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The basic meaning of holiness is "separateness". It refers to anything separated from the common and dedicated to sacred use. Holiness originates in God and is communicated to things, places, times, and persons engaged in His Service.

God demands that His people be holy, i.e., separated unto Him (Num. 15:40,41; Deut. 7:6). Jesus is the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34; John 6:69).

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Holiness, in the highest sense belongs to God (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 15:4), and to Christians as consecrated to God's service, and in so far as they are conformed in all things to the will of God (Rom. 6:19, 22; Eph. 1:4; Titus 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:15). Personal holiness is a work of gradual development. It is carried on under many hindrances, hence the frequent admonitions to watchfulness, prayer, and perseverance (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:23, 24). (See Sanctification.)

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


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Holiness is the religious term par excellence. A close connection is to be found everywhere between religion and the holy. At the heart of religion is the numinous, the vastly mysterious (the mysterium tremendum, Otto), the supernaturally threatening. All are contained in the idea of "the Holy." Holiness, in a great variety of expressions, is the inmost core of religious faith and practice.

In the OT

In the OT holiness is spoken of primarily in relation to God, e.g., "the Lord is holy!" (Ps. 99:9). Holiness refers to his essential nature; it is not so much an attribute of God as it is the very foundation of his being. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts" (Isa. 6:3). Thrice holy, intensely holy is the Lord. Holiness, accordingly, is the background for all else declared about God.

The first use of the word "holy" in the OT (Exod. 3:5) points to the divine sacredness. "Do not come near" - God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, "remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." The holy is God's inviolable sacredness. It is only after this encounter with the holy God that Moses is given the name of God as the Lord (Yahweh), the one who will graciously deliver Israel from Egypt. The Redeemer is first of all the holy God. At Mount Sinai, after this deliverance and preparatory to the giving of the law, the sacredness of God is again vividly shown forth: the Lord "descended upon it in fire... and the whole mountain quaked violently" (Exod. 19:18). The Israelites are not allowed to come up the mountain "lest he break forth upon them" (Exod. 19:24). Thus memorably is all Israel, like Moses earlier, confronted with the elemental divine holiness.

Holiness bespeaks also the majesty and awesomeness of God. He is majestic in holiness (Exod. 15:11), and the very being of God is such as to provoke awe and fear. Jacob at Bethel, in a dream beholding the exalted Lord, awakens to cry, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28:17). The primary response to God's majestic holiness is wonder, awe, even dread. So does the psalmist proclaim: "Worship the Lord in holy array; tremble before him, all the earth" (Ps. 96:9). His majestic presence calls for the response of worship and reverence. It also makes for awe and trembling.

Holiness then denotes the separateness, or otherness, of God from all his creation. The Hebrew word for holy, qados, in its fundamental meaning contains the note of that which is separate or apart. God is totally other than the world and man: "I am God and no man, the Holy One in your midst" (Hos. 11:9). This separateness, or otherness, is first of all that of his very "Godness," his essential deity. God is not in any way (as in many religions) to be identified with anything else in all of creation. Secondly, it signifies God's total apartness from all that is common and profane, from everything unclean or evil.

Hence, holiness in relation to God refers climatically to his moral perfection. His holiness is manifest in total righteousness and purity. The holy God will show himself holy in righteousness (Isa. 5:16). His eyes are too pure to approve evil (Hab. 1:13). This moral, or ethical, dimension of God's holiness becomes increasingly significant in the witness of the OT.

Everything associated with God is also holy. The second use of the word "holy" in the OT is found in the expression "a holy assembly" (Exod. 12:16), an assembly called by God to celebrate his "pass over" (Exod. 12:13) of Israel. The sabbath instituted by the Lord is "a holy sabbath" (Exod. 16:23); the heaven above is God's "holy heaven" (Ps. 20:6); God sits on his "holy throne" (Ps. 47:8); Zion is God's "holy mountain" (Ps. 2:6). God's name is especially holy, and never to be taken in vain (Exod. 20:7; Deut. 5:11).

Accordingly, God's covenant people, chosen by him, are a holy people: "You are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you...out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth" (Deut. 7:6). Israel is a separated people, separated unto the Lord, and therefore is holy not first of all because of any virtue but simply because of its set-apartness. But Israel is also called to holiness, thus to be a consecrated people: "I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44). Hence, the word holiness in relation to the people of God contains both the negative sense of separation and the positive of consecration. All in all, the mark of holiness is the highest expression of the covenant relationship between a holy God and his people.

Whatever is connected with the religious cultus (worship, sacrifice, etc.) is also holy. There are, e.g., holy days (in addition to the holy sabbath), holy priests, holy anointing oil, holy first fruits, holy utensils. Ceremonial cleansing and purity are required of everything, priests, vehicles of worship, the congregation itself, that participates in the cultic activity. Furthermore, the call to holiness (as in Lev. 11:44) may be put totally in terms of not eating unclean foods. Thus, in the OT there is marked stress on ritual holiness.

There is, however, also an increasingly strong emphasis on holiness in the moral, or ethical, sphere. A central feature of the day of atonement is that of inward cleansing: "You shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (Lev. 16:30). Also there are many expressions elsewhere in the OT relating to the need for inner holiness. For example, in reply to the question, "Who may stand in his holy place?" the answer is given: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3-4). In the OT, even as the holiness of God is more and more understood to have moral content, so it is with holiness in relation to the people of God.

In the NT

The NT bears further witness to many of the aforementioned matters regarding holiness. In regard to God himself, for all that is said about his grace and love, there is no less emphasis on his holiness. The God of love is Holy Father (John 14:11), Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24; John 6:69), and the spirit of God is the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the OT declaration "Our God is holy," stands forth all the more markedly with the triune God fully disclosed in the NT. Likewise, such previously noted aspects of divine holiness as sacredness, majesty, awesomeness, separateness, and moral perfection are all to be found in the NT record. Also, God's people are called to holiness: "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (I Pet. 1:16).

It is the ethical dimension of holiness that the NT highlights. Holiness moves beyond any idea of a nation outwardly holy by virtue of divine election, and demonstrating such holiness through ritual and ceremony, to a people who are made inwardly holy. Basic to this is the witness of Jesus himself, the Holy One of God, who also as the Son of man lived out a life of complete holiness, righteousness, and purity. He "committed no sin; nor was any deceit found in his mouth" (I Pet. 2:22). As a result of his work of redemption, believers in him are declared righteous, but also enter into true righteousness and holiness: "We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ" (Heb. 10:10).

Holiness (hagiosyne) in the NT, accordingly, belongs to all believers. A common term for all believers is holy ones (hagioi), usually translated as "saints." "Saints," therefore, does not refer to persons preeminent in holiness, but to believers generally: all true believers are holy through Christ. This is the central meaning of such a statement as "in Christ Jesus" is "our righteousness, holiness, and redemption" (I Cor. 1:30). Holiness, in the NT, is an internal reality for all who belong to Christ.

In addition, holiness in the sense of transformation of the total person is now envisioned. So, e.g., does Paul write: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you [i.e., make you holy] entirely ...spirit and soul and body" (I Thess. 5:23). Since God is totally holy, his concern is that his people likewise become completely holy. Hence, holiness is not only an internal reality for the believer but also that which is to be perfected: "Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1).

Believers, as the saints of God, are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (I Pet. 2:9). The holy nation is no longer Israel but the church, nor is holiness any longer that to which a people are set apart and consecrated, but that which has now become an inward reality and in which they are being gradually transformed. The final goal: "that he [Christ] might present to himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:27).

In Church History

In the history of the church, holiness has been viewed from many perspectives. In the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions several may be noted: (1) Ascetic. The pursuit of holiness by fleeing the world (forsaking secular occupation, marriage, worldly goods), hence limited to the few; holiness to be achieved by prayer vigils, fasting, selfmortification; the saints, or the religious, being those who thereby have gained a higher level of holiness. (2) Mystical. Holiness to be attained not so much by fleeing the world as by rising above it, a ladder of holiness with various stages such as purgation, illumination, contemplation until there is spiritual absorption in God. The barrier to holiness is not so much human sin as human finitude, one's bondage to the creaturely and temporal. (3) Sacramental. Holiness imparted through the supernatural grace of the sacraments; hence sacramental (unlike ascetic and mystical) holiness is available to all. Moreover, this objective infusion of holiness, though of a lesser degree than that attainable by ascetic or mystic, is given objectively without all the struggle involved.

Classical Protestantism (sixteenth century) was largely a movement away from ascetic, mystical, and sacramental views of holiness into a more biblical perspective. Soon, however, a number of diverging emphases were to emerge: (1) Disciplinary. A stress on ecclesiastical discipline and obedience to God's commandments as the way of holy living; the cultivation of a serious, often austere, life viewed as the mark of a God-fearing and truly holy man (e.g., Scottish Presbyterians, English Puritans). (2) Experimental. A reaction in various ways against rigid orthodoxy, formalism, and the externals of faith, institution, ritual, creed (in some cases, even the Scriptures), to get into the spiritual; the holy viewed as the inner life to be cultivated and practiced (variously, Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutheran pietists). (3) Perfectionist. Total holiness, "entire sanctification," possible not through works but by faith; in addition to the holiness given in initial faith and growth in holiness there is the call of God to complete holiness through the eradication of sin and the gift of perfect love (Wesley, later holiness movements).

From the preceding brief review of certain perspectives (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) on holiness, the need for a truly biblical and reformed understanding is apparent. Such renewed understanding could be one of the most significant theological undertakings of our time.

J R Williams
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

HERE, VI, 743-50; O. R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness; A. Koeberle, The Quest for Holiness; A. Murray, Holy in Christ; S. Neill, Christian Holiness; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; J. C. Ryle, Holiness; S. Taylor, Holy Living.


Catholic Information

(A.S. hal, perfect, or whole). Sanctitas in the Vulgate of the New Testament is the rendering of two distinct words, hagiosyne (1 Thess., iii,13) and hosiotes (Luke 1:75; Ephesians 4:24). These two Greek words express respectively the two ideas connoted by "holiness" viz.: that of separation as seen in hagios from hagos, which denotes "any matter of religious awe" (the Latin sacer); and that of sanctioned (sancitus), that which is hosios has received God's seal. Considerable confusion is caused by the Reims version which renders hagiasmos by "holiness" in Hebrews 12:14, but more correctly elsewhere by "sanctification", while hagiosyne, which is only once rendered correctly "holiness", is twice translated "sanctification".

St. Thomas (II-II:81:8) insists on the two aspects of holiness mentioned above, viz., separation and firmness, though he arrives at these meanings by dint of the etymologies of Origen and St. Isidore. Sanctity, says the Angelic Doctor, is the term used for all that is dedicated to the Divine service, whether persons or things. Such must be pure or separated from the world, for the mind needs to be withdrawn from the contemplation of inferior things if it is to be set upon the Supreme Truth -- and this, too, with firmness or stability, since it is a question of attachment to that which is our ultimate end and primary principle, viz., God Himself -- "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels. . . nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:38-39). Hence St. Thomas defines holiness as that virtue by which a man's mind applies itself and all its acts to God; he ranks it among the infused moral virtues, and identifies it with the virtue of religion, but with this difference that, whereas religion is the virtue whereby we offer God due service in the things which pertain to the Divine service, holiness is the virtue by which we make all our acts subservient to God. Thus holiness or sanctity is the outcome of sanctification, that Divine act by which God freely justifies us, and by which He has claimed us for His own; by our resulting sanctity, in act as well as in habit, we claim Him as our Beginning and as the End towards which we daily unflinchingly tend. Thus in the moral order sanctity is the assertion of the paramount rights of God; its concrete manifestation is the keeping of the Commandments, hence St. Paul: "Follow peace with all men, and holiness [sanctimoniam, hagiasmon]: without which no man shall see God" (Hebrews 12:14). The Greek word should ne noted; it is generally rendered "sanctification", but it is noteworthy that it is the word chosen by the Greek translators of the Old Testament to render the Hebrew (rendered as Ayin-Zayin), which properly means strength or stability, a meaning which as we have seen is contained in the word holiness. Thus to keep the Commandments faithfully involves a very real though hidden separation from this world, as it also demands a great strength of character or stability in the service of God.

It is manifest, however, that there are degrees in this separation from the world and in this stability in God's service. All who would serve God truly must live up to the principles of moral theology, and only so can men save their souls. But others yearn for something higher; they ask for a greater degree of separation from earthly things and a more intense application to the things of God. In St. Thomas's own words: "All who worship God may be called 'religious', but they are specially called so who dedicate their whole lives to the Divine worship, and withdraw themselves from worldly concerns, just as those are not termed 'contemplatives' who merely contemplate, but those who devote their whole lives to contemplation". The saint adds: "And such men subject themselves to other men not for man's sake but for God's sake", words which afford us the keynote of religious life strictly so-called (II-II:81:7, ad 5um).

Publication information Written by Hugh T. Pope. Transcribed by Robert B. Olson. Offered to Almighty God for His graces and blessings granted to Fr. Jeffrey A. Ingham The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


Newman, Sermons, vol. I: Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness; Fuller, The Holy and the Profane State; Mallock, Atheistic Methodism and the Beauty of Holiness, Essay V in Atheism and the Value of Life (London, 1884); Faber, Growth in Holiness (London, 1854).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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