My mother used to scold me as a child (and sometimes still does!) for saying things like: holy cow, holy crap, and yes, even holy muffins! She would remind me that God’s creatures sit before the throne of God day and night declaring: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty! (Rev. 4:8) I confess my flippant use of the word holy to be a bad habit, that typically I am just not all that concerned about.
I am currently reading Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul and I just so happen to be in the chapter titled Holy, Holy, Holy. In this chapter, Sproul reminds the reader that of all the attributes of God attributed to Him in Scripture the only one that is repeated three times consecutively is His holiness. Sorry American Christian, it is not His love. Sorry fire and brimstone preacher, it is not His wrath. Those attributes are true of Him but it is His holiness that stands alone in this magnified wording in the Scriptures.
We see the splendor of God’s holiness and what it does to sinful man when he stands before our Holy God in Isaiah 6. At the opening of this chapter, Isaiah has a vision where he is before the Lord on His throne. The Seraphim are there covering their faces and their feet and one calls out “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is filled with His glory.” The very foundations of the threshold trembled at that declaration. All that Isaiah could declare was “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Standing before the holiness of God, Isaiah saw himself for what he was. He was a sinful man. He was desperate before for the Holy God revealed before him. The phrase “I am ruined” used to be translated “I am undone.” This has the implication of being torn apart. It pictures a man whose very fabric of existence is shattering before the LORD of hosts.
What hope does such a man have? Surely in such a state he would desire to hide from the presence of the Lord as Adam and Eve did when they came to discover their sinfulness. (Gen. 3:8) An individual in that state has only one hope. That hope is to be made clean by God himself, to have His sinfulness removed. This is exactly what God does. One of the seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches his lips and says that Isaiah’s “iniquity is taken away” and his “sin is forgiven.”
Immediately after this God, still as holy as ever, asks whom He shall send. Now picture this contrast of Isaiah who moments ago was broken and trembling before the throne and now has the confidence to say “Here am I. Send me!” Thank God that His holy throne is a throne of grace. (Hebrews 4:16) It is only after forgiveness, it is only after being made clean from the altar of God, that Isaiah can serve the true Holy God.
Many Christians, myself included, can struggle at times with the Bible’s teachings on Hell. I find the imagery of passages like this helpful. How pitiful is the average Christians understanding of God’s holiness. To be in front of Him who is perfectly holy from everlasting to everlasting is unbearable to a sinner. Unless one has been made clean, they will have no desire to remain in the presence of God. Though I hold that Hell is clearly a punishment, I also believe that in a sense sinners not washed in the blood of the Lamb will be having their desire granted because to be absent from His presence is the definition of Hell. (II Thess. 1:9) This is why C.S. Lewis can write that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside.
A higher understanding of God’s holiness creates a higher appreciation of the Cross. When we get a glimpse of His glory, we can only wonder at the depth of the atonement that has been given to us in Christ. To be able to stand before God is a marvelous fruit of the majestic work of Christ. May meditating on the holiness of God wake up the Church to magnify Him with their lives and to marvel at His grace. I believe my mother was on to something.