If ever there was a religious sounding word, it's holy. Regardless of the context, most people probably hear it and think of cathedrals, stained glass, candlelight, and the sound of monks chanting. Step outside, and holiness evokes a desert landscape wandered by bearded men in sandals.
Most of the time, our understanding of God's holiness makes Him seem unapproachable, even unpleasant. He's up there, we're down here, and all we can do is hope He grades on a curve. The prophet Isaiah's vision of God fits that profile: he saw the Lord "high and lifted up," His robe spread throughout the temple, with six-winged seraphim crying out, "Holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:1, 3). Isaiah's reaction was fitting: he cried out, "Woe is me, for I am undone!" (v. 5).
The apostle John's vision of the same awe-inspiring scene in Revelation 4 offers a few more details but echoes the same proclamation from the angels: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" (v. 8). Though we might say that holiness is God's most unpopular attribute, it is His most noteworthy one to the heavenly hosts, worth the emphasis of triple repetition.
Heaven's cry is not "love, love, love" or "grace, grace, grace." It isn't "wrath, wrath, wrath" or "justice, justice, justice." Those are all key aspects of God's character and nature, but His only attribute that merits such a superlative highlighting is His holiness. The Bible calls God holy over 630 times. His holiness separates Him from all of His creation. There is no one like Him, perfect in all His ways. And as Isaiah discovered, His perfection magnifies our imperfection.
But Isaiah also discovered that God is not aloof in His holiness. While Isaiah lamented his "unclean lips" (v. 5), an angel touched his corrupt human mouth with a live coal from the altar. It was a symbolic gesture of purification, and a necessary one, since God's holiness cannot abide the presence of unholiness. It also pointed to the ultimate cleansing that God would provide through Jesus Christ.
That leads us to an important truth about God's holiness: He doesn't destroy the unholy but declares us holy through the blood of Christ. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18). In other words, God's holiness includes paying the price required to allow us into His presence. His holiness informs His love, grace, and mercy, and it satisfies His justice and wrath.
Like Isaiah, when we have the humility to recognize the gulf between us and God, we will respond with repentance and gratitude. We'll embrace what God has done for us in Christ, and the smoke surrounding God's holiness will clear: we'll see that His holiness makes our salvation possible, empowers us with purpose, and guides us to wholeness.
A relationship with God is transformative; He loves us the way we are, but He loves us so much He won't leave us that way. This is where our sanctification—growing in holiness—comes into play. When you grow in holiness, you're after not perfection but pursuit. You want to pursue the God who pursued you, and you want to let others know that His holiness leads to our wholeness. And just like the angels in heaven who never tire of God's holiness, you'll come to a place where you're captivated by His perfection, driven to glorify Him in all things.