Before focusing on systematic theology, it is important to focus on personal sanctification. Calvin began his Institutes with the reality that our knowledge of God is tied to our knowledge of our self. If we would pursue God, we must pursue a true knowledge of ourselves and what we should be like. Calvin said, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. eBut, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. eIn the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28].”[1]

Sadly, systematic theology could be viewed as an academic enterprise apart from sanctification Properly speaking, systematic theology should be a tool for sanctification and worship. As Daniel Treier said, “Christian teaching integrates beliefs with belonging and behavior.”[2] Systematic theology cannot exist without sanctification. To pursue God through systematics requires sanctification. Calvin described this process when he wrote: “we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. For what man in all the world would not gladly remain as he is—what man does not remain as he is—so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery? Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.”[3]

To pursue God is to pursue the Lord who is holy, transcendent, and personal. John M. Frame, in The Doctrine of the Christian Life, highlighted these divine attributes impact on human morality.  As the Lord he is the sovereign Creator. As holy is distinct from creation and completely free from sin. But the holy Lord is also personal. “Modern secular thought is profoundly impersonalistic, holding that persons are ultimately reducible to things and forces, to matter, motion, time, and chance. Scripture denies this impersonalism, insisting that all reality, including all value, comes from a supreme personal being.”[4] This God reveals himself through covenants and maintains relationships with his people through covenants. These covenants display God’s personal nature, his holiness, and his grace toward mankind. These covenants also highlight the Christian’s responsibility to pursue sanctification. Frame discussed “How God Governs Our Ethical Life” by his control, authority, and covenant presence.[5]

The importance of holiness is emphasized throughout Scripture. Peter reminded his readers “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written ‘you shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16). Holiness, in fact, lies at the heart of theology. God is holy. By this we mean that God is fundamentally different from his creation and transcendent over his creation. This holiness surely should shape us as we begin to approach God. R. C. Sproul wrote, “How we understand the person and character of God the Father affects every aspect of our lives. It affects far more than what we normally call the “religious” aspects of our lives…. There is no part of the world that is outside of His Lordship. That means that there must be no part of my life that is outside of His Lordship. His holy character has something to say about economics, politics, athletics, romance—everything that we are involved with.”[6]

Encountered By Holiness

            A goal of systematic theology is to be with God—to be in his presence. Scripture records these encounters as some of the most terrifying moments of human existence. Adam and Eve, covered in sin, hid from God (Gen 3:8). When God encountered Moses, God marked off the place where he had manifested himself in a special way when he instructed Moses to take off his sandals on the holy ground (Ex 3:5). When Moses understood that he had entered God’s special presence he “hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3:6). Moses would have done well to continue in reverence. Instead, he feared Pharaoh and questioned God’s plan and God’s call. 

            Isaiah 6 records a beautiful encounter between God and Isaiah. The vision began with a vision of God’s majestic holiness (Is 6:1-4). Then Isaiah responded with a cry of desperation “Woe to me! I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty!” (Is 6:5). Isaiah’s cry reveals the power of holiness and the weight of sin. The only thing that could calm Isaiah was the very thing that terrified him. The holy God commanded a cherub to bring a coal and touch Isaiah’s lips so that the defilement would be removed. The transcendence of God was terrifying. The immanence of God was sanctifying. 

Draw Me Nearer?

            The holiness of God should drive us to our knees in fear, but it is also the holy God of Heaven who has made it possible for us sinners to be in his presence. Christians are those blessed people who are able to enjoy God’s holy presence. This relationship is only possible because of God’s grace. Christians were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1), but they have been saved “by grace through faith” (Eph 2:10). Christians aren’t excluded from God. Instead, they are the “elect…according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet 1:1-2). Having been born again (Jn 3:3-5), Christians are “in Christ” (1 Pet 5:14; Phil 23; 1 Thess 4:16), but this “in Christ” life does not negate the pursuit of sanctification.

Ten Words for Holiness

            The Ten Commandments have long served as an outline for godly morality. The Mosaic Law has been superseded by the Law of Christ (Jer 31; Heb 8; Acts 10, 15), but this does not negate the principles in these laws. At the very beginning of Moses’ retelling of the Law in Deuteronomy 5, he couched the “thou shalts and shalt nots” in the presence of the Holy One. These laws did not come from Moses. Instead, “The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb” (Deut 5:2). It was “The LORD” who “spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the midst of the fire” (Deut 5:5). The people were, of course, “afraid because of the fire” (Deut 5:5). 

            God began the nations’ moral formation with a reminder of who he is and what that means for his creatures. God said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut 6:6). Two major lessons here bring the hearer to submission to whatever follows. First, God is “the LORD” and “your God.” He is the eternal Sovereign who is the necessary and sufficient cause of the universe. This same God is “your God.” The greatest possible being created and claimed these people as his own. How could any human, made out of dirt, refuse or rebel? Secondly, this God is the one who “brought you out of the land of slavery” (Deut 6:6).  The all-powerful God is the Savior—the Redeemer. He deserves allegiance and worship. 

            Moses continued with the first imperative: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 6:7). How could anyone place any alleged deity or create a deity to be before or even beside the eternal Sovereign who had saved them? Surely no creature would be foolish enough to give God competition. Remarkably, mutiny lies in the human heart. Adam and Eve chose the tree of knowledge of good and evil to be like God—to be his equal. This choice is repeated every day by most all of us. This ridiculous habit leads nowhere happy. It was, therefore, “in love” that God demanded “you shall have no other gods before me.”

            God forbade the creation of any “carved image or likeness” of anything. Perhaps one reason why the creation of images and idols was given was so that God’s people would continually be reminded of the indescribable nature of God. If we can make an image of something, then we can believe we understand it. We can’t understand God. If an image represents God to us, then we are robbing ourselves of the true holy transcendence. 

            This transcendent God would not be abused by being roped into human trifles. He therefore forbade the practice of taking his name in vain (Deut 5:11). The true God of Heaven is far too great for humans to use or abuse or manipulate. The creature exists for the Creator—not the other way around. God would also be remembered. He commanded the Sabbath day as a holy day (Deut 6:12) so that the people could rest and remember their redemption and their Redeemer (Deut 6:13-15). 

            Finally, if the people were going to live in the presence of this holy God, they must live together in holy ways. The remainder of the Decalogue outlines briefly how God’s people can live with other people in holiness. Jesus summarized this portion of the law as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). To love your neighbor, you must want what is best for them. When we want what is best for our neighbor, we can’t hurt them and can’t take any good thing from them. God’s people begin to experience godly relationships when they treat others in this Godlike way. 

A Prayer

            Our Lord’s Model Prayer has served as an example of what prayer should look like. This prayer also helps us understand what the Christian life is like. We should expect our life to follow the lead of our prayer life. How we pray forms how we live and view our God. Charles Spurgeon said “prayer” was the one word he would use to define Christianity. 

            The first thing we learn about our God and our pursuit of God is that he is our Father. This is the way we are told to address God in prayer (Matt 5:9). He is not just a transcendent deity. He is not the god of deism. He is “our Father.” He made us, cares for us, provides for us, and he will discipline us. Next, we see that our Father should be treated as holy. He is holy, but he should be regarded as holy.

            We also pray that the creation will submit to our Father’s will. So, we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). As we pray for creation to submit to God’s will, we must begin with ourselves. We must submit to our Father and his will must be done in our lives. This submission is coupled with providence. We pray for “our daily bread” and for forgiveness as we forgive others. Our spiritual welfare continues to be at the heart of our relationship as we pray for God to deliver us from evil. 

            The entire prayer expresses our desire to seek the Lord and enjoy his blessings. This is what sanctification is all about and what theology is all about. To see God and enjoy him forever. The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with the question “What is the chief end of man?” and answers beautifully that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” The prayer in Matthew 6 describes how that “man’s chief end” is made possible. 

Resurrection and Morality

            The theologian and ethicist Oliver O’Donovan solidified the basis of Christian ethics in The Resurrection and Moral Order. In this small but powerful book, O’Donovan displays how the resurrection changes everything. “It is only in Christ that we truly know the moral order of creation as it stands before us in judgment as well as grace (here, as elsewhere, we see that the influence of Barth is not limited to the placing of discursive material in small print). The responsibility which this knowledge in Christ imposes upon the church is that of being a prophetic voice in the world, avoiding the erroneous alternatives of moral totalitarianism on the one hand and ‘ecclesiastical house rules’ on the other.”[7] Since Jesus has been raised from the dead: 1) life has value; 2) life continues forever; 3) life has purpose; 4) life will be judged; and 5) life’s suffering has meaning. 

            Perhaps it is the inner “sense of the divine” that helps us be sickened by sin and search for salvation. Calvin wrote: 

The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility. bFor, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God[8]

Our sin instinctively makes us look upward for a Savior. Our Savior makes us look inward to live for him in holiness.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 35.

[2] Daniel Treier Introducing Evangelical Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker 2019), 35. 

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I, i, 1.

[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 20.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 20.

[6] R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 20.

[7] Trevor Hart, Resurrection and Moral Order a Review.

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, i, 1.

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