How Do Love and Holiness Relate?


The relationship between love and holiness in the history of the church is checkered, to say the least.


In retelling this history, it’s tempting to characterize churches since the time of Christ as veering into the ditch on one side of the road or the other. Either they have veered too far toward holiness and separation, thereby forsaking love, or they have veered too far toward love and assimilation, thereby forsaking holiness. The Puritans and the Fundamentalists provide common stereotypes for the former overemphasis. Romantics, Liberals, and Emergents provide common stereotypes for the latter.

It is tempting to narrate history in this fashion, yet I think it would be better to say that some churches have veered too far toward what they think is holiness, while other churches have veered too far toward what they think is love. If a church has abandoned holiness, it has abandoned love, and if it has abandoned love, it has abandoned holiness.

Holiness and love are mutually implicating and work in concert, not in opposition.


In describing the relationship between God’s holiness and love, Jonathan Edwards argues that God’s holiness is his perfect and pure devotion to the pleasure he has in himself and his glory—the Father devoted to the Son and the Son to the Father. His holiness is his love of himself. Edwards writes, “The holiness of God consist[s] in his love, especially in the perfect and intimate union and love there is between the Father and Son.”

Or elsewhere, “God’s holiness is his having a due, meet and proper regard to everything, and therefore consists mainly and summarily in his infinite regard or love to himself, he being the greatest and most excellent Being.”


People often define holiness as the fact that God is “set apart.” But the fact that he is “set apart” doesn’t tell us what he is set apart to.If God hates sin, it’s because sin opposes something that God loves, and what does God most love? He most loves his glory (e.g. Isa. 48:8–11).

Theologian Wayne Grudem captures this in his definition of God’s holiness: “God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.”

That helps to explain the strange juxtaposition of transcendence and immanence in the song of praise sung by the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). The holiness of God does not separate his presence out from the earth, but just the opposite; it fills the earth with his presence so that he might display his unique and exclusive glory.

Holiness, it seems, requires not just a not of but also an in—so that God may be glorified. So David sings, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness” (Ps. 29:2). To make manifest his holiness is to make manifest his glory (Ezek. 28:22; see also Ex. 15:11).


Edwards rightly helps us to see, then, that God’s holiness and God’s love appear to be two perspectives on the same reality. Looking at God’s triune being from the “inside,” we see love. Looking at his three persons from the “outside,” we see holiness.

In other words, consider the relationships inside the Godhead itself, between the Father, Son and Spirit. From that angle, we see these perfect cords of divine love—three persons bearing a perfect affection for one another’s good and glory. However, when we step outside of that relationship and look at the same thing in relation to everything else in the universe, we see what the Bible calls “holiness”—the fact that he is purely and undistractedly devoted to loving his own glory.


What exactly then is the relationship between holiness and love? Holiness is the measure of love’s devotion to God, or, more specifically, the purity of love’s devotion to God. How purely does God love God? That’s how holy God is. How purely does a man love God? That’s how holy a man is. Or another way to say it would be that God’s love is directed by God’s holiness. It always and only moves toward holy ends.

In that sense, God’s love is constrained by God’s holiness, like water is constrained by the pipe through which it flows. Of course, that means that God’s holiness ultimately serves the purposes of his love, as the pipe does water.


It’s this holy affection or holy love that divides the universe in two. And there’s a bright and clear boundary line in between the two sides, one as clear as the boundary between the inside of the garden of Eden and the outside, the inside of Noah’s Ark and the outside, the inside of a house covered by a smear of blood on the night of the Passover and the outside, the inside of the Israelite camp in the wilderness and the outside, the inside of the Promised Land and the outside. It’s a boundary as clear as the Jordan River.

On one side of the line is the holy; on the other side is the unholy. On one side are to be those who bear a God-centered love; on the other side are those who love idols. On one side are those who listen to God’s Word and God’s law; on the other side are those who listen to other voices (see Gen. 3:17).

When Paul refers to God’s chosen people as “holy and beloved” (Col. 3:12), he’s not talking about two unrelated things. The local church that chooses to emphasize God’s love but not God’s holiness is a church that doesn’t actually understand what God’s love is, because God’s love is wholly fixed upon God and his glorious character in all its aspects. Such a church has probably substituted an idol in place of God’s love.

As such, the church that hesitates to draw sharp membership borders or to practice church discipline because these things don’t seem loving needs to know that it’s been duped into a man-centered caricature of love. It’s been co-opted by the culture. It may well be worshiping an idol.


On the other hand, the church that, for one reason or another, seems to emphasize God’s holiness and yet fails to do so in service to love is a church that misunderstands God’s holiness. God’s holiness means to fill the earth with God’s glory, including the radically distinct way that God sent his Son to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

Sure enough, the one whom the demons recognized as the “Holy One of God” was the very one who would reach out to touch the man with the unclean spirit in a way that the “holy” people of Israel would not (Mark 1:24).

A holy church is a church that abstains from sin and that dwells among sinners, both of these activities being a property of holiness. It’s in but not of the world, both of these postures, again, being a property of holiness. Missions and evangelism are not merely the result of God’s love but of his holiness. God is so utterly consecrated to his own glory that he wants everyone to be consecrated to his glory!

A church that thinks it’s holy but does not pour itself out in evangelism and acts of service is not a holy church.

Adapted from The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Crossway, 2010), 99-101. Reprinted by permission.