What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

Bethany Verrett
2021
14 Apr
Person holding up a Bible

God is so big, so good, and so beyond the mortal mind. There are many ways for people to learn more about God, and yet He is still so incomprehensible. One of the many attributes of God that makes Him so big is His holiness. It is an abstract idea that people understand is related to goodness, that sin offends Him, and that it is something to which each person should aspire. Holiness is the natural state of God and the opposite of man’s sinful nature. Holiness is the state of perfection, being fully sanctified, and set apart. 

What Does Holy Mean?

Holiness can be an abstract concept because it is so foreign to human nature. People turn to sin and darkness, making themselves strangers to God and His holy nature. It is the opposite of sin – goodness, love, and wisdom.

To demonstrate what it means to be holy, God first set apart the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be a holy nation to demonstrate to the world what it meant to live holy and for God. He instituted the law to show what was right and wrong, as well as to institute rules to help keep people clean, saying, “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground” (Leviticus 11:44).

Of course, Jesus would later clarify that it is not what someone brings into their body that defiles them and makes them unrighteous, but what comes out of the mouth and the heart. Today, striving for holiness means having a relationship with God defined by obedience to His will and being shaped to have His character; “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7).

Being holy makes the believer set apart from the evils of the world and useful for His kingdom.

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Person holding up a Bible

Why Do We Say God Is Holy?

God’s mysterious nature can be seen in many places. He is three persons in one - the Trinity. He is spirit, and yet took on a mortal form. He is everywhere and all-knowing. There are many ways to describe Him, but no man has ever seen Him. Fortunately, some individuals have gotten to see a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of God. The veil between Heaven and Earth was pulled back. The prophet Isaiah was one of those individuals.

This powerful vision is recorded:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:1-4).

God’s presence is so completely holy, that even the angels closest to Him in physical proximity cover their eyes and proclaim his holiness. When Moses had the opportunity to see the back of God, his face was changed: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:29-30). God’s perfection defines the universe. He created the world to be good and He remains good. He can only be Himself - perfect and holy.

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Person holding up a Bible

Where Does the Bible Talk about Holiness?

One of the best places to learn about the nature of holiness is in the place in the Temple, created to house the holiness of God. At the very center of the complex built in the Temple of Solomon was an area called the Holy of Holies. This area was set apart from the rest of the complex, separated by a four-inch-thick curtain, and, “Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (Hebrews 9:3-5a).

The mercy seat was made by the outstretched wings of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, and it was the place where the Spirit of God settled when it entered the Temple once a year.

Because of the purely holy presence of God, before the death and resurrection of Christ, the only person who could be in there on the day the Spirit entered was the High Priest after going through personal purification and sanctification. He entered the Temple to offer penance for the unintentional sins of the people; He would enter the other side of the curtain with a rope attached to a bell tied around his foot. To be in the holy presence of God is an overwhelming experience, and if the priest had not truly repented of his sins, he would die because of the weight of that sin and the holiness of God. The rope was so the priest’s body could be removed.

Holiness is God’s natural state, so His very presence fills the space with that holiness. Sin is the antithesis, or opposite, of it, so those who are still living in their sin without repentance of forgiveness, cannot stand in God’s presence. The Bible says, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2). When Jesus, died despite having lived a sinless life, He made God’s forgiveness available for all people, with His righteousness and holiness available to us.

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Person holding up a Bible

What Are the Characteristics of a Holy Person?

There is only one person who lived a perfect, holy life. When the Son of God came to earth and took on flesh, He faced the same trials and temptation, understanding what ordinary people face, but able to overcome them as only He could. The beloved apostle John wrote, “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him” (John 7:18).

Using Jesus as a model for holiness is setting the bar high, but the best representation of it. Through prophecy and firsthand accounts of Jesus the Bible tells its readers that Jesus is:

- Faithful (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

- Loves righteousness, hates lawlessness (Hebrews 1:9)

- Humble (Zechariah 9:9)

- Innocent (Hebrews 7:26)

- Honest (Isaiah 53:9)

- Obedient (Philippians 2:8)

These traits are only a few of the many wonderful characteristics of the Savior. It can seem difficult to aspire to them. However, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of God no longer indwelled the Temple. Instead, the Holy Spirit lives within each believer; “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,  for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Just like there was a time when God’s righteousness lived in the Temple, it now lives in believers, working in them through a process of sanctification - the act and process of making things holy.

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Person holding up a Bible

How Can We Grow in Holiness?

The Holy Spirit lives in those who have submitted themselves to God, who have repented of their sin, and placed their faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. By having a relationship with Him through prayer, studying the Word, worship, and fellowship with other Christians, God teaches people how to be more like Him.

Because His nature is holy, learning to be like Him, to love Him and others well, will help shape each person who pursues this relationship into a more holy person. Paul wrote about this transformation in 1 Corinthians, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? ... And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9a-11). When Christians pursue sanctification, they open themselves up to being changed from the inside out. 

Holiness is something that will always take effort on this side of Heaven. There will always be temptation, and the flesh is weak, even when the Spirit is willing. Relying on the Holy Spirit can be difficult, because of the humility required to admit that without help from God, people are unable to be righteous and holy. One day, God promises that all who believe in Him, and put their faith in Jesus Christ will finally be holy and spend eternity with Him.

“Since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:16).

Sources

Hargreaves, James. Free Justification by Strength Inseparably Connected with Holiness of Heart and Life. London: Harjette and Sivil, 1834.

Sproul, R.C. The Holiness of God. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Page, I.E. Life Worth Living Thoughts on Christian Holiness. Haughton & Co., 1878.

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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.

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