Holiness Beyond Words

Holiness Beyond Words

Holiness starts with God. Discussions about holiness get off on the wrong foot when they begin with what we don’t do, rather than with who God is.

This is essential to keep in mind as we talk about sanctification — the process of our becoming holy. Before we get too far down the road with the derivative holiness of the creature, let’s tune into the original holiness of the Creator.

The holiness of God, says R.C. Sproul in his classic book, is “one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with. It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity” (12).

Holiness Carries Us to the Brink

In trying to define the almost indefinable, John Piper draws in an illustration from the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There Reepicheep, the gallant mouse, sails to the end of the world in his little coracle. Says Piper, “The word ‘holy’ is the little boat in which we reach the world’s end in the ocean of language.”

The possibilities of language to carry the meaning of God eventually run out and spill over the edge of the world into a vast unknown. “Holiness” carries us to the brink, and from there on, the experience of God is beyond words.

The reason I say this is that every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. . . . The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. Sui generis. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But then you have said no more than that he is God.

. . . God is the absolute reality beyond which is only more of God. When asked for his name in Exodus 3:14, he said, “I am who I am.” His being and his character are utterly undetermined by anything outside himself. He is not holy because he keeps the rules. He wrote the rules! God is not holy because he keeps the law. The law is holy because it reveals God. God is absolute. Everything else is derivative.

God’s Utterly Unique Divine Essence

Having set the table, Piper then asks, What is the holiness of God? Before venturing a definition, he bids us listen to three texts.

1 Samuel 2:2: “There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you”

Isaiah 40:25: “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One.”

Hosea 11:9: “I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst.”

He draws it together with this explanation:

In the end, God is holy in that he is God and not man. . . . He is incomparable. His holiness is his utterly unique divine essence. It determines all that he is and does and is determined by no one.

His holiness is what he is as God which no one else is or ever will be. Call it his majesty, his divinity, his greatness, his value as the pearl of great price.

In the end, language runs out. In the word “holy,” we have sailed to the world's end in the utter silence of reverence and wonder and awe. There may yet be more to know of God, but that will be beyond words.

Once we’ve stood in utter silence, captured by his god-ness, speechless with wonder and awe, filled with reverence and unmatched admiration for our Creator and Redeemer, then we’re ready to talk about holiness in the created and redeemed. And only then.

How mind-numbing is it that this holy God not only stoops to pardon our sin, but also empowers us to share in his holiness? True to the word holy, it’s a reality that carries us beyond words.


Quotations above from the sermon “Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts”.

David Mathis is a seminar speaker at our National Conference on the topic "Mission and Disciplemaking." Visit the event page to learn more or register.

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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.