart of the Gospel, neither holiness nor love is minimized or lost. They are met and held together not abstractly, not theoretically, but concretely, personally, in the being and acting of God. For, at once and in completeness, God encompasses and employs both holiness and love. Thus, in the heart of the Gospel, we come to the cross. For in our sinful world, the divine amalgam of holiness and love leads to the cross. The cross unveils the God who exists and acts in holiness and love conjoined. This is the God who, in Jesus, exacts the cross in judgment and suffers the cross in love. The cross roots in and stems from the divine amalgamation of

holiness and love, for it transacts the judgment of God’s holiness through the suffering of God’s son, thereby tendering forgiveness. Were holiness and love not amalgamated in the divine being and acting, there would be no cross. Without holiness, there is no condemnation of sin. Hence, there is no cross. Without love, there is only condemnation, and hence, no cross. Were there no cross, with its conjunction of holiness and love, we would have no good news. If God should act solely in holiness, it would necessitate absolute and terrible rejection of us, leaving us only utter despair and annihilation. If God should act only in love, it would require his self-denying self-deception, glossing over the ruptured and rupturing realities of our lives and our world with a cruelly unrealistic sentimentalism. Yet there was a cross, and it shows us that God is absolutely holy and mercifully forgiving at once and in completeness. God is a sheer holiness that brooks no evil and terrifies us to oblivion. At the same time, with God is a tender, merciful forgiveness that rends the divine heart even as it touches and heals our own hearts. Jointed in the heart of God then are absolute judgment and inestimable forgiveness, for God is utterly holy, utterly realistic, and utterly merciful—at one and the same time, each in fullness. Hence, the crux of God’s presence in our sinful world consists in and reveals itself in this conjunction of holiness and love. We must therefore let the cross inform—in the strongest and deepest sense of that verb—the core of our lives and our theology. Apart from the cross, we might think that sometimes God acts in holiness and sometimes in love. We might even conclude that holiness and love are disjunct. Thus we are tempted to think and act in the cross-denying distortions of either self-righteous jeremiads or soft-headed sentimentalism. The cross however, truly understood and submitted to, frames and holds us in the conjunction of God’s holiness and love in our sinful world. We must not sunder this conjunction in our religious experience or in our theological construction. We must, in other words, truly and deeply live in and proclaim the mystery of the cross, the amalgam of God’s holiness and love. We must not live in or proclaim only holiness and

judgment, or only mercy and forgiveness. We must know that, in God’s presence, we live under radical condemnation and radical affirmation at one and the same time. For this is the God who both condemns and forgives us, at each and every moment of our lives, in the mysterious, re-creating intersection of condemnation and acquittal, which was Jesus on the cross. ~ One critical implication of these verses and the mystery of the cross for our lives and for our proclamation is this. Namely, we must realize that moral achievement and integrity do not constitute the chief foundation, mode, standard, or goal of our relationship with God, or of God’s relationship with us. This point is not meant to subvert our utmost striving to act rightly. Nor is it meant to ease our conscience and excuse us when we do not act rightly. Clearly God calls us to an absolute standard, to perfection. We should seek it wholeheartedly. Still, we fail and sin; and clearly God laments, abhors, and condemns our moral failure, our sinful transgression. Yet, just as clearly, God forgives. We must note this truth well. What God does with us in our failure and transgression is forgive us. He does not instantly refashion us in this existence so that we do not, indeed cannot, sin from that moment on. Painfully, sorrowfully, we find that we who know new life and follow the way of Jesus continue to sin. Precisely here—in the call to perfection, in the striving for perfection, and in the inevitable failure to live it consistently— we must find and live in the mystery of the cross, where God both judges and forgives. In and through the cross, God acts to re-create us, to make us new people, no longer bound to sin. Yet, as we will certainly sin again before we physically die, we also find in and through the cross that God’s re-creating movement toward us and our life in God subsist in and through, not our moral attainment and integrity, but his forgiveness, always and everywhere. Again, let it be clear that this forgiveness of the cross is no ignoring or forgetting of sin, by God or by us. It is no excuse for

sin. This cruciform forgiveness confronts and judges sin directly and realistically for exactly what sin is. God’s severe forgiveness fully accounts for, reckons with, and overcomes sin, because God forges forgiveness in the crucible of Jesus’ condemnation and death. Thus, by his forgiveness and not by our moral achievement, does God always and everywhere re-create and sustain us in new existence. In other words, it is God’s forgiveness that recreates and holds us in life, life that begins and ends in crossstamped grace, or we have no life at all. God’s forgiveness baptizes us into death and resurrection; and that forgiveness alone is life for us, from the point we receive it through all moments and conditions of this life, until we wake in the age to come. Hence, in God’s forgiveness we find it utterly true that our life begins, continues, and ends—not in ourselves nor in any pretense of our holiness or our moral achievement and integrity —but completely and finally in the gracious power of God—in God’s holiness, in God’s love, in God’s crucible of condemnation and affirmation, which is Jesus, our savior and lord. Gregory Strong