The Heart of It All: The Nature and Character of God

September 13, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

God’s Holiness

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(For an introduction and explanation regarding this series overall, please see The Heart of It All: Introduction.)

God possesses a different mode of being than all other beings. Only He is uncreated and infinite; everything else is created and finite,[1] so He is different from all created things. The theological word for this is God’s transcendence, which means He exists apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe. Transcendence expresses that His being is of a higher quality than ours, which is what you would expect of a Creator as compared to His creation.[2] The biblical term for this difference, for the “otherness” of God, is holy.

The Meaning of Holiness

The Hebrew word qodesh (pronounced kah desh), which is translated as “holy,” and the linguistic family of words from the same origin, such as qadas and qados, all imply apartness, sacredness, separateness, holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that He is set apart, distinct, and “wholly other” than everything else.

God’s holiness, in relation to His essential being, stands for everything in God that makes Him different and greater than we are. It represents God’s divinity. God’s holiness is the essential difference between God and man. God alone is God; there is none like Him. He is sacred. He is the Creator, man is the creature. He is superior to man in every way. He is divine. As one author says, “holiness is the Godness of God.”[3]

Holiness is also seen as a moral attribute of God. Morally, God is perfect, which also sets Him completely apart from sinful man. Although the holiness of God sets Him apart from humanity both essentially and morally, holiness is an attribute that, like some of the other attributes of God, we can share in to a small degree. Any holiness which we may have, either in being set apart by God and consecrated to Him, or in our acting morally, is only a wisp of a shadow of the holiness of God. God’s holiness is infinitely superior. The difference is that we may do holy acts, but God is Holiness.

I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst.[4]

Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy.[5]

God’s holiness denotes His supreme majesty, His awesomeness, that He is supremely exalted over all creatures.

Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?[6]

Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place.”[7]

In Isaiah’s vision of God in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, he spoke of the holiness of God:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!”[8]

As you probably noticed in that verse, God is said to be “Holy, holy, holy.” Christian minister and lecturer Timothy Keller commented that in the Old Testament Hebrew, magnitude is conveyed through the repetition of a word.

For example, in Genesis 14:10 (KJV), it says:

The vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain.

Was full of slimepits” is a translation of “slimepit, slimepit.” In the original Hebrew, the usage of the double slimepit was meant to show magnitude—that there were many slimepits.

The same double wording is used to describe the purity of the vessels of gold, as shown in the King James Version of 2 Kings 25:15:

The firepans, and the bowls, and such things as were of gold, in gold, and of silver, in silver, the captain of the guard took away.

The same verse is translated in the NAU as:

The captain of the guard also took away the firepans and the basins, what was fine gold and what was fine silver.

In Hebrew, the term used was “gold gold,” showing its superior quality. Those are some examples of how the magnitude, or the superlative quality of something, is sometimes expressed within the Old Testament by the doubling of words.

In this case, when it comes to God’s holiness, the word is trebled. Nowhere else in the Old Testament Hebrew is there any quality which has a triple repetition. Here God is depicted as so holy that it is repeated three times. God isn’t just holy, or holy holy. He’s holy holy holy. He is in a category beyond all categories.[9]

God’s Incomparable Nature

God’s holiness is infinitely holy. It is holiness of the highest degree. It is superlative. There is no other holiness like it. This is not only true of God’s holiness, but of all the attributes of God. God’s love is love of the highest degree. His wisdom, knowledge, power—every quality of God—is superlative. There is nothing that compares with it. While we, as humans, can have a modicum of some of these qualities, since we are made in God’s image, ours can never compare to the magnitude or the infinity of God’s qualities. He is pure love, pure power. He alone is holy, holy, holy.

There is none holy like the Lord; there is none besides You; there is no rock like our God.[10]

Throughout the Bible, other things besides God are called holy, meaning that they are “set apart,” or taken out of their ordinary place—dedicated and sanctified and used in service to God. For example, holy ground was holy because of God’s presence. The temple was holy because it was used for God’s worship. Inside the temple there was the Holy Place, which only the priests were allowed to enter, and only after they had washed their hands and feet. Separated from the Holy Place by a thick veil was the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place, which only the high priest could enter, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Sabbath day was holy, as it was set aside as a day of rest in remembrance of God. The children of Israel were called a “holy nation,” as God had separated them from others by His covenant with them.

Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”[11]

We shall be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, the holiness of Your temple![12]

You shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place.[13]

There was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies.[14]

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.[15]

People were called holy as well, both in the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament the Greek word for holy was hagios, which is defined as most holy thing, a saint.

[Moses] said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is His, and who is holy, and will bring him near to Him. The one whom He chooses He will bring near to Him.”[16]

If anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.[17]

An overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.[18]

God’s Goodness and Purity

In addition to the way God is “wholly other” in His essence and being (ontologically), He is also separate and distinct in His ethical and moral nature. He transcends all that He has made in His uprightness. God is morally perfect in character and action. He is pure and righteous; He has no evil desires, motives, thoughts, words, or acts. He is eternally and unchangeably holy.[19] He has divine purity with no taint of anything impure. As such, God is set apart from humankind’s sinfulness.

In the Old Testament the Israelites, both the priests and the people, were instructed to follow many rites and ceremonies of purification. Anything that defiled a person—making them impure or unclean either outwardly or inwardly—kept them from approaching God and His dwelling place, the tabernacle or temple. Thus God told them to perform these ceremonies to cleanse themselves. This was a demonstration that the Holy One was separated from all that is not holy.

Because God is pure holiness itself, He is separate from all moral evil and sin. He can have no communion with sin. It is an offense to His very nature.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrong.[20]

You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; no evil dwells with You.[21]

Far be it from God that He should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that He should do wrong.[22]

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He himself tempts no one.[23]

Because of God’s inherent holiness, He cannot abide sin; yet all humans sin. As will be seen in further articles, as a result of God’s perfect righteousness and justice, there is, and must be, retribution and punishment for sin. However, because God is also supremely loving and merciful, He designed the plan of redemption which required Jesus’ incarnation, His sinless life, and the sacrifice of His life on the cross for the sins of humankind—all of which satisfies the righteousness and justice of God, as will be further explained in further articles, and which brings reconciliation between God and those who receive Jesus. God did this out of love for us, His creation.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.[24]


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Other versions frequently cited are The New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), The New King James Version (NKJV), and the King James Version (KJV).


Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of the Word of God, Vol.1, Part 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996.

Craig, William Lane. The Doctrine of God. Defenders Series Lecture.

Garrett, Jr., James Leo. Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1. N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth, A Handbook of Christian Belief. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Mueller, John Theodore. Christian Dogmatics, A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Packer, J. I. The Attributes of God 1 and 2. Lecture Series.

[1] Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996. p. 211.

[2] J. I. Packer, Attributes of God, part 2. Lecture 11, Transcendence and Character.

[3] Cottrell, Jack. What the Bible Says About God the Creator. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1996, p. 216.

[4] Hosea 11:9.

[5] Revelation 15:4.

[6] Exodus 15:11.

[7] Isaiah 57:15.

[8] Isaiah 6:1–3.

[9] Keller, Timothy. The Gospel and Your Self. Redeemer Presbyterian Church. 2005.

[10] 1 Samuel 2:2.

[11] Exodus 3:3–5.

[12] Psalm 65:4.

[13] Exodus 26:33–34.

[14] Hebrews 9:2–3 NAU.

[15] Exodus 20:8–10.

[16] Numbers 16:5.

[17] 2 Timothy 2:21.

[18] Titus 1:7–8.

[19] Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. Bk. 1. p. 233.

[20] Habakkuk 1:13 NIV.

[21] Psalm 5:4 NAU.

[22] Job 34:10.

[23] James 1:13.

[24] John 3:16.