An old tale is told about a group of blind men who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. One man touches the leg and concludes, “Elephants are like trees.” “Oh no,” says the man touching the ear. “Elephants are like fans.” “You’re both wrong,” says the man touching the tail. “Elephants are like snakes.”
What is true of elephants might also be true of holiness. God is holy, but what is holiness? It’s like we have a bit of idea and from this bit we have formed a composite picture. “It’s like this,” says the theologian. “No, it’s like that,” says the Bible school student. We’re like blind men feeling our way around something that is far bigger than we can imagine.
I am aware of seven 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? In this short series, we are going to discover that holiness is far better than we’ve been led to believe. Just as elephants are more interesting that tree trunks and fans, true holiness will fry your mind.
But first, let’s dispel a few myths. Here are seven misleading and useless definitions of holiness:
1: Holiness is sin avoidance
Yes I know all about those scriptures exhorting us to “wash and make yourselves clean” (Isa 1:16). And I know that Jesus plans to present us to Himself “holy and unblemished” (Eph 5:27). So what’s the problem? 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.
2: Holiness is being set apart from something
Didn’t Paul say something about coming out and being separate from the world? He did (see 2 Cor 6:17-18). Wasn’t Jesus separate from sinners and undefiled? He was (see Heb 7:26). So what’s the problem with this definition? Like much holiness preaching, this definition is apt to make us allergic to sinners. Jesus was untouched by sin but He was also the friend of sinners. He spent far more time in the company of sinners than most holiness preachers. Jesus didn’t pray that we would be taken out of the world but that we would be sanctified in it (Joh 17:15-18). True holiness runs from nothing.
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? That just sounds weird.
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. This is why those who preach “practical holiness” like to provide 7 keys or 12 steps you can take to become holy. (Good luck with that!)
What’s the problem with this definition? 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.
5: Holiness is righteousness
You would be surprised at how often holiness is defined as righteousness. Certainty Jesus is known as the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14), but do these two words mean the same thing? I think not. It’s like saying “Paul is witty and smart.” Sure, there is considerable overlap but there’s also a difference. God is holy AND God is righteous. They are not identical. So what is holiness?
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). 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. Write like that on your English test and you’ll get an F. Come on now – we can do better.
7: Holiness means worthy of devotion
I got this definition out of the dictionary. Yes, this one does apply to a holy God (finally!) – He is worthy of our worship. (See Ps 99:9 if you need a scripture to prove it.) 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 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.
Holiness is like elephants
What is true of elephants may be true of holiness. Each definition above is partly true but wholly wrong. Each comes close-ish to the target without actually hitting it. So what is holiness? In my next post we’re going to take the blinkers off and find out. Stay tuned!