Our holiness and God’s holiness.

Your average person thinks holy is a synonym for awesome: Something’s holy because it’s significantly great, worthy of honor, pure, perfect, or good. They figure God’s holy because he’s so… well, clean. Whereas we humans get awfully dirty.

Nope, it’s not what holy means. The Hebrew word qodéš/“holy” means separate—set apart from anything else. The Greek word ágios/“holy” means set apart, specifically for the gods—which the translators of the Septuagint used instead of the similar Greek word agnós, which does mean clean and perfect.

It’s this misunderstanding which produces a lot of the vengeful-God ideas about holiness. Because we’ve confused holiness with perfection, God’s holiness (and the constant emphasis the scriptures put on his holiness) leads a lot of us to think God’s really fixated on moral perfection. To them, “God is holy” means “God is good,” and because God is “holy holy holy” Is 6.3, Rv 4.8 —super-duper holy, as the angels describe him—they conclude God must have a very low tolerance for imperfection. So much so, he’ll even turn away from us when we sin.

Okay yes: God hates sin. He makes no bones about that. He’s good; he created the universe to be good; we fouled that up. The entirety of salvation history, the whole point of God’s kingdom, has to do with God’s process of cleaning up our mess.

But to listen to certain dark Christians, God isn’t cleaning up our mess with kindness and grace: He’s pissed about it. He’s quite happy to fling millions into hell, and if we get on his bad side by not meeting his standard of perfection, we’ll head for hell along with them.

To such Christians, “God is good” must always be followed up with, “But God is holy.” Of course they’re using their flawed definition. Consequently they’re not describing God as he truly is. They’re describing God thinking the same way they do: Eager to set aside his goodness so he can rage on the wicked. But because God is infinitely good, it makes up for his temporary rage.

See what happens when we get our definitions wrong? Bad theology.

Holiness and separation.

Something holy (and its synonyms, sacred and sanctified) is contrasted with something khol or koinós—common. Lv 10.10 You might notice people of Jesus’s day used “common” as a synonym for “ritually unclean,” Ac 10.14, 28, Ro 14.14 and you might also notice the Pharisees thought of commoners, or non-Pharisees, as cursed sinners. Jn 7.47-49 They were holy; others weren’t. So they were righteous; others weren’t.

But holiness only, and simply, signified something set apart for God’s purposes.

  • HOLY OIL. The LORD mandated a specific oil used for ritual worship. It wasn’t for just anyone to use as perfume. Ex 30.30-33 Of course, various overeager Christians nowadays try to duplicate and market the stuff—skipping the fact this oil was meant to be separate, not everyday.
  • SHOWBREAD. Certain meat and bread from the ritual sacrifices were for the priests alone to eat. Lv 8.31-32 Particularly the showbread. Lv 24.9 You might recall David ben Jesse got to eat some, 1Sa 21.6 and technically that was sin—even though David claimed it was an emergency.
  • RITUAL CLEANLINESS. The Hebrews had to be ritually clean before they could participate in worship. Lv 22.3 That meant no touching certain things: Mildew, certain animals, anything dead, bodily fluids, or anyone who hadn’t ritually cleansed themself. The way you got clean again was to bathe and wait till sundown. Lv 22.6 Under these conditions, even Jesus would be ritually unclean from time to time. Because uncleanliness is not sin.

Yeah, I shouldn’t have to remind you, but being unholy doesn’t make you a sinner either. Sinning makes you a sinner. And y’notice sinning doesn’t disqualify people from worship: If that were the case, there’d be no worshipers left.

Obviously holiness is related to goodness and sinlessness. Usually as a metaphor for goodness and sinlessness. But it’s not the same thing.

Yet it’s still constantly mixed up with it. Sanctifiation, which originally meant “making [oneself] holy,” now popularly means “making [oneself] good.” Christians try to sanctify ourselves by living sinless lives. But not necessarily holy lives.

What’s the difference? Simple: Holiness is about being distinctively God’s. Which doesn’t only mean avoiding sin. It means avoiding a lifestyle which conforms to popular culture. (Including popular Christian culture.) We conform to what we think God personally expects of us. We stand out, ’cause we’re not following the crowd; we’re following Jesus.

Frequently Christians misunderstand this idea too, and are simply weird for weirdness’s sake. I’m Pentecostal, and we’ve got weirdos aplenty, who exhibit all sorts of bizarre behavior, then blame it on the Holy Spirit. Rarely is it sincere: They’re just using their freedom in Christ to let their freak flags fly.

Personally, I don’t mind this sort of behavior all that much. I mean, if they’re not hurting anyone, and not sinning, what’s the problem? You be you. In the long run, it’s actually beneficial: Their individuality encourages others to likewise be themselves. When people aren’t busily pretending to be normal, and we can see ’em for who they really are, it makes it way easier to diagnose real problems—and way easier to encourage creativity for God’s kingdom.

But to use King James Version language, God’s people are gonna be “a peculiar people.” Dt 14.2, 26.18 KJV We’re gonna be different from everyone else. In all the best ways: We’re gonna be more loving, more forgiving, more kind, more free, more hopeful, more joyful, more generous, more creative. You know, fruity. Like God. We’re gonna be an odd bunch, but exactly the sort of people who draws people our direction—and thereby to Jesus.

Holy like God is holy.

As for God’s holiness: It means God is likewise different. He doesn’t act like the other gods people worship. They’re all about karma and quid pro quo and vengeance and self-exaltation. They’re as bad as any self-centered toddler. But the LORD is gracious, loving, forgiving, and offers to save us from death, make us his children, give us the world, and bless us far more than we can ever give back.

Unlike those gods, who just want to boss everyone around, our LORD promises to right wrongs: To take from the unworthy rich and give to the needy. To topple the powerful and make slaves into leaders. To raise the dead and ban illness. To run his kingdom personally. Other religions offer no such thing, or offer it as payback rather than as handouts. But God isn’t like them. He’s holy.

“Be holy because God’s holy” Lv 11.44-45, 19.2, 1Pe 1.16 is incorrectly mixed up with “be perfect like God’s perfect,” Mt 5.48 and incorrectly interpret to mean be as good as God. That’s not what Jesus means: He wants us to love everyone like God loves everyone. Yeah, the scriptures instruct us to not sin, 1Jn 2.1 but being holy like God’s holy isn’t about perfection. His holiness isn’t defined by his goodness or perfection. His holiness is about how he’s unique.

There’s no one like God. No human other than Jesus; no god in all of human mythology. 1Sa 7.22 Those other gods were only the god of one trait or another—a god of weather, a god of love, a god of wisdom—but the LORD has all those traits in one being. The Holy Spirit is so called because he’s the only spirit who’s almighty; other spirits are deficient, and some are downright evil.

And God’s people are holy. Not because we share his abilities—for we don’t. But because we’re growing in his character. Because we follow him: Our god is the LORD, our master is Jesus, and we follow him. We’re holy because our living, active, obedient relationship with God rubs off on us. It makes us distinctive—and therefore holy.