Five Facts About Jesus’s Crucifixion We Ignore, But Shouldn’t

Having preached quite a few Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter sermons, I can say that there are things about those days that are easy to find in our Bible texts to want to teach our people. We Love familiarity, even if it can breed contempt. With the Bible, the familiar passages and truths are extremely important and I would never advocate ignoring them. I would only encourage my fellow pastors and their worship leaders to keep the passion alive because it should never get old to us.

I also advocate for dealing with lesser-known yet important facets of the familiar stories in the Bible and teaching them to our people, even if they hurt our brain, make us uncomfortable or risk confusing someone. These are the main reasons we are tempted to ignore parts of Scripture, but this is unwise to me. Christians need all the cards on the table when it comes to our source of truth. Today I want to discuss five of the things that are a part of the Jesus crucifixion narrative—from the Last Supper the night before he died until his actual death—that are too often ignored.

1. John’s timeline of the Last Supper and Crucifixion appears to conflict with the other three Gospels.

In short, the Synoptics–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–say that the Last Supper was a “Passover meal” (see Matt. 26:17-19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13). John, however, says in 19:14 the day of Jesus’s crucifixion was “the day of preparation of the Passover”.

Often in sermons and in writing, I have chided the temptation of those critical of the Bible to find contradictions in details in things like the four Gospel accounts. There are many if you believe the Evangelists who wrote the accounts of Jesus’ life were trying to be precise by modern courtroom standards and that they were trying to present one cohesive account of what happened. They were not on either charge. Examples of what I mean are that one writer says there were two angels at the tomb and another says there was one. One says the stone was rolled away before the women arrived and another says it was rolled away by an earthquake in their presence. My response to many of the ‘contradictions’ is that they make about as much sense to consider them in conflict as a modern NFL fan would consider it a contradiction for one Chicago Bears fan to say that their team won the Super Bowl in 1985 and another to say they won it in 1986. If you are not an NFL fan, the contradiction is easily explained: the NFL regular season takes place in one calendar year and the Super Bowl takes place in the next. Every Chicagoan calls that team the “85 Bears” yet technically they won the Super Bowl on January 20, 1986.

In fact, for my Easter sermon in 2013, I interviewed four Bears fans who watched that Super Bowl and asked them three questions about it—the score, the year, the MVP—and their answers varied slightly. As N.T. Wright has stated, the fact witness accounts differ does not mean that nothing happened. To Bears fans in January of 1986 something amazing happened! That is not the nature of eyewitness testimony and we can easily find contradictions in 2,000-year-old data by parsing the words in English. Witnesses often have differing details and if one writer says there were two angels while another says there was one, that doesn’t mean there was only one. I can easily say, “I’m going on vacation next week” and if later you hear me say, “My wife and I are going on vacation next week,” you’d be obtuse to think that is a contradiction.

Yet, the issue of what days the Last Supper and Crucifixion took place is not quite so easily discarded. It would be like hearing one parent say their child was born on Thanksgiving and the other say their child was born on Christmas. Again, it doesn’t mean their child was not born, but it does present some difficulties with the witness.

The scope of this article is not to hash out how this apparent disconnect can be resolved. My goal is to get Christians to think about these things when thinking about Good Friday. Because the skeptical world is thinking about them. I will give an excellent resource that discusses many possible resolutions and that gives an opinion on the most likely one: Last Supper & Lord’s Supper by I. Howard Marshall. The short version of the best solution to him is that the first three Gospel writers and John are using different calendars. But I strongly urge all of our REO readers to do a deep dive into it. Beyond the controversy here, Marshall offers great thoughts on the Last Supper in general, which is an event we still celebrate to this day.

2. Many early manuscripts do not contain the verse about Jesus sweating great drops of blood.

This is found in Luke 22:44. It and the prior verse are not as well attested by the massive amount of NT manuscripts textual critics use to determine original wording. Depending on what translation and what type of Bible you use, there may be a note in the margin or below that indicates this.

Let me be clear that I do not think that textual notes you read in Bibles that say “not found in many of the earliest, most reliable manuscripts” is some kind of trump card to know whether verse or phrases belong in our Bibles. So I am not saying or implying that Luke never meant to put in this verse about Jesus sweating blood and a scribe later added it. There are many people who believe that Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, Acts 8:37 and similar passages and verses are later additions, but there are also good defenses of them belonging. Just because a manuscript is “early” does not mean that it is better and the word “reliable” is very subjective.

No, my point is that this is the kind of thing Christians should be aware of. It honestly does not matter to me what a person’s opinion is of whether Luke 22:43-44 is original or not, nearly as much as it does that Christians know how our Bibles are put together. One of my favorite resources on this topic is the NET Online Bible (, because it gives textual notes and notes on the original languages about verses like these. And while the text critics who write for this Bible are not the final authority, they do have informed opinions and often give the reader all of the possible options instead of a merely dogmatic take of their view.

3. The prophecy about Judas getting 30 pieces of silver and buying the potter’s field is cited from Jeremiah in Matthew 27:10, but appears more easily cited from Zechariah.

As with #1 above I do not consider this to be a legitimate contradiction that should somehow cast aspersions on the reliability of the Bible or its inerrancy. A detailed explanation of possible reasons Jeremiah is mentioned instead of Zechariah can be found here.

Instead, to me, this is simply a fantastic opportunity for Bible readers to dig deeply into Old Testament prophecies and how the Old Testament impacts the New. Zechariah seems on the surface to be where Matthew is quoting from, but as you read passages like Jeremiah 16 and 32 it helps you understand how you can connect those passages to what Matthew was writing. Finding connections between the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures and the Greek New Testament is crucial to practicing correct hermeneutics. Readers of the Bible only stand to benefit from reading Jeremiah, regardless of whom Matthew meant to cite. Jesus said the entire Old Testament testified about his suffering, death and resurrection. Matthew 27:10 would be a part of that.

4.The bodies of many holy people who had died came to life when Jesus died.

Found only in Matthew (27:52-53), this seemingly random and crazy twist in the story is one that I have not heard many people talk about. And since its mention comes and goes so quickly, I could sort of understand that…if it didn’t foreshadow exactly what Christ was about to do in less than 48 hours. Resurrection means everything in the New Testament and every time it happens in the Bible, whether it be God using Elijah or Elisha in the Old Testament or the resurrections of Lazarus, Eutychus or Jesus himself in the New, it matters. They all are significant and contribute to the foundation of our theology and understanding of God and eternity. Those two verses in Matthew 27 on the heels of the temple curtain being ripped should be mentioned with frequency during our Good Friday sermons.

5. What happened to Jesus’s soul between Friday afternoon and his resurrection?

I honestly do not believe this is greatly ignored in the American church because I have heard it discussed but I do think it deserves more attention than it gets. And I wonder if the strangeness of some verses in the New Testament that try to explain it (especially 1 Peter 3:19-20) gives us pause in preaching it.

And again, my intent in bringing it up is not to pontificate about my own personal view of the subject, but to urge us to think deeply about it and do a careful interpretation of the New Testament passages that can help us understand it. Even the difference in where the quotations start in Jesus’s statement to the thief on the cross matters–is it, …I tell you today, “You will be with me in Paradise”… or …I tell you, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise”…? Rightly dividing the word of truth is not for the lazy or careless and on topics like these a healthy dose of humble yet focused work is prudent.

Let me be clear again that I definitely believe the core aspects of the Good Friday part of the Passion narrative are more important than what I have shared here. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, his forgiving of those who killed him, and his words to the Pharisees and his statements while on the cross deserve a million sermons. Yet there are details in the story that are easy to overlook but teach us vital aspects to God’s story as revealed to us in Christ’s crucifixion. We need not lose one to gain the other. We just need to give the richness of these passages their due.

Of That Day and Hour…

There are things that Christians can know for a fact about the last days of Jesus’s time on earth. We can know that Jesus was crucified for our sins, that three days later He arose, and several days after appearing to various individuals He ascended into heaven promising to one day return. We can know these things because it says so in the Bible. Do you know what else it says about this subject matter? Is says that now no one—not even Jesus or the angels—knows when He will return, that only the father knows (Mark 13:32). Despite this, there have still been those throughout history who have believed they could accurately predict when his arrival would take place.

This trend became a national American Christian craze in the first decades of the 1800s. This was in large part thanks to an individual named William Miller. His earnest study of biblical end time passages convinced him that he could predict the coming of Jesus as sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. He had a sizeable following with his many followers informally known as Adventists. But when the last day of this date range passed without Jesus arriving, his many followers throughout the country fell into a massive despondency known as The Great Disappointment.

This “Disappointment” resulted in much disillusionment. Some of these people eventually got past these low feelings and surprisingly maintained their zeal for specific end time predictions. The result was an eschatological obsession among these people in order to form their own predictions. A group of these individuals were led by James and Ellen to found the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination, which was largely based on the study of end time predictions.

Studying what the Bible says about the end times is a very good thing. We absolutely should study it as much as possible. However, we should realize that there are some things within Scripture we most likely won’t know until the very end of time. And we should not be so proud as to think we can accurately pinpoint exactly when Jesus will return. As mentioned, Jesus Himself says that this is impossible for us. However, he also says in Mark 13 that since we don’t know when He will return, we must constantly wait in anticipation. He also told His disciples that the specific date was really none of their concern, that while we don’t know the date, God has already long ago scheduled it and will handle it (Acts 1:7). Yes, it is not necessary to fully understand a whole lot of things about God. In this case, we just need to know that our risen and ascended Savior is returning and that we need to be ready when He does.

The Resurrection and the Prominence of Empirical Evidence

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.
[The Apostle John]

The most obvious and crucial distinction between Christianity and other major world religions is that it is based not on rules, philosophy or human goodness, but on the facts of a man’s life. It is appropriate that Christmas and Easter are both so widely celebrated (even if a Sunday morning attendance box to check for many) because both, in stark contrast to some other major religious and holy days, answer the question “What happened?” What happened in real time and space in 3D world history?

And it is not merely as simple as something happening. In both cases, something amazing happened. Something literally miraculous and literally incredible. Something scientifically impossible. A virgin gave birth and a man rose from the dead. Someone more poetic than me has commented that Jesus entered the world through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.” Which makes the juxtaposition of what happened and why Christians believe it so fascinating.

For if you read the New Testament carefully and notice which themes emerge, you can definitely find doctrine and morality. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John et. al. taught things like, “Return evil with good,” “Love is patient and kind,” and “If your neighbor is hungry, and you have to give, it is wrong to turn him away.” But if you get at the heart of the New Testament’s message, it definitely is NOT “Be good and you can get to God” or “Think correctly and you will be enlightened.” It really is about what Jesus did. What happened. The miraculous, impossible things that men and women gave their lives to make sure the rest of the world would know forever.

When John opened his first epistle, he didn’t begin with loving your neighbor, or even with Jesus’s atoning sacrifice being for the entire world. No, he began by pronouncing Jesus as God and saying “We saw him. We heard him. We even touched him.” In short, he is making a case that the impossible things that Jesus did by coming and going from this world were empirically verified by those who followed him. And THAT is the message he wanted to begin with. All truth claims about Jesus and the morality that follows hinge on what they experienced with their five senses.

Peter, in his second letter, also values this early on:

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

And this was also how even Luke, who was not an apostle but was a scientist and doctor, began:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

And perhaps it is no surprise since he also wrote Acts and as a result recorded numerous direct quotes from the apostles that kept highlighting the importance of them being witnesses to what happened with Jesus, notably his resurrection:

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it…

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this…

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things…

We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead…

“Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me…

Empirical evidence of Jesus’s resurrection was so important to Paul that what we now know as the Apostles’ Creed is the main thrust of it:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

In short, the creed was not rules or philosophy, but what Jesus did. It is precisely what happened—what they experienced with their senses. The theological implications arise from that.

I close with noting two of the scenes from the Gospels that were, in part, the basis all of the aforementioned verses. They fascinate me for several reasons I want to discuss. All of them are empirical save one. First from Luke:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

First, I cannot help but notice that the cognitive dissonance of a dead man now being alive was so outrageous and so overwhelming, the empirical-based evidence of actually seeing him wasn’t enough. Resurrection from the dead was so magnificently far away from what they could comprehend (notice the use of “joy” conjoining amazement above), they could not even believe their own senses. That is a historically special case of “What happened?” Because it was, indeed, impossible. And that is the truth that launched the Christian faith.

Second, I cannot help but be deeply impacted by the fact that Jesus kept trying to empirically prove it to them by eating the fish. It’s almost like “Me actually being here in the flesh isn’t enough? Touching me isn’t enough? You think I am a ghost? Watch this.” And then he does something else they can observe with their five senses. An incredible scene.

Next, coming full circle, from John:

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Similarly as above, I am again amazed that Jesus solves the doubt, not by telling him to have more faith or to merely believe his eyes, but by going further and letting him touch him. It is that sense that John mentions as well at the beginning of 1 John that really grabbed my attention as I was preparing my mind and heart for Easter this year.

But as any good student of the Bible will tell you, John 20 doesn’t stop with belief based on the empirical. Jesus tells Thomas after he confesses him as God that those who have not seen and still believe are “blessed.” That includes you and me. The apostles witnessed based on what they saw, heard and touched. We witness based on what we believe. But we are not the unfortunate ones. God, in his divine sense of justice, again turns the world upside down by proclaiming the blessed group the opposite one as you’d think. Just as with the Beatitudes. Those who have not experienced Jesus in real time and space join the ‘poor in spirit’ and ‘those that mourn’ as blessed in God’s kingdom.

Yet who is blessed is not the heart of our Gospel. The heart is the apostles’ message of Jesus. Their empirically-verified message passed down from generation to generation for nearly two millennia. All of our theology is built upon “What Happened.” And that makes Jesus wholly distinct from Mohammad and Moses and Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism. He wasn’t just killed and buried. He resurrected and appeared, so that he could be seen, heard, and even touched. That is how Christianity began. And that is the heart of Easter.

Regarding God’s Animal Kingdom

“Then God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with fish and other life. Let the skies be filled with birds of every kind.’ So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that scurries and swarms in the water, and every sort of bird–each producing offspring of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply. Let the fish fill the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.’ And evening passed and morning came, marking the fifth day.” Genesis 1:20-23

“And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so.” Genesis 1:24

I wonder, do cats and dogs and fish and all the other creatures in God’s vast animal kingdom feel the same emotions we feel? How do they experience them? How does God relate to those feelings? Do they process anger in the same way that humans do? Pain? Happiness? Boredom? Animals and humans might function in profoundly different ways, but I do know that He values them and wants us to cherish them as well. He even brought them to Adam so he could personally name them. God apparently did so in order that they might serve as companions, but Adam indicated that none of them was suitable. Thus, God creates the first woman Eve to be this companion (Genesis 2:19,20).

God commanded man to rule over all of the earth and over all of the animal kingdom (Genesis 1:28). Later on, humans are also commanded to eat the flesh of animals for sustenance (Genesis 9;3) and to use select animals as burnt sacrifices to Him (In Genesis 3:21 Abel brought the first recorded animal sacrifice before God). The Bible also tells us that while the spirit of man will rise in the end, the spirit of animals will go down into the earth (Ecclesiastes 3:21). This indicates that when animals die, that is it for them. When the animals of this present world die, they remain in the earth.

This does not suggest that these animals are not important to God. They might not relate to God in the same way we do, but He still cares deeply about them. On the fifth day, He began the process of filling the earth with animals. On this day, He created all animals that are found in the sea–fish, whales, porpoises, aquatic reptiles, etc.–and all kinds of birds. (Scholars who have studied this passage extensively say the command to create bird life also included insects.). Then on the sixth day, he finished off the creation of the animal kingdom by creating all of the land animals. We know that He cared about His animal creations in part because Psalm 50:10-11 God tells us that “…every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.”

The creation account records Gods first three blessings. It is interesting that one of these should be to bless aquatic wildlife and winged creatures. It is also noteworthy that these creatures are the first things God blessed. Curious that God did not give a blessing to the land animals. I think that although God does not use the word “bless” for them, it is clear His blessing was on all the animals in every form. He blessed and sanctified them by both creating them and commanding them to multiply. Yes, God blessed them and prepared them as aids to the coming pinnacle of His creation. He loves them and cares for them. While we should not forget we are their superiors, we should remember that they are valued in the eyes of God. We should also not forget that God’s Word tells us that the life of one’s animal is regarded in the eyes of the righteous man (Proverbs 12:10, NIV).

Poles of Tension, Balance, and Nuance: Making Sense of Things When it’s Hard to Be Dogmatic

I recently wrote a tribute here in REO to Brother Leroy Forlines. There are so many of us who learned so much from him, both by his teaching and possibly even more so from his example.

Mr. Forlines frequently talked about “poles of tension” in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and probably beyond. This was to illustrate truths that often must be stated in more than one way in order to achieve balance. Mr. Forlines wrote in The Quest for Truth:

Life is not always simple. The complication presented by sin, the shortage of time, money, ability, help, etc. limit what we can do. We cannot do everything we would like to do. Frequently, we need to look at a situation from several different angles, and then make a decision. We are pulled at from many directions. We experience tension. The best is not always possible. We have to prioritize in the light of reality. Proverbs 26:4,5 illustrate for us what I call: “the principle of tension and counterbalance.” The first verse reads, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him.” The next verse reads, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”

One verse tells you to not answer a fool. The other verse tells you to answer a fool. Obviously, you cannot do both of these in every situation. If that be the case, how do you obey these two verses? What you have to do is to consider what the greatest risk is. If the greatest risk is that you will be like him, you do not answer him. If the greatest risk is that he will be wise in his own eyes, you do answer him. It will not always be easy to decide which of these to do, but you must do one of them. It is a serious mistake to choose one of these and adopt it as your approach to every situation.

These verses help us develop an important principle of interpretation: There are some truths that cannot be set forth in one principle alone but must be set forth in two or more principles which counterbalance each other. Here we need tension. There is tension between the different sides or angles of truth. This tension is needed to keep balance. This principle of interpretation guides us in areas where we are dealing with what we might call general truth instead of absolute truth. As is illustrated in Proverbs 26:4 and 5, there is no absolute truth about whether and when to answer fools. This principle is similar to the principle, “There are two sides to the same coin,” or “There are many facets of truth.” I will call this principle of interpretation: the principle of tension and counterbalance.

It is important to remember that there are absolute truths such as the moral teachings of the Ten Commandments. These we must obey. But there are some areas of life for which we have general principles rather than absolute truths to guide us. In these cases, we are by the help of God to make wise choices.

As Mr. Forlines suggests, the answer is to found in the remainder of each verse. To blindly and thoughtlessly respond as a fool does is to become as foolish as he. On the other hand (v.5) there will be times when you have to call a fool out, because otherwise he will be wise in his own eyes, and assume he is right. The context determines the response.

Balance is frequently the best and wisest way. Or, as my son David likes to say “nuance,” to not simply take sides dogmatically. Avoiding extremes. We humans have a tendency to gravitate to extremes, and not see nuance, or an even slightly moderated position. We attack our opponent mercilessly and allow no room for compromise. We fail to consider time, place, historical perspective, and heart attitude.

Sometimes balance is not the response, of course. The exclusivity of the gospel, for examples, requires a fixed position, because that’s what the Scriptures state categorically. “There is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved,” allows for no deviation. The law of gravity is fixed. Mathematical formulas like two plus two equal 4. But many, if not most, things in life do allow more than one point of view.

By way of illustration, there’s an example I would like to share. I have long been intrigued by the phrase “a sinner saved by grace.” In fact, one of my favorites of the Gaither songs carries that title.

I’m just a sinner saved by grace
When I stood condemned to death He took my place.
Now I grow and breathe in freedom with each breath of life I take.
I’m loved and forgiven, back with the living,
I’m just a sinner saved by grace.

A “sinner saved by grace.” Some say we should not use that phrase, that if we are saved we are no longer a sinner, and that we are advocating license to sin by using it. I think we can legitimately use the phrase, as long as it’s properly nuanced, and we aren’t advocating continuing in sin while claiming grace. (See Romans 6)

1. There is a past and present perspective, or before and after. I was a lost sinner who has been saved by God’s amazing grace. Before meeting Christ, I was without God and without hope (Ephesians 2). After I am His and He is mine.

2. Being a sinner saved by grace does not mean continuing in sin. Absolutely not. At no time in this life am I perfect or sinless. But as a believer, I must, and do sin less.

3. Paul, the great Apostle, refers to himself in I Timothy 1:15 as the “chief of sinners.” To me, Paul’s referring to himself as the “chief of sinners,” even though he is an apostle, church planter, and long-time believer. This shows that it isn’t out of place when used properly and given nuance to refer to oneself as “a sinner saved by grace.”

4. We are now saints, holy ones. A sinner saved by grace is a saint of God. Both are true. Poles of tension. I am not what I was, though I’m not yet what I long to be. A redeemed, saved sinner, reborn a saint, a child of God.

James Gray was president of the Moody Bible Institute from 1904 until 1934. He wrote the hymn “Only a Sinner Saved by Grace.” (Also may be known as, “Naught Have I Gotten by What I Received.”) Gray wrote the lyrics and a member of the music faculty wrote the music. This hymn has been a great blessing in my life over the years:

Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it since I have believed;
Boasting excluded, pride I abase;
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Only a sinner saved by grace!
Only a sinner saved by grace!
This is my story, to God be the glory,
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Once I was foolish, and sin ruled my heart,
Causing my footsteps from God to depart;
Jesus hath found me, happy my case;
I now am a sinner saved by grace!

Tears unavailing, no merit had I;
Mercy had saved me, or else I must die;
Sin had alarmed me, fearing God’s face;
But now I’m a sinner saved by grace!

Suffer a sinner whose heart overflows,
Loving his Savior to tell what he knows;
Once more to tell it, would I embrace—
I’m only a sinner saved by grace!

Determining the truth in the most accurate way is vitally important. I’m thoroughly convinced that looking at all sides of an issue, striving for balance in matters that don’t require a dogmatic, inflexible stance, and nuanced position is generally the best way to go.

Experts Now in Development of Artificial Theology (or A.T.) Designed to Update Scripture and Christian World to Modern Technological Standards

In January of 2020, a team of technologists received the Nobel prize after inventing the first phase of Artificial Theology. The first theological premise generated by this advanced divine program is that the universe was created by a gigantic 3D printer. To date, absolutely no proof has come to light to support the theory, yet techno-savvy scholars the world over are fully on board.

Since that time the new technology has continued to relate further new and exciting biblical-ish facts about the book of Genesis. While the Genesis project is yet at an early stage, debatably the most stunning new fact generated is that the I.R.S. was the original tempter in the Garden of Eden. This has confirmed the long-held belief that they are a thing of great evil. But this is only the beginning. After Genesis, A.T. will generate exciting new truths and facts about the rest of the Bible.

In less than two years, A.T. is anticipated to give birth to a further technology known as Artificial Christianity (or A.C.). In about six years, the project developers anticipate A.C. to have the capability of creating authentic Christian robots pre-programmed to follow a detailed A.C. instruction manual. This will include such protocol involved with things such as ushering, sound booth supervising, security, librarian, choir membership, nursery worker and many other roles.

In addition, the robots will be completely waterproof so they will be able to perform water-based ordinances such as baptism and feet washing. According to an early draft of the A.T. manual, human congregants can stay home on feet washing nights since the robots will be doing it on their behalf. (It is not yet known if robots at any stage can safely ingest foods and liquids so as of yet there are no plans for research and development of robots taking communion).

Expert futurists predict that when the entirety of this ongoing project is completed, the only human Christians doing anything at church except filling a pew will be the pastor, who along with his other duties, will be assigned to robot control.

There is much excitement in the Christian community regarding these imminent developments.

Veronica Samuelson voiced the thoughts of many fellow human Christians: “I can finally just sit in the pew without the guilt of not doing anything!”

Added fellow congregant Roger Ellerson, “Preach it! It will be great not to feel obligated to act on our faith.”

In light of the continuing promise of A.T. and A.C. advancement, theology professors of some of the top secular universities in the world anxiously await the final eradication of all remaining active human faith in the original Bible. Although the predictions exist, its full implications on the future of Christianity are not yet known. However, it is widely known that technology makes everything better, so expectations are high. Its so…exciting!

On the End of God’s Leash

We dog sat this weekend for some friends who were out of town for a funeral. We are not “pet people” though at least one of our boys wishes we were. I will quickly add that if we were to get a pet, it would be a dog. We are most definitely not cat people.

We had a blast watching this little creature. She was friendly, playful, and mostly easy to manage. (She decided that our dining room was her personal bathroom, but even that wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.) The boys loved her and were sad to see her go when the family got back from their trip.

The things I will write from this point forward are not new. They aren’t breaking any new ground. I’m sure many others before me have made this point. Still, I felt like the reminder was important so I’m going to take a stab at it.

I woke up early one morning to take the dog for a walk. She had been inside all night and I was sure she needed to take care of business. I placed her collar and leash on her and out the door we went. Every time I walked her, she seemed overwhelmed by all the new smells and sounds so she had very little desire to answer nature’s call. She nosed and sniffed around every plant, fence, rock, and tree. It was cold that morning and we had been outside for about 15 minutes with no luck as far as the necessities were concerned, so I decided to call it quits. I called to the dog. She ignored me and continued sniffing. I called again. She ignored me again. I gave her leash a gentle tug. She refused to budge. I tugged again, a little harder this time. She decidedly paid me no mind. She turned her little head in the opposite direction and made sure to disregard me.

This dog is small. I have no idea how much she weighs, but I’m guessing it’s five pounds or less. I could be wrong about that but I’m probably not too far off in my guess. In other words, she is tiny and weak. I looked at her in all her stubbornness and I laughed. Did she actually think she could resist me? Did she really think she could hold her ground if I really wanted her to come with me? How absurd and foolish could she be to believe that she had any say in the matter at all? Long story short, we were back inside the warm house about two minutes later. We came to an agreement. I was a lot bigger and stronger than her and she had no choice but to obey. I was gentle with her, of course, but there was no doubting who was in charge. (I picked her up and carried her to the front yard and she got with the program from that point on.)

When I sat down that morning with my coffee, it struck me how often we behave like that dog in our relationship with God. God wants us to move, to take action, to do something He has called us to do, and we grow stubborn. We sit. We resist. We turn our heads away from His voice and we pretend that we have any real power in the relationship. Now, I am a firm believer in free will. I wholeheartedly believe that God will allow us to dig in our heels and refuse His leading. I also believe that when we do this, that sometimes God moves matters in such a way as to make our defiance pointless. He moves us even when we do not move ourselves. He closes doors. He pushes us by sickness, loss of jobs, other transitions in our lives. He is usually far gentler than even I was with the dog, but He leaves no doubt that He is in charge.

The prophet Isaiah asks “who can frustrate” that which “the LORD of hosts has planned? Who can turn back on His stretched-out hand?” (Isaiah 14:27). Job questions how anyone could “restrain” the Lord. How anyone could ask Him, “What are You doing?” (Job 9:12). Mary, the mother of Christ, after being told about her upcoming pregnancy says, “He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Luke 1:51). Who are we to say “no” to this God who moves mountains, who shakes the earth from its place, who speaks to the sun causing it to not shine? Ridiculously, foolishly, mind-numbingly stupidly, we say “no.” We pluck up our courage and we refuse to obey.

Yet, God is “slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness.” (Numbers 14:18; Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2.) Over and over, Scripture describes God as “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” That is not something we deserve and it is not a license to disobey or refuse. It is a testament to this great God we serve. He is patient even though we don’t deserve it. He is “abundant in lovingkindness.” That word, literally translated from the Hebrew means “covenant loyalty.” His love and kindness, His patience and mercy are based on His promises to us. Those promises are eternal. They are fixed forever. “He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” (Psalm 95:7).

He can move us if He wants to. He can take that leash and he can pull us, with our feet dragging underneath us. Thankfully, He is gentler than that most of the time. Thankfully, He is patient and kind and He leads and guides more than he pushes and pulls.

I could have overpowered that little dog with virtually no effort, yet God’s dominance and power over me is infinitely greater. Incomprehensibly greater. Yet He is gentle and loving, patient and kind. I forget that too often, to my shame and frustration. I am thankful I was given a reminder this weekend while I waited for that dog to pee.

Church Discipline: The Form, The Attitude, The Reasoning, and The Goal

While I am positive the Bible runs counter to every culture in the world in many ways, it is how it is countercultural to America that most interests me as a citizen of this nation. Here at REO, we’ve written about many of them and one that I have not touched thus far due to how nasty its connotation can be is the issue of how churches deal with people caught in sin. What happens when the church finds out about a marital affair? Or a porn addiction? Or that someone has been lying habitually, or dealing with anger in sinful ways?

I realize that orthodox American Christian churches historically have messed up this aspect of theology and practice quite badly at times and that has caused the concept of church discipline to be treated as a profane term to be avoided both in speech and action. I add that I believe my current church in Chicago has actually done this quite well biblically speaking, thanks almost entirely to the other elders I have worked with. This doesn’t change the fact that this issue is significantly misunderstood and poorly practiced in some Baptist and Evangelical churches, if practiced at all.

I fear churches avoid discipline for at minimum three reasons. First, people so often in recent church history have done this with so little grace and without reconciliation in mind that it conjures up images of gossiping, self-righteous church members and leaders and scarlet letters. Second, on the opposite end, some churches simply do not judge the behaviors of their membership. Either through a warped view of grace, because of the fear of man, or a huge overlap of both, they never confront for any reason. These first two demonstrate how easy it is to live in extremes and not in the tension of balanced biblical interpretation and application—in this case, grace and truth[1. Which are not true opposites and need to work together, and that is basically the point of this whole article]. And third, the the current American church culture bends to segregating your church life and your personal life so that church is just a place to worship an hour a week and blend in and not a place to live in transparent, confessional community with other believers every day.

None of these things are remotely biblical.

Today I want to deal with it head on and with as much wisdom as I can. And as alluded to above, I do not come at this with mere head knowledge. I feel like I have been led by other men of God and have through the fire. By the grace of God we have come to understand this area of theology to some level. Having said that, while the best teaching and preaching involves illustrations and personal experiences, I will obviously be avoiding that today out of prudence and common sense. At least for the most part. A simple interpretation of a few Bible passages will be enough to start and these interpretations—and not my own war stories—will be most effective in helping others understand this topic. Jesus and Paul, the main source material for the NT for this topic, both speak very plainly about it.

With these two men in mind, here are four crucial aspects to confronting sin in the church, according to the inspired New Testament authorities:

The Form: Four Steps of Increasing Severity

In Matthew 18:15-18 Jesus gives a very basic and practical model to follow when a fellow believer has sinned. First, confront them personally. If they do not listen, take another Christian with you. If that doesn’t work, take it to the church. And then if they still do not listen then “treat them as an unbeliever (Gentile, pagan) or tax collector”.

There is a lot to unpack there and some of it is open to interpretation but I’ll try to be succinct. Disagreement here is welcomed below in the comment section (as well as disagreement with any part of this). The first two steps are pretty simple so I’ll skip to the third one. Our church has interpreted “the church” as this being the step when the elders get involved. Not the whole church at large. Not only does the latter seem impractical in our culture, it is our aim to show as much grace and patience in keeping things private until absolutely necessary. I hasten to add here that my church does not practice these steps with a “one and done” approach, meaning we may have several conversations at each step with the person caught in sin, as we try to figure out the truth and how best to serve the person, either through discipline or counseling or something similar.

Once the fourth step comes, then there is no choice. If the offending person shows no willingness to repent or even to meet with the church to present their side, then the person is removed from membership and the church must be notified.

What exactly does it mean to “treat them as an unbeliever or a tax collector”? Well in some way I believe it means you consider them as someone who is not a Christian because they cannot be if they are living in unrepentant sin. Especially after being shown that much grace. That part seems pretty straightforward. And after that? Well, this is where it can get hairy and part of this discussion is affected by how we view certain passages on the topic. I once had a disagreement with another elder at my church about how to treat a person at the fourth step, as far as how to interact with them. Based on 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 I was adamant that this person needed to be cut off and left to their own selfishness as punishment. No association with them would be biblical. Another elder more graciously advocated for trying to win them back through relationship, since that is what our church does with unbelievers. Isn’t that the ultimate end to treating them as a pagan or tax collector? Could Paul and Jesus be in conflict here?

We discussed it for a long time. I admit the other elder was closer to the truth than I was but we both moved some towards the middle. We established that the way we would go about would be to try to maintain a relational connection if possible (in our experience people in stage four often do not want to have any communication with the church), but only to try to win them back with loving and graceful truth. Essentially by evangelizing them. But this does not mean we simply hang out with them as we would any other lost person just to be a friend. I share Jesus with the lost friends I have but not in an aggressive way every time we are together. Sometimes we just get together to watch a baseball game. I may work Jesus into the conversation, but it is not always the main point in the meeting. That is a crucial difference between a Step Four unbeliever and an unbeliever who has never been a part of the church. The former needs to be approached with restoration as the primary goal of the meeting. That is at least where my church landed.

The Attitude: Humble Self-Awareness

In Galatians 6:1, Paul makes it clear that when we confront someone in sin, no matter which step I would think, it has to be with humility. This can be shown through our word choices and the whole of our nonverbal communication, though I am sure what humility looks like will change from person to person. It obviously isn’t weak or passive or apologetic in this context but it absolutely should communicate to the sinning party, “I am not better than you. I could very easily be caught in sin just as you have been.” Self-righteousness has no place in church discipline. And it is my firm belief that if a Christian is living face down before God in worship, preaching the Gospel to themselves, and seeking forgiveness from God and others daily, then when it is time to confront, they will be able to practice Galatians 6:1 correctly. Isn’t this what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-3 as well?

The Reasoning: Protect the Body from Death

Paul gives a significant amount of teaching on this topic in 1 Corinthians 5. But for this article, I want to zero in on one thing he teaches. We practice church discipline and are willing to put people out of membership for a reasonable end: if you do not take sin out of the church, it will spread throughout the church like gangrene in a diseased foot will go to the rest of the body. Amputation can absolutely be the most gracious thing to keep a body healthy. He uses the illustration of yeast in bread but the point is the same; the sin of one person can corrupt the whole church if not extracted. That is just the nature of sin and humanity. If a person sins without repentance and the church lets them stay, other members will be extremely inclined to fall into similar temptations. So by removing the unrepentant former member from the church community, you are actually doing something entirely gracious—you are protecting God’s bride, who is supposed to be presented to him as radiant and without spot or wrinkle. This is of course primarily because the blood of Christ makes the church clean, but repentance keeps her clean. A lack of repentance, even by a single individual, can potentially ruin the whole body. Churches must be willing to seem ungracious to that one so that they are being gracious to all.

The Goal: Reconciliation, Always

Perhaps the biggest sin of Phariseeism is that its self-righteousness makes reconciliation impossible. No matter the teaching in the New Testament, I cannot help but comprehend this topic as one where reconciliation with the one caught in sin and the church as the goal of every step. There is no room in our churches for “You messed up so you don’t belong here.” Quite often in my experience, people do not say this to the sinning person’s face; they just gossip them out of the church. Gossip is about as perpendicular to healthy confrontation, humility and reconciliation as it can be. And as such is listed with the worst sins in New Testament lists (Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20).

Instead, we need to be actively seeking reconciliation and restoration with the person caught in sin. That is what Jesus was teaching by giving the steps he gave in Matthew. It seems obvious to me that just looking at those four verses (vs. 15-18) you can see grace being shown by giving the person numerous chances to repent and by giving their sin privacy. But by looking at the larger context of Matthew 18, it becomes even more obvious how essential it is to see the guilty person as someone to be forgiven if they repent. In 18:21-35, Jesus teaches that we forgive over and over and over precisely because God has forgiven us far more than we have been offended.

Additionally, I believe Paul dealt with the offending man from 1 Corinthians 5 in his second Corinthian letter and taught to welcome him back into fellowship. Now I must assume that the man had repented because I do not think you can have reconciliation without repentance. You can forgive without it, but reconciliation takes two people: A forgiving victim and a sorrowful offender. But the fact Paul advises to forgive and accept the man from 1 Corinthians 5 is powerful when you consider how repulsive his sin was.

Much more could be said on this topic but part of why REO exists is to foster discussion and not presume to present the final, authoritative word on subjects like these. So feedback even in the form of disagreement is welcomed below.

Five Lessons Learned from F. Leroy Forlines

Let me tell you a story. I am one of many who grew up under the ministry of Leroy Forlines, long-time theologian and professor at Free Will Baptist Bible College (now Welch College). There are few people who have had as great an influence in shaping me than Mr. Forlines; my mother, my pastor, and a handful of others.

Mr. Forlines was a teacher, mentor, example whose personal integrity and godly life touched many of us. Now in his 90s, Mr. Forlines is a national treasure to our denomination, and to the entire body of Christ. A few months ago, an REO contributor wrote a tribute to him. My thoughts here are somewhat a tribute as well, obviously, but I want to be more personal and talk of how he influenced me in several ways, both big and small. I hope to follow this article with another that will focus on one of his sayings or approaches to finding the truth: his well-known “poles of tension” that I first heard articulated in the 1970s.

1. Mr. Forlines was intentional in teaching good manners.
2. Mr. Forlines was insistent in teaching his students to accept responsibility.
3. Mr. Forlines was inexorable in emphasizing a commitment to holiness.
4. Mr. Forlines was important in our movement as a theologian.
5. Mr. Forlines was involved in ministry in his later years – bearing fruit even unto old age.

1. Mr. Forlines was intentional in teaching good manners.

It was my first or second year at Free Will Baptist Bible College, 1969 or 1970. I asked a young lady (not Judy; it was before we started dating) for an on-campus date. These consisted of either sitting in the student lounge, outside in certain designated areas or walking around one of the approved blocks on or near the campus. This particular day the young lady and I were walking, probably around Richland-Bowling, and met Mr. and Mrs. Forlines who were approaching from the opposite direction. He greeted us, and then pulled me aside and said: “a gentleman walks on the outside of a lady on the sidewalk.” I hadn’t even thought about it. I learned a lesson in etiquette I remember to this day.

2. Mr. Forlines was insistent in teaching his students to accept responsibility.

Every week, usually on Wednesdays, we men students had an on-campus meeting. Usually, Mr. Forlines met with us. Some guys found the meetings boring and a waste of time, but my friend Seldon Buck and I had a ball, listening and laughing (not out loud) as Bro. Forlines shared with the guys. There was always Scripture, some sort of devotional thought, but so much more, especially as it related to living responsibly in a campus dormitory situation. Things like flushing the toilet, knocking on a fellow students’ door before entering, keeping your room neat; things of that nature that some of the guys didn’t do too well. Occasionally, Mr. Forlines would do some entertainment, such as his famous trick of standing on his head and drinking water. Amazing! I don’t know if we realized it at the time, but he was helping us grow up as young men, and even when it was emphasizing rules, it had its value. I personally am grateful for those “Boy Scout” meetings, as they were known.

3. Mr. Forlines was inexorable in emphasizing a commitment to holiness.

I don’t recall the first time I heard him utter the phrase “a passion for holiness,” if it was during my student years or shortly after graduation when I heard him speak at a National Convention or Bible Conference, but I do know that it became a passion of his to stress the importance of striving after personal holiness. It came up frequently and reminded us of how far we often fell short, and how our hearts needed to be focused on holiness. He drove it home every time he could, and I am thankful.

4. Mr. Forlines was importantisimo in our movement as a theologian.

That’s a Spanish word which conveys a little more than any English word could: he was of the greatest importance as the theological voice in our movement. After Bible College, he spent nearly a decade in institutions of higher education, earning multiple degrees, and studying under some of the finest minds in the world. Not only did he shape our movement by training hundreds of pastors and missionaries, he was able to influence others who came to the college who weren’t Free Will Baptist. Additionally, his articles in CONTACT magazine provided theological insight to many more who did not study at the college. His years of service on the Commission on Theological Liberalism was a voice of warning about dangerous trends that threatened the evangelical faith once delivered to the saints. His works such as Systematics, and later The Quest for Truth, showed how he remained current and relevant in theological debate, and did so with grace, kindness, and an irenic spirit, even while standing for the truth boldly.

5. Mr. Forlines was involved in ministry in his later years, bearing fruit even in old age.

Amazingly, while still teaching at Free Will Baptist Bible College, Leroy Forlines and his wife Fay were able to travel to Russia and spend considerable time there teaching Russian pastors. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it immediately became possible to travel to Russia, and the Western evangelical world began to do just that. Russian Baptists have always been historically Arminian in theology, but most of those going from the West were Calvinist and brought a strong Calvinist emphasis. Our brothers there were so thankful to learn of Arminianian theologians from the West who were virtually identical in their viewpoints with them, and Leroy Forlines, Robert Picirilli, Garnett Reid, Thomas Marberry, and Ron Callaway were able to spend much time with them. The Forlines stayed for several months, and covered the entire country. Mr. Forlines also spent time in India with veteran missionary and former college classmate, Carlisle Hanna. I well remember him sharing with me, with tears, the impact the India trip made on his life. I think it was tremendous to see someone his age expand his horizons, and no doubt at great personal discomfort serve His Lord in that way.

I suppose someone might ask, “feeling as you do about F. Leroy Forlines, he must have been your favorite teacher.” Actually, I never had one class under Mr. Forlines! The reason is, I had not determined my area of study my first two years, and when I was called into missions I had to cram a number of missions courses into three semesters, and I was not able to include Systematic Theology or Biblical Ethics.

However…in subsequent years I devoured everything Mr. Forlines wrote. I taught Systematic Theology no less than five times in Spanish in Panama, and Ethics at least four times. Mr. Forlines’ works and thought are so embedded in mine, that I think it’s safe to say no other theologian or thinker has influenced me more. I am truly thankful for his life.

*Image courtesy of ONE Magazine.

Is Holiness God’s Fundamental Attribute?

Is God’s fundamental attribute holiness instead of love?

I was taught this in my Systematic Theology class back in Bible College. I rejected the teaching for years, however, thinking that God doesn’t really have a fundamental attribute. I stated my opinion as God’s love doesn’t cause him to be holy but his holiness didn’t require Jesus to go to the cross and die in the greatest act of sacrificial love of all time.

I don’t necessarily disagree with my stated opinion above but I have come to the conclusion that even if that opinion is true, God does have a fundamental attribute. The problem I had in seeing it is that I had a definition of “holy” that was too narrow. I suppose it was because of how I was raised but even though I knew the technical definition of the word as “set apart” I associated it with moral perfection. God is morally perfect and when he tells his people to be holy it means he wants them to be set apart from other nations in their moral excellence.

But that isn’t the totality of the meaning and when you get closer to the fuller meaning it becomes clearer as to why I changed my mind about this.

First I want to establish that definition. But I want to go beyond a strict dictionary definition of “holy” and its like forms. Back in grad school, my favorite professor, Dr. Wong Loi Sing, used to teach us to consider when doing hermeneutics what he called the “wording of meaning”. He distinguished it from the meaning of words. To give an illustration of what he meant by the difference, if I said you are the “apple of my eye,” then you would know that a strict dictionary definition of “apple” would be wrong. (A good dictionary will give idioms and the like, and that is the point.) A biblical example is when David writes in Psalm 139, ‘You discern my going out and my lying down”. He obviously means that God knows everything about him, and says so plainly in the same verse. But he uses two phrases that are not meant to be taken literally to get the totality of the meaning. This can be classified as a merism in Hebrew, which is when an author uses two extreme boundaries to speak to the entirety of something. Like English may say “I love you from your head to your toes” to talk about loving a person completely.

In all of these cases, how the words interact with each other in phrases and clauses—and not precisely what the words mean in a dictionary—is of utmost importance. Dictionary definitions matter, of course, but communication meaning resides more so with how we use words to make meaning.

So with that in mind, I want to look at ways the Bible uses the word “holy” in context of other words and terms around it and pull out a more fuller meaning than just “set apart.” Then I will examine why I think this definition fits with God’s core attribute.

1. The Sabbath Day
In verses like Gen. 2:3 and Ex. 12:16 God establishes this day as set apart in the sense that is was not like other days. Six days were for work, one was set aside for worship and rest. This day was unique. It was different. At its heart, it was opposite the previous six days.

2. Israel
“Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:5-6)

Again they were set apart, as special. They were treasured in a distinct way. They were not like other nations.

3. The Holy Place and The Holy of Holies
In reading chapters like Exodus 26, 28 and 31, we learn that only priests could enter into the Holy Place and it was separate from the people by a veil or a curtain[1. Words like “veil” and “curtain” conjure up more flimsy images of material than what this was—extra-biblical materials say that it was four inches thick and that two teams of horses pulling in opposite directions could not pull it apart.]. Entering the Holy Place had to be preceded by quite an ordeal of clothing or death would result. That is how serious this separation of holy place from what was outside is.

The Holy of Holies was even more separated—only one man one time a year could enter it.

So you can get a sense of “holy” from the things God considered holy–days, people and places. Yet the Bible defines God as holy in the most extreme sense of “set apart”. It describes Him, as I did about Aslan the Lion from the Narnia series, as wholly unique, transcendent and “other.” No person or god or anything in all of the universe is like him. He hits upon this idea over and over in a long section near the end in Isaiah. Even though Isaiah does not use the word “holy” in all of these verses, this is what I think it means:

For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Is 43:3)

I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior (43:11)

I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me.” (44:6-7a)

Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any. (44:8)

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself.” (44:24)

I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God; (45:5 ab)

For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.”(45:18)

Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (45:22-23)

To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike? (46:5)

For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ (469b-10a)

For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. Listen to me, O Jacob,
and Israel, whom I called!
I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. (47:11-12)

This is why I think holiness, and not love or anything else, is God’s fundamental attribute. If you asked me what God is like, there is nothing more essential to his being than that he is not like us. And different and unique in the most magnificent way possible. Worthy of worship and glory because of who he is. I will use words like “respect” and “honor” to describe how I react to my dad or my pastor. But there are some words and phrases I will only use for God: “worship,” “glorify,” “bow down to,” etc. This is the essence of God to me. His holiness doesn’t necessarily cause him to love, but it does mean his love is also unique and set apart, as Romans 5:6-8 explains that it is. Human love is not in the same universe as God’s love.

As the church we, of course, are supposed to be holy as Israel was commanded to be thousands of years ago in that we are different from the world–morally and in other ways—and unique as God’s special possession. The word church even literally means “called out ones”. But we can never truly be like God. Not when his holiness is understood most fully and completely.

And that is why I consider it his primary attribute.