More than a few Christians struggle in their relationship with God because they don’t understand God’s holiness. What does it mean that God is holy? Is his holiness comparable to our own definitions of holiness? Is his holiness an attribute we’re born with, a characteristic that can be developed, or something that grows over time like when an acorn grows into a mighty oak tree?
How we define holiness will affect our approach to God. We will treat him like we treat any religious holy man. But in this way, we end up telling God what his holiness is like rather than allowing him to tell us what it means that he is holy. We want to describe God’s holiness the way we want him to be for us, and not the way he would have us understand his holiness.
We cannot speak any other way about God than in human terms, but when we read the Bible, we find that the psalmist approaches the Lord on his terms. The psalmist lets God be God and define himself. He does not tell God in Psalm 90, for example, “This is what I think a holy and just God should be.” Instead, he recognizes that God’s word expresses that God is holy, and in that holiness, God expects everyone else to be holy too.
God’s word that declares us to be God’s people, without any worthiness or merit in us, makes us holy, people of God, Christians.
When the psalmist asks God to let his face shine on him, he wants to receive the holiness of the Lord. It’s not that he believes he deserves it but that he needs what the Lord has. When God shines on him through his word, the psalmist can shine in his life for the Lord. In Psalm 119:30, the psalmist writes, “The entrance of your word gives light, he gives understanding to the humbled” (translation mine). Without God’s word, no one can stand in the presence of the most holy God, who insists that we be holy just as he is holy. But, when God speaks his word, his holy face shines on us, and he reveals what he does for us, and then we shine the present.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is the God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
God’s Word, Christ, endured the pain of our sin on the cross. As a result, we, who were not God’s people, are declared to be a holy nation called out of darkness into his marvelous light (2 Pet 2:9-10). In Christ, through faith, we hear this declaration over and over again at the end of every worship service when God’s preacher proclaims, “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26). God’s holiness shines through his word, and that word declares to us that we are holy also for Christ’s sake.
That’s what holiness means, for God and then us. In Christ Jesus, we who were not God’s people are now declared God’s people through Jesus’ bloody suffering and death for our sins. God’s word that declares us to be God’s people, without any worthiness or merit in us, makes us holy, people of God, Christians.