1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
1) The depth of the holy
It is a humbling thing to know that we are sinners in need of saving. At the very core of Christianity lies the unwavering truth that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all of humanity needs saving (Romans 3:23). This convicting reality is so essential to Christian doctrine that even Jesus’s title of Christ, Messiah, the Anointed One, is a testimony to what He does: He saves. Christ went to the cross and bore all the sins we will ever commit. The true depth of this sacrifice, however, cannot be fathomed while living in this lifetime.
The reason we will never be able to fully understand the depth of what Jesus did on that cross on this side of eternity, is because it would require us to fully understand God’s holiness. The Living God is entirely and perfectly good in every way, all the time, forever. “The Lord Almighty is the One you are to regard as holy, He is the One you are to fear, He is the One you are to dread.” (Isaiah 8:13 NIV). God’s innate nature as being holy is what encompasses all that He is: He alone is good; He is just; He is all-powerful; He is wise; He is compassionate; He is all-knowing; He is awesome; He is righteous… All of this helps define His nature of being holy; separate; different; set apart; other.
Christ says that all things will pass away, but not Him. We see this in Matthew 24, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” (Matthew 24:35 NKJV). Everything but God is temporary. God alone is eternal because He alone is God. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:14 NIV). God doesn’t change in His perfect nature, and this makes Him holy; He is different from everything else which inevitably decays. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Revelation 1:8 NASB). “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5 NKJV). No darkness at all.
2) In fear and trembling
In this way, God’s holiness is utterly unique and can only be attributed to Him. For one, God’s holiness should instill within us a sense of reverence and fear of the Lord. If God really is holy, then all wickedness should tremble at the thought of opposing this being; “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:13 KJV). To provide an illustration regarding the infinite scale of God’s holiness, let us take a look at our own capacity to be holy of our own power. For us to be holy would require that we would have to be perfect. We can easily look to “bigger” sins like murder, adultery, stealing, idolatry, etc. to give us a broad idea of what falling short of perfection looks like. But, in reality--and as Christ continually conveyed throughout the Gospels--the scope of our sin is so much greater than we can imagine.
To begin, all evil--or sin--at its truest definition is just rebellion against God. To sin is to just miss the mark of what God wants. And what does God want? He wants the law to be followed to the tee. As Christ says, the culmination of the law is summed up in two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NKJV). All that God does, and all that He wants, is centered on His love that is defined and paralleled by His holiness. Everything that God has done and will do is geared toward Himself because He is love. Yet it is because of His love that He is entirely selfless and self-giving. God is holy, so we know He fulfills His own law and is the moral standard-bearer of it--the law doesn’t exist for Him, because there is no sin within God to be exposed. God defines what the law requires because it is concerning His own holiness. Therefore, the law provides us with a means of gauging God’s holiness and our own sinfulness.
3) A mark missed
If the law’s ultimate design is meant to point us to loving God and other people, then to sin really just means to miss the mark of love that God desires us to give. How do we know what kind of love that is, and how much are we to show? That question is the whole point. This is where we witness our own utter shortcomings compared to God’s love. Holy Jesus went to the cross to bear the sins of all people. We know that “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13 NKJV). Sacrificial, selfless, and self-giving love is the highest form of love, and paying the ultimate price of laying down one’s life for another person is an action that demonstrates that highest form of love. It is in selfless, sacrificial love that the law is fulfilled. But this kind of love is not possible for us to perpetually reside in. Here is why.
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46-48 BSB). Jesus tells us to be perfect (holy) as God the Father is, and we can see what this would entail from earlier in the passage: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...” (Matthew 5:44 BSB). Have I ever even given thought to the idea of dying for my enemies? If a person killed my family, would I hold the capacity of love within myself to not only forgive that person, but be willing to die for them--much less actually die for their sake? I can’t even imagine if someone murdered my family--I do not have a context as to what I would feel. I am sure it would not be holy. But God says that the highest form of love is laying one’s life down for one’s friends. When Christ laid His own life down for us, however, we all were His enemies. When Jesus bore the sins of the world, there was not a single person on His side…
4) To love our enemies
Our nature in Christ is no longer under the dominion of sin, but we will remain innately sinful until the day Christ returns. Our fleshly nature is sinful simply because we are not God--no one can love in the highest form that God has demonstrated through the cross. What I am saying is this: God’s own standard is His own love. Therefore, to be holy as God is holy would require us to love as He loves at all times--for He is eternal. Picture a murderer, or a rapist, or an adulterer, or whatever other wicked person you can think of, and now--if we are wanting to accept the mantle of perfection as God is perfect--get mocked, spat on, scourged, and crucified for their sake. And, since we cannot picture the depth of the depravity of our sin compared to a holy God, the only picture we have is of the crucifixion. Once having been killed at the cross for that one wicked person, now do it again for the next. And the next. Until you have been crucified and killed for every single person to ever exist--past, present, and future.
As if this picture is not already enough, for us to be holy as God is holy would mean--throughout the entirety of this torment--you would not return evil for evil, not even once. Not even a passing thought of sin would cross your mind; throughout it all, your motive and one message would remain the same: agape love. Fulfilling such an incomprehensibly torturous scenario would require an incomprehensible level of love and self-control. But even this love still falls short of the love that God has shown us. Why do I still assert that even that form of love is still not holy as God is holy? Because Christ died for our sins. The physical death Jesus died was truly horrible--the crucifixion is one of the most demeaning and painful methods of execution throughout the history of the world. However, for God--who is perfectly good in every way, all the time, forever--the taint of sin is proportionately evil to the extent in which He is holy. Essentially, the weight that sin bears on God is directly proportional to His holiness. Therefore, for Christ to bear the sins of the world, He would have to proportionately sacrifice His own holiness for every person’s sins. The sheer weight of such a burden is impossible to even fathom. And, considering the Living God is One who fulfilled at least 300 prophecies in Jesus--creating a number in probability that is absolutely absurd (explored here)--it is no surprise that He goes above and beyond to demonstrate His perfect love toward us.
5) The Wind blows where it wishes
But… why? Why go through all of this if you are God? Why even save us if we are so extremely fallen compared to Him? The reason, once again, is simply God Himself. “From eternity to eternity I am God. No one can snatch anyone out of My hand. No one can undo what I have done.” (Isaiah 43:13 NLV). God existed before us and was perfectly content, and He is still perfectly content (this does not imply that God is apathetic). But it is out of the abundance of His perfect love that it pleased Him to bring forth creation. He made us, died for us, and resurrected for us, all because He wanted to so that we might know Him. He loves us. “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:9 NKJV). Despite the utter and total shortcomings we have when compared to God’s holiness, Christ provides His answer so clearly: it has never been about deserving or working for God’s grace. It’s all about God’s holiness embracing us, and us in return embracing Him. There is absolutely nothing we could ever do to add to what has been done on the cross. The depth of God’s love and holiness make that quite clear. But, instead, we see the whole point of it all: in Christ we can love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and we can love our neighbor as ourselves--because it is Christ who has truly done so!
Once Jesus has been raised up within us, having put to death the law and established us under the law of grace, our love begins to transform to look more like Jesus. The process of loving like God is a continual, lifetime operation of sanctification through which the Holy Spirit sustains us, teaches us, and empowers us (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we have already discerned, God’s love has no limits, and thus we can never fully attain that perfect love in this life. Nonetheless, through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are able to continually die to ourselves, and renew our spirit in the knowledge of Jesus. It is written for those who believe, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:10 NIV). This verse from Corinthians provides a great picture as to what sanctification means: to die continually to the self by the cross of Jesus, that He may raise up within us all the more and that His life would steadily replace ours. In this frame of mind, we can apply Paul’s words: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21 NKJV).
6) Looking through the dim mirror
Throughout our whole lives, we will be learning and growing in God’s love. However, there will come a day when our learning and growing will no longer be necessary, and our time in this present darkness will end. That time is already on its way, and it is predicated on Christ’s return. When Jesus comes back and calls us home, our sanctification will be complete. Once we have shed the flesh for good, and sin can no longer touch us because of what Christ did at the cross, we will be truly holy as God is truly holy. That is heaven: to finally see with perfect vision. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV). On that day, those in Christ will see with His eyes, and our vision will no longer be impaired by sin. The brokenness of this world will fall away, and He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4 NIV). Until that day comes, we press on in the Lord, carrying our cross daily and following Jesus wherever He goes.