There's a significant difference between my two-year-old granddaughter and me. Yes, I'm taller and older and able to support myself, but it's something more profound. She demonstrates this difference every time we're together.
My granddaughter will make me sit down in a chair so she can serve me tea and a sandwich. When she delivers my order, the cup is empty and the plate has no food on it. But here's the amazing thing: my granddaughter has the ability to see both the tea in the cup and the sandwich on the plate. Of course, I play along, and she's delighted when I tell her what an excellent cook she is!
All children have this powerful capacity to imagine. It's what makes their early years so interesting, surprising, delightful, captivating, innocent and wonderful. Sadly, as we grow into adulthood and the real concerns of life – like relationships, employment, finances, diet, and so forth – fill our minds and control our hearts, our ability to imagine dims.
IMAGINATION AND FAITH
When it comes to the Christian faith, a religious system centered on surrendering your life to a God whom you cannot see, touch or hear, imagination becomes a vital element.
Let me give you a brief definition of imagination as it pertains to faith: imagination is not the ability to conjure up what is unreal, but the capacity to see what is real but unseen.
To enable us to imagine, God has given us a dual sight system. We not only see physical things with our physical eyes, but we have another set of eyes: the eyes of the heart. God has given us this set of eyes so we can "see" the unseen world of spiritual reality.
The problem, though, is that the sin that infects our heart also renders us spiritually blind. What the eyes of our hearts need to see they cannot see, so God blesses us with the light-shining, sight-giving, eye-opening ministry of the Holy Spirit so we can "see" what cannot be seen with the physical eyes, but is every bit as real.
All of this is critical to understand before I begin to unpack the doctrine of holiness. Why? Because I'm very aware that what we're about to consider is dependent upon the illumining ministry of the Spirit of God to open the eyes of our heart to see.
The doctrine of holiness is so far beyond anything in our ordinary experience that we have no comparisons or categories to help us understand it.
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY
If you're a Christian and at all biblically literate, you will know that the Bible, without equivocation, claims that God is holy. Isaiah 6:3 provides the most potent declaration. The prophet Isaiah, at the moment of his calling, received of vision of the Lord sitting on his throne with seraphim on either side, and one seraph called to the other seraph and said, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" (ESV)
Don't cruise past the repetitive emphasis made in this declaration. It wasn't enough for the seraph to say, "God is holy." No, the seraph had to employ the word "holy" three times to capture the depth and breadth of God's holiness.
It's as if I were to say to you, "I saw this guy at the ballgame who was huge, huge, huge!" You would know right away that this was not an average big guy. Because of my repetitive emphasis on the word "huge" you would be forced to imagine that this guy was the biggest guy I ever saw in my life!
In the same way, "holy, holy, holy" is meant to stretch the boundaries of your imagination. Whatever you think of when you hear that God is holy, you need to know that God is in an entirely different category of holiness; he is much holier than you ever thought holiness could be.
But even "holy, holy, holy" was not enough for the seraph as he tried to capture God's holiness. He had to add, "The whole earth is filled with his glory."
How great is the holiness of this Lord of hosts? Great enough to fill the whole earth! Again, these words are crafted under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to take your imagination where it has never gone. They're meant to blow your mind with the thought that God is unlike anything you have ever encountered. They're meant to humble you with the realization that God is fundamentally different from you. They're intended to help you understand that who you're dealing with is Someone greater than anyone and everyone you have ever dealt with before.
The Lord of hosts is holy, holy, holy, earth-filling and gloriously holy. He is holy, holy, holy.
I want you to stop reading for a moment. Pray right now that the eyes of your heart would open, and that somehow, someway you would get even a little glimpse of the mind-blowing grandeur of his holiness.
Seeing his holiness will change you and the way you live forever. I'll explain how in a minute, but we still have some doctrine left to unpack.
WHAT IS HOLINESS?
Our translation for holiness comes from the Hebrew word qadowsh which means "to cut." To be holy means to be cut off, or separate, from everything else. It means to be in a class of your own, distinct from anything that has ever existed or will ever exist. Qadowsh means a second thing: to be holy means to be entirely morally pure, all the time and in every way possible.
When you put these two elements of holiness together, you're left with only one conclusion: that the Lord of hosts is the sum and definition of what it means to be holy. He occupies a moral space that no one has ever occupied before, and as such, we have no experience or frame of reference to understand what he is like because there's nothing like him.
Exodus 15:11 asks, "Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?" (ESV) 1 Samuel 2:2 declares, "There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God." (ESV)
There's even more to be said. God's holiness is not an aspect of who he is or what he does; no, God's holiness is the essence of who he is. If you were to ask, "How is the holiness of God revealed?" the only right answer would be, "In everything he does." Everything God thinks, desires, speaks and does is utterly holy in every way.
God is holy in every attribute and every action: He is holy in justice. He is holy in love. He is holy in mercy. He is holy in power. He is holy in sovereignty. He is holy in wisdom. He is holy in patience. He is holy in anger. He is holy in grace. He is holy in faithfulness. He is holy in compassion.
He is even holy in his holiness!
WHY HOLINESS MATTERS
At this point, if you're anything like me, you're probably thinking something along these lines: "OK, I get that God is holy. I'm not entirely sure how to define his holiness, but the Bible declares it to be true. So what's next? How does this big doctrine impact my real life?"
First and foremost, the doctrine of the holiness of God sits at the center of the grand narrative of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Without the holiness of God, there would be no moral law to which every human being is responsible. Without the holiness of God, there would be no divine anger with sin. Without the holiness of God, there would be no perfect Son sent as an acceptable sacrifice for sin. Without the holiness of God, there would have been no vindication of the Resurrection. Without the holiness of God, there would be no final defeat of Satan. Without the holiness of God, there would be no hope of a new heaven and earth where holiness will reign over us and in us forever.
Yes, it really is true that the biblical story would not be the biblical story if it were not written and controlled at every point by One who is holy all the time and in every way.
But let me make this even more practical. God's holiness impacts you in three life-shaping ways:
Holiness Provides Comfort
In a world that seems so out of control, that seems so evil, where wrong seems to be rewarded and right often seems to be punished, it's vital to remember the holiness of God.
Every situation, location or relationship that you have been in, are now in and will be in is under the careful sovereignty of the One who is completely holy. At street level, it often won't seem this way, but your Lord is ruling. What he does is always right. What he says is always true. What he promises he will always deliver.
You have to preach this message to yourself over and over again: evil is not in control. Injustice does not rule. Corruption is not king. Satan will not have victory. God is, and will always be, worthy of your trust for this one reason: he is holy.
With holy power he will defeat every evil thing that has made our lives sad and difficult and deliver us forever to a world free of all that is wrong.
Holiness Induces Rebuke
To discover another impact that the holiness of God has in real life, we need to return to Isaiah 6. Look at the prophet's response to his startling vision in verse 5: "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!" (ESV)
Isaiah doesn't have a "wow" response to God's holiness. Yes, he is blown away, but blown away in brokenness because he recognizes how morally separated he is from the Lord. It's only in the face of the holiness of God that you and I, like Isaiah, will ever be broken by the disaster of the sin that lives within us.
You see, we have a problem: sin doesn't always appear sinful to us; often, it's attractive and magnetic. It's only in the face of the holiness of God that you fully realize that sin is more than a list of bad behaviors and more than breaking a set of abstract rules. Rather, sin is a disastrous condition of the heart that causes us to willingly and repeatedly rebel against the authority of God and do what we were never intended to do.
It's the holiness of God that tells us that since we cannot escape ourselves, we all need a Savior who can do what we can't - rescue us from us. You simply cannot consider the holiness of God without also mourning your sin and crying out for the grace of Jesus.
Holiness Defines Calling
Because holiness is the essence of God's character, it becomes our calling as his children by inheritance. Peter says: "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 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 1:14-16, ESV)
Here's the best way to understand it: you are holy, and you have been called to be holy. If you are God's child, you stand before him as righteous because the perfect righteousness of Jesus has been given over to your personal account. But there's a second aspect of this - you are holy because you have been bought with the blood of Jesus and you are not your own (see 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20.)
To say you are holy means that you have been set apart by God's grace for God's purpose. Your allegiance is no longer to the kingdom of your success and happiness, but to the progress of his kingdom of glory and grace. And where do you do this? You do this wherever you are, whomever you're with and in whatever you're doing.
There's a third and final aspect: you have been called to holy living. This means that between the "already" of your conversion and the "not yet" of your home-going, obedience matters. Every thought, every desire, every word, every choice and every action must be done in a spirit of humble surrender to the commands of God.
As you consider the impossibility of this call, take time to remember that God never calls you to a task without enabling you to do it. God calls us to be holy, then sends his Holy Spirit to live inside of us so that we would have the wisdom and strength that we need to surrender to his holy call in all that we do.
Where does a discussion of the holiness of God lead us? It leads us to celebrate his grace.
Because of his grace, we know that our Lord is holy. Because of his grace, we're accepted and not rejected by him. Because of his grace, we're comforted by his holy rule. Because of his grace, we become aware of the gravity of the sin that infects all of us. Because of his grace, we run to God for help and not away from him in fear.
Because of his grace, God appointed his perfect Son to be the perfect sacrifice for imperfect people. Because of his grace operating within us, we experience both the conviction of sin and a desire to live holy lives. Because of his grace, we have been invited to live in God's holy presence forever and ever.
The holiness of God decimates our autonomy and self-sufficiency and drives us to the Savior, who alone is able, by his life and death, to unite unholy people to a holy God. God reveals his holiness to us not as a warning that we should run from him in eternal terror, but as a welcome to us to run to him, where weak and failing sinners always find grace that lasts forever.