7 useless definitions of holiness

An old tale is told about a group of blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. The first blind man man touches the leg and concludes, “Elephants are like trees.” “Oh no,” says the blind 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 big picture. “It’s like this,” says the theologian. “No, it’s like that,” says the Bible school student. We’re like blind men groping our way around something that is bigger than we can imagine.

I am aware of seven definitions of holiness that are not 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 2-part series, we are going to discover that holiness is far better than we’ve been led to believe. Just as elephants are more interesting than 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

I know there are 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 with this definition?

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 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 (2 Cor 6:17-18)? Wasn’t Jesus separate from sinners and undefiled (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 (John 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 does that work? It just sounds weird.

4: Holiness is moral perfection

This definition of holiness is straight out of the old covenant (Lev 18:26-30) which is why it’s popular with those 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 some 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. We can do better.

7: Holiness means worthy of devotion

This is the definition you’ll find in a dictionary, and yes, it does apply to a holy God (finally!). God is worthy of our worship. But the angels are holy too (Mark 8:38). Should we worship them as well? 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 to the target without actually hitting it.

So what is holiness? In my next article we’ll to take the blinkers off and find out. Stay tuned!


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28 Comments on 7 useless definitions of holiness

  1. John Senior // May 21, 2012 at 5:24 am // Reply

    Love it!!. Just had a conversation with a pastor about us needing to keep the moral law to make us holy – he loves his Moral Law. He also, unfortunately, thinks our righteousness is merely imputed – again it our works that transform us. Oh well!!! He has gone so far as to suggest that I am an Antinomian (because I don’t believe we have to keep this Moral Law) and that I might even be a heretic because I don’t subscribe to his (or his denominations) teachings about the Law.

  2. I remember the above story. Great post.

  3. Hi Paul, this comes exactly at the right time. Thank you.
    ….but with these kind of “cliffhangers” you should consider to work in the TV business 🙂

    • Hi Tobias – sorry for the cliffhangers! But there’s a reason I (sometimes) have them at the beginning of a series – it’s to help me gauge the level of interest in a new subject. I have a lot to say about holiness. If people are interested I will write more than I might otherwise plan to. I will put up the next post on Wednesday or Thursday.

  4. does Holiness means ‘Set apart’ / ‘Uncommon’ ?
    so if I do not practice 1 J 1:9 and the rest practice it, means I am holy?

  5. holiness is NOT outward/physical appearance! my ‘ears’ perked up when i read this b/c yesterday i was listening to JP sermon- about how some people believe holiness is the way you dress (ladies w/ no makeup and tight buns) what made me laugh was when he said “but their tongues are so long they can sit in the living room and lick a spoon in the kitchen!” holiness is a person…there is no holiness apart from Jesus! 🙂

  6. I think I am with Jennie on this one, but hey looking forward to you Paul filling in theblanks..is holiness the very character, personhood of Jesus..? Jesus is grace… right, he is what true humility really is… compassion, gentleness, kindness etc.Is holiness like a combination of all these qualities, like if your hands were big enough you would feel all of the elephant in one go and get a grip on holiness, but our hands are only very small so we can’t do that, we can’t grasp all of holiness in one go…its just too big a task for us mere mortals, just as God is, we can’t fathom His majesty and size? For us to become holier people, we need to be like Jesus, is that what it means to be in Christ?? Any holiness we express is expressing what we have of Christ in us? So the way we dress etc can’t be holiness..cause we all dress differently and we don’t express what Jesus wore so that doesn’t seem to apply or matter..it has to be those unseen traits or qualities, those priceless unchanging character traits of who God is? Christ who lives in us, is that what holiness is or am I off track?

    • James – Jesus is the Holy One and He is most definitely our holiness (1 Cor 1:30). And we are holy because we are in Him (1 Cor 1:2). But holiness as an adjective can be distinguished from Jesus as a Person. I hope to upload the next post later today – just a bit flat tack with book-writing this morning. Stay tuned!

      Postscript: The new post “What is holiness?” has just been uploaded.

  7. Roshan Easo // May 23, 2012 at 9:37 am // Reply

    I was seriously confused at a point when I thought I had no where to turn except God. God approached me with a progressive set of options at that time. For example, relationship or wisdom, holiness or grace. It was wierd because I thought holiness was better so I could be a vessel of grace to others. Then I became convinced through intimidation that holiness was imperative. Grace was bloody and God was not happy in having to spill his blood for me. Very discouraging to say the least. Only recently through you grace-folk have I learned that this was the law at it’s finest. I’m glad to share the news that grace was God’s plan, not ours, and apparently He judges no one! He’s not begrudging us! I am delighted that His divinity (as you explain, before there was ever sin!) is very much compatible with our humanity. Look forward to the next post!

    • Roshan Easo // May 23, 2012 at 9:44 am // Reply

      And yes, it was scary as He**. I exerted a lot of self-effort at that time and honestly I think those self-efforts somehow justify me. What a bad attitude! First I was condemned – then I became arrogant!

  8. I can’t wait Paul.My pastor was preaching on holiness so much,i was beginning to feel unholy.Yikes! then the next time he started preaching again,I thought,oh no here we go.Then i felt this unseen hand on my shoulder as if saying it’s ok.I felt this assurance.I love my Pastor.I think we need a great deal of teaching in this area though.Send your wisdom Paul.This is a cliffhanger.Who says Gods word is not fun and exciting.

    • Hi Sandy, that’s an awesome testimony and one I can relate to. But it’s worse when you’re the one preaching drivel and you feel that hand! Yes, God’s word is brilliant! Such fun! BTW, the wait is over and the next post (“What is holiness?“) is now up. I have about three more on holiness which will go up over the next week or so.

  9. Beloved, there has been many interpretations of the word holy or holiness. One definition is: To be set apart from the world unto God. The Cherubim in heaven cry out; holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty as they circle the throne of God. Now why would they do that? They have been doing that for trillions of years in the endless, everlasting realm, of timelessness. I have heard that its because every time they circle the throne of God, God reveals to them a new facet of Himself that they have never seen before. That’s because God is an exceeding God and He always outdoes Himself over and over again because there is so much of Him; so much glory, and even though we will spend eternity with Him in heaven, that will still not be enough time to know Him fully in all His glory and splendor. But nevertheless, the best definition of holy or holiness is the word Gracious, or Merciful. Lets face it, I don’t praise God because He is wearing a white holy suit, and I’m wearing a black sinful suit, no that’s not holiness. Jesus is our holiness and righteousness! …

  10. Paul, thank you for these posts. I haven’t heard much discussion on holiness and it is helping me to define another aspect of God and my relationship with him. Keep us thinking, renewing our minds.

  11. Janice Low // July 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm // Reply

    I’d like to learn more about grace

  12. Thank you! This was a big help to me!

  13. Rytchard Ademola // January 4, 2013 at 10:02 am // Reply

    I ll love to always have more of this.

  14. osilaja kemi christiana // June 14, 2013 at 3:16 am // Reply

    It’s make me know what is all about holiness and to understand OT and NT of it.

  15. Tokunbo Zubair // July 19, 2013 at 8:15 pm // Reply

    My take is this….God says, let there be light and there was light. He says be holy for I am holy. What do you want to do with that? Receive it or debate it.. The choice is yours. You shall be taught of God. Those who God teaches come to Jesus or the Light. So you hear God and you come to the light. however, it would be crazy to live in darkness and claim to live in the light, in fact you would be a liar. Shall I continue till I get to 250 words I wonder? One day on my way to church, I said to God, give me a garment of praise and I believed I received a garment of praise…I know for sure by my actions that day, that I received a garment of praise. Holiness defies explanation. God says I am holy, be holy, what more can be added to that? Imagine this is you will
    FATHER: Child be holy for I am holy.
    SON: I am holy for you are holy.
    CHILD: Lord, I believe and receive that I am holy for you are holy.

  16. Thank you for posting this comments. I myself made a perhaps similar search into the meaning of holy and found Spurgeon to be instrumental in making sense of the idea of moral wholeness. I am now doing my second search or “research” into the meaning of holy and it is very enlightening. I think you would be encouraged by what I have discovered even on a more scholarly level. Thank you again. Jon

  17. I would like to hear your thoughts on “what is the “glory” of God.” I believe it is much more than being under the spout where the “Glory” pours out!

    Thank you for your articles,

  18. Holiness is anything God says it is, it is me.It may be the homosexual you know, it may be the murderer, the rapist, it may be your worst enemy, it may be the worst of sinners.

  19. Ken Younos // March 18, 2018 at 2:56 am // Reply

    The Bible provides a definition of “holiness” in Leviticus 10:9-10:

    “Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.”

    What does drinking alcohol have to do with moral perfection? Nothing. “Holy” is the opposite of common or profane. There’s a proper way to regard and approach God, that’s what the Bible means when it says God is “holy”. For this reason anything and anyone associated with or belonging to God must be ritually clean and “holy” as well. They must be appropriate vessels.

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