For years I struggled with the concept of a holy God and how He seemed to be different in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The most frightening thing about God seemed to be a lack of consistency, and somehow I felt His holiness held the key.
Some concepts about God are more easily seen and understood. His love is one.
Others are tougher to understand. Justice is one.
But holiness always seemed the toughest for me to understand.
When I would ask clergy what holy meant, I usually got “to be separated from” as an answer. “Set apart” and “consecrated to God” were others. It seems, however, they were describing more of the process of sanctification or becoming more like God as we surrender more completely as a “living sacrifice.” (Romans 12:1-2)
So their explanations didn’t help much.
Then I would ask questions like, “How do I describe 'holy' to someone who has not been exposed to or raised around other Christians?” Those answers weren’t as useful either.
So I would read books like R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God and others. But I kept searching for a concise description.
Finally, I broke down and did something very biblical (shocking, right?).
I asked for help by praying for wisdom (James 1:5).
Oh, no, I’m no theologian. But I like accuracy.
This is not the final word on holiness but is useful to open discussions and discover where people are with their thoughts about God and the Bible.
After you hear it, it may underwhelm you.
Remember how I said clergy often described holiness? There’s something missing in that description. To find it let’s take “to be separate from” and think about it as we ask “separate from what?”
Cue Jeopardy theme music.
Time is running out, and the music is winding down.
What did you write on that card in your mind?
“Alex, what is sin?”
Sin? Yes. Sin.
I told you it might be underwhelming.
Beware! With God, there are no tiny sins, no misdemeanors, and no peccadillos, because any sin is a flaw and it simply doesn't exist in the realm of holiness! Please don’t think it is a flaw fixable by purely human effort, for if that were the case we would not have needed Jesus on the cross.
Understanding holiness is a serious issue, as it opens conversations about standards God sets and His unchanging character (Malachi 3:6).
So interpreting the Bible’s standards and examples of sin correctly are challenging, but doable (see here). Your soul is at stake, so don’t just take my word or anyone else’s word. Start working to properly divide God’s Word so it can multiply your faith (2 Timothy 2:15).
Understanding the Bible is only complicated when we see churches disagreeing about what is sin. Rather than resting on the promises of God, it is tempting to take the side we like and agree with those which fit our comfort zone.
Scripture’s authority has never been about us staying within our comfort zones. It is about a holy God who loves us and desires an eternal relationship with us even when we cannot attain it by ourselves. We have sinned (Romans 3:23).
God’s holiness is frightening because it is so different than the sin we may have grown accustomed to living. Hebrews 10:31 tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Sproul describes this in The Holiness of God:
The clearest sensation that a human being has when he experiences the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness. That is, when we are in the presence of God, we are humbled and become most aware of ourselves as creatures. This is the opposite of Satan’s original temptation, “You shall be as gods.”
This fear is the fear of the Lord which Proverbs 14:27 describes by saying, “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life that one may turn away from the snares of death.” Many verses talk about the fear of the Lord in the Bible and might be worth visiting.
Regardless, there are the wages of sin again, death, and God uses His holiness and justice to move us away from sin and toward His love. It’s not a trip which can be halfway done. You cannot have one aspect of God without these others.
As I wrote this, I discovered I wasn’t the first to have this revelation about God being separate from sin as a potential description of His holiness. Sinclair B. Ferguson brings further insight when he says:
God’s holiness means He is separate from sin. But holiness in God also means wholeness. God’s holiness is His “God-ness.” It is His being God in all that it means for Him to be God. To meet God in His holiness, therefore, is to be altogether overwhelmed by the discovery that He is God, and not man.
“So what?” you might wonder.
Remember that it isn’t true that God plus one makes a majority. Nor is it God plus a group of people defining what God means. The Pharisees thought they had God figured out. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9), which is another reason to be in His word regularly.
God is the majority. He is unchanging and His holiness won’t change the rules for anyone.
Not even His Son got a pass when all the sins of man were placed on Him at the cross. But Jesus was undeserving of that punishment thus breaking the need for what the Jewish people used to do, a blood sacrifice of animals. Why else do you think Jesus is called the Lamb of God?
When it comes to what Jesus really did, I’d like you to consider this, something I wrote years ago. The first line was actually a chapter title in Zig Ziglar’s book Over the Top and somehow I went from the secular to a spiritual view of it.
DISCIPLINE + COURAGE + COMMITMENT = FREEDOM.
Even this is only a partial truth. The complete story follows.
It was once said the best freedom is freedom from bad habits.
And what habits do we want to develop in ourselves? Choose Discipline because it weighs ounces compared to the tons of regret. Choose Courage because a coward dies a thousand deaths. Choose Commitment because the person who won’t stand for the right thing will fall for anything. Choose Character because it is the ability to carry out worthy decisions after the emotions of the decisions are gone. Choose Humility before God and men in that order because God hates the proud and honors the humble.
Combine Humility with Commitment, Courage, Discipline, and Character then the end product is love that stands firm even if it is not always easy.
How am I sure about this?
Take this example:
Jesus had the courage to die one death for the wages of sin, knowing His discipline would prevent tons of regret, using His commitment because only He could stand pure in front of God, using His character He denied himself the right to call down an army of angels to pull him from the cross, using His humility He allowed His crucifixion to occur and then He forgave them for what they were doing. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. We love Him because He first loved us. God honored His son’s humbleness and because He was without sin, Death had no right to hold Jesus in the grave. We serve a risen Savoir. It is through him only that we can have freedom. Choose Jesus because He is our freedom. Read 2 Corinthians 3:16-18.
When we fully surrender to Jesus’ calling upon us and defining what is right and wrong in our world by God’s standards, then we can say like the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.”
When we think of God as holy, loving and just, it becomes easier to see how John 3:16-18 shows the fullness of His love for us. We are redeemed and free indeed (John 8:31-32; 36).
So every time we think of God as loving it is necessary to also remember He is holy and just.
Are you asking “So what?” again?
His holiness condemns sin in His presence, requires punishment of those sins which represents Him being just and bringing justice, yet it is His love which shows mercy to those who seek Him because He desires that none should suffer.
Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions” and “by His stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
That’s a “So what?” which can bring a soul to salvation where Jesus’ righteousness is granted.
It is the biggest “so what?” decision this side of death which should not be ignored. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
And the next biggest “so what?” decision is to fully surrender to the Holy Spirit's prompts by agreeing with God on those other comfort zones we didn’t like calling sin, repenting, and finally going all in—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Without this trust, without this willingness to divide the Word properly to multiply faith, without the submission, repentance, and obedience to what God defines as sin, then each of us faces a horrible possibility, a frightening surprise, that at the end of our lives we may hear from God “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Is that a big enough “So what?” for you? I certainly hope so.