The Trinity and the Holiness of God

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The triune being of God shapes some of the words we use about him. It’s worth observing some of the differences the Trinity makes to how we think about God. Through it all, I’ll be turning especially to Jonathan Edwards for help: in this area, as in many areas, he is, I have found, uncannily far-seeing, clear and, yes, helpful. So how does the Trinity brighten and define certain words we use for God?

First up: God’s holiness. “Oh dear!” you might sigh—and I’d understand, for without the Trinity, holiness does have the smell of mothballs about it, the look of a Victorian matron administering castor oil. And much of what purports to be holiness has just that aura about it: all prickliness and prudery. People even say things like, “Yes, God is loving, but he is also holy”—as if holiness is an unloving thing, the cold side of God that stops God from being too loving.

Balderdash! Poppycock! Or at least, it is if you are talking about the holiness of the Father, Son and Spirit. No, said Jonathan Edwards: “Holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ’Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; ’tis a divine beauty.” (Jonathan Edwards, “Sermons and Discourses, 1720-1723,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1957-2008] 10:478)

What is holiness, then? The words used for holiness in the Bible have the basic meaning of being “set apart.” But there our troubles because naturally I think I’m lovely. So if God is “set apart” from me, I assume the problem is with him (and I can do all this in the subtlest, most subconscious way). His holiness looks like a prissy rejection of my happy, healthy loveliness.

Dare I burst my own bubble now? I must. 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” (Edwards, “Religious Affections,” in Works, 2:298 [for the connection between holiness and beauty, see verses like Psalm 96:9]).

Now the holiness of a single-person God would be something quite different. His holiness would be about being set apart away from others. In other words, his holiness would be all about aloof distance. But the holiness of the Father, Son and Spirit is all about love. Given who this God is, it must be. Edwards again: “Both the holiness and happiness of the Godhead consists in this love. As we have already proved, all creature holiness consists essentially and summarily in love to God and love to other creatures; so does the holiness of God consist in his love, especially in the perfect intimate union and love there is between the Father and the Son.” (Edwards, “Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith,” in Works, 21:186, my emphasis.)

The holiness of the triune God is the perfection, beauty and absolute purity of the love there is between the Father and the Son. There is nothing grubby or abusive about the love of this God— and thus he is holy. My love is naturally all perverse and misdirected; but his love is set apart from mine in perfection. And so, the holiness of the triune God does not moderate or cool his love; his holiness is the lucidity and spotlessness of his overflowing love.

It all dramatically affects what it means for the believer to be holy, to be godly—in other words, what it means to be like God. Being like another God would look quite different. If God is a being curved in on himself, then to be like him I should be like that. If Aristotle’s eternally introspective God is God, then plenty of navel-gazing seems to be just what’s called for. For what we think God is like must shape our godliness, and what we think godliness is reveals what we think of God.

So, what, for example, if love and relationship were not central to God’s being? Then they wouldn’t feature for me either as I sought to grow in God-likeness. Forget others. If God is all single and solitary, be a hermit. If God is cruel and haughty, be cruel and haughty. If God is the sort of oversexed, beer-sloshing war-god beloved of the Vikings, be like that. (Though please don’t.)

But with this God, no wonder the two greatest commands are “Love For the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” ‘that is being like this God—sharing the love the Father and have for each other, and then, like them, overflowing with that love to the world. Or look, for example, at Leviticus 19, where the Lord famously says, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). What does holiness look like there? It means not turning to idols but coming to the Lord with proper fellowship offerings (Lev 19:4-8). That is, it means fellowship with the Lord.

And it means not being mean to the poor, not lying, not stealing, and so on (Lev 19:10-16)—that is, it means: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. . . but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:17-18). Love for the Lord, love for neighbor—that is the heart of holiness and how the triune God’s people get to be like him.

The beautiful, loving holiness of this God makes true godliness a warm, attractive, delightful thing. It is not about becoming more mean and pinched, for this God is not mean and pinched. Holiness for God, said Edwards, “is as it were the beauty and sweetness of the divine nature;’ and so “Christians that shine by reflecting the light of the Sun of Righteousness, do shine with the same sort of brightness, the same mild, sweet and pleasant beams.” (Edwards, “Religious Affections,” in Works, 2:201, 347.) And most essentially, to know and enjoy the God who is love means becoming, like him, loving. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8).

Want to learn more about the trinitarian shape of the Christian faith? Get Michael Reeves’ book, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (IVP Academic, 2012). Here, Reeves writes about the centrality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the gospel message, and accessibly spells out some of its practical implications. If you’ve ever wondered what the Trinity has to do with Christian living, or why it matters that God is triune, this book helpfully clarifies the significance of this non-negotiable Christian doctrine.

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Dr. Michael Reeves is President of Union School of Theology in the UK. He oversees the work of Union and teaches in the areas of systematic and historical theology and also on preaching and spiritual formation. He is a local church minister, Director of the European Theologians Network, and speaks and teaches regularly worldwide. Previously he has been Head of Theology for UCCF and an associate minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London. He is married to Bethan, and together they have two daughters, Lucy and Mia.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for sharing this.
    I think the connection of God’s holiness to Beauty is a great remedy to our distortions of holiness and this is certainly brought out as the doctrine of the Trinity is put back into the center.
    As I continue to study Wesley I keep running into his equation of holiness with happiness. It appears to something very different, something a little more wild, than the holiness I was brought up with in the holiness tradition.

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