Recognizing the Holiness of God
Jerry Bridges, an author and longtime staff with the Navigators, whose books have been particularly formative for my life and ministry, was asked not long ago in an interview what he thought the greatest need was in the church today. His answer: “There are so many needs in the church today that it is difficult to single out one as the greatest. However, if I had to pick one, I would say the most fundamental need is an ever-growing awareness of the holiness of God.”1
When I read his answer, it immediately resonated with some of what I was observing, not just in the spiritual climate of New England and the small view of God that so many have in these parts. It resonated with what I saw in my own heart. The way I find myself tolerating sin, or getting caught up in what others think of me. How I find myself at times unmotivated to follow God, or to spend time with him. How I can at times treat other things as more valuable or satisfying than him. I fail to recognize his holiness. In the language of Psalm 50:21, I begin to think that God is altogether like me. And I therefore find him rather unimpressive. Even offensive at times. How dare he weigh in with judgment on something I find so valuable and meaningful?
The most fundamental need for the church today is an ever-growing awareness of the holiness of God. What do we mean by God’s holiness?
What is the Holiness of God?
As a word, “holiness” means to be set apart. To be set off from everything else. Some of us have a cabinet full of dishes that we almost never use. You only pull them out for special occasions. That’s an earthly kind of holiness—those dishes are set apart. They are unlike the other dishes; they have a special value and are used only for special purposes.
God’s holiness refers to ways in which he is set apart. It’s one of God’s attributes—one of the many qualities or virtues that are true of God in every way. But in what way is God set apart? A ton could be said here, but I think we can summarize the biblical picture of God’s holiness by saying he is set apart in four ways.
1. God is holy with respect to his unique transcendence. “Transcendent” is a word some of us don’t use very often, but here it means that God is above his creation, and unlike his creation. He is above it—he is not part of his creation. He is Creator, not creature. And he is unlike it; he is different in quality. For instance, creation exists in time; God is eternal, timeless. Creation is limited in scope, finite; God is unlimited, infinite—the universe can’t contain him.
It’s like the difference between a portrait of someone and the artist who painted it. There are certainly similarities (both express a human form), but the person making the painting is above and unlike the person in the painting—he’s outside the canvas, his eyes see, his mouth speaks. He’s on a completely different plane of existence. So God is above and unlike his creation.
Theologian J.I. Packer helps us understand this aspect of God’s holiness:
“Holy” is the word which the Bible uses to express all that is distinctive and transcendent in the revealed nature and character of the Creator, all that brings home to us the infinite distance and difference that there is between Him and ourselves. Holiness in this sense means, quite comprehensively, the ‘God-ness’ of God, everything about Him which sets him apart from man.2
We see this in verses like Isaiah 57:15: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place . . . ’” God is above his creation. Yet this verse also speaks to his nearness and mercy. It continues, “. . . and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
This unique transcendence is what the heavenly creatures around God’s throne recognized and praised in Revelation 4:8, as “day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” Unlike his creation he has no beginning, no end. He is holy, holy, holy with respect to his unique transcendence.
2. God is holy with respect to his supreme majesty. That is to say that he is over and bigger than his creation. Just as he is above his creation in terms of who he is, he is over his creation in terms of authority, and bigger than his creation in terms of value. He is supremely majestic.
Again, the artist analogy helps us out here. The last two years at the end of school, my son Joshua’s art teacher has sent him home with a grocery sack full of his artwork. And Joshua, being the nostalgic firstborn child that he is, has all of it stuffed away in his closet. Now, were we able to convince him to do so, would Joshua have the right to throw some of his artwork away? Of course. But why? Because he made it. Since he made it, it belongs to him, and he has authority over it. So it is that God has supreme authority over his creation—he made it, he owns it, he rules it.
Similarly, should we ever get to the point where Joshua’s room is filling up, and it’s either him or the artwork (one of them has to go), the obvious decision would be to keep him! As the artist (and as a person no less), he is infinitely more valuable than his artwork. In the same way, as Creator and King, God is infinitely more valuable than what he has made. And therefore nothing that he has made can satisfy his people more than the Maker himself.
This supreme majesty is what Israel recognized and responded to when God delivered them from Pharaoh and Egypt in Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” This is what Psalm 99:1-3 calls us to recognize and respond to in worship:
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!
God is holy with respect to his supreme majesty. He is our King, and he alone is worthy of our worship and ultimate satisfaction.
3. God is holy with respect to his moral perfection. He himself is the source and standard of all that is good, just, and loving.
In terms of his moral perfection, God is like the sun. As the sun is the source of all light, so God is the source of all goodness and justice. He decides and defines what is good. But he’s also the standard. We not only see what light is when we look at the sun, we also see everything else in the light it provides. So it is with God’s moral perfection—you know what is good and just and true only in the light of God’s goodness, justice, and truth. He is the only sure and perfect source and standard of what is right. As 1 John 5:1 says that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”
And in his moral perfection, God is too pure and holy to even look upon sin. Habakkuk 1:13 acknowledges that God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.” Nor can he even allow sin into his presence. As Psalm 5:4 says, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.” If it did, his holiness would destroy all that is unholy, just like any object that tries to approach the sun—it would be annihilated by its radiance and light. That’s why God says to Moses in Exodus 33:20, “man shall not see me and live.” That’s why, when Isaiah has a vision of God in ch. 6, he cries out “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” He’s pretty sure he’s doomed for that one.
Another way of putting this is to say that God in his holy moral perfection must respond to sin and immorality with judgment. Sin, or disobedience to God, robs God of his glory and rejects his rightful rule over his creation. It’s like trying to replace the sun with a 50-watt flashlight, and then trying to convince people that this is what true light is. How insulting to the sun! Or even worse, it’s living as though light is dark and dark is light—completely rejecting God’s perfect standard, and turning it on its head.
Sin is an assault on God’s holiness, and God in his holiness must respond to it in judgment. He is too pure to let sin into his presence, and he is too good to allow it to go on unpunished. God is holy with respect to his moral perfection.
4. God’s holiness refers to the perfection of all his other attributes. As I mentioned earlier, holiness is an attribute of God—something true of his character and conduct. But it also describes every other attribute about him. That is to say that his unique transcendence, his supreme majesty, his moral perfection—all of these shape everything else about God.
As Jerry Bridges explains, “His power is holy power, His mercy is holy mercy, His wisdom is holy wisdom.”3 To which we could add, his purposes are holy purposes. His love is holy love. Everything about God is holy, unique, perfect, above and beyond us. Our wisdom and power are limited by our humanity and our sin. Our love and mercy are often tainted with selfish motives. But God is unmatched in knowledge, unparalleled in power, perfect in mercy, flawless in love.
Which reminds us that God’s holiness and his mercy and grace are not at odds with each other. Sometimes we think for God to be merciful he has to suspend his holiness, or set aside his justice. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s holiness is displayed not only in his judgment against sin, but also in his mercy toward sinners. And the only way that’s possible is through the cross, where sin was dealt with in full, because Jesus took the full weight of God’s holy anger against it on himself, and where sinners therefore receive mercy, because they debt they owed has been paid in full.
God is holy in every way. He is altogether above us, unlike us, over us in authority, bigger than us in value. Pure, perfect, and radiant in every way. He is God, we are not.
So what’s at stake in failing to recognize God’s holiness? We’ll take that up in the next post.
1. “The Pursuit of Holiness: An Interview with Jerry Bridges,” Tabletalk Magazine, Jan. 1, 2012. Available at: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-pursuit-of-holiness-an-interview-with-jerry-bridges/.
2. J.I. Packer, 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Know (Christian Focus: 1981, 2008), 165.
3. Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1978), 29.