Holiness is set-apartness. God’s set-apartness is his uniqueness. He is not merely a being, not even the greatest of all beings. He is being itself, the cause of all beings. The holiness of God is expressed by the line in the Shema, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Whatever God is by nature, there is none else like him. Love is something God is by nature; holiness tells us, then, that there is no other love like God.
As I wrote about yesterday, there are some who imagine a tension between the love of God and the holiness of God. “Yes, God is love,” they say, “but he is also holy.” It is that “but,” an adversative, that indicates the distance they see between God’s love and holiness. They do not seem to think that “God is love” can adequately stand by itself, that it must be balanced out by something. “God is love” seems to them to diminish his holiness, so they must quickly correct it — and thereby do they diminish his love. And diminishing his love, they also diminish his holiness.
It has been my experience that what they often mean by God’s holiness is his offendedness at sin. They associate it with wrath — “holy wrath,” they intone — and imagine it an offendedness so great that some sort of payment or penalty or retribution must be rendered to appease him before he can, in love, forgive and embrace. The narrative of the cross then becomes how God so loved the world, he sent his one and only Son to satisfy God’s honor and appease God’s wrathful holiness in our place. But that misunderstands God’s honor, holiness and wrath, mistaking it for the feudalistic sort of justice of medieval times. That is not God’s brand of justice, however. God’s justice, which is the same as his righteousness, is not about retribution but about restoration.
God’s love has never needed to be reconciled with his holiness. That would suppose an artificial distance between them, a distance that has never existed. What God does in his love does not disrupt his holiness in any way or create a problem that needs to be solved. God’s love perfectly manifests his holiness and his holiness perfectly manifests his love.
The cross, then, was not about Christ satisfying the demands of holiness so that the love and forgiveness of God could thereby be legitimated. It is about the love of God, perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, reaching down to free us from sin and death, making us holy by setting us apart from them and reconciling us to the one true God.