Dr. Richard L. Strauss
December 2, 1979
If I were to take a vote on the least popular of all God's attributes—the one we would most like to forget—the winner would probably be God's holiness. There is something about holiness generally that scares us, and something about people who claim to be holy that threatens us. They make us feel uncomfortable, inferior, guilty, and condemned. And the more unholy we are, the farther away from them we want to get.
Unfortunately, that is the way many people feel about God. The thought of His holiness makes them want to hide. That's an understandable response for unbeliever. They've got a good reason to hide. But sometimes Christians with a faulty understanding of God's holiness draw back from Him, too, and Satan loves every minute of it. He enjoys perverting this doctrine and using it to drive a wedge between believers and their Lord.
Holiness is clearly out of style in our day, and the opinions of the day do have their influence on the Christian's mind. The prevailing viewpoint today is that nice guys finish last, that honest people never get ahead, that clean-living people never have any fun. Holiness is out of style. We expect people to be immoral. We accept it and expect it; it's the normal pattern of life.
We anticipate that people will try to cheat us, deceive us, take advantage of us, and fatten their coffers at our expense. That's the way life is. Some people say you might as well get your share. You can go down to the bookstore and get any number of books on how to get ahead by cheating other people. Some believers buy the philosophy of the world and begin doing unto others before they do it unto them. We may even think that anybody who wants to be holy is out of his mind.
One man challenged me to name anybody who succeeded in business after he consecrated his life to Jesus Christ. I am able to do that; I do know some people. But I got to thinking, if our highest priority in life is to succeed in business, and we don't think it is possible to do so as a committed Christian, we probably won't yield our lives to Christ, and we probably will ridicule anybody who wants to be holy. We certainly won't want to hear anything about God's holiness.
But if our highest priority in life is to do God's will and bring glory to Him, then we have much to gain from an understanding of God's holiness. Let's meet the Holy One.
1. The Meaning of God's Holiness
King Sennarcherib of Assyria had no time for the God of Israel. He laughed at the thought that Jehovah could protect the Jews against his mighty military machine. He sent his personal representatives to stand before the walls of Jerusalem and shout blasphemies against the Lord to try to demoralize the people of the city (2 Kings 18:30-35). Then he sent a personal letter to King Hezekiah, defying the Lord (2 Kings 19: 9-13). Hezekiah took that letter to the temple, spread it out before the Lord, and prayed. God answered through the prophet Isaiah. Sennacherib had gone too far when he blasphemed the Lord.
"Who is it you have ridiculed and blasphemed? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!" (2 Kings 19:22).
Sennacherib had insulted the Holy One of Israel, and he must learn that there is no God like Him. His armies would be defeated and he would lose his life by an assassin's sword for his audacity.
That message from Isaiah introduces us to a name—the Holy One—one of the most glorious names of our great God. What does it mean? The basic idea in both the Old Testament and the New Testament words for holy is to be separated or to be set apart.
God is the separated one. That's what it means when it says He's holy. But separated from what? There are two answers to that question.
First, God is separate from His creatures. He is exalted over them in infinite glory. In this sense, God's holiness has to do with His transcendent majesty. Isaiah emphasized it when he declared:
"For this is what the high and exalted One says—He who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place'" (Isaiah 57:15a).
His holiness is associated with His elevated position. It sets Him apart, supreme above all His creation (see also Exodus 15:11; 1 Samuel 2:2).
But holiness has a second connotation: an ethical sense in which God is separated from all evil. That’s the sense in which we usually think of holiness. God cannot sin, He will not tempt anyone else to sin, and He can have no association with sin of any kind. He is untainted with the slightest trace of sin.
"So listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong" (Job 34:10).
It would unheard of for God to sin. He is separated from evil.
The prophet Habakkuk insisted that God is so pure He cannot look at sin.
"Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrongdoing' (Habakkuk 1:13).
The Psalmist assured us that evil will not dwell with Him.
"For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You" (Psalm 5:4).
Other passages affirm that He hates sin (see Proverbs 6:16-18; Hebrews 1:9). God is totally separated from sin.
The Apostle John described His holiness as light:
"God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).
There isn't much in this dirty old world that is pure enough to illustrate the intensity of God's holiness, but John chose one of the best there is. Light is one of the purest things we know, a fitting symbol of God's holiness. There is not even a hint of anything sinful in Him—no darkness at all, no shadow of sin. His is morally perfect.
When Isaiah saw a vision of the glory of the Lord, the seraphim were magnifying Him by saying:
"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3).
Three times it is repeated: holy, holy, holy. Did you know that this is the only attribute of God that is ever repeated three times over in succession like that? It emphasizes the absoluteness and completeness of His holiness.
As a matter of fact, there are probably more references to God's holiness in one way or the other in the Bible than any other attribute. If there is one thing God wants us to know about Himself above all else, it is that He is holy. We may find it to be the most difficult of all His attributes to live with, but for some reason, He finds it most important for us to understand it.
It's no accident that A.W. Tozer, in his great book on the attributes of God, The Knowledge of the Holy. That's His name.
Now, if God is holy, we would expect to see this same holiness in the earthly life of God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Peter said Jesus committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22)
- John said there was no sin in Jesus (1 John 3:5)
- Paul said Jesus knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- The writer to the Hebrews said Jesus was "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners" (Hebrews 7:26, NASB)
We are not surprised to hear Peter refer to Him in his sermon before the temple gate as the Holy One, the very same exalted name applied to the Father (Acts 3:14).
Jesus Christ was truly holy. That is why the self-righteous religious ruler of the day hated Him and wanted to destroy Him. That is why demons trembled at His presence. Do you remember the day, early in Christ's ministry, when He confronted a demon-possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum? The demon cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!" (Mark 1:24, NIV). The Holy One of God—sinful men and fallen angels feared Him and fled from His presence because of the awesomeness of His holiness.
The meaning of His holiness: set apart, high and exalted, and separated from sin.
2. The Beauty of God's Holiness
While it repulses the unbeliever and threatens the carnal believer, there is something in God's holiness that attracts the committed Christian. The godly king Jehoshaphat revealed what it is when he organized his armies and appointed a choir to lead the way. They were to sing to the Lord and "praise the beauty of holiness" (2 Chronicles 20:21).
That is an interesting concept that we seldom consider: True holiness is beautiful. There are few things more ugly than self-righteousness and hypocritical holiness, but true holiness is beautiful.
We can understand that if we think about it for a moment. We seldom consider soiled things beautiful. I never saw a beauty contest winner in a soiled, spotted, wrinkled dress. We wouldn't consider that beautiful. When a grease monkey climbs out of the pits, or a coal miner emerges from the mines, we hardly rave about their beauty. In the physical realm, beauty is usually associated with what is clean and pure, not dirty and defiled.
Beauty is likewise associated with light. I am sure you have never heard anyone rave about the beauty of a totally dark room. But begin to turn on some interestingly arranged colored lights and people will begin to grasp their beauty. The beauty of the night is seen in the lights that God has placed in the sky. The beauty of the sunrise is the splash of colorful light painted on the canvas of the heavens by the sun. In the physical realm, beauty is associated with light, not darkness.
David said he longed to behold the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4). What was it he wanted to understand? He wanted to know about and experience God's perfect purity, His infinite holiness, His absolute freedom from anything sinful. We cannot even imagine God being soiled, spotted, or lurking in dark shadows somewhere. God is brilliant, beautiful, unblemished light. He is lovely to contemplate, and He will be exciting to behold.
That is one of the reasons we are attracted to the Lord Jesus. He is without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19). The unbeliever finds no beauty in Him and has no desire for Him (Isaiah 53:2). But His face, even when it is marred by thorns and twisted with pain, is beautiful to us because it is the face of God's sinless Son who loves us and who gave Himself for our eternal salvation.
The Psalmist looked forward to Him when he said, "You are fairer than the children of men; grace is poured into Your lips; therefore God has blessed You forever" (Psalm 45:2).
That’s a reference to Jesus, the Holy One.
It is so easy for us to be affected by the world's values and develop a distorted view of beauty. We actually begin to think that beauty has to do with the outer layer of skin: its shape, its freedom from blemishes. Real beauty is a holy life.
God wants us to get to know Him in all of His holiness, and then we will understand that real beauty is far deeper. It is found in a holy life. That should not make us careless about our external appearance, but it should certainly bring about some radical changes on the inside. And that leads us to the challenge of God's holiness.
3. The Challenge of God's Holiness
The challenge was first issued to God's ancient people Israel, then repeated to the church of Jesus Christ. Look at it in both places.
The Lord had just delivered His people from their Egyptian bondage and was now directing them to their promised land. Along the way, He paused to give them some laws that would be to their benefit to obey. After that, He issued this challenge:
"I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground"—that was part of His laws to them. "I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44-45).
Since God is holy, the people who are rightly related to Him must also be holy. A holy God requires a holy people. That's the principle. It was first revealed to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai.
The Apostle Peter took up the same theme when he encouraged the believers of his day not to conform to the sinful desires they had before they met Christ.
"But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16).
Right here is where some Christians begin to back away. "If God wants me to be as holy as He is, I'm in big trouble. There's no way that I can ever live up to that." So in some cases, they decide not even to try. It seems to be more tolerable to live with the guilt of ignoring God than the guilt of trying to be holy and failing.
But they misunderstand this exhortation completely. God never told us to be as holy as He is.
That is impossible, and God knows it better than we do. He told us to be holy because He is holy, and there is a difference. Our holiness at best looks pathetic next to His. But there is, nevertheless, a holiness that we can attain by His grace, and He has made available to us everything we need to attain it. For that reason, He has every right to expect it of us. Because He is holy and offers us His holiness, He can ask us to be holy, to be set apart to Him.
Now I know that some of you are thinking that you are so far from any degree of holiness that you don't even know where to being. You're thinking you are so far out of the ballpark that you don't see where you can even start.
Maybe Isaiah can help us. Let's go back to his experience. It all began when he got a glimpse of God's holiness. And that is where we must begin. That is why we are studying this attribute. There is little hope of us ever being holy until we contemplate the Holy One Himself, infinitely holy, perfectly pure, totally separate from sin. We must see Him as the seraphim described Him: "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts" (Isaiah 6:3).
That's where we need to begin. We need to see God as holy. Notice what happened to Isaiah when he grasped this concept.
"'Woe to me!' I cried. 'I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty'" (Isaiah 6:5).
His understanding of God's holiness brought him an overwhelming sense of his own uncleanness, his own guilt and shame. That is when most of us want to run. It's unpleasant. It doesn't feel good. It strikes at the very heart of our self-esteem and self-worth. We feel threatened, insecure, rejected, and in desperate attempt to protect our fragile egos, we cry out, "Don't tell me any more about God's holiness. I don't want to hear it."
Then we settle back into a comfortable, sentimental, mediocre, substitute for the real Christian life. We talk about God's love, which is vital to an understanding of His person. But we seldom ever mention His holiness, which is every bit as important.
Isaiah didn't run from God's holiness. It exposed his sin, but he didn't run and hide or try to excuse the sin by blaming his parents, or his spouse, or his poor circumstances in life. He admitted it.
The only way he could ever be holy was to see himself as God saw him and to admit his sin. He also admitted that his sin deserved divine judgment. "Woe to me!" he cried. He knew he deserved punishment. But read on.
"Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, 'See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for'" (Isaiah 6:6-7).
That doesn't sound any more pleasant than facing up to his sin, but remember, this occurred in a vision. Nobody actually scorched Isaiah's lips with a hot coal. The action of the angel was symbolic of purging. God took the initiative and cleansed Isaiah's sins. God totally forgave Isaiah for all of his sins.
God's provision for our cleansing is the cross of Christ. He doesn't put hot coals on our lips. He placed the judgment for our sin instead of His sinless Son.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him,
and by His wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
the iniquity of us all.
When we confront God's holiness, it does expose our sinfulness. But the solution is not to run and hide, or to ridicule the whole idea of holiness. It is to acknowledge our sin, and to accept the forgiveness He has offered in His Son, Jesus.
Then God shares His own holiness with us; He allows His Son to become our holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30), and we are accepted because of our relationship to Jesus. That is real worth. Confronting God's holiness does not destroy self-worth if we respond properly. It enhances it. If we acknowledge our sin and accept God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus, we see our worth.
But that isn't the end of the matter. Christians still sin, and their sin dirties up their lives. It lays on them a new bundle of guilt, and makes them hesitant to enter the presence of a holy God. But the same sacrifice that provided for our initial cleansing keeps on providing for our daily cleansing (1 John 1:7).
"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
That's what Isaiah did when he said he was a man of unclean lips—he confessed his sin. Confess means to acknowledge. It's still a matter of admitting our sin every day. And it brings us a fresh realization of cleansing. That's what happened to Isaiah. And it was that cleansing that qualified him for fruitful service.
"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?' And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!'" (Isaiah 6:8).
Nothing can bring us more satisfaction and fulfillment and greater sense of worth than the assurance that God can use us. It begins when we meet God in all His holiness.
In the normal Christian life, this process just keeps going on and on. Every day. We learn a little more about God's holiness, and consequently, a little more about our own sinfulness. So we acknowledge the sin, God cleanses us anew. We yield that area of our lives to His control and we grow a little more in His holy likeness. That's what Paul was talking about when he encouraged us to perfect holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1). We become progressively more and more set apart unto Him.
Sometimes the process doesn't move at the pace God wants, so He helps us along. How? Through discipline. That's what earthly fathers try to do, but they usually do a rather poor job. I have to admit that I sometimes wait until my kids make me so mad before I discipline them that the discipline ends up being more for the venting of my wrath than it is for their good. God never does that.
"They [our human fathers] disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:10-11).
God knows that in order for us to be truly happy and have a good sense of self-esteem is to grow in His likeness, to grow in Christlikeness. He allows trials to enter our life. And He also disciplines us, all so that we can grow and partake more fully of His holiness. And the more of it we share, the more satisfying our lives shall become.
Christian, don't run from God's holiness. I know it's a scary doctrine, but don't run from it. Explore it more deeply. Get to know Him more intimately as the Holy One. There are very few things we can ever do that will help us grow in our Christian lives more consistently. Get to know the Holy One.
"Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy" (Psalm 99:9).
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Now if you've never trusted Jesus Christ as your personal savior from sin, I can understand why holiness should be a fearful thing for you. God wants to meet you today. And the place where He meets you is at the cross of Jesus Christ. That's where God's holiness was satisfied. That's where His sinless Son paid for your sins and mine.
"God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Won't you meet Him there? Acknowledge your sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Sin-Bearer.
Let's bow together in prayer.
Father, we thank You for the truth of Your Word. We pray that Your Spirit may use it to penetrate the outer shell of resistance today and reach into our very innermost beings, that we may grow in holiness. Father, we do pray right now for those who may never yet have acknowledged their sin, and realized that their sin separates them of necessity from Your holy presence for eternity. They may not understand that Jesus Christ paid the debt when He hung on that tree—the cross. God help them, we pray, to put their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin. Forgiven. Saved. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
God Is Holy
Exalt the Lord our God and worship at Nis holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy.
Psalm 99:9 NIV