As we approach the subject of the holiness of God, let us be mindful of the importance of this divine attribute. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “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 term “holy” is often understood in its contemporary usage rather than its true meaning in the Scriptures. For this reason, our study must begin by reviewing several dimensions of the definition of holiness.
(1) To be holy is to be distinct, separate, in a class by oneself. As Sproul puts it:
The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that meant, ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’ When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is ‘a cut above the rest.’ This means that the one who is holy is uniquely holy, with no rivals or competition.
“When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other,’ to be different in a special way. The same basic meaning is used when the word holy is applied to earthly things.”
The Scriptures put it this way: “Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11). 2 “There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides Thee, Nor is there any rock like our God (1 Samuel 2:2).
There is no one like Thee among the gods, O Lord; Nor are there any works like Thine. 9 All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; And they shall glorify Thy name. 10 For Thou art great and doest wondrous deeds; Thou alone art God (Psalms 86:8-10; see also Psalm 99:1-3; Isaiah 40:25; 57:15).
(2) To be holy is to be morally pure.
When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simple apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is a transcendent purity.
Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? and who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, And has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation (Psalms 24:3-5).
And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 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 6:3-5).
(3) For God to be holy is for Him to be holy in relation to every aspect of His nature and character.
When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is a spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of the holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that His love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.
The holiness of God is not merely a theological subject fit for scholars with the interest and stamina to pursue it. Indeed, the holiness of God is a matter of great importance to every living soul. The Christian should be especially concerned with the holiness of God. Several incidents in the Old and New Testaments underscore the importance of holiness to the believer. These examples are but a few of the accounts in Scripture dealing with God’s holiness and its impact on saints.
Moses and the Holiness of God (Numbers 20:1-13; 27:12-14)
Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5 And why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; 7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.” 9 So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 Those [were] the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them (Numbers 20:1-14).
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go up to this mountain of Abarim, and see the land which I have given to the sons of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was; 14 for in the wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the congregation, you rebelled against My command to treat Me as holy before their eyes at the water.” (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.) (Numbers 27:12-14).
Moses had good reason to be angry with the Israelites. They were indeed a “stiff-necked people,” even as God Himself had said (see Exodus 33:5). The Israelites arrived at Kadesh, a place whose name meant “holy.” There, Miriam died and was buried. At Kadesh, there was no water for the people to drink. The people were hostile and a mob contended with Moses and Aaron wishing they were dead, or even better, that Moses and Aaron were. They protested they had not been “led” as much as “mis-led” by Moses to a land far from what they were promised. That there was now no water here was the final straw.
Moses and Aaron went to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and there the glory of the Lord appeared to them. God then commanded Moses to take his rod and speak to the rock, from which water would flow for the people. Moses was furious with the people as he gathered them before the rock, the “spiritual rock.” Instead of merely speaking to the rock as commanded, in his anger, Moses struck the rock twice. The consequences were indeed severe.
Who has not lost his or her temper and done worse than striking a rock with a stick? Yet this act was so serious in God’s sight that He forbade Moses to enter into the land of promise. Moses never saw the land to which he came so close. Why? God told him, and he recorded it for us: “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.…” (Numbers 20:12). And by dealing severely with Moses for his transgression, God is said to have “proved Himself holy among them” (verse 13).
In a moment of anger, Moses sinned, and for this sin he was kept from entering the land of promise. The act was striking the rock. But it was much more than this. Striking the rock was an act of disobedience, of failing to follow God’s instructions. Even more, it was identified by God as an act of unbelief:
“Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (verse 12).
The root sin was irreverence, and that irreverence was the cause of Moses’ disobedience and his striking the rock. Moses’ anger with the people overcame his fear of God. His fear of God should have overcome his anger with the Israelites. God took Moses’ irreverence most seriously.
Uzzah and the Holiness of God: (2 Samuel 6:1-11)
Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned [above] the cherubim. 3 And they placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. 4 So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. 5 Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD with all kinds of [instruments made of] fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. 6 But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset [it.] 7 And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. 8 And David became angry because of the LORD’S outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9 So David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” 10 And David was unwilling to move the ark of the LORD into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11 Thus the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household (2 Samuel 6:1-11).
The Philistines had captured the ark of God and sought to keep it as a trophy of their victory. It soon became evident the ark was the source of much suffering to them. They passed it about and finally determined to be rid of it by sending it back to Israel. They transported it in a way the Philistine priests and diviners recommended. They put a guilt offering of gold in the ark and placed it on a newly-made cart drawn by two cows just separated from their calves (see 1 Samuel 6).
If the Philistines could not stand in the presence of the Holy God of Israel, neither could the people of Beth-shemesh where the ark arrived: And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall He go up from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up to you” (1 Samuel 6:19-21).
The men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab and consecrated Abinadab’s son, Eleazar, to keep the ark, where it remained for some 20 years (1 Samuel 7:1-2). Finally, David, accompanied by 30,000 Israelites, went to Kiriath-jearim to bring the ark to Jerusalem.
The ark was a symbol of the presence of God, a most holy object (see 2 Samuel 6:2) which was to be hidden in the holiest place in the tabernacle, the “holy of holies.” According to God’s instructions, it was to be transported by the Kohathites who carried it by holding onto poles inserted through its attached rings (see Exodus 25:10-22; Numbers 4:1-20). No one was to look into the ark, or they would die.
The day the ark was transported to Jerusalem was a great and happy moment. But they had forgotten how holy this ark was, because it was the place where God’s presence was to abide. Rather than transporting the ark as instructed in the law, the ark was placed on a new ox cart. It was a most jubilant procession as the ark made its way home. What a happy time. But when the oxen stumbled, and it looked as though the cart might be overturned and hurled to the ground, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. Instantly, he was struck dead by God.
David’s first response was frustration and anger with God. Why had God been so harsh with Uzzah? David seems to have forgotten God’s instructions in the Law about how the ark was to be transported. He also seems to have forgotten how many had previously died when due reverence for the presence of God associated with the ark was not shown. God had spoiled their celebration, and David was miffed. Only upon reflection did David realize the gravity of the error. And concerning Uzzah, God struck him dead because of his irreverence (2 Samuel 6:7).
Irreverence is a dangerous malady. Even when our motives are sincere and we are actively involved in the worship of God, we must constantly be mindful of the holiness of God and maintain a reverence for Him manifested by our obedience to His instructions and commands.
Isaiah and the Holiness of God (Isaiah 6:1-10)
In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 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.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 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.” 8 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!” 9 And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:1-10).
The death of Uzziah seems to have spelled the end of an era, a golden era, for Judah. The “good times” were over; the “hard times” were about to commence as verses 9 and 10 indicate. Isaiah’s ministry is commencing from a human point of view at the very worst possible time. His ministry was not going to be regarded a success (as if many of the prophets of old were successful). He was in for a chilly reception. He and his message would be spurned. What did Isaiah need to give him the proper perspective and endurance to persevere in such hard times? The answer: a vision of the holiness of God.
This is precisely what God gave to Isaiah—a dramatic revelation of His holiness. He saw the Lord sitting enthroned, lofty and exalted. The angels who stood above Him were magnificent, and they called out to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (verse 3). The earth quaked, and the temple was filled with smoke. It was as dramatic a vision of God and His holiness as one could wish to see.
Isaiah’s response is far from what we hear today from many who claim to teach biblical truth. He was not impressed with his “significance.” His “self-esteem” was not enhanced. Just the opposite took place. His vision of the holiness of God caused Isaiah to lament his utter sinfulness. If God was holy, Isaiah saw he was not. Isaiah confessed his own unholiness and that of his people.
What is most significant is that Isaiah sees his sinfulness (and his people’s) evidenced by their “lips.” Isaiah confessed he was “a man of unclean lips” and that he lived among a people with the same malady. How was Isaiah able to be so focused about his sin that he saw it evidencing itself in his speech? Other texts in Scripture say a great deal about the tongue and the way sin is evident in our speech (see, for example, many of the Proverbs, also Matthew 12:32-37; Romans 3:10-14; James 3:1-12).
Notice that if the curse Isaiah recognized was directed toward his lips, so was the cure. One of the seraphim touched Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal, symbolically cleansing him and his mouth. What is God attempting to accomplish in Isaiah’s life by this vision? I believe God wanted Isaiah to understand that the vision of His holiness was to have a great impact on what he said and how he said it.
The Holiness of Jesus Christ
The promises of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament became increasingly specific, until it was evident that Messiah must not only be human but divine (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2). As such, He must be holy. And so, when the angel told Mary of the child to be miraculously born of her, a virgin, he said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, emphasis mine).
Throughout the life and ministry of our Lord on the earth, it became increasingly clear this was no ordinary man; indeed, He was more than a prophet and more than a mere man. This was the Son of God. Even the demons had to acknowledge Him as the”Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The things Jesus said and did marked Him out as One who stood head and shoulders above any other (merely human) being. Peter was a professional fisherman, but when he obeyed the instructions of the Lord Jesus, the results were awesome. Peter’s response was appropriate: When Simon Peter saw [that,] he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).
When Jesus healed the demon-possessed dumb man, the multitudes marveled, saying, “Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33).
When Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven and then proceeded to heal him, the people could not escape the implications: And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 But there were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (Mark 2:5-12).
When the man born blind was healed by Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were most reluctant to admit that such a miracle had taken place. The blind man could “see” the implications of what had happened, and he pressed them on his interrogators: The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and [yet] He opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing, and does His will, He hears him. 32 Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:30-33).
The Holiness of God and Contemporary Christianity
The holiness of God is not simply a doctrine to which we give assent. Rather, the doctrine of the holiness of God should guide and govern our lives.
(1) The holiness of God should guide and govern our thinking on “God’s acceptance.”
I often hear Christians use the expression “unconditional acceptance.” It seems this term is first applied to God and then to the saints. “God unconditionally accepts us,” they reason, “and so we must accept others unconditionally.” My difficulty is that this is not a biblical expression. Perhaps even worse, it does not appear to be a biblical concept. God does not “accept us regardless” of what we do. Look at the nation Israel. Because of their persistent sin, God said they were no longer His people (see Hosea 1). God did not accept Cain or his offering (Genesis 4:5). God accepts us only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ so that even Christians are not unconditionally accepted, regardless of their attitudes and actions. The holiness of God indicates God does not accept what is not holy. In reality, all God accepts from us is that which He produces in and through us. To speak too glibly about unconditional acceptance appears to encourage careless and disobedient living.
The church cannot “accept” those who profess to be Christians but live like pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). We must discipline and remove those who refuse to live like Christians. The church is to be holy, and this means purging out the “leaven” from its midst. Let those who emphasize unconditional acceptance ponder these words: “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth’” (Revelation 3:14-16).
(2) The doctrine of the holiness of God needs to considered when we speak of accountability.
The concept of “accountability” has been imported from the secular world, some suggest. The church sometimes speaks more of accountability to men than of accountability to God. Let us not forget to whom we must give account: “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).
Obey your leaders, and submit [to them]; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17, emphasis mine; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God (Romans 14:12).
And in [all] this, they are surprised that you do not run with [them] into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign [you]; 5 but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:4-5).
 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985), p. 40.
 Ibid., p. 54
 Ibid., p. 55.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 Ibid., p. 57.
 The relationship between fear (or reverence) and obedience is indicated in the New Testament as well as the Old. In 1 Peter 1, Peter calls upon the saints to live in fear of God (1:17). In chapter 2, fear (reverence or respect) is the root of obedience to kings, to cruel slave masters, and obedience to harsh husbands (3:1-6; see also Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:33). Irreverence is the root of disobedience.
 William McDougall, An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Methuen, 1908), p. 132, cited by Kenneth Prior, The Way of Holiness (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, rev. ed., 1982), p. 20.
 John Calvin, as cited by R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, p. 68.
 See Os Guiness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), pp. 21-24, for some of the positive contributions of the movement. The rest of the book deals with its critical deficiencies.