The Holiness of God
The Holiness of God:
“I will vindicate the holiness of my great Name”
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!
Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see;
Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy Name, in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, holy, holy; merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!
(Reginald Heber, 1826)
God’s Unique Character
How do we define God? What words do we use to describe his attributes? He is beyond human terms or description. Yet he reveals himself in his Word – he describes himself – and is known and is personal. In a similar way, the concept of “holiness” is something that is simple, easily grasped and described – yet at the same time is quite profound, elusive and beyond our ability to describe.
So let’s begin this simple yet elusive task. What do we mean by “holy?” Before we can begin to describe what it means to be holy, we must first come to terms with what it means to say that God is holy. God is where our understanding of holiness must begin. In many ways “holy” is God's central attribute. It is his unique characteristic. Holiness is that which makes God God.
Holiness never occupies second place among his characteristics. Scripture places a supreme emphasis on the premium of God’s holiness. In fact, he is described by the word “holy” more than any other term. It is the most central, identifying characteristic of God’s being. As an epithet to God’s Name, “Holy” is what is found most throughout God’s Word, not “His mighty name,” or “eternal name.” Occasionally one reads “His great name,” but most of all, it is either “My holy name,” or “His Holy Name.” It is this perfect, all-encompassing character of God’s being – and no other – that is shouted by the seraphim in Isaiah. 6:3. Why? Search the context and the details of Isaiah’s vision. No other word – in human as well as angelic terms – gives a greater expression of God’s total nature and divinity than “holy.” God himself said, “I have sworn by My holiness” (Ps. 89:35). No doubt, God could have sworn by any of his perfections, but he swore by his holiness because it is this characteristic or attribute which gives the greatest meaning to all the others.
As already suggested, when we use the word holy to describe God, we face a problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or attributes that we call “characteristics.” We say that God is a spirit, that he is all-knowing, that he is loving, powerful, just, patient, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of “holy” to this long list of characteristics as one attribute along side of many others. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not simply signify one single characteristic alone. On the contrary, God is called holy in a comprehensive sense. In fact, the word is often used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that his love is a holy love, his power is a holy power, his justice is a holy justice, his knowledge is a holy knowledge, and his grace is a holy grace.
The Hebrew term for “holy,” kadosh, is thought to carry an original meaning of “to cut” or “to cut off” and communicates the idea of being “set apart" (Myers 493). A thing, person, or place is holy if it is set apart for a special use. Other words one might use are words like “distinctive” or “different.” As applied to God, holiness is that characteristic that sets him apart from his creation. There are many biblical verses that speak of God being "on high," "in His holy temple," “looking down,” “reigning,” “exalted above,” or "seated above the heavens." These verses all picture God as separate from his creation and reigning over it.
Although God is separate from his creation, in truth, God has always been separate. He has always been holy. Even before the creation – when God alone existed – he was still holy. There has never been a time when God was not utterly and completely holy. God is not now any holier than he ever was in the past. God is unchanging and unchangeable (Jas.1:17); therefore he can never become any holier than he is at this moment. He never was holier than he is right now, and he will never be any holier than he is right now. In fact, this central characteristic of God implies self-existence, for he did not get his holiness from anyone or from anywhere. He is himself the Holiness. He is Kadosh, the Holy [One] (Isa 40:25). He is YHVH ha’elohim hakkadosh, the LORD, the Holy God (1 Sam. 6:20). He is K’dosh Yisrael, the Holy One of Israel (Ps. 71:22). He is holiness itself, beyond the power of mere words to express.
Since language cannot fully express the holy, God resorts to association and illustration. A. W. Tozer suggests that God cannot say it outright because he would have to use words for which we know no meaning. He would have to translate it down into our “unholiness.” If God were to tell us how pure and white he is, we could only understand it in terms of dingy gray. God cannot tell us fully by language, so He uses illustrations and associations to demonstrate how holiness affects the unholy. So God shows us Moses at the burning bush before the holy, fiery Presence, kneeling down to remove his shoes from his feet, hiding his face, for he was afraid to “look upon God" (Exod. 3:5,6) A few chapters later, Moses leads the descendants of Abraham to Mt Sinai to meet with the Lord (Exod.19:9, 10, 11f). Everything about that scene – the smoke, the earth tremors, the flashes of lightening, the thunder, and the ear piercing trumpet blasts – this was God saying by illustration and association what we couldn’t understand in words (157-160).
The holiness of God is difficult to explain, in part, because it is the essential characteristic that Deity does not share with man. Yes, sinners are called to “be holy for [He is] holy” (1 Pet. 1:15). Yes, we were created in God’s image, and share many of his characteristics. Mankind was designed to show love, mercy, faithfulness, jealousy, etc. all because we were created in his likeness. But some of God’s characteristics will never be shared by created beings – omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, and holiness. God’s holiness is what separates him from all other beings; it is what makes him distinct and separate from everything else. God’s holiness is the essence of his “Other-ness,” his transcendence. Only God is absolutely holy because only God is God. “There is no one holy like the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:2). The words “there is no” translates a Hebrew word that means, “nothing,” or “naught” ( Keil 382). It emphatically negates or denies existence totally. Who can be holy like God? Answer: absolutely no one. Hannah recognized and declared that God alone is absolute holiness. Men and angels only have derived holiness from Him. Revelation 15:4 says, “Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (NIV).
How important is this characteristic of God’s holiness? Holiness is the only attribute of God mentioned in triplicate. Two times the Bible tells us that God is “holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 4:8). Think about that for a moment. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love or strong, strong, strong, or wise, wise, wise. But it does say that he is “Holy, holy, holy.”
Isaiah was a firsthand witness of God’s holiness in his vision described in Isaiah 6. Even though a prophet of God and a righteous man, Isaiah’s reaction to the vision of God’s holiness was to despair of life because of an acute awareness of his own sinfulness (Isa. 6:5). Even the sinless seraphim in God’s presence, those who were crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty,” covered their faces and feet with four of their six wings. Covering the face and feet no doubt denotes the reverence and awe inspired by the immediate presence of God (Exod. 3:4-5). In Hebrew the word for feet and the word for genitalia are the same (Goodrick 1487). Pardon the bluntness of this thought, but the continual confession of these mightiest of heavenly beings is that they are completely impotent in the presence of Almighty God! The seraphim stood covered, as if concealing themselves as much as possible, in recognition of their unworthiness in the presence of the Holy One.
John’s vision of the throne of God in Revelation 4 is similar to the vision of Isaiah. Once again, there are mighty “living creatures” around the throne crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 4:8) in reverence and awe of the Holy One. John describes these creatures as giving glory and honor and worship to God continually around His throne. Interestingly, John’s reaction to the vision of God on His throne is different from Isaiah’s. There is no record of John falling down in terror and awareness of his own sinful state, perhaps because John had already encountered the risen Christ at the beginning of his vision (Rev. 1:17). The One who “holds the keys of death and Hades,” “the Living One” had placed His hand upon John and told him not to be afraid.
But why the three-fold repetition “holy, holy, holy,” sometimes referred to as the trihagion? The repetition of a name or a statement three times was quite common in Hebrew thought and expression. In Jeremiah 7:4, the prophet depicts the attitude of the people. He quotes them as saying, “The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD,” three times expressing their intense confidence in their own worship, even though it was hypocritical and corrupt. Jeremiah 22:29, Ezekiel 21:27, and possibly 1 Samuel 18:23 contain similar three-fold expressions of intensity. From this Hebrew equivalent to “bold type” we can discern the following:
1. If God states something about His character once, that's enough to settle the matter forever.
2. When the Bible states it twice, that's for emphasis.
3. When Inspiration states it three times, it is of supreme importance.
Therefore, when the angels around the throne call or cry to one another, “Holy, holy, holy,” they are expressing with force and passion the truth of the supreme holiness of God, that essential characteristic which expresses his perfect and comprehensive nature.
In addition, some see in the trihagion an expression of the triune nature of God, the three Persons of the Godhead, each equal in holiness and deserving of praise. God the Father is the Holy One, the Ancient of Days with “eyes too pure to look upon evil” (Hab. 1:13). Jesus Christ is the Holy One who would not “see decay” in the grave, but would be resurrected and exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:26; 13:33-35). Jesus is the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) whose death on the cross allows sinners to stand before the throne of the holy Judge unashamed. The third Person of the trinity – the Holy Spirit – by his very name denotes the importance of holiness in the essence of the Godhead.
Finally, the two visions of the heavenly beings around the throne crying, “holy, holy, holy,” clearly indicates that God is the same in both testaments. Some think of the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament as a God of mercy. But Isaiah and John present a unified picture of the holy, perfect, and majestic God who does not change (Mal. 3:6), who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8), and “who does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). God’s holiness is abiding and eternal, just as He is abiding and eternal.
Holiness can be a difficult attribute to define because, as we are beginning to see, it deals with the essence of God's character. It simply can't be communicated completely with mere human words. However, God’s inspired Word gives us amply information to begin. We can describe holiness and find abundant illustrations of it, but we can't define it entirely. Defining holiness is like defining God!
God’s Unique Character and the Problem of Sin
There is yet another important consideration of the word “holy” as it applies to the foundational character of God. Holiness is that which is "utterly pure, and separated from sin" (Myers 493). God’s holiness is the absolute purity of His goodness and nature. When one speaks of God as holy it is meant that, along with the magnitude of his greatness, he cannot be charged with any wrong. His character is blameless and beyond reproach. God is unimpeachable. He has an infinite love for what is infinitely good and an infinite hated for what opposes the infinitely good. His delight in praiseworthy things is unlimited, and his abhorrence of what is blameworthy is perfect and absolute. As Habakkuk 1:13 says, his “eyes are too pure to look on evil,” and he “cannot tolerate wrong."
The profound emphasis of God’s separation from sin in the Hebrew Scriptures contrasts him with the gods of surrounding nations. Those deities were gods of power rather than gods of principle. Their actions did not rise above the depraved behavior of those who conceived them. Even their worship incorporated and exalted the lowest forms of human debauchery and degradation. Men feared those gods because of their might and served them in hopes of receiving some favor. Such gods were guided by whim instead of by values. Understanding that God is a God of principle, not just a God of power, is to understand that he conducts himself by values instead of by drives. God is a spirit, who does not possess human weaknesses and vices bases on the flesh. In contrast to the carnal character of pagan deities, The Holy One of Israel subjects himself to his own internal controls of his self-consistent nature. He “cannot deny Himself” (Tit. 2:13). He is separate from all that is sinful.
The Bible states that God is in complete and total opposition to sin. In fact, the Bible emphatically states that God hates sin (Ps. 5:4-6, Prov. 6:16, 8:13, Isa. 61:8, Jer. 44:4, Zech. 8:17). God is so holy that he cannot tolerate sin in any form in his presence. The holiness of God demonstrates itself in the punishment of sinners. As the Holy One passed by Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock, he proclaimed,
"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation" (Exod. 34:6-7, emphasis mine).
Israel’s King David declared in song:
“You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors” (Ps. 5:4-6).
One day God will destroy sin forever.
All the evil in the world is an offense against the holiness of God and is preparing this world for an ultimate and divine vindication. The zeal of God burns for the holiness of his great name. Consider God’s words through his servant Ezekiel:
Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight” (Ezek 36:22-23).
God defends his holiness and cherishes his purity. “Not for your sake,” that is, not because of anything Israel had done or deserved, but for My holy name’s sake, I will show as holy the name that has been profained among the pagans. The sins of Israel – the nation that was to be holy and seperate among all the nations of the earth (Exod. 19:5-6) – had caused God’s holy name to be profaned. God promised that he would vindicate his honor among the nations; indeed, before the entire universe.
God does not punish sinners merely because it is in the sinner's best interest. God is Holy. God hates sin. His holiness and hatred of sin are like two sides of the same coin. And like each of his attributes, his holiness/hated of sin is living and active and must manifest itself. His holy wrath at sin must strike. The “cup of His wrath” must be poured out (Isa. 51: 17-21, Jer. 25:15). Not only is he justified in doing so, he must. Justice demands it. His holiness demands it.
This is the starting point for understanding God and man and the world. If we do not begin here – with this vital issue of God’s holiness – then everything goes askew. If we do not understand and feel a sense of awe and fear and admiration for the infinite holiness of God which opposes evil with wrath and fury, then all of our other understandings, thoughts and descriptions of God will be defective at best.
That leads to an important implication: holiness and sin cannot coexist. Because God is the Holiness, not only can God not take part in sin himself but he cannot condone, approve, or allow sin to remain in others. The ultimate conflict of the Biblical storyline – the conflict that must be resolved – is this: What does a holy God do with a sinful humanity? The correct and expected sentence for each member of humankind is death! “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3: 23). Is total annihilation, then, the only answer?
God’s Unique Character and the Cross of Christ
Any view of the punishment of sin that leaves out the thought of its being an expression of God's holy hatred of sin, is not only shallow, but unbiblical, incorrect, and dishonoring to God. God is holy, infinitely holy, and he infinitely hates sin.
God is love, it is true. And we stand in awe of his love towards us. But we must never forget that the Judge of all the Earth (Gen. 18:25) is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)! These two thoughts are held in tension. When we keep this in mind, there are some false notions that are more easily avoided. One such false notion is that God is love to the exclusion of everything else. When we affirm that God's love must be and cannot be anything but holy love, then we begin to understand the quality of that love; and what John meant when he said:
"In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins" (1 John 4:9,10 emphasis mine).
God's love to sinners, as seen through the sacrifice of his Son, will never be appreciated until seen in the light of His blazing wrath at sin.
In the dark hour when God the Father blotted out the view of Christ the Son on the cross, Jesus cried out the prophetic words, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46, Ps. 22:1). In verse 3 of Psalm 22 we learn the reason why Jesus was forsaken by the Father. The response to Jesus’ question is that God is holy and cannot tolerate sin. In the context of Psalm 22:3, Jesus proclaims, “But You are holy.” At the cross, we are permitted to view God’s abhorrence of sin, and perceive something of the magnitude of the holiness of God.
Seven and one-half centuries before that darkest of days, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). On him. A literal understanding of the Hebrew for the words "has laid on" could be “has caused to strike upon." The full to overflowing cup of God’s wrath was poured out “to the dregs” upon the one who hung on the center cross of Calvary.
In God's eternal purpose of salvation, justice and mercy are reconciled only through the foreseen and predetermined sacrifice that was accomplished on Calvary. The proclamation that Jesus is "the Lamb...slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8) implies the existence of a principle which dwells in the very nature and character of God which requires satisfaction, before God can undertake and enter into the work of redemption. That principle can be none other than his eternal holiness.
We have considered the idea that God has always been holy. There has never been a time when God was ever less holy than he is right now. Even when nothing else existed but God, God was holy. The conversations among the Godhead – when nothing but the Godhead existed – have always been truth, for God “cannot lie” (Tit. 1:2, Heb 6:18). God could never speak anything but truth to himself. There has never been a time when God was amoral, or morally “neutral.” Even when sin did not exist, God was against it! Sin existed “in theory” for God had foreseen it. In his foreknowledge he saw the devastation to his creation and to his offspring that sin would havoc and God “schemed” (thank you Ferrell Jenkins!) a plan to overcome it. Before the foundation of the world was laid, God determined the solution to the Great Dilemma.
The inevitable and overwhelming antagonism between the holy justice of God and the holy mercy of God, exercised toward sinners of the human race, is removed only by the atoning death of the God-man on the cross. But their opposing claims cannot be presented as if God is at war with himself. Both aspects of God’s eternal character are satisfied. This ultimate, eternal reconciliation was forged in the eternal counsels of God. "The Lamb that was slain [in sacrifice] from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8 Amplified) is not only the answer to the dilemma, it is the payment and the solution. It was foretold and intimated in Psalm 85:10: "Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other."
In providing salvation God not only remains just but provides salvation to a lost humanity to prove how just he is. "That He might be just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26)!
At the cross we see the dreadful anger of a sin-avenging, holy God. Not all the acts of divine judgment from one end of the Old Testament to the other, not all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that those of the Lake of Fire give forth, ever gave such a demonstration of God’s resolute justice and indescribable holiness, of his infinite hatred of sin, as did the wrath of God which raged against his own Son on the cross. Because Christ was enduring sin’s horrific judgment he was forsaken of God. He who was the Holy One, whose own abhorrence of sin was infinite, who was purity incarnate (1 John 3:3) was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:2 1). On the cross Christ bowed his own will to the storm of wrath, in which was displayed the full and complete divine enmity against every sin committed by every human being. This, then, is the true explanation of Calvary. God’s holy character could do no less than judge sin even though it be found on Christ himself. At the cross we grasp that God’s justice was satisfied and his holiness vindicated.
Throughout the years some have suggested that God could have brought about salvation through some other way. God could have developed some other plan or implimented some other method to secure humankind’s redemption. Such reasoning denies the reality of the agony of Jesus in Gethsemane. “My Father, if it be possible” (emphais mine), he cried, “may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 26:39). The answer from heaven – which the Christ already knew – was: There is no other way. Only the perfect atoning sacrifice of the perfect sinless Christ on the cross could satisfy all the requirements of justice and mercy, holiness and love, God’s eternal nature and our deepest need.
In a very profound sense, which the modern church does not seem to appreciate, the atonement, if man was to be saved, was necessary, not primarily on man's account, but on God's account. This, then, is how God ultimately “vindicates his holy name.” This is how God “proves himself holy among the nations.” And now “the nations know that he is LORD” by way of the cross.
God’s Unique Character among His People
God is totally untouched and unstained by the evil of the world. Yet nothing has ever impacted the Godhead more than the problem of sin and the remedy for it! And now we – from the vantage point of being on this side of the cross and having received the fully reveled revelation – simply must fall on our knees in thanksgiving and gratitude. We will adore where we cannot fully comprehend. Our lives are changed. By way of the cross we come into the presence of the Holy. And he calls us to be holy (1 Pet. 1:16).
We need to be holy. The need for a personal holiness within us comes from the holiness of God; his nature and character set the standard for human conduct. God is holy because he sets himself apart from a worthless and sinful world; he sets himself apart to acting consistently with the eternal principle of his holiness. He calls upon us – his moral and rational creations – to do the same. We must set ourselves apart from the world and to his purposes and thereby sanctify ourselves to our sanctified God.
When we grasp a glimpse of the holiness of God, we are changed. When Abraham stood before the Holy One, he cried, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). When Job came into the presence of Almighty God he said, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). When Isaiah saw firsthand the holiness of God he exclaimed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! . . . for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). When Daniel came face to face with the holiness of God’s messenger he declared, “no strength was left in me, my face turned deathly pale, and I retained no strength” (Dan. 10:8). The cross is our face-to-face moment with God. The cross allows us to see the holiness of God in all of its ineffable magnitude. At once, we are “undone,” “nothing but dust and ash,” “ruined,” “unclean.” At the foot of the cross, we see plainly that we have no resources, no strength, and no life in ourselves!
This is a humbling reality. We do not have what it takes to stand – much less be holy – before such a God! The same Word that wounds us also heals us. Our remedy is found in the perfect, complete, atoning, substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is in him alone that we take our stand and are considered holy. It is in Christ that we are called “saints” or “holy ones.” Not because we are holy in ourselves, but because Jesus gives us his holiness so that we may be able to stand before God (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the cross that we come to.
By way of the cross we come into the presence of God and there the Holy One speaks to us. He says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45, 1 Pet. 1:16). Not “be holy as I am holy,” for any and all of God’s created beings that would be an impossible task, but rather “Be holy, for I am holy.” Because I am holy, I require that you be holy. God’s holiness is the standard for our moral character, and the motivation for the way we are to live our lives. The Lord commands us to be "holy in all that [we] do" (1 Pet 1:15-16). This practical holiness is to encircle our lives daily and completely. As we have seen, holiness is the very character of God and of his Son, and our holy Father wants us, his children, to act and look like him. We are called to be a "holy nation" (1 Pet. 2:9), we are called to be a “holy temple” collectively as well as individually (1 Cor. 3:16-17, Eph. 2:17-18, 1 Cor. 6:16). In Christ, we are “holy and dearly loved (Col. 3:12), and the Lord Jesus is coming back a final time for a holy Church, "without stain or wrinkle or any blemish, holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27).
God calls us to be holy (I Cor. 1:2). He determined before the world was created that we should be holy. In the same way that God schemed to justify us through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross, so he schemed that those justified should live for him, covered by the blood of the cross, separated from the world. “For he chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Eph. 1:4 NIV).
At the cross the debt of sin was paid. At the cross the fury of God’s wrath toward sin was satisfied. At the cross the Just became the Justifier. At the cross mercy and truth met. At the cross righteousness and peace kissed each other. At the cross God vindicated the holiness of His Great Name.
Goodrick, Edward W., and John R. Kohlenberger. Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance, 2d ed.ed. James A Swanson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999. 1487.
Keil, C. F. and F. Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament, vol 2. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006. 382.
Myers, Allen C. Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. “Holiness, Holy.” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1987. 493.
Tozer, A. W. The Attributes of God Vol. 2: Deeper into the Father’s Heart. Camp Hill: WingSpread. 2007. 157-160.