Two things that every human being absolutely must come to understand are the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. These topics are difficult for people to face. And they go together: If we understand who God is, and catch a glimpse of His majesty, purity and holiness, then we are instantly aware of the extent of our own corruption. When that happens, we fly to grace—because we recognize that there’s no way that we could ever stand before God apart from grace.
One word that crystallizes the essence of the Christian faith is the word grace. One of the great mottos of the Protestant Reformation was the Latin phrase sola gratia—by grace alone. This phrase wasn’t invented by the 16th-century Reformers. Its roots are in the theology of Augustine of Hippo, who used it to call attention to the central concept of Christianity, that our redemption is by grace alone, that the only way a human being can ever find himself reconciled to God is by grace. That concept is so central to the teaching of Scripture that to even mention it seems like an insult to people’s intelligence; yet, if there is a dimension of Christian theology that has become obscured in the last few generations, it is grace.
The prophet Habakkuk was upset during one period in Jewish history because he saw the enemies of the people of God triumphing, the wicked prospering and the righteous suffering. He raised a lament, saying: “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof” (Hab. 1:12). He went on to a affirm the holiness of God, and how God cannot tolerate evil: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong ” (Hab. 1:13a).
This is anything but characteristic of the human condition. We can tolerate what is wrong. In fact, if we don’t tolerate what is wrong, we can’t tolerate each other or even ourselves. In order to live with myself as a sinner, I have to learn to tolerate something that is evil. If my eyes were too holy to behold iniquity, I’d have to shut my eyes anytime I was with someone else—and they would see in me a man who has besmirched the image of God.
Habakkuk then asked, “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (v. 13b). He couldn’t fathom how God could endure and be patient with human evil. Yet, we can’t tolerate the idea of God’s being upset about human evil; we become antagonistic toward the idea of a God who is so holy that He might turn His back from looking at someone or something that is sinful. That is the dilemma that Scripture sets before us: We have a holy God whose image we bear and whose image it is our fundamental responsibility as human beings to mirror—yet we are not holy.