The church today often speaks of God as just a big daddy who is there to love us and take care of all our hurts. We can climb into his arms and get a big hug when we are feeling sad. While this is nice to think about, it is hardly the way Isaiah felt when He stepped into God’s presence. Rather he fell flat on his face and cried out, “Woe is me, for I am undone” (Isaiah 6:5). So where has the church today gone wrong? One of the problems with our attitude towards God is that we have pushed God’s holiness into the back of our minds and forgotten what it means for God to be holy.
God’s Holiness in Light of His Other Attributes
God’s holiness is often mentioned in the Bible. God reveals Himself to the Israelites as a holy God requiring holiness from His people (Leviticus 11:45). Hannah praises God as being holy in I Samuel 2:2. God is also often referred to as “the Holy One” (Psalm 71:22, 78:41). God’s holiness is the only attribute of God that is elevated to the superlative degree. In Isaiah 6:3, the angels sing praise to God saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts.” This is repeated in Revelation 4:8 where the four living creatures spend day and night singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” In Hebrew, emphasis is shown by repetition, so this indicates that a special importance is placed on the holiness of God. It is easy for us to forget or avoid this attribute, so it seems like God puts special emphasis on it for this reason. However, it also seems to have special importance because of its relation to the rest of God’s attributes.
God’s holiness is intrinsically linked to His other attributes. God’s glory and beauty are part of His holiness (I Chronicles 16:29). In II Chronicles 20:21, when Jehoshaphat commands singers to praise God in the in the beauty of holiness, they sing of His mercy. David describes the giving of glory and strength to the Lord as worshiping Him in the beauty of holiness (Psalm 29:1–2). God’s acts of mercy, jealousy, and judgment reflect His holiness (Ezekiel 39:25, Amos 4:2). In Revelation 4:8, God’s holiness is mentioned in the same breath as His eternality and omnipotence. God’s holiness is also used in connection with His truthfulness. “Once I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie” (Psalm 89:35). God’s holiness is especially reflected in His justice and wrath. God is angry with sin because it violates His holiness (Leviticus 20:3), and He will punish sin as it deserves. When Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, sinned by offering profane fire before the Lord, He killed them because they were not regarding Him as holy (Leviticus 10:1–3).
Theologians disagree about exactly how God’s holiness relates to the rest of His attributes. Wayne Grudem categorizes it as one of God’s moral attributes and treats it as just another one of God’s attributes. Robert Dabney, on the other hand, views God’s holiness as the sum of all God’s moral attributes. R.C. Sproul takes it a step further when he says that holiness is a summary of all of God’s attributes. He writes, “God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is.”
Thus every attribute of God can be described as holy: holy mercy, holy love, holy justice, holy wrath, etc. All of God’s attributes are closely linked, and each must be understood in light of all the others, but His holiness is broader than most. It should be viewed as a “summary attribute” of God. God’s holiness deals more with the entire being of God than with any single aspect.
God is holy, and His holiness is a basis for the rest of His attributes, but what exactly is the holiness of God? Theologians view God’s holiness as having two parts. First, God’s holiness is His being separate from and above everything else. Second, God’s holiness is His moral purity: His absence from sin and His possession of everything that is good.
First and foremost, God’s holiness is viewed as His being distinct and exalted. R.C. Sproul writes, “The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate.” Transcendence means exceeding the normal limits, so God could be said to be above any limits. L. Berkhof says, “The Scriptural idea of the holiness of God . . . denotes that He is absolutely distinct from all His creatures, and is exalted above them in majesty.” He even goes as far as to say that if any attribute of God could be picked out as most important, it would be this one.
There is good Scriptural justification for this description of God’s holiness. God’s holiness is described as what separates Him from His creation and makes Him distinct. “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11). “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place’” (Isaiah 57:15). In Psalm 96, the psalmist tells the earth to tremble before the holiness of the Lord. Also God’s holiness is worthy of our praise. The psalmist speaks of giving praise, thanks, and blessing to God’s holy name (Psalm 30:4,103:1, 145:21). Thus God’s holiness is that aspect of God, morthan any other, which makes Him transcendent.
God’s Holiness and Man’s Sin
God’s holiness can also be defined as His moral purity and separation from all evil. “Holiness, on the one hand, implies entire freedom from moral evil; and, upon the other, absolute moral perfection,” according to Charles Hodge. Berkhof agrees saying, “The word ‘holiness’ points to God’s majestic purity or ethical majesty.” It is separation from sin.
This aspect of God’s holiness means that He cannot tolerate human sin. In Isaiah 1:4, God is provoked by the sin of His people because He is holy. Habakkuk calls on God to judge the wicked because as the Holy One, He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness.” (Habakkuk 1:12, 13). We cannot please God because we will always be sinful. Joshua pointed this out to the Israelites, warning them that God would consume them because of their sin (Joshua 24:19). God’s judgment is also carried out on sin because He is holy. In Revelation 6:10, God’s holiness is appealed to for the swift judgment of the earth as the angels ask “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge?” Though He may be merciful for a season, He will eventually punish all evil.
A holy God created mankind perfect and holy. When man fell, the standard of holiness was not relaxed, so mankind is left in a dilemma. Human beings are required to reflect the image of a holy God by being holy. Man, however, is sinful in every part and incapable of attaining this holiness. Humans are left with an awful gap between themselves and God. God did not leave them this way, but graciously breached the gap and made His people holy. But how could God accomplish this reconciliation without being contrary to His holy nature? Only the atonement can satisfy God’s holiness and reconcile God and man.
First, we must have a proper understanding of God’s wrath against sin. The Bible clearly teaches that because God is holy, all sin is an offense to Him and brings His wrath. The Lord tells His people to act justly “lest My fury go forth like fire and burn so that no one can quench it, because of your evil doings” (Jeremiah 21:11). God’s wrath is kindled because of the rebellion of His creation. If God was only a God of wrath and justice, then we would have been hopelessly lost. Yet God is also merciful, and He often refrains from punishing sin to the full extent. The prophet Micah marvels, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy” (Micah 7:18). God is holy and His holy character cannot stand for sin to go unpunished, yet He loves His people and does not desire for them to perish. Because of this love, He provides a way for His anger to be turned away.
In the atonement, God mercifully allows His wrath to be turned away from His people by pouring out that wrath on Christ. This idea is expressed in the Bible by the term “propitiation.” Paul describes it this way, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . . to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:23–25). The previous chapters of Romans deal with God’s wrath against sinners. Here Paul says that propitiation turns away God’s wrath so that His righteousness might be shown.
John also expresses this idea when he says that Christ was sent by God “to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). A holy God cannot ignore sin. Yet God’s wrath is a loving wrath, and He chose to accept Christ’s offering on our behalf as stated by Paul, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). God poured out His wrath on Christ, deflecting it from us. God’s holiness was satisfied, and He is no longer enraged by the believer’s sin. In this way, God saved His people without going against His holy character. For this reason, Isaiah is able to say, “Your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 54:5). Atonement by propitiation does not contradict God’s holiness in any way.
Another concept involved in the atonement is that of expiation. Not only does Christ turn away God’s wrath from us, but he removes our sin. Although the term “expiation” is never used in the NKJV, the concept of removing sin is throughout the Bible. God speaks of blotting out the sins of His people, “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25). Taking away sin was also a central part to many of the sacrificial laws of Israel. Aaron was required to make atonement for himself with a sin offering to take away his sin (Leviticus 16:6), and the scapegoat was used to remove the sins of the Israelites (Leviticus 16:21). In Isaiah 44:22, God tells His people that He has redeemed them by “[sweeping] away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.” This idea is carried over into the New Testament where it is said that Christ “had appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). In addition, John says, “He was manifested to take away our sins” (I John 3:5). In the atonement, Christ removes our sins from us so that we can be pure and holy in God’s sight.
God’s holiness is the foundational aspect of His character, it is what makes Him separate from His creation, and it is what makes Him abhor sin and love what is right. The Bible clearly reveals to us a holy God. His holiness permeates God’s entire nature and defines all His other attributes. His holiness means that God is set apart from His people in a supremely exalted way.
And finally, God’s holiness is moral purity and is the basis for His hated and punishment of sin. A proper understanding of God’s holiness will affect our ideas about God and will shape our response to God. God will no longer be a daddy just waiting to take us into His lap and give us a hug. God is an awesome, powerful God, who graciously allows us to come before Him, but requires us to do it in an attitude of respect and worship.
God’s holiness makes Him wrathful against sin, but through the atonement, His wrath is turned away, and our sins are removed. God personally visits wrath on sinners because hatred of sin is inherent in His character. God’s wrath is turned away from us, or propitiated, through the atonement. We are also expiated, or purged of our sins. Without Christ’s sacrifice, we would still be separate from God and on our way to hell. God, in His great mercy, decided to have mercy on our condition and found a way to close the gap between us and Him without compromising His character. Praise be to God!
A true understanding of God’s holiness will radically change our thinking about God. Even though our sin has been removed through Jesus’ sacrifice, God is still holy. He is still greater than we are. If we were to see a glimpse of His holiness, our reaction would be the same as Isaiah’s. We should think of God as a holy Father, approachable, but to be honored and respected in all we say and do. If God’s holiness was properly understood, then we would come to church services with trembling before our great and awesome God to hear what He had to say to us and gratefully to thank Him for turning away His wrath though Christ’s sacrifice. Prayer would no longer be a drudgery or a time to tell God what we want Him to do for us.
We would fall on our knees before the Holy One, grovel in our sin and misery, and go forth to bring God honor and praise when He graciously raises us up to be His people and to take part in His glorious holiness.
Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology, 3rd ed. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1946.
Dabney, Robery L. Syllabus and Notes of The Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology Taught in Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, 2nd ed. The Banner of Truth Trust.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England, 1994.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [1872?]. Reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.
Sproul, R.C. The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publisher, Inc., 1985.
Miss Monica Rubingh lives in Ellsworth, Michigan. and attends the Chain-of-Lakes OPC in Central Lake, Michigan.