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I recently had the wonderful experience of traveling to the Republic of Ireland, the emerald isle of my father’s forebears. Three of us went from North America to be catalysts for the cause of Reformation at a conference. It was a small gathering—the effects may not be seen for years or even generations—but it was glorious.

During my time there among a couple dozen pastors, three of them thought I looked like men they knew. It was peculiar at first, but after some thought, I realized that it must be a general familial appearance. After all, there are only 4 million-plus residents in that country. My grandfather emigrated to the United States less than a century ago. Maybe some of the remaining Irishmen look like me. After all, I look like my father, as he likely resembled his father, and so on. Going back in the family line over many generations, there probably have been many men whose name, lineage, and general appearance 1 share (1 pity the poor souls in the latter category).

There are many analogies between the physical realm and the spiritual. One of them has to do with “familial resemblance.” However, it is not a physical resemblance but a spiritual one, as those attributes of the Father who adopts us as His own are wrought in us by the work of the Spirit because we have been united to the Son. Over time, there is an emergence of family traits that reflect the glory of God as much as man can truly mirror things divine. These family traits or attributes are those wherein something that is present in God may also be present in man. It is not about outward appearance, but inward disposition by virtue of a work of God to regenerate, justify, adopt, and sanctify the undeserving to be His own by grace through faith.

Many of God’s attributes are mirrored in His creation of men and women in His own image. Yet, in a special manner, His redeemed children show forth to the world what are called God’s communicable attributes, those attributes that are found in God and man, though not in the same degree of perfection.

There is one attribute of God that His people must share in—the awe-inspiring attribute of holiness. The very thought of the utter holiness of God in the same paragraph as sinful men should give us the willies. How can this be? Is not God thrice holy (Isa. 6), while man is full of sin?

All theologizing and self-justifying aside, holiness is to be true of God’s people because He has commanded it to be such. Our tendency is to be content with viewing ourselves according to the definition of holiness that sees objects as set aside for special use. We don’t mind being compared to the holy objects of the temple, but we become uncomfortable when we are assessed by the standards of the holiness of God as one of His moral attributes. I wonder whether it is because we have lost the wonder of who God is.

God has given an indicative and an imperative to guide His adopted family. The indicative is a statement about Himself. The imperative is a command for His people. The former is given in grace, that we might know something of God’s moral attributes; the latter is given that we might apply what we know of God to ourselves. The indicative is: “I am holy.” The imperative is: “Be holy.”

This prescription is found in many places throughout Holy Writ. The classic references are Leviticus 11:44– 45; 19:2; 20:7; Numbers 15:40; Ephesians 1:4; and 1 Peter 1:16, where the Leviticus 11 passage is cited. The New King James Version translates the original as “Be holy, for I am holy.” Though explicit in a few places, the concept is embedded throughout the Scriptures.

In many of these passages, holiness involves much more than just being set aside for a special use or to be a special people. There is a moral component to the context in many or most of the passages where holiness is commanded by God. For example, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still” (Rev. 22:11). It is this moral dimension of the holiness of God that leaves us in awe of the command to be holy. It also demonstrates that the aspect of holiness that is in sight is not that of being set apart for special use. It is a holiness that reflects the resplendent holiness of the holy God. His people are to be holy because He is holy.

Why is it important for us to consider holiness as we ponder the communicable attributes of God? Holiness summarizes what God is and what we ought to be. As we ponder His holiness, we learn how far we have yet to go in Christian maturity. We see our true state and cry out for God’s mercy. Thus, understanding God’s holiness serves a utilitarian purpose as believers seek to progress through this life without being of the world and its stance against God and His agenda.

There is a practical side to holiness, as well. Personal holiness is the best example parents can give to their children; the best basis for a happy marriage; and the greatest gift a pastor can ever give his people.

If holiness is not sought or maintained, the consequences may be dire. In the words of another imperative found in Hebrews, “Pursue … holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).


A Victorian Lady

Keep Reading "According to Our Likeness:" God's Communicable Attributes

From the June 2003 Issue
Jun 2003 Issue