While preparing and preaching a sermon from Ezekiel, I recently found myself fixated on this verse: “You will know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for my name’s sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices, O house of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD” (Ezekiel 20:44, NIV 1984). Throughout Ezekiel’s illustrations and messages to Israel in exile, God constantly reminded Israel about his holiness and their unholiness – in their sin and rebellion, especially idolatry, from their leaders down to the people. In chapter 20, God, again, recounts Israel’s history from their time in Egypt to their time in Babylonian exile, and each time he identifies their idolatrous rebellion, God states that he did not destroy them – even though he had every reason – but instead withheld his judgment “For the sake of my name” (Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22). Ultimately, God’s purpose for upholding his name and withholding his immediate judgment of rebellious Israel was so that, as in verse 44, “You will know that I am the LORD.”
Throughout Israel’s history, then, we can see that God’s grace reveals his holiness.God did not judge Israel as they deserved; that’s God’s grace. God did not judge them, he says, “For the sake of my name,” that is, for the sake of his holy reputation. God dealt with Israel and their sin not just because they were sinful but because he is holy. Certainly God judges because he is holy, but God reveals that he is gracious because he is holy. This is a lesson for Israel and for the nations that surrounded them – and for us as well.
Paul explains this as a foundational truth about our salvation through Jesus. In Titus 2:11, 12, Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (NIV 1984). God’s grace to Israel was to teach them about who God is, that God is holy, and God’s grace through Jesus teaches us the same thing, holy godliness. Not only does God’s grace save repentant sinners, it trains them to be more like God, to be holy as he is holy.
Many folks in the world – and many within the church – misunderstand God’s holiness to be all about purity that leads to judgment and destruction of sinners, but that’s only partial truth. Certainly, God’s holiness – that he is wholly unique and wholly pure – creates a contrast between himself and his created people, but it also establishes the foundation for his grace. Because God desires to have a relationship with the people he created, despite our sin – made evident by his holiness – he offers forgiveness to those who recognize his holiness and their own sinfulness and who turn back to him. Then, God again deals with people not because of our sinfulness but because of his holiness, because of his holy grace, for the sake of his name.
Here’s where discipline coincides with grace in God’s holiness. Hebrews 12:6, 7 tells us, “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” Even though it might not feel like it, discipline isn’t destruction; it’s an expression of God’s holiness as he deals with us for his name’s sake. That’s why the writer continues in Hebrews 12:11 “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” God’s discipline, his grace, trains us to be more like him in his holiness.
Yes, we need to recognize our sinful attitudes, words, and actions, but we won’t recognize them as sin until we recognize God’s holiness, and we won’t recognize God’s discipline as more than judgment until we recognize God’s holiness. As we continue to seek God through his Word, in worship, service, and obedience, let’s keep focused on who God is in his holiness.