Holiness: The Holiness of God and the Sinfulness of Man
Published September 4, 2023
Few things are more important than knowing and understanding God’s holiness. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” If we want to have any wisdom at all or if we want to begin to make any progress in understanding God, ourselves, and the world, then we must seek to know the Holy One.
After understanding the meaning of God’s holiness as best we can with our humanity, we are left with a significant question for consideration: how does the holiness of God impact His relationship with us as sinners?
The Bible spends a great deal of time unpacking the meaning of God’s holiness and establishing the reality that we are sinners. Unlike the general view of the world about the goodness of people, the Bible’s description of mortal beings is not merely that we are sinful people, but that we are totally depraved. Apart from Christ, every person is dead in and in love with sin, rebellious against God, detestable, and deceived – not only about God – but about their own heart. This truth about sinners only makes sense when we arrive at the correct understanding about the absolute holiness of God.
There is a massive tension when God, who is holy, interacts with people who are not – and many people cannot grasp this concept.
First, we must understand that God’s holiness ensures wrath on sinners.
This is one reason why we don’t like to talk about God’s holiness – because it inevitably leads to the necessary conclusion that God’s wrath comes upon the wicked. There are many clear statements that bear this out, starting with Psalm 5:4-6. Here, the Psalmist gives us an unmistakable statement about God’s hatred of wickedness. God does not merely hate wickedness in some abstract sense, nor does He merely hate wicked things people do because they harm others. Rather, God hates all who do iniquity. God’s holiness means that God destroys all those who speak falsehood, which is just another way of saying ‘everyone who is a sinner.’ God abhors liars and violent people.
We have several examples of this playing out in Scripture. In Genesis 6, we observe a narrative of God in His holiness, looking at humanity, examining the heart, intentions, and deeds. When God looks at humanity from every angle, all He sees is continual evil. God’s response is total destruction of the world and an uncreation of creation. The wrath of God comes, not just on one person, family, or nation, but on the entire world. This response of God should not be shocking if we understand that God is holy, because when God’s holiness comes upon mankind’s sin, wrath is the outcome.
Thankfully, God’s holiness also ensures grace for sinners.
No one should be surprised that God’s holiness is the basis of His wrath toward sinners, and yet it is unexpected to learn that God’s holiness is also the foundation of His grace toward sinners. This fact is crucial because it gives legs to our faith; it gives certainty to our hearts; and it strengthens us when we discover that God’s grace is not arbitrary whimsical, mutable, or temporary. Because God is holy, He does not always bring wrath on sinners but shows mercy and grace.
There is no greater example of this reality than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we see in Psalm 22 (words which Jesus uttered on the cross), what gave Jesus the courage, strength, and fortitude to go through the cross, enduring the holy wrath of God even though He was righteous and holy Himself – was that God was holy (v. 3). God’s holiness was Christ’s strength as He suffered and died for the sins of humanity.
Christ knew that God’s holy character provided the absolute confidence that God would be faithful to His covenant promises. God’s perfect holiness meant that Jesus’ death would not be in vain and that the promises of God to bring salvation to His people would be fulfilled. On the cross, the Messiah looked back at the fathers who trusted God and were delivered, and He knew God would deliver Him from death through the resurrection because God is holy. What an amazing reality to consider that God’s holiness not only ensures wrath upon sinners but grace for sinners.
Finally, the consequence of God’s holiness depends on the offering the sinner brings.
Here’s the question: When individuals come before a holy God, what should they bring to make them acceptable to their Lord? Every sinner comes before God with an offering or some reason for God to accept him. Whether sinners incur God’s wrath or receive His grace depends on what they bring into His presence for their sins.
This is graphically and tragically played out for us in Leviticus 9-10. God explicitly commands the priests not to offer something on the altar that is strange, foreign, or outside the prescribed offerings – or there will be consequences. Nadab and Abihu ignored that command and were consumed; their sacrifice was rejected. As this passage instructs us, when people come into the presence of God, if they do not come with a sacrifice that atones for their sins, the holiness of God will consume them.
All the Old Testament sacrifices were a picture of the one, final, true sacrifice that God would provide for the sins of His people: the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is only this sacrifice that God accepts to atone for the sins of sinners. If we are reading Leviticus 9-10 correctly, we will understand this very important truth: if people come to God with anything other than the blood of Jesus Christ to atone for their sins, they will be destroyed by His holiness in wrath.
A line from the old hymn “Rock of Ages” sums up this theme so well: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” We do not come to Christ with anything of value, worth, or merit. Rather, we come as sinners in need of a Savior and all our trust is in Christ.
It is vital we do not forget the holiness of God. His holiness is our anchor during the dark night of the soul. When Satan tempts, condemns, accuses, or tells us we are unworthy, doubtful, fearful, wicked, ungodly people, we recognize that, though our faith might sometimes be weak, our God is not. He is holy and will meet us with grace through Jesus Christ.