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What Holiness Really Means

"Holiness is incredibly important." By Robyn Winters

Question: What comes to mind when you think of the word, “holy”? A golden light emanating from behind a cloud? The Dalai Lama? Samuel Logan Brengle? 

Next question: Do you think of yourself as holy? When you look in the mirror, do you see a holy person?

I know I don’t, when I look at myself in the mirror. Only God is holy, right (Revelation 15:4)? I know God says, “be holy as I am holy,” but I always thought that was an exaggeration (Leviticus 11:44). Leave that to the sanctified people, I’ll just plod along in my good-enough Christianity, thanks. 

When Isaiah saw the holiness of God, he fell down in terror (Isaiah 6). And he was a prophet! No hope for me, so I’ll just cross being holy off my New Year’s resolution list as unachievable. But in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul admonishes us to “set yourselves apart and live holy lives” (The Voice). Why would God ask something of us that is unattainable? 

The 4-1-1 on Holiness

The Scriptures talk about God’s holiness or describe Him as holy more than any other attribute. 

“Holy” is the only word that is used three times to describe God. This indicates absolute perfection, or the superlative degree of a characteristic. (Fun fact, the Greek word for that three-times-holy is “trihagion” in case that ever comes up in a Bible quiz.)

Okay, so holiness is incredibly important. 

God’s holiness is His “set-apartness” (just pretend that’s a word with me here) and His “absolute moral purity” (The Gospel Coalition, “The Holiness of God”). He is completely above, completely other and the standard of perfection. Critically, He is entirely separated from sin. His holiness is what made it impossible for the Israelites in the Old Testament to approach Him without the proper sacrifice and ritual.

But where does that leave us? How could we possibly be expected to strive towards something that is categorically so inaccessible? Can we be holy in the same way God is holy?

Scripture talks about holiness for Christians in three tenses: the past, the ongoing and the future (get ready for more fun vocabulary words!). Romans 3:22-26 describes the one-time event of justification—we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV). Then, there is the ongoing process of sanctification, or the continuation of becoming holy. Hebrews 6:1-3 encourages us to move past the basic understanding and to mature in our knowledge of Christ. Finally, there will be a future glorification, when Christ returns, and God reconciles all things to Himself. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-12 describes the final times in which sin will be no more, and those who have believed will be taken up in glory. 

It helps me to grasp (or at least try to better grasp) complicated concepts like these through images. Philippians 1:6 demonstrates all three tenses of salvation. Imagine the journey of sanctification (becoming holy) as a river. The point at which we enter the river is justification—God began the good work, and now we’re saved. As we move down the river, we are working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12) while God continues that good work in us by the power of the Holy Spirit—sanctification. It is the river that carries us, but we also swim. On the day of Christ’s return, we will be saved, His work will be completed in us and we will be glorified with Him, entering the ocean of His kingdom.

So then, for those of us who have given our lives to Christ, we have been made holy (justified) through His blood. By faith, we believe that we will receive final salvation in heaven with Him (glorification). So, we’re good, right? Job done.

Well, yes and no. Or more like yes, but wait, there’s more! 

When in Romans 12:1-2 (NIV) Paul urges believers to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” the verb used is in a progressive tense, so that the meaning is not just to commit one act of offering, but to offer and keep offering. So, God’s will for us isn’t just to get saved and then hang out ‘til heaven. It is to actually go deep into relationship with Him, the Holy One. Yes, we have been saved by entering the river, but we were never intended to remain there, paddling in the shallows. There is so much more for us than that! We are created to dive deep into our relationship with the Lord. By Frederick Coutts’ definition, “Holiness is the unfolding of Christ’s own character in the life of the believer.” For Christ to be revealed within us we must be intimate with Christ. But what does that mean in practical terms? What does that actually look like? 

I don’t pretend to fully fathom the incredible mystery of God’s holiness. But if His holiness means being set apart, then for me to be holy, I must set myself apart as well. I need to step away from my phone, my computer, my to-do list, my homework and all other distractions to be with my Father. 

To be holy, spend time with the Holy One and come close into loving communion with Him. He reveals Himself in Scripture, so dive into His word, follow Him in loving obedience. 

Why Holy?

And this is one of the things I love so much about Christianity—it’s about a relationship. We aren’t stuck in a wheel of reincarnation, trying to accumulate enough good works to eventually achieve nirvana. We aren’t attempting to detach from the world and become one with the universe. We are called to a loving relationship in which we “continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV). See the interaction there? In working out our salvation, we must come near to the author of it, even as He is working in us. 

To use an imperfect analogy, when a couple gets married, they are from that point on one another’s spouse. That day is hugely significant and symbolic, but it is not the culmination of the relationship. Rather, the two continue to grow together more deeply and intimately, forming stronger and stronger bonds. In the same way, though we have already been made holy, we are called to grow in that holiness—our loving relationship with the Lord. This is sanctification, hearing the voice of the Lord calling us into deeper and deeper relationship with Him, and following that voice, just like the married couple. It’s no coincidence that the Church is described as the bride of Christ. 

This sanctification process, just like the initial justification, is enacted by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And just like justification, you have to choose it. Don’t get me wrong—I’m in no way suggesting that we have to work for our salvation or somehow make ourselves holy. What I do mean to say is that this is not just a sit-back-and-relax type of holiness. Sanctification is an everyday, over-and-over act. It’s an everyday practice, a continuous exchange in which God offers Himself and we choose to accept, we offer ourselves to Him and He pulls us in with open arms. It is a daily reordering to make Christ our first love. 

For further study

How To Be Holy:

  • Spend quiet time with God every day. You can’t become like someone you don’t know and you can’t know someone without spending time with them. 
  • Turn off your phone (no, for real, literally turn it off), go in another room and just sit with God. Each time your mind starts to drift away, don’t be hard on yourself, just come back gently. 
  • Listen to the Bible in One Year app in your car on the way to work in the morning to start your day right.
  • During your daily devotions, keep an eye out for and highlight Scriptural instructions for holy living. Where do you see these bearing fruit in your own life? 
  • Read chapter 10 in the Handbook of Doctrine. It’s a free PDF online.
  • If you’re struggling to solidify your time with God as a daily practice, tie it to something else you already do every day (piggyback the habit). Do you brush your teeth every morning? (I hope so.) Every time you brush your teeth, recite a memory verse you’re working on. 
  • Set your intention every day. As the very first thing when you wake up, greet the Lord and say out loud that you want to walk with Him today. 


  • The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster 

This article was originally titled “Dive Deeper” in the March 2023 issue of Peer.

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