If the concept of a triune God seems rationally incomprehensible for some, the concept of holiness may seem absolutely alien for most. Perhaps in a previous era theologians could have easily spoken of the holiness of God and gained a sympathetic audience, but those days are gone now. To most of the world, the concept of holiness is an outdated, archaic, almost prehistoric idea. In fact, aside from being used as a mild intensive (holy smoke!), the term is rarely used anymore. So, before we can speak of God’s holiness in today’s context, the term will need some careful definition.
The term holy in Hebrew is kadesh, which originally connoted something or someone that was unique. In the ancient Near East, the term holy came to be associated with the gods of the various tribes, and with things, animals, times or places or people related to the worship of these gods. This explains why the Hebrews used the term kadesh for pagan male cult prostitutes and kedeshah for female cult prostitutes. The term implied that these individuals were unique (in that they had sexual relations as part of their cult rituals, and not as part of a normal married life. They would also be seen as exclusively devoted to the deity they represented while performing those cult rituals.
The God of the Bible is represented as unique – kadesh as well. He told the Hebrews to consecrate themselves and be holy because he is holy (Lev. 11:44). Through the prophet Isaiah he asked his people “to whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.” Of all the “gods” of the nations, none can compare to him. The New Testament represents him as light, with no darkness at all. In fact, the Bible represents God as exclusively holy. To emphasize this point, he is described as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Without redemption, humanity does not even have access to God.
But the God of the Bible is not just holy because he is different. His holiness is his goodness. Although goodness is an attribute that is communicable (that is, we can imitate God by being good) there is a purity which we cannot attain. His righteousness makes ours look like filthy rags in comparison. His holiness is a mixture of moral attributes that set him apart from all his creation.
A good summary of those moral attributes is found in God’s revelation of himself to Moses in Exodus 34.
The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD,
the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping
steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and
transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the
guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children
and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth
Exodus 34:6-7 ESV
The LORD is Merciful.
His mercy keeps him from administering swift justice because he has compassion on sinners. It does not keep him from seeing when sin has been committed. In fact, his merciful nature is made that more astounding because he does see everything that happens. He is more aware of our sin than we are. Yet he has chosen within the depths of his own goodness to forego punishing us as we deserve because he wants the best for us. Any parent knows this dilemma: there are times when you know that your child has done something wrong yet something within you yearns to let it be, to let this one go. Perhaps that parental yearning comes close to manifesting God’s attribute of compassionate mercy.
The LORD is Gracious.
The same God, who withholds punishment out of compassionate mercy, gives constant blessing and undeserved favor out of his supply of graciousness. Anyone who has ever stopped to count their blessings knows that no matter how bad things get, the scale is always overbalanced in their favor. Knowing that we do not deserve anything but swift, immediate destruction from God, we are overwhelmed to think of all the blessings we have received.
When horrible things happen to us or the ones we love, we are tempted to tell God that he is not being fair. But those are the words of a spoiled child. They are a reflection of a life so filled with enjoyment and blessing that one is shocked when something does not go as he expected it to. They are the words of someone to whom blessing is normal. We expect blessing normally because our God is gracious.
The LORD is Slow to Anger.
This attribute parallels that of mercy, but communicates something extra by how it is said. The Hebrew idiom actually says that God is long of the nostrils. The idiom does not mean that God physically has a long nose, but it suggests that God takes a long deep breath before reacting emotionally. Anger management suggests that we stop and count to ten before reacting to something that we object to. This text implies that God does the same thing. It tells us that God has the capacity to be angered by the wrongs so often manifested in this rebellious world, but that his anger is under control.
The LORD Abounds in Steadfast Love.
The NET translates this attribute as “loyal love.” It is the stubborn, relentless devotion to his own people that led God to powerfully rescue them from bondage in Egypt. Moses depended upon God’s steadfast love to guide the children of Israel to the Promised Land. He also appealed to God to forgive his people based on the same attribute. This attribute parallels that of graciousness, but adds to it the concept of covenant loyalty.
The LORD is Faithful.
Whereas steadfast love implies that God is faithful to his people, faithfulness implies that he is true to himself. He is a firm and solid rock because he never wavers from one position to another. What is true about him remains true about him. In theological terms, he is immutable. In practical terms, he can be trusted. Abraham’s servant found that God could be trusted to lead him to a wife for Isaac. Jacob found he could be trusted to bring him prosperity. David found that God’s rules could be trusted to keep him on the right path.
In the animistic culture of the ancient near east from which the Old Testament emerged, gods were not trustworthy. A sacrifice to one’s favourite idol might bring one a good crop this year, but might not be enough to avert famine the next. If one god refuses to answer the plea for help, there were always others you might try. The gods of the nations were fickle. One could not expect consistency. The God of the Hebrews was different. Not only was he true to himself, he could be trusted to be true to his promises. He was (and is) faithful.
The LORD Keeps His Covenant Love for Generations
There is comfort for the parent and grandparent here. It tells them that their God has a vested interest in their descendants. It is not a guarantee that their children will be believers, since they will have the same freedom their ancestors did (to accept or reject God’s grace). But it is God’s assurance that he will love them just as much. He will remain faithful to his covenant because that is who he is.
The LORD Forgives Iniquity, Transgression and Sin.
There are three words for sin here, and each highlights a different way a person can offend his Maker. He can offend God by willfully harboring an unholy thought or unrighteous word or deed. That is to commit iniquity. He can offend God by breaking his Law. That is transgression, whether it is done through rebellion of simple carelessness. He can also offend God by not measuring up to his standard. That is sin, even if it is done in error.
The good news is that God has them all covered. He offers forgiveness for each of these types of offense. The gods of the nations usually only offer the opportunity for sinners to make up for their sins by means of gifts, rituals, or acts of penance. The LORD actively bears the punishment for the sins himself. That is forgiveness. He can offer such lavish grace because he has already paid for the price of all the sins of humanity by the death of Christ on Calvary’s cross.
The LORD Sends Consequences upon Sinners.
The holiness of God is both sweet and sharp. God promises his goodness, grace, love and mercy because his nature is holy and you can expect these good things from a holy God. But God’s holiness also demands that he actively deal with sins that are not confessed. He is a God who is “a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Psalm 7:11). If a sin is not covered by the blood of Jesus (through personal confession and forgiveness) it causes God to be angered.
The results of God’s anger are two-fold. Ultimately all unconfessed sins will be dealt with at the lake of fire, called Gehenna, on the judgment day. But God loves sinners too much to simply wait until they get the punishment they deserve. So he sends consequences of sinful behavior. These consequences may even last long enough to affect the lives of the sinner’s great-grandchildren.
The purpose of these consequences is also two-fold. First, they vindicate God’s holiness by sending punishment upon offenders. However, their primary purpose is not specifically to punish the sins. Their purpose is to get the sinners’ attention so that they can repent. Even the sharpness of the consequences of sin is caused by the sweetness of his love for the sinner. They can be compared to a parent’s discipline, which is not administered to cause the pain, but to prevent a greater pain.
The first practical application to these truths about God’s holiness is not hard to detect: God’s unique goodness should lead his people to worship him. In fact, that was Moses’ reaction after God revealed these moral attributes to him. The scripture says that “Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped”. It is only right that we human beings who aspire to be morally correct would feel compelled to show appreciation for our creator, who always has been holy.
A second application also suggests itself. Seeing the holiness of God manifest itself in the way he deals with his creatures, it is only right for us to attempt to imitate these moral attributes. We should do so for several reasons: 1) the author of Hebrews instructs us to “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”; 2) God encourages his people to be holy because he is holy; 3) the Apostle Paul encouraged believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children”. If we dare to be more holy as we relate to the world around us, perhaps that world will dare to believe that the holy God of whom we speak is real after all.