June 2, 2014 Broadcast

The Holiness of God

A Message by Steven Lawson

To many people today, holiness is a foreign concept. For the authors of Scripture, however, holiness is one of God’s most prominent attributes. It denotes both His separation from creation as the infinitely superior One and His absolute moral purity. In this lesson, Dr. Lawson explains what it means to affirm that God is holy, and how an understanding of this truth affects how we approach the living God and live before Him in humble reverence.

From the series: The Attributes of God

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Responding to a Holy God

  2. devotional

    The Holiness of God

  3. article

    Strange Fire

Responding to a Holy God

J.C. Poole

One of the things that I’ve noticed over time is that our worship has changed. Change can be good or bad. It seems that our worship has turned into more of a spectacle or entertainment production. I enjoy entertainment, but I think that if it is replacing worship, then it is self-serving and ungodly. The reason more entertainment exists lies in our lack of repentance. We know that apart from Christ we can’t relate to God. But does this mean we no longer need to repent? In 2 Chronicles 7:14 we read, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Since Adam, our response to God usually isn’t to humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways. We are responding to a holy, seeking, caring God in pretty much the same way Adam did — running, hiding, and blaming others for our sins. Martin Luther notes two elements of true repentance. The first element is the recognition of sin or the fear of God. The second element is the recognition of grace. King David is a good example of both a great man of God and a sinful man. He was painfully aware of his own sin. He was conceived in sin as we all are since the first Adam. He knew that he needed a “washing” (Ps. 51:2) and a “purging” (v. 7) in order to be forgiven before a holy God: “Have mercy on me.” He asked God to create in him a clean heart (v. 10). He knew that he had sinned against God in a grevious way.

In today’s world, it’s all about “me.” We have lost the focus that we are God’s creation — created in His image to bring glory to Him. We need to refocus our thinking that we, like David, have been conceived in sin and regularly sin against God. We need the brokenness before God that David poured out in Psalm 51. Our worship can be energized through our repentance as David proclaims in Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” We sin easily and naturally, but repenting in a God-centered manner is foreign to us. May we be ever-mindful, as David was, of our sin nature and our propensity to sin before a holy God. May we also be truly penitent and broken when we do sin, and may we pray as David prayed in Psalm 86:5: “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.”

The Holiness of God

Correctly understanding the depth of human sin will give us a more accurate understanding of how far we have fallen in Adam, and, therefore, also the original dignity and position that God made us to possess as His image-bearers. But we cannot understand the depth of humanity's evil until we know something of the backdrop against which our sin stands out. We are talking, of course, about the perfect holiness of the Lord, and today's passage is one of the clearest presentations of this divine attribute in all of Scripture.

Isaiah's call to ministry is well known, and it is remarkable for what it says about Isaiah and all other human beings. Without a doubt, the prophet was one of the most righteous and holy men in all of Judah, for the prophets were generally known for their piety and devotion to our Creator. Consequently, one might expect Isaiah to be confident in the presence of God and for the Lord to praise His servant for His goodness. Yet that is not what happened when Isaiah met Yahweh "in the year that King Uzziah died" (Isa. 6:1). Confronted with a vision of God on His throne, Isaiah could only proclaim an oracle of woe upon himself (v. 5). An oracle of woe was the worst prophecy that could be given of a nation or an individuals, and here Isaiah applies it to himself for his uncleanness (v. 5). As holy as Isaiah might have been in comparison to the other Judahites in his day, he was absolutely filthy in comparison to the Lord God Almighty.

The Lord does not respond to Isaiah's woe by telling him that he really was not that bad or that he was being melodramatic. Instead, God atones for the prophet's sin (vv. 6–7). That is the only way any sinner can survive in the presence of the most holy Creator. This is true even for those who have not sinned heinously. Isaiah was not a murderer or adulterer. He was not guilty of idolatry. He only possessed "unclean lips," which from a human perspective does not seem all that bad. That is especially true in the coarse and vulgar culture of our own day. But Isaiah knew that the standard creatures must meet to be righteous before God is perfection. Even one slip of the tongue was enough to require atonement.

The Lord bestowed His image upon humanity, so we were originally created holy and upright. Because even the best of us now lacks this holiness and in Adam hates God, we cannot stand before Him unafraid unless He saves us. The gospel tells us that He has provided salvation for His people, and our study of Romans will demonstrate how this is so.

Strange Fire

R.C. Sproul

There is an incident in the biblical record that causes abiding consternation for many of God's people. It is the story of how two of the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, were slain suddenly by God.

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said: 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" And Aaron held his peace. (Lev. 10:1–3)

Aaron, of course, was the older brother of Moses and the first high priest of Israel. God had consecrated Aaron and his sons to the holy vocation of the priesthood. It was in the context of their priestly service that two of Aaron's four sons, Nadab and Abihu, each got a censer—a kind of vessel that was used in antiquity to contain the incense that was burned as an offering before God—put fire in them, put incense on them, and offered what the book of Leviticus calls "unauthorized fire."

What is "unauthorized fire," or, as it is rendered in other translations, "profane fire" or "strange fire"? We use the word profane to refer to that which is less than holy, but the word profane comes from the Latin profanus, which literally means "outside the temple." So, in a literal sense, Moses, as the author of Leviticus, is saying that the fire that Nadab and Abihu introduced to the altar had not been purified or consecrated. For that, God took their lives.

On the surface, it seems that this was cruel and unusual punishment. These young priests clearly violated some prescription that God had set forth for the offering of incense in the holy place, but it may have been no more than a prank or a mischievous innovation. Was it really necessary for God to rebuke their action so decisively?

To understand this incident more fully, we have to go back to the book of Exodus. Just before God gave His Ten Commandments, He told Moses that He soon would come to him in a thick cloud so that the people might hear Him speaking and believe (19:9). To prepare for that stupendous vision, God commanded the people to consecrate themselves (v. 10). He also set strict borders around Mount Sinai, saying that whoever touched the mountain would die (v. 12). When God came, "there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled" (v. 16). God called Moses to ascend the mountain, but before revealing His law, God sent Moses back down the mountain to repeat and expand the warning. He said:

Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the LORD to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the LORD consecrate themselves, lest the LORD break out against them. (vv. 21–22)

So, at the very formation of the nation of Israel, God laid down the fundamental laws of consecration for the priests. He warned them that if they were not consecrated or if they violated their consecration, He would "break out" against them. Nadab and Abihu violated the holy law of the priesthood. When they did so, God killed them, reminding Israel of the sanctity of His presence. That is why Moses reminded Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said: 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" When he heard this, Aaron "held his peace." Even amid his grief, he knew his sons had committed a grave offense against Israel's holy God.

One aspect of the modern church that most saddens and concerns me is that believers are no longer encouraged to have a healthy fear of God. We seem to assume that the fear of the Lord is something that belonged to the Old Testament period and is not to be a part of the life of the Christian. But fear of God involves not simply a trembling before His wrath, but a sense of reverence and awe because of His glorious holiness.

Even though we are living on the finished side of the cross, the fear of the Lord is still the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10a). God is still a consuming fire, a jealous God (Deut. 4:24). When we come into His presence, we are to come as children, as those who have been reconciled, but there is to be a godly fear inspired by respect for the One with whom we are dealing.

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