The True Meaning of Holiness

Why holiness is better than you think!

When I was a teenager, I was involved in a band with some church friends. There were four of us in the band and I played the keyboard. One day, I got in an argument with the guitarist. It was an argument that Christian musicians have been having for centuries.

My friend: “We’re a Christian band. We should only play Christian music.”

Me: “I think we can play anything as long as it it’s good, excellent, and praiseworthy.”

My friend: “No, there’s sacred and secular music. We should have nothing to do with worldly music.”

Me: “To the pure, all things are pure.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were having an argument about the meaning of holiness.

It didn’t end well. Some time later, the band broke up.

The argument I had with my friend encapsulated one of the deepest sources of division in the church. It has to do with the true meaning of holiness. What is holiness?

Two kinds of holiness

We might say there are two kinds of holiness. There’s old covenant holiness and new covenant holiness. There’s Moses-holiness and Jesus-holiness.

And because many people don’t know the difference, we end up arguing about things like music.

Holiness may be the most important word in your vocabulary. Your definition of holiness affects the music you listen to, the books you read, and the friends you have.

How you define holiness, is how you define yourself.

What does it mean to be holy?

Under Moses, holiness was something you got by running away from things. You ran from sin and temptation and unclean people.

But the Jesus kind of holiness runs from nothing. It shines in dark places. It dines with sinners and converses with foreigners.

Be renewed in the spirit of your mind and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. (Ephesians 4:23–24, KJV)

True holiness, which comes from God, can be distinguished counterfeit holiness which is manmade.

True holiness, like true righteousness, is not something we earn but a gift we receive. The moment you were put in Christ, you received his righteousness and holiness.

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30, NIV)

The reaction of my bandmate illustrates how manmade holiness is defined by the lines it draws. “This is sacred, but that is secular. This is clean, but that is unclean.”

Manmade holiness separates us from our neighbors and causes us to hide inside our temples. Manmade holiness says:

“Your secular job is inferior to full-time ministry.”

“You are not allowed to dance or go to parties or do worldly things.”

“Even though it’s an hour away, you should send your kids to the Christian school.”

“To win the culture war we must boycott the latest movie/Disneyland/Walmart.”

Manmade religion leaves you anxious that you might stray across the holiness divide into the realm of the unclean. It causes you to distance yourself from the world when Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified in it (John 17:15–18).

The pursuit of manmade holiness has made the church tribal and Pharisaical.

Instead of shining like stars, we’re cursing the darkness.

Instead of influencing those around us, we’re hiding in our sanctuaries.

Instead of leading the way, we’re criticizing those at the front.

If only we had a better definition of holiness: Jesus is our holiness from God.

When Jesus, the Holy One of God, visited sinners, he did not become unholy or unhealthy. Rather than being tainted by their sin, he “contaminated” them with the love of a holy and wholesome God.

The Holy One healed the broken and made them whole.


Want to go deeper? Check out my new study note “The True Meaning of Holiness: From St. Jerome to John Wycliffe and Back Again.” In this 20-page note I tell the story of how the word holiness came to be shaped by the worship of idols and the writing of the Latin Vulgate. I discuss John Wycliffe’s heroic attempts to restore the word to its original meaning. Drawing on the work of Charles Finney, A.W. Tozer, Watchman Nee and others, I show how the church is split over two very different definitions of holiness. Holiness – it’s better than you think!

Ten years in the making, the study note is now in Paul’s Library (Patreon).

16 Comments on The True Meaning of Holiness

  1. I hope this one provokes some consideration and not just a knee jerk reaction.

    • So I believe that the Old Testament was to show what was holy and what was not holy. However, even Jesus himself said that, “whoever loves the world, does not love me.” And really man, you have to be honest with yourself. Don’t answer me because I know that you’re going to lie. But be honest with yourself, does any of the music you listen to in the world say anything good or holy? Is it something that Jesus would listen to? Ask yourself, would Jesus listen to this music? And if the answer is no, then you know the answer to this question. I don’t care if they’re Disney songs, Music is a form of worship. When you make a song, you are in fact worshipping whatever you’re talking about. So if you’re just singing about girls, drugs, and parties, man that’s not what you should be worshipping. God is the one who created music. Not Satan. So God created music for good. I believe that Christian music is the way to go. However it’s not for the reason that you’re thinking. I say Christian music is the way to go because all of the music in the world is satanic, and if it’s not it’s pretty close. I mean, have you ever listened to worldly songs? They don’t just talk about sex drugs and rock and roll, they worship it. If the music industry didn’t talk about these things, then yes I would say it’s okay to listen.

  2. Richard Williamson // November 3, 2022 at 8:12 am // Reply

    Wow! Great post Paul..such God-sense amongst all the nonsense out there. ❤️

  3. Erik Grangaard // November 3, 2022 at 11:01 am // Reply

    I find this (again) wonderful Paul! Our enemy has done – and is doing – a good work to get rid of the sufficiency of grace by playing his “change of original meaning word game”… like confess (homologeo) and repent (metanoia) into “religious DO” words instead of “receive from Me” words. Thanks for your ability and willingness to go deep into the history of these original words and show how the true Gospel is being constantly attacked, even by Christians. Our enemy knows well that when we mix the law and the gospel we become lukewarm, inefficient, and powerless Christians…

  4. All so true. I have done both extremes in trying to be the child God made/ wants me to be in Christ here on earth, as anew ,confused believer I fell for the “the world is a bad,infectious,unholy place to be avoided”and was a right put off for unbelievers,then I rebelled against the wrong teaching I was hearing as knew somehow it was not right and tried to do/ be what Jesus did/ was by being in the midst of the unbelieving world mainly ,still not advisable. The key word and error here was I was trying to do/be Jesus There is no looking for a happy medium here by us as when we try it fails.All we can do is look to Jesus to guide,direct us by His Holy Spirit in this world,where to go,what to do, how to be,who to be with believers/ unbelievers alike and trust Him/ Holy Spirits wisdom/ protection/ sanctification as He in us =the Clean makes the unclean clean alone.Acts 10:15

  5. The way you write and explain it,….especially with the chart for 2 kinds of holiness,…..just amazing……I praise the Lord Jesus for such a gifting in you. Thank you Brother Paul.

  6. Good stuff, Paul! Letting go of defining Holiness with terms that amount to squeaky clean living is a life changer. It helps me work through it in my mind to consider that God was Holy before there was sin or even creation. Which means sin can’t be used to evaluate what Holiness is. And I’m left to assess that Holiness must find its definition in the nature of the relationship shared between the Father, Son and Spirit – long before corruption came along. Jesus gifting his Holiness to us is absolutely the only way we would ever have the opportunity to participate in it.

  7. Rachel Dawn Chouinard // November 4, 2022 at 6:12 am // Reply

    A million thank yous for sharing Christ

  8. gospelprince // November 4, 2022 at 9:33 am // Reply

    Hi there Paul and the rest of the Gospel team! Indeed we are constantly being bombarded by holier than thou monk+like as well as pharasee-like christians on a regular basis. Like you clearly stated in the table above, the true Christianity is to change the world from inside out rather than the opposite: outside in. The old adage has it that, ‘if you want to outsmart your enemy, join him.

    This adage still holds true to Christians as well, as we are light to the world and salt (or ‘elements of the periodic table’). We are commissioned to change darkness into light, through being directly battling with darkness untill we totally defeat it with our luminance. And we are also supposed to build structures of the true Gospel of grace through our being ‘the periodic elements’ or salt that should’nt lose taste (or their atomic structure), so that this lost world receive assistance from us.

  9. 1 Cor 6:18-20, Phil 4:8, let all things be done unto edification. What fellowship does light have with darkness? Flee every appearance of evil. Friendship with the world is enmity toward God. All of these are NT passages. You sound like the kind of person who has no problem attending a gay wedding.

    • Sounds like you’re saying Jesus was a sinner because he dined with sinners and was known as the friend of sinners.

    • I have gay,transgender family friends whom I love,whom more importantly Jesus loves, how else are they going to hear about WHO Jesus is, what He is like,what HE has done for them at the cross because HE loves them (minus the off putting judgement.).I have also attended a gay wedding in Jesus name – shock, horror !! the sky did not fall down and no one was burnt at the stake because MY Lord and Saviour and His sacrificial Love for us all is bigger,greater,stronger and mightier than all .It’s not the “righteous” that need Jesus it’s the sinners you and me included before we were saved and still now after we are saved . The whole WHOLE of humanity needs Jesus not just a set few as we are,were in the same boat/ predicament before ABBA God regarding our sinful state in need of a sinless Saviour.Make of it what you will , I do not care.Jesus deals lovingly with all people sensitively therefore so do I.As Jesus is so am I this world. Amen

      • Dear Sally,

        I sincerely hope your last statement is not a serious one by you – As Jesus is so am I this world – because that is another way of saying that there aren’t any disparities at all between the character and related actions of our Lord and you (i.e. that you have literally become perfectly sinless in every way).

        Given what you have done with regards to attending a lawless ceremony for two highly confused and mortally unrepentant sinners, you should really recant of and repent from that for your sake and theirs (as well as others) – blessed is the one who does not condemn himself for what he approves (Romans 14:22).

        Jesus does not bless sin and He certainly doesn’t make it appear as if it’s alright for anyone else to do so by profaning what He has ordained, marriage between a man, a woman, and Him. He didn’t ordain two or more men or women, or any other order or construct than one man and one woman with Him.

        Calling eVIL good and good eVIL is the definition of wickedness and doing so is not something anyone should do and call it love. Such “love” is simply man’s love and a demonic love that is far from God and devoid of the Truth who is His Son, Jesus!

        In Christ,

  10. Oh Andrew you seem to have done exactly what most do in your reaction to “ unsavoury issues “ in the body of our Lord Jesus. I am not even going to go there with what you said in all respect and love, been there done it,gone through it, been burnt by it, have been judged, rejected misunderstood by it from believers not JESUS The ISSUE is is it not whether we believe/accept that ABBA God sent His only Son to be our Saviour??!!.One cannot comment about anothers issue until one has lived,experienced,battled,struggled and had to go to the Lordin prayer. Constantly about it. I dare to be misunderstood by believers whilst knowing I am not perfect and have not got it all together for the sake of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His true gospel of grace and what only His sanctifying love and works of grace can do in us all .We as believers were all ALL unsavoury until we after being helped by Holy Spirit said yes to Jesus

  11. georgeeffanga // February 20, 2023 at 7:47 am // Reply

    Holiness is God’s nature- holiness is Christy. All those born of God through faith in Christ Jesus are birthed holy. The principle of creation holds: “… herbs yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with their seeds in it, after their kind…” (Genesis 1:12 WMBBE)

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