A Consuming Fire
“Holy, holy, holy.” What are they saying? Have you ever wondered that? What does that mean? Many people have tried to understand what God’s holiness means. Some describe it as his perfect morality. God’s holiness means he is sinless and untouched by corruption, which of course is true. But do you imagine the angels essentially crying out, “Moral, moral, moral is the LORD of hosts!” That doesn’t quite seem to capture what’s happening. It seems to domesticate it a bit, doesn’t it? Others have tried to explain it through the category of the “complete Other”—that God is Creator, eternal, but we are not.
We are creatures, finite in our being. The Bible seems to say over and over and over that there is no one like God, no one beside him, no equal in worth, being, and power. Yes, we must agree, God is the God of otherness. But when we then imagine again our seraphim singing “Other, other, other,” something is still missing.
When the Bible seeks to explain God’s holiness, it says that God is a “consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29)—a dangerous and terrible presence. The presence of not just a fire that warms our hands and charms our campsites, but a consuming fire. Turn away! And so the angels do. When Isaiah encounters this God, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost;” (Isaiah 6:5). Translations differ: “I am lost!” or “I am undone!” or “I am ruined!” Something is coming apart in Isaiah in the presence of God. Yet, at the same time, Isaiah and the seraphim don’t flee the terrible presence. The danger is real, but obviously so is the splendor. So terrifying and attractive, so immense and wonderful is God. So much so, when God is looking for someone to go to his people on his behalf, Isaiah says, “Here I am! Send me” (v. 8)
Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2020 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.
Elevated to the Third Degree
Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of His glory.
The Four-Letter Word
In today’s world, holy is the most offensive of all four – letter words. It’s far more acceptable to say, “My life is so messed up,” than it is to say, “I am striving to be holy.” For many, Christianity’s seeming obsession with holiness is one of its most distasteful qualities. Why is holiness so reviled? One reason is simply that the pursuit of holiness also involves the acknowledgment of sin and the necessity of repentance.
These are two words that are incredibly unfashionable: sin and repentance. In addition to implying that we are not good people, the words sin, repentance, and holiness conjure images of nuns with paddles, deceptively sweet (but kind of creepy) church ladies, and hypocritical pastors who decry the deviant sexual ethics of liberal America while they ravenously consume pornography behind closed doors.
Hypocrisy is a huge reason why we hate holiness. We’ve witnessed the inconsistencies of a “moral majority” that often failed morally, and fundamentalists who railed against the evils of pop culture while they perpetuated the evils of racism and sexism. We’ve seen too many people use the word holy while simultaneously ignoring the poor, condemning the homosexual, turning away the refugee, and covering up various forms of abuse.
When someone or something is holy it is set apart. In the Gettysburg Address (1863), Abraham Lincoln declared the Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania to be “hallowed ground.” Because of the momentous events that took place in Gettysburg, Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top would be forever set apart, no longer ordinary or common places, but ones with special significance consecrated for special commemoration. The battlefield at Gettysburg would be holy ground, a place set apart.
The Hole In Our Holiness
The hole in our holiness is that we don’t really care much about it. Passionate exhortation to pursue gospel-driven holiness is barely heard in most of our churches. It’s not that we don’t talk about sin or encourage decent behavior. Too many sermons are basically self-help seminars on becoming a better you.
There’s a sermon by the great Tony Evans in which he uses an illustration involving dishes to make sense of the term “holy.” In his home, and in most homes really, there are two types of dishes. There are the regular dishes. The ones you corner off with French fries and squirt with ketchup. Those dishes that contain the average meal, on normal days, for your ordinary and unimpressive breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some of them are chipped, maybe even cracked, and if they are, you don’t whine over their disposal because they were never made to be special anyway. Then there is another type of dish.
These dishes don’t even see the light of day until a tall green tree with multi-colored lights flicker them onto the dining table. Something significant has to be happening under the roof to make their use a necessity. And when all is normal again, the candles have been blown out, the wrapping paper has been scattered and collected, the guests have finally gotten up from the table, these dishes, after being cleaned, aren’t placed in the cabinets with the French fry and ketchup plates.
Those are too typical and regular for their company. They’re placed in an entirely different cabinet that may be in an entirely different room, separated from everything unlike them because there is nothing in the house like them. They are set apart, unique, different, other, distinct, cut off from what’s considered common. To put it metaphorically, these dishes are “holy.”
Housing the Fullness of God
One of my favorite stories is of John of Kronstadt. He was the Nineteenth Century Russian Orthodox priest at the time when alcohol abuse was rampant. None of the priests ventured out of their churches to help the people. They waited for people to come to them. John, compelled by love, went out into the streets. People said he would lift the hungover, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms and say to them, “this is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.”
How Grace Transforms and Holiness Follows
A number of you may be aware of Jerry Bridges’ series of books on holiness, and the book that maybe put him on the map was Pursuit of Holiness. Jerry’s a friend, so he’s told me these stories, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but Pursuit of Holiness was the book that really brought him to fame. People were strongly motivated to obey God, to seek to honor Him, by Jerry’s writing in Pursuit of Holiness.
But he says that as he went around the country preaching on Pursuit of Holiness, there was always another sermon he had to preach after the series of messages based on the book. And he said the message that he had to preach after Pursuit of Holiness was how grace transforms us so that we can pursue holiness.
I mean, after all, it was in some measure, early on, just kind of a Nike Christianity: “Just do it. You just hunker down and try harder and do what God says here.” People were inspired but found themselves incapable. And so Jerry had to say, “Well, you know, it’s by the grace of God that you’re enabled to do what He says.”
… Here’s what happened. And I don’t remember these figures precisely, but Jerry says the first book, Pursuit of Holiness, which was all about “you just do it,” sold some three million copies. The second book, Transforming Grace, which says it’s actually God’s grace that enables, sold 300,000 copies.
The more we talk about the grace of God rather than what we do to get God to respond to us, the less people seem to be interested. And, you know, what Jerry Bridges said was, it’s actually the grace of God that is the power of the ability to pursue holiness, and our disciplines, as we practice them, are not about somehow paying off God so that He will be good to us but, rather, are simply the means by which God gives us to open our hearts to receive the grace that helps us understand what He provides in our behalf… That inversion—understanding that His grace precedes our performance, not [that] our performance buys His grace—that shift changes everything.
Bryan Chapell, Preparing and Delivering Christ-Centered Sermons II: Communicating a Theology of Grace, Lexham Press.
The Importance of Holiness in the Bible
There’s no question holiness is one of the central themes in the Bible. The word “holy” occurs more than 600 times in the Bible, more than 700 when you include derivative words like holiness, sanctify, and sanctification. You can’t make sense of the Bible without understanding that God is holy and that this holy God is intent on making a holy people to live with him forever in a holy heaven.
The whole system of Israel’s worship revolves around holiness. That’s why you have holy people (the priests), with holy clothes, in a holy land (Canaan), at a holy place (tabernacle/ temple), using holy utensils and holy objects, celebrating holy days, living by a holy law, so that they might be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
No Mere Mortals
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
A One-Dimensional View of Holiness
With all the best intentions, we tend to flatten the biblical view on holiness until we squeeze out the dynamic nature of life with God. In an effort to own up to our own abiding sinfulness and highlight the gospel of free grace, we remove any notion that we can obey God or that he can delight in our good works. So we end up believing something like this:
I am a spiritual failure, but, praise God, Jesus came to save spiritual failures like me! I cannot obey God’s commands for one nanosecond. I never truly love God with all my heart or my neighbor as myself.
Even my righteous deeds are like filthy rags. If you could see my heart, you’d see that my sins are as bad as anyone else’s or worse! I am a spiritual screw-up through and through, unfaithful to my faithful God. But the good news is, God has saved me because of Christ’s death and resurrection.
I am his adopted child, forgiven and clean. Nothing I ever do can make God love me any more—or any less—than he already loves me in Christ. Even though I continue to sin, I can never disappoint my heavenly Father, for he looks at me and sees the righteousness of his beloved Son. What unspeakable good news!
The Power of the Sun
The sun is ninety-three million miles away, and you are unable to stare at it. You obviously can’t touch the sun and live, so how is it possible that we are currently attached to the One who shines brighter than the sun? High angels cover themselves with their wings in His presence (Isa. 6:2), yet you are a member of His body. Why would Someone so extraordinary choose to care for you like His own arm?
The Sacred Day
The Sabbath day is a holy day. Interestingly, the only thing God deems as qadosh, or “holy,” in the creation story is the Sabbath day. The earth, space, land, stars, animals — even people — are not designated as qadosh. The Sabbath day was holy. Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as the “sanctification of time”:
“This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place — a holy mountain or a holy spring — whereupon a sanctuary is to be established.
Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.” This holiness of the Sabbath is one of the distinctive marks of Jewish theology, Heschel contends. Again, it is telling that there is no mention of a specific, sacred place in the creation story. There is only a sacred day. While space and location are significant, it is important to note that the exact location of Eden is omitted. Yet we know that the Sabbath day is holy.
Union with Christ
Union with Christ fundamentally and irrevocably changes our relationship to sin. Our old self has been crucified (Rom. 6:6), and sin has no dominion over us (v. 14). This doesn’t mean a part of us called the “old nature” has been replaced with a different substance called a “new nature.” Paul is not talking about parts. He is talking about position.
The old man is what we were “in Adam” (cf. 5:12–21). Death, sin, punishment, transgression—that’s the “in Adam” team. But we died to that team. The contract was revoked. We now wear the “in Christ” jersey. Union with Christ is like being placed on an NFL football team through no talent of your own. Though you didn’t earn your way on to the team, now that you wear the jersey you want to play like a real football player.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Holiness Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!