This article speaks about God’s attribute of holiness. What does it mean to confess that God is holy? In relation to God’s holiness, the author also speaks about his wrath and divine anger.

2014. 11 pages. Transcribed by Jeanette de Vente. Transcription stopped at 47:15.

God Is Holy School of Theology Series: Lecture 12

God Is Holy🔗

Tonight we are looking at God is Holy.


There is some vocabulary that we need to consider together. The Hebrew word “qadosh,” for holy. There is a fallacy that you can commit, and it sometimes refer to as the etymological fallacy—that is, the fallacy that a word means what its root means. And that is actually rarely the case. And I have given a couple of examples here. The word “lady” is actually derived from the Old English which means a “loaf-digger” or a “kneader of bread.” So to say that lady is derived from its root is an etymological fallacy. But in the case of the Hebrew word qadosh there are two possible meanings, and both of them are actually, I think, employed in the usage of these words. A word means what it means in its use and in its context rather than what it means in its root. But in this case the Hebrew word for holy can mean one of two things. It can mean a geographical idea of separation—that you separate; that you cut off. But it can also mean “to burn”; it can also mean the idea of purity that is the product of burning. So those two ideas are prevalent in the Old Testament word.

In the New Testament: the word “hagios.” “Being holy in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing essential divine qualities in contrast with what is human”—that is one definition of hagios, the word holy. It is very important to understand, however, that in the Greek the same word is employed for holy, for saint, for sanctification. We don’t have a verb form in English of the word holy. We don’t say “to holify.” The word doesn’t exist. So we go from holiness to sanctification to sanctify. But in the Greek it is the same word. And the word holiness, the word saint, and the verb sanctification are part of the same group of words.


Inanimate objects. The word “holy” is used in the Bible, first of all, of inanimate objects. Priestly garments, pots, pans, holy anointing oil, holy place, utensils, cooking pots, plates, spoons, knives, forks, ladles—all of these things that were part of the administration of the temple sacrifices that the priests would employ. These were holy instruments. Not because they shone in the dark. They were holy instruments because they were set apart for holy use. They had a special use. They were in a sense consecrated. They were set apart; they were used for special purposes. So the idea of consecration in the sense of separation or separation for another use, for a special use.

Ezekiel 22:26: “Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them.” The distinction here is between something that is holy and something that is common. It is not a distinction between holy and impious; it is a distinction between something that is used commonly for everyday use and something that is used for a special use. I suppose you have china silverware that you only use maybe at Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner once a year. It is for special occasions. And that is the kind of idea behind the use of the word “holy” in the Old Testament in particular.

Spatial metaphor. Holy can be used in the Old Testament for space—for holy space, holy geography, a holy territory. The most famous passage of all in Isaiah 6: “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD…high and lifted up.” And the seraphs are proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy.” But the prequel to the expression of holiness is that the LORD is “high and lifted up.” He belongs to a spatial dimension all to himself. God is outside of our range. He is in that sense unfamiliar. He is transcendent. The idea of holy space; a separation of space.

Temporal metaphor. It is also used of holy time. And much of the language of the Old Testament with regard to the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” To separate it. To regard it as special. To use it in a different way than you use the other six days of the week. That was the idea of the fourth commandment—the Sabbath ordinance in the Old Testament. It was not that the day was in and of itself any different from any other day; it was twenty-four hours long. But it was holy time. It was consecrated time. It was set apart for holy use.

Now, note that the holiness of Israel was described in spatial terms. “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD I am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” So the separation—the gathering together of the people of God as a nation in a geographical sense—was part of the way in which the word “holiness” is employed in the Old Testament. Now, some of that—indeed, a great deal of that—carries over into a New Testament understanding of holiness. Particularly the idea of consecration; of being set apart; of special use and special employment.

Rudolph Otto: The Idea of the Holy 🔗

Rudolph Otto—not an Evangelical; not one to be an example in many areas of theology. But he wrote this very famous book almost a hundred years ago: The Idea of the Holy. It is one of those well-known texts in religion in the twentieth century. It is still used. It is dry as dust to read. But Rudolph Otto brought into the language of holiness—particularly in the theological language of holiness in the twentieth century—some important expressions that are still employed. One such an expression is “the wholly other.” He is altogether different. God’s holiness makes him altogether different. His holiness is an expression of his transcendence. He is the wholly other one. It is the Creator-creature distinction.

Let me give you a taste of what he says. “That which is quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar, which therefore falls quite outside the limits of the “canny,” and is contrasted with it, filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment.” So for Otto that is what holiness does—it fills you with a sense of astonishment. It fills you with a sense of holy wonder and awe. He uses the word “uncanny” (actually, he wrote of course in German; this is the English translation)—that God does not fit our normal experience. That is what the holiness of God essentially is trying to get at. That God is beyond our capability of describing.

The Otherness of God🔗

The otherness of God. In what sense is God other than us? In what sense is God separated from us?

The mode of God’s being. In the mode of his being, for a start. We have been considering some of these in recent weeks. God is self-existent (the aseity of God). We spend an evening contemplating the aseity of God, the self-existence of God. There never was when God was not. He is the source of the existence of everything that is, but his existence always has been. God is eternal (understood as being outside of time, or a-temporal rather than existing in unending time). Or the doctrine of the Trinity. God is triune. There is “more-than-one-ness” in the one being of God, in the unity of God. There is only one God, but there is more than one who is that one God. And that triune-ness is not contingent. It is not something that is willed. It is essential to the being of God. It is something that defines how God is in and of himself. And therefore, all of that and more puts God in a different category to us. That is in one sense describing him as holy. He is holy in the sense that he is in a category all by himself.

The power of God. Or think of the power of God. That He is the Creator. He made everything that is. All other existence depends on his existence. He has power to make and to remake.

The non-accountability of God. Or the non-accountability of God. Think of what Paul says in Romans 9, when Paul is discussing election and preterition, and he uses the analogy of the potter and the clay. The clay has no right to demand an accounting of the potter. “Will what is molded say to the molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” God is accountable to no one except himself. We are accountable to God. Every word, every thought, every action, every deed. We are wholly accountable for everything that we do and say and don’t do and don’t say. But God is non-accountable. God is in a category all by himself. That is a mark of his holiness. That is what holiness essentially means: to be separate; to be distinct; to be other.

The purity of God. Or (and this is probably the way that we normally think about holiness) we think about holiness in the sense of a moral category. God is holy, meaning that God is without sin. God is holy in the sense that he is absolutely pure. One of the root meanings of qadosh is “to burn,” and therefore to burn with purity. To burn away all the dross. He burns. Think of how he reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 3 in the burning bush. The bush burns, but it is not consumed. So the purity of God.

“God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Or Habakkuk 1:13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see” (or “to behold”) “evil and cannot look at wrong.” The purity of God. He cannot look at sin. He is “of purer eyes than to see evil.” The purity of God—the holiness which is his purity, his purity which is his holiness—necessitates therefore that sin can only be forgiven through atonement. And that means there is an absolute necessity for the atonement if there is to be forgiveness. We will come to this in a minute. But that means that the wrath of God is the reflex of his holiness. The wrath of God, the anger of God, is the reflex, the necessary response of his absolute integrity and purity.

The beauty of God. There is also another aspect of the holiness of God. And you see it in Psalm 96:9: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” There is something about holiness, there is something about God’s otherness, there is something about his transcendence that is a beauty. A beauty in the sense of, as the ESV has, “splendor.” And that maybe gets at it a little more clearly. God is a great wonder. God is a great splendor. His holiness is a thing of great splendor. Or think of how the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 27: “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to enquire in his temple.” The beauty of holiness.

All that we have been doing is to say, along with Rudolph Otto, that God is wholly other. It is an expression of his holiness. He is high and lifted up. He is in a realm all by himself. He is in a category all by himself. In a sense he defies all categorization. He is a holy wonder. He is a great sight.

Our Subjective Response to God’s Holiness🔗

What is our subjective response to God’s holiness? And we go back to Rudolph Otto again. And Rudolph Otto uses this Latin expression: “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”—that God is a mysterious, tremendous and fascinating. And let us consider those three things together.

Mystery. First of all, God is a great mystery. Not in the sense of a mystery novel. Not in the sense of Miss Marple. Not in the sense of a “whodunnit” kind of novel. But a mystery in the sense that he is beyond our capacity to find out. Let me use Luther’s famous way of describing it. Luther distinguished between the Deus absconditus and the Deus revelatus. There is the God who is revealed. He reveals himself in creation and he reveals himself in providence and he reveals himself in anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (as we were considering several weeks ago) and he reveals himself in Jesus. He makes himself known. But what we know of God, we only know a little. He has pulled back the curtains and disclosed a little glimpse of himself. But there is a vastness to God’s being that cannot be fathomed. He is, in Luther’s term, the Deus absconditus.

Let’s pick up some Scriptures here from the Old and New Testaments to support that idea. At the dedication of Solomon’s temple: “But will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” The vastness, the mystery, of God. Or Paul in Ephesians 3: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” The unsearchable riches of Christ. There are riches of Christ, but they are unsearchable. As Augustine said when he was talking about the doctrine of the Trinity: “I see the depths, but I cannot see the bottom.” The mystery of God.

Awe. But also the “holy tremors,” as Rudolph Otto put it. God produces in us a sense of awe. Now, I have said before and I keep on saying, you may only use the word awesome once a year, and you may only use it as a descriptive of God. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is not awesome. And if you use the word awesome for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, what word are you going to use to describe God? God produces a sense of awe, a sense of holy wonder, a holy tremble.

We are created beings. “Abraham answered and said, ‘Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.’” He is conscious, as he comes before God, of the vastness and the greatness and the mystery, the awesomeness of God. And he is so small and so little. Just dust and ashes in comparison! Or Otto again: “submergence into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might.” That is the human response to the holiness of God. “Submergence into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might.”

Fascination. And then the third category that he employed was fascination. There is mystery, there is awe, but there is also fascination. “Fascinans” in Latin. God is enthralling. God is captivating. There is an intimidating aspect of the holiness of God—particularly if you think of it in terms of its purity; God is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity”—and there is a sense in which the holiness of God is intimidating, but there is also a sense in which the holiness of God is a beautiful thing. The beauty of holiness. It is a fascinating thing. It is riveting. It is captivating. It is a thing of great splendor. Moses saying, “I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” This was a representation of God and a representation of the holiness of God, the purity of God. That God burns. But Moses wanted to see it. It was fascinated by it; he was drawn by it.

Actually, of course, that is why we can appreciate beauty. That is why there is such a thing as beauty. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. There is an objective category called beauty. I don’t want to go down this road, but in terms of the appreciation of art—whether it is music or poetry or literature or painting or architecture or whatever it is—there is a category called beauty. And there is something objective to it. It is not purely subjective. There are objective factors to beauty. And we can appreciate beauty. We can sense something that is inherently beautiful, because it is a response to the beautiful character of God himself.

Practical Considerations🔗

Now, some practical considerations here. All we have been doing is trying to explore the basic idea of holiness, whether that is in the Hebrew qadosh or whether it is in the Greek hagios.

Separation. One thing that emerged is the idea, the category, the notion, of separation. “I saw the LORD high and lifted up.” The idea of separation. The idea of holy space; separated for holiness. The idea of holy time—the Sabbath. “Remember to keep the Sabbath holy,” the day holy. And that means ideas of separation in holiness. Now, there are some dangers here, and I want to mention one of them. One of the dangers of separation is the idea of asceticism. This was how the Medieval Catholic Church and the growth of the monasteries and so on viewed holiness, and the idea of sanctification as essentially separation in the sense of asceticism. And the Reformation was a protest against that. That it was not separation from the material world; it was separation from sin, and that is the difference. That holiness is not separating yourselves from the material world. It is not separating yourselves from things of beauty like art or music.

I came across a form of asceticism just a few months after I was converted. I grew up having an obsession with classical music. My grandfather died when I was five, and he left me all of his classical records. My earliest memory in life is listening to Puccini’s La Bohème on his knee, and I think I was about two and a half. And these records of his—about five hundred of them—I treasured. And then I got saved when I was eighteen, and three or four months later somebody told me if I wanted to be holy, I had to get rid of these records. So I got rid of them the next day. And I have regretted it pretty much for the last forty years, not least because of the sentimental value because they were my grandfather’s. But it was a form of asceticism. I don’t regret the motivation. I don’t regret the intention behind what I did. I just regret the lack of knowledge behind what I did. And it was a form of asceticism that said that if you want to be holy, there are certain things that you should not do. There are certain parts of the world that you should not go to. But holiness is not separation from the physical world in however you want to describe that. Holiness is separation from sin.

That is why at the Reformation one of the ways that the Reformers defined holiness in terms of the personal lives of the Reformers was of course that they got married. It was very important that Martin Luther got married. It was very important that John Calvin got married. And I don’t think John Calvin really wanted to get married; he had to be forced into getting married. He had to be almost threatened into getting married. The story of the advertisements that were placed in various cities—you can read accounts of those advertisements looking for a wife for John Calvin. And they would come. They would make the trek and he would take one look at them and that was it. It was no. And eventually of course he marries this wonderful woman who was herself a widow and had two children and had been at one time a nun. Just the same way as Martin Luther married an ex-nun. But it was very important for them to be married and to put the sanction of blessing on marriage and conjugal relationship within marriage. Because holiness is not asceticism.

Martin Luther and Christian liberty. He wrote a very important book in 1520, The Freedom of the Christian Man. It is one of the great books of the Reformation. We think of the Reformation in terms of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Or we think of the Reformation in terms of the five solas. But the Reformation was also a movement defining true holiness from false holiness. And true Christian liberty and the freedom of the human conscience. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men.” So we are looking together at practical considerations of holiness. One of those is separation.


Separation in the sense of purity; separation in the sense of personal holiness. Think of the book of Leviticus, the repetition of what is called “the holiness code”: “Be holy, for I am holy.” Because God is holy, we also are to be holy. And so there is this imperative. It is an absolute requirement on those who call themselves the Lord’s people to pursue after holiness, “without which no man shall see the Lord.”

Reverence. Reverence. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” The root idea here is the holiness of God. He is a “consuming fire”—it’s the purity of God. He “is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.” And therefore we should pursue holiness with reference and awe. With a sense of holy wonder, but also with reverence. A seriousness! We use the word “worship,” but that is an English word and it’s derived from the old English word “worth-ship,” meaning God is worth worshipping because of his great value, because of who he is. We are to bow down in holy wonder and to pursue after holiness.

Well, we will come back to the idea of personal holiness and sanctification later on in our studies. (Transcription of audio file from 31:33 to 32:00 omitted.) But there is a link here that God’s holiness means that we too are intended in Christ to live lives of holiness.

The Divine Anger🔗

A corollary of the holiness of God is the anger of God. We talked last week about the love of God, but we must also speak about the anger of God. It is the reflex of God’s holiness towards sin.

C. H. Dodd🔗

Many of you are familiar with the name of C.H. Dodd from the twentieth century. He was Welsh by birth, although he lived in England and taught in Oxford most of his life. He was hugely influential in translations. The Revised Standard Version (RSV), for example, was heavily influenced by the thought of C.H. Dodd, and particularly C.H. Dodd’s complete rejection of the idea that there is anger in God. He completely dismissed the idea of the wrath of God or the anger of God as something that was essentially sub-Christian. So he was unhappy with the idea (that is to put it mildly). And he was especially unhappy with the translation of a particular word in the New Testament—the Greek word “hilasmos”—which is translated, for example, in the English Standard Version (ESV) as the word ”propitiation.” The New International Version (NIV) went for a softer sort of translation and talked about a “sacrifice of atonement” or some such phrase.

The word propitiation is not a word that we use every day. Unless you have used it in a particularly Christian religious context, I doubt that you have used the word propitiation in a sentence this week. But the ESV has restored the word propitiation because the translators of the ESV are saying to us: this is a word we have got to use and maintain, because it is the only word in English that carries with it the idea of propitiating anger. One of the aspects of the cross, one of the aspects of what Jesus is accomplishing at the cross is dealing with the anger of God, the wrath of God, against sin. And “sacrifice of atonement” does not do that. You have to use this word “propitiation.” Or if you can invent another word, fine. But until we can, the ESV had said we need to employ this English word “propitiation,” because contained within the meaning of propitiation is the idea of the wrath or the anger of God.


Read the New Testament and you will find the expression the wrath of God. You will find it in Romans 1:18ff. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” So what you do with the passage that speaks of the wrath of God? C.H. Dodd said that the wrath of God is not personal—the wrath of God as Paul is using it is always impersonal. What he means by that is that there are consequences to sin. If you sin, bad consequences follow. That is what the wrath of God is. The wrath of God is impersonal. It is not God’s retribution; it is not God’s anger. It’s just that if you do bad things, bad things will follow. There are consequences to bad behavior. In other words, C.H. Dodd has removed the wrath of God from the being of God into the realm of providence. Bad things happen as consequences to bad behavior—that is what the wrath of God actually means. But it does not mean, C.H. Dodd said, that God himself is angry.

Except that is precisely what Paul is saying. “The wrath of God is revealed.” He “gave them over to a reprobate mind” and “vile affections” and “gave them over to uncleanness.” That is a deliberate activity on the part of God. You can’t make the wrath of God impersonal. And the idea of abstract law (the wrath of God is impersonal; it is just providence; it is just a consequence to bad behavior) is a fiction. There is no law in the cosmos that operates independently from God. When you woke up this morning depressed and cast down and saying, “Woe this me, for I am undone,, God is still sovereign. He is in absolute and total control. There is not an event, there is not a circumstance, and not one ballet that went in the box went in without God’s decree. Now, if you don’t believe that, do not drive home this evening! Do not drive home on the I20 this evening where they are doing a lot of roadwork, and drivers are doing crazy things. Because if you don’t believe that God is absolutely sovereign, you had better stay here. Actually, you are not safe here either.

The Bible is full of references to divine anger. I have cited three or four passages. Let me just pick out Isaiah 63:1-6.

Who is this who comes from Edom,
in crimsoned garments from Bozrah,
he who is splendid in his apparel,
marching in the greatness of his strength?
“It is I, speaking in righteousness,
mighty to save.”

Why is your apparel red,
and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone,
and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood spattered on my garments,
and stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
and my year of redemption had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help;
I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold;
so my own arm brought me salvation,
and my wrath upheld me.
I trampled down the peoples in my anger.
I made them drunk in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”

That is very, very graphic! This is the prophet Isaiah. He is preaching in the late 7th Century BC. He is prophesying of the coming of the Assyrian hordes, who will trample down the northern kingdom of Israel and take some area—the capital—into captivity. There was death. The Assyrians were regarded as some of the most militaristic—the machinery of war. And Isaiah is depicting God coming like somebody who is treading red grapes in a winepress. And as he treads on them, they splatter red juice all over his garments. And it is a depiction of blood, and it is incredibly graphic. But it is not impersonal. This is the wrath of God. This is the holy reflex of God against sin. That is what the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea was about. That is what the invasion of the Assyrians was about. That is what the Babylonian captivity was about. Or look at Revelation 3:19: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” There is a discipline in God. There is a holy anger. It is not an anger that is out of control.

Only because wrath is personal is mercy possible. You can’t propitiate a physical law. You can’t placate a physical law. You can’t placate providence. We have the law of gravity—there is no provision within God’s universe for placating that law. It is only because God is personal, who can talk and respond to our pleas—only because of that personal dimension is it possible to plead for him to placate his anger and his wrath.

The Objects of the Divine Wrath🔗

What are the objects of God’s wrath? They are diverse.


Israel in the Old Testament. The Old Testament Church was the object of God’s wrath, actually more than anything else in the Old Testament. In the crosshairs of God’s wrath is Israel—His own people! Just as Paul says, what the Law says it says to those who are under the law. So when the Torah speaks of anger, it speaks to those who are under the Torah.

The Nations🔗

The nations—the foreign nations that surrounded Israel. There is an emphasis upon God’s judgment on the nations, and that is part of what is taking place in Isaiah 63. God is coming in judgment upon the northern kingdom of Israel with the Assyrians, but the Assyrians eventually will be trodden down. And Isaiah sees the coming of the Persian Empire, and he sees the coming of Cyrus who will deliver the people back to their land again, and the Assyrians will be trodden down in the winepress of God’s wrath. The nations.

The Lost in Perdition🔗

The lost in perdition, and their eternal destruction. The wrath of God will be upon them forever. They will be cast into “outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Where there will be no gospel. Where there will be no smile of God’s countenance. So the doctrine of hell and the doctrine of eternal perdition comes under the rubric here of the wrath of God towards the lost in perdition.

The Elect🔗

But also the elect, until they come to Christ. That’s what Paul says in Ephesians 2—we were “children of wrath just like the rest.” Until that time when we are drawn effectually by the Spirit to believe in the Lord Jesus and to repent of our sins and to receive the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father.” We are not born justified. We are not born as God’s children. And sometimes that is expressed even in our own consciences when they condemn us. So the objects of divine wrath.

We have been talking tonight about the holiness of God. And I want to take you back to the quotation on the first page from R.C. Sproul.

If I were to ask a group of Christians what the top priority of the church is, I am sure I would get a variety of answers. Some would say evangelism, others social action, and still others spiritual nurture. But I have yet to hear anyone talk about what Jesus’ priorities were. What is the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer? Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven’” (Matthew 6:9). The first line of the prayer is not a petition. It is a form of a personal address. The prayer continues: “Hallowed be your name; your kingdom come” (Matthew 6: 9-10). We often confuse the words, “Hallowed be your name” with part of the address, as if the words were “hallowed is your name.” In that case the words would merely be an ascription of praise to God. But that is not how Jesus said it. He uttered it as a petition, as the first petition. We should be praying that God’s name be hallowed, that God be regarded as holy.

And that is what is of the topmost priority. The chief priority of the Church is to express the holiness of God—the holiness of God in our worship, in our personal lives, in our family, in our speech, in our conduct, in how we think and talk about God. Because God is holy!

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.