When A. W. Tozer wrote one of his most famous phrases, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” I doubt he knew how often Christians around the world would use and repeat it.
Until recently in my adult life, if you asked whether I thought of God as beautiful, true, and good, I would probably tell you yes. But if you asked me about his holiness, I’m not sure what I would have said. During my childhood, holiness meant unreachable or distant. When I was a Bible-college student, holiness was grand and mysterious. Today? I hope it is closer to an awe-invoking love and thankfulness for his character.
Read Revelation and you’ll see holiness is vivid—and yet it’s confusing for most Christians. Many scholars and writers have published books and commentaries about God’s holiness, focusing on his character and the set-apartness of his nature. But there aren’t many books about what holiness means for you, for me, and for our everyday lives we sometimes halfheartedly entrust to a God we cannot see.
In her new book, Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him, Jackie Hill Perry—author, poet, Bible teacher, and artist—invites readers to consider what the reality of God’s holiness means for our daily lives.
How Should We Respond?
While “holy” is often used as an encouragement not to sin, or slang used without context, or to help people understand God’s character, one thing is certain: it’s a misunderstood (or underappreciated) attribute of God.
God’s grandeur? Sure, we’ll talk about the ocean, stars, and nature all day. His goodness? Look at a baby, or a newly married couple, or a missionary sharing the gospel, and hear reminders of his faithfulness. His justice? We love to talk about it. But his holiness, and his call on our lives to be holy, as he is holy? We avoid it or misunderstand it.
From the introduction of the book, Perry offers a different perspective on God’s holiness. Instead of a character trait to peer at with uncertainty, she connects out bent toward sin and unbelief to not trusting that God’s holiness means he is most trustworthy. If Tozer was right, Perry believes we’ve got something wrong: “Because God is holy, all that he says is true and all that he does is good” (54). God’s holiness, instead of producing despair, should produce worship, awe, and trust—which come from knowing who he is and what he does.
God’s holiness, instead of producing despair, should produce worship.
Throughout the book’s seven chapters, Perry walks readers through God’s holiness as a catalyst for a more robust relationship with God as the sovereign Creator of the world. From idolatry to holy justice, God’s moral perfection and our need for him, she covers a wide range of ideas in a way your teenager or a seminary student can comprehend.
One distinction Perry consistently makes is the need to distinguish God from ourselves. Sounds simple, right? Sin makes it more complicated, though, as we fight for attention, influence, and power. What’s needed is an acknowledgement that God is God, and therefore he is worthy of our worship, time, and attention:
If we are brave enough to actually believe that God is who he says he is, we are left with one choice: worship. But if we want to be the center of attention, the source of our joy, and the final authority of our lives, then, in our minds, God cannot be holy; he must be just like us. A sinner. (51)
Yet, she continues, “It is good news that the maintenance of God’s righteousness is independent of our faith in it” (51). Good news, indeed.
What Difference Does Holiness Make?
The rest of the book is an exploration of how God’s holiness changes things like idolatry, justice, and what it means to behold God so that we become more like him, as we grow to trust him more:
So then, holiness begins to characterize those who trust in Christ to fill them with himself because all their needs, in body, mind, and soul, are met in God, which sets them free from depending on anything else in heaven and earth to do the same. (161)
Laying a foundation of why people sin (ultimately a distrust in God and disbelief in who he is), Perry moves into explaining how holiness changes things like relationships, social media, and our pursuit of justice in today’s world.
Almost all 168 pages of Perry’s book point back to the God of Scripture, who showed both his righteousness and his love for people on the cross. She weaves in Scripture, anecdotes, humor, and a solemn emphasis on the grace of God that allows people like us to behold, so that we might become more like Christ.
Perry’s book point[s] back to the God of Scripture who showed both his righteousness and his love for people on the cross.
For someone like me—who often struggles with law versus grace, and who knows God calls us to be holy like himself (1 Pet. 1:16)—this book provided a gentle reminder that the reason to adore God in his holiness, above all, is because it’s part of who he is: trustworthy and holy, or wholly trustworthy.
If Tozer were here today, maybe he’d phrase his statement like Perry does: “Believing what God has said is parallel with who we believe God to be” (48).
And who we believe God to be is the most important thing about us.
The Gospel Coalition