Friday, August 7, 2015

There Is None Holy Like the Lord

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!
(Isaiah 6:3 ESV)

Several years ago I wrote an essay on God’s holiness, and began by saying that of all God's attributes, holiness was the most difficult for me to define. I reread that old essay recently and realized I’d missed something important: The word holiness as used to describe God has two distinct meanings. Reading now, I can see the old piece is confused because I tried to combine the two different (but related) meanings into one. It’s no wonder I wasn’t satisfied with how I’d defined holiness.

The basic meaning of the word holy is “separate,” and in each of the two definitions of holiness, God is separate from something. In the first case, he is set apart from everyone else by the “infinite distance and difference . . . between Him and ourselves.1 In Hannah’s prayer of praise for God’s faithfulness in answering her prayer for a son (1 Samuel 2:1-10), she used the word holy this way.
There is none holy like the Lord;
there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God. (verse 2)
There is no one else, Hannah said, who is holy like God is holy. He is the infinite Creator and we are finite creatures. He is above us and beyond us in a class all by himself. Defined like this, God’s holiness isn’t communicable. He can’t share this kind of holiness with us because by definition it’s every way we can’t be like him—or more precisely, every way he is not like us.

Scripture helps us understand this meaning of holiness by linking it with God’s majesty and glory
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
(Exodus 15:11 ESV)
God’s majesty is simply his infinite greatness, and his glory is the public display of his greatness. According to this verse from the song of Moses, in his holiness, God is nothing like anyone else, including the so-called gods of the surrounding nations. He is set apart because he is far above everyone else, “majestic in holiness.” And the wonders he works—his “glorious deeds”—reveal this.

Louis Berkhof calls this first kind of holiness God’s “majesty-holiness."2 God’s majesty-holiness is not so much a distinct attribute as it is a general description of God. We can think of it as God’s deity or, as J. I. Packer calls it, his “Godness."3 It includes everything about him that sets him apart as the one and only God, everything that puts him in a class above all others. The proper response to the majesty-holiness of God is reverent worship. We worship God alone because he is the only one with the infinite qualities of deity. He is the only Holy One.

The second way the Bible uses holy to describe God points to his complete separation from sin. John is referring to this kind of holiness when he writes, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Gos is morally pure. There is not even a hint of immorality in him. God’s ethical holiness—Berkhof’s term again4—separates him from us because in his moral perfection he is unable to tolerate any sin at all (Habakuk 1:13), and we are all sinners.

When Isaiah saw the holiness of the Lord, this is what he said:
Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5 ESV).
This was exactly the right way to respond. As unclean sinners, none of us can remain standing in the presence of a morally perfect God. When we see God’s ethical holiness, it highlights our own sin and makes it clear that we deserve God’s judgment.

Unlike God’s majesty holiness, God’s ethical holiness is communicable. It’s in this sense of holiness that God calls us to be holy as he is holy (I Peter 1:16) and the author of Hebrews exhorts us to strive “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). God’s people must be holy. But since God is the only one who is holy from himself, the holy conduct God demands from us doesn’t actually come from us, but from him. He shares his holiness with us by working in us to make us holy. In the same passage in Hebrews that contains the exhortation to strive for holiness, it also says that God disciplines believers so that they “may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). The Holy God separates us to himself by disciplining us to make us holy as he is holy.

1] J. I. Packer, 18 Words, page 165.
2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, page 73.
3] Packer, page 165.
4] Berkhof, page 74.                                           

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