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Just Thinking

I Was Just Thinking … About Goodness and Holiness

In the midst of this series on goodness I thought it might be helpful to indicate the connections between God’s goodness and other qualities we associate with him. The following paragraphs, from some correspondence with a friend, provide some insights into these relationships that have been helpful to me:

You asked if I would clarify the concept of “worth” in my assertion about the nature of God’s holiness: “To say that God is holy is to say that he has infinite, unexcelled and irreplaceable worth.” So here goes.

I think we should connect God’s desire to serve people with his worth, but not equate the two ideas. When we say God is “holy,” we are using this term to communicate something about the quality of the results of all that he does to maintain himself as God. In his wisdom, by his power, he orders his existence to be such that he is valuable to himself. Thus, as he contemplates himself, he experiences great joy in what he sees; the name for this kind of delight is “love”—a love so great that we can say, “God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).

“Grace” is the term we use to indicate the actual movement/working of God from his joy/love in himself toward our joy in him by working on our behalf (“love is from God … for God is love;” 1 John 4:7–8). When God puts his infinite value to work on behalf of his creatures, we call it “goodness;” or we say that God “is good,” meaning that what God does is usefully beneficial to those who experience it. We use the term “glory” to indicate how wonderful this goodness is (see Exodus 33:19 & 22, where Moses experienced this connection when Yahweh revealed himself to him).

So, to be holy is to have an exceedingly great potential for being good for someone/thing. This fits with Isaiah’s declaration (51 times) that God is the “holy one of Israel,” meaning that he sets himself up to be their source of good; not just “a” source of good, but the best/only possible one. So, it makes sense when he says we must “treat [him] as holy” (Numbers 20:14); and that he will prove/show himself to be holy by doing more good for us than anyone else can (Isaiah 5:16; Ezekiel 36:43)—indeed, this is why the arguments of Exodus 20:1 and Leviticus 19:2, 36 for our obedience are grounded in his holiness as expressed by the extraordinary work he has done for us. And this understanding certainly seems to fit with Hebrews’ promise of “obtaining a share in the holiness of God,” if, like Jesus, we are willing to give up everything else in this life that holds promise of joy. And it fits with the idea of purity that often accompanies holiness language; for pure things are much more capable of being beneficial than impure (cf. Romans 9:21; 2 Timothy 2:20–21).

As I said earlier, the language convention that connects the joy of God to the motivation for doing good to his creatures is “love.” But I’m not aware of any texts which directly state this. However, the idea that love is the affection that moves God to prove himself holy by graciously doing good in such a way that we glory/boast in what he has done seems to me to be a helpful way of associating all of concepts.

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