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Defining Holiness

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How do you define holiness? Have you ever felt “undone” by your unholiness?

There is one attribute of God that we simply can’t overlook— His holiness. 

God’s holiness is a subject that makes me squirm in my seat. That’s because I find God’s holiness hard to wrap my brain around and my failure to be holy impossible to deny. In fact, I tend to wane between two extremes. There are moments when I feel like the prophet Isaiah when he comes face to face with God’s holiness in Isaiah 6:5. He said, “Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’”

In other words, “ I am rotten! There is nothing holy about me.”  I feel that way when I honestly place my life against the standards of God’s holiness. 

But there are other times, when I think I am actually doing pretty good at this holiness thing. I mean compared to others around me, I seem to have it together. I don’t do drugs. I haven’t murdered anyone. I was a virgin on my wedding day. On the holiness list of do’s and don’ts I seem to be fairing well. But then I am reminded of the standard of God’s holiness and the illusion of my holiness is ruined once again. 

I find that I’m not the only facing this dilemma. (Phew!) In a recent issue of The Journal of Student Ministries, Executive Editor Will Penner wrote:

Holiness is one of those virtues that has yet to truly take hold in my life. At least, according to the way I understood holiness as a teenager. I was taught the Christian faith in much the same way the Pharisees were likely taught the Jewish faith: Don’t do this, don’t do that, stay away from "those kinds of people"—and that will make you holy.

Looking back, I can see that my Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders had deeper faith than that. Nonetheless, that’s how I internalized their message: Being "godly" is about following rules. The problem is, apparently I’m not so good at following the rules (The Journal of Student Ministries, November/December 2008, 3).  

Preach it, Will! I am not so good at following the rules, either. True, I’ve stayed away from some of the sins our culture labels as “biggies.” But, I gossip. I lie. I judge others. I fantasize about things I shouldn’t. I often prefer sleep or television to prayer and Bible reading. The list could go on and on. I am unable to attain God’s standard of holiness and yet, His charge for me to be holy remains. 

In 1 Peter 1:16 we read For it is written: Be holy, because I am holy."

Hebrews 12:14 says, Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

This is where the squirming begins. I am to be holy because God is holy and if I cannot achieve it I will not see the Lord. 

Tozer tackles this exact position in Chapter 21 of The Knowledge of the Holy:

Caught in this dilemma, what are we Christians to do? We must like Moses cover ourselves with faith and humility while we steal a quick look at the God whom no man can see and live. The broken and the contrite heart He will not despise. We must hide our unholiness in the wounds of Christ as Moses hid himself in the cleft of the rock while the glory of God passed by. We must take refuge from God in God. Above all we must believe that God sees us as perfect in His Son while He disciplines and chastens and purges us that we may be partakers in His holiness.

Whew! There it is. There is the reminder I need and the secret to my holiness—Jesus Christ. 

1 Corinthians 1:30-31 says, It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’

Jesus has become for us our holiness. If we’re going to brag, let’s brag about that! What’s more, the sweet knowledge that He has redeemed me and made me holy makes me strive to be more like him. I want to obey His standards not because that morality will make me holy, but because of a desire to serve and follow a holy God. 

What about you? Do you wrestle with God’s standard of holiness? Are you ever “undone” by your unholiness? What do you think it means to be “holy”? Are you like Will in thinking that being “holy” is about following the rules? 

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