THE HOLINESS OF GOD
We sometimes treat the holiness of God as if it were an attribute alongside His other attributes. This is not entirely wrong. However, the way the Scripture speaks of the holiness of God demands a more expansive understanding of it than merely as God’s moral purity. When the Bible talks about God’s holiness, moral purity of course is included, but it is much more than that. The holiness of God is in fact the Godness of God. Let me explain.
In the Old Testament, many things are called holy. For example, in the book of Exodus alone, there is holy ground (3:5), holy assemblies (12:16), holy Sabbaths (16:23; 20:8), a holy nation (19:6), holy men (22:31), a holy tabernacle (26:33-34), holy garments (28:2, 4), holy gifts (28:38), a holy crown (29:6), holy sacrifices (29:33-34), and holy oil (30:25). One must ask, what is it that made these people and things holy? You can’t chalk it up merely to moral purity – it is difficult to think how a garment could be holy in that sense.
But when one considers what holiness meant in the context of God’s covenant with Israel, the main idea becomes plain. To be holy meant to be consecrated to and set apart for the service of God. This idea is clear in God’s words to Israel before Mount Sinai: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” (Exod. 19:5-6).
However, this leads to a further consideration: if to be holy means to be separated apart for the service of God, how does that apply to God? It is in answering this question that we arrive at a satisfactory and Biblical understanding of what it means for God to be holy. Priestly garments were holy because they were set apart from ordinary garments and dedicated to the service of God. There were many tabernacles in the ancient world, but the tabernacle in the wilderness in which God’s ark resided was set apart from all other ordinary tabernacles. And so I would venture the following definition for the holiness of God: God is holy in the sense that he is set apart from everything else in the universe. There is no one like God; God is God, and we are not. There are two categories of being: God and Everything Else. That is what it means for God to be holy. As God says through the prophet Isaiah: “To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25).
R. C. Sproul in his classic book, The Holiness of God, noted that another word for God’s holiness is transcendence. God is transcendent; he stands over and above everything else. He is incomparably glorious. It is in this sense that one could say that God’s holiness is the sum and substance of all His attributes. It is the Godness of God.
It is no wonder then, that when Isaiah is ushered into the presence of God, the angelic beings are not saying, “Love, love, love is the Lord of hosts,” or “Grace, grace, grace is the Lord of hosts,” but rather “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). It is also no wonder that, several hundred years after Isaiah, when the apostle John was ushered into the presence of God, he saw and heard essentially the same thing: “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” (Rev. 4:8). Why are they focused on the holiness of God? They do so because they are focused on the Godness of God – they are proclaiming not just one or two of God’s attributes, but the sum and substance of all his attributes.
But does this have anything to do with holiness as moral purity? Of course! It is the consideration that God is God and we are not that grounds the connections we make between God’s moral perfections and the grossness of sin. What is sin? Sin is fundamentally the unthinkable effort on the part of conscious bags of sand (you and me) to put God on our level, to negotiate with him our terms of right and wrong, and to live life as if we were God and God was just another inhabitant of the universe. Sin is the suicidal attempt to convince ourselves that the Creator is (for all intents and purposes) just another creature and the creature his own creator. In other words, sin is the result of a failure to appreciate the fact that God is holy.
Sin is indeed the transgression of the law (1 Jn. 3:4), but what makes this so bad is the fact that the law is God’s law, and God is God and you are not. It is why the Ten Commandments begin as they do: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Why? Because there aren’t any! God alone has the right to be worshiped and obeyed because he alone is God, the Creator, Sustainer, Lawgiver, Judge, and Savior.
It was therefore the shocking reality of God’s holiness that awakened Isaiah from his disobedient slumbers: “Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). He saw God for who He is; he saw that God is exalted above every earthly king and creature. And in seeing the unspeakable glory of God, he saw at once his own moral filthiness and need of redemption.
But we should not only look at holiness in terms of the shadow of sin. We should also think of holiness in terms of the beauty and glory of God: “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before him, all the earth” (Ps. 96:9). To see the holiness of God is to see His glory (cf. Isa. 6:3), His loveliness, His greatness, His fullness to satisfy the hungry and give rest to the weary. Sin is really so bad, not only because of the judgment it brings, but because it is willfully and inexcusably blind to the truest Beauty, denies the ultimate Truth, and mocks the One who is in Himself everlasting Life.
How then should we respond to the holiness of God? We should pray that God opens our eyes to see it, as Isaiah saw it, so that we see how disgusting our sin really is and so that deep and lasting repentance would be worked into our hearts. But it shouldn’t stop there, for if we have truly seen the holiness of God, we will not only learn to hate our sin but even more importantly we will learn to love the Lord. Our lack of love for the Lord corresponds to little views of His glory and slight views of our own sin.
However, let us not divorce the doctrine of God’s holiness from the person and work of Jesus Christ our Savior. You cannot deal with the holiness of God by trusting to your own good works. For we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We are infinitely short of such a standard. As one man put it, you may fancy that you stand on the top of an Alp, while others languish at the bottom of a mine, but you are as unable to touch the stars as they. There is only one answer to the sin problem which is most clearly exposed by God’s holiness and holy law: Jesus Christ. It is fascinating that the apostle John reveals that the Holy One who sat upon the throne in Isaiah 6 was none other than Jesus (cf. Jn. 12:39-41). And Isaiah did not deal with his sin by purging it himself; rather, a coal from the altar – the place where sacrificial blood was sprinkled – is placed upon his lips: “And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (Isa. 6:7). Just as the solution to Isaiah’s sin originated in an atonement provided not by Isaiah but by God, so must ours. We must begin here: not by looking inwardly but by looking to Christ, relying on His promise and His redemption and His grace to restore us to the favor and fellowship of the God who is holy.
Jeremiah Bass is the Senior Pastor of Cincinnati Primitive Baptist Church, Cincinnati, OH.