The Holiness of God
By Jeff Paton
A THEOLOGY OF SIN
Any understanding of the meaning of sin must begin with an understanding of the holiness of God. God is the benchmark in which we gain an understanding of what sin really is. "Every culture differentiates the sacred from the secular and has terminology to make that distinction. Canaan already had such terms when Israel adopted its language. The problem was that what was holy to the Canaanite was abominable to Jehovah. In Canaan the temple prostitute was a holy woman and the homosexual priest was a holy man (cf. Gen. 38:21-23; Deut. 23:17-18). 1 You see, sin is defined by any person's concept of "God." If God is a loving, easygoing pushover whose love for man overrides His own holiness, then they will live and respond in conjunction with that belief. If one believes that a loving God would not send anyone to an eternal torment in hell for sin, then their life and actions will most likely reflect that. Some believe that the way to heaven is determined by God weighing their good and bad in the balance, and if the good outweighs the bad, then they will go to heaven. Our concept of God determines our response to that "God." What one considers holy determines how they will live. No person lives beyond his or her concept of God.
If you can imagine the difficulty before us; how we understand the holiness of God determines if we serve the True God of the Bible, or a false god of our own imagination. We are not at leisure to define God as who we want Him to be. He defines Himself, His nature, His holiness. He is the standard by which we judge what is holy and what is sin. "For holiness in man must be the same as holiness in God, else there is no significance in the command of Peter to "obedient children" of God: "Become [aorist] ye yourselves also holy...for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:14-16). We cannot take the position of Mansell, that the moral attributes of God may be wholly different from those of man. This is simply agnosticism. I am not prepared to worship a God of unknowable moral character. But the God to whom Jesus prays, saying, "Holy Father," and who has revealed himself as "light in whom is no darkness at all." I understand that light is a metaphor for purity, and darkness rhetorically stands for sin." 2
"There is widespread agreement among Bible scholars that holiness in Scripture takes its essential meaning from what God is. God alone is holy in himself. All other holiness is derived from a relationship with Him." 3 In light of this, perhaps it would be clearer to some if we used the term "godliness," or "God-likeness." That is what holiness is. The extent to which one is holy is determined by their likeness to the One True God, and sin is the extent in which we have departed from that character. It should suffice to say that God expects us to be in alignment with the divine character in as much as it is possible. God does not command us to be gods. He commands a likeness to His holy nature in as far as human limitations will allow.
Holiness, the Primary Attribute
Most deficient views of sin and grace are to be found in the imbalanced view of who God is. We know from Scripture that God is love. We know that He is all powerful. We know that He is omnipresent. And we also know that God is omniscient. But all of God's attributes are not equal. Holiness is the primary attribute of God. All other attributes must be in subjection to holiness. "Holiness occupies the foremost rank among the attributes of God... Because the fundamental character of this attribute, the holiness of God, rather than the love, the power, or the will of God, should be given first place. Holiness is the regulative principle of all three of them, for his throne is established on the basis of his holiness."4
If we put love as the primary attribute, then we can rationalize the idea that God excuses sin because He is love. We can say that God is omnipotent and can do anything He wants- to include sin. We can emphasize a God who is in everything, a God of pantheism and the environment- making the abuse of the environment the major sin. All of the other attributes must fall in subjection to the primary attribute of God- holiness. God is all-powerful, but He cannot do everything. God cannot sin. He cannot use that power to accomplish that which goes contrary to His holy nature. God may be omni-present, but He is not "in" that which is evil. God does not by nature reside in every blade of grass, or evil human beings such as Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer. With the purpose of holiness being primary, the ability to reside in evil people is an impossibility; the residing in isolation in inanimate objects carries no moral purpose. Love is the most abused aspect of the nature of God that is constantly appealed to to make God "tolerant" of sin. Love, when it becomes the end in itself in isolation from holiness, becomes a means of many "churches" to treat the unregenerate and unrepentant sinner as being incorporated into the Body of Christ. The unrepentant sinner is coddled as being "one of us" and given the assurance that our God is a loving God, and if you "believe," even without repenting or turning from sin, God will welcome you with open arms! This sounds like I'm O.K./ Your O.K. more that it sounds like the Bible. As you can see, all attributes of God must be put into subjection to God's holiness or we create an imbalance that makes us view God's attributes as independent traits that have little relationship to each other. Sin is that which goes contrary to love, but that love must be dictated by that which is holy so we do not love or tolerate evil things.
While it is said the love held Jesus to the Cross, it was holiness that necessitated it. Love alone could not reconcile us to God. God can not freely forgive without the barrier of sin being removed that put a vast divide between us and Him. Holiness is so central to understanding sin. To arrive at Biblical truth concerning God's interaction with man, it is essential to have a right concept of His holiness and the centrality of it in His plan for man.
"He can no more cease to hate impurity than he can cease to love holiness: if he should in the least instant approve of anything that is filthy, in that moment he would disapprove of his own nature and being; there would be an interruption in his love of himself, which is as eternal as it is infinite. How can he love any sin which is contrary to his nature, but for one moment, without hating his own nature, which is essentially contrary to sin? Two contraries cannot be loved at the same time..." 5
Holiness in God
How It Relates To Man
If holiness can only be understood in relationship to the nature of God, and the necessity of the atonement is connected to holiness, then we must consider that all of God's dealings with man are based upon this foundation.
When we see the horrible sufferings of Christ on the Cross on our behalf, we should see the gravity of our distance from God and the terrible cost of sin. How distant must we be that God's holiness demands such a cost? Christ would not have suffered so unless it was necessary to save us. We can also see in the atonement that the design of this reconciliation is more than just a mere judicial forgiveness, but a means in which to reconcile the differences that keep man from being at one with his Creator. "Holiness is conformity to the character of God. To have fellowship with Him in His characteristic feelings and principles; to love what He loves; to hate what he hates; to desire what He promises; to rejoice in His will in all things..." 6
Henry Thiessen writes, "Three important things should be learned from the fact that God is holy:"
a. There is a chasm between God and the sinner (Isa. 59:1f.; Hab. 1:13). Not only is the sinner estranged from God, but God is estranged from the sinner. Before sin came, man and God had fellowship with each other; now that fellowship is broken and impossible.
b. Man must approach God through the merits of another if he is to approach him at all. Man neither possesses nor is able to acquire the sinless-ness which is necessary for access to God. But Christ has made such access possible (Rom. 5:2; Eph. 2:18; Heb. 10:19f.). In God's holiness lies the reason for atonement; what his holiness demanded, his love provided (Rom. 5:6-8; Eph. 2:1-9; 1 Pet. 3:18).
c. We should approach God "with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28). A correct view of the holiness of God leads to a proper view of the sinful self (Ps. 66:18; 1 Jn. 1:5-7). Job (40:3-5), Isaiah (6:5-7), and Peter (Luke 5:8) are striking examples of the relation between the two. Humiliation, contrition, and confession flow from a scriptural view of God's holiness. 7
The holiness of God demands that salvation must be more than just the moral justification of sin, but should also lead to a moral change within the believer from darkness to light. This would explain why the New Testament exhorts the sinner to repent and turn from their sin, and the believer to move on to perfection, to be pure and holy before the Lord. "To sinners God says, "Ye must be born again,;" to the regenerate, "Be ye holy, for I am holy." In this exhortation they persist with the greatest possible earnestness, "Having, therefore, these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord." The great apostle was, therefore, aware that these Christian brethren, "dearly beloved," had yet need of cleansing "from filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness.' 8 Consider the wealth of references and exhortations within the New Testament directed at the believer to be holy and sanctified. If you look, you will notice that there is hardly a page from Romans chapter 1 through the end of Jude that does not deal with this in the believer. That is what the central idea of Christianity is; it is holiness, not justification. It is God changing the believer from their old nature to His nature. Why would God spend the vast majority of the New Testament commanding believers to be something that they cannot be? God is not taunting us with impossibilities.
If the majority of the New Testament is centered on the holiness of believers, and it is the highest privilege that we can experience this side of heaven, then it should be the center of our preaching and our goal of living.
"There can be but one central idea of the Christian scheme, and that is, as it exists in the mind of God. 9
Jesse T. Peck observed the following about the central idea of Christianity.
1. The choice of God for the moral condition of the human race
was perfect purity; hence he created man in his own image.
2. As this was once the choice of God, it must
be eternally so, and the divine preference or will can never be met but by
perfect moral purity.
3. Sin interfered with this choice, to the
full extent of its existence and reign, and hence called out the severest divine
4. There has therefore, never been and never
can be the slightest toleration if sin in any divine communications.
It is condemned with unsparing severity in its most secret and plausible
5. As man, by becoming a sinner, has incurred
the divine displeasure, he can be saved from calamity and made perfectly happy
only by entire deliverance from sin.
6. Remedial measures, originating from God,
must aim directly at the destruction of sin. Excepting it in any of its forms,
making provision for its continuance, its justification, or excuse in the soul
of the saved to any extent, would be trifling and impossible in Him.
7. The sacrificial offering of Christ, and the
means, and appliances of the Gospel, reveal the plan of salvation by the
destruction of sin and the restoration of man to the image of God, and can in no
way, be reconciled with the idea of salvation in sin.
Because He is holy, we must be holy also. God desires to bring us beyond justification through to sanctification. "But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy" (1 Peter 1: 15,16). God would not set His focus on change in the believer to holiness unless it were essential to a relationship with Him. It is God, "Who hath called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Tim. 1:9). "That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:27). Knowing God's purpose, we must focus ourselves to move on to perfection; that is, to move on to holiness as the central theme of Christianity instead of justification. If Christians were doctors, the vast majority would be in obstetrics, but few would be in pediatrics. We spend nearly all of our efforts getting people into the door of salvation, but little time getting them to the greater end that God's word stresses. Many will object to the statement that justification is not the central idea. We must ask then, why is it that holiness is spoken of much more frequently? Why is it a higher state than justification? Why should we settle for a lesser state than the best that God affords? With all of the emphasis in Scripture concerning the desire and will of God for our purity and sanctification, we must ask, "What worthy motive can we have in denying this position? Opposition to holiness is opposition to Christianity." 11
"But finally: The holiness of the church is in proportion to its completeness in the Christian graces, especially love; and obedience is the test of love. " If ye love me, keep my commandments." Let us seize at once a few perfect laws which distinguish the Christian system. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." Alas! what a fearful amount of disobedience to this most solemn command there is in the church! Take another: "But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." And another: "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." Mark this law of progress. See with what authority we are called upward in the divine life. But disobedience defeats those splendid schemes of divine love. We do not love God further than we obey him. Our very feeble and imperfect obedience reveals a sad deficiency of love." 12
We have observed the nature of holiness in the attributes of our God. We have seen that this nature is primary, not only in His attributes, but in His purpose for the Church. It is His desire that we be holy and pure in reality, not just judicially. "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." (Eph. 5:25-27). The objective of God is to deal with sin, not just forgive it. He has provided a way through the atonement of Christ. Let us rely on Him in faith as we did when we fell at His feet for mercy and salvation. Let us trust in His will for our sanctification as we did for our salvation.
1. Beacon Dictionary of Theology, Holiness, page 258, Dennis F. Kinlaw, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri. 1983
2. Defense of Christian Perfection, page 22, Daniel Steele, D.D., Schmul Publishing Company, Inc., Salem Ohio. Reprint of the 1896 edition. 1984
3. Exploring Christian Holiness, 1:19, W.T. Purkiser, Ph.D., Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri. 1983
4. Lectures in Systematic Theology, page 84, Henry C. Thiessen, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprint of 1949 edition, 1997
5. The Existence and Attributes of God, 2:121, Stephen Charnock, B.D., Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprint of 1853 edition. 1986
6. Thirty Thousand Thoughts, 4:52, Rev. Sir E. Bayley, B. D., Funk & Wagnalls, Publishers, 18 & 290 Astor Place. 1889
7. Lectures in Systematic Theology, page 84-85, Henry C. Thiessen, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprint of 1949 edition, 1997
8. The Central Idea of Christianity, page 17, Jesse T. Peck, D.D., Foster and Palmer Jr., 14 Bible House, New York. 1866
9. The Central Idea of Christianity, page 8, Jesse T. Peck, D.D., Foster and Palmer Jr., 14 Bible House, New York. 1866
10. The Central Idea of Christianity, page 9-10, Jesse T. Peck, D.D., Foster and Palmer Jr., 14 Bible House, New York. 1866
11. The Central Idea of Christianity, page 38, Jesse T. Peck, D.D., Foster and Palmer Jr., 14 Bible House, New York. 1866
12. The Central Idea of Christianity, page 105, Jesse T. Peck, D.D., Foster and Palmer Jr., 14 Bible House, New York. 1866
Go To Part 3 What is Sin?
Go Back to Part 1 of A Theology of Sin
A Theology Of Sin
The Holiness of God
What is Sin?
The Wages of Sin
The Depravity of Man
The Grace of God
Sin and the Atonement
Must we Sin?
Chastisement and the Christian