Holiness: A Short Guide to a Complicated Doctrine

A graphic with two interlocking circles, with a Bible and a candle prominently featured. This represents how we should pursue holiness by obeying the Scriptures.

Among the divine attributes, none is so mysterious and sublime as that of divine holiness. In systematic theology, the divine attributes—aspects of God’s character and being—are normally divided into two categories: the incommunicable and the communicable. The incommunicable attributes are those attributes that God alone possesses, such as omnipotence and omniscience. The communicable attributes are those which can be shared, in lesser degrees, by human creatures, such as goodness and holiness.

Holiness is, then, a communicable attribute, something predicated of God, but also sharable with human beings. Hence the repeated refrain in the book of Leviticus, “You must be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2; cf. Lev 20:7, 26; 23:32 [LEB]). In sum, God is holy (an indicative truth); therefore, God’s people must be holy (an imperative action). Thus, God’s holiness and human holiness intersect, insofar as the former shapes the later. God is holy and accordingly expects his people to act in holiness and to be holy.

But herein lies the problem. What is holiness? The topic is instantly complex, since holiness is an adjective (i.e, the holy God), a predicate of God (i.e., God is holy), and a command (i.e., be holy). Holiness is something God is like, something that God is, and something that God expects of his people. In addition, holiness can be conceived in the abstract, similar to how we think of the highest good, the greatest glory, or the loveliest thing. What is goodness, glory, or love relative to God? The same is true of holiness. We know that God is holy and that his people must strive to be holy, but holiness is notoriously hard to define.

To make matters even more complicated, there are debates over the meaning of biblical words for holiness, over just how far Christians can go in their quest for perfect holiness, and over whether holiness is “positional” or “progressive” in the Christian life (i.e., a fact about our status with God in Christ or a fact about our actual behavior).

Therefore, it is the aim of this study to provide a short guide to the doctrine of holiness. We will work through a preliminary description of biblical words for holiness, and we will survey a biblical theology of holiness in the OT and NT. We will also examine the contributions of historical theology as to what holiness has meant to Christians of the past. Then we will consider some application for today.

Biblical words for holiness

The Hebrew verb qdš and cognates means to separate, dedicate, devote, consecrate, set apart for divine purposes. In the Old Testament, holiness has cultic connotations with references to the liturgies and rituals performed in the temple and how the temple can transfer people and even utensils from unclean/profane to clean/holy. Holiness is also a moral state of God and is associated with that which is consistent with God and his character.1 Similar connotations carry over into Greco-Roman cultures with their uses of hagiasmos (Greek) and sanctus (Latin), terms that belong to the sacred realm. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), qdš is the normally translated as hagios, which is largely “a cultic concept, of the quality possessed by things and persons that could approach a divinity.”2 In addition, the verb hagiazein refers to the process, ritual, or event whereby something or someone becomes devoted, dedicated, hallowed, or holy unto God. It is important to note that early Christian discourse about holiness cannot be limited to the moral realm. Holiness overlaps with “righteousness” and “blamelessness” but is not reducible to it. Rather, “the emphasis is not upon a manner of life but upon religious activity and observances which reflect one’s dedication or consecration to God.”3 Holiness signifies the cultic, spatial, and relational aspects of dedication and devotion to God.

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The holiness of God

One could argue that holiness is the best way of describing the nature of God. The “Holy One” is a synonym for God, and “holiness” is the ultimate descriptor for God. A frequent refrain in the Old Testament is that God is “the Holy One of Israel” (2 Kgs 19:22; Ps 71:22; Isa 1:4; 54:5). In addition, holiness is the only attribute that is said of God three times with “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). Such language inspired the trisagion of ancient liturgies, which acclaims God and prays: “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal one, have mercy upon us.” Clement of Rome acclaimed God as “holiest among the holy” (1 Clem 59.3). Biblical mentions of divine holiness, in context, touch upon several different things—such God’s righteousness and moral excellence, his integrity and fidelity, his set-apartness and otherness, his transcendence and resplendence. Certainly, God’s holiness encompasses all of these things, but at the same time God’s holiness also exceeds them. God’s holiness is the single attribute that distinguishes God from everything and everyone in heaven and on earth: Creator from creature, absolute purity from the mundane and profane. We might go so far as to say that holiness refers to the sheer Godness of God himself. Holiness becomes that which God is uniquely and infinitely in himself in contradistinction to the ontological and moral chasm that separates God from his creatures. In fact, “to be holy,” comments John Goldingay,

is to belong to a different realm from the everyday, the worldly, the human, the created, the this-worldly. It is to belong to the heavenly realm, the supernatural world. … To say that Yahweh is thrice-holy is to say that Yahweh is the ultimate in the supernatural, extraordinary, uncreated, heavenly.4

In sum, God’s holiness is God’s unique state of glorious set-apartness, God’s marvelous metaphysical magnificence, but also his moral superiority to his creatures.5

The New Testament assumes that the holiness of Israel’s God applies to the God of Jesus, to God the Word who is incarnated as the man Jesus, and to the Holy Spirit who is gifted to believers. Thus, the New Testament takes it as axiomatic that God the Father is holy. Mary celebrates that God is the “Mighty One” and “holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). This is why the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to begin their prayers with, “Our Father, may your name be treated as holy” (Matt 6:9; Luke 11:2). Jesus also prayed to the “holy Father” that the disciples may be one just as the Father and the Son are one (John 17:11). In John of Patmos’s vision of heaven, the martyrs petition God with the words “holy and true God” (Rev 6:10).

In addition, Jesus the Son of God is holy. Jesus is even addressed by the title “Holy One of God” by demons (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34)—and later by the church in its preaching from Scripture (Acts 2:27; 3:14; 13:35; Rev 3:7). What is more, in the Johannine high priestly prayer, Jesus prays, “For them [his disciples] I sanctify myself, so that they themselves also may be sanctified in the truth” (John 17:19). In this verse, according to D. A. Carson, “Jesus is as determined to set himself apart for his Father’s exclusive service as the Father is to set him apart.”6

Finally, the Holy Spirit is holy. For a start, the “Holy Spirit” equates to the “Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4) and the genitive here is one of apposition; that is, “the Spirit who is holy.” Importantly the work of the Holy Spirit includes, among other things, sanctifying, consecrating, and sacralizing believers. Paul writes to the Roman house churches that Gentiles such as themselves have “become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:16) and to the Corinthians that they are “sanctified … in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).

In sum, the triune God is a holy God comprised of the Holy Father, the Holy Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is holy in his name and being. The Son is holy as the sanctified Holy One of God. The Holy Spirit is the spirit who is holy and communicates holiness to believers.

The holiness of God’s people

The senses in which God’s people are holy can be divided into the categories of election, position, progress, and perfection.

1. Election

There is an election unto holiness. God calls and creates a holy people. God called Israel to be his holy people set apart from the other nations (Deut 26:19; 28:9). More specifically, the Israelites were to be a royal–priestly representative of Yahweh on earth: “You will belong to me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6), and an expression of Yahweh’s own holiness: “You shall be holy for me, because I, Yahweh, am holy, and I have singled you out from the nations to be mine” (Lev 20:26). The church, as the representatives of Israel in the messianic age, are also elected to holiness. As a royal–priestly people, they are God’s possession who proclaim the excellences of God (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10). They are, then, “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2).

2. Position

Believers, by virtue of their union with Christ and possession of the Spirit, are positionally sanctified irrespective of their moral state. Believers are consecrated and set apart by God in the same way that a tong or dish can be dedicated to divine use in the altar of the temple (Acts 20:32; Rom 1:7; Eph 1:1; 2 Tim 2:21; 1 Pet 1:2). This is why Paul can refer to the “church of God sanctified in Christ Jesus that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2). The Corinthian church was rife with factions, sexual immorality, incest, and idolatry, yet Paul can still refer to them as “sanctified.” The church is “sanctified” by the “blood” of Jesus (Heb 13:12). They are sanctified saints because they belong to God even if they do not behave as they should.

3. Progress

There is also an expectation that believers will pursue their holy calling by living holy lives. This is what we mean by the term “progressive sanctification.” This is why, across Scripture, there are commands to avoid corruption and contamination from sin (Ezra 9:11–12; Prov 25:26; Jas 1:27) and to actively pursue holiness in the everyday lives of the people of the church (Lev 19:2; 20:7, 26; Deut 28:9; Rom 6:19, 22; 8:1–14; 12:1–2; 2 Cor 7:1; Heb 12:10, 14; 2 Pet 1:5–7). One should strive to be “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4; 5:27; Col 1:22) in “the midst of a crooked and perverted generation” (Phil 2:15) until the day of Jesus’s return (Phil 1:10; 1 Cor 1:8).

4. Perfection

Believers are also to strive for perfection. One thinks here quite naturally of Jesus’s command to disciples: “Therefore you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). In the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, this has been seen as more than aspirational and theoretical: it is seen as a genuine state of definitive sanctification that one can pursue in this life. More on that soon, but a few things should be immediately noted.

  1. Jesus’s words here largely rehearse Deuteronomy 18:13 in relationship not to sinless perfection, but to a complete devotion to the entire will of God.
  2. The underlying Greek word teleios means “mature, whole, complete”—or, in this case, “fully developed in a moral sense.”
  3. It is more likely that Jesus is urging disciples to aim for a certain standard, not promising them the possibility of attaining a particular moral state. As Leon Morris put it:

To set this kind of perfection before his followers means that Jesus saw them as always having something for which to strive. No matter how far along the path of Christian service we are, there is still something to aim for. There is a wholeheartedness about being Christian; all that we have and all that we are must be taken up into the service of the Father.7

In sum, believers are dedicated to God and by God (positional holiness), and they progress in holy living as they increasingly devote themselves to living in blamelessness (progressive holiness). In scriptural language, we pray that God will “sanctify” us “completely” (1 Thess 5:23) even as we are told to “sanctify yourselves” (Num 11:18; Josh 3:5; 7:13; 1 Sam 16:5). Believers are to strive for perfection like a ship guiding itself towards the north star even though it can never actually reach it.

Holiness in church history: some highlights

It is impossible to survey entirely the church’s teaching on God’s holiness and human sanctification, so what follows are some notable highlights from the history of Christian thinking about divine and human holiness.

The church fathers

The church fathers operated as the heirs of the apostolic generation and had to conceive of holiness amidst local persecution, internal conflicts, and external influences. In Greco-Roman philosophies such as Stoicism, it was thought good for friends to form partnerships and to urge each other on towards virtue, which would include things like piety and the imitation of things divine. However, in early Christianity, the community as a whole was conceived as a body in communion with God and in communion with each other. The most tangible way that this holiness was embodied was in liturgies and in the ethics of a common life together. Hence exhortations like that of Clement to the Romans:

Therefore, being a holy portion, let us do everything that pertains to holiness, fleeing from evil speech, both abominable and impure embraces, both drunkenness and rebellions and detestable lusts, loathsome adulteries, detestable haughtiness. (1 Clem 30.1)

Similarly, bishop Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Ephesians that they are “God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holy things” (Eph. 9.2). Such conduct, by what it avoided as much as what it did, was necessary to preserve the holiness of the communion that included the All-Holy God, the Holy Son, the holy angels, the holy presbyters and bishops, and the holy church, for which the spiritual glue between them was the Holy Spirit. There were also things that enhanced holiness—not only faith, but virginity, celibacy, fasting, commemoration of martyrs, holy ministry, the Eucharist, prayer, and giving alms.

Medieval times

Holiness in medieval times was a major concern of the monastic movement. The monasteries allowed monks of all varieties to give themselves over entirely to prayer, fasting, contemplation, the imitation of Christ, the practice of the very presence of God, and the pursuit of the beatific vision of God in his holiness, glory, and mystery. The monks lived intentionally hallowed lives lived apart from the “secular” realm (that is, the life of this age), with the intention of attaining a closer communion with God than was possible for most persons. Monasteries, through learning as much as through strict discipline, endeavored to reach a mode of spiritual life, a complete consecration, that enabled monks to migrate from the terrestrial towards a participation in the transfiguring splendor of God.

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The Reformers

The Reformed tradition affirmed the holiness traditions of the patristic and medieval church even as it often moved away from them. The Reformers were excited enthusiasts for the holiness of God, which provided the backdrop to understand the grotesque evils of human sin. However, they rejected holiness as a mere facet of the church’s institutional life, as if the church’s holiness was an intrinsic feature of its ornate cathedrals, consecrated sacraments, and its celibate priesthood. What made the church holy was not its rites but the presence and preaching of the holy word of God. Holiness was not to be attained by the infusion of grace from the sacraments, but from the transformative power of the word that rebuked sinful hearts and exhorted the wayward to lives of deep and authentic religious piety. For Calvin, human holiness began with regeneration, God’s life-giving and sanctifying power that came upon a person—which, if rightly curated and cultivated, would in due time produce both the fruit of the Spirit and religion that God accepted as holy.

The Wesleyans

The Wesley brothers had formed the “Holy Club” at Oxford in 1729 and laid the foundation for many of the key distinctives of the Wesleyan holiness tradition. Whereas the age of enlightenment spawned an interest in autodidacts and self-improvement guides, the holiness movement of the Wesley brothers and their successors pointed to a mixture of surrender and moral discipline as the path towards holiness. In the Wesleyan/Pentecostal/Holiness traditions, it has been often said that “moral perfection” is a possibility in this life. John Wesley taught some form of this doctrine in his short essay, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.” To be fair to Wesley, he did qualify what he meant by “perfection” considerably. While the impetus towards perfection might derive some legitimacy from Matthew 5:48 (“You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”), this is not the only way to understand that verse (see above). Moreover, the danger posed by the pursuit of perfectionism is that it potentially rehearses the Pelagian premise that “ought” means “can.” That we ought to be perfect does not establish that perfection in this life is really attainable. We all struggle with sin, and it is actually a further mark of our imperfection to deny this fact (see Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:8). There is always a danger that we can “over-realize” our sanctification, which, because of sin and struggle, will never be fully complete until our glorification in the new creation.8

Holiness as a way of life

Holiness is not for people who are “holier than thou.” The church corporately and believers individually are called to a holy way of life. As Margaret Köstenberger puts it: “Holy living is not just for a select few special people. Holiness matters for every believer.”9

The holy God is sublimely sacred and must be approached in holiness. This is why holiness is both gift and demand, election and calling, infusion and action. The God who cannot be approached because of divine holiness approaches us, and he gives us access to himself through the cleansing and sanctifying work of Jesus Christ. Thereafter, the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into holiness by producing conviction, desire, and reverent fear. Holiness is apprehended in union with Christ and is imparted to the believer through the Spirit of Holiness (1 Cor 1:30). Holiness then becomes a type of habit that occurs from immersing oneself in things divine and cultivating deep piety. Holiness happens through the imitation of God (Eph 5:1) and the mortification of sin (Rom 8:13).

Holiness is not moralism, asceticism, exemplarism, or legalism, but is the consequent of the gospel of Jesus. God declares the unholy to be holy and then progressively conforms them to the pattern of divine holiness. Thus, there is a difference between our positional holiness and our progressive holiness, but the goal of sanctification is to unify them as far as is possible. On the one hand, we cannot forget the depravity of our behavior, nor can we forgo the continued struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. But on the other hand, the truth of the gospel will not allow us to constantly bewail our wretched estate without respect to the power of Jesus to free us from the penalty, the power, and (eventually) the very presence of sin. What makes the gospel “good news” is that God has declared us and even made us something else: saints, holy ones, children of God, the church triumphant. Our faith compels us to think of our sins as nailed to the cross—and we bear them no more, for God has made it well with our soul.

Consequently, although it is common to think that Christians are merely sinners saved by grace—depraved worms ever deserving of the deity’s dumpster of destruction, who are graciously granted a share in eternal life—that should not be our conclusion. Instead, we should think of ourselves as saints who sometimes sin.10 What defines us is not who we once were apart from Jesus, but who we are while being conformed to the image of the Son (Rom 8:29), and who we shall be revealed to be as the glorious children of God (Rom 8:19). We are no longer who we once were, nor will we ever be that person again. That old self is dead, crucified, buried, and raised into a new person. True, sin might nip at my heels, trying to draw me back to a life I left behind; but sin is no longer our true master, and sin is no longer the source of our true identity. Holiness is not simply about trying harder; yes, it takes effort (2 Pet 1:5), but it is more than that. It is about faith in God’s holy power, a power that makes the unclean clean, turns the profane into something sacred, and calls and consecrates us into a Christ-shaped way of being human. Holiness happens when I draw myself nearer to a holy God and God’s Spirit is drawn into the very fabric of my being. It is in communion with God that we are consecrated and committed to a holy pattern of existence that is set apart from the ways of this world.

Conclusion

It is important that we publicly pray, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev 4:8), because it is a stark reminder of God’s transcendent and sublime “otherness” from us. To know God is to know God as holy, holy, holy. To worship God is to worship the God who is holy with holy acts of praise and devotion. To believe in God is to call upon the Father whose name must be hallowed; the Son, the Holy One of Israel who sanctifies himself for us; and the Spirit of holiness who infuses sacred fire into our lives so that we too might be holy.

The “hole” in our holiness, to use Kevin DeYoung’s clever turn of phrase, is that we do not take holiness seriously as part of our spiritual disciplines. Yet the pursuit of holiness, as Jerry Bridges put it in his classic work, is a major part of the Christian life. Yes, there is the risk of spiritual elitism, a puritanical separationism, choosing purity over mission; but at the same time, there can be no spirituality, no purity of heart and mind, and no true mission without holiness. Church unity and mission are easy without holiness, and holiness is easier without church unity and mission. But disciples of Jesus are called to both, to mission and holiness, to live alternative lives that shine like stars in a crooked world and to pursue transformation towards divine perfection, even as we struggle with sin and strive to be in the world but not of the world.

Dr. Bird recommends these books about holiness for further study

In addition to the list below, Dr. Bird also recommends Holiness by John Webster (London: SCM, 2003).

Sanctification (New Studies in Dogmatics)

Sanctification (New Studies in Dogmatics)

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Holiness: Past and Present

Holiness: Past and Present

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Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, 2nd ed.

Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, 2nd ed.

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The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God's Story

The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story

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The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness

The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness

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The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

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Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ (Short Studies in Biblical Theology)

Sanctification as Set Apart and Growing in Christ (Short Studies in Biblical Theology)

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Holy Trinity: Holy People

Holy Trinity: Holy People

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Already Sanctified: A Theology of the Christian Life in Light of God’s Completed Work

Already Sanctified: A Theology of the Christian Life in Light of God’s Completed Work

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  1. D. P. Wright, “Holiness: Old Testament,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman, 6 vols. (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1992), 3:237.
  2. BDAG, s.v. “ἅγιος.”
  3. Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1:537.
  4. John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014), 97–98.
  5. See too John Webster, Holiness (London: SCM, 2003), 100.
  6. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 567.
  7. Leon L. Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 134.
  8. For a Wesleyan critique of perfectionism, see Ben Witherington, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Wesleyanism, and Pentecostalism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 209–16.
  9. Margaret Köstenberger, “10 Things You Should Know About Sanctification,” Crossway blog, June 27, 2023.
  10. Robert Saucy, “‘Sinners’ Who Are Forgiven or ‘Saints’ Who Sin?” BibSac 152 (1995): 400–412.
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Written by
Michael F. Bird

Michael F. Bird (PhD University of Queensland) is Deputy Principal at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an Anglican priest and the author of over 30 books about the New Testament and Theology. He can be found on X at @mbird12 and blogs at michaelfbird.substack.com

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