Holiness means wholeness. To say God is holy is to refer to the wholeness, fullness, beauty, and abundant life that overflows within the Godhead. God lacks nothing. He is unbroken, undamaged, unfallen, completely complete and entire within himself. He is the indivisible One, wholly self-sufficient, and the picture of perfection.
When the angels sing “Holy is the Lord,” they are not admiring God for his rule-keeping or sin avoidance; they are marveling at the transcendent totality of his perfection (Is. 6:3). To worship God in the beauty of his holiness is to be awestruck by the infinite sweep and scale of his sublimity. It is to become lost in the limitless landscape of his loveliness. This is how Charles Spurgeon describes holiness in his discourse on Psalm 99:5:
Holiness is the harmony of all the virtues. The Lord has not one glorious attribute alone, or in excess, but all glories are in him as a whole.
Holiness is not one aspect of God’s character; it is the whole package in glorious unity. It is the adjective that precedes all other attributes. Hence, the love of God is a holy love; it is the whole and unrestrained love of the Godhead spilling over into the hearts of humanity. Similarly, his righteousness is a holy righteousness; it is the habit of right action that flows from One who is in such harmony with himself that he is incapable of acting any other way. And his joy is a holy joy; it is the pure and unshadowed delight that accompanies every expression of his love and goodness.
Inferior definitions of holiness
God is holy and holy is his name (Luke 1:49). Since God is holy, our understanding of true holiness must be based on God’s character. However, some definitions of holiness only paint a partial picture. It’s not that these definitions are wrong, but they are incomplete. Here are some inferior definitions of holiness:
Holiness is sin avoidance
Under the old covenant, the Israelites were commanded to avoid unclean things and to distinguish between the holy and the profane (Lev. 10:10, Eze. 20:7, 22:26). This gives the impression that holiness means being separate from sinners and the world in general (cf. entry for 2 Cor. 6:17-18). But defining holiness as the avoidance of sin is like defining light as the absence of darkness. It does not capture the essence of holiness. Nor does it describe a God who was holy long before there was any sin to avoid.
Holiness is not about withdrawing from sinful society. Imagine if Jesus had done that. Jesus, the Holy One, was untouched by sin but he was also the friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). He touched them, laid hands on them, and ate with them. Jesus didn’t pray that we would be taken out of the world but that we would be sanctified in it (John 17:15-18). True holiness runs from nothing.
Holiness is being set apart to God
For some, holiness means set apart. This definition comes closest to the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for holy (more on these below). It is useful as an adjective for describing consecrated things like temples (Ps. 11:4) and mountains (Ex. 19:23). But how does it apply to a holy God? Is God dedicated to himself? Is God set apart for himself?
Holiness is moral perfection
Charles Finney defined holiness as doing right. “Holiness is moral perfection, and nothing short of moral perfection, or moral rectitude, is holiness.” Many eastern gurus would agree with him. In many of the world’s religions, holiness is the result of rule-keeping and good behavior.
The problem with this definition is it promotes dead works and faithlessness. If fourteen centuries of the law-keeping covenant taught us anything, it’s that people cannot make themselves holy. We might as well try and climb to the moon.
Holiness is godliness
We are exhorted “to live holy and godly lives” (2 Pet. 3:11). This leads some to say that holiness is godliness. But this is not a meaningful definition. It’s like saying God is godly or flowers are flowery.
Holiness means worthy of devotion
God is holy and worthy of devotion, but there are holy things that should not be worshipped. The angels are holy (Mark 8:38). Should we worship them? Believers are holy (1 Pet. 2:5). Should we worship ourselves?
Holiness is one of those words that people use without really thinking about what the word means. As we have seen, common definitions of holiness either fail to define what holiness is, or they do not apply to a holy God. What we need is a Biblical definition of holiness.
A Biblical definition of holiness
When Peter wrote, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (see 1 Pet. 1:16), he used a word (hagios) that means sacred. Sacred means set apart, which doesn’t tell us much. But Peter was quoting from the Hebrew scriptures and it is in the Old Testament that we can get some insight into the true meaning of holiness. “For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45). This is a significant passage for it is the first time in the Bible that God is described as holy.
The Hebrew word for holy is the adjective qadowsh (H6918) which is related to the verb qadash (H6942) and the noun qodesh (H6944). The first time any of these words appears in the Bible is in Genesis 2:3: “Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified (qadash) it.” If we want to know the true meaning of holiness, it will help if we consider why God made the seventh creation day holy.
When God made the stars, planets, trees and animals, it was good but not holy. It was not until Day Seven that God looked at creation and said, “This is a particularly good day. I’m going to sanctify it and make it holy.” What made the seventh day more special than the rest? Look at how the seventh day is described in Genesis:
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed his work which he had done… (Gen 2:1-2)
The seventh day was a holy day or a holiday because the work of creation was complete. The world was whole and perfect and good in every way. Holiness means wholeness. To be holy is to be wholly whole, completely complete, and perfectly perfect.
Adam and Eve began their new lives on a holiday, and so did you. The day you began your new life you were made wholly new and fully formed. The new you is holy and whole; you are literally complete in him (Col. 2:10).
The life God intends for you is one of joyful discovery. It is learning to live loved (because you are loved) and being holy (because you are holy). It is growing into who you already are in Christ. The Christian life is not striving to perfect what he started; it is resting in his finished work and holidaying in his holiness.
Further reading: “Why was the seventh day holy?”
John Wycliffe on holiness
The English word holy is derived from the Old English word halig which means whole and hale. When John Wycliffe and his associates began writing the first English Bible in the fourteenth century, this is what the word holy meant to them. It meant wholeness, completion, or perfection.
According to the OED, the earliest meaning of the English word holy was “inviolate, inviolable, that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be injured with impunity” (source: OED entry for “Holy”). When the first English translators wrote about a God who is holy, they understood that they were writing about a God who is whole, inviolate, and perfect in every way. And when Shakespeare wrote, “So holy, and so perfect is my love,” he was describing a whole and flawless love. (As You Like It, 3:5). Again, holy meant whole.
But the first English Bible had a strong competitor – the thousand year old Vulgate written by Jerome. In the Latin Bible, the word for holy is sanctus (think sanctuary) or sacer (think sacred).
The Latin holy (sanctus/sacer) is a Roman word that came from a Greek culture where heathen deities lived in secluded temples. In other words, the Latin version of holy applies to idols that are off limits to dirty sinners. It does not describe a God who walks in the Garden or who dines with sinners.
According to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin and English words for holy are not interchangeable. “We cannot in Old English get behind Christian senses in which holy is equated with Latin sanctus, sacer.” In other words, the Latin holy is not the English holy. But which is the Biblical holy?
Latin meaning: set apart
Middle English meaning: whole
The first English Bible got it right – holy means whole – but over the centuries the English word became Latinized. Ask any churchgoer what the word holy means to them, and they will likely go for the Latin definition. A holy God is set apart, lives in a temple, and cannot be approached by filthy sinners. But the God that Jesus revealed is not like this. True, there was a temple in the Bible, but that was a temporary arrangement associated with the obsolete law-keeping covenant. God does not live in a temple like some Greek idol. “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48).
Look up the word holy in just about any Bible dictionary and you will see that it means sacred, consecrated, or religious. But these are poor definitions, and they are not what the word originally meant. An exception to this is the Catholic Encyclopedia which defines holiness as perfect (in the sense of completion) or whole, before reverting to the traditional Latin definition. Noah Webster did something similar in his 1828 dictionary.
When Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), he was saying be whole, complete, or lacking nothing. (The original word for perfect (telios) means complete.) He was saying the same thing as the apostles when they said “be holy” (Eph. 1:4, Heb. 12:14, 1 Pet. 1:15, Rev. 22:11). The question then arises, how do we become perfect or holy?
Jesus makes us holy
Only one person ever succeeded in sanctifying himself, and he did it on your behalf. Jesus said “I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19). You are holy and sanctified because Jesus makes you so. “For by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Through an act of his will and by the sacrifice of his body you have been sanctified for all time (Heb. 10:10).
When you were born again and put into Christ, you became as holy and righteous as he is (Acts 26:18, 1 Cor. 6:11). “If the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rom. 11:16). You were sanctified by God the Father (Jude 1:1, KJV), God the Son (Heb. 2:11, 10:10, 14, 13:12), and God the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:16, 2 Th. 2:13, 1 Pet. 1:2). You are well and truly sanctified. You are the holy temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16).
Holiness is not a reward for good behavior, but a gracious gift from God. Jesus is our righteousness and sanctification from God (1 Cor. 1:30).
Who is holy?
God the Father is holy (Luke 1:49, John 17:11, Rev. 4:8) and so are God the Son (Mark 1:24, Acts 2:27, 3:14, 4:27, 30) and God the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:4). The angels are holy (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26, Acts 10:22, Rev. 14:10), but not all of them (2 Pet. 2:4, Jude 1:6). The sanctified saints are holy (see entry for Acts 26:18). Collectively Christians are known as a holy priesthood and a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). The church is both God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:16-17, Eph. 2:21), and the Lord’s radiant and holy bride (Eph. 5:27). But if we’re already holy, why does the Bible call us to be holy?
If we’re holy, why are we called to be holy?
When God calls us to be holy, he is saying, “You are my sanctified children, act like it. Be who I made you to be.” Just as a baby does not become human by acting human, a Christian does not become holy by acting holy. But like a baby, a Christian can mature into what God has already made them. Bill Gillham, the author of Lifetime Guarantee, explains it like this:
Needless to say, maturity doesn’t occur in one giant leap, but through a process: “But we all … are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Notice it’s “from glory to glory,” not “from garbage to glory.” You are already holy in Christ … Just as an oak sapling does not get oakier as it matures, neither does a new creature in Christ get holier, more forgiven, more accepted, etc.
Critics of the grace message say we who preach it are opposed to holy living. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are opposed to is the old habit of trying to make yourself holy by acting holy. You can’t do it. But the good news declares God makes us holy. He takes the shards of our broken lives and makes something beautiful, pleasing, sweet-smelling, and Christ-like.
Now that we have a good understanding of why the Bible calls us to be holy, we can look at some of the scriptures on holiness:
“To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). In other words, be saintly because you are saints, as Paul says many times in his letter to the Romans.
“But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). Sin is destructive, but the grace of God results in an abundant and sanctified life. (Note: Some translations say “the benefit you reap leads to holiness” as though sanctification was something to strive for or a reward for good behavior. Sanctification, like eternal life, is a free gift and not a wage.)
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people…” (1 Cor. 1:2a). You are sanctified so act like it. The Corinthians were the most misbehaving Christians in the New Testament, yet Paul called them saints (2 Cor. 1:1). We are not sanctified by our behavior; we are sanctified by Jesus.
“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity …” (Col. 3:5a). If you’re a butterfly, don’t act like a caterpillar. If you have been given a new nature, don’t act in accordance with your old one. Stop pretending to be someone you are not.
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality…” (1 Th. 4:3). It is God’s will that you should be sanctified in your conduct, not because your salvation or sanctification depend on it, but your wellbeing does. Sin is destructive.
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through” (1 Th. 5:23a). Sanctification is God’s work, not yours. In Christ, you are as holy as you will ever be, but your behavior may not be perfectly holy. Just as his gift of salvation is something to work out in your life (Php. 2:12), so is his sanctification. You are holy, so be holy.
“Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do” (1 Pet. 1:15). You are not holy because you act holy. You are holy because you are children of a holy Father. Be who you truly are.
New Testament exhortations to live holy should not be read as a self-help guide to holiness. Rather, they are pictures of the wholesome, healthy life we get to enjoy as we allow Christ to express his holy life through us. They are advertisements for the abundant life that is already ours in Christ.
Further reading: “If we’re holy, why does God call us to be holy?”
What is practical holiness?
Some say you have to work at your sanctification. “You’re positionally holy, but you’re not really holy unless you live holy.” Such a message will cause you to rely on your own dead works and fall from grace. Don’t fall for it. Jesus has already worked to sanctify you and his work cannot be improved upon.
Practical holiness is sometimes sold as a sort of gym membership. “You’ve got to sign up, make a commitment, and work at it. Don’t expect instant results,” the gym instructors say, “because the process of becoming holy is a work of gradual development.” In the pursuit of holiness entire movements have been launched and countless sermons have been preached and not one of them has ever succeeded in making anyone holy.
Then there are those who think the law shows us how to live holy. “We are saved by grace and perfected through the law.” This is a recipe for disaster for “the law made nothing perfect” (Heb. 7:19). Although the law is holy and good, it has no power to make you holy and good (see entry for Rom. 7:12). The law is not a Saints’ Guide to Holy Living. The law is a signpost to Jesus who is our holiness from God.
What is practical, everyday holiness? Practical holiness is allowing the Holy One to live his holy life through you. It is learning to walk in the reality that Jesus has made you whole and given you everything you need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
Holiness is not something to strive for; like salvation, it’s something to work out. Think of a toddler learning to walk. The toddler has within them everything they need to walk, run, and jump. They just need to work it out. That’s how it is with holiness. We are whole—God has given us everything we need in Jesus—we just need to learn how to live whole. It’s a new and wonderful experience for us. We have not been this way before, but with our eyes fixed on Jesus the Holy One we cannot fail.
“In him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10). You were broken, but in him you are whole. You were in lack, but in Christ you lack no good thing (Ps. 23:1, 34:10). Your life was a mess, but he gave you beauty for ashes. That’s why they call it good news.
Being holy is not trying to attain what you have already received, nor is it trying to do what Christ has already done. The exhortation to be holy is an invitation to live the holy and abundant life that is already ours in Christ.
Further reading: “How to be holy”
The gospel of holiness
The gospel is not a sign-up sheet for sanctification classes. The gospel is the surprising announcement that in Christ you are holy indeed. Jesus took your broken down and raggedy old life and gave you his whole and beautiful life in exchange.
You have been called to the adventure of discovering who you are in Christ and presenting yourself as a holy offering to the Lord (Rom. 12:1). You are a living testimony of the transforming power of his holy grace. Holiness, or wholeness, is the very definition of abundant life. Such is the life you have in him.
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