I have been reflecting on the Lord’s character recently. It is both a thrilling and humbling pursuit. In many ways, He is so unlike us — all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. But in other ways, we are called to imitate Him.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a book for InterVarsity Press.1 It was my first real point of connection with the Fellowship and, as I look back now, an important entry point. The book’s premise is that we are called to mirror three of God’s primary characteristics — His holiness, justice, and love. Each trait is mentioned more than 800 times in Scripture.
God is Holy
God is pure, separated from sin, and demanding of our total devotion. Like a spouse, He is jealous when we value other things (or people) more highly than Him.2 Jesus warns us that we can’t serve two masters 3 and that our greatest duty is to love the Lord with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.4 Indeed, by comparison, we are to “hate” all competing loyalties.5
We see God’s holiness in play when He demands that we worship no other deities 6 and that we be morally pure before Him.7 We see this trait when Jesus clears the temple in anger against corruption 8 and again when Ananias and Sapphira are struck down for lying to the Holy Spirit.9
God is Just
God’s justice is revealed in many parts of Scripture. In the Ten Commandments, for example, His people are expected not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.10 Why? Because He is just. In bestowing a variety of gifts on humans — including life, marriage and property — He expects those rights to be respected by others. Hence, Samuel’s sons are condemned for accepting bribes that corrupt the judicial system.11
A great final judgment is coming in which God’s justice will be on full display. His wrath will be evident to wrong-doers and His rewards to the righteous.12
God is Loving
In the West, we hear a lot about this attribute of God. We — understandably — cherish the images of a father running to greet His wayward son and of a shepherd desperately seeking for his lost sheep.13 God’s mercy and forgiveness touch our deepest longings.
We are assured that His compassions fail not;14 that He removes our sins as far as the east is from the west;15 and, that He sent His son to die on our behalf.16 Like a cheated-upon spouse, He takes us back despite our many sins.17
The Centrality of the Cross
The intersection of these three traits is most graphically displayed in Jesus’ crucifixion. In His holiness, sin had to be punished. In His justice, wrath had to be expressed. In His love, a pathway to redemption had to be found.
In a stunning move, God substituted His own Son for us, casting our well-deserved punishment upon him. As our Doctrinal Statement says, “Jesus Christ…assumed the judgment due sinners by dying in our place…”
Implications for InterVarsity Staff
Serving a holy God, we are to have no other gods — be they our family, ministry, or reputations — that compete with Him. We are to be honest, sexually pure and free from covetousness. We are to love Him more than anything or anyone else.
Serving a just God, we are called to respect the dignity of others. We are to avoid gossip and slander. We are not to favor those we know over those in other regions or departments. We are to be extra sensitive to those who are disadvantaged.
Serving a loving God, we are commanded to reflect upon our own faults before confronting others. We are to seek reconciliation with those who injure us and offer forgiveness even in the face of repeated — and grievous — harm.
This mandate is by no means easy. When Jesus calls us to “be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect,“18 he means it. Thankfully, he also understands our imperfections and extends grace.19
The human body provides an apt concluding illustration. If holiness is comparable to the skeleton in providing core strength, then justice is analogous to the muscles ensuring balance and love is similar to flesh emanating warmth.
Obviously, all three are needed in equal measure. Just imagine a body with only a skeleton — it would be rigid and immobile. Or picture muscles without a skeleton and flesh — they would be cold and improperly focused. Finally, consider flesh unsupported by any infrastructure — it would be undefined and undisciplined.
As we reflect upon God’s character, we must be diligent to keep these three qualities in balance. If we focus only upon holiness, we will drift into legalism and separatism. If we emphasize only justice, then we will find ourselves becoming harsh and itching to condemn others. And, if we preach only love, then we will float into the perilous sea of situational ethics.
May the Lord keep InterVarsity balanced, tethered equally to each divine trait. Let not our “holiness people” set themselves apart as being spiritually superior. Let not our “justice people” hold themselves out as being closer to the heart of God. And, let not our “loving people” forget the importance of Truth.
Rather, let us strive to reflect God’s whole character.
1. Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, IVP, 1997.
2. Hosea 1:2.
3. Matthew 6:24.
4. Matthew 22:37-38.
5. Matthew 10:34-39.
6. Exodus 20:1-12.
7. Leviticus 26:1-46.
8. John 2:13-22.
9. Acts 5:1-11.
10. Exodus 20:12-17.
11. 1 Samuel 8:3.
12. Revelation 20:11-13 and 22:10-15.
13. Luke 15.
14. Lamentations 3:22-23.
15. Psalm 103:12.
16. 2 Corinthians 5:21.
17. Hosea 2:1-23.
18. Matthew 5:48.
19. John 20:24-29 and 21:15-19.
Alec Hill is the president of InterVarsity. In a recent chapel at the National Service Center, Alec talked about “Responding to Criticism.” To hear that talk, or download it, click here. (Time: 26:94)