God's Most Defining Trait
July 1, 2007 - What do we mean by holiness? What does it say about who God is, and how should this affect the way we understand Him and approach Him? As fallen and wholly unholy people, how can we have any hope for relating to God properly—and practically? In this feature on holiness, Decision explores answers to these questions.
by James Emery White
I once heard of a little girl who was drawing a picture at school. Her teacher came over and asked her what she was drawing. She said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” Her teacher said, “Honey, you know, nobody really knows what God looks like.” Without a pause, the little girl answered, “Well, they will when I get through!”
Most of us have a picture of God in our minds that we have drawn, usually based on a series of ideas, feelings and past experiences.
But what is God really like?
Some might answer that God is the One who creates or guides. While true—those are things God does—they are not who He is. We might say that God is Spirit, or infinite. And that, too, would be correct, but would it tell us what kind of God we are talking about? God could be Creator, but unjust. He could be eternal, but evil.
Theologians often gather their thoughts around God in terms of two groupings—those attributes tied to His greatness, and those traits tied to His goodness. We speak of God’s greatness in terms of Him being, for example, infinite; and God’s goodness in terms of Him being marked by, among other things, love. But what would we say is His most defining trait?
It is that God is holy.
When the great prophet Isaiah encountered the living God, the scene was arresting—and enlightening:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings:
With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4, NIV).
An encounter with God is an encounter with holiness. Even the angels in God’s presence are enveloped by this aspect of God’s nature—and not just in their declaration. The word seraph means “burning one,” or “bright one,” yet the fire and brightness of the glory of God was beyond even the seraphs’ ability to engage. They had to cover their faces with two of their wings. Little wonder that when Moses wanted to see the face of God, his request was denied. In Exodus 33, we find that God allowed Moses to see His back, but not His face. Even then, when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was so altered from the burning presence of God that the people who encountered him were terrified.
Isaiah notes that another set of wings were used to cover the seraphs’ feet. Returning again to the life of Moses, at the moment of the burning bush, Moses was told to remove his sandals for he was standing on holy ground. Our feet represent our earthiness—the fact that we are the created, not the Creator—and the seraphs acknowledged this aspect of their being in the presence of God by covering their feet as a sign of humility.
And then there is the famed verbal affirmation of the angels, the great “trisagion” proclaiming the threefold attribution of holiness to God:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
In the Hebrew language, word repetition was used to signify something with the strongest possible significance and intensity (Jeremiah 22:29, Ezekiel 21:27). In English, we might use an exclamation point. In Hebrew, they used repetition. A three-fold repetition was the strongest emphasis imaginable. And only in this passage, and only in relation to God’s holiness, is anything tied to God’s nature so noted.
So what does it mean that God is “holy”?
The word itself means that which is set apart, separate and wholly different. The idea behind the holiness of God is that God is completely unique in relation to humanity. He is separated from all that is creaturely and cut off from all that is sin. To borrow from the words of theologian Rudolf Otto, He is “the Wholly Other One,” and there is only One so separate from all the rest that is. But more than just separate from sin, God is absolute moral perfection.
And what does an encounter with the holy God do to a human life? Notice the impact on Isaiah:
“Woe to me!” [Isaiah] cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5, NIV).
Isaiah became overwhelmed with a deep and profound sense of his own personal sin. And this from a prophet’s prophet! When we encounter God in His holiness, it drives us to our knees in repentance. For Isaiah, this was so profound that he uttered the prophetic word of judgment—woe—on himself!
Woe is a word no longer in common usage in our modern world, but in Isaiah’s day it carried a unique significance. The root meaning of the word is “to howl,” such as the scream of an infant or the cry of a jackal. It was used to express grief and despair, pain and contrition.
When the prophets uttered a word from God which was positive, they would tend to begin with the word blessed. That is why in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus continually began each saying with “Blessed”—blessed is the one who mourns, who is meek, who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. When judgment was being uttered, prophets began with the word woe, as Isaiah himself had uttered on earlier occasions. (See Isaiah 5:8-23.) In seizing the prophetic mantle, Jesus Himself would often use the term, such as in His denunciation, “Woe to you ... hypocrites!”
But here we see that when Isaiah encountered the living God, he uttered judgment on himself! He howled in anguish at his condition before God. What divorced Isaiah from God was not his humanity in the face of divinity, but his moral bankruptcy in the face of holiness.
And then he said something else interesting: “I am ruined!” The Hebrew word we translate ruined literally means “to become lost.” Isaiah suddenly realized that he had no footing on which to stand, no basis by which to exist. He stood precariously in his immorality before pure morality, knowing that there were sufficient grounds for him to be cut off from life itself. One glimpse of God in His holiness, and Isaiah knew he had nothing to bring, nothing to offer and no basis for justification.
And his conviction was specific, saying that he was “a man of unclean lips,” and that he lived “among a people of unclean lips.” You might have expected him to confess any number of sins—actions and thoughts, habits and deeds. But what came home to him at that moment was his sinful mouth.
For Isaiah, the moment of worship revealed to him the heart of his sinful nature and, as it is for most of us, it had to do with his tongue. The Bible says in James 3:6 that the tongue is the most powerful, most destructive, most subversive aspect of our lives—both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people. Our mouths are dirty when we spread rumors or lies about another person or when we spread dissent and disunity among fellow believers. Our mouths are dirty when we boast about ourselves in pride, while tearing others down in gracelessness. Most of all, our mouths are dirty when we say we believe in God, yet live far apart from Him. For this reason, Jesus said that it is with our tongues that we reveal the true nature of our heart (Cf. Matthew 15:18).
But thankfully, that is not all there is to God’s holiness—for Isaiah, or for us:
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’” (Isaiah 6:6-7, NIV).
The holiness of God does not preclude the grace of God. Isaiah, in his broken, ruined, lost condition, experienced the healing touch of God’s forgiveness. This was not a cheap grace. It is worth noting that Isaiah’s forgiveness was represented by a burning coal upon his lips, the direct area of his sin. The coal was so hot that not even the seraphs could touch it with their hands. Purification is not easy. It is painful in that it commits surgery on our lives, addressing the deepest of issues. But such purification allows what can happen in no other way—being used greatly by God—for only then was Isaiah able to offer his stirring answer to the call of God:
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’
“And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8, NIV).
Hearing God’s call and responding with repentance always follows a realization of God’s holiness.
When we bow down in repentance, we find ourselves swept up in His arms as son, as daughter.
When we come to God, we aren’t just saved from some kind of punishment, given a set of creeds and doctrines, or given our marching orders and told to fall into line. We are adopted into His family as children! We must always remember that we do not simply engage a holy God, but a holy Father.
Look at how the Bible talks about this concept in 1 John:
“Consider the incredible love that the Father has shown us in allowing us to be called ‘children of God’—and that is not just what we are called, but what we are” (1 John 3:1, Phillips).
It’s not a formal, legal relationship, but a passionate, consuming, personal one. This is important to understand. I talk to a fairly large number of people about spiritual things on a regular basis, and if there is one thing that I encounter, time and again, it’s a sense that God does not have compassion toward them. They do not have a sense of God as Father or themselves as sons or daughters. No sense of what author G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.” In attempting to grasp God’s holiness, they lose sight of His heart.
But His heart is there.
God wants us to live as sons and daughters and to let that new identity form the deepest understanding of who we are and how we relate to Him. Being a son or a daughter isn’t just a title. It’s a new status, an actual adoption.
As the Apostle Paul explained, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family—calling him ‘Father, dear Father’” (Romans 8:14-15, NLT).
So what is God like?
He’s holy. Actually, He’s holy, holy, holy.
And Father, too.
Bible verses marked NIV are taken by permission from The Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society, Colorado Springs, Colo. Bible verses marked NLT are taken by permission from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996 Tyndale Charitable Trust, Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Wheaton, Ill. The verse marked Phillips is taken by permission from “The New Testament in Modern English,” revised edition, translated by J.B. Phillips, ©1958, 1960, 1972. J.B. Phillips, Macmillan Publishing Company Inc., New York, New York; Wm. Collins Sons & Co. ltd., London.