Communicable Attributes: God is Holy
When I was a young teen trying to get comfortable in my own skin words were a commodity that could make or break you. Utter one wrong word and social standing could be tenuous. The best you could do was hope that people had short memories and so never bring up your words again. Today things are different. Short memories are a thing of the past. Cameras and recorders have replaced gray matter and they don’t forget. The consequences are also different. Say one wrong word and you are cancelled. You lose all social currency. You are finished.
It’s funny to think about it but cancel cultural attempts to mimic God’s holiness. Let me explain. Holy is from root of a Hebrew word meaning “to cut.” Hence it means to separate or cut off. When we describe God as holy we usually mean that God is distinct from all that He created. He is not the creation and the creation is not Him. Or we think in terms of sin. As James put it, in Him “there is no shadow.” Perhaps a good example of this is found in Gethsemane. When Christ said to the Father, “Let this cup pass” He was thinking of a cup of wrath meant for sinners. No wonder the Holy Son was repulsed by a fomenting cup meant for sinners.
Cancel culture seeks to imitate holiness. It would cut off those who have committed cultural transgressions. But it forgets that holiness has two sides. Yes, there is a sense in which we are cut off from one thing but that doesn’t mean we hang in limbo. Biblical holiness means being turned toward something else. Holiness means being devoted. For example, the persons of the Godhead, though distinct from creation, are devoted to one another. For the Christian, we are separated from the world but devoted to the Triune God. Cancel culture knows nothing of this aspect. It seeks to annihilate those who transgress. They are done. In this sense, cancel culture knows nothing of holiness.
It’s not that we should be surprised by culture’s attempts to duplicate the goodness of God within its own structures. It can’t help itself. In one sense pop culture is a parasite. When its singers sing about love they are reaching for the agape of God. A classic movie borrows the plot of redemption. Pop culture borrows from the Christian metanarrative for its success. No surprise. Poor students plagiarize from their betters. However, what is surprising is how often Christians fail to understand what is happening. Ironically, many Christian artists actually plagiarize from the world! This happens in music, television, movies, books and the list goes on. Christians need to learn about holiness.
But the problem with cancel culture, as if there is only one, is that it fails at the very thing it seeks through cancelation. It fails to achieve peace and unity. Think about it. Until the government is willing to throw cultural transgressors into prison or worse (and hopefully it won’t) the best cancel culture can hope for is suicide. What else would it want? And sadly, we have watched proponents of cancel culture rejoice over the suicide of those it has canceled. Look it up.
But this is not the Holy God of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible says that when we were yet sinners He sent His only begotten Son into the world that He might bear our sins in His body on the cross that we might have everlasting life. It is true that we have broken God’s laws repeatedly. Just ask yourself if you have ever lied, lusted or hated. For these and many other sins we are guilty before God. But the difference between God and cancel culture is as different as night is from day. God loves those who are His enemies and He provided us with evidence of that love in sending us His Son into the world to bear our punishment that we might have access to Father. What is more, this God adopts us into His family, gives us a place at His table, an inheritance among the saints and the privilege of calling Him Abba. Brothers and sisters, it is high time we start thinking according to Biblical patterns instead of worldly ones. Put succinctly, let’s cancel cancel culture and instead pursue holiness.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.