The holiness of God

In virtue of his holiness God's treatment of his creatures conforms to the purity of his nature. Righteousness demands from all moral beings, whether angels or men, conformity to the moral perfection of God. "Be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

By his justice he visits non-conformity to that perfection with penal loss or suffering. The doctrine of hell, as depicted in the Scripture, is a solemn and abiding affirmation of God's holiness.

It is most beneficial for us all to meditate frequently upon God, who He is, and how He acts, and why He acts the way He acts. "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25) is very reassuring; in the face of all unrighteousness that seems to go unpunished - which was the dilemma of Asaph in Psalm 73 - we can stand assured that God, the Supreme Judge, will correct all aberrations, in his own time and in his own way, in absolute rectitude. It is enough, right now, to know who He is: "All his ways are justice: a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is he" (Deuteronomy 32:4). "Thou hatest all workers of iniquity" (see Psalms 7:9-12), and this is so, even though what we see around us might allure us to drive us to the opposite conclusion, when we see the unrighteous prospering, and the godly suffering.

Holiness, as it inheres in God, imposes law in conscience and Scripture, and may be called legislative holiness. As justice, it executes the penalties of law, and may be called distributive or judicial holiness. In righteousness God reveals chiefly his love of holiness; in justice, chiefly his hatred of sin.

Neither justice nor righteousness, therefore, is a matter of arbitrary will. They are revelations of the inmost nature of God, the one in the form of moral requirement, the other in the form of judicial sanction. God, being unchangeably holy, must demand of his creatures that they be like him in moral character. He also must enforce the law which he imposes upon them. Justice just as much binds God to punish as it binds the sinner to be punished.

Justice in God, as the revelation of his holiness, is devoid of all passion or caprice. There is in God no selfish anger. The penalties he inflicts upon transgression are not vindictive but vindicative. They express the revulsion of God's nature from moral evil, the judicial indignation of purity against impurity, the self-assertion of infinite holiness against its antagonist and would-be destroyer.

Though all the divine attributes are necessarily inherent in God, a good case may be presented to the effect that his holiness is the fundamental attribute that defines all other attributes.

This becomes evident when we consider the following grounds of evidence:

(1) Scripture explicitly and repeatedly impresses upon our soul and brings to our constant attention the holiness of God. "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16; quoting Leviticus). "The sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Among the saints, this attribute of holiness is most impressive: "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). Of no other attribute can this be affirmed.

It is declared to be the chief subject of rejoicing and adoration in heaven; and it should be so on earth too. Yet this insistence upon holiness cannot be due simply to man's present state of sin, for in heaven, where there is no sin, there is the same melody: "Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts" (Isaiah 6:3). Again in Revelation 4:8: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty."

Of no other attribute it is said that God's throne (his rightful government and sovereignty) rests upon it. "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne" (Psalms 97:2).

(2) We infer that holiness is central to God's being when we consider properly our own moral constitution. In our own build-up, conscience asserts itself, it rules supreme over every other impulse and affection of our nature. We may be kind, but we must be righteous. In the same way, God, in whose image we are made, may be merciful (and He is, to a portion of both angels, whom he elected to remain holy, and men, whom he predestinated unto life). He is merciful unto whom he will be merciful (that is, as he pleases, and not to everyone, head by head), but he must be holy in his dealing with all, whoever they are.

Thus, the wicked will be visited with eternal wrath and condemnation because of God's holiness. And towards the righteous God is still holy for their sin was placed upon the Substitute and is taken away.

(3) Holiness is pre-eminent in God, for in the actual dealings of God his other attributes are conditioned and limited by his holiness. This is beheld excellently well on Calvary: in Christ's redeeming work, love makes the atonement, but it is violated holiness that required it. The prime source out of which our salvation issued is God's violated holiness. His love motivated him to actually accomplish it on our behalf, helpless and weak as we are.

In the same way, the eternal punishment of the wicked is irrevocable because of God's unchangeable holiness. His self-vindication overbears the pleading of love for the sufferers.

Holiness shows itself higher than love, in that it conditions love. Hence God's mercy does not consist in outraging his own law of holiness, laying it aside or even disparaging it. No, it is rather by enduring the penal affliction by which that law of holiness is satisfied.

Again, the sovereignty and freedom of God in respect to justice does not relate to its abolition, nor to its relaxation, but to the substitution, of punishment. It does not consist in any power to violate or waive legal claims. The exercise of the other attributes of God is regulated and conditioned by that of justice, or holiness. Where then is the mercy of God, in case justice is strictly satisfied by a vicarious person? There is mercy in permitting another person to do for the sinner what the sinner is bound to do for himself; and greater mercy in providing that person; and still greater mercy in becoming that person.

All this expounds the greatness and uniqueness of the gospel message: it is a message about Jesus Christ, who is the exact reflection of the nature and person of the Father. Jesus is the Holy One, and his holiness shone all the more bright as he endured the penalty on our behalf. In no other way could God accept us as his beloved children.

(4) This brings me to another consideration, in concluding that holiness is determinative of all other divine attributes.

In God's eternal purpose of salvation, justice and mercy are reconciled only through the foreseen and predetermined sacrifice that was accomplished on Golgotha. The declaration that Christ is "the Lamb...slain from the foundation of the world" implies the existence of a principle in the divine nature which requires satisfaction, before God can enter upon the work of redemption. That principle can be none other than holiness.

Since both mercy and justice are exercised toward sinners of the human race, the otherwise inevitable antagonism between them is removed only by the atoning death of the God-man. Their opposing claims cannot be presented as if God is at war with himself. Rather it must be affirmed that they do not impair the divine blessedness, because reconciliation exists in the eternal counsels of God. "The Lamb that has been slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8) is the answer to the dilemma, something that was foretold and intimated in Psalms 85:10: "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

In providing salvation God not only remains just but does provide salvation to prove how just he is: "That he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

In a very profound sense, which the modern church does not seem to appreciate, the atonement, if man was to be saved, was necessary, not primarily on man's account, but on God's account.

In presenting divine holiness as the excellent attribute, we do not mean to denigrate any other divine attribute. Rather our purpose was to signify that the divine characteristics find their highest significance when interpreted and seen in the light of his holiness.

When we keep this in mind, then it would not be easy to fall into error. One such is the false notion that God is love to the exclusion of everything else. When we affirm that God's love must be and cannot be anything but holy love, then we begin to understand the quality of that love; and what John meant when he said: "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins" (1 John 4:9,10).

Divine love does not overlook sin; it pays its consequences, and it must, because it is a holy kind of love, not merely sentimental or affectionate. Holy love paves the way of salvation; nay it becomes salvation, that God's manifold wisdom and holiness may be exalted in time and eternity.

How Godís holiness is injured by manís sin (a summary from Stephen Charnock)

1. The holiness of God is tarnished in the eyes of men when unworthy representations of God are produced, either graphically and sculpturally, or else mentally, when we entertain how he might be in our own minds. The baseness of idolatry, and the reason why it is so unrelentingly condemned in Scripture is that it debases the transcendent God and drags him down to the level of created things, having three dimensions, of a corruptible nature.

But God speaks thus: "These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself" (Psalms 50:21). God is supreme, unique and inherently holy; pictures and images of him bring him to our level.

The church is not guiltless in this matter. The Campus Crusade for Christ has produced a film based on Luke's Gospel, called, "Jesus." It pictures a mere man acting the part of the Son of God, and this is being used in evangelism. How is this essentially different from pagan idolatry? I see no reason why we should introduce novel ways of evangelism, that certainly do not promote holiness. We are to sanctify God, not entertain the people with motion pictures.

2. We tarnish God's holiness when we deface his own image in our souls. God, in the beginning, made man in his own image, in holiness, wisdom and righteousness. And in regeneration this image is renewed (Ephesians 4:24). The Christian, whenever he is slothful or indifferent to his spiritual growth in grace, will be found defacing his Father's image in his soul. How are we to perfect holiness in the fear of God!

3. One other thing of which we are not innocent is the fact that we subtly charge our sin upon God, thus besmirching his holiness. Nothing is more natural to man, than to seek excuses for his sin, and blameshift his wrongdoing upon others. This is especially grievous when we transfer it from ourselves to God, in an indirect and subtle way (for instance by bringing up the sovereignty of God). It is too common for the "foolishness of man to pervert his way," and then "his heart frets against the Lord" (Proverbs 19:3). Especially the unconverted, with indignation, charge God as the author both of their sins and misery, and set their criticisms against the Almighty, the Holy One who is enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

4. Somewhat similarly to the above point, the holiness of God is injured when we study arguments from the holy word of God to give apparently legitimate excuses for our crimes. This we do when we convince ourselves that we can lie sometimes, for we see that Rahab and the midwives in Egypt lied, and God rewarded their fidelity and countenanced their sin. But fact is that God did not command them to lie. When we use such cases in our own defence, then we are turning the grace of God into wantonness, and the abundance of grace to increase the flames of sin.

5. God's holiness is placed in a bad light when men pray to him, asking his assistance in a wicked scheme. But the Scripture admonished such: "Ye ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts" (James 4:3). When we desire mercies from God to make them instruments of sin, then we are grouped with such as "offer sacrifices with an evil mind" (Proverbs 21:27). Such intentions throw a contempt upon the holiness of God, for we know assuredly that God is never and cannot be a co-worker in evil. He cannot be tempted.

6. Very significantly, God's holiness is despised when his saints, whose holiness is derived from the Father above, are despised, hated and scoffed at. Whoever looks upon the holiness of a creature as an unlovely thing, can have no good opinion of the attractiveness of divine purity. The persecutions aimed against God's people, as they testify to the world that its deeds are evil, show how much the unconverted, whether religious or not, do oppose the thrice-holy God.

7. The holiness of God is contemned (pay attention, Christian!) when we address God in a superficial and unprepared way. God is indeed our Father, but He is still "Holy Father," as His beloved Son addressed him (in John 17) and as he himself taught us to do: "Our Father, which art in heaven...". A holy God requires a holy worship from a holy people, set apart from him. He seeks such to worship him. I think we evangelicals have much to travel along this road. We slight God by arriving late for worship services, when we pray and not thinking properly whom we are addressing, when we approach the Throne without that awesome fear, coupled with filial trust.

8. God's holiness is mocked when men assume they can depend upon their own performances and services to bear them out before the Tribunal of the Most High. How often we meet people who sordidly think that their good deeds (which the Bible describes as dead works and filthy rags) will somehow compensate for their sins. The Jews were infected with such a disease (Romans 3:10); I was too, not understanding the enormity of my sins, and the unspottedness of the divine integrity. How constantly we need to count our best doings as dross and dung, and cling to Christ and his righteousness alone, that we may be found in him (Philippians 3:3-10).

9. Furthermore, we are prone to malign the holiness of God when we charge the law of God with rigidity. We blame the Law because it shackles us and prohibits our desired pleasures, whereas in fact the Law liberates us, and sets us free unto holiness. His commandments are not grievous. Though our Master urges us to take his yoke upon us and to carry his burden, yet these are meant to be pleasant and rewarding. God commands us for our good.

10. Finally, the holiness of God is injured when men think that some sins can be committed without much harm. The Romanist division between venial and mortal sins tends towards disparaging God's holiness. All sin is mortal: indeed, there are some sins more heinous than others, but all sin, whatever it is, is punitive and brings forth death. We are meant to avoid all appearance and all forms of evil.

Comfort from Godís holiness

(1) Before we can enjoy comfort, we must have a proper and correct diagnosis of our malady. God's holiness, when meditated upon in the light of his own Word, informs us how great is our fall from God, and how distant we are from him. We are "alienated from the life of God" (Ephesians 4:18); we "come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This is the proper starting place: looking at God and looking at ourselves, and noticing the yawning chasm!

(2) The consequences of our sin:

a. All unholiness is vile, and opposite to the nature of God. As such, we cannot stand in his presence. "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord," as Peter cried out in realising who He was who stood before him.

b. Sin cannot escape a due punishment. Eternally God hates iniquity and loves righteousness: it cannot be other.

c. God ever makes his detestation of sin apparent. "I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes" (Psalms 50:21). "The wicked, his soul hates" (Psalms 11:5,6).

(3) Now, comfort is spoken to those whose eyes are opened to see how and where God has been paid double for all his people's sins.

a. As his holiness is natural and necessary, so is the punishment of unholiness necessary for him. The throne of his "holiness is a fiery flame" (Daniel 7:9) - there is both a pure light and a scorching heat.

b. His holiness is such that an adequate satisfaction can be made by none other than God himself. Jesus Christ, the Son, is the only sufficient Mediator, being God and man in one person (1 Timothy 2:4-6).

c. This being so, there is no justification of a sinner by anything in himself. We are "accepted in the Beloved," there's no other way. If we are to have righteousness, it has to be a "righteousness which is of God" and received by faith (Philippians 3:9,10).

d. God's holiness is forever. The comfort in all this is that the imputed righteousness we obtain from Christ is also an "everlasting righteousness" (Daniel 9:24), otherwise it would be of no avail. So God's holiness is comforting, for in his holiness he as provided for his elect a righteousness that will endure, that will abide through time and eternity.