In his classic book The Existence and Attributes of God, Stephen Charnock noted God’s holiness “is the crown of all His attributes, the life of all His decrees, the brightness of all His actions. Nothing is decreed by Him, nothing is acted by Him, but what is worthy of the dignity, and becoming the honour, of this attribute” (p. 452). The holiness of the Lord is awesome, fearful, and majestic. David wrote, “Holy and reverend is His name” (Ps. 111:9). In her song of thanksgiving Hannah prayed, “There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.” (1 Sam. 2:2) Moses and the sons of Israel said of God, “Who is like thee, glorious in holiness,” (Ex. 15:11).
What does it mean to be holy? Charles Hodge explains:
This is a general term for the moral excellence of God…. Holiness, on the one hand, implies entire freedom from moral evil and, on the other, absolute moral perfection. Freedom from impurity is the primary idea of the word (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, 150-151).
Simply put, God is without sin. He doesn’t conform to some holy standard – He is the standard. He never does anything wrong. There are no degrees to His holiness, for He is perfectly holy.
God is holy! This truth causes the greatest of all problems for God. How shall God forgive and pardon the sinner and remain holy? This is our greatest problem. He is holy; we are unholy. It is our unholiness that separates us from Our holy God. Because He is holy He cannot even look upon our sin, much less provide a home for us to live forever with Him.
This is why it comes as such a shock to read Hosea 11:9 which speaks of a God who is Holy, but does not punish sin! Let’s read from Hosea 11:8-9.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred. 9 I will not execute the fierceness of My anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, The Holy One in your midst; And I will not come with terror.
The words of these verses come as a shock since almost everything in Hosea up to this point has emphasized God’s judgment against Israel’s idolatrous acts of spiritual adultery.
The contrast is between God’s destruction of the cities of the plain in Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah). Both Admah and Zeboiim are mentioned in Genesis 14 as allies of Sodom and Gomorrah in the war in which Lot was taken captive (when Uncle Abraham had to come and rescue him).
At the end of verse 9, God says that he will, literally, “not enter into the city” (KJV) which many translations rightly understand to mean that He will not come with “terror” (NKJV) or “wrath” (ESV). Again the contrast is with the cities of the plain which God did enter with terror and wrath in Genesis 19.
But it is the reason which God gives for why He will not “execute the fierceness of His anger,” “destroy Ephraim,” or “come with terror” which really caused this text to grab my attention.
How can the fact that God is God and not man be a reason why He doesn’t judge Israel. Matthew Henry helps somewhat when he writes,
If they had offended a man like themselves, he would not, he could not have borne it; his passion would have overpowered his compassion, and he would have executed the fierceness of his anger; but I am God, and not man. He is Lord of his anger, whereas men’s anger commonly lords it over them. If an earthly prince were in such a strait between justice and mercy, he would be at a loss how to compromise the matter between them; but he who is God, and not man, knows how to find out an expedient to secure the honour of his justice and yet advance the honour of his mercy.
John Piper also has wonderfully summarized God’s solution in this way:
The wisdom of God has devised a way for the love of God to satisfy the wrath of God without compromising the justice of God.
No place is this solution clearer than in Romans 3:21-26. The solution to the predicament of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness is found in the fact that 2,000 years ago, God became man and “dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). The Holy One came into our midst. He lived a perfect sinless life for 30+ years before going to the cross and bearing all of God’s wrath for the sins of all who would ever trust in Him.
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The word propitiation refers to the satisfaction of the wrath of God. Some no longer want to talk about the wrath of God, but it is taught in Scripture (Rom. 1:18) and the good news is that God has satisfied His own wrath “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation”. By the way, every religion has a doctrine of propitiation. But all other religions teach that man must propitiate God (satisfy God’s wrath). Instead, this verse (v. 25) teaches that God has propitiated Himself (satisfied His own wrath). How? Through the death of Christ Jesus! “In His blood”
Leviticus 17:11 states,
For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.
So the word “propitiation” means the satisfaction of God’s wrath. The Greek word used here is the same word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) to refer to the “mercy seat.” The “mercy seat” was the covering to the ark of the covenant that was found in the holy of holies of the tabernacle in the wilderness and later the temple in Jerusalem. This was the place where once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter with the blood of an animal and sprinkle that blood on the mercy seat. This was done to symbolize God’s wrath toward Israel’s sin being satisfied. Therefore in Romans 3:25 what we see is that Jesus Christ is set forth by God to be our mercy seat, the place where God’s wrath was finally and fully satisfied!
On Him Almighty vengeance fell,
That would have sunk a world to hell.
He bore it for a chosen race,
And thus becomes our Hiding Place.
This is how sinful human beings can be forgiven by a Holy God! The death of Jesus Christ!
The second half of v. 25 and v. 26 show that Christ’s death not only allows sinful humans to be justified, it also allows a holy God to forgive sin and remain just. You say, “I don’t see the problem.” Here’s the problem. If a judge allows a convicted criminal to go free without paying a fine or serving a day in jail, you would say that that judge is unjust. What if God allowed sin to go unpunished? Then God would be unjust. But the cross enables God to forgive our sins and remain just, because He still punished sin. Where? On Jesus!
I will not fear Your judgment
For me no wrath I dread
For it was spent on Jesus
Poured out upon His head
When Satan’s accusations
Make my poor heart afraid
I hear my King declaring
“Father, that debt is paid!”
“Jesus, My Only Hope” by Mark Altrogge.
In other words, the reason why God could remain Holy while not utterly destroying Israel is that there was coming a day in which He would destroy His only begotten Son! The reason that God could remain Holy and not rain fire and brimstone down on the cities of Israel was that on the cross of Calvary the Father would rain down all His wrath toward the sins of the elect upon His own Son!
The good news is that although you and I deserve to experience God’s wrath for our sins, God poured out His wrath on His own Son that we might be spared!
Hosea 11:9 makes absolutely no sense without the cross! Neither does 1 John 1:9 which states that:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
It makes absolutely no sense how God can be both “faithful and just to forgive us our sins,” if Christ did not die on the cross of Calvary to bear our punishment. Otherwise, for God to be “faithful and just” would mean that He must punish our sins! But because Christ has already borne the punishment for our sins, God would be unfaithful and unjust to punish us for our sins! God will not punish the same sins twice! Therefore, He is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins” because Christ died!
There is coming a day of judgment. The only ones who will be spared on that day are those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as the place where God fully and finally satisfied His own anger toward their sin. God will be holy and just! He will punish sin! In God’s universe there is no such thing as an unpunished sin. The question is whether you will bear you own sin forever in hell? or, Will you acknowledge that Jesus Christ bore your punishment for you already?