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Friday, April 13, 2018
The Holiness of God
Isaiah 6:3 “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.”
Sometimes there is still an advantage to owning a car with a cassette player. This past week I had the occasion to listen once again to R.C. Sproul's classic teaching series: "The Holiness of God" (I happened to have the original 1988 cassette tapes). Dr. Sproul passed away in December 2017. Through his books and message are now available online, the legacy of his concern for Biblical truth continues. Out of all the things he taught, "the holiness of God" stands as his signature teaching series. I'll never forget the time I read his book by the same name: "The Holiness of God". The truth of God's holiness was never so made clear as it was in R.C. Sproul's book and teaching series.
Re-listening to the series reminded me of the crucial importance of the holiness of God. In the above opening text of Isaiah 6, we find God's holiness repeated in redounding praise three times. Many commentators have noted that as each angel cried out "holy, holy, holy", another angel would join in antiphonal chorus, then another, and another - resulting in all of Heaven filled with this overwhelming theme of God's holiness.
I find it interesting that Isaiah, the first of the writing prophets, highlights this quality of God in the escalated degree of what is called in the Hebrew "plural of majesty". Holiness alone, among all the attributes, is thrice mentioned. John the Revelator, the final author of scripture, repeats this same refrain in his vision of God in Revelation 4:8 -
"And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
Briefly defining "the holiness of God"
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 states about God's holiness:
"God is infinite in holiness and all other perfections."
On one level, holiness can and often refers to moral purity. We often refer to the "Bible" as "the Holy Bible" because of the purity and reverence it carries. However, the idea of "moral purity" is but a starting point when thinking of this quality of God. Whenever we apply holiness to objects or other people, it connotes "separation". In scripture, we find the distinction made between "the profane" or "common" and "the holy". Once God has touched a particular object or person, that individual or object is "set-apart" from the surrounding space. Wherever God in His deity intersects with our human experience - such experience is described as "sacred". Space and time itself is made holy or "sacralized" whenever God acts and works within a particular point and time.
A.W. Tozer writes the following on God's holiness in his landmark book: "Knowledge of the Holy":
"God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness he cannot even imagine. Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy. Yet as electric power flows only through a conductor, so the Spirit flows through truth and must find same measure of truth in the mind before He can illuminate the heart. Faith wakes at the voice of truth but responds to no other sound. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
God is intrinsically holy
God alone is "Holy" in the most essential sense. Sometimes theologians and philosophers make the distinction between something having "intrinsic value" versus "extrinsic value". The former refers to the value a person or object has in and of itself apart from considerations of outside related objects or people. Extrinsic value refers to how an object or person is valuable relative to another person or object outside of itself.
God alone is intrinsically Holy. He was holy before creation. He is holy regardless of whether we exist or do not exist. In fact, we could add a third definition of God's holiness - namely, the uniqueness of God in His being. New Testament scholar D.A. Carson has noted that out of all the adjectives used to describe God's holiness, "uniqueness" gets us the closest. God's intrinsic holiness has led many thinkers to refer to God as "Wholly Other", as well as of course referring to Him by the similar sounding phrase: "Holy Other". We could clarify holiness further by reinforcing it with the definition: "uniquely other".
Some Biblical Texts That Speak Of God's Holiness
Numerous texts could be cited to demonstrate the volume of Biblical teaching on God's holiness. However, for sake of space, we will reserve ourselves to a handful of key texts on this subject. Proverbs 9:10 is the text from whence derives Tozer's book mentioned above: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." Psalm 99:1-3 gives us one of the clearest expositions on God's holiness:
"The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake! 2 The Lord is great in Zion, And He is exalted above all the peoples. 3 Let them praise Your great and awesome name; Holy is He."
From Psalm 99, we learn how God's holiness informs us of His other attributes. Holiness is what makes God, God. Holiness is all of God's goodness and attributes in concentrated, unapproachable, uncreated light. Other qualities of God, such as His divine necessity (that is, God cannot be other than what He is); Divine aseity (that is, God's self-sufficiency and independence); transcendence (that is, God quality of infinite life unshared by any creature, as well as He alone being the Creator of all things) and sovereignty (that is, God's eternal government and influence over, in and through all things) are all realities because of God's holiness. Holiness is both an attribute of God and His essential quality. Holiness also informs the other attributes of love and govern His character.
How Christ's Holiness is Truly Divine Holiness
Whenever we come to the New Testament, we discover further truths of holiness. To save on the length of today's post, we will restrict ourselves to the Person of Christ in the Gospels. Holiness describes Christ. In Mark 1:24, the demonic host refers to Christ as "the Holy One of God". Luke 1:35 ascribes this quality of holiness to Christ not only due to His Divine nature as God, but also as a result of His assumption of true humanity in the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit. Peter confesses Jesus to be
the Holy One of God" in John 6:69. This quality of holiness in Christ is not the extrinsic holiness we mentioned earlier that results from people or objects touched by God. Christ as the eternal Son of God came as "intrinsically holy". Furthermore, as a Divine Person becoming incarnate, Christ's humanity meant that in a unique way, the incarnate Son's humanity was "intrinsically holy". Peter's response to Jesus' calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee in Luke 5:8 is much like how people and angels would respond when in the presence of God:
"But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
As we look at Christ's ministry in the Gospels, we find both repulsion and intrigue. Christ's uniqueness and unparalleled life and ministry marked Him separate. His touch upon sinners rendered them saints. His commissioning of twelve unlikely men resulted in those men becoming apostles.
Closing thoughts on God's holiness - Applications
Christ's expression of holiness was unique, pure and "wholly other" due to His being God in the flesh. God's holiness is crucial to Christian identity, mission and purpose for living in this world. Is it no wonder that the Christian is called to holiness (see 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 1 Peter 1:16). We are called to "be holy, as God is holy". Only with Christ, by the Holy Spirit (Whom we didn't get to discuss in today's post, however, He as the third Person of the Trinity possess the same eternal property of Divine holiness as the Father and Son) can the Christian live out this command.
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