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Holiness: Part 2 – The Nature of God

Holiness begins with the nature of God, for right beliefs about God are foundational and essential for everything else in the Christian life. Since God is holy He insists his people live holy lives. Sin is essentially rebellion against God and makes a person think they can improve on God’s revelation. Sin blinds in the sense that those who hold to sin are fully or partly unaware of their own condition and motives. 

The Nature of God

 A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God…”

A. W. Tozer: “The Knowledge of the Holy” p13.

The continual danger is one of idolatry: 

The idolatrous heart assumes that God is other than he is – in itself a monstrous sin – and substitutes for the true God one made after its own likeness… The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him. It begins in the mind, “For although they knew God” wrote Paul, “they neither glorified him as God, nor gave thanks to him; but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:21)”

Tozer p14.

Thus errors in doctrine or ethics can finally be traced back to ‘imperfect or ignoble thoughts’ about God.

Bruce Milne helpfully lists the attributes of God, “The triune God has so revealed himself that it is possible to attribute certain qualities or characteristics to him”. These are the Glory of God, the Lordship of God, the Holiness of God and the Love of God. (Bruce Milne: “Know the Truth” p64).

God is Holy.

The most common description of God in the Bible is that he is Holy. No other aspect of God’s character is given such emphasis. 

Isaiah 6:3 states “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty: the whole earth is full of His glory.” Using the word “Holy” three times is significant. In Hebrew thought repetition is for emphasis. Jesus began his teaching with “truly, truly…” to indicate its importance. To say the same thing three times denotes supreme importance: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.”

Even God’s love is a holy love. His love is never at the expense of his holiness. God cannot compromise with sin or ‘give in’ to it. 

God is uniquely holy. The Hebrew is qadosh and indicates that God is separate from all other beings in his nature. “There is none Holy like the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:2). When human beings create their gods they devise standards by which these gods function. But God’s holiness means that He does not conform to our standard. Rather He is the standard:

Good is what God wills, evil is what resists and contradicts his will and nature.

God’s holiness means He is supreme in moral excellence. He is utterly pure in thought and word. He is free from any sin or evil, his very being is the “Outshining and outpouring of purity, truth, righteousness, justice, goodness and every moral perfection.” (Bruce Milne “Know the Truth” p68).

God’s holiness is manifested in his justice. Because God is holy, he must always act in accordance with what is right and just. His justice is his holy will in operation (Deuteronomy 32:4; 1 John 1:9; Revelation 15:3). He never wrongs his creatures, although he is wronged by them. His justice is impartial (Prov.24:2). He rewards virtue (Psalm 58:11; Hebrews 6:10) and punishes offenders according to his law (“The law brings wrath” Romans 4:15).

God’s wrath also arises from his holy nature. Romans 1:18 states “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness…” In his commentary on Romans, John Murray says in his exposition of this verse that “Wrath is the holy revulsion of God’s being against that which is the contradiction of his holiness.” When sin comes near our holy God, the inevitable consequence is the outpouring of his holy and perfect wrath (Compare Leviticus. 10:1,2; Acts 5:1-10). Wrath is linked to judicial processes (See Rom.2:5 and, for an example of the use of this term to describe the motivations of human judges, Romans 13.4), but not exclusively so. 

God’s wrath- or anger- is not unfair, unrestrained or subject to unreliable emotion as human anger can be.  Wrath is the fate of those who reject Jesus (John 3:36). Jesus, the Lamb of God, dispenses wrath (Revelation 6:16). The wrath of God against evil is immense (Revelation 14:9; 15:7). We experience some of God’s wrath in the present (Romans 1:18-19), but the emphasis is on the future dimension; “the wrath to come.” (Matthew 7:23; 25:41, 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Matthew 25:41, 46, 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9; Revelation 20:10).

Unless we know God’s holiness, we will not know the gravity of our sin or the majesty of his character. 

Be holy because I am holy

The holiness of God, in his separation from sin and revealed in his moral excellence, is to be reflected in his people. So in the Old Testament He is described as the “Holy One of Israel.” There is a strong sense of separation for God’s use in the Old Testament. So in Exodus there is “holy ground”, “holy Sabbath”, “holy nation”, “holy place” and other holy things. What is meant is that these are separated for God’s use.

God separated the people of Israel from all other nations. He entered into a covenant with them. Not only that they must be separate but they should also reflect God’s holiness in character. So he gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law.

But Israel failed to be a holy people. Because of the people’s sin there was a barrier in their approach to God. So once a year the High Priest, and only he, would enter the “Holy of holies”, the innermost part of the temple. There he offered extensive sacrifices for himself and the nation. God was present with his people, but because God is Holy, he is essentially separate from them on account of their sin.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness left him in profound awe and with a great sense of personal unworthiness. “Woe to me” I cried “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was deeply aware of his sin before a holy God

Sin is the great barrier to holiness.

Sin

Sin is essentially rebellion against God. Sin entered the world by Adam and Eve wanting things that belong to God alone (Genesis 3:5,6) and their action had consequences for all humanity. Original sin. The consequence being that all human beings have the predisposition to live in ways other than the one that God originally intended (Rom. 5:12-19) 

Sin turns away from God’s commands and laws and in pride the sinner thinks their sinful thoughts and actions are ‘enlightened’; that they know better. In reality he/she becomes more bemired in sin (Daniel 9:5, Romans 1:21-32). The Bible calls the breaking of God’s commands/laws transgression (Psalm 51:11). 

Sin begins in the heart (Matthew 5:28). God who searches the heart and examines the mind, declares the human heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond all cure (Jeremiah 17:9,10)

Jesus taught “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come- sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7: 20-23). 

There is a self-blinding quality to sin that justifies in his own mind what the sinner desires and how he behaves (Matthew 6:24). Interestingly Paul teaches in Colossians 1:21 that “You were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds” Why? Not because of your supposedly superior intellectual skills that mean you have outgrown God’s revealed will, rather “…you were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour”   

Sin is essentially the reason why a person rejects the gospel. Jesus teaches “Light has come into the world but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19,20).

G K Chesterton wryly observed that the doctrine of original sin is the one philosophy empirically validated by three thousand five hundred years of human history. (“Side by Side. A Handbook” Steve and Lois Rabey, p53). 

Francis Schaeffer writes “The basic problem of the human race is sin and guilt- a real moral guilt, not just guilt feelings, and a real moral sin because we have sinned against a God who is there and a God who is holy.” (“Side by Side” p53)

So far we have seen that God requires our moral judgments be shaped according to his character. This means walking in holiness for He is holy. Right or wrong is not determined by our culture but by God’s nature. How we are to live holy lives is laid down according to the moral precepts He has revealed to us in the Bible. The disparity between cultural fashions and expectations and God’s holy demands will be clearly seen in Holiness Parts 3 and 4. 

On reading J C Ryle’s “Holiness”, one feels that disparity and senses the rightful awe of God is largely missing in our own day due to the ignorance of His holy precepts and of our own sinfulness. On describing the nature of true practical holiness Ryle writes:

Holiness is the habit of being one mind with God, according as we find His mind described in Scripture. It is the habit of agreeing in God’s judgement- hating what He hates – loving what He loves – and measuring everything in this world by the standard of His Word. He who most entirely agrees with God, he is the most holy man…A holy man will endeavour to shun every known sin, and to keep every known commandment. He will have a decided bent of mind toward God, a hearty desire to do His will- a greater fear of displeasing Him than of displeasing the world, and a love to all his ways.”

J.C. Ryle: “Holiness” p64.

The awareness of how easily sin can insinuate itself into our motives and even our ideals is well recognised by Ryle, who counsels a holy man instead to follow after ‘meekness’ (p65), ‘temperance and denial’ (p66), ‘purity of heart’, ‘fear of God’ (p67) and ‘humility.’ Of the latter he writes “He will desire, in lowliness of mind, to esteem all others better than himself. He will see more evil in his own heart, than in any other in the world. He will understand something of Abraham’s feeling, when he says, “I am dust and ashes” and Paul’s, when he says, “I am chief of sinners.” (p67).

So, an awareness of God’s holiness should lead us to an awareness of our own sinfulness and an awareness that our own judgement in ethical matters may be distorted. We become aware of our own need for God to reveal to us what is right. An awareness that God is holy and we are not should make us aware that our own desires are not a helpful guide to what is good. 

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