God is Holy

What happens when you put God’s goodness and sovereignty together? The answer is that you get a sense of God’s glory and holiness.What is holiness? Well, it is something to do with being distinct and different. When applied to people and objects, it means they are set apart as special, precious, God’s personal possession. So for example, in the Old Testament, the Temple in general and the inner sanctuary in particular were regarded as holy places. Objects used in worship were set apart and consecrated as holy as were the people (priests) who officiated. In fact, the whole of God’s people Israel and the Church are described as a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

What does it mean to say that God is holy? Bavinck tells us that, “at present everyone acknowledges that the concept of holiness in the Old and New Testament express a relation of God to the World.”[1] This means that God is completely distinct from his creation.  His “otherness” is sometimes referred to as His “utter transcendence and power over all creatures”[2] (c.f. Numbers 20:13; Isaiah 5:16; Ezekiel 20:41.) This means that although on the one hand, we bear God’s image, on the other hand, God is not like us.  This means first of all that when we talk about God’s supremacy, power, eternity, omniscience, etc. these refer to a different quality of existence. It is not merely that God is bigger, lives longer or knows more than us.  It reminds us again that time, knowledge, space etc. are created by God and for God.

Sometimes, when expressing God’s transcendence, theologians like to talk about God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes. Communicable attributes are those which he gives to us. This will include things like, our ability to love, know things etc. Incommunicable attributes are those which God does not pass on. We will never be eternal or infinite, for example. However, to some extent, the distinction is a little bit too neat. Even our ability to love is different to God’s love because it is finite.

Talking about God’s holiness in this context also leads us to think about his glory. The original word for glory had the idea of weight or value. Glory reminds us about God’s sheer overwhelming beauty and majesty. So in Isaiah 6, the prophet goes into the temple to serve by offering incense. There in the temple, he is overwhelmed by an amazing vision of God’s manifest presence.  In the vision, Seraphim sing:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies!                    The whole earth is filled with his glory!”[3]

When relating God’s holiness to his goodness, the characteristic takes on a moral dimension. This might be thought of as the absence of or “freedom from all defilement…a purity that is total and utterly untainted.”[4] There is no evil in God. He cannot sin. God is not even tempted to do wrong (James 1:13).

The risk is that this sounds a little severe, dull even. When we think about holiness in those terms, we associate it with dull religious meetings, monks, cold church buildings and stained glass windows. But remember that holiness is about God’s relationship to his world. In positive terms, the moral dimension describes “God’s condescending goodness and grace”[5]  (Hosea 11:9; Isaiah 57:15; Ezekiel 20:9). Holiness is seen not merely in God’s freedom from evil, but in his delight to do good.

This means that, with God, transcendence does not contradict immanence. The God who is distinct and exalted is the same God who draws near to us. This is the God who, in the person of Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, lived among us and without fear of contamination by the unclean and the sinner drew near, dining with outcasts and touching lepers. This is the God who chooses still to be with us through the Holy Spirit.

So holiness is anything but severe, dull or restrictive. In Romans 6:22, it is described as a fruit or outcome to do with salvation and eternal life. In others, holiness for us is a good thing: a benefit of salvation that leads on to other benefits. We will also of course immediately connect the idea of fruit and fruitfulness with the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Holiness is to do with joy. It is a happy thing. And this is important because we are to be holy as he is holy. Even when we talk about God’s holiness pointing to his distinctiveness and otherness, we discover that holiness is itself in a sense a communicable attribute.

 

[1] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 216.

[2] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 216.

[3] Isaiah 6:3.

[4] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 216.

[5] H Bavinck, The Doctrine of God and Creation, 216.

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