There is something about holiness that scares us, and something about a person who claims to be holy that threatens us. People like that make us feel uncomfortable, inferior, unworthy, guilty, and condemned. The less holy we think we are, the farther away from them we want to run.
That is the way some people feel about God. The thought of His holiness makes them want to hide. That is an understandable response for the unbeliever. He has good reason to hide from an infinitely holy God who must punish sin. But sometimes people whose sins have been forgiven, and who have been clothed with divine righteousness, also draw back from Him and that is probably due to a faulty understanding of His holiness. Satan 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 have a definite influence on the Christian’s mind. The prevailing viewpoint seems to be that nice guys finish last, that honest people never get ahead, and that clean-living people never have any fun. We have been conditioned to accept a lack of holiness as the normal pattern of life. We expect people to be immoral, dishonest, selfish, and greedy. Books are available that teach people how to get rich by cheating others. That’s the way life is, and some of us have decided that we might as well get our share. So we accept the philosophy of the world and begin doing unto others before they do unto us. We may even consider anybody who wants to be genuinely holy as being out of touch with reality.
One professing Christian challenged me to name anybody who had succeeded in business after consecrating his life to Jesus Christ. I was able to name some, but his challenge was revealing. If our highest priority in life is to succeed in business, and we do not think we can be successful as committed Christians, we will never desire to be holy or ever yield our lives to Jesus Christ. We may even ridicule anybody who wants to be holy, and we will certainly not want to hear anything about God’s holiness. If, on the other hand, our highest priority in life is to do God’s will and to bring glory to Him, then we will have much to gain from an understanding of His holiness. Assuming that this is our desire, let’s meet the Holy One.
King Sennacherib of Assyria had no time for the God of Israel. He laughed at the suggestion that Jehovah could protect the Jews against his mighty military machine, and he instructed his personal representative to stand before the walls of Jerusalem and shout blasphemies against Him. When he sent a personal letter to King Hezekiah defying the Lord, Hezekiah took that letter to the temple, spread it out before the Lord, and prayed. God assured him through the prophet Isaiah that Sennacherib had gone too far with his blasphemy.
Whom have you reproached and blasphemed? And against whom have you raised your voice, And haughtily lifted up your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! (2 Kings 19:22)
He had insulted the Holy One and had to learn that there was no God like Him. Because of his impudence and audacity, his armies were defeated and he lost his life by an assassin’s sword.
That encouraging message from Isaiah to King Hezekiah introduces us to a name—the Holy One. It is one of the most glorious names of our great God. The basic idea in both the Old and New Testament words for holy is “separation.” God is the separated One. But separate from what? There are two basic answers to that question. First, God is separate from His creatures. He is exalted high above them in infinite glory and transcendent majesty. Isaiah emphasized this aspect of God’s holiness when he declared,
For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place” (Isaiah 57:15).
His holiness is associated with His elevated position. It sets Him apart, above all His creation (cf. also Exodus 15:11 and 1 Samuel 2:2).
Holiness has an ethical connotation as well, a sense in which God is separated from all evil. He 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 iniquity.
As Elihu put it to Job,
Far be it from God to do wickedness, And from the Almighty to do wrong (Job 34:10).
The prophet Habakkuk insisted that God is so pure, He will not even look at sin (Habakkuk 1:13). The Psalmist assured us that no evil dwells with Him (Psalm 5:4). Other passages affirm that He hates sin (e.g., Proverbs 6:16-19; Hebrews 1:9). Our holy God is totally separated from sin.
The Apostle John described God’s holiness as light: “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). There is not much in this world that is pure enough to illustrate the intensity of God’s holiness, but John chose one of the purest things we know—light. There is not even a hint of anything sinful in God, no darkness at all, no shadow of sin. He 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” (Isaiah 6:3). This is the only attribute of God that is ever repeated three times in succession. It emphasizes the absoluteness and completeness of His holiness. Our God is infinitely holy.
As a matter of fact, there are probably more references to God’s holiness in Scripture than to any other attribute. If there is one thing God wants us to know about Himself, above all else, it is that He is infinitely holy. We may find it to be one of the most difficult of all His attributes to accept, but for some reason He finds it one of the most important for us to comprehend. He wants us to know Him as the infinitely Holy One.
This same holiness was seen in the earthly life of God the Son. Peter said that He committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22). John said that there was no sin in Him (1 John 3:5). Paul said that He knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). The writer to the Hebrews said He was “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). We are not surprised to hear Peter refer to Him in his sermon at the gate of the temple as the Holy One, the very same exalted name applied to the Father (Acts 3:14).
Jesus Christ was truly holy. That is one reason why the self-seeking, self-righteous religious rulers of the day hated Him and wanted to destroy Him. They stood condemned in His presence. That is why demons trembled before Him and feared for their very existence. In the synagogue at Capernaum, one of them cried out, “What do we have to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24) The Holy One of God! Sinful men feared Him and fallen angels fled from His presence. His holiness is awesome.
While it repulses the unbeliever, threatens the carnal Christian, and inspires awe in everyone who acknowledges it, there is something in God’s holiness that attracts the person who loves Him. The godly king, Jehoshaphat, revealed what attracts us when he organized his armies and appointed a choir to lead them into battle. They were to sing unto the Lord and “praise the beauty of holiness” (2 Chronicles 20:21 KJV). There are few things uglier than self-righteousness and hypocritical holiness, but true holiness is beautiful to behold.
That should be easy to understand. We seldom consider soiled things to be beautiful. A beauty contest winner is never in a soiled, wrinkled dress. When “grease monkeys” climb out of the pits under cars, or coal miners emerge from the mines, nobody raves about their beauty. Beauty is usually associated with what is clean and pure, not what is dirty and defiled. A babbling brook loses some of its beauty when we learn that its water is polluted. A beautiful woman loses some of her attractiveness when we learn of her immoral involvements. But the perfect purity of our holy God is beautiful.
We have seen that God is light, and light is also a thing of beauty. I doubt that anyone ever praised the beauty of a totally dark room. The beauty of the night is seen in the sparkling 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. The radiantly pure light of our holy God is beautiful.
David longed to behold the beauty of the Lord (Psalm 27:4). He wanted to understand and appreciate God’s perfect purity, His infinite holiness, His absolute freedom from anything sinful. We cannot even imagine God being soiled or spotted or lurking in dark shadows. He is brilliant, beautiful, unblemished light. He is lovely to contemplate right now, and He will be exciting to behold in glory.
That is one of the reasons why we are so attracted to the Lord Jesus. He is without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19)—perfectly pure. The unbeliever finds no beauty in Him and has no desire for Him (Isaiah 53:2-3). But His face, even marred by thorns and twisted with pain, is beautiful to us who believe, because it is the face of God’s sinless Son who gave Himself for our eternal salvation. The Psalmist was looking through the corridors of time to Him when he said,
Thou art fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Thy lips;
Therefore God has blessed Thee forever (Psalm 45:2).
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 solely with the outer layer of skin or what is pleasing to the eye. God wants us to get to know Him, and then we shall understand that genuine beauty is found in a holy life.
This challenge was first issued to God’s ancient people Israel, then repeated to the church of Jesus Christ. Look at it first in the Old Testament. The Lord had just delivered His people from their Egyptian bondage and was directing them to their promised land. Along the way He paused to give them some laws, and He advised them that it would be to their benefit to obey them. Then He issued the challenge: “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for 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.
The Apostle Peter took up the same theme when he encouraged believers not to be conformed 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 NIV). 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 some decide they will not even try. It seems to be more tolerable to live with the guilt of ignoring God than the guilt of trying to be holy but consistently 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 we can grow in holiness, and He has made available to us everything we need to accomplish that. We can be separated from sin and set apart to God for His use and for His glory. Because He is holy and offers us all the assistance we need to be holy, He has a right to expect us to be holy. Some of us probably will admit that we are so far from any significant degree of holiness that we do not even know where to begin.
Maybe Isaiah can help us. Let’s go back to his experience. It began when he got a glimpse of God’s absolute and complete holiness. And that is where we must begin. That is why we need to study this attribute. There is little hope for us to be 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).
Don’t miss what happened to Isaiah when he grasped the reality of God’s holiness.
Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
Isaiah’s understanding of God’s holiness brought 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 strikes at the very heart of our self-esteem and self-worth. We feel threatened, insecure, rejected, and condemned. So in a 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 substitute for real Christian living. We go through the forms, use the right language, and do the bare minimum of what we think is expected of us. We talk about God’s love, which is vital to an understanding of His person. But we seldom ever mention His holiness or think about what it means for us to be holy.
Isaiah did not try to run and hide from God’s holiness. It exposed his sin and that was not very pleasant, but he did not turn away. Neither did he try to excuse himself by blaming his parents or his spouse or his poor circumstances in life. He admitted it and accepted the responsibility for it. The only way he could ever be holy was to see himself as God saw him, acknowledge his sin, and admit that he deserved divine judgment. “Woe is me!” he cried.
If that were the end of the story, we would be destined to live our lives under a continuous cloud of guilt. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. And he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven’” (Isaiah 6:6-7). That does not 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 in the vision was symbolic of purging. God took the initiative and cleansed Isaiah’s sins. Nothing brings greater relief or more joyous freedom than the assurance that God has forgiven and cleansed us. The pressing burden of guilt is gone.
God’s provision for our cleansing is the cross of Jesus Christ. He does not put hot coals on our lips. Instead, He placed the judgment for our sin on His own sinless Son.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:5-6).
When we confront God’s holiness, it does expose our sinfulness. But the solution is not to run and hide, nor is it to ridicule the whole idea of holiness. It is to acknowledge our sin and to accept the forgiveness He has offered us in His Son. Then God shares His own holiness with us in the person of His Son. He washes away every sinful stain, then actually allows Jesus Christ to become our holiness (1 Corinthians 1:30),1 accepting us because of our relationship to Him. That is real worth. Confronting God’s holiness does not destroy our self-worth if we respond properly. It enhances it. To know we are children of the living God, sinful though we are, is to possess an inestimable sense of real worth.
But that is not the end of the matter. Christians still sin, and their sin often lays on them a new sense of guilt, makes them hesitant to enter the presence of God, or offer themselves to serve Him. But the same sacrifice that provided for our initial cleansing also provides for our daily cleansing. The blood of Jesus Christ keeps on cleansing us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
We still have an obligation, however, and that again is to acknowledge our sin. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). When we see ourselves as God sees us and admit our sin, it brings us a fresh realization of cleansing. That is what happened to Isaiah, and it was that cleansing which qualified him for fruitful service. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8). Nothing can bring us more satisfaction, more fulfillment, or a greater sense of personal worth than the assurance that God can use us.
In the normal Christian life this process just keeps going on and on. We learn a little more about God’s holiness and consequently a little more about our own sinfulness. Then we acknowledge the sin, enjoy a renewed sense of God’s cleansing, yield that area of our lives to His control, and so grow a little more in His holy likeness. This is what Paul was referring to when he encouraged the Corinthians to move on and perfect holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1). As we grow in His image we become progressively set apart unto Him.
Sometimes our heavenly Father helps us along through discipline. That is what most earthly fathers try to do, but some usually do it rather poorly. “For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). His loving discipline helps us partake more fully of His holiness, which will in turn make our lives more productive and satisfying.
Christian, don’t run from God’s holiness. Explore it more deeply. Get to know God as the Holy One. There are few things we could ever possibly do to bring greater joy and blessedness to living.
Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your own personal Saviour from the guilt and penalty of sin? If so, thank God for cleansing you and imparting to you Christ’s holiness.
Are there still sins in your daily life as a Christian? Confess them to God and trust His power for victory over them. Be in your daily practice what you are by virtue of your eternal position in Christ.