What Does It Mean to be Holy?

One of my favorite characters in cinema history is the swashbuckling spaniard Inigo Montoya (from the movie The Princess Bride). When his boisterous boss Vizzini keeps calling everything that happens “Inconceivable!”, Inigo famously quips one of my favorite lines in cinema history: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

For many churchgoers, the word “holy” has become a natural part of our vocabulary. We speak of God as holy; we think of certain places as “holy ground” or sacred space; we have holidays (=”holy days”); we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

We keep using that word. But does it mean what we think it means?

God commands his people more than once in Scripture to “Be holy, because I am holy” (see Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:15-16). But how can we obey this command unless we have some idea of what “being holy” means? If I told you to “Be demorgrified,” you’d have no chance of obeying me until you learned what being “demorgrified” even means. (I made it up, so good luck with that.)

It’s important to understand what we mean when we talk about holiness, because having the wrong idea can lead to some serious consequences.

To Be Set Apart?

Think about it this way: if someone asked you to give them a quick, one-sentence definition of “holiness,” what would you say?

Maybe you’d start with “being set apart.” This is common – at least, I’ve definitely heard it preached quite often. And it is a pretty good start. After all, in other ancient writings besides the Bible, words for “holy” meant “special” or “set apart for the divine.” Priests, temples, idols – these were all “set apart” from the ordinary things of human life. They were to be treated with reverence because they were associated with the spiritual realm.

And the Bible does use the word “holy” that way at times. For example, Leviticus 20:26 (CSB) says, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be mine.” God’s people are to be “set apart” or different from the non-believing people around them. They should be unique just as their God is unique.

Especially in the Old Testament, the concept of holiness carries with it the idea of being unique or set apart because of association with God. On an even deeper level, it can be said that only God is perfectly holy (see 1 Samuel 2:2). He alone is utterly unique, transcendent, pure, and good. So we can understand that being holy means being “set apart” from things that are sinful, and that Christians are to live distinct lives and pursue moral purity – that much is all certainly true.

But that hardly captures the full depth of what God’s Word means by telling us to “be holy.” In Scripture, being set apart is only a secondary aspect of holiness. It includes that, yes; but it’s crucial to keep in mind that it’s also more than that.

And that’s important.

Because when our entire concept of holiness boils down to “being set apart,” we run into a huge problem – namely, we begin to measure our spirituality by all the “bad things” we don’t do. We start to see churches where people think, “I’m holy because I don’t drink or smoke or dance or go to the movies or have instruments in church.” Reducing holiness to separation can also result in the unhealthy notion that the “culture” (another term people use without any clear definition) outside the church is all bad and to be avoided.

But who gets to decide what is to be avoided and what is to be engaged with? Yes, Scripture sets many parameters, but there is much that Scripture leaves up to our individual consciences (see Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8-10). That’s why our concept of being holy must not be reduced only to separation. Before you know it, you’re left with the same ugly spiritual sickness as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day: legalism and boundary-marking.

Separation is the negative side of the holiness coin, but there’s also a positive side that must not be overlooked.

To Be Devoted

Holiness was never meant to be reduced to rule-keeping or obsessing over boundaries. That’s because holiness is all about God’s character and God’s values – which happen to be about much more than rules.

God doesn’t just stay away from evil; he actively pursues our good. He doesn’t isolate himself from our sinful world; he comes down and seeks us. He shows love. He carries out justice.

And if God is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6:3), then being holy means being like what God is like.

Old Testament professor Peter Gentry writes that:

“Holiness is not identical with moral purity, although there is a connection. Holiness should not be defined as moral purity, but rather purity is the result of being completely devoted to God…”[1]

In the Old Testament, things became holy by virtue of being devoted to God and to his purposes. “Holy ground” is ground devoted to meeting with God. The temple and all its utensils were “holy” because they were devoted to God’s special use in worship. And the Israelites were to be “holy” by being devoted to their relationship with God and prioritizing his values in a way none of the other nations were.

It’s because all these things were devoted to something good and pure (the holy God) that they were also to be separate from what is impure.

In other words, I would suggest that being “holy” means to be totally devoted to God – to his character, his values, and his mission in the world. For one who has a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ, being holy involves becoming more like this God who you’re in a loving relationship with.

So . . . what does that look like in real life?

The Picture of Holiness

If you wanted a complete picture of what “holiness” looks like, you have only to look at Jesus. Jesus is the perfect representation, in human form, of all that God is (see Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). That means he’s our perfect picture of what holiness looks like.

To be holy is to be like Jesus.

And notice what Jesus didn’t do: he didn’t refuse to spend time with sinners. He didn’t live as a “super-spiritual” recluse or set up a monastic community to escape the corrupt “culture.” He didn’t obsess over having a perfect reputation or trying to be seen as more pure than everyone else. And he never says to keep a checklist of religious routines.

But what he DID do was demonstrate God’s perfect love. He practiced compassion. He relentlessly pursued God’s mission to “seek and to save the lost.” He zealously carried out the will of the Father at every moment. He devoted himself to a life of active and intimate prayer. He spoke the truth, but in love and with grace. He walked where the Spirit led. And every person he touched was made clean.

Does being holy include the need to be pure? Absolutely. Only the pure in heart will see God (Matthew 5:8). Jesus tells us to “Go and sin no more” (John 5:14; 8:11). But holiness is so much more than just that.

Holiness is devotion to everything God is.

It’s the pursuit of everything he values.

It’s loving God and loving others.

It’s as simple as that.


I hope this reflection helps you to see that being holy is far more about saying a resounding “Yes” to God and to life according to his intentions before it’s ever about saying “No” to a bunch of things. I plan on posting more in the future about how growing in holiness works and about the vital role the Holy Spirit plays in that process. For now, please let me know in the comments what you thought of this reflection!

See you down the path.


[1] Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” Bibliotheca Sacra 170 (2013), 413 (italics added).

Categories: Theology

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2 replies

  1. This is an awesome and practical/applicable expression and defining word for holiness. I enjoyed the read very much! Dad


  2. You are right that is how our Jesus live and talk to anyone who will listen and loved everyone. Thank you for stating in those words.


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