Defining Holiness

Defining Holiness
By: Joseph Howell and Daniel Lewis

God is holy; holiness is primarily a divine quality. God calls men to “be ye holy, for I am holy” (I Peter 1:16). Christian holiness, therefore, has its roots in the holiness of God. The believer possesses no holiness of his own, but rather experiences the free gift of holiness that God alone can share. Holiness is not produced by human effort. Men do not force God to save them by performing righteous acts or by restricting their behavior. Holiness is not a list of divine demands dropped out of heaven on the heads of sinful men. Neither is holiness a set of rules or a body of disciplines demanded and enforced by an authority figure or a group. Rather, holiness is the character of God – those qualities which separate God from the human level, which clearly point out man’s inability to please God, and which enable God to freely span the gap created by sin so as to save men. Christian holiness, if it is true holiness”, must rest squarely on God’s holiness.

Christian holiness is derived holiness. Christians are proclaimed holy by the reception of the Holy Spirit into their lives. (Note that it is God’s Spirit which is holy, not man’s character or action.) God has also commissioned the Christian to live a lifestyle which conforms to the character of divine holiness. “Be ye holy,” God commands. Both the fact and the demand of Christian holiness begin and end in God’s holiness. God calls men to holiness, proclaims them holy, and empowers them to live morally through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. Men are made holy – consecrated, set aside for specific tasks – by God’s free grace that appears to all. To overestimate human effort would be to deny God’s sufficiency in salvation; to underestimate human response to divine salvation and demand would make divine action pointless and ineffectual. But God’s actions are far from pointless. As God redeems sinful man, man becomes holy and is called to lead a life of holiness.


The Biblical concept of holiness arises out of the early Hebrew conception of God. To the Hebrew mind, God was personal, all-powerful, all-knowing and glorious. God is consistently depicted throughout the Old Testament writings as the object of worship, reverence and service. Although the Old Testament writers addressed themselves to a wide variety of God’s attributes (i.e. omnipotence, wisdom, glory, omniscience, etc.), the primary divine attribute discussed in the Old Testament is the holiness of God. The Old Testament provides a progressive picture of God’s holiness; as man’s understanding of God increased through additional revelation, his understanding of God’s holiness also increased and developed, taking on new and important content. The Old Testament reveals God’s holiness in three developmental stages: holiness as divine transcendence, holiness as ethical perfection and demand, and holiness as God’s saving righteousness.

Holiness As Transcendence Over The Human Level

The most common designation for God’s nature among the early Hebrews was holiness, which refers to the “wholly-otherness” of God. His total transcendence is defined as “surpassing, excelling, superior to, going beyond the limits of,”(and in this particular usage, it means “altogether beyond the bounds of human limitation.”) The holy nature of God meant simply that God in his very nature was set apart from man’s level; God is not man, man is not God. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9). Of course, this Old Testament understanding of God’s separation from the human level did not mean that God was inactive in human history. The God of the Hebrews, of His own free will, revealed Himself in word and action in the history of national Israel. This early
idea of God’s holiness did not refer to apathy and inaction or even to moral and ethical separation, but rather a separation of position, prestige, rank, work and nature. The God of the Hebrews was alone holy; no
human, no nation, not even any other “deity” could span the insurmountable distance between God and the human realm.

In contrast to the religions of Israel’s neighbors, the Hebrews asserted that only God’s person was truly holy. No physical place, object, ceremony, time, day, festival or sacrifice was in itself holy. The separation between the holy and the profane, to the Hebrew mind, depended on the degree to which the otherwise common object, day or event was dedicated to Yahweh. The tabernacle, temple, sacrifices, ritual ceremonies, holy vessels, and so forth, all received significance from their dedication to the service of a holy God, rather than from any inherent holiness of their own. The priesthood was pronounced “holy”, consecrated, and “set apart” only in light of its relationship to God (Leviticus 8). The ground upon which Moses stood was holy, not as a national shrine, but only because the holy presence of God was there (Exodus 3:5). The ark of the covenant was not an idol to be worshipped as a Canaanite idol, but rather it was merely the throne where God’s presence would dwell making that golden chest holy (I Samuel 4:4, Psalms 99:1).

When men experienced the holiness of God, a consistent response appeared: awe, fascination, urgency, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and creatureliness (see Exodus 19,20, especially 20:18-21 which depicts the reverence of Israel before the voice of God at the giving of the law). The awesome “otherness” of God was conceived as totally independent of Israel’s moral, military and political success, God was the Lord of all nations, not Israel alone. God was the Lord of all places, not merely the mountains or the valleys. God was not holy because of Israel’s human achievement or worship; he was holy because he was God. The “otherness” of God was inherent in His nature and called all men in every nation and every generation to reverential fear. (Note: this sense of awe is the true meaning of the phrase “fear of God”, rather than the fear of vengeful judgment.)

Holiness As Ethical Perfection And Demand

As Israel’s faith matured and developed in light of additional revelation, the Hebrew conception of God also developed. New content was added to the early concepts and was based on Israel’s confrontations with God in mighty, saving acts of history (i.e., the exodus, the plagues, the Canaan conquest, etc.) and especially in the interpretations of these events by the spoken and written messages of the prophets. This progressive understanding of God’s character peaked in the 8th Century B.C. with a group of prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah) who almost simultaneously expressed the nature of God in terms of ethical and moral perfection. (This is not to say that such concepts were nonexistent prior to the 8th Century prophets, but
rather that these concepts were documented and made universal through their teachings.) To the holiness-transcendence concept the holiness-righteousness nature of God was added. “Righteousness” became a byword of the 8th Century prophets concerning God’s nature.

In accordance with this new understanding of God’s nature, a new understanding of sin developed. The righteous nature of God demanded right conduct on the part of His people. Micah sums up God’s ethical demand of men in terms quite different than Israel’s customary ritualistic worship.

“Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Micah 6:6-8

This demand was not merely a legalistic call to right conduct, but rather a call to right conduct in response to a new understanding of God. Sin took on a new meaning in light of this new understanding. Sin came to be viewed as a broken relationship, rather than merely a broken rule, for to violate God’s ethical demand was to violate God’s own righteous nature. The eighth century prophets’ favorite designation for sin was “rebellion” (rendered “transgression” in KJV) which carries the connotation of rejected love and rejected personality, rather than a mere overstepping of a known boundary. If holiness-righteousness is inherent in God’s character, it becomes clear that all sin is sin against God (Psalms 51:3,4).

From the base of this new concept of God and sin, the 8th century prophets called for a radical social reform among the Hebrews. Amos argued against the compartmentalization of life which revered the holy places and feasts but ignored and mistreated the helpless and needy (see particularly Amos 5:21-24). Both Hosea and Isaiah found the root of Israel’s sinful state in the “lack of knowledge” of God, clearly indicating a failure on Israel’s part to understand the righteous character of the God which they proclaimed (cf. Hosea 4:6 and Isaiah 1:3).

Perhaps the clearest example of the development of the new righteousness content of God’s holiness is found in the call of Isaiah.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him who cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah 6:1-5

Isaiah reacted in the usual manner to God’s holiness: awed, overpowered and keenly aware of his creatureliness as the angels clearly sing of God’s holiness. But along with Isaiah’s reverential fear of God’s “otherness,” a sense of guilt and condemnation occurs in his mind, for he says, “Woe is me for I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips.” Clearly, Isaiah experienced a moment of moral truth about himself in this confrontation with God’s holiness, Holiness is therefore more than just God’s transcendence, it is also God’s moral perfection. Holiness calls not only for the response of reverence and fear by men, but also justice and ethical behavior in the human realm.

Holiness As God’s Saving Righteousness

Although the addition of the righteousness-quality to Israel’s conception of God with its corresponding ethical demand upon men was a positive step in the development of the “holiness” concept, we dare not think that the Old Testament progressive understanding of this term ended here.

In the writings of the prophets, the holiness of God takes on a relational role to man, that relation being an ethical standard by which men are called to live (best expressed in the image of the plumbline in Amos’ prophecies). Out of this demand for ethical perfection arose the Hebrew concept of justice or judgment, the result of man failing to meet the divine standard.

Out of the same demand for ethical perfection which justly condemns man, the meaning of God’s holiness-righteousness takes on a new developmental meaning, not in the realm of condemnation, but rather in the area of salvation. Already suggested in the writings of the 8th century prophets is the tendency of God in his righteous character to show an unbalanced favor for the weak and helpless. Especially in the call to social reform, the bias of God’s favor is clearly with those who are unable to aid themselves, that is, the poor, the widows, and the fatherless. In the writings of the second section of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66), God’s holiness-righteousness has taken a definite turn beyond merely an ethical demand. It becomes the saving force which redeems those who are helpless to meet this demand. According to Isaiah, “to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and those who sit in darkness out of the prison house” are expressions of God’s righteous nature (Isaiah 42:6-7). Isaiah also contests God’s saving righteousness with the condemnation of judgment:

“For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner; but my salvation shall not be abolished.” Isaiah 51:6

Holiness-righteousness here is clearly a part of the vocabulary.

Therefore, the holiness-righteousness attribute of God not only demands ethical perfection, but also provides redemption for limited man who always falls short of God’s demand. God demonstrates favoritism towards the helpless. Holiness came to men as a balancing effect, making right the imbalances of society. The righteousness of God not only demands righteousness, but also makes men righteous. Much more than simply an ethical standard, it is an active force within God’s character which brings weak men to salvation. Against this Old Testament prophetic background, Christ announces that the “good news is preached to the poor”, in this case not only the physically poor and needy, but also all who are “poor in spirit”, that is, all who are without the payment for forgiveness. In short, the good news is for every human.

The final development of the Old Testament concept of holiness-righteousness is not limited to justice, but actually rises above justice to forgiveness. God, on the basis of His holiness, will tip the scales in the favor of the needy, God is more than just; He is righteous in saving men! So Jeremiah cries out, “…with justice, remember mercy.”

The Holiness-Righteousness of God In The New Testament

In the New Testament, this same idea of the holiness-righteousness of God points to the multiple character of God who demands ethical perfection of men and supplies the means whereby weak men can become righteous.


Righteousness in the New Testament is not to be understood strictly as judgment set over against mercy. God’s righteousness is both demanding and saving. In light of this, it is extremely difficult to call the righteousness of God a condemning force (a common practice among some commentators), for man must actively resist the saving-righteousness of God to be judged of God.

Herein lies the distinction between first-century Judaism’s concept of salvation and that of Jesus: Judaism held the law to be mandatory, with man resting on his own ability to fulfill it, whereas Christ, after the Old Testament order, realized both the limited nature of man which rendered him incapable of moral perfection, and the bias of God in forgiving those who are too weak to help themselves. The only men who were outside the realm of God’s saving righteousness were those who denied their very need of God’s righteousness. Thus, publicans and prostitutes would enter the kingdom before scribes and Pharisees, in Christ’s estimation. The outcasts knew they needed help from God, but the religious professionals considered themselves to be self-sufficient.

Pauline theology also builds its foundation on this Old Testament concept of the holiness-righteousness of God as it appears both in an ethical demand which lies beyond the reach of limited, weak men and in the saving grace the favors the weak and powerless by providing forgiveness and

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth… For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16-17

The righteousness of God, in Paul’s thinking, is not expressed in the condemnation of sinful man; rather, the active unrighteousness of man results in condemnation. The righteousness of God is active in delivering those who are unable to deliver themselves. Men are forgiven, redeemed, justified, reconciled, and sanctified, not due to their own power or merit, but due to God Who acts in His righteousness to save and deliver men in spite of their weakness.

Holiness As A Divine Attribute

Holiness as an attribute of God, therefore, has three dimensions: holiness as separation from the human realm, holiness as ethical perfection resulting in an ethical demand, and holiness as righteous saving action
which results in the salvation of helpless, sinful men. Christian holiness is therefore a gift of God’s holiness, the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is imputed, not earned. “Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags
before him” (Isaiah 64:6). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Men are made holy because God is holy in separation, demand, and saving action. Any understanding of holiness outside this scriptural context must be held in question.

(The above material was taken from the book “A Call To Holiness.”)

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