The holiness of God is “the crown of all attributes” writes Thomas Watson. Theologian Stephen Charnock tells us “Holiness is the expression of God’s beauty.”
God’s holiness is more than a singular attribute—it is the fullness of them all. “Holy” voices the ultimate moral perfection of our God, the all-in-all of our magnificent Lord. The Bible Project’s video on His holiness expands our thinking by offering that holy contains the idea of “wholly-ness.” He is the one with the power to make a world filled with beauty and awe. They point out that He is utterly unique.
What would you answer if I asked for your immediate response to “I say holy; you say _______.” Thinking about holiness as an attribute of God is not a lightweight activity, is it? For several days I invited friends to fill in the blank. Expected were “set apart”, and “pure”. Other friends expanded the breadth of the concept by adding: “majestic, excellent, perfect, religious, incomprehensible, full, bright and shiny, moral, beautiful, ineffable, ethical, above and beyond, and God”. What would you say?
As we consider these words given by my friends, notice each one is applied only to God. Not one responder thought at once of human holiness. Yet, early in the history of His people He declared: “Consecrate yourselves…and be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, ESV). We are not given the option of stopping with the recognition that He is holy.
We also haven’t the right to rationalize this as written to His chosen, set apart people—the Jews. Peter, in his first letter, instructs believers to put away childish, sinful behavior and follow the Lord: but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. Then he quotes Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15,16, ESV).
No, God expects us to be totally His. Moral excellence was not His alone, but ours as believers through our Lord Jesus Christ.
How can this be when we are sinful, impure, and caught in an ungodly culture? If He is wholly pure and we are fully impure, how can we attain holiness?
That is the theme of the grand story. A holy God whom R.C. Sproul referred to as “other” created all things and called them good. Sin entered the world and separated us from Him. We were no longer “set apart for His work”, but separated from Him and His presence. He couldn’t walk with us in the garden of our lives because of our iniquity. His holiness was violated by our sinfulness. A great divide resulted; a spiritual void existed. What did our holy God do? In His loving sovereignty He sent Jesus as redeemer and reconciler. The gate to God and His holiness opened at the Cross. The glorious message of redemption became ours.
Two examples of God’s holiness and man’s impurity are Moses and Isaiah. What can we learn from these familiar narratives?
Moses and the Burning Bush
The story opens with Moses and his daily routine. He notices a bush nearby which appears to burn, yet is not consumed. Curiously he approaches it. Suddenly he hears: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” God got his attention and delivered a message of appointment. How did Moses respond? And Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:5,6, ESV).
God warned Moses against approaching Him. Yahweh set boundaries. His holiness, purity, and moral perfection could not be violated. Even the ground was sacred. It was set apart; it was “holified.”
I want you to meet my friend Becky. After years of disciplined study she completed her DMin (Doctor of Ministry) from Dallas Theological Seminary. She knew God was equipping her for work as Director of Women’s Ministry. After graduation she checked in with a doctor about her “study stress” abdominal pains. The diagnosis: stage four ovarian cancer. Her plans changed, but God’s “setting her apart” didn’t. She authored books, established a support group at Baylor Hospital, and encouraged women all over the region. The first time I introduced her I gasped as she walked to the platform and took off her sandals: “If I am speaking for God it is holy ground and I must remove my shoes.” The awe of the Most High was uppermost in her mind always. She loved acknowledging the God of the burning bush and calling on the power of His presence, which she did until her last breath.
Isaiah and the Burning Coals
The prophet Isaiah’s story begins: In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1, ESV). The scene continues to expand as the camera pulls out and we see the seraphim surrounding the throne. These six-winged creatures sang one to another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” (Isaiah 6:3, ESV). Imagine the antiphonal glory of these words echoing forever!
How did Isaiah respond? “Woe is me!...for I am a man of unclean lips...for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV). He knew he was impure in the presence of the most pure. He was afraid. As we think of Moses and Isaiah we can add another word to our “I say holy; you say ____.” “Dangerous!” Both men feared for their lives because they were in the presence of incomprehensible moral purity.
After hearing the story of Aslan the Lion, Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S.Lewis asks, “Is he safe?” “Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
As we read of Isaiah, we know that he fully understood the danger of being in the presence of the Lion of Judah and King of kings. He was soon to see the goodness of God and the message of Jesus, the coming Messiah: Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal… And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:6-7, ESV).
The sovereign God could not allow the unclean into His presence; but He made a way! He atoned for the sin which blocked the entrance. Isaiah was privileged to experience redemption.
Longing for Holiness
What drives us to study the holiness of God? What is our response to standing on holy ground, or knowing we are people of unclean lips? What should our attitude be toward God?
The correct heart condition is described by R.C. Sproul in The Holiness of God: “The reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy!” A longing for His purity should motivate us. He is purity, and He is love. Because He loves us we can love Him.
Jill Briscoe—author, speaker, and mentor—shared this story with me. “As a teenager I wanted to live a holy life. Many thought I had high morals because I was afraid of my parents. They were wrong. I wanted to be pure not because my Dad would punish me, but because immoral living would break his heart.”
The Christian musician, Carman, released an album in the early 1990s with one cut entitled Hunger for Holiness. The chorus expresses his deep devotion:
“Lord, I hunger for holiness
And I thirst for the righteousness that’s Yours
That my mind would be cleansed
And my spirit renewed.
And this temple that you dwell in would be pure.”
Isn’t that our prayer?
As followers of Jesus we are set apart for His glory. We are ordained and anointed for Kingdom work. We are called to holiness and the message of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. May our lives resound with the glorious praise coming from the depths of our hearts: “HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! LORD GOD ALMIGHTY!