Over the years, and especially with the advent of social media, I have come to realize that no matter what I say, there is always going to be someone somewhere who will take issue with it. I find this to be true even with the simple, biblical declaration that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
When I affirm that God is love, as I often do because I think it is one of the most profound truths of Scripture, there are, curiously, Christians who will respond with something like, “Yeah, but God is also holy” — as if God’s love and holiness are in some sort of tension or competition, or that God’s love needs to be counter-balanced by his holiness. That seems to me a poor theology.
The Bible says that God is love. It also says that God is holy. Now, notice that, grammatically, love is a “noun” but “holy” is an adjective. As you might recall, an adjective describes or modifies a noun. So, “God is love” is a different kind of statement than “God is holy.” The Bible does not simply say that God is loving — that would be an adjectival statement — but rather, God is love. Love is not simply something God does. Nor is love merely an attribute of God, a quality God has. It goes deeper than that. “God is love” tells us what God is in his very nature. Love is fundamental to his being.
Holiness is about the otherness of God, the otherness of his nature and attributes. God is holy in that he is entirely unique and there is no other being like him in all the universe. The psalm writer declares, “For you, LORD, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Psalm 97:9).
Love is what God is by nature, fundamental to his being in a way that the word “holy” can only describe. It is quite correct to speak of God’s “holy love,” and the word “holy” tells us something important about the love of God — the love God is — that it is unique, set apart, surpassing all other love. It is also quite correct to speak of God’s “loving holiness,” where “loving” is the adjective that describes the holiness of God.
But whether we speak of God’s “holy love” or his “loving holiness,” we are essentially saying the same thing. There is no tension whatsoever between the love of God and the holiness of God. The love of God does not pose any sort of threat or problem to the holiness of God. Nor is the holiness of God a throttle that keeps the love of God from being too extravagant. Indeed, it is the utter lavishness of God’s love that makes it so holy, so totally unlike anything else in the universe.
Tell me about the unbridled love of God, and I will tell you about the holiness of God. For it is the unbridled love of God that is holy. Any time we feel like we must put limits to it in the name of God’s holiness, we are actually denying God’s holiness and have failed to understand either God’s love or his holiness — likely both.