Doctrine of God (part 18)

August 02, 2010     Time: 00:31:19


I. C. 5. Moral Attributes a. Holiness . . . I. C. 5. a. (1) (b) Systematic Summary.

1. Attributes of God
Lecture 18

Personal – Moral: Holiness

We have been talking about the attributes of God, and we have been looking specifically at the attributes that God possesses in virtue of being a personal being. We just completed looking at God’s volitional attributes, that is to say, his being all-powerful or omnipotent. Now we want to move to God’s moral attributes. Since God is a personal being, he is a moral agent and therefore possesses moral attributes.

The first of these that we want to talk about is God’s holiness. We’ll be looking at some scriptural data concerning the holiness of God before we attempt to give a systematic summary of it.

Scriptural Data

According to the Bible, God is the very standard of goodness. Romans 9:14-21:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?

What Paul seems to be saying here is that God is answerable to no one. He is not to be brought before the bar of justice by anybody because God is the ultimate standard of justice. He is the ultimate source of goodness, and, therefore, there is no higher court of appeal, no bar before which God can be brought to account for his actions. God himself is the highest court; he is the standard of goodness itself.

Secondly, the Scripture consistently affirms that God is absolutely holy in his nature and being. Look, for example, at Exodus 3:4-5. This is the story where Moses first encounters God in the burning bush, the vision of God that he sees in the burning bush:

When the LORD saw that he [Moses] turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

So the very presence of God sanctified the ground and made it holy because of God’s presence there. Leviticus 19:2 shows what implication this has for our lives as followers of God. “Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’” So just as God is holy, we are to be holy in turn. We are to reflect his righteousness in our lives. Finally, in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation 4:8, we have John’s vision of the heavenly throne room and the praise that is offered to God in heaven. “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”1 Here is the praise that is offered to God as the ultimate holy being. So God is absolutely holy.

Thirdly, God’s holiness serves to expose man’s sinfulness. When we look at ourselves and our lives in light of God’s holiness, it exposes how terribly dirty and deeply stained we are with sin. Isaiah 6:1-5 is the vision of God that the prophet Isaiah had in the temple in Jerusalem. Here he says,

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

In response to his vision of God in all his purity and awful holiness, Isaiah says, “I am undone because I am unclean. I am not holy myself.” He sees his own sin so clearly reflected as a result of God’s holiness.

Finally, number four, God’s holiness separates man from him. Because God is holy, it serves to separate sinful man from God. Habakkuk 1:13; here the prophet says to God, “Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Here, the prophet is complaining to God, “If you are so holy, so pure, Lord, that you cannot look upon evil, why do you tolerate the wicked, who seem to be getting away with it, while righteous people perish and fail?” Apart from the hard question that the prophet poses, the thing that I want to focus on is the presupposition of the question, namely, that God is of such purity that he cannot behold evil; he cannot look upon wrong. That is to say, evil is dispersed from the presence of God in the same way that darkness is dispersed in the presence of light. When you come into a room and turn on the light, the darkness is dissipated and dispersed immediately by the light. In the same way, evil cannot exist in personal communion or relationship with God. It is dispersed from his presence in the same way that darkness is dispersed by light. The consequence of that for us as sinful people is that we therefore are separated from God by our sin. Isaiah 59:1-2: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear.” So he says, “The problem isn’t on God’s side; the difficulty isn’t that God’s impotent and can’t do something or that God is hard of hearing and therefore doesn’t attend to your prayer.2 Rather,” he says, “It is that your sins have made a separation between you and God so he doesn’t hear your prayer and his face is hidden from you.” Of course, this tension, this problem, creates the whole basis for the need of salvation. What must we do to be saved? We will talk about that when we get to the doctrine of salvation, but here we want to focus simply on the holiness of God, this moral property of God, and the problem that this occasions for us as sinful human beings.


Question: How would we relate God’s omnipresence with what you just talked about – his not being able to look upon sin?

Answer: Very good question! How can God be omnipresent, everywhere present, if he cannot abide evil and if evil cannot exist in his presence? I think the answer to that question is, as we saw when we looked at omnipresence, that what omnipresence amounts to is that God is causally active at and cognizant of everything at every point in space. There is no place in the world where God is not causally active, sustaining it in being, and where he doesn’t know what is happening. He knows what is going on there. So he is omnipresent, not in the sense that he is an ether that is sort of “spread out” through the world, but in the sense that he is causally sustaining whatever exists there and he is also cognizant of what is going on there. That means that God is present even in hell – in this metaphysical sense. Even with regard to those who are in hell, they exist only because God sustains them in being; otherwise they would be annihilated; and he certainly knows what is going on in hell. He knows the denizens of hell curse him and hate him and so forth. But I think what Isaiah is talking about when he says that there is a separation between you and God is a relational separation, that one’s personal relationship with God is ruptured and severed. So there is a separation in that relational sense – those in hell do not experience God as present because they have no relationship with him. As sinners non-redeemed, without Christ, similarly we find ourselves spiritually separated from God, groping in darkness, even though God is all around us. So make a distinction here between God’s metaphysical presence, which is everywhere, and his relational presence, which is not there for those who are separated from him and therefore under his judgment and wrath.

Question: Would you say that the sin just kind of clouds our spiritual lives?

Answer: This is another good distinction that you are making. As those who are redeemed in Christ, our position with respect to God is one of reconciliation and fellowship. There is no sin that separates you from him anymore. You are forgiven; when he looks at you, he sees you in Christ. There you are forgiven, redeemed, and the righteousness of Christ is credited to your account. That is why Wesley, who wrote the hymn, “And Can It Be,” can say, “Bold I approach the eternal throne” because I am in Christ, and in Christ I am redeemed and just. But in our experience, of course, as Christians we fail miserably often, we succumb to temptations and weaknesses and therefore in our experience, as you say, our apprehension of God will be clouded often by sin. We will feel estranged from God because we don’t have a clear conscience and we are harboring sin in our hearts. So that relationship that exists positionally may not be experientially present.3 That emphasizes the importance of daily confession of sin, constant self-examination, asking God to cleanse and forgive us and then to fill us again with his Holy Spirit. As we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are cleansed and sanctified and morally improved so that, hopefully, as we go on in life, we will sin less and less and become increasingly Christ-like in our character. That would be the work of the Holy Spirit, filling us, controlling us, and yielding his fruit in our lives. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it in Galatians: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is allowing Christ to live out his life through us that will bring that more experiential dimension that we have positionally. But the great thing is, that wherever you are experientially, as you are in Christ and trust in him, you are reconciled to God as just and cleansed and holy in his sight because he sees you in the righteousness of Christ.

Question: Why do we consider omnipresence an infinite attribute, but not omniscience or omnipotence?

Answer: As I said when we looked at those attributes in the Introduction, all of God’s essential attributes are really infinite. So certainly he is infinite in his holiness, in his omniscience, and all of his other attributes. But what I was trying to do is to draw a distinction between those attributes that God has in virtue of being personal and those attributes that he has not in virtue of being personal. For example, moral properties are properties that only a person can have. Inanimate objects, or mere animals, don’t have moral value because they are not moral agents. They do not have free will. Similarly, volitional attributes require a mind, and so you have to have a person in order to have attributes relating to the will. This is a somewhat arbitrary classification, as you say. Think of it as just a convenience. But certainly you are right that we should think of God’s essential attributes as all unlimited in their nature.

Systematic Summary

Let’s go on and do a systematic analysis of this attribute.

God’s Will or God’s Nature?

The principal problem with thinking of God as the source of moral values is the dilemma captured in Plato’s dialogue called Euthyphro. This is often called the “Euthyphro Argument” or the “Euthyphro Dilemma.” You will hear this every time from a non-believer if you claim that God is the ultimate source and locus of moral value. The question that is posed in the Euthyphro dialogue is this: “Do the gods love something because it is good or is it good because the gods love it?” Plato was posing the question in a polytheistic context, but it can be posed in a monotheistic context as well. The first horn of the dilemma would be, “Is something good because God wills it?” For example, is it wrong to murder because God says, “Thou shalt not kill?” Is it good to love your neighbor because God says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” Is something good because God has decreed that this is good? The other horn of the dilemma would be to say, “Does God will something because it is good?” That is to say, does God will that you should love your neighbor because this is a good thing to do? God, being a perfectly good being, would therefore will it. Does he proscribe child abuse and stealing and lying because they are really bad and so naturally a good God would say that you shall not do these things? Does God will something because it is good?4

The claim of the Euthyphro argument is that either one of these alternatives has unacceptable consequences for the theist. If you say that something is good because God wills it, then that makes good and evil arbitrary. The reason it is wrong to rape and torture someone is simply because God said so, and he could have willed otherwise. He could have willed that we ought to hate one another and to seek to be as cruel as we can to each other. But that seems unconscionable. In that case, there really aren’t any objective moral values. They are just the results of God’s arbitrary will, and it could have easily gone the other way. So it seems wrong to say that something is good just because God wills it.

But suppose the theist says that God wills something because it really is good. Well, that means that there is some higher standard of goodness beyond God, to which God is himself subject, and he must look to that higher standard and see that it is good to do various things and therefore make his commandments on that basis. Indeed, on that basis, God would be good because he meets that standard himself. But the problem with that is that means God is not the source of moral values, that God is not the ultimate standard – there is a higher court of appeals beyond God and God must measure up to it.

The non-theist will, therefore, say that the Euthyphro dilemma shows that moral values cannot be grounded in God.


Question: Is the assumption that it has to be one or the other, or can it not be some other idea?

Answer: You see, there you go! You know how to deal with a dilemma! You ask if this is a true dilemma or if this is a false dilemma. Maybe there is a third alternative. That is exactly the case here – the Euthyphro argument is, in fact, a false dilemma. It is not saying “A or not-A.” It is saying “A or B.” Well, why not “C?” Maybe there is another alternative. This is a false dilemma. That is the angle that will be taken.

Question: Is good and evil defined by God immediately at creation and our understanding of them is distorted after that?

Answer: The whole point of this argument is to show that it can’t be like that. God cannot be the thing that defines what good and evil is because if you say that he does it by willing it, then it becomes arbitrary what good and evil is. But if you say that he wills something because it is good, then there is something higher than God. The view you expressed, which would be the typical Christian view, this argument claims to refute.

Solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma

What, I think, is wrong with this argument is that it is a false dilemma. We should not adopt either of those two alternatives. Rather we should say, in a sense, what Plato himself said, which is, namely, that God’s very nature is the Good. The Good just is the [concrete] moral nature of God himself. This moral nature expresses itself necessarily toward us in the form of certain divine commandments that then constitute our moral duties: you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and mind and heart, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, you shall not steal, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery. The moral commands of God are not arbitrary but rather are necessary reflections of God’s very nature. On this view, our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, but those commands are not ultimately rooted in God’s arbitrary will. Rather they are expressions of his essential nature.5 It is impossible that God could have willed “You shall hate your neighbor and seek to do him harm and kill him” or “You shall not love the Lord your God” and that child abuse or torture would be good or that loving one another would be evil. That is impossible because it is contrary to the very nature of God himself.

So, in answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, the third alternative is to say, “God wills something because he is good.” It is not correct to say that something is good because God wills it, and it is not correct to say that God wills something because it is good; rather we should say God wills something because he is good. That is to say, God’s own moral nature is determinative of what the good is, and that expresses itself toward us in the form of certain moral commands that then become our duties.

One interesting implication of this view is that since God presumably doesn’t issue commands to himself, he doesn’t have any moral duties. It means that he doesn’t have to obey his own commands, so to speak. Rather what we would say is that God, by his very nature, would act in accordance with what he commands, but not in obedience to what he commands. It isn’t as though God is under some higher law than himself. He would simply act in accordance with the moral law in a natural kind of way rather than having a duty to obey, as we do. The commandments are issued to us, so we have moral duties to discharge. On this view, God acts in accordance with the good, but it is not as though God is duty-bound in order to fulfill some sort of moral obligation.


Question: I thought of an objection someone might raise on this using a sort of Ockham’s Razor that says you are assuming a God that is unnecessarily complex by inferring that he has a personality rather than just sort of a stoic computer-like being. Have you ever heard of someone offering an objection like this?

Answer: Let me remind us what we are doing here. We are not doing apologetics here. We are doing systematic theology. We are saying, “Given the Christian view of God, how should we understand his holiness? Given his self-revelation in Scripture, how do we understand the holiness of God?” Don’t think that we are trying to offer some kind of an argument for the personhood of God or moral values’ being grounded in him. All we have to do here is to simply ward off objections. This would be defensive apologetics, if you will, rather than positive apologetics. I think there are arguments we can give for the personhood of God – the design argument would be one; the kalam cosmological argument also gives you an intelligent, free agent as a creator. There are good arguments for that, but that is not what we are about now. We are doing theology right now, not apologetics.

Question: Does this mean that somehow God, by definition, cannot act unjustly? For example, some people might point to certain things in the Bible where God instructed the Israelites to kill the women and children and so forth. They might say it’s an unjust thing for him to tell them to do. How is that involved?

Answer: I think that does relate to our topic. God doesn’t have the same sort of moral duties that we do. For example, you do not have the moral right to pull a gun out and shoot somebody. But if God wanted to strike me dead right now, that is his prerogative. All life is his; he is under no moral obligation whatsoever to prolong my life another instant. God is not under the same sort of moral commands that we are under. It does mean that he can say to Abraham, “Go and sacrifice your son Isaac,” and Abraham should obey what God has told him to do. I think that is an implication of this. What we can be thankful for is that God is a good God and therefore can’t issue commandments that would be evil or wrong and that, when he does issue commandments that are difficult, like the ones dealing with driving out the nations of Canaan, he has a morally sufficient reason for doing so. We could talk about that a lot more but this has been addressed in several places by several people (e.g. Question of the Week #16, “Slaughter of the Canaanites” on, or Paul Copan’s book Is God A Moral Monster?). But I basically want to affirm that this sort of view makes room for that sort of peculiarity, in that God is not under the same moral commands and obligations that we are under and therefore can do things that we would not have the freedom to do, such as take life.6


1 5:21

2 10:10

3 15:08

4 20:18

5 25:09

6 Total Running Time: 31:18