The Holiness of God

***This post is a summary of  “The Holiness of God” by R.C. Sproul***

In the following paragraphs I will be presenting the Reformed outlook on the holiness of God.  First, I will show how God is wholly other than us.  Second, I will define holiness and the fear we do and should have of the holiness of God.  Third, I will demonstrate the holy justice of God.

As I began studying this subject of the holiness of God, I realized how profoundly essential it is not only for the believer to understand the holiness of God but also the unbeliever.  The appropriate understanding of the holiness of God will forever shape the approach a man takes in living his life.  It seems to be an unpopular teaching in contemporary evangelical churches and virtually detested in liberal churches.  The suggestion of a God that is holy simply scares people.

It is always a heartrending time when a homeland loses its leader.  There is a sense of soberness.  People often feel like lost sheep when their shepherd dies.  It says in Isaiah 6:1, “ In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.”   King Uzziah died.  Every leader that has ever walked this earth already has or will die.  But Isaiah the prophet sees the “Lord” sitting on His throne.  God is wholly other than all other things.  First, notice that God is eternal.  There never was a time when God was not.  Before all created things God was existent and glorifying Himself and fellowshipping with Himself in eternity past.  And God will always be.  There will never be a time when God is not.  He is the Great “ I Am”.  He was who He is, and He is who He is, and He will be forever who He is.  There is no changing in God.  God is forever Righteous.  God is forever just.  God is forever loving.  God is forever merciful and so on.  It says that Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on His throne.  God is not at a loss because King Uzziah, one of the greatest of the kings of Israel, was dead.  God is not frantically trying to figure out what He is going to do.  He is found sitting on His throne.  Observe what it says about the train of His robe.  The passage says that it was “filling” the “temple”.  Now the world has had some significantly prosperous kings, but not of them was it ever said that the train of their robes could fill a temple.  And His throne is said to be “lofty” and “exalted”.  God is not merely a super-human, or some kind of Greek god like Zeus.  He is the King of Kings and the LORD or Lords.  His throne is the Highest of all thrones.  Indeed He is “exalted”.  It is He who places all other thrones in their place.  Hence, He is so holy that no man can ever see His face lest the man die.  Isaiah is granted a moment where he can see the Lord sitting on a throne and just His train fills the temple.  Imagine the magnificence of a being so mighty that His train could be so glorious.  Later in Isaiah it says that there are “seraphim” who are there simply to worship Him and serve Him day and night.  But notice in Isaiah 6:2 is says, “seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.”  Why do these seraphim have six wings—why not two?  When the Almighty creates a being, He does so, that it fills its purpose.  And so it is necessary for these seraphim to cover there faces with two wings.

The seraphim are not sinful humans burdened with impure hearts.  Yet as angelic beings, they are still creatures, and even in their lofty status as consorts of the heavenly host it is necessary for them to shield their eyes from the direct gaze on the face of God.  They are fearfully and wonderfully made, equipped by their Creator with a special pair of wings to cover their faces in His majestic presence.[1]

But why an extra set of wings for the feet?   Why would an angel need to cover its feet before the Almighty God?  The answer is in the following verse, in Isaiah 6:3 it says, “And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.’”  This God that Isaiah saw was so Holy that the angel cried out to another that He is Holy, Holy, Holy.  But why would this angel bellow it out three times?  Did this angel struggle with some type of stuttering problem?  Was he just trying to fill dead air time?  Was the angel running short on lyrics to sing so he just determined to say Holy a bunch of times?  What could this possibly mean?

The significance of the repetition of the word holy can be easily missed.  It represents a peculiar literary device that is found in Hebrew forms of literature, especially in poetry.  The repetition is a form of emphasis.  When we want to emphasize the importance of something in English, we have several devices from which to choose.  We may underline the important words or print them in italics or boldface type.  We may attach an exclamation point following the words or set them off in quotation marks.  These are all devices to call the reader’s attention to something that is especially important.

The Old Testament Jew also had different techniques to indicate emphasis.  One such device was the method of repetition.  We see Jesus’ use of repetition with the words “Truly, truly, I say to you” (NASB).  Here double the use of truly was a sign that what He was about to say was of crucial importance.  The word translated “truly” is the ancient word amen.  We normally think of the word amen as something people say at the end of a sermon or of a prayer.  It means simply, “It is true.”  Jesus used it as a preface instead of a response.[2]

Can you see the significance of why these angels had a whole additional set of wings to cover their feet?  R.C. Sproul comments on why the feet, and says, that feet were associated with “creatureliness in the exalted presence of God.”  This is similar to the experience Moses had when he encountered God in the form of a burning bush.  God commanded Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:2-5).

This brings us back to the important message of the angels’ triasgion, which means “three times holy”.[3] None of God’s other attributes are expressed to the third time.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say God is “love, love, love” or that God is “mercy, mercy, mercy,” or that God is “wrath, wrath, wrath.”  But here when Isaiah is revealed an image of God in His temple, the angels cry out that God is “holy, holy, holy.”

On a handful of occasions, the Bible repeats something to the third degree.  To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree, attach to it certain importance.  For example, the dreadful judgment of God is declared in the book of Revelation by the eagle who cried out in midair with a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe! To the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev. 8:13) or we hear it in the mocking sarcasm of Jeremiah’s temple speech when he chided the people for calling out in hypocrisy, “This is the temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” (Jeremiah 7:4)[4]

Understanding the holiness of the Lord is crucial for the Christian and non-Christian.  When one does not understand the holiness of God then the respect is no longer there for an almighty, wholly other than being.  The desire, the proper desire, and chief end of man no longer comes naturally.  For the unbeliever the holiness of God should terrorize him to repentance.  This is what we see when Jonathan Edwards, in the time of the Great Awakening, spoke of the holiness of God in the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.  For the believer, understanding the holiness of God will drive him to be sober minded, repentant, and thankful for the mercy and grace of God that has been shown to him.

And speaking of God being wholly other than us, it sets the stage for us to look at what it means for God to be holy, as well as explain why all creation should fear Him.  Holiness could be described as purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect, and immaculate in every detail.

The primary meaning of holy is “separate”.  It comes from an ancient word that means “to cut” or “to separate”.  To translate this basic meaning into contemporary 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”.

God’s holiness is more than just separateness.  His holiness is also transcendent, the word transcended means literally “to climb across”. It is defined as “exceeding usually limits”.  To transcend is 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 us. Transcendence describes 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.

This is why the holiness of God drives one to worship Him.  He is the very essence of what beauty is.  There is none other like God.  He is unique.  He is the perfect conglomeration of all that is good and pure.  All creation desires to worship something, they seek to find that which is most glorious, precious, beautiful, and pure and worship it.  However, since the fall of man, his view of what is good has been tainted.  We were created to worship Him and to enjoy Him.

When God made man in His own image and then formed woman out of the side of man also in the image of God, He did so for His glory.  The purpose of man was to then worship God in the Garden of Eden.  When mankind fell in Genesis 3 something shameful happened.  Man and woman both became unclean.  There was now shame where there was no shame.  The holiness of God no longer drove man to worship God but rather to run from Him.  The idea of a being without fault revealed the inadequacy of them.

The result of sin was a sense of shame and fear.  The aprons of “fig leaves” speak of man’s attempt to save himself by a bloodless religion of good works.  When called to account to God, sinners excuse themselves.  Adam said, “The woman you gave to be with me. . .” as if blaming God (see Pro.19:3). Eve said, “the serpent. . .” (v. 13).[5]

Man also knew the result of his sin, “death” (Rom. 3:23).  Adam was told the “day” he ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of “good and evil” he would “die”.  We will discuss this passage in more detail when we get to the topic of holy justice.  Since this time man has naturally been enemies with God.  R.C. Sproul says that if God were to make Himself vulnerable to death and to us at any moment we would kill Him.  This is a pretty accurate guess being that this is exactly what man did with Jesus.  Jesus also is Holy in the same sense that God the Father is Holy.  Man has, since the fall, graded what is good and what is righteous not by God’s standards but on a curve.  God’s holiness throws the curve off a little too much for comfort.  God’s holiness reminds us of our inadequacy and our penalty for it.  The Bible puts it like this, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23).

When we take a look at all the times man encounters God in glory, often his immediate reaction is a realization of God’s holiness and his own deficiencies.  Whether it be Moses before the burning bush in Exodus, or Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 where he cries out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!”  in all cases man’s response is the same.

Another common response man has when encountering God and His holiness is fear.  In Mark 4:35- 41 we have the story of Jesus calming the sea.  The response of the disciples is quite fascinating.  The disciples and Jesus were out at sea in an attempt to get over to the other side (no joke intended here).  While at sea, a “fierce gale of wind” rose upon them.  But all the while Jesus is sound asleep in this boat on the stern.  The storm was so intense that the text says that the boat was beginning to fill up.  The disciples go to Jesus saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Judging by this statement it is fairly safe to say that the disciples were terrified.  Jesus rises from his sleep and rebukes the wind saying, “Hush, be still.”  The wind dies down and the passage says it became “perfectly calm.”  Jesus then rebukes them for fearing and for their lack of faith.  But here is where the text says something very intriguing. Mark 4: 41 says, “They became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him.’”

When the storm was roaring and they thought they were going to lose they lives,  Jesus rebukes them for being afraid or cowardly.  But after Jesus removes the problem and their lives are no longer in threat then they become “very much afraid”.  Why would the disciples become even more afraid after they see a man perform this miracle?

What is significant about this scriptural story is that the disciples fear increased after the threat of the storm was removed.  The storm had made them afraid, Jesus’ actions to still the tempest made them more afraid.  In the power of Christ, they met something more frightening than they had ever met in nature. They were in the presence of the holy…Why would the disciples invent a God whose holiness was more terrifying than the forces of nature that provoked them to invent a god in the first place?  We can understand it if the people invented an unholy god, a god who brought only comfort.  But why a god more scary than the earthquakes, flood, or disease?  It is one thing to fall victim to the flood, or to fall prey to cancer.  It is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God.[6]

It is obvious that men do not find solace in their inadequacy before a holy, just God.

So what is God’s holy justice? What does it mean to us for God to be both holy and just? John Calvin said,

Hence, that dread and amazement with which, as scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God….Men are never dully touched and impressed with the conviction of their insignificance until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.[7]

Let’s go back to Genesis, to the creation and fall of man.  After God created Adam and Eve in His image, they sinned against Him and ate the fruit that God commanded Adam not to eat.  The result of this act was to be their death on that very “day”.  Why did Adam and Eve not die that very day?  The answer is the God in the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament.  The difference is the hope from God is revealed in the New Testament. God was showing Adam and Eve mercy from the start of the fall of man.

We see again in Romans that the wages of sin is death.  God gave Adam and Eve time to repent of their sin and to look forward to the promised seed in Genesis 3:16.  Every man from that day is conceived in sin and born as an enemy of God.  God is great in mercy.  All men are shown mercy when they do not die the moment they are conceived.  God does not owe any man anything.  We see that God chooses continually throughout scripture to give His people time to repent and turn away from their sins and to fear and obey Him.  Psalms 147:10-11 says, “He does not delight in the strength of the horse.  He does not take pleasure in the legs of a man.  The LORD favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindness.”

Should God have acted merely with His Holy justice man would no longer exist.  This is what Jonathan Edwards was communicating in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  God is so holy that He will not permit wickedness, sin, uncleanness, before His presence.  Mankind has become so acquainted with the mercy of God that they have forgotten about the holy justice of God.  Man has forgotten that God destroyed the earth and all of humankind through a flood, except for a small remnant.  We have become so accustomed to God’s mercy that when God does show us His holy justice, we act in utter shock.  Such instances are cases like Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant, the ordering from God to kill off seven nations: men, women, and children, Ananias and Sapphira, and even the capitol punishment required for many sins by Mosaic Law.

Now some of these passages are dealing with something more than just the holy justice of God.  However, all of them still deal with the holy justice of God.  In short, these passages are places in scripture that most wrestle with and struggle with and can not understand why God would be so “cruel” or “unloving”.  Some even argue that the God in the Old Testament is different from the God we read about in the New Testament.  This is a result from a lack of understanding God’s holy justice.  What is happening in these rare passages is what should happen every time someone sins even in the most “smallest” of ways.  Even something that seems as small to us as eating a forbidden cookie or in Adam’s case forbidden fruit.  Let us take a look at the stories of Nadab and Abihu, and Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant.

In first dealing with Nadab and Abihu, we need to understand what happened.  Nadad and Abihu were children of the High Priest Aaron.  They were given strict instruction and guidelines to follow on how to act as priest on behalf of the people before the Living God.  The text says that they offered up some “strange fire” and God judged them swiftly with fire and they died.  Aaron’s response immediately was one that would be expected by a father who just lost two sons over making some “strange fire” in the presence of the Lord.  He went to Moses and his response was this, “It is what the LORD spoke saying, ‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored.’” (Lev. 10:3).  Now, if you had just lost two sons as Aaron did, is this the response that you would want to hear from Moses?  And yet it was the response that Moses gave, that God will be regarded as holy, and He will be honored among His people.  Sproul says:

Moses gave Aaron the answer of the Lord.  He reminded him of the original consecration of the priest.  They had been set apart for a sacred task and solemnly charged with the precise requirements of their office.  They had the privilege of ministering before a holy God.  Each vessel in the tabernacle was made to precise specifications, and each item was sanctified by elaborate measure commanded by God.  There was no ambiguity to be found in these commands.  With respect to the altar of incense, Aaron and his son were specifically instructed in the proper procedures.  God had spoken: “Do not offer on this altar any other incense of any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it.  Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns.  This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come.  It is most holy to the Lord” (Exodus 30:9-10).[8]

Nadab and Abihu, when offering the “strange fire” in the presence of the Lord, were essentially committing treason before the Lord, and for that, they died “before” the Lord.  These children were showing a lack of reverence and fear before the most holy God.  This passage, however, is still hard for someone to swallow.  But again, in this passage, God is following through with what He promised the result of sin would be: death.

When speaking of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant, at first glance, it would seem that God is again a “cruel, “unloving” God.  Sure, you can understand God now for why He would judge Nadab and Abihu with immediate death for what they were doing in the presence of God.  But why Uzzah?  Was not he only trying to do what was right?  And does not God look at the heart of a man?  The background for the story of Uzzah is as follows:  The Ark of the Covenant had been lost due to some foolish mistakes by the Israelites.  It was tossed around like a hot potato once it left the presence of Israel.  Finally, the Ark of the Covenant was on its way back to its hometown.  David had the ark being brought back on a type of carriage, being pulled by oxen.  While the ark was being taken back, the ark began to shake and tremble and looked as though it were going to fall to the ground due to an ox stumbling.  So Uzzah stretched out his arm and touched the ark to stop it from falling.  And the text says that the Lord’s “anger burned against Uzzah” and so He struck him dead.  Why would God strike this man dead for attempting to keep His ark from falling on the ground?  Was not the ark holy and the ground unclean?  And was not what Uzzah was attempting to do right?

The Lord made it clear to all the people of Israel that the ark was not to be touched by anyone.  The ark was to be carried on poles which went through the loops on the ark, by men who were from the Kohathite tribal clans (Numbers 4:17-20)

Uzzah was probably a Kohathite.  He knew exactly what his duties were. He had been trained thoroughly in the discipline of his calling.  He understood that God had declared that the touching of the Ark of the Covenant was a capital offense.  No Kohathite, under any circumstance, was ever permitted to touch the ark.  No emergency was grounds for breaking that inviolate command.  The elaborate construction of the ark, complete with gold rings, through which long poles were inserted, was so fashioned as to make it clear that the ark itself was not to be touched period.  The men commissioned to transport the ark could only touch the poles and the rings.  Then it was the task of the Kohathites to carry the ark by these long poles.  No provision was made for hurrying the procedure by transporting the ark via an ox cart.[9]

Uzzah’s sin was not something he was unaware of.  He had been fully prepared and educated on what he could and could not do in regards to the Ark of the Covenant.  Not only was he commanded not to touch the ark by the law, but he was not even to look upon the ark.  Uzzah had been struck dead because he had sinned against a holy, just, God.

It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption.  Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth.  But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark.  It was the touch of man.  The earth is an obedient creature.  It does what God tells it to do.  It brings forth its yield in its season.  It obeys the laws of nature that God has established.  When the temperature falls to a certain point, the ground freezes.  When water is added to dust, it becomes mud, just as God designed it.  The ground doesn’t commit cosmic treason.  There is nothing polluted about the ground.[10]

This is the consequence of man when he sins again a holy and just God.  This is not a reflection of God showing His mercy.  However, understanding God’s mercy and grace cannot be fully understood until one understands God’s holy justice.

All of theses stories mentioned are dealing with man knowingly and willingly choosing to sin against a holy just God, and therefore, God dealing with them as a holy and just God.  Again, it is hard to understand this because man grades righteousness on a curve of how everyone else is doing.  He does “what is right in his own eyes.”  But God’s standard is not the same measure of what is righteous before Him.  He judges what is right and good according to His wisdom and His goodness and this standard does not change.  All fall short to His standard.

When talking about the holiness of God one is tackling a big topic on Theology Proper.  I also feel that it is a very important doctrine that has somehow lost its way in numerous modern day churches.  But in understanding the holiness of God results in understanding the chief end of man.  What is the role of a Christian?  How can my walk with God stay alive and vibrant?  How do I keep grace from becoming old news to me rather than “good” news?  All of these can be answered when one has an appropriate view on the holiness of God.  The role of a Christian is to fear God and to wait on His lovingkindness.  When understanding the standard in which God holds us to and how holy He is, worshipping that God never becomes boring and dormant.  After one comprehends the consequence of what all man is justifiable of because of the holy standard God has set, then one can understand how grace truly is marvelous, everyday.

In these pages I have presented the reformed view of the holiness of God.  I first showed how God is wholly other than us.  Secondly, I explained what holy was and why we do and should fear the holiness of God.  And finally, I demonstrated through numerous texts how God is not only a God of mercy, grace, and love, but also a “holy” and just God.


[1] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p 23.

[2] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p 24-25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 25-26.

[5] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary.  Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.  p. 36

[6] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 53.

[7] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 47.

[8] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 102.

[9] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 107, 108.

[10] Sproul, R.C. Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishing, Wheaton, IL. p. 108.

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