The biggest misunderstanding about holiness

March 11th, 2011 · by Tom Stuart · Overcoming, Relationship with God

“For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16 NLT)

The word holy and its derivative holiness are two of the most misunderstood words in the Bible.  It is surprising because they are used over 460 times in the Old Testament and 230 times in the New Testament.  The problem however is not in understanding the meaning of this important concept.  Everyone would agree, including Merriam Webster, that to be holy means to be set apart and devoted to God and His purposes.  Both the original Hebrew and Greek words for holy clearly convey this.

Where there is confusion is in understanding how someone or something becomes holy.  Most people think that holiness is a result of something we do.  It is a common belief that holiness is what happens to us when we conform our attitude and actions to God’s holy will.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin to comprehend any Biblical truth or concept it is always insightful to go back and look at the passage of scripture where it is first introduced. This is called the principle of first mention.  When we go to a concordance we discover that the word holy was first used in the book of Exodus.  It is a very familiar passage of scripture where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and called him to be the deliverer of the Israelites.  “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:5 NIV)

Now we need to ask the question.  What made the ground holy?  Was it Moses’ response?  Was it his final acquiescence and conformity to God’s will?  No, the ground was holy before Moses arrived.  In this instance, it is obvious that it was holy because a) God said so and b) He, the Great I Am Who Am, was there. 

It could go without saying, but it is important to note that wherever God chooses to be is holy, simply because He is holy.  In this case it was a specific place for a limited period of time.  When God ceased to be there, the ground naturally ceased to be holy.  In other words, when the Lord departs, His glory and holiness depart as well. 

St. Catherine’s Burning Bush

As an aside, religious shrines where God once visited, do not sustain His presence nor His holiness.  Several years ago Susan and I visited the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Arabian Peninsula.  There enshrined within the monastery courtyard was a bush they claim to be THE bush.  Not!  It was laughable, but a clear illustration of this truth. Holiness is something God determines and not man.

And that is the crux of the holiness understanding.  Holiness is not something we as humans will or do.  Holiness which essentially is becoming like God is impossible apart from His will and initiative.  It does not depend upon us, but wholly upon Him.  It is God who makes us holy.  This is the mystery of Christianity which is Christ, the Holy One, taking up residence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. 

Imagine, we are holy, not by self effort, but by the fact that God declares us so; because His Holy Spirit resides in us through faith in His son Jesus.  It is always a wonder to me how the Apostle Paul repeatedly refers to his friends in his epistles as saints.  The word saint comes from the same Greek word, hagios, from which we get the word holy.  In other words Paul is referring to his friends in the various churches as the “holy ones.”

What if some of them were having a bad hair day and giving into sin?  Did they thereby cease to be saints?  Are they, and therefore us also, by default part time saints?  No!  We are holy saints because, like the ground at the burning bush, a) God says so and b) He dwells in us by the Holy Spirit. 

The challenge of course is how we practically demonstrate His holiness in our lives.  But that my friends, is a topic for a future blog post. 

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this topic.

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5 Responses to “The biggest misunderstanding about holiness”

  1. Great post. Ready for part two, “demonstrating holiness in our lives”.

  2. “Holiness is not something we as humans will or do. Holiness which essentially is becoming like God is impossible apart from His will and initiative. It does not depend upon us, but wholly upon Him. It is God who makes us holy. This is the mystery of Christianity which is Christ, the Holy One, taking up residence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.”

    MOST EXCELLENT!!! So many things you have said or written stick with me forever. This is one of those.

    I too am looking forward to how we practically demonstrate His holiness in our lives!

  3. Holiness is indeed as explained, imparted by Father, yet, we are instructed to -be ye Holy ,for I Am Holy. So it means there is something now in furtherance, to live up to what we are called and made. 2 Peter 1:10.
    We need to observe Holiness in our conduct all the days and in our Doctrine, fellowship, partnership
    — one by one in every aspect of life. The Work is done in our Spirit, we need to work on our Soul / Mind -too. Romans 12:1-2

  4. Yes, I am anxious to read the second Epistle too, ….soon, please Pastor!

  5. Timotheus – You have given me a good start and are thinking as I am that holiness although imputed to us by God we must demonstrate it in our lives. Colossians 3:12 says it well “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” NLT I’ll say more next week. Thanks!

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