It strikes me as problematic that there are more bumper stickers that read “God is love” than there are that read “God is holy.” Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one that reads: God is holy.
Referring to Isaiah 6, R.C. Sproul says this about God’s holiness:
The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.
The third Person of the God-head even has a name: Holy Spirit. Yes, God is also love, but when choosing a name for God’s presence in the world He chose the name Holy Spirit rather than Loving Spirit.
There is a lot to be said about what the word holy means, but at it’s core is this idea of transcendent separateness. To be holy means to be set apart. When the bible calls God holy it is to say that God is so distinct, so lofty, so set-apart from all else. There is none like our God (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Psalm 86:8-10).
To be holy also means to be pure. The trouble God went through to describe the way the temple of God was to be built, the ceremonial rites of priests, the mandate that sacrifices made to God be unblemished, the purification rituals of those who would dare come before God, all demonstrate God’s precedence upon moral purity. The psalmist declares,
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood (Psalm 24:3-5)
The importance God places on the holiness of those who would be called His children is not confined to the Old Testament. Paul says this about God’s goal for us,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph. 1:3-4)
And to the Corinthians he reminds them that sexual impurity makes one unholy,
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
We glorify God by becoming holy, as He is holy. For the Christian it is not an option, but a command: Be holy, as I am holy (Lev. 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16).
So if holiness is what God is, and is what God wants us to be, why don’t we hear more about it? Why don’t bumper stickers reading “God is holy” sell? My hunch is because “love” is something we all want, and the sentimentality behind it sells. Today, love is popularly understood as an emotion (we “fall in” and “out” of love) rather than it being the robust, active decision as seen in God, and meant to be embodied by Christians. In the bible, love has more to do with obedience than feelings, but in our culture today love, however you want to define it, wins.
The word “holy,” by contrast, has fallen out of popular use and is not as easily reduced to a feeling. I believe this has something to do with the fact that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, and our conscience knows that to speak the word “holy” we are talking about God, who is unlike us, yet calls us to be like Him. Love may be what we want, but holiness is what we need.
Sadly, by evacuating our talk of God as holy along with His desire for us to be holy, while simultaneously using “love” for everything from what I had for dinner last night and to describe God, we miss the God revealed to us altogether who is far more marvelous than we can imagine. It is only when we grasp the truth of God’s holiness – how separate and transcendent He is from us – that we can even begin to appreciate what it means for Him to come to us in Jesus, and die for us “while we were yet sinners.” That God is holy should makes us come undone, as it did Isaiah (Isa. 6), or make us drop like we are dead, as it did John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (Rev. 1:17).
Meditate on the awesome holiness of God. It will radically transform what it means to you when you see those “God is love” bumper stickers.