Holiness: Understanding God’s Holiness
Published August 28, 2023
In the last post, we studied what an encounter with our holy God looks like and how it changes us. True believers are filled with dread, awe, fear, and reverence upon encountering the holy God of Israel. This is completely antithetical to the world and sadly many evangelical churches that display a glibness and a lack of reverence and awe when it comes to our Lord’s holiness.
Having seen what happens when sinners encounter God in His holiness, we want to answer the question, ‘What does the Bible mean when it says that God is holy?’
The Bible uses the word ‘holy’ and its derivatives over 500 times, but it never defines the word, leaving us to discover its meaning by seeing how it is used in various contexts. Scripture instead gives us three different angles to reveal the meaning of the holiness of God.
The first angle is that God’s holiness is manifest in His incomparable preeminence.
Theologians use several different terms for this aspect of God’s holiness, referring to His majesty and exaltedness. The phrase speaks to the distinction between God and everything that God has made when it is used in the context of creation. The word holy is derived from a word that means to cut or to separate, and so the idea of God’s holiness is the idea that God is separate from us. There is nothing in creation like God; He is incomparably preeminent in that He is above everything, and nothing compares to Him.
Some passages in Scripture help us understand the holiness of God in His incomparable preeminence. The foundational text to consider is Exodus 15:11, where Moses and the sons of Israel are praising God for His holiness. These people note two things about God’s holiness: that His holiness is majestic, and that His holiness puts Him in a class all by Himself. This verse really defines God’s holiness in His incomparable preeminence for the rest of Scripture because it shows us that God’s holiness speaks to His majesty and to His exaltedness over all that exists in creation.
Perhaps no one waxes as eloquently about God’s incomparable preeminence as the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 40, Isaiah invites a comparison between God and things of the world. We see that the more questions Isaiah asks, the more obvious it becomes that there is no one like God. No one is like God in His majestic holiness! No one has power like His, no one has sovereignty like His, no one has majesty like His, no one has wisdom like His, and no one creates like He does. God is in a class by Himself. As R.C. Sproul put it, “God is an infinite cut above everything else. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us.”
The second angle is that God’s holiness is manifest in His incorruptible purity.
This aspect of God’s holiness speaks to His perfect righteousness and justice. God does not do anything evil; He does not think anything evil; He is never tempted by evil. God has no hint of darkness in Him at all, but He is pure light, righteousness, and goodness.
The Scriptures also present this aspect of God’s perfect holiness to us. The prophet Habakkuk was wrestling with God’s incorruptible purity when he learned God was going to judge Israel’s sins through the Babylonians, a nation far more wicked than Israel. In Habakkuk’s wrestling, he notes the holiness of God in Habakkuk 1:12-13 and then takes it to its logical conclusion: God is too pure to approve evil, and He cannot look on wickedness with favor. It seemed like God was doing just that, but Habakkuk was reassuring himself that God was holy; and although it might look like God was acting in an unholy way, that was impossible.
James 1:13 goes further, informing us that God is so far from evil – so separate from evil, that He never tempts anyone to do evil nor does He watch someone else do evil. He wants nothing to do with evil at all because He is incorruptibly pure.
The biggest spiritual problem of our culture is that individuals think they’re generally good people because they’ve never encountered the holiness of God – much like the rich young ruler in Luke 18. Just about everyone in the world today is like that rich young ruler: they think there is something good they can do to inherit eternal life. However, despite the mental objections of millions to the idea of eternal punishment at the hands of an almighty God, God doesn’t send good people to hell; He sends sinners to hell because God alone is good. We must declare to the unbelievers in our culture – not that God wants them to have a better life or to help them with their problems or to be all that they can be – but that God is holy, and that they are standing on the precipice of hell because they are wicked people who deserve judgment.
The final angle is that God’s holiness is manifest in His infinite perfections.
This phrase simply means that God’s holiness is not one attribute among many, but that His holiness is the attribute that permeates everything about Him. God is holy in all His perfections. R.C. Sproul once noted that “only once in scared Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree…The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy…The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy.”
We might think about this idea by considering some of God’s many perfections, starting with His love. God is not any kind of love; He is a holy kind of love. God’s love is not perverse, self-centered, worldly, lustful, or any other worldly characteristic of love.
God’s wrath is not an outburst of wrath like ours when we give into the flesh, but it only manifests itself at appropriate times and towards appropriate objects; God’s wrath is a holy wrath. God’s grace does not violate His holiness even while He displays that grace to sinners, but that grace comes at great cost in the death of His Son. God shows us a holy grace. We know, too, that God’s omnipotence, jealousy, patience, and kindness are all holy.
These perfections of God are infinitely greater than our manifestations of them. We are not to look at human grace, mercy, love, or wrath – and think that we see what God is like because we’ve seen what men are like. Instead, we are to look at God’s Word to learn what grace, mercy, love, and wrath are supposed to be like – and then conform ourselves to God’s holy perfections.
When we talk about God’s holiness, we can scarcely wrap our minds around it or adequately capture it in human language. We can, though, understand it in measure. Seeing the greatness of God’s holiness leads us to wonder how it is that a holy God can have a relationship with sinful people. Next, we will look at the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man.