God Is (3):
God Is Holy
We’re in the third week of our January series “God Is,” in which we’re speaking about the attributes of God. You’ve been very patient, because so far we haven’t actually seen a true attribute of God, but rather two aspects of God’s nature that give us a framework in which to understand the attributes. We talked about the fact that God is “triune,” that is, that he is one God in three persons; and last week we saw that God is “simple,” that is, that he is not the sum of his attributes, but rather that he is embodies each of his attributes: God is not just good, he is goodness itself; he is not just loving, he is love itself.
So finally today we’re going to arrive at the first real attribute of God we’ll be seeing in this series.
Today we’re going to talk about the holiness of God—the truth that God is holy.
What is Holiness?
Before we get into today’s text, we’ve got to take a moment to define holiness (we’ll do this really quickly). Often when we think about holiness, we think of moral purity. And that’s certainly part of it; but it’s far from the whole story.
To be holy in the Bible means first and foremost to be separate. God is holy in that there is no one like him: he is not a created being; he is transcendent; he is infinitely above anything else that exists. When a created thing—a person or an object—is described as “holy” in the Bible, it firstly means that this person or object has been set apart by God for his use. God is the only truly holy being in the universe, because he is holiness; he is the only being which can make something or someone else holy.
Now, this is where you theology geeks may get mad at me. Some of you will hear someone talking about “holiness” as moral purity, and you’ll wag your heads and go, “No no no, holiness doesn’t mean morally pure, it means separate.”
Here’s the thing, guys. God’s “separateness” from the rest of creation is transcendent—so by definition, it’s something that we as created beings never actually see (with one exception, as we’ll see in a minute). So when God displays his holiness to human beings, he’s going to show us the greatest aspect of his separateness that we can see—and that is his moral purity.
Each and every time someone is set apart for God’s service, he or she is set apart for PURE service. That person is set apart to serve God in a pure way. You simply cannot separate the idea of God’s holiness from the idea of moral purity.
Holiness necessarily includes moral purity, because God’s perfect purity is at the center of why he is separate and transcendent. Holiness is more than purity, but it’s not less. The two always go hand-in-hand, and when we as humans see God’s holiness, it is his moral perfection that we’ll have before our eyes. That is why when we talk about sin, a good working definition of that word “sin” is, anything which contradicts or violates God’s holiness.
In short, Mark Jones gives this wonderfully brief definition of God’s holiness: “Simply put, God unchangeably loves good and hates evil.”
So now that we have an idea of what we’re talking about, let’s take a look at what happens when a human being finally sees what real holiness looks like.
Isaiah’s Vision (Isaiah 6.1-8)
Isaiah was a prophet in the Old Testament, and he was a statesman: he was well-respected, and God used him to speak to several different kings of Judah. God called him to be his prophet, and Isaiah recalls the circumstances of his call in Isaiah 6.
Isaiah is in the temple, he says—quite possibly to mourn the loss of King Uzziah, who had recently died and who ended his life poorly—and in the temple, he gets far more than comfort.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Already this is remarkable, because human beings aren’t meant to see God. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God refused, and only let him see the back of him as he passed by the mountain (Exodus 33.19-33). But this vision of God in all of his glory is what Isaiah sees.
2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
The seraphim are angels of the Lord, and although they are far higher and holier than human beings, even they could not be considered holy as God is holy. They cover their faces and their feet with their wings, as a sign of their unworthiness.
What is remarkable though, isn’t what they do—it’s what they say.
3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
When they say that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy,” that’s no mere poetic flourish. Repetition is a form of emphasis in biblical Hebrew. Repeating something in Hebrew added force to an idea, like saying a meal was “Really, really good.”
Only on a couple of occasions does the Bible emphasize something to the third degree, by repeating it three times; and only one attribute of God is given this elevated status. The Bible never says that God is “love, love, love,” or “grace, grace, grace.” It says rather that he is holy, holy, holy.
By saying that God is “holy, holy, holy,” the Bible is saying that God is supremely holy, infinitely holy, perfectly holy. That holiness is the very foundation of who God is.
And the holiness of God is so fierce and strong that the temple, and then Isaiah himself, are completely unraveled before it.
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “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!”
What he says is extraordinary: “Woe is me!” That term was what is called an oracle, an announcement from God that could be either good or bad. We see examples of a good oracle in the Beatitudes Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, which begin with the word blessed: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.3). Negative oracles were prefaced by the word woe, as when Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.13: ...woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! When he said Woe to you, he was pronouncing judgment upon the scribes and the Pharisees.
So it’s astounding that Isaiah says, “Woe is me!” Effectively, what Jesus did to the Pharisees, Isaiah is doing to himself. As R.C. Sproul said, “It was one thing for a prophet to curse another in the name of God; it was quite another for a prophet to put that curse upon himself.”
All true Christians have had the experience of being convicted of sin. That’s what happens to us when the Holy Spirit converts us: he makes us aware of our sin, and our need for a Savior. But our conviction of our sin happens progressively—God makes us aware of sin in our lives, which we work to put to death by his Spirit; then as time passes, he makes us aware of more and more areas of sin which need to be dealt with. A fundamental part of this conviction of sin is a growing vision of God’s holiness—the more we realize how holy God is, the more realize how sinful we are in comparison, and we want to grow to be more like him.
Think back to times in your life when God has done this in you. Being made aware of aspects of God’s holiness we didn’t see before, and being convicted of areas of sin in our lives we didn’t see before, is a painful experience—a supremely beneficial experience, but painful nonetheless.
Imagine then what Isaiah must be feeling here.
Only Isaiah, in all of Scripture, had that experience all at once. In a single instant, he sees the pure, undiluted holiness of God. And as he sees God’s holiness all at once, he sees his sin all at once.
And he is totally undone. He realizes the full weight of his rebellion against God—even if by comparison to other people, his sin may seem small. He says, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” You see, he’s no longer comparing himself to other people to evaluate his sin; now, he has to compare himself to God, and the result is devastating—he is absolutely and utterly broken under the weight of his sin.
But God won’t let him remain in that awful state for long. V. 6:
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
We don’t have time to get into the symbolism of all this, but what happens here is an act of cleansing. God doesn’t tell Isaiah, “No, keep your woe is me—you’re not so bad! You’re not perfect, but you’re a basically good person!” On the contrary: God affirms Isaiah’s sin, but rather than condemning him for it, he cleanses him of it.
It’s a painful act—the angel touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal, after all—and that’s to be expected. Repentance (recognizing and turning away from one’s sin) is always painful. But it is constructive. Isaiah is not cast out of God’s presence for his sin; he is declared a sinner, and then his sin is taken from him.
The problem with many Christians today is that, when they read this text, they mentally go straight to verses 6-7, without lingering over verses 1-5. They run straight to the forgiveness, and refuse to be broken.
We have become so accustomed to seeking our happiness and comfort at all costs that we don’t want to go through anything that will make us uncomfortable—much less that will make us suffer.
But being confronted with the holiness of God is always painful. Always. It has to be, because when we see God as holy, we see him as he is; and reflected in what we see is how desperately wicked we are in comparison. So we run away from that experience.
And as a result, we rarely grasp what sin and wickedness actually are. People read about “the wicked” in the Bible—they read the Psalms, for example, and they see David proclaiming God’s judgment on “the wicked,” and they almost never think, Well that’s ME! “The wicked” are always other people; in comparison to other people, we think, I’m not so bad.
Earlier we talked about God’s holiness being his pure transcendence—“God unchangeably loves good and hates evil.” But what does it mean to be “good” or “evil”?
These days, that question is a thorny one, because the popular idea is that there is no real moral goodness, no real evil; there is only what brings me happiness and doesn’t hurt anyone on the one hand, and what makes me unhappy and hurts other people on the other hand.
If this is what you think, I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to have a really hard time with the Bible. Because the Bible’s definition of what is morally right doesn’t care one bit about our opinions. Since the transcendent God of the Bible is the only perfectly holy being, holiness is WHO HE IS—so he’s the one who gets to decide what good is, and what evil is, by telling us what he is like. If he wouldn’t do it, it’s evil; if he wouldn’t desire it, it’s a sinful desire. If it’s something he hates, it’s sin. If it’s something he loves, it’s good.
But we so rarely hold ourselves up to that standard—we don’t want to, because if we look at ourselves in that mirror, we’ll see sin hiding in every act, behind every desire. Paul says in Romans 3.9-12:
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
We don’t want to believe that; so we’ll try to compare ourselves to other people who seem to be worse off than we are.
We’ll look at our colleagues and friends and neighbors, and we think, Well, I don’t cut corners like that; I don’t gossip like that; I don’t tell coarse jokes like that; I don’t engage in random sexual activity. So we feel pretty good about ourselves.
The problem is that we’re using the wrong measuring stick to evaluate our “goodness.” The measure of our goodness is not other imperfect people, it’s God.
And that reality has the power to rip us apart. Because compared to other people, we may feel good about ourselves; but compared to the holiness of God, we are in exactly the same situation as they are, with exactly the same guilt.
In fact, compared to the holiness of God, even the good things we do aren’t good. Isaiah saw God’s holiness, and faced with that vision, he saw even his so-called “good deeds” in a new light. He says in Isaiah 64.6:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
This term “polluted garment” refers to a rag used to clean up menstrual blood, or the open sores of a leper: it’s a thing we would never touch if we saw it lying around. Next to God’s holiness, even our righteous deeds are disgusting.
Here’s the point. Compared to the worst acts, the most evil individuals in human history—the Stalins and the Maos and the Hitlers—most of us are pretty good. But we are closer in moral quality to these evil men than we are to God, because his holiness is so high above ours: even our best, most ethical, most moral acts are stained with corruption.
God’s holiness is so high above us that we can’t even imagine it, much less see it and react to it. That’s a problem for us, because unless we see God’s holiness, unless we see him as he is, and ourselves as we are, we cannot change.
And this is why God sent us Jesus Christ.
i. In Jesus’s life
Paul says in Colossians 1.15 that Jesus is the image of the invisible God—if we want to see what God is like, we can now, because we have Jesus. Jesus Christ is the perfect picture of God’s holiness. Jesus was a walking picture of the Law of God, perfectly fulfilled; of every action and desire and thought being in perfect conformity with God’s character (because he is God).
We have a hard time imagining what pursuing holiness would look like concretely. What does it look like to be holy like God? It looks like Jesus.
Every time we read the gospels, and see Jesus do something or say something that surprises us, the most surprising thing of all in that moment is the realization that this shocking thing was exactly the right thing to do.
When Jesus angrily turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple…it was the right thing to do.
When Jesus proclaimed his utter hatred for the Pharisees’ hypocrisy…it was the right thing to hate.
When Jesus told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us…it was because that’s the right way to love and pray.
In Jesus, God showed us a physical, visible, walking picture of God’s holiness—so how foolish are we to not spend as much time as we can immersing ourselves in how he lived and acted and spoke and thought?
ii. In Jesus’s death
Not only was Jesus a picture of God’s holiness in his life; we see his holiness even more beautifully on display in Jesus’s death, for in the death of Christ on the cross, in his separation from the Father, we see just how much God hates sin.
If you ever wondered just how bad your sin is, you need look no further. Any time you harbored jealousy against someone else… Any time you desired to be cool and well-esteemed by your peers more than you desired to be humble and silently serve them… Any time you loved your own comfort and pleasure more than what God calls you to love… God hated that sin so much that he poured out infinite wrath on his Son instead of you.
Stephen Charnock wrote that the Father
“would have the most excellent person, one next in order to himself, and equal to him in all the glorious perfections of his nature…die on a disgraceful cross, and be exposed to the flames of Divine wrath, rather than sin should live, and his holiness remain for ever disparaged by the violations of his law.”
The measure of your wickedness is not the sin of others; the measure of your wickedness is in all that Jesus suffered, so you wouldn’t have to.
But just as God wasn’t content to let Isaiah continue to be undone by his vision of holiness—but rather cleansed him of his sin—he is not content to let us simply feel bad about everything Jesus suffered for us.
We see God’s holiness in Jesus’s life; we see God’s holiness in Jesus’s death; and we see God’s holiness in Jesus’s resurrection.
iii. In Jesus’s resurrection
Jesus’s resurrection is the proof that the holiness of God had been fulfilled in his death. Mark Jones writes, “Why did God become man? To bleed to death for sinners that he might satisfy the justice of his divine holiness.” Everything in us that runs counter to God’s character; everything in us that God abhors, he killed on the cross with Christ.
And the resurrection of Jesus is the proof that the work Jesus came to do was done. God retains no more wrath against the sin of his children; all of that wrath was poured out on Christ.
Through Jesus’s resurrection, everything he achieved on the cross can now be applied to us by his Spirit. Jesus lived a perfect life and gave it to us—God now considers that his perfect life is our perfect life. Jesus was killed for our sin—God now considers our sin dead and gone.
The holiness of God, which hates our sin, was perfectly satisfied in Christ.
iv. in Jesus’s mission
Finally, we see God’s holiness at work in the mission Jesus gives us.
Remember Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6—he sees God’s holiness and is completely undone; God cleanses him of his sin; and then, in v. 8, God goes one step further:
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
What happens to Isaiah is a striking image of the way God always operates. God appears to Isaiah; Isaiah is terrified in the presence of his holiness; God forgives Isaiah, and cleanses him of his sin; and then he sends him. He calls Isaiah to a mission on his behalf.
This is what always happens. When we see Jesus’s holiness on the mountain when he is transfigured, we are shaken and frightened at the glory of his holiness; when Jesus goes to the cross and suffers for our sin, those sins are taken from us; when he emerges alive and glorified from the tomb three days later, we see the proof that his perfect life has been given to us; and before returning to his Father, he sends us on a mission.
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
It’s always striking to me how much mental energy we put into verse 19—Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and how little attention we pay to verse 20—teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
Any teacher can tell you that the best way to know that you know how to do something, is to teach someone else to do it. Oh sure, if you don’t know how to do something, you can teach someone how to do it in theory, but the best teachers are always those who can do it, those who understand and practice what they are teaching.
Christ gave us this mission—not just to make disciples, not just to baptize them in his name, but to teach them to obey his commands. Which means that he presumes that we’ll be obeying his commands. Jesus takes it as a given that his disciples will obey him. We’ll need help—that’s why he sends us his Spirit—but we’ll do it.
Now, it’s going to be difficult for us, firstly because holiness is not “cool.” One of the biggest obstacles to holiness for the Christians in our church is the simple desire to be liked. The desire to be well-regarded, to get a laugh, to be the life of the party, to be intelligent, to know your theology, will supersede the desire to be like Christ if you let it.
And it will be hard because, when it comes right down to it, few Christians are seriously concerned with living as Christ lived in the first place. Especially in our Reformed circles, we spend all of our time reassuring ourselves that Christ is the Savior we needed; we spend all of our time reassuring ourselves that our salvation is sure.
And for some of us, I’m afraid we repeat that line so often because, deep down, we know that our response to what Christ did for us is woefully lacking. We completely ignore the fact that it’s to holiness that Jesus saved us; we ignore the fact that he saved us in order to make us holy like him. We keep telling ourselves that our salvation is sure in Christ because we feel guilty about how little we actually obey him, and we know it shouldn’t be this way.
Anyone who takes their faith seriously will feel this at some point or another, for legitimate reasons or no. Sometimes we’ll feel guilty because we are guilty; and sometimes we’ll feel guilty because the enemy is lying to us and filling us with doubt.
And still some of us will feel no guilt at all, even though we absolutely should. Some so-called Christians will go about their lives and never call their own holiness into question: they’ll take the good news of the gospel as a kind of blanket statement over their whole lives, and they’ll go on thinking, Well now that that’s taken care of, I can do what I want. These Christians should seriously question whether or not they have any faith at all.
Whatever the case may be—whether you’re struggling with guilt over your real (or imagined) lack of obedience, or simply realizing your faith may not be as legitimate as you thought—the solution is the same.
Every day, as many times as we can, we must remember Isaiah 6.
First, we must expose ourselves to, and remind ourselves of, the holiness of God.
This is why we speak so often about reading the Bible daily, and reading it cover-to-cover on a regular basis. This is why have times of confession every week when we come together for worship, and why I try to have times of confession every day. When we expose ourselves to God’s holiness in his Word, when we confess our sins to God, we remind ourselves of the distance that exists between us and him.
We remember that God is not a being like ourselves, but that he is transcendent, totally separate, and that his transcendence is pure.
We remember that there are behaviors and thoughts and desires that God loves, and that there are behaviors and thoughts and desires that God hates.
And we remember that we are so far from his holiness that even our righteous deeds are like polluted rags compared to him.
So we repent of these things, and we stay there as long as we need to in order to feel the weight of that repentance. We place ourselves, once again, in the hands of his mercy.
Secondly, we must remember that Christ satisfied God’s holiness for us.
Isaiah saw God’s holiness and was broken; and God came and made him whole again. Jesus’s life, death and resurrection satisfied the demands of God’s perfect holiness, and gave that holiness to us.
We must know that, and accept that, and rest in that. There’s nothing else that we can do to add or subtract to Christ’s work on the cross for us; he totally absorbed the wrath of God for us, so when he saves us, we are totally saved.
But the reality that Christ’s work for us is finished does not mean that his work in us is finished. Resting in Jesus’s work does not mean resting from our work.
Lastly, we must respond to Christ’s finished work by growing in holiness.
Holiness is not optional for the Christian. It is the necessary result of our salvation. If someone is truly saved, that person will be holy.
Hebrews 12.14 says,
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
If we truly understand and accept what Jesus did for us, we will grow to be like him; otherwise, our faith is a farce, and we will not see God.
If we have seen God’s holiness revealed in the Word; and if we know that Jesus satisfied that holiness for us; then we must act like it. We must grow in holiness ourselves. And we can now—because we are made holy through Christ, God’s Spirit comes to live in us and guide us in holiness.
Without Christ, no one could look upon God and live. Now, through our Mediator and Savior, we can not only see holiness displayed in him; we can be made like him.