God is Holy

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.

3 thoughts on “God is Holy”

  1. I’m actually preaching this weekend on the way that agape is holy love rather than merely affection or friendship or desire. We are set apart by God for the sake of being perfectly loving not in a shallow, sentimental way though not necessarily in any kind of heroic “decisive” way either. Agape love is cruciform power but it might appear very unheroic and meek and unassuming. I don’t think we should talk about holiness without love any more than we should talk about love without holiness. To be holy is to be like the trees in Psalm 1 who cannot be uprooted no matter what the enemy throws at us. It’s to be utterly unwavering in our love for God and neighbor.

    The only thing that makes me nervous about defining holiness as transcendent otherness and purity is it seems to open the door to a nominalistic relativism. Walter White could be said to be “transcendently other” in the sense that his motives are opaque and incomprehensible to other people. Likewise you can be “pure” in terms of conformity to a set of principles which are neither good nor evil. God’s holiness is perfect beauty, goodness, and truth. Do I have a full grasp of what those three things really are? No, but they’re not completely nihilistically incomprehensible either.

    1. “I don’t think we should talk about holiness without love any more than we should talk about love without holiness.”

      I do think we need to be careful about *not* defining something (holiness) as X because some people misuse it and do Y with it. I think it would be hard to get around both the Old and New Testaments understanding of holiness as being most dominantly about God’s other-ness and goodness/purity.

  2. Chad, I would like to add my thoughts to this discussion.

    Morgan said: “I don’t think we should talk about holiness without love any more than we should talk about love without holiness.”

    Yes, God is love but God’s holiness distinctly manifests in a way that is unique from all his other characteristics, and sets Him apart from all else. In my understanding, when we experience God’s holiness, it is the complete awareness of where we stand (spiritually) when we are in His awesome presence. Scripture records people falling at His feet when they realize the depth and depravity and their unworthiness because of their sinful state. Paul was smitten, Isaiah recognized his unclean tongue and said “woe is me.” Job, a righteous man, in the presence of God, recognized his sin and had to repent. King David when confronted with his sin said this:
    Psa 51:10    Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.Psa 51:11    Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

    David recognized the holiness of God, and wanted to make things right with Him. In the awesome majesty of God, we are undone. It has happened to me, and it was distinctly NOT a warm and fuzzy feeling. I had to see the depth of how I had fallen in order to experience the great measure of grace and forgiveness He freely offered, something that changed my heart and life forever. When confronted by God to come clean of our sin, repentance always comes first, then the depth of the grace and forgiveness and love of God comes after (see Psalm 51 – David’s repentance). Nothing compares to the cleanliness of the work of the Holy Spirit in a sinful soul once He has dealt with us. If we are not undone in some way, then have we truly been in His presence?

    Morgan said: “Likewise you can be “pure” in terms of conformity to a set of principles which are neither good nor evil.”

    Impurity is a result of our sinful state, something we are all born with. Purity is all the work of the Holy Spirit and we can do nothing to make ourselves pure other than agree to repent of our sins. Our sins is what God has dealt with through Jesus death on the cross (and resurrection) and He continues to deal with in our lives. All we have to do is be willing to repent and then do so.

    There are no Scriptures to support that we deserve the love of God, for in His presence, we instantly become aware of our sinful flesh. At the same time, we know we are loved in spite of our transgressions. In Revelation 1:7 it says, “ Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
    Other versions say “mourn”. Does this sound like a party and a warm and fuzzy feeling? No. This is experiencing some of the majesty and awesomeness of the holiness of God. He is coming as a fiercesome warrior in the final battle, to execute judgement and justice and to save His own people.

    The holiness of God creates in us a fear and a deep reverence for Him:

    And Jesus warns: Mat 10:28    And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

    Heb 12:14    Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord:

    There is a place for love (which is overwhelmingly what God is offering to all today), but rejecting Him and the life He offers through Christ’s work on the cross, brings dire consequences. This is the holiness of God, that He also does not wink at sin, but has shown us from the beginning of the fall of man, that He is holy and has an independent will far beyond and above anything we can imagine that cannot and will not be manipulated by the whims of man.

    We are unworthy – we do not deserve anything! We were dead in our sins, yet God loved us in that state and raised us up, honors us and some day we will reign with Him. To be considered at all by Him and as anything worth saving is truly to have seen something of the holiness of God, and yes, the love of God which we should never take for granted, since it is given and demonstrated at such a great cost (Jesus own blood which cost Him His life).

    So I agree with you Chad, we cannot begin to appreciate those bumper stickers that say “God is Love,” without experiencing and meditating on the awesome holiness of God.

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