The Holiness of God

Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!

Psalm 96:9 ESV

In Isaiah 6:1-7, we read the following account of the prophet:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

            “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
            the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I 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!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”


Now we come to the final attribute of God in our study: holiness. I have saved the holiness of God for the end because it is very much the capstone of describing God’s nature and character. As we read in Isaiah, this is the attribute that the seraphim declare to one another in continuous worship before the throne of God, and it is the only one that is raised to the superlative form, placing triple emphasis upon it. Terry Johnson rightly cites J. I. Packer as calling holiness “the attribute of attributes” and saying that “all other attributes are comments on his holiness.”[1] He then continues to list other lofty descriptions of God’s holiness from some of history’s great theologians and concludes with this summary of their thoughts:

Notice the commonalities in the foregoing assessments: holiness is the beauty, the harmony, the brightness, the splendour, the lustre, and the varnish of the attributes, the essence of God’s nature.[2]

But what is the holiness of God, and what is meant by calling God holy? D. A. Carson in his sermon, A Holy Nation, delivered for the 2009 Ligonier National Conference gives the most helpful discussion of God’s holiness that I have found. He first notes that holiness appears to have concentric circles of meaning, but at its core and when describing God Himself, he calls holiness an adjective for God. Now it is certainly true that holiness does carry with it the notion of being separate, unique, or other, but fundamentally when we call God holy, we are, as Carson notes, declaring, “You are God!”

Because of this, God’s holiness bears the weight of His very being. To ascribe Him as the Holy One means acknowledging His sovereignty, His infinity, His might, His wisdom, His immutability, His love, His wrath, and all the rest of His attributes. All the qualities that constitute God’s divinity are, by necessity, holy, for He cannot be anything less.

This, therefore, feeds directly back into our initial study of God’s incomprehensibility, for we cannot comprehend God precisely because He alone is God, He is holy. As 1 Samuel 2:2 states, “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.” Or as in Exodus 15:11, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” He alone is God; therefore, to what should we compare Him in order to understand Him? Indeed, He is unlike all of creation because He alone is the Creator.  

As God is beyond our full comprehension, neither can we behold God in His radiant holiness. In Exodus 34, Moses asked to see God’s glory (which is the outward display of His holiness), yet he was only permitted to see the place where God just was. Likewise, Mark Jones notes that a Mediator now reveals to us the glory of God:

God’s holiness (and any other attribute, for that matter) would be too much for sinful human beings to bear if God did not relate to us by way of the Mediator. No wonder, then, that it was Christ and not the Father whom Isaiah saw in Isaiah 6: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41)… The glory of God, which necessarily includes his holiness, is revealed to us in “the face of Jesus Christ.”[3]

Only in Christ is God’s holiness not our supreme terror. If we were to stand before God’s awesome presence without the imputed righteousness of Christ upon us, we would be consumed by His holy and just wrath. As both the eternal God and a sinless man, Jesus is now the physical face of the holiness of God, and because by His death He absorbed the punishment for our sins, we now have unhindered access in Christ and through Christ to the holy presence of the Father. The cross tore the curtain that separated us from the holy of holies, and now we may approach God’s throne not with terror and woe but with confidence to receive grace from our heavenly Father.


To refer back to Carson’s sermon, he admits that he is highly tempted to define God’s holiness as an incommunicable attribute since only God is God and, therefore, only God is holy; however, if we move out from the center of the circles into further uses of the term, we discover that holiness is explicitly communicable to us. Consider, after all, 1 Peter 1:15’s citations of Leviticus 11:44, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” The logical question for us to ask is: how can we also be holy if God alone is truly holy?

The holiness that God calls us to is a holiness of effect rather than cause. Unlike God, we cannot be intrinsically holy; He alone bears that attribute. We can, however, be made holy through our relationship to the Holy One. Here is how Carson discusses how God makes us and even objects holy:

that which peculiarly belongs to this God is said to be holy. It may or may not be moral. For example, the shovel that takes the ash from the altar is said to be holy (Num. 4:14-15), but not because it is moral. A shovel is never moral. The shovel is holy because it is reserved exclusively for God’s service and work. Anything else is common and therefore profane. So the shovel is said to be holy. The shovel is not itself God, but it belongs exclusively to God. Then, of course, if the belonging refers not to a shovel but to people, the manner in which we belong to God affects how we think, how we behave, what we say, and our relationships. For we have the potential to reflect something of the character of God in ways that shovels don’t have. If we human beings are holy, inevitably a moral overtone creeps into the notion in a way it cannot do when that which is holy is a shovel.[4]

Thus, to return of 1 Peter 1:15, our call to holiness means imitating the God who is holy. This means that God’s attributes also become a roadmap for our own conduct, which does indeed necessitate morality. We see this relationship easily enough within the communicable attributes because we should as followers of Christ desire to be loving, gracious, merciful, faithful, etc. However, even God’s incommunicable attributes should still shape our conduct, as we strive for holiness. For instance, we certainly do not possess God’s sovereignty; however, His exercising of absolute authority should give us a pattern for how we are to exercise whatever small and very limited authority we have been granted. Or similarly, gazing upon God’s eternality should stir up within us a longing to begin our life everlasting by knowing Him more and more here and now. As bearers of God’s image, the call to be holy is an invitation to grow even more into the likeness of the LORD almighty.

Yet to simply leave holiness as something we do would be woefully incomplete. In fact, while God’s people are called to pursue holiness throughout the Scriptures, they are also consistently called holy. Exodus 19:6, for example, gives God’s command to the newly freed Israelites, saying, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The New Testament (and notably the Psalms within the Old Testament) picks up this thought by calling God’s people saints, which means holy ones. Thus, our holiness is not simply an action; it is a position. Like the shovel of the temple, we are made holy because God has laid claim to us. He is holy, and we become holy because we now belong exclusively to the Holy One.

Our sovereign King who sits upon His throne and dwells in unapproachable light has chosen us, through the giving of His own Son, to be a people for His own possession, and throughout all eternity, we will joyously never cease to discover more and more of the beauty and majesty and glory and honor and power of our holy God.

[1] Terry L. Johnson, The Identity and Attributes of God, 148.

[2] Ibid., 149.

[3] Mark Jones, God Is, 166-167.

[4] D. A. Carson, “A Holy Nation,” from Holy, Holy, Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God, 81.

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