Images of doves descending with rays of sunshine slicing through clouds, of haloed persons with hands folded, living on prayers and no food…. Is that “holy”? Hair piled up in a bee hive or combed over, white shirts and black ties walking by or rolling down the street on bikes, horse and buggy & no electricity, holy water and holy priestly robes, a special language few people know… really… “holy”? The question is important, because the Bible mentions holy a bit over 600 times (Old and New Testaments). We’d better get this right. And, in my experience, the subject of holiness turns a lot of people off, because it is often misunderstood.
You’ll be relieved to know that holiness has more to do with the inside than with external oddities or mystic rituals. There are two aspects to the meaning of holy. First, when reading the Scriptures, you’ll notice God proclaims Himself to be holy. When He does this, God means for you to understand he is unique. There is no one like him. Second, when applied to humans and any other part of creation, holy simply means “to be set apart to some purpose / for someone.”
On that first aspect, what does God’s uniqueness look like? Well, for starts, (you should have heard it before) God loves like no one else can. God loves you and likes you and wants you, even though He knows ALL about you. Also, he is patient like no one else. He keeps his promises like no one else. He forgives like no one else; it is his particular glory. NO one has a perfected sense of humor like God’s! He is fair and impartial and unbiased like no one else. God is gentle and kind like none other. He is just plain good to people, though often rejected or maligned. He has knowledge and power beyond anyone else’s–limitless. He doesn’t have character flaws. He is without sin like no one else… because no one else can claim to be without sin; but more than that, he doesn’t even have it within himself to desire wrong things or like evil. He hates evil for what it does to people directly and indirectly; he’s offended by it like no one else because it is so unlike him. And, my personal favorite…. He has no beginning and no ending–no one made God; and in that way, he is unlike any creature. He doesn’t get sick or tired or poor or dead. [We endure these things, because of sin’s consequences (sin being so against nature, as it is).] But, God is unique in all these ways. He is high above us, but accessible to us, not far away (acts 17:27). He is whole and entire, lacking nothing. It even sounds similar: “whole”… “holy.” A short way to say all this is: God is Holy.
Everyone likes someone who is unique and has superior qualities about him or her. We quickly admire and trust such persons for their abilities, for who they are or inspire us to be. If the person is a sports star, we buy his shoes or wear her brand and copy their moves. If he or she is a music artist, we buy her albums and go to his concerts, sing their lyrics. Perhaps the one we immulate is a designer, an architect, a chef or what-have-you… but one thing is clear: we learn from them and immitate them, because they do it better than any.
Now, we can’t see God; so, there’s no copying his style of hair or clothing. But, he does give us something much more distinguishing. Through the Bible, he gives us his thoughts, his lingo, his modest character, his way of reasoning, his world-view, his perspective on circumstances, and his attitudes. Consequently, when God writes something in the Bible to believers such as, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16), God is essentially saying:
‘Remember, that I am the best at life. I know how it was designed to go; I made it, and I lived perfectly as a man [Jesus]. I am THE Standard. So, that means I can tell you what to do–not because it’s a power trip, but because I am the best and I want only the best for you. I want life to be good for you. There’s no one like me. So, notice how I think about things, how I love only good things, that I don’t trample on or fight with or use people for my own success/glory, how I am sad when you are, how I forgive you, give you necessary things and also fun things, love you unconditionally, am patient with you, give you the best even when you ask for what is 2nd rate or harmful, give you second chances–lots of them, restore you gently and fully when you fail, teach you what is right from wrong, rush to help in a time of trouble, sacrifice for your good before my own, etc. Be like me; learn from me, because that is how you are to treat others in return. That is how life is supposed to be.’ Make me your hero, your idol…your God; lift me up, learn from me.
Immediately, any one can see that holiness is more about what’s on the inside than the outside. God asserts the reason for being holy is nothing more and nothing less than Himself. We are not to be holy in externals because we think others will consider us spiritual. We are to be concerned with what God thinks. And, God is concerned with changing us from the inside out, not from the outside in. If you had the chance, wouldn’t you want to be like God? That admiration and desire for God-likeness in a relationship with God is the proper motive for Christian life. If anyone deserves our admiration and trust and obedience, it is God.
Unfortunately, try as we may, and however good our intentions, one cannot truly be like God on his own. It is impossible to become like God by trying; and what is more, our trying can never please God. That is our particular weakness as humans with inherent fallen natures. So, one must trust Jesus to redeem his life (or, “buy back” his/her fallen nature from its innate sinfulness– its unlikeness and offensiveness to God). Jesus alone reconciles and restores souls to God. Jesus can do this redemption and reconstruction of natures, because he died on the cross and rose again for that very purpose. He paid for it, so he can cash it in. It is his particular power to do so–his Grace. in that way, Grace is God’s ability to make you like Himself. The Lord Jesus can make this miracle happen through using his Grace on you; but, you have to humble yourself and confess your need to HIM alone. That’s having faith in his grace, and faith in God’s grace always pleases God.
Just as trusting Jesus’ grace to redeem one’s nature leads to the remaking of the “inner man,” even so, trusting Jesus’s grace is the only way to partake of (or participate in) God’s nature in daily life. Unless one partakes of God’s own holiness moment by moment, the individual experiences no difference in his daily life. Again, holiness does not originate with outward behaviors. It is something inside; it is loving what God loves and hating what God hates, because your spirit is like God’s in its make-up. However, an appliance’s being wired for electricity does not mean it is plugged into the power source. When we partake of God’s holiness through continually trusting in Jesus’ grace, we are simply accessing God’s nature on a continual basis instead of defaulting to our old ways; and that means grace is teaching us to no longer desire what he calls evil. Instead, we desire what he calls good.
So, holiness for the believer is about continually partaking of the nature of God through the Grace of Jesus. Did you ever think about the fact that partaking of God’s nature cannot happen unless you make your mind up to access it always… to be set apart for him and his purposes at every turn? In other words, a believer must stay in relational connection with the One who has made him/her holy. If you are redeemed in nature by going to Jesus, then the only way to experience that holiness daily is to remain “in” Jesus… to consider him your reason for existence, the one whose character should be seen by others instead of your character, your life’s source, the one you admire and want to be like. (I naturally allow what He is like to flow through me – John 15; Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 3:14; 12:10; 2 Pet. 1:4).
That brings us to the second meaning of holy I initially mentioned: “to be set apart for some purpose or to someone.” Holiness is about being “set apart to God and for his purposes,” and that is a decision you must make. You must decide that you always will partake of God’s nature through Jesus’ grace. And, this is done because of the love you have in your heart for God (Rom. 12:1, 2; 2 Cor. 5). You live for him because he died for you so that you could live. You are set apart to him and for his purposes out of reciprocal love. A common phrase goes this way, “Christ gave his life for us, in order to give his life to us, so that he could live his life through us.” He is holy in us, and he is holy through us. We must only let him.
What is holy? Holy is God’s uniqueness, and it is his uniqueness in you and shining through, not so much for your sake as much as for others to get a picture of what God is really like–a real, living picture worth more than a thousand words.