The Holiness of God

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The difficulties involved in defining holiness are vast. There is so much to holiness and it is so foreign to us that the task seems almost impossible…in the Bible the word holy is used in more than one way. There is a sense in which the Bible uses holy in a way that is very closely related to God’s goodness. It has been customary to define holy as “purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect and immaculate in every detail.”

Purity is the first word most of us think of when we hear the word holy…But the idea of purity or of moral perfection is at best the secondary meaning of the term in the Bible. When the seraphim sang their song, they were saying far more than that God was “purity, purity, purity.”

The primary meaning of holy is “separate.” It comes from an ancient word that meant, “to cut,” or “to separate.” To translate this basic meaning into comtemporary language would be to use the phrase “a cut apart.” 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.”

The word transcendence means literally “to climb across.” It is defined as “exceeding unusual limits.” To transcend it to rise above something, to go above and beyond a certain limit. When we speak of the transcendence of God we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond. It tries to get at His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else.

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 things that are holy are things that are set apart, separated from the rest. They have been consecrated, separated from the commonplace, unto the Lord and His service….

Only God can sanctify something else. Only God can put the touch on something that changes it from the commonplace to something special, different, and apart….

Where does purity come in?…When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. Purity is not excluded from the idea of 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 a transcendent purity.

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 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.

~excerpt from The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul

Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until that day when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.  ~1 Thessalonians 5:23

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28 responses »

  1. Good job at describing holiness.. In reality…’holy’ can’t be described…it can only be experienced. To truly know the meaning of ‘holy,’ one must come before the throne, fellowship with the Father and Son..by way of the Holy Comforter. When one experiences ‘holiness’ in a personal encounter…..the feelings, emotions, understanding, and the life-changing gratitude one feels is mind boggling. THERE ARE NO WORDS…but only feelings of innocence and trust in its simplest and most beautiful expression….thus if one tries to express all that with words….he or she would just say, “holy, holy, holy.”

  2. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING THIS, MICHELLE!

    I admit, I am one of those who think holy = pure.

    Now, I have a better perspective of the word as used in the bible. But more than that, I understand better the message it carries.

    I can never thank you enough. Your blog is helping me to read and understand the bible in a way I would not understand if I read it on my own… based solely on my interpretation, which is so limited.

    Thank you.

  3. Welcome, Carolyn. Thanks for commenting.

    Hey, Selena! Don’t you love that…holy love! Holy grace, holy mercy, holy justice…Holy Other. We serve a magnificent God. It’s good to see you here, Selena. And I love your avatar! 😉

    Good morning, Sherma! I’m about reading for bed. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Sproul is one of my favorite authors. He writes so clearly and yet the concepts are HUGE! Your words are so encouraging, and I must say, after this day…I really needed that boost. Thank you, Sherma. Hugs from Texas!

  4. michelle – this was so well put together. my mind has been pondering this subject for a few days now, of His Holiness – this helps A LOT. thank you.

  5. Well thanks, Tam. All I did was type it, but Sproul does a great job of explaining theology. So glad it helps — helped me too.

    Love you, TammyJo! Have a blessed Lord’s day. 😉

  6. I love spending time thinking about this topic..Holiness is something I can’t wrap my head around, but at the same time thrills me that HE is, and that HE says I am because of HIM…I do love Sproul, and Tozer also wrote a book on the Holiness of God. I do love the Holy love, Holy mercy, … very sweet way to start my worship…love ya

  7. Me too, Irene. And it’s so good. It either causes one praise or curse. I’m so thankful I’ve been chosen to praise. Love seeing you here — hope all’s well.

    I can’t wrap my head around it either, Darla. I suppose if we could then He wouldn’t be God. I need to read Tozer — never have. Enjoy your Sunday worship! Love you!

  8. “…transcendent purity” is a very well-written way to put it.

    This excerpt made me realize that while humans HAVE characteristics–nice, mean; giving, greedy; loving, hating–God IS His Characteristics. There is no distinction between Who God is and What God is. He is His All-encompassing-Mighty Self.

    But a human husband will kiss his wife goodnight and then raise his voice to her in the morning. A human mother will bandage the scraped knee of her child, and then unnecessairily snap at that same child after a long and difficult day. A human brother will make the whole family laugh at Thanksgiving and then use illegal drugs later that same night.

    But the transcendent-pure God cannot be tempted. “Holy”, in His case, is not simply a temporary characteristic in a given situation that depends on circumstances–but rather…

    Holy is God is Holy.

    A very good post, Michelle. As always. 😉

  9. Umm…If you’ll pardon my mentioning it…which paragraph are you talking about…? I kind of, like, count six.

  10. Hmmm…Mr. English Major…a paragraph consists of three or more sentences. (Not to get too technical.)

    “But a human husband will kiss his wife goodnight and then raise his voice to her in the morning. A human mother will bandage the scraped knee of her child, and then unnecessairily snap at that same child after a long and difficult day. A human brother will make the whole family laugh at Thanksgiving and then use illegal drugs later that same night.”

    This hit me. In a good way. He is holy. We are still human. Although we have been set apart (considered holy) in Him, we cannot reach that level of perfection. We are to be set apart for purity, but we will, inevitably, not reach continual holiness this side of heaven. We’re not there yet.

    Love you, Nor. 😉

  11. Right. But if I have SIX paragraphs–which I did–how could there be a MIDDLE ONE?!?!?! 😕 😕 😕

  12. Alright, I’ll get technical!!

    (You are SO much like my little brother — sheesh!!)

    You wrote:

    a statement
    first paragraph
    second paragraph
    third paragraph
    a statement
    a statement

    THREE Paragraphs!

    Hmph!

    😉

  13. Well.

    A statement is a paragraph. A lot of writers use that for effect.

    To emphasize a point.

    So I really did have six paragraphs. What’s so “technical” about that…?”

    😀

    And, Yes, Smileys are paragraphs, too.

    😉

  14. 😆 somehow I understood the logic in the paragraphs…and yes smileys are paragraphs, and communicate where words fail.

  15. I really love the way you put this together. It was enlightening as well. I’m reading it in this way: ‘holy’ means “the supreme pinnacle of perfection.” And considering that the LORD is “Holy, Holy, Holy …” that really is as close as a created being can come to describing Him. In every attribute, He is the Supreme pinnacle of the Supreme pinnacle, of the Supreme pinnacle of perfection. High above ALL else.

    Good stuff. Thanks, Michelle.

  16. “In every attribute, He is the Supreme pinnacle of the Supreme pinnacle, of the Supreme pinnacle of perfection. High above ALL else.”

    His beaty causes me to bow low and cry, “Sprinkle me with water and I will be pure; wash me and I will be whiter than snow.”

    What an awesome God we serve!

    Have a great day, Annie. ♥ U!

  17. Great stuff y’all!

    Michelle, I hope you don’t mind me adding this here. Feel free to remove it f you see fit.

    And what is humbling is that even though He is the Supreme Pinnacle of Perfection, and this a awesome way to describe Him, we can come boldly to Him in a very personal and familiar fashion. He wanted us to. It was His idea. This is why He, being God, came to earth as a human God so that we could relate to Him. He, being God, could have chosen another way, I am sure, but He chose a personal way. He had morning breath, He had to go potty, He physically laid His hands on hurting people, He talked and joked with people, He taught people, He played with children. We can come to him as trusting, wide-eyed children looking to Him for the next great adventure with Him. He is the Way, The Truth, and The Life. It’s a miracle if you think about it – the miracle of miracles, that a deeply Holy God, that we cannot even begin to fathom and He knows that we can’t and doesn’t even hold it against us that we can’t fathom Him, became very personable to us and specifically chose to come to us in that very personal, relateable fashion. It breaks my heart that He loves us to that point. To deny the personal approach that God purposely chose to woo us to Him, would be to deny the power of the cross and the abundant life He truly gives. When people try to bring us back under the law, even though it may be unintentional and because of their own misunderstanding of what has actually taken place, they are essentially denying the work of the cross. When believers have a true revelation of what has really happened between a Holy, yet personal and approachable God, we have a peaceful security that no man or woman can take away no matter how passionately they feel. We have security and peace with Him. He is truly holy, holy, holy.

  18. Hey, Selena! You need to know something about me. When people speak Truth, I don’t care how long it is, or short, it stays on my blog!

    My favorite book of the Bible is Hebrews. It beautifully shows the purposes of our Holy God from the beginning to the end. We have been given access to the Father through the Son. We can walk between the pieces of flesh straight into the Holy of Holies. How awesome is that!?! It is only because God so loved the world that He gave.

    God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. ~Hebrews 1:1-2

    Selena, your thoughts are always welcome here. Love you!

  19. AND you love Hebrews. Maybe someday I will cease to be surprised. Clearly it hasn’t happened yet. I almost feel like someday I’ll hop on a plane just to come see you. Not that I have the time or budget for that … but I would.

  20. Oh, Annie Bananie! Please do! Or maybe we could meet somewhere in the middle, like Kansas City? Although Dallas is a great city, and it’s warm here!!

    Oh yeah, the budget. That could be a problem…I would too.

    😉

  21. 😀 Ok. We have a ‘someday’ date. 🙂 And warm weather sounds great 🙂 Oh what I wouldn’t give for a lifetime’s supply of free plane tickets. sigh.

  22. So true. I have defined it in tha past as “Set apart for a specific purpose”. For example if there is a pot used only for purifying water that pot would be called holy. The day we use it for another purpose besides purifying water it would stop being holy.

    Good thing for us if we lose the characteristics of holiness that we can repent and change and regain it.

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