Thinking About Holiness
Paul David Tripp on God’s holiness:
The topic of holiness is not one many Christians gravitate towards. Yet it is perhaps the key feature of the God we serve, and the attribute of God we most need to understand and aim for. And millions of words have been written on this topic already.
So can anything new and important still be said about this matter? Well, perhaps not so much new, but important things can still be said about all this nonetheless. One option is a recent volume by Paul David Tripp: Do You Believe? (Crossway, 2021).
When I picked up a copy this afternoon I told those I was with that I really do not need another systematic theology. I have entire bookcases full of them. But I knew about the author and I heard good things about the book, so I was happy to grab a copy of it.
While there are 24 chapters in the book, he covers only 12 key Christian doctrines. That is because he spends one chapter looking at the theological and biblical material of each doctrine, but then he adds a second chapter to each one, applying it to everyday life.
He says this about what the book seeks to achieve: “My intention is not to give you an exhaustive systematic theology with applicatory insights, but rather to look at twelve cardinal gospel doctrines and ask, ‘What does it look like to live as an individual, citizen, parent, spouse, or child in light of these doctrines?’”
So he has chapters on things like God, Scripture, creation, sin, justification, glorification and the like. One pair of chapters deals with the holiness of God. It is those two chapters I want to address here, mainly in the form of quotations.
In his chapter on the doctrine of divine holiness he says this:
What does it mean to declare, as the seraph did, that God is holy? Our word for holiness comes from the Hebrew word, qadowsh, which means “to cut.” First, to be holy means to be cut off, or separate, from everything else. It is to be in a class of your own, distinct from anything else that has ever existed or will ever exist. God is uniquely separate and different. There is no comparing to God. We can’t say God is like x, because there is nothing in all the universe that he is like.
God’s holiness is not an aspect of what He is. No, God’s holiness is the essence of what he is. If you were to ask, “How is the holiness of God revealed?” the only right answer is, “In everything he does.” Everything God thinks, desires, speaks, and does is utterly holy in every way. He 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.; it is what he is.
The holiness of God determines 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.
In his chapter on application he offers nine realities that we must cling to:
1. The holiness of God is to be at the center of how you make sense of life.
2. The holiness of God provides the only reliable means of knowing ourselves.
3. The holiness of God confronts us with the sinfulness of sin.
4. The holiness of God is meant to be the ultimate quest of our lives.
5. The glory of God’s holiness propels us to give ourselves to his mission of redeeming grace.
6. The holiness of God is the reason we’ll never outgrow God’s grace.
7. Everything longs for a world ruled by a holy God.
8. True meaning and purpose are found in the holiness of God.
9. Holiness is the purpose of all biblical and theological study.
Let me look at two of these points. As to point one, he says this in part about how everything around us is bent on driving us away from holiness – even thinking about holiness:
The culture around us, along with the systems and institutions of that culture, has abandoned the category of holiness. You see, when you deny that this God, the Holy One, exists, then you do not sense a need for holiness of any kind. You never hear politicians, educators, social media influencers, cultural critics, or entertainment icons use this category. It has no purpose or meaning to them. The people who write the dramas we stream don’t have this category influencing what they write, how they think about right and wrong, or the way they present the moral character of a character. As a culture, we have philosophically walked away from holy. Holy is not in our definition of meaning and purpose. Holy doesn’t enter into our concept of success. Holy is not seen as something to shape your marriage and guide your parenting. Holy never is discussed when people are talking about plans for their careers. Holy is viewed as a dusty religious concept with little practical meaning, held on to by a shrinking minority. Almost everyone wants justice, mercy, peace, forgiveness, and love, but they can exist in our lives only if the one in control is holy. Why? Because even though we have abandoned this truth, God has hardwired in all of us a hunger for what holiness alone can produce. But if you look around and listen, you will discover that in the practical scheme of things holy simply doesn’t matter, and for many, it doesn’t exist.
He begins point four with these words:
What are you living for? What do you want in life? Hunger for what drives you? What gives you an unshakable sense of purpose? What keeps you working, pressing on, and continuing? What thing do you value more than anything else? What is the big reason behind everything you do? Why do you do what you do in the way that you do it? Why do you do what you do as a friend, student, worker, boss, parent, spouse, neighbor, citizen, or member of the body of Christ? What in the world are you running after?
Tripp concludes the chapter as follows:
This brief study of the holiness of God should leave us weeping and rejoicing at the same time. If you stand before the throne of our perfectly holy God, you will have reason for both. I am persuaded this is why we are called to both of these responses in Scripture and why they are both important pieces of a spiritually healthy life. God’s word calls us to mourn, actually pronouncing blessing on those who do (Matt. 5:4). How could you stand before the holiness of God and not weep at the condition of your own heart and the sin everywhere in your world? God’s word also calls us to rejoice (1 Thess. 5:16-18). When we gaze upon the holiness of God, we have reason to rejoice. How unshakable is your joy, when you wake up each day knowing that your world is under the rule of one who is perfectly holy in every way, all of the time, and that this Holy One is your Father by grace?
So, weep! Your Lord is holy. Don’t stop rejoicing! Your Lord is holy. Live the life of a sad celebrant. Mourn the ways that you are far from the holy goal God has set for you, while you rejoice in the potential you now have to be what you could never have dreamed of being if this Holy One had not met you with his heart-and life-transforming grace. May your tears mix with joy until you are on the other side with him and like him forever and ever.
This is a very useful and encouraging book indeed. Please grab a copy and learn more about this wonderful God that we serve, and how he makes a very practical difference in our lives.