“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3 ESV)
Once, as an experiment, the great scientist Isaac Newton stared at the image of the sun reflected in a mirror. The brightness burned into his retina, and he suffered temporary blindness. Even after he hid for three days behind closed shutters, still the bright spot would not fade from his vision. “I used all means to divert my imagination from the sun,” he writes, “But if I thought upon it I presently saw its picture though I was in the dark.”
The prophet Isaiah had a similar experience when he met God. He was blinded, as it were, by the piercing brightness of the holiness of God. Similarly, if we want to understand who God is—and who we are—maybe the most important aspect of God’s character to grasp is his holiness.
God’s holiness is his “separateness” from creation. One theologian defines it this way: “Holiness is God’s capacity and right to arouse our reverent awe and wonder. It is his uniqueness, his transcendence as our Creator.” All three persons of the Trinity are holy in the same way; God the Father is holy (John 17:11), God the Son is holy (Luke 1:35), and the Holy Spirit’s very name speaks of his holiness.
God’s holiness can wreck us apart from his grace. We learn that God is of purer (holier) eyes than to behold evil (Habakkuk 1:3). Put simply, God is holy and we are not. This is a terrifying situation. We are already at a distance from our creator because we are his creatures. This chasm becomes unbridgeable because of our sin. We are defiled, broken, impure. Yet God is pure, holy, and majestic. How can these two opposite realities be reconciled?
Answering this question takes us straight to the gospel. The only way sinful creatures like us can have any hope in light of the breathtaking holiness of the triune God is through Jesus. He was holy because we are not. He shows us that God’s holiness does not contradict God’s love; rather, God’s holiness and God’s love are both perfectly expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Apart from Jesus, God’s holiness terrifies us; with Jesus, God’s holiness seems like the most amazing, lovely thing in all the world.
How does God’s holiness affect our everyday lives? First, meditating on God’s holiness should humble us. We are, by nature, very proud people. But when we begin to study God’s word and see how holy he is, we are undone, just like Isaiah was. We realize that we have no right to come to him, that we deserve nothing but his wrath for violating his holiness by our sin. A Biblical view of God’s holiness always results in newfound humility on our part.
Second, God’s holiness should delight us. How can that be? Again, because of Jesus. He met the demands of God’s holy law because we never could. In Christ, God’s holiness is not something we run from, but instead run to, for, by his grace, we begin to want to be holy like our Savior. Christ makes God’s holiness desirable, not fearful. He alone can do this because he alone was totally holy and yet became one of us, entering in (without sin) to all the brokenness, suffering, and disappointment of our lives. The Holy One came to unholy ones to make his holy ones (that, after all, is the meaning of the word “saints”) to desire and delight in God’s holiness.
Finally, God’s holiness should cure our boredom with worship. How often do you find your mind wandering during worship? I know my mind tends to look like a dog on the loose—running from one thing to the next, tongue flapping wildly in the breeze. But when we begin to meditate on God’s holiness and our acceptance in Jesus by the Holy Spirit, our worship is transformed. We begin humbly to acknowledge that we have no right for an audience with the Holy God, but then we see Jesus’s outstretched, nail-pierced arm welcoming us to his Father’s smiling presence. We begin to be overwhelmed at the thought that sinful, impure beings like us have the privilege of communing with God, having our prayers heard and answered, and enjoying the pleasure of God’s presence of grace. In short, worship transformed by a new appreciation of God’s holiness is a foretaste of the joy of eternity—finally being free from sin and made perfectly holy by grace alone, delighting in the presence of the Holy One who has made us holy.