Book Review: Before the Throne
Most of us know the words of the majestic hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” by heart, but how often do we actually sit down and meditate upon what it means for God to be holy? For God to be, in His essence, other than we are. If we actually took the time to sit down and ponder on God’s holiness, it wouldn’t take long for us to realize that God’s holiness is truly inexhaustible. It cannot be fully grasped or comprehended. It transcends our understanding, and thus leaves us in awe of who our Triune God is. This meditation is precisely the aim of Allen Nelson’s latest book Before the Throne: A Reflection on God’s Holiness. Nelson is seeking to meditate upon the holiness of God in ways that are intellectually stirring, yet profoundly applicable to the life of the average layperson. And in my estimation, Nelson succeeds in that aim.
Nelson writes on God’s holiness using primarily two biblical passages and twelve modifiers. He uses Isaiah 6:1-7 and Revelation 4:5-11 to show that God’s holiness is undoubtable, unspeakable, untamable, unblemishable, unmatchable, unquestionable, uncontainable, unchangeable, unapproachable, uncompromising, unborable, and unquenchable. Some of those modifiers may seem more obvious than others, but all of them give a different lens through which to gaze at the diamond of God’s holiness.
He begins with the clear affirmation that God is undoubtably holy. Scripture leaves us no room to make the argument that God is any less than perfectly holy, and in light of His undoubtable holiness we are to walk in a holy way as He is holy. And more practically, Nelson makes the connection that to get God’s holiness wrong, to misdefine it, is to fashion our holy God into an idol in our own likeness. Evangelical culture has done this in many subtle and often unintentional ways from the songs we sing to the books we’re seeing on the shelves in Christian bookstores. God’s holiness means that He is fundamentally pure and other than us, and to miss that truth is to get God wrong. God’s holiness is also unspeakable. Nelson elaborates on this saying, “Not that we shouldn’t talk about it but that it is so beyond us that we can’t comprehensively fit it into human language.” Nelson is hitting at what we call in theological terms the incomprehensibility of God. God, in all of His attributes, is incomprehensible to finite beings. This doesn’t mean that we are unable to know God at all, but simply that we are unable of fully comprehending or grasping the essence of who God is.
God’s holiness is untamable. Nelson uses this modifier to mean that God is no one’s pet. God cannot be domesticated in any way. The author writes, “Too many professing Christians hav a god who can be manipulated. The deity they serve is domesticated. He is a god with whom they can negotiate. One who has agreed to allow less than complete surrender and still promises them heaven. This is not the God of the Bible.” Evangelicalism far too often sings songs and reads books about a god that is tamable, a god that behaves as they wish him to behave. But Nelson rightly reminds us that this is not only unbiblical, but detrimental to the Christian life. To worship a tamable and manipulated god is to serve an idol that is utterly unable to deal with our sin. But praise be to God that we serve a God who is untamable in His holiness, and thus perfectly able to righteously deal with the sins of His people in and through His Son Jesus.
God’s holiness is unblemishable. He is the God that is without blemish, and thus the God who is worthy of our delight. God’s holiness has no match or equal. There is nothing on earth or in the heavens that can rival God in His holiness. Before His throne even the angelic hosts cover their faces in awe of who He is. And of all of this is true of God, then that has great ramifications for the way in which we worship Him. In public worship, it’s not our aim to create the atmosphere of a mere musical performance. Our aim in public worship is to instill an atmosphere of awe and reverence for this God who is holy in a way that cannot be matched. We’re to regulate ourselves to how this holy God has commanded that He be worshipped, rather than worshipping a god in our likeness in whatever way we deem fit.
God’s holiness is unquestionable, meaning that He is holy in such a way that we are to unquestionably submit to His rule and reign over us. God’s actions need no defense. Nelsons says this, “We don’t require God to explain His ways before we obey. We worship Him knowing that sometimes He makes decisions too great for us to fully comprehend. His knowledge and goodness are beyond a full comprehension. Trust comes in here – trust in a holy God. For today, we only know in part, but part of what we do know is that all God decides, decrees, and demands is holy.” God’s unquestionable holiness means that in the deepest sufferings and trials of life, God’s people have a God in whom they can fully trust and rely upon because His ways are not our ways. We may not ever understand why tragic events happen the way they do, but we can still know without a shadow of doubting that our holy God is decreeing all things for the good of His people. Our God’s character demands and lovingly encourages a trustful, submitting response from His people.
God’s holiness is uncontainable. Nelson writes, “The infinite One can never be exhaustively comprehended by finite creatures like us. Yet, what God does choose to reveal to us is uncontainable and overwhelming to our souls.” Even though God is uncontainable and inexhaustible in His holiness, He has freely chosen to reveal Himself to undeserving creatures in love and grace. God’s holiness is likewise unchangeable. His holiness, as well as all of His other attributes, can never change. God is not a god composed in parts, but rather a simple God who is all of who He is all of the time. When we attempt to make God and His attributes changeable, or speak of them as if they ebb and flow with the tides, we lose God entirely. And when we lose who God is, we lose Christianity itself.
God’s holiness is unapproachable. Nelson uses this to speak to how we often approach God’s holiness flippantly. This can be seen in the casual Christianity that’s rampant, particularly in the Southern Bible Belt of America. When we diminish God’s holiness, making Him more like us, we do so often to fashion a god who affirms our sinful lifestyles. Many people want to believe in a god, but a god who has nothing to actually say about how they live their life. Humanity, in their sin, desires a god that is approachable and creature-like, while Scripture reveals the true God to be the One whom none greater can be conceived.
Nelson then finishes the book by speaking to how God’s holiness is uncompromising, unborable, and unquenchable. God’s holiness refuses to compromise on sin. God’s holiness is a perfectly just holiness. His holiness is unborable, meaning that God’s character is meant to inspire excitement and awe in His people. Humanity is created to spend all of our days mining the depths of our inexhaustible God. His holiness is thus unquenchable. No person or created thing can quench the holiness of God from shining brightly. This unquenchable and inexhaustible holiness of God is thus mean to drive us to a deep delight in who God is. As God’s holiness cannot be quenched, neither can the rest of His attributes. His love, grace, and patience with His people cannot be quenched or lessened. And this reality is one of immense encouragement for the believer united to Christ by faith.
There were several aspects of this book that I enjoyed and benefited from, but I’ll focus on three. The first is the way in which Nelson applied these aspects of God’s holiness to the evangelical culture that he pastors in. As one who does ministry in the American South, I could easily identify with the theological issues Nelson sees permeating through our particular slice of evangelicalism. It’s quite easy to look out upon the evangelical landscape, both regionally and at large, to see how many have gone off the rails in regards to the holiness of God. The songs many sing in public worship, the books that line bookshelves, and the ways in which many speak of God paint a picture of one who is remarkably creature-like. Many sing songs about God’s “reckless” love and hear sermons about God “breaking the Law for love” with little to no understanding for how the biblical doctrine of God is being trampled upon by the evangelical culture around us. If God is uncompromising in His holiness, then He would never break His Law for love. The attributes of God cannot be pitted against each other. And if God is unblemishable in His holiness, then He cannot be reckless in any of His works. God acts in a perfectly wise, good, and holy way towards His creation. Seeing God’s holiness biblically is desperately needed in our evangelical world today, and I pray that Nelson’s book is able to be a tool in promoting that.
Secondly, I deeply appreciated how much of Nelson’s writing was rooted in classical theism. The classical doctrine of God has been on the outs for decades in evangelicalism, but God has graciously seen fit to bring it back towards the surface as of late. Nelson speaks of doctrines like God’s simplicity in a way that is thoroughly biblical, as well as accessible to the layperson reading this book. I appreciate that about Nelson’s work. He has sought to explain the classical doctrine of God, and particularly the holiness of God here in this work, in a way that any member of a Bible-believing local church can pick it up and understand. These attributes of God are attributes that greatly impact the practical living and assurance of God’s people, and I was encouraged to see Nelson present those attributes both faithfully and accessibly.
And lastly, I loved how Nelson centered the holiness of God upon the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have the very incarnation of the holiness of God. If one wants to know what holiness is, then look to Christ in His life, death, and resurrection as revealed to us in the Scriptures. God, in His perfect holiness, must deal with sinful law-breaking, and He has done so in Jesus. Jesus is the unblemished, holy Lamb of God who was slain, yet raised from the grave for the salvation of His chosen people. Jesus, as the second person of the Godhead, did not compromise on sin when confronted with it in the lives of those around Him, rather He lovingly confronted sin as seen in the narrative of the Samaritan woman in John 4. If all the deeds of Christ were written down, not even the world itself could contain all that could be penned of Him. Christ, in His divine holiness, is inexhaustible and unquenchable.
When confronted with the holiness of God, and His infinitude, some may read this book and ask why we, as finite creatures, are to spend our days thinking upon that which we can never fully comprehend? Nelson answers this question well, and I hope his words encourage you as it did me in my desire to grow in my knowledge of God’s holiness.
“No, we can never know everything there possibly is to know about God because He is infinite. But rather than this being a deterrent to persistently study the Word, it ought to be a motivation. Your walk with Christ will never be at a point where you know everything you could possibly know about God. There is always more to know! There is always more room for growth. There is always more to mine in His Word. What are you waiting for?”