I think the puritans do such a better job of answering this question: What is holiness? Their answer may surprise you. We often think of the Puritans as stuffy, no-fun-allowed sort of folk. That’s unfortunate. Surely some of them were that way, just like some of us are, but the best Puritans actually made pleasure and joy central to our faith. How they answer a question like “What is Holiness?” shows us a little of this.
Before I give you Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Goodwin’s answers, I want to ask how many people today would answer it. What is holiness? Is it primarily about whether and how much we sin? Is it about ticking all the “thou shalt not” boxes? What about God…what does it mean that He is holy? Does it, primarily, mean that he can’t allow those who haven’t checked all those boxes in His presence? I’ve said elsewhere that I often hear people say things like, “God is loving, but he’s also holy,” as if those things are opposites or mutually exclusive. And that’s part of what’s wrong with our understanding of holiness. So, let’s look at a couple of Puritans.
First, Jonathan Edwards. I’m going to invite Mike Reeves to share this as he’s who I first heart it from. Go read his whole article at Desiring God, but here he is on Edwards and God’s holiness.
For the reality is that I am the cold, selfish, vicious one, full of darkness and dirtiness. And God is holy — “set apart” from me — precisely in that he is not like that. He is not set apart from us in priggishness, but by the fact that there are no such ugly traits in him as there are in us.
“God is God,” wrote Edwards, “and distinguished from [that is, set apart from] all other beings, and exalted above ’em, chiefly by his divine beauty” (for the connection between holiness and beauty, see verses like Psalm 96:9).2
God’s holiness, according to Edwards is primarily in His beauty, in His spreading and never changing goodness! He’s not like us in our meanness, in all our ugly thoughts, words, and actions. All the ways we hurt and hate others. Isn’t that so much grander than “not sinning?” Isn’t holiness as beauty just so much more, well, beautiful!!!
Now, Thomas Goodwin answers this question of God’s holiness as well (Vol 7, Book 1, Chapter 3). Here’s what he says:
Matthew 19.17: “There is none good but God,” so therefore holy. He is separate and alone in his holiness in the manner that he is alone in his (good) being. And if he is the only one who is good, then much more is he the only holy one, for holiness is the height and perfection of goodness; it is so for man, and so in God.*
What does that mean? It means that, at His core (in his being), God is good. This is seen before creation ever existed as the Father, Son, and Spirit were in loving communion with one another, John 17 says, sharing glory and loving one another. Before there were laws to give or keep, God was loving and sharing. He was GOOD! His holiness, then, can only be what is core to God. What sets him apart? His being, his nature, which we’ve just seen is loving, beautiful, and good. And that is what sets him apart. As you may know, holy means “set apart.” His spreading goodness is what sets him apart, what differentiates God from us.
Holiness, then, according to these two puritans is beautiful goodness. He’s not hot and cold towards us, he is consistently kind and good. He’s holy. In any day, I’m likely to despise and want ill for those that I should most love (sorry wifey and dear kiddos!), not to mention the random celebrity or Facebook stranger with whom I disagree. Not so with God. He’s holy. He’s good. He’s beautiful.
So, then, the invitation to be holy as God is holy becomes something amazing. It’s now an invitation to share in the very goodness and beauty of God. “Come, child, let me share my love and glory with you. Let’s us experience unbroken, perfect love and fellowship. Come, enjoy all this…that is, be holy like me.”
*I updated the language for clarity. Italics are mine.