This word is scary for some and delightful for others. Where do you stand?
This attribute or perfection of God is communicable and transferrable to us because we are made in his image, and we are declared righteous by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. God call us to be holy—but not by our efforts of following rituals, but by the Spirit-filled life.
Let’s define the term first.
What do theologians say?
Mounce in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says the Hebrew adjective for holy is qadosh and is used 117 times. “It describes that which is by nature sacred or that which has been admitted to the sphere of the sacred by divine rite. It describes, therefore, that which is distinct or separate from the common or profane” (p. 337).
In the New Testament, the Greek words are hagios (holy, sacred) and are used 233 times. The verb hagiazō (make holy sanctify, consecrate or awkward “holy-ize) is used 28 times (p. 338). Then Mounce gives us this nugget: “The proper sphere of the holy in the NT is not priestly or ritual, but the prophetic. The sacred no longer belongs to things, places, or rites, but to manifestations of life produced by the Spirit” (p. 338). In other words, when the believer is filled with the Spirit—the Holy Spirit, he is on his way to work out this holiness day by day. It is a process.
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams teaches us that redemption, the heart of the gospel, depends on God’s holiness that cannot tolerate sin. We can come in God’s holy presence during our life and after we die only by his grace and fee invitation, and his grace and invitation are available to us because Jesus died for our sins and paid the penalty for them. He qualified us to come into his thrice-holy presence.
Then Williams go deeper:
The basic connotation of holy and holiness in the Old Testament is that of separation / apartness from the common, mundane, and profane things of everyday life. This true of God in His total otherness, also of persons and things set apart for Him and His service (vol. 1, p. 60, note 41).
God’s majesty speaks of God’s awesomeness and majesty. “At the heart of divine majesty is the white and brilliant light of His utter purity. There is in God utterly no taint of anything unclean and impure” (p. 61).
Williams agrees with Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof who says that holiness can be called “majesty-holiness.” Berkhof continues by saying there is an ethical aspect of holiness. “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation from moral evil or sin. … Used in this sense the word holiness points to God’s majestic purity. … It also has a positive content, namely, that of moral excellence” (p. 73). One way, Berkhof says, that holiness is manifested is moral law, “implanted in man’s heart, and speaking through the conscience, and more particularly in God’s special revelation,” the Bible (p. 74).
This agrees with Charles Hodge, Princeton theologian of the nineteenth century, who says, “This is a general term of the moral excellence of God” (vol. 1, p. 413).
Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck tells us that sanctification or the process of making a thing or person holy in the Old Testament “is something more than merely being set apart; it is, by means of washing, anointing, sacrifice, and sprinkling of blood (etc.), to divest a thing of the character it has in common with all other things, and to impress upon it another stamp, a stamp uniquely its own, which it must bear and display everywhere (Lev. 8:15, 16:15-16; Job 1:5).” (Reformed, p. 206). In the New Testament, “God’s holiness is finally supremely manifest in Christ, in whom God gives himself to the church, which redeems and cleanses from all iniquities” (ibid.). The Holy Spirit become the purifier and sanctifier.
Millard Erickson says that the two aspects of God’s holiness is first his uniqueness and being totally separate from all his creation. The second aspect is his absolute purity and goodness. He is “untouched and unstained by the evil in the world. He does not in any sense participate in it” (p. 256).
This attribute and perfection of God means that he is completely distinct and separate from the ordinary and profane and common, and which prompts him to reach out to people to separate and save them from evil.
Now let’s find out where those theologians got their doctrines—the Scriptures.
What do the Scriptures say?
I use the NIV here. If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
God chose the ancient Israelites out of his grace. They did not earn or deserve it. When God saved us, we did not deserve or earn it. Holy in this instance mean set apart from other nations—unique, special.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deut. 7:6)
Hannah prayed with gratitude and discernment about God’s uniqueness, no doubt witnessing the oversexed, Canaanite fertility deities:
“There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. (1 Sam. 2:2)
David praised the Lord as he ministered before the ark of the covenant, which held the Ten Commandments:
Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. (1 Chron. 16:10)
David was discouraged, but he proclaimed this truth:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. (Ps. 22:3)
This is an exultant psalm about people praising God—or they should praise him:
Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous, and praise his holy name. (Ps. 97:12)
Isaiah saw a vision of the LORD in his holiness, and the seraphim called to each other:
And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Is. 6:3)
God will judge the Assyrians for their atrocities:
The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers. (Is. 10:17)
Here we see God’s function of redeeming and his name, the LORD Almighty:
Our Redeemer—the Lord Almighty is his name— is the Holy One of Israel. (Is. 47:4)
This is the first time the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the New Covenant Scriptures. It is about the virgin birth of Jesus:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:18)
Demons recognized who Jesus was:
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24)
And the disciples recognized him too:
We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69)
Our bodies can become holy by our surrendering it to God as a sacrifice:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Rom. 12:1)
God’s holy people—the saints or all of us—need the power to grasp God love.
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, (Eph. 3:17-18)
This is a clear call by Peter:
15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16, cf. Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2)
Once we know who we are in Christ, we can act holy. Peter reminds us of our divine status:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, (1 Peter 2:9)
The Spirit is called the Holy One, in line with the Old Testament verses that call the LORD the same term:
But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (1 John 2:20)
Jesus is holy and true:
“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. (Rev. 3:20; cf. Rev. 6:10)
We end the Bible study with the same idea in Is. 6:3, heavenly beings proclaiming God is thrice holy:
Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.” (Rev. 4:8)
Here are other Scriptures:
He is holy (Ps. 99:3-9).
He is called the Holy One of Israel (2 Kings 19:22; Is. 30:11-12; Is. 30:15)
His Spirit is holy (Is. 63:10)
His name is holy (Ps. 111:9)
His throne is holy (Ps. 47:8)
He is majestic in holiness (Exod. 15:11)
His holiness has splendor (1 Chron. 16:27)
He is unique in his holiness (1 Sam. 2:2)
He swears by his holiness (Am. 4:2)
He will show himself holy (Is. 5:16)
His words are holy (Is. 5:16)
His arm is holy (Is. 52:10)
The Father is holy (Matt. 6:9; John 17:11)
The Son is Holy (Luke 1:35; Acts 4:27; Acts 4:30)
The Spirit is holy (Acts 2:4; Rom. 1:4)
How do I grow closer to God?
The word and reality of holy and holiness can be scary for some and delightful for others. Scary because it conjures up images of legalistic Christians of bygone times, who looked like they continually swallowed unsweetened lemon juice from an invisible source. It may be delightful to others because they are close to God and don’t feel deficient in their walks with Christ.
But I agree with Mounce. Holiness has to proceed from our lives in the Spirit. He comes to live in us—the Holy Spirit dwells in us. When we let him flow through us, we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). Holiness does not come from wearing your hair in a tight bun, no makeup, and hemlines down to the ankles—and no jewelry. It does not come from using “churchy,” insider language like “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” No, Gal. 5:22 tells us it comes from life in the Spirit.
Let’s apply the verse to our lives. No apple tree has to struggle and grunt and groan to produce its apples. Life flows through it because it follows its DNA code, its nature, and it is nourished by water (another symbol of the Spirit), the sunlight (a symbol of God’s glory and encompassing presence), and the rich soil (a symbol of nourishment, when it is worked correctly and wisely by the farmer).
In other words, don’t be anxious about whether you exhibit or show enough holiness. It does not mean you separate yourself from the world by living in a monastery or in a closed-in Christian community. How, then, could you proclaim the gospel to the lost world? It means that as you interact with the world and its evil, you pray and allow the Spirit to maintain your life in Christ. Dirty jokes at work? Pray and drift away from the conversation or excuse yourself naturally, without a “holy show” that makes lost sheep feel isolated. Were you once an alcoholic or drug addict, yet God set you free? Don’t go back in to that world. You might fall back in it. If God calls you clearly to back in to witness to your old friends, don’t go alone. Jesus sent his disciples out two by two (Mark 6:7). Holiness can be friendly, not “holier than thou.”
Holiness is about the Spirit, as good Charismatics and Renewalists believe.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES “DO I REALLY KNOW GOD?”
Do I Really Know God? He Is Holy