The holiness of God refers to the absolute moral purity of God the absolute moral distance between God and his human creatures.
The core idea of divine holiness is absolute moral purity. God’s holiness is an enduring thematic thread throughout the Scripture often associated with divine theophanies when God “shows up” in the midst of and on behalf of his people. The theme of holiness develops in unexpected ways with the advent of Jesus and the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Divine holiness closely attaches in mysterious ways to both divine justice and divine mercy and is the clearest explanation of the death of Jesus on the cross.
Holiness: Attractive and Dangerous
The holiness of God refers to the absolute moral purity of God and also the absolute moral distance between God and his human creatures. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Isa 6:3). It is the only description of God repeated in the three-fold formula – a literary device to bring great emphasis. God is not just a little bit holy. God is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY holy. This served to remind Israel in the original context, and us at present, that God’s holiness is a matter of enormous spiritual significance. It also serves as a warning that we humans are not holy. Holiness is a central marker of the fundamental divide between God and the sinful human creature – most especially in their fallen condition but also in the redeemed state entirely dependent upon God for any holiness that might reside in them.
The core idea behind holiness is absolute moral purity. God is not only perfectly good; he is the very source and standard of goodness. In this regard, goodness has a permanence to it precisely because it is rooted in the eternal and everlasting God. Goodness does not change because God does not change.
God’s absolute moral purity often carries the connotation of danger as well. It was a great fear within Israel to get too close to God lest they be overwhelmed by his holiness. God’s presence was a great comfort to Israel while at the same time being a great threat to their own unholy lives. One did not lightly or superficially come before God. Most often, one would need a mediator to go before God on their behalf lest they suffer the consequences of being in the presence of absolute holiness while themselves not being holy.
Holiness in the Old and New Testaments
Throughout the Old Testament this was symbolically signified in various ways. During the time of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) circumcision was enacted to symbolize the seriousness of being cut off because of sin from the covenant with God. The theophanies of the Mosaic period (burning bush, ten plagues, the exodus, lightning and thunder at Sinai) all carried a fearful and awe-inspiring experience when God “showed up.” In the tent of meeting (Exod 26) and later at the temple (1Kgs 6-8), the place of God’s presence was known as the “holy of holies.” The intensity of God’s presence also entailed that only a proper representative could enter in the holy of holies, and only then with a proper sacrifice that would serve as a substitute on behalf of the sins of the people. The annual rite of The Day of Atonement (Lev 16, 23; Heb 9) was a time when the High Priest in Israel would enter into the Holy of Holies with the blood of a sacrificed lamb without blemish and sprinkle the blood on the altar as the means to symbolize the death of a substitute for Israel. The only proper response in the face of divine holiness connected to all of these diverse ways in which God’s holiness became manifest was prostration and worship.
In the New Testament, divine holiness is mostly clearly attached to the Spirit of the God – referred to as the Holy Spirit some eighty-nine times in the New Testament. The holiness of God, which served as the primary obstacle that separated God from unholy people, was now lodged in the person of the Trinity that was poured out on his unholy people and by which God’s holiness took up residence in human hearts. The Holy Spirit brought holiness where there was none, and he was/is the means by which believers participated in the holiness of God personally.
God’s driving passion from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation is to make the universe a holy dwelling place for himself. The consummation of that motive in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21-22), hearkens back to the original garden of Eden (Gen 2-3) when God created a place of fruitful goodness. However, the consummation also completes that which was lost in the garden and which was redeemed most fully in Jesus – viz. a people for God’s own possession that would be “at home” in his presence and holiness.
Holiness and its Relationship to Justice and Mercy
There are several closely related ethical themes in Scripture to divine holiness, most notably justice/righteousness and mercy. Divine justice is one outworking of divine holiness, marking out the ethical consequences of actions – dividing righteous actions from evil actions. The just consequences of evil actions are a punishment proportionate to the action. The Old Testament standard of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” may seem distasteful to modern ears, but it simply is an ancient colloquial way of saying the punishment should fit the crime. Actions have consequences. Standards of justice determine how consequences should be fitted ethically to the prior actions. Israel’s case law in the book of Leviticus laid out the just consequences for many actions though clearly not every possible action was considered. Divine justice is the standard by which all human actions will finally be judged. The reminder throughout Scripture that God cannot be bribed (Deuteronomy 10:17) nor does he show partiality (2 Chronicles 19:7), was the powerful reminder that God’s judgment will be entirely and perfectly just.
The great and unexpected irony of Scripture is that God shows mercy to the unjust. The promise even in the garden with Adam and Eve that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3), was a promise that God would defeat evil justly while also showing mercy to those who were undeserving (Gen 3:15 and Gal 3:16). The covenant established with Abraham (Gen 12-15) was grounded in God’s mercy, the only appropriate response of Abraham and his descendants was trust in God’s mercy. There was no allowance that Abraham nor his descendants could earn God’s favor. Yet, the question remained – how would their sins be dealt with? Would God merely and arbitrarily forget their sins? Would God put aside his justice in order to show his love? Would one half of God’s character (righteousness/justice) be sacrificed for the other half of God’s character (mercy/love)? The answer to all of these questions rested in an adequate understanding of God’s holiness – which did not sacrifice his justice nor undermine his mercy. All of the manifest representations of God’s holiness across the Old Testament foreshadowed the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. The shocking reality was that God himself would take the punishment himself (on the cross) for the sins of his people, and thereby show them mercy in the forgiveness of their sins. This mercy was undeserved, which mercy must always be, but was also entirely just since the entire punishment and penalty was paid (by Jesus). Divine justice was not obliterated by divine mercy, but neither was his mercy impeded by his justice. The great mystery of the cross is the reality that it is the full satisfaction of divine justice and the full display of divine mercy (Rom 3 and 4).
God’s holiness is the underpinning to the entire narrative arc of Scripture. His holiness means that all of the created order functions within a fixed moral order wherein good and evil are never simply relative terms contingent upon a culture’s moral taste buds. Human flourishing is always a function of delighting in that which God delights and desiring that which God desires. God’s holiness gives us the clearest frame of reference for human corruption and dysfunction across the whole of Scripture. God’s holiness also marks out the remarkable appearances of God into human history in ways that are mysterious, stupendous and scary. The greatest hope of an Israelite was to see God and their greatest fear was to see God – because absolute holiness is always both attractive and terrifying. The holiness of God runs right through the entirety of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is why so few of Jesus’ contemporaries understand him on the pages of the Gospels. When God shows up in history, his presence is inscrutable. The first appropriate reaction is always worship and gratitude and only afterwards may a modicum of understanding emerge. When God sends his holiness into our lives and communities by his (Holy) Spirit, the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf spreads even to the nations. When God brings a final defeat to evil, there will no longer be a need for a temple with a “holy of holies” for the Holy God will dwell in the midst of his people forever and ever.
- Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (NavPress, 2016)
- Jay Sklar, “How to be Unholy as You Pursue Holiness”
- R. C. Sproul, “The Holiness of God” (video series)
- Paul Tripp, “The Doctrine of Holiness”
- John Webster, Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003)
- David Wells, God in the Whirlwind: The Holy Love of God (Crossway, 2014)