Living a holy life should never be defined as „living without sin.‟ In fact, sin has got nothing to do with holiness at all! We have been programmed to think that it does, because the religious world has made holiness mean „not sinning,‟ and they have made that the most important issue for the church.
Much of what passes for holiness preaching today is old covenant theology dressed up in new covenant ribbons. See if you can spot the difference:
- Then: God promised we would be His holy people if we kept the rules. The law is a how-to manual for holiness.
- Now: Am I saved by the law? Oh, no way. That’s so old covenant. I don’t keep the law to earn salvation. No, the law shows me how to live pleasing to the Lord. The law is a how-to manual for holiness.
Do you see the difference? There is no difference! In fact, the only difference between then and now is that some of the rules have changed. The Israelites lived by the ceremonial rules of Moses; today, many Christians make up their own rules. “I just keep the red letters of Jesus.” “I try to do everything in the Bible.” “I just do whatever my pastor says.”
There are at least three ways to determine whether the holiness message you’re listening to reflects the condemning covenant of the law or the new and liberating covenant of grace:
- Old covenant holiness is based on who you are (a sinner) and is sold as a list of things you must do; new covenant holiness is based on who Christ is (our holiness – 1 Cor 1:30) and what He has done (sanctified you – Heb 2:11, Rom 11:16).
- Old covenant holiness emphasizes sacrifices you are expected to make; new covenant holiness emphasizes the perfectly perfect sacrifice of the Lamb, by which you were “perfected forever” (Heb 10:14).
- Old covenant holiness is sold as a process of increasing sanctification – something “we grow into” as we become more like Christ; new covenant holiness is presented as a done deal (Heb 10:10).
God is holy, but what is holiness? There are few definitions of holiness – you may know of others – none of which is particularly good. To be fair, each definition has an element of truth in it and can be backed up from scripture. But as we will see, none of these definitions can be used to describe a God who is holy.
Why does this matter? It matters a great deal. We are called to “be holy as the Lord is holy.” But how can we be holy if we don’t even know what holiness means? As we’ll see, we are going to discover that holiness is far better than we’ve been led to believe.
What Holiness Is Not
Before I’ll give you a definition, let’s dispel a few myths:
1: Holiness is sin avoidance
Yes, there are all those scriptures exhorting us to “wash and make yourselves clean” (Isa 1:16), and that Jesus plans to present us to Himself “holy and unblemished” (Eph 5:27). The problem is we’re defining a thing (holiness) in terms of something that is not the thing (sin). It’s like defining light as the absence of darkness. It’s technically true, but it’s not a good description. It doesn’t actually tell us what holiness is. Neither does it describe a God who was holy long before there was any sin to avoid.
3: Holiness is being set apart to God
This definition probably comes closest to the literal meaning of the Hebrew (qâdôsh) and Greek (hagios) words for holy. It is certainly useful as an adjective it for describing holy things like temples (Ps 11:4) and mountains (Ex 19:23). But how does this definition describe a holy God? Is God dedicated to Himself? Is God set apart for Himself? How would He do that?
4: Holiness is moral perfection
This one is straight out of the old covenant (Lev 18:26-30) which means it’s popular on the majority of those websites preaching holiness. It was certainly popular with Charles Finney. He said, “Holiness is moral perfection, and nothing short of moral perfection, or moral rectitude, is holiness.” Since there are degrees of perfection, one might conclude that there are degrees of holiness – some are holier than others.
The problem with this definition is that you can’t work your way to holiness! Didn’t fourteen centuries of law-keeping covenant teach us anything? You might as well try and climb to the moon. It’s just not possible.
6: Holiness is godliness
Again, this is not a bad definition and it is Biblical: “You ought to live holy and godly lives” (2 Pet 3:11, NIV). But it is not a particularly useful definition. It’s like saying God is godly which is redundant. We might as well talk about flowery flowers or bananary bananas.
7: Holiness means worthy of devotion
This definition is out of the dictionary. Yes, this one does apply to a holy God! – He is worthy of our worship. (Ps 99:9). But the angels are holy too (Mk 8:38). Should we worship them as well? And what about us? We are a holy priesthood and a holy nation. If holiness means worthy of devotion then we must be worthy of devotion and frankly we’re not – at least not the sort of devotion that is due to a holy God. So either there are two kinds of holiness – one for God and one for us – or this is not a great definition.
What Is Holiness?
The Law of First Mention that is taught to the Bible Schools says that you need to pay particular attention the first time anything is mentioned in the Bible. In Genesis 2:3, we find the first mention of the word qadash which means “sanctify” or “made holy.” As you can see, sanctification has little to do with rule-keeping or sin avoidance and everything to do with being complete. It’s almost as if God could envisage how we would get confused in our pursuit of holiness and so decided to send us a message by connecting holiness with holidays.
Adam and Eve began their new lives on a holiday. Sure there was much to do and learn and discover, but they were made fully formed and lacking nothing. They weren’t works-in-progress – they were God-made masterpieces, flawless works of art, perfectly capable of communing with the Creator. Sadly, they never got to experience the life that God had for them but that was not because of some manufacturing defect. Adam and Eve made a bad and fleshly choice. But put aside the Fall for the moment and try to envision how things might have been if all had gone according to the original plan. The holy life that God intended for Adam and Eve was meant to be one of joyful discovery and learning to live loved. Their occupation was meant to be co-laboring with the Lord of life. Living in fellowship with the Lord they were capable of unimaginable greatness.
This is exactly how it is with you. The day you began your new life in Christ you were made wholly new and fully formed. The new you is holy and whole; you are literally complete in Him (Col 2:10). Spiritually-speaking, you are a God-made masterpiece, a flawless work of art, perfectly capable of communing with the One who made you and gave you His life. You are not a work in progress for you have been made perfect forever (Heb 10:14).
So what happens now? 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.
This is what it means to live the Christian life. It is not striving to perfect what He started; it is resting in His finished work and holidaying in His holiness. When you have had a revelation of His sanctifying work, all the pressure to perform and improve evaporates. There’s no need for D.I.Y. Christianity because everything that needed to be done to make you a new creation has been done. The pressure’s off because it is finished.
So, holiness means wholeness. To say that “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.
Holiness means perfection in the sense of completion. When Jesus, the Holy One, came exhorting us to “Be perfect,” He was inviting us to a life of wholeness and holiness (Mt 5:48). The Greek word for “perfect” means “complete” or “whole.” Jesus was saying, “Be whole as your Father in heaven is whole.” Jesus came to make broken people whole. He was calling us to the life that was His.
A holy and whole God stands in contrast to an unholy and broken world. Because of sin and separation we live in a world of death and scarcity. In our natural state we are consumed with our needs and lack. We spend our lives trying to get what we don’t have and trying to repair the damage of our estrangement. But the only cure for our brokenness is a revelation of a whole and holy God who lacks nothing and who has promised to supply all our needs out of His overflowing sufficiency.
You might ask, why the root of the greek word hagios doesn’t highlight wholeness? I don’t think Strong’s definition is wrong, just incomplete. God is holy and always has been. In what sense was he set apart before creation? There was nothing to be set apart from? In what sense was he sacred when there was nothing profane?
“Set apart” or “separate” is what you are when you are whole in a world of brokenness, complete in world of lack, and healthy in a world of hurt. It is very difficult to hear the word separate and not interpret it through old covenant lenses of “don’t touch, don’t handle”(Colossians 2:20-22) or “do to be” – “I have to separate myself to be holy.” I would say we are separate because we are holy. So set apart or separate yes, but only because those who are apart from Christ lack something; not because we lack something.
The real question is, how we got away from that definition. If you have access to the Oxford English Dictionary – and I mean the full version, not the concise one – look up the etymology of the word holy. You will find this: “Old English hál, free from injury, whole, hale.” Also, Webster’s Word Histories, p.223, is saying the same. You can check out any standard dictionary for the meaning of the Old English halig. It clearly was tied to the concept of whole or healthy. Our earliest English translators clearly saw a meaning of whole in the word holy as a later replacement for halig. That is the stance of any serious etymology.
This is what the word originally meant and that’s how Spurgeon understood it in the 19th century, 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; this is the crown of his honour and the honour of his crown. His power is not his choicest jewel, nor his sovereignty, but his holiness. In this all comprehensive moral excellence he would have his creatures take delight, and when they do so their delight is evidence that their hearts have been renewed, and they themselves have been made partakers of his holiness.
It makes perfect sense: God is whole, man is incomplete. God is intact, man is broken. True holiness – the kind we read about on nearly every page of the Bible – speaks of God’s beauty and wholeness. To define holiness in terms of sin – eg: sin avoidance – is like defining the sun in terms of darkness. God is love and God is holy, but under the old covenant love and holiness became redefined or re-anchored on us. Love became something we must do and holiness something we mustn’t do. These are inferior definitions.
If God is the very definition of holy, surely He should define our understanding of holiness. Indeed, this is what the scriptures do. They portray the sublime perfections of a God who is holy. God Himself shows us what it means to be holy. It is only when we get to Moses and the law that a new definition of holiness appears. It’s an inferior definition not based on God’s perfection, but sin’s imperfection.
We have settled for the lesser definition – the imperfect, sin-based definition – when Christ calls us to aim higher: “Be perfect (or complete, hale, and whole) as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48). It’s impossible for us, but possible with God. In Christ, who is our holiness from God, we are holy (1 Cor 1:30). As the Vine is holy, so are the branches. We are not made holy by avoiding sin; we are made holy by Jesus (Heb 10:14).
In Christ, you are perfect for all time. There is absolutely nothing you can do to improve upon this state of affairs. The many exhortations in scripture to be holy have nothing to do with self-improvement and sin avoidance, and everything to do with working out what Christ has already accomplished.
Interestingly, the root word for qadosh, usually translated as `sanctified’ or `separated,’ means `to be at the very height of being absolutely ready for all that is good.’ (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, p. xii). To be holy means to walk by faith in the Son of God who is our God-given holiness. It’s enjoying the abundant life that comes from living from our new identity in Jesus Christ.
As we saw, the Bible declares we were sanctified (1 Cor 6:11); we have been made holy through His sacrifice and perfected forever (Heb 10:10,14); and we are complete in Christ (Col 2:10). In Him we lack absolutely nothing.
We need to change our vocabulary. We need to start walking in our true identity of holiness. We need to thank Him for who He is and what He’s done. Here is a simple idea to help you do that. Whenever you read the words “holy” or “sanctified” in scripture, replace them with the heavenly language of wholeness and completion. This will give you a clearer insight into what Jesus has accomplished:
- To the church of God in Corinth, to those complete in Christ Jesus and called to be whole. (1 Cor 1:2)
- Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and wholeness. (Eph 4:24)
- So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord… who has saved us and called us to a whole and complete life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. (2 Tim 1:9, NIV)
- But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a whole nation, a people belonging to God. (1 Pet 2:9)
- But now since you have been set free from sin and have become the slaves of God, you have your present reward in wholeness and its end is eternal life. (Rom 6:22, AMP)
When we realize that holiness is simply living from that place where you are seated in Jesus and his fullness, it will get your eyes off yourself and onto him, who He is in you and who you are in Him. The more you see that, the more it will flow through you here on earth. The more you see your position, the more you will live from that position, and the more you live from that position the more you will actually overcome sin. More importantly, it will cause you to see heaven come to earth through your life and more and more you will do the works Jesus did, and greater. God did not leave us on earth to see how much sin we could overcome. He left us on earth to see how much of heaven He could bring to earth through us!
You have the potential for total victory over sin. You have the potential to walk in divine health. You have the potential to walk with God in the glory realm twenty-four hours a day, the potential for great wealth and to finance nations, to continuously hear the voice of God, to raise the dead, to do the works Jesus did and all that God has planned for you to do.
The Christians need to hear who we really are. Sons of God, 100% the righteous of God in Christ Jesus, perfect, complete, seated in the heavenly places, blessed with every blessing, holy, pleasing to the Father, accepted in the Beloved, more than conquerors, unable to be separated from God‟s love etc! That is our true identity. To agree with that is holy thinking!
Jesus gives us a picture of a whole and holy life, unbroken and unstained by sin. Everything Jesus does is prefaced by holiness. His is a holy love, a holy righteousness, a holy joy. Holiness, or wholeness, is the very definition of abundant life. Such is the life you already have in Him.