“It does not seem proper to speak of one attribute of God as being more central and fundamental than another; but if this were permissible, the Scriptural emphasis on the holiness of God would seem to justify its selection.” Louis Berkhof –
I am writing on this subject because I have discovered in recent years that my lack of holiness is closely tied to my lack of knowing Him experientially as the Holy God that He is. Oh, I’ve known theologically and intellectually for at least 45 years that He is holy. But that’s not the same as the kind of knowledge or revelation the prophet Isaiah had that caused him to conclude (after truly seeing God as He is), “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5
When God commands, “Be holy as I am holy” He intends for us to not pursue some formula or list of do’s and don’ts to become holy, but rather He intends for us to pursue Himself. Only as we know and relate to Him as holy can we in turn become holy like Him.
Thankfully He is very committed to revealing His holiness to those of us who want to know Him as such. My prayer is that He will mercifully do that to all of us in far greater ways in these last days before He returns.
So what does it mean when the Bible says our God is holy? Well let’s start with some basic definitions from some respected authors, and then next time we will jump into the first passage in the Bible wherein we find this word used.
Thomas C. Watson, one of my favorite old time writers put it this way, “The holiness of God is the intrinsic purity of His essence.”
One of the most valuable books my wife ever bought for our house is Noah Webster’s original massive dictionary from 1828. Here’s what this godly and brilliant man states from The American Dictionary of the English Language –- - “….Applied to the Supreme Being, holy signifies perfectly pure, immaculate and complete in moral character; …”
J.I. Packer wrote, “Holy” is the Bible word for all that makes God different from us, in particular his awesome power and purity.”
Technically, I submit this definition from my Seminary days, but I’m not sure the author, “By definition and usage one can say that God’s holiness means that He is set apart. Specifically, He is distinct and separate from all created beings and false gods; there is no one like Him in any way or in any place. The evidence for this is found in His righteousness and His power; He is not sinful and impure as man or gods, neither is He impotent as man or gods. The contrasts (esp. in Isaiah) once again display the meaning of God’s holiness, for God is not weak, frail, impure and helpless – He is holy, apart from all that man naturally is.”
Sam Storms, respected pastor theologian and pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, writes, “The holiness of God only secondarily refers to His moral purity, His righteousness of character. It primarily points to His infinite otherness. To say that God is holy is to say that He is transcendentally separate. Holiness is not one attribute among many. It is not like grace or power or knowledge or wrath. Everything about God is holy. Each attribute partakes of divine holiness.”
So to sum up in very general terms, when we say God is holy, we mean He is first separate or distinct, set apart from all of creation. And second, He exists in perfect moral purity.
Father, please open our eyes and deepen our sense of need to see you and know you as the Holy God that you are! In Jesus’s name, Amen.
P.S. Big picture - - In the Old Testament the Living God is referred to as Holy 123 x’s (including 3 references to the Holy Spirit). Overall the word holy occurs 472 x’s in the Old Testament.
Interesting that God is referred to twice in the New Testament as being Love (I John 4:8, 16). He is referred to over 100 times in the New Testament as being Holy (including 89 references to the Holy Spirit). (This contrast is not to in any way diminish the wonders of God’s love for us). The word “holiness” occurs 14 x’s in the O.T. Seven times in the N.T.
If you want to do further study on your own, I have sought to categorize all of the occurences of the words “holy” and “holiness” in the Bible under “Resources”.