Separate and exalted above all of creation in transcendent majesty; and separate from all evil in pure moral uprightness according to His nature.
“The holiness of God in the more extensive sense of the word, and the sense in which the word is commonly, if not universally, used concerning God in Scripture, is the same with the moral excellency of the divine nature, or His purity and beauty as a moral agent, comprehending all His moral perfections, His righteousness, faithfulness, and goodness. As in holy men, their charity, Christian kindness, and mercy, belong to His holiness.”1
“Holiness is in a peculiar manner the beauty of the divine nature. Hence we often read of the beauty of holiness, Psal. 29:2, 96:9, and 110:3. This renders all His other attributes glorious and lovely. It is the glory of God’s wisdom that it is a holy wisdom, and not a wicked subtlety and craftiness. This makes His majesty lovely, and not merely dreadful and horrible, that it is a holy majesty. It is the glory of God’s immutability that it is a holy immutability, and not an inflexible obstinacy in wickedness.”2
Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
Psalm 77:13: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?”
Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
1 Peter 1:15: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”
Revelation 15:4: “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
In Religious Affections, Edwards argues that the beauty of God consists in His holiness, the chief object of the saints’ love for God.
A true love to God must begin with a delight in His holiness, and not with a delight in any other attribute; for no other attribute is truly lovely without this, and no otherwise than as…it derives its loveliness from this; and therefore it is impossible that other attributes should appear lovely, in their true loveliness, until this is seen; and it is impossible that any perfection of the divine nature should be loved with true love until this is loved.3
In distinguishing between God’s “natural” and “moral” attributes, Edwards argues that the beauty of God’s natural attributes is their holiness. For instance, God’s power is a beautiful power because it is holy, whereas the power of Satan and demons is an ugly power because it is unholy.
Holiness is in a peculiar manner the beauty of the divine nature. Hence we often read of the beauty of holiness, Psal. 24:2, 96:9, and 110:3. This renders all His other attributes glorious and lovely. It is the glory of God’s wisdom that it is a holy wisdom, and not a wicked subtlety and craftiness. This makes His majesty lovely, and not merely dreadful and horrible, that it is a holy majesty. It is the glory of God’s immutability that it is a holy immutability, and not an inflexible obstinacy in wickedness.4
The beauty of all things related to God is their holiness. “Herein consists the beauty and brightness of the angels of heaven, that they are holy angels and so not devils.”5 The beauty of “saints or holy ones” is “the moral image of God in them,” or their holiness.6 “The beauty of His divine nature, of which the beauty of His human nature is the image and reflection, also primarily consists in His holiness.”7 “It is a holy gospel, and so bright an emanation of the holy beauty of God and Jesus Christ. Herein consists the spiritual beauty of its doctrines, that they are holy doctrines or doctrines according to godliness. And herein consists the spiritual beauty of the way of salvation by Jesus Christ, that it is so holy a way.”8 “Herein chiefly consists the glory of heaven, that it is the holy city, the holy Jerusalem, the habitation of God’s holiness and so of His glory.”9
All of God’s acts are holy acts, including His foreordination of all things. God’s sovereign rule over all things is a holy rule. Apart from holiness, God’s sovereign rule would be no better than that of a wicked despot. All moral evil in the universe is fully attributable to the will of the creature and not to God.
As we noted above, God does not do evil that good may result. Any proposed “solution” to the “problem of evil” that either states or implies that God authored evil to bring about a greater good is inconsistent with God’s character as holy. In the same way, any theological framework that makes or implies God to be the author of evil or sin to bring about God’s ultimate purpose in Christ to redeem the elect is inconsistent with God as holy.10
All attempts to reconcile God’s sovereign and omniscient creation and ordination of all things with the free agency of mankind, including the entrance of sin through the free agency of created beings (first Lucifer, then Adam and Eve) must consider that no “solution” is valid that, in any way, compromises God as infinitely holy. God is not and cannot be the author of that which is contrary to His holy character. Here, as elsewhere, we must acknowledge our limited understanding as created, finite, and dependent beings in the face of an infinite God. Reason simply cannot reconcile God’s sovereignty and human free agency. As all of God’s actions are holy, so His sovereign ordination and control over all things is a holy ordination and control.
And as the beauty of God and the beauty of things related to God consist in their holiness, it is inconceivable that those loving and rejoicing in the infinite holiness of God could take comfort and delight in God as directly or indirectly the author of evil. We certainly take no comfort in a universe where evil is beyond God’s sovereign control. We take comfort in God’s sovereign control over all things, and in the fact that evil only exists as subject to God’s sovereign control. Yet, as the very beauty of God and His sovereign rule is their holiness, we also take no comfort in God as sullied by the responsibility for sin in the world. The responsibility for sin lies in the will of the creature. Beyond this, the origin of evil in the universe is inexplicable. How an evil inclination arose in one created by God as holy is beyond our capacity to understand. We do know that Lucifer, Adam, and Eve freely chose evil, but we leave the responsibility and explanation there. Attempts to reconcile the apparent contradiction between God’s sovereign rule and the free agency of the creature in bringing evil into the universe will only result in the loss of God as holy or sovereign, neither of which is possible. Thus, we rest in God’s unfailing and perfect character, accepting our human limitations in the face of an infinite God. Beyond this, we simply cannot go.
As we have seen, to compromise God as holy is to compromise that which is the beauty of His attributes. The compromise of a single attribute of God compromises all of God’s attributes. We proclaim a different God than the God of Scripture if we compromise a single attribute of God.
Also, to posit God as possibly or probably existing treats God as unholy. Given the universe as it is, it is impossible that God could not exist. God is the creator and sustainer of all things, apart from whom nothing can possibly exist. To argue for the mere probability of God’s existence debases God and partially justifies unbelief.
Additionally, God is treated as unholy when sinful clay is granted legitimacy in sitting as judge of the Potter, or when unbelievers are given the place of God as the ultimate determiner of truth (like Adam and Eve in the garden). God is treated as unholy when the Gospel is amended to make it more amenable to an unbelieving culture. God knows best and we depend upon Him to know what is best. Christ is Lord over our apologetic method and message.
As will be discussed further under God’s righteousness below, God is of such purity that He despises sin. That He personally interacts with fallen humanity (believers and unbelievers) and angels, is by virtue of Christ’s satisfaction of the penalty required by God’s justice for sin.11 Not only do we have no claims upon God and owe Him all things as created by Him, we owe Him all thanks, love and honor for our salvation in Christ. Apart from Christ we are hopelessly lost and odious in God’s holy eyes. That we can even approach God in light of His holiness required the infinite payment for our sins by Christ. Thus, from our creation to our redemption, we have no claims upon a holy God. Our approach to unbelief and the attacks against God and the Gospel must acknowledge this, denying the legitimacy of complaints and arguments against God while keeping the supremacy and holiness of God in proper perspective.
And the LORD said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’ (Job 40:1-5).
In our pragmatic age, we are tempted to evaluate ministry success by numbers or the acceptability of our ministry by the world. Yet, opposition to Christ and the Gospel are the greatest when God’s excellence is most clearly seen. Christ came into the world, but the world “loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19). As unbelievers are blind to the beauty of God’s holiness they are blind to the beauty of Christ, the Gospel, the church, and the saints. The more we conform to God’s holiness, the more we will be opposed by a world opposed to God. And the more faithful we are to a God-honoring method and message, the more opposition we will generate. Of course, opposition should always be the result of faithfulness to the message, not a lack of grace, kindness, compassion, patience, and respect on our part. Truth should always be presented with love. But truth should be presented, nonetheless. We are not to be alarmed by opposition, which “is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:28).
Therefore, as the methods and message that least honor God’s holiness will be most acceptable to unbelievers, the apologetic method and message are to be judged according to their faithfulness to God and His word and not their acceptance by unbelievers. Perhaps some churches are small in number because they are the most faithful.
“Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
1 Edwards, Religious Affections; BT, 181; Yale, 255-256.
2 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257.
3 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257-258.
4 Ibid.; BT, 183; Yale, 257.
5 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 258.
6 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 258.
7 Ibid.; BT, 184; Yale, 259.
8 Ibid.; BT, 184-185; Yale, 259.
9 Ibid.; BT, 185; Yale, 259.
10 For those familiar with the highly technical debate between supralapsarians and infralapsarians (if you are not intimately familiar with the debate, disregard this footnote), it seems to me that Supralapsarianism comes too close to implying that God is the author of sin. While supralapsarians and infralapsarians both believe God has foreordained all things, supralapsarianism prioritizes God’s sovereignty in determining all things over God’s holiness from which all of God’s actions spring and with which all God’s acts are consistent. But, all God’s sovereign acts are necessarily holy acts. God’s holiness cannot be subordinated to God’s sovereignty (and vice versa). Thus, whether or not one believes that logically ordering the decrees of God is a legitimate theological exercise, any such attempt must never call into question God’s holiness.
11 That God forbears judging sin immediately is by virtue of Christ’s future and past propitiation for sin for those who live prior to and after Christ’s saving work, respectively. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26).