May 29, 2024

The Thrice-Holy One

Sinclair Ferguson
The Thrice-Holy One

What do we mean when we talk about the holiness of God? Today, Sinclair Ferguson reflects on the characteristic of God that may be most difficult for us to understand and yet is so essential to knowing who He is.


This week on Things Unseen, we’ve been trying to think together about God and about His attributes, and we’ve been reminding ourselves really of what theologians sometimes call the Creator-creature distinction: He is God, and we are not.

I’ve always remembered our principal classics master in high school telling us that when a Roman general was given a triumph after a great victory and then rode into Rome with his troops and the booty from the victory and the prisoners following behind, they always put a slave in the chariot beside him who would say repeatedly the two words homo es—you’re only a man. You maybe remember that Paul actually says that to someone who was arguing back with God because he couldn’t understand what God was doing: “Who do you think you are, O man?”

And when we speak about the infinite greatness of God—the fact that He’s far, far beyond us, far beyond our being, far beyond our understanding—we have this tendency, I think, birthed in the garden of Eden, to try to bring Him down to our size so that we can think of Him basically as somebody just like us, perhaps a little bit bigger—and we want to be that big. But God isn’t like that. He’s the infinite One.

Incidentally, this is why Christian doctrine, Christian theology, and perhaps especially the doctrine of God, is so very important. Its beauty lies in this: by instructing us about Him, it humbles us. And in humbling us before God, it can then exalt us into His presence so that we develop an increased sense of wonder that we can speak of Him and even speak to Him because we know Him. Our sense of privilege depends on our sense of His greatness.

But what do we know about God? Well, if you’ve had any exposure to Ligonier’s ministry, you’ll know that its purpose is to make God known in all His holiness. God is holy. Indeed, both in the Old and New Testaments, we hear heavenly creatures praise Him as thrice holy, intensely holy—holy, holy, holy to the ultimate power, as it were.

But what do we mean when we speak about the holiness of God? Well, we often and rightly say that the word holy in the Bible means something like “separate” or “cut off from,” although you’d probably be surprised at just how much discussion there has been among scholars about the derivation of the word holy. But it’s certainly true that at least one major implication of the word is the idea of separation from sin. Remember Habakkuk’s words? “God is of purer eyes than to behold inequity.” We’re so used to sin that we find holiness difficult to imagine.

But let me put it this way. We used to live in a part of the United States that was really hot in the summer months. I maybe felt it more because I’d spent the first thirty years of my life in a country where it was a heat wave if the temperature got above fifty or sixty degrees Fahrenheit. Usually, I didn’t really notice the color of grass in the United States until I was coming in to land in a Scottish airport and looked out the window and felt that the deep, deep greenness of the green grass was so dense it was pulling out my eyeballs. The grass I’d left behind was a kind of brownish shade of green, but this was greenest green. It was green to the power three. It was green, green, green. It was green without brown, green separated from all brown.

And in a way, God’s holiness is like that. It’s like light that never varies, light without any darkness, unimaginably bright light, light brighter than the sun—deep, intense, bright light. That’s the reason Malachi says that when God appears, no sinner can stand the day of His coming. God’s holiness is intense holiness, meaning that His presence is unbearable to anything that’s even tinged, never mind deeply tainted with sin.

I think that’s also why when Isaiah, who was surely a holy prophet, when Isaiah encountered the Holy God, he felt he was actually disintegrating. Don’t you think there’s something telling about the fact that the man who expresses the most exalted views of God of any of the prophets is the man who felt himself coming apart in the presence of God?

What’s my point today? It’s this: God’s holiness is overwhelming. In His presence, we feel we are disintegrating. And yet often that’s the first step to coming to know who He really is, that He really is God. Well, that’s some food for thought for today, but we’ll need to keep thinking about that tomorrow too, and I hope you’ll join us then.