Holy God! Holy Church?

Rev. Dr. John VissersThe Rev. Dr. Vissers is Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal.

My earliest memories of being a Presbyterian go back to my childhood, to a time when I was about seven years old and my family joined the local Presbyterian Church after having belonged to churches in the Dutch Calvinist tradition. Every Sunday the morning service began exactly the same way because, if nothing else, Presbyterians are creatures of habit, as long as those habits are done decently and in order! The minister mounted the pulpit steps and gave the call to worship. Then the choir and the entire congregation stood and sang these words:

    Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty
    Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee
    Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty
    God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

What a glorious vision of God: holy, almighty, merciful, triune. The Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. As I reflected on this occasion a number of themes came to mind. But I kept returning to the theme of the holiness of God and the holiness of the church. A question kept pressing itself upon my mind: Does the Presbyterian Church in Canada still believe in the holiness of God? Is this an attribute of God with which we are familiar? And does the Presbyterian Church in Canada still long to be a holy church? Is this a call of God with which we wrestle? And what role has The Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada played in answering these questions? What role ought it to play?

The holiness of the church is at the very centre of what we mean by renewal. In the creeds we confess that the holiness of the church is one of the marks of the church: we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. In its most basic sense, the holiness of the church refers to the purity of the church's faith and life; the sanctity of its doctrine and practice. The holiness of the church, therefore, is the sanctification of the church. The church is holy because the people of God are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the church's only king and head. In one sense the holiness of the church is a given because of what Christ has accomplished. Jesus is the Holy One and our holiness is his holiness attributed to us in union with him. But the holiness of the church is also a calling: the covenant community must become holy so that what the church is in reality becomes more and more consistent with what the church has been declared to be in faith, i.e., a holy people (1 Pet. 2:9,10). The renewal of the church, therefore, cannot be anything less than the ongoing, continuous sanctification of the church. We use different words to describe this call and this process. The church is to be under constant reformation, revitalization, conversion, and evangelization. In short, it means that God is not finished with the church yet. God loves the church the way it is, but he loves the church too much to leave it that way. Renewal movements spring up when the church has lost its way on this journey, when the people of God forget their calling.

One of the reasons for this waywardness is the church's preoccupation with itself. It is assumed that the church is responsible for its own renewal according to the standards it sets for itself. But this is not the biblical pattern. In the Bible renewal begins again when God's people are confronted afresh by the one, true, holy and living God, whom to know is life eternal, whom to serve is joy and peace (Living Faith 1.1). A vision of what the church is called to be can only begin with a vision of the God who beckons the church to become what it is called to be.

We find such a vision in Isaiah 6. This chapter is the well-known call and commission of the prophet to be a servant of God. We're told that the vision and the call came to Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died. In one sense there is nothing unusual about Isaiah noting the time and place of his call and commission. In another sense, however, the opening words of this chapter provide more than an historical marker. King Uzziah, we're told in other places, was a popular king. Not all the kings of Israel were popular. But his fifty-seven year reign had brought stability and security and prosperity to Israel. Whether Uzziah himself had been responsible for this or whether he was just fortunate that it had occurred under his watch doesn't really matter: the people attributed the good years to him.

But what now? The king was dead. Long live the king? It wasn't that simple. There was a sense of uncertainty and fear among the people concerning their future. The people of God began to lose their way. What were they to do now? Who would lead them? How would they face a future that seemed bleak indeed? Think for a moment about their situation — and our solution. If they had done what we usually do in such circumstances they probably would have called for a consultation or a think tank; they might have developed some new programs, initiated some novel strategies, hired a consultant. That's the solution-driven church of the twenty-first century. Problems are analyzed, solutions proposed, and quick fixes attempted.

But our scene does not open with Isaiah attending a strategy session or committee meeting. It opens in the temple with Isaiah waiting upon God. The king of Israel may have died but the real king of Israel, the Holy One, was very much alive. The throne of Israel may have been empty but the throne of heaven was still occupied. In the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of transition, in the midst of potential upheaval, God came down, the living sovereign God revealed his way and his will and his word to Isaiah. In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord.

Isaiah's day is not unlike our own. It may be trite to say that the church faces an uncertain future, but that doesn't make it any less true. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has seen better days. But Isaiah saw the Lord. And that's the difference. Renewal does not begin with a yearning for what once was, but with a longing for the God who is. Renewal does not begin with us. It begins with God. It is not about us. It is about God. In short, the renewal of the church does not begin with the church at all. It begins with God. The church will never be holy because it cleanses itself. The church becomes holy as it experiences the power and presence of the God to whom it belongs and for whom it lives. The holiness of the church rests in the reality that God's people belong to God and participate in the holiness of God. Isaiah's encounter with God is a call to the church to become the people God intends us to be.

1. Isaiah had to come to terms with God, vv.1-4.

Whatever you make of these four verses, and however you interpret them, one thing is clear: this is a picture unlike anything we might normally experience in this world. Isaiah sees God on a throne, high and exalted. God's presence filled all the available space and more. God was accompanied by a heavenly train filled with worshipers. There was noise and speaking and shaking and smoke. And whatever was happening was to be understood as a mere reflection of the fullness of God's presence in the heavens and on earth. Isaiah knew that he was dealing with a God who could not be trivialized or domesticated. This was a God who was wholly set apart; a mysterious and majestic presence. Isaiah was attracted and repulsed at the same time by the overwhelming sense of the Lord's presence.

It is an obvious but oft-forgotten truth that the church of every age must come to terms with God. It is certainly true of our own day. In a book called The Trivialization of God, American Presbyterian Donald McCullough says this:

    Visit a church on Sunday morning — almost any will do — and you will likely find a congregation comfortably relating to a deity who fits nicely within precise doctrinal positions, or who lends almighty support to social crusades, or who conforms to individual spiritual experiences. But you will not likely find much awe or sense of mystery. The only sweaty palms will be those of the preacher unsure whether the sermon will go over; the only shaking knees will be those of the soloist about to sing the offertory…The New Testament warns us, "offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29). But reverence and awe have often been placed by a yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but not heat, no blinding light, no power for purification…. When the true story gets told, whether in the partial light of historical perspective or in the perfect light of eternity, it may well be revealed that the worst sin of the church (in our time) is the trivialization of God.

It is a curious thing that in my work at McGill University I often meet students who want to talk about God but who don't have much time for the church, because, they say, the church doesn't seem to talk about God. The church appears to keep God at a comfortable arm's length. On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary we give thanks for the ministry of The Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada. But is the Renewal Fellowship also caught up with the institutional church and its divisions and dilemmas to the point that those who have sensed a call to renewal forget to talk about God?

A.W. Tozer once said that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The decline of any church, he suggests, can be traced to the fact that it gets the answer to a most basic question wrong: who is God and what is God like?

Renewal begins when we dare once again to talk about God, when we dare to be confronted by the holiness of God. The holiness of God, however, is not some abstract and awful attribute. The reflection of God's glory, the majesty of God's holiness, the mystery of God's transcendence, the image of God's radiant splendour — these have appeared unbroken and undiminished in the face of Jesus Christ. Thus Paul can say in 2 Corinthians 4:6 — "We have the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified, Jesus intercedes for us. He reigns and rules as the Lord of church whose rule over all creation will be revealed at the last day. This is the one to whom the scriptures point and the creeds and confessions witness. He is the Holy One, high and lifted up, whose train fills the temple. Is the church in fellowship with the Holy One?

2. Isaiah had to come to terms with himself, vv.5-7

Isaiah's vision of God forced him to look inward. When confronted by God Isaiah got a whole new perspective on his own life. It was too much to bear and he cried out in despair. But he did not shrink from self-knowledge. Isaiah knew the truth. He knew he was seeing himself for what he was — a man of unclean lips who lived in a world that was not the way it was supposed to be. He realized that he lived among a people who were called by God's name but a people filled with pride and sloth and falsehood. He felt the pain acutely as he shared in the brokenness of his own people.

Isaiah experienced the holiness of God in the very depths of his soul; he was forced to see himself and his people with the brutal honesty that God's truth requires. But the holy God did not leave him there. One of the seraphs touched his mouth with a live coal. This is a symbol of cleansing and refining fire. Isaiah's guilt was being taken away. His sin was being atoned. God's judging word includes a saving word.

It is not too much to suggest that the church in our time must come to terms with itself. In the opening pages of the Institutes John Calvin begins with these words: "All the wisdom we possess consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." We usually apply Isaiah 6 and Calvin's text to individuals, as if God is in the business of dealing with solitary believers. But we are called to think about the holiness of God in terms of the church. There can be no renewal of the people of God until the church comes to terms with itself in the presence of God. The church cannot shrink from self-knowledge. There's not much holy about the church in the world today. One only has to think about the scandals of sexual abuse by the clergy; the residential schools; divided churches. There is a crisis of morality and integrity in the church. But it is not in the first instance a moral problem. It is a theological problem. We can't come to terms with what the Lord requires of us until we come to terms with the Lord himself.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada is not immune from all this. To what extent have we remained faithful to our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord; to the authority of Scripture; to the creeds and confessions of our tradition? To what extent does the Renewal Fellowship participate in the brokenness of the church? To what extent have our ministers and our elders forgotten about God? In what sense do our leaders, called and ordained, understand their lives coram Deo (in the presence of God).

Robert Murray McCheyne was twenty-seven years old when he wrote these words to a newly ordained missionary friend: "It is not great talents God blesses as much as likeness to Jesus. A holy ministry is an awful weapon in the hand of God." James Denney once said that you "cannot give the impression both that you are a great preacher and that Jesus Christ is great Saviour."

3. Isaiah received a call and a commission, vv.8-13

Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord calling him. Strangely and wonderfully Isaiah willingly responds to the call in the affirmative. He will go. But notice that the message Isaiah was told to deliver is hardly popular. It was a message which pointed to the resistance of God's people to the will and way and word of God. They will not hear; they will not understand; they will not see. This is not seeker-sensitive preaching.

We live at an unusual time in Canada. The church meets with incredible resistance in the culture. Canadians just won't hear and understand and see. The church's credibility is questioned. There is resistance to what the church has been and a determined effort to prevent the church from ever regaining a place of power in the culture again. But that's not the problem. Because the church can be the church despite what the world does or thinks. Or perhaps more precisely, the church is free to be the church when it is out from under the obligation of being culturally respectable.

No, the real issue is not "out there." It is within. Judgment begins with the household of God. We are the ones who will not hear, who refuse to understand, and who fail to see. But here's the irony. Our resistance to the message seems to be part of God's purpose and plan. It is the means through which God's judgment will be displayed and therefore the means through which God's redemptive purposes will be accomplished. God uses a stubborn and unholy people who, though they continue to resist God's will, are instruments of his saving purposes. This is the upside- down gospel: the unholiness of the church may be the very means through which God's judgment is exercised and the means through which the saving purposes of God are revealed.

What is God calling the Renewal Fellowship to be and to do? Perhaps one of its most important ministries is to bear witness to this truth. God will be God despite the church. The ascended Jesus will be Lord of the church and Lord of creation despite his people. The Holy Spirit will continue to bear witness in the hearts of people that Jesus is Lord, that Scripture is the Word of God, and that men and women and young people and children may share in the divine life despite what the church says or does.

When it comes to the church, I'm neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I don't believe the church is more troubled today than at any other time in its history and therefore on the edge of an abyss. But I also don't believe that renewal is just around the corner. Rather, God is calling us to be his people, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. This is not business as usual. This is not trying to recover the past. This is confessing the sinfulness of the church, identifying with the weakness and frailty and brokenness of the people of God, praying for the sanctification of the elect.

To the extent that the Renewal Fellowship has borne witness to this truth over the past twenty years, we give thanks to God. That it should continue to bear witness to this truth in the future, we pray to the Lord.

    Restore us, O Lord God Almighty;
    make your face shine upon us,
    that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19)


This article is based on Isaiah 6:1-13, and was a sermon preached at the 20th anniversary service of The Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada at Knox (Spadina) Presbyterian Church, Toronto, May 2002.