holiness and jealousy

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

Webster here sounds an Athanasian note on God’s holiness and jealousy here — a beautiful, wonderful corrective to our view of holiness as directed against us. God’s holiness is not opposed to us in ourselves, but only insofar as we are trying to destroy ourselves.

God’s holiness is the undeflected purposiveness with which God ensures that his will for humankind will not be spoiled by wickedness. As the Holy One, the triune God is at work to ensure that the end of the human creature — what we have called righteous fellowship with God’ — will be attained, and sin will not be allowed to lead to the creature’s ruin and destruction. God’s holiness is thus inseparable from his covenant faithfulness — his undefeated determination that the creature will flourish and reach its end. Part of that determination is the opposition of God’s holiness to that which is unholy. The unholy is that which lies beyond the will of God. The unholy is the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God; it is, therefore, a way in which the creature — precisely by trying to cease to be a creature and to make itself — seeks to destroy itself. To this unholiness the holiness of God is implacably opposed. But we may not isolate this moment of opposition; we may not extract it from the larger scope of God’s dealings with humankind and make it into the only feature of the landscape. To do that would be to miss the real point of talk of God’s holiness by making it into some theoretical or abstract principle standing in opposition to unholiness, and to fail to see the true end of this negative aspect of God’s holiness. To think of God’s holiness in such terms would be to fail to trace the history of holiness in relation. In that history, God’s holiness figures itself as the righteous will of the Father for the creature, which is embodied in the Son’s work of sin-bearing and reconciliation, and extended into us in the Spirit’s consecration of the reconciled. And it is by that history — not by any general, impersonal concepts of inviolable sanctity — that holy reason is to be instructed in the matter of the holiness of God. God’s negative holiness is the destructive energy of God’s positive holiness; it is the holiness of the triune God who — precisely because he wills to sustain the creature — must obliterate everything which thwarts the creature’s life with God. God’s holiness destroys wickedness for the same reason that we human beings destroy disease: because it attacks the creature’s flourishing and is opposed to our well-being. And as the end of the eradication of disease is health, so the end of the eradication of unholiness is the creature’s consecration, that is, the creature’s wholesome life in righteous fellowship with God.

The jealousy of the triune God is his purposiveness. It is his refusal to negotiate away the creature’s good by allowing the creature itself to set the terms on which it will live. Certainly, God’s jealousy is God’s fierce opposition to all that thwarts God’s will; as the jealous God, God overcomes, and none may stand in his path. But this jealous holiness, precisely in its opposition to and destructiveness of our wickedness, is that which ensures our flourishing. Ezekiel puts it thus: I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name’ (Ezek. 39.25). God’s jealousy is his holiness in his work of restoration and mercy, as we are cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1 Jn 1.7) and sanctified by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3.5).

 — John Webster, Holiness, p. 49 – 51