In our study of the attributes of God, it is good to go back to the Westminster Larger Catechism for their definition of God.
God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all‑sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long‑suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. (Question 7)
So, as we study those things which make God God, where do we begin? Some would say that we should begin with God’s infinity, because he is from everlasting to everlasting. Others would opt for his sovereignty as being the starting point, because he is the sovereign Ruler of the universe. Still others would call for an emphasis on his love, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
But one attribute of God which covers all the others is his holiness. In fact, Scripture describes God and his name as holy over 900 times. Actually, God can be said to be sovereign, just, merciful, gracious, loving, wrathful, etc. in his holiness. It is God’s holiness that defines him as God, and it is the first thing we think of when we consider his existence.
The Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, said of God’s holiness:
God is intrinsically holy. All he does is holy; he cannot act but like himself; he can no more do an unrighteous action than the sun can turn dark. He is the original and pattern of holiness. It began with him who is the Ancient of Days. God is perfectly, unalterably, and unchangeably holy.
In the Hebrew literature of the Old Testament, repetition was used to emphasize words and ideas. As we would capitalize a word or use bold print, the writers of the Old Testament repeated words and phrases. We often do something similar when we speak of good, better, and best. In Hebrew, repeating a word or phrase three times elevates it to the third degree, or the superlative. Interestingly, God’s holiness is the only attribute which is emphasized in this way in Scripture. The seraphim in Isaiah 6 declare that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” However, as important as they are, no other attributes are spoken of in this way. We never read that God is “Sovereign, Sovereign, Sovereign,” “Gracious, Gracious, Gracious,” or even “Love, Love, Love.” Only his holiness is thus highlighted and declared.
We start our study with a problem, though. What does it mean to be holy? Actually, the word, as used in Scripture, has two meanings; and both of them can be applied to God. The Hebrew word qadosh means “to cut or separate.” It has the impression of something cut apart from the rest and set aside or above. The second meaning of holy is “morally pure.”
Before the seventh plague of hail, God sent Moses to Pharaoh, telling him to let the Israelites go. God said, “For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14). That same thought is expressed in the Song of Moses after the army of Pharaoh was drowned in the Red Sea. In that song, a question is asked concerning God. “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). Of course, the answer to the question is, “No one.” There is no other god like Jehovah. Speaking through the prophet, Isaiah, God said, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9). Among all the false gods which people throughout history have worshipped, none is like our God. He alone is the true God.
God created everything that is. He is the Author of all things, and as the Author he is above all things. He created man in his own image, to have communion with him, but he is above man in all his ways. Again, through the prophet Isaiah God says, “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” (Isaiah 40:21-22), and “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
This characteristic is referred to as God’s transcendence. It speaks of his separateness from man and all that he has created. God made the creation; but he is not the creation. There is a distinction between the Creator and the creature which we must never forget. This separateness above and beyond all creation is God’s holiness.
As mentioned earlier, holiness also speaks of God’s moral purity. Habakkuk refers to the fact that God has “purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). God is the standard to which all his people must aspire. He is separate from us in his holiness. In the words of John Calvin:
Until God reveals himself to us, we do not think that we are men, or rather, we think that we are gods; but when we have seen God, we then begin to feel and know what we are. Hence springs true humility, which consists in this, that a man makes no claims for himself, and depends wholly on God.
God’s holiness also relates to us. Just as God is set apart, so are things set apart for his service. All the articles of furniture in the tabernacle in the wilderness were set apart for service to God. The area where the priests served was known as the Holy Place – that place set apart for God’s servants. And, deep within the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies (Qadosh Qadoshim), that place on earth where God dwelt among his people. People were also set apart for God’s service. The high priest wore a special turban with a gold plate which bore the inscription, “Holy to the Lord” (Exodus 28:36), for he was set apart from all other men, for God’s service.
And so, Peter writes, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). God has called us unto himself, and we are to be set apart for him. Thus, Paul often refers to the readers of his letters as saints. The Greek word hagios has the same meaning as qadosh – set apart. As believers, adopted by God and brought into his kingdom as children, we are to be separate from the world around us, and we are to live by the high moral standard set for us by our God and father. Thus, God’s holiness calls for and enables our holiness.