Why is God Holy?

God holy
Correctly understanding these terms leads to a better
understanding of the character of God and the Gospel.

God is holy but that does not mean He wants to be separate from us unholy beings as many have suggested.

Traditional Legal Model – God is holy because of His perfection, His sinless purity and that He, being uncreated, is so much better than us created beings (mere mortals). As such, He cannot tolerate sin, unrighteousness or injustice and has to counter those with appropriate punishment while otherwise remaining separate from us.

Biblical Healing Model – What distinguishes God as holy is His perfect character. He is doing all He can to reveal that holy (and very attractive) character to us but His holiness and most everything about Him has been twisted and misunderstood. Correctly viewing His holiness will actually change us into the same image.

 Holy as Set Apart

The root word for holy in Hebrew is “qadash” (H6942) and in Greek “hagios” (G40). Those words mean “set apart, sacred, sanctified” and are so used in reference to items such as articles of the sanctuary, the priests etc that have a special or “holy” use.  God is set apart (as in different) from us because of His Divine attributes and qualities as opposed to being merely human. Those would include His omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, His majesty, sinless purity and perfection of character.

God’s Holiness Misunderstood

Here is one misunderstanding of what it means for God to be holy:

“Propitiation is a big word that means satisfaction. Because God is a holy God, His anger and justice burns against sin. And He has sworn that sin will be punished.

There must be a satisfactory payment for sin. But God said, ‘If I punish man for his sin, man will die and go to hell. On the other hand, if I don’t punish man for his sin, My justice will never be satisfied.’

The solution? God said that He would become our substitute. He would take the sin of mankind upon Himself in agony and blood—a righteous judgment and substitute for sin.”

Christianity.com is where people might go if they weren’t Christians and wanted to learn something about Christianity. Unfortunately, there is much wrong with what they present. Not to pick on that website; much in Christianity in general is wrongly understood and the cause is frequently the words that are used in ways that differ from the Biblical definitions. (This Character of God and the Gospel Glossary attempts to correct that by determining word meanings from how the Bible itself uses those words.)

Is God so Holy He has to Separate from Sinners?

God’s holiness is often misunderstood because of statements like this:

“God is holy means that He is absolutely separate from and exalted above all His creatures and creation, and He is entirely separate from all moral evil and sin.” (Henry C. Thiessen, theologian)

Here is a verse that also could be seen to promote the idea that God is separated from us:

“For such an high priest became (G4241) us, who is holy (G3741), harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens;” (Heb 7:26)

The idea is that because he is holy, sinless, undefiled He has to stay separated from us. This can lead to the idea that He is aloof, distant, indifferent, withdrawn and not so emotionally involved. He is involved alright. He is keeping an eye on us.

However, the word “holy” (G3741) in that verse is not the usual word for holy (G40). It is actually close to “undefiled.” For example, it is used in:

“Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One (G3741) to see corruption.” (Acts 13:35)

The word “harmless” can also have that meaning:

G172 ἄκακος akakos ak’-ak-os
from 1 (as a negative particle) and 2556; adj
AV-simple 1, harmless 1; 2
1) without guile or fraud, harmless, free from guilt
2) fearing no evil from others, distrusting no one

So “holy, harmless, undefiled” is really the way in which He is separate from sinners. He does not partake in our sins in any way. That is reflected in this verse:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9)

The separation is about actions, not distance, not interest, not involvement or sympathy:

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15)

That verse is expressed in a double negative but that can read awkwardly. I prefer to let the two negatives cancel each other out and see it like this:

“For we have an high priest who is very touched by our hurts and sorrows; but was in all points tempted like as we are (He knows by experience what that is like), yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15, paraphrased)

That leads to this verse:

In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” (Isa 63:9)

So, he is actually very close to us as the Bible says:

“That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:” (Acts 17:27)

Did Jesus separate Himself from sinners? No. Neither Jesus nor His Father are so holy that they don’t want to be around us. While our holy God is separate from sin, He certainly is not separate from sinners.

Is God Too Holy to Look on Sin?

“Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Hab 1:13)

Many see this verse as saying that God is so offended by sin that He cannot look at it. Yet it also speaks of Him watching the wicked.

“God, your eyes are too pure to look favorably at evil or wickedness. So, how can you sit silently and watch the wicked swallowing up a people more righteous than them and do nothing about it?” (Hab 1:13, paraphrased)

Strong’s concordance gives the definition for the Hebrew word (“nabat” H5027) translated “look” as: “look intently at; by implication to regard with pleasure, favor, or care.” Thus, there are versions like this:

Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor. Why dost Thou look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why art Thou silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13, New American Standard Bible, 1977)

God is not incapable of looking on sin. He knows what is going on. However, there is the idea within Christianity that says God is too holy to look upon sin. While its roots are in Calvinism, the idea has become widespread in Protestantism doing much harm, both theologically and psychologically. The practical effects of such a belief can cause Christians to shun those regarded as “sinful” because they think God is also shunning them.

That thinking is reflected in a comment that came to this website.

“Would the walk to Emmaus of 7 miles have been ‘ok’ to do on the Sabbath?”

The implication is that if that was an unholy act (due to the belief that there was a limit to how far one could walk on the Sabbath), the holy Jesus could not have walked with them.

My reply was:

“Suppose those two disciples were contravening even something Jesus observed. Suppose they were afraid of authorities coming after them where they were gathered, suppose they were leaving the group in discouragement. Wouldn’t Jesus make a special effort to go after the lost sheep?”

We tend to act like the God or gods we believe in. If we think God is so holy that He can’t look upon or be near sin because it disgusts Him so, we tend to act accordingly: we judge the so-called sinful and turn away from them.

That is why this is yet another misunderstanding of God’s character that needs to be corrected. While we, sinners ourselves, are the ones who turn from those we deem as sinners, God is the One who goes looking for the sinners.

Can We Be Holy?

“There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.” (1 Sam 2:2)

The critical word in that verse is “as.” While it is saying we cannot equal God’s holiness it is not denying that we can achieve a degree of holiness:

“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)

“Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness,” (2 Peter 3:11)

 God desires to see His own purity and holiness reflected in us that it may be a witness to others. I think of that saying:

“The greatest argument in favor of Christianity is a loving and lovable Christian.”

 We become like what we admire, what we focus on:

“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18)

These verses should encourage us to pursue holiness in ourselves:

“But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” (Rom 6:22)

“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (2 Cor 7:1)

“To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.” (1 Thess 3:13)

Why “Remove Shoes”?

“And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Exo 3:5)

If we are going to be holy, if we are ever going to achieve it, one necessary thing is to be impressed with the importance of it.

“The practice of putting them [shoes] off before entering a temple, a palace, or even private houses has ever been a universal custom in the Near East. Since shoes or sandals carry dust and other impurities, the reverential Oriental mind considered it sacrilegious to enter a clean or holy place with shoes on.” (SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p510)

There is a little, in that description, of the idea that God would be offended by dirt in His presence. However, God’s idea was to teach reverence. This was not because God needed to feel holy or exalted or like a king might want his subjects to show reverence. It was entirely for our benefit as that feeling of reverence (without fear) would tend to attract us to Him.

See a video of a group study on the Biblical meaning of holy.

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