The holiness of God, when applied to us, is both a condemning and a comforting attribute of God.
A Definition of Holiness
Isaiah, having a vision of God surrounded by angels ascribing to Him holiness, immediately responds, “Woe is me!” For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:1-5). Isaiah’s response is certainly appropriate because he is condemned by God’s holiness, which exudes moral perfection. Yet it is not only holiness in the moral sense but in the utter transcendence of God, that Isaiah feels a sense of dread. God is unapproachable – “high and lifted up” – with even His angelic attendants covering their eyes, unable to bear the presence of God’s holiness fully. Isaiah is simply “lost” in the vast glory of God; he knows and feels exactly as he is – a sinful creature before the thrice holy God. Yes, God’s holiness encompasses His moral perfection but perhaps is even more accurately understood as a comprehensive divine transcendence innate to Himself. The original Hebrew word for “holy” captures holiness most completely in saying that God is “cut off; separate” from all of creation in both essence and morality. This “otherness of God” makes Him and Him alone worthy of our wonder, worship, and fear. When His holiness is applied externally towards fallen creation, condemnation is the only right outcome.
But eternal thanks be to God, because not only is there no condemnation for those who are “in Christ,” God has then declared His children “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (Romans 8:1; 1 Peter 2:9). God’s holiness is comforting to those whom Jesus loved, gave himself up for and “sanctified” and made “holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-28). Justification is an expression of God’s grace towards us when He chooses to declare us holy. Sanctification is the further outpouring of this grace upon us by sending the Holy Spirit to help mould us into that very holiness.
Holiness in the Old and New Covenants
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s holiness is applied to times, objects, or places, such as the Sabbath day, the Holy of Holies in the temple or the “holy ground” on which Moses stood before the burning bush. Therefore, while God is the definition and the source of holiness, this attribute can very well be communicated to us whenever and to whoever He chooses to apply it to. The nation of Israel was effectively commanded to live a “set apart” life from the surrounding pagan nations. As Dutch Reformed theologian Bavinck elaborates, “Holiness is perfection, not only in a moral sense, but in the comprehensive sense in which the unique legislation of Israel conceives it: a religious, ethical, ceremonial, internal and external sense.” Unfortunately, the Bible records that Israel was punished with curses and exile for falling short of this calling to holiness time and time again and was hopeless to ever obtain a holiness suitable to dwell peaceably with God.
Yet now, because of Jesus, the “Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24) who fulfilled God’s plan of redemption, God’s holiness is applied to a people freely and graciously. As Bavinck further elaborates:
Church, we need to take great comfort in this. God did not need to apply His holiness to anything, but He chose the church. His holiness appropriated to us by grace through faith means that we are now that suitable dwelling place for Him.
“Be Holy as I am Holy”
We are to take comfort in that we are holy unto God, but we are also not to become complacent. The writer of Hebrews calls us to “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Just as the holiness of God encompasses more than moral perfection, holiness for the Christian is not just applied to our moral standing but to our very essence of being a “new creation.” In Romans 12:1-2, Paul calls Christians to present their bodies as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” and then to not be “conformed to this world.” As new creations, we are given God-honouring appetites and motivations and the spiritual power to live in ways totally separate from the world. Just as God set apart the priests for His service in the temple, we too, possessing an even fuller holiness than them, are set apart for service in His kingdom.
Therefore, the call of holiness for a Christian means that their lives outwardly appear set apart from cultural norms and practices. It means willful forgiveness towards enemies, joyful giving of finances instead of amassing wealth, meaningful fellowship with those considered the “least of these,” and upholding a biblical ethic of sexuality. These are only a few examples of the fruit borne by those made holy by Jesus. Yet, of all the means of grace given us to grow in Christ, perhaps practicing the Sabbath is one of the most effective ways of living out the call to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
The Practice of Sabbath Grows Us in Holiness
We live in an ever-busy, connected, and productive world where human effort and achievement are prized and where the richness of one’s life seems equated to the abundance of life experiences that have been posted for the online world to view. We have a sinful tendency to turn both work and play into idolatry and have this idolatry shape our identity and values. Whether in work or play, we often feel unrest because all of our achievements or entertainments do not ultimately satisfy us. So, we pursue more endeavours and activities, hoping that each new experience will bring us that satisfaction and rest – does this sound familiar? This frantic pursuit of rest stands in stark contrast with the seventh day of creation when God looked upon all His work, called it good and then rested, declaring the day of rest “blessed” and “holy” (Genesis 2:2-3). Through His own resting, God showed us that an eternal and deep rest is not only possible but is holy to enter into.
God commands the Israelites to observe the Sabbath as the fourth commandment with the intention that while all the other nations frantically tried to survive and thrive on their efforts alone, the Israelite people needed only to do appropriate work and then rest, worship, and enjoy their God. In fact, one such law in Leviticus 25 called for the people to only work their land for six years and let the land have a Sabbath rest for the seventh year. Imagine a full year where the land produced just enough without having to sow and prune the field. Their observance of this would have been deeply counter-cultural and would have shown the surrounding nations the power and love of their God. The holiness of observing Sabbath would reflect the holiness of their God.
Likewise, when we Sabbath, we set ourselves apart from the frenetic culture around us. We choose to rest physically and spiritually and trust in our God to provide all that we need. As God stopped to enjoy His finished creation, we stop and choose to enjoy Him and reflect on the work He has completed through Jesus. We celebrate the finished work of Jesus in giving us eternal life (no longer having to work the moral ladder) and are satisfied with abundant life (no longer having to scrounge at worldly achievements or pleasures for satisfaction). God invites us, by grace, to regularly Sabbath by resting in the presence of Jesus. As we draw near to the Holy One of God, we effectively strive for the holiness that Hebrews 12:14 speaks of. So let us Sabbath and worship, for in Christ we are no longer condemned by the holiness of God, and through Christ by the Holy Spirit, we are being made into that very holiness.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty! God in three persons, blessed Trinity! Praise our God, who “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16).