What is Holiness?


February 8, 2018

Without holiness no one will see the Lord.  Hebrews 12:14        

A generation ago, Dr. Harry Ironside wrote a book entitled, Holiness: The True and the False.  Ironside hit upon an important truth--people always counterfeit the real thing.  Trying to reproduce the characteristics of holiness without understanding the nature of the real thing, though, is much like counterfeiting money: it's fraudulent and a practice which can get you into a lot of trouble.

Today, our understanding of the word "holy" is clouded by images of Indian gurus, their bodies emaciated, garbed in dirty white robes, their beards long and unkempt, and their eyes glazed as they stare into space.  Some refer to these aberrations of humanity as "holy men!"  Yet this is not holiness in the Biblical sense.  Ascetics?  Yes!  Nonconformist?  Certainly!  Religious?  Perhaps.  But, please, don't call them holy in the sense that God is holy.

Somewhere we have gotten the idea that holiness has more to do with what you do and what you don’t do.  After I came to Christ at the age of 12, I was quickly told that there are some things which Christians do and other things that they do not do.  Some of the admonitions were based on the teachings of the Bible, but most had little, of anything to do with what Jesus or the writers of Scripture taught.  They were cultural appendages, tucked onto Christianity in the name of holiness.

But Biblical holiness is not simply about behavior.  God is holy because He is unlike anything in this world.  Objects used in Old Testament worship were said to be holy because they were set apart from common things and used solely in the worship of God.  So what is holiness?

Turning to the pages of the Bible to answer that question, you learn very quickly two things:  (1) Holy is one of the words which describes God, and (2) He expects this kind of difference in His people.   When the law was given, God spoke to Moses saying, "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy’" (Leviticus 19:2).

The words which are used in both the Old and New Testaments have two ideas behind them:  (1) Purity, and (2) Separation.

In the Bible, this word "holy" is used more than any other adjective to describe the nature and character of God.  And in thinking of a holy God, we usually tend to think of someone far removed from the reality of life on earth, as though God is in a hermetically-sealed "heaven" somewhere free of dust and dirt, and certainly free of the kind of people we are, with our sins and failures.

But holiness relates to the nature of God, not His separation from our lives and our world.  To the contrary, the point of the entire Bible is that this kind of God penetrated our world with its rottenness and filth, in sending His Son at Bethlehem so that we can partake of the nature of God and thus can be like Him.

Arthur Pink, in his book The Attributes of God, makes a valid point when he says we are not called to be all-knowing or all-powerful as God is, but we are called to be holy...and that ‘in all manner of deportment' (1 Peter 1:15).  Second Timothy 1:9 says that He, “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”  This is why we can be holy as He is holy.

Resource reading: 1 Peter 1:13-25

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