There is a standard definition of the term “holiness.” It goes like this: holiness means separate from or different from. I contend this is a half-story, and imitates those who say grace is God’s mercy shown to those who do not deserve it. But grace is more than this as I have said before, even if it includes that element of grace. That is as many have focused too much on the negative side of grace, so they have focused too much on the negative side of holiness.
There is a Hebrew term that means “separated from” (p-r-s), hence Pharisees, but that is not the Hebrew term behind the Greek term in the NT. The Hebrew term is q-d-sh and the Greek term hagios. In A Fellowship of Differents I propose a deeper definition of holiness.
Many of us grew up under the famous “Thou shalt not’s” of the Bible, and as the list lengthened, pastors, parents, and siblings expounded on the evils of R-rated movies, beer, girls and guys, curfew times, skinny jeans, and half- sleeve or full-sleeve tattoos (or “tats”).
The best way to ruin holiness is to turn it into a list of Don’ts (with no Do’s) or to pull out Leviticus and point it at the on-fire football player who just got a cross tat on his muscular shoulder. Flannery O’Connor once called this picayune attentiveness to every possible peccadillo measuring “your sins with a slide rule.” Because holiness is an utterly beautiful and glorious attribute of God and because we are summoned to be holy, we aim to convert our shivers and eye rolls into affection.
Many people say holiness means “separated.” In other words, some define holiness as no longer sinning the way they used to. Here’s Paul’s list of sins from which they are to be separate…
The acts of the flesh are obvious:
sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;
idolatry and witchcraft;
hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions,
factions and envy;
drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not
inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19 – 21)
Paul orders his list into sins of desire, sins of worship, sins against one another, and sins of extreme desire. Is holiness just not doing these things any longer? Is it the Don’ts? If you read on you get the other side of holiness, the positive side of holiness, life in the Spirit marked by such things as goodness. You get the Do’s, and they are just as much a part of what holiness means. In fact, I’d say the Do’s determine the Don’ts and not the other way around.
Think about this at a theological or even philosophical level: God is holy. God doesn’t have holiness the way we have an iPhone. No, God is in his being holy. Now another question: If God is holy, and if God is prior to all creation, and if some say holiness means being different from or separate from something or someone else, when God was “all alone” and there was nothing else, was God holy then? Yes, in fact, God was and is and always will be holy. This leads us to an important point: holiness cannot be reduced to separation or difference.
At a deeper level, holiness means “devoted” or “consecrated.” In the Do’s and Don’ts approach, holiness should focus on the Do’s. In other words, if separation focuses on differences from the world (the Don’ts), the deeper level of devotion focuses on a life devoted unto God (the Do’s). The two belong together, and we need both. [See D.J.A. Clines, The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 388-389.]
That which is dedicated to God becomes separated from the world or consecrated to God in this world by that consecration or devotion to God. The devotion element creates the separation element, not the other way around.
Let me illustrate this with something ordinary. One day I was messing around with a piece of wood and saw a nail poking out. I thought of my curious grandchildren grabbing that board, so I looked for a hammer — but there was no hammer in the garage. I was tempted to whip out one of my golf clubs, like my wedge, and give the nail a little knock and be done with it — but those are my Ping Eye 2 irons, and they’re not cheap. I love those irons, and they are made for golfing. I’d hate to damage a golf club hammering a nail.
That sense that golf clubs are special and reserved for — or devoted to — one task and withdrawn from hammering a nail illustrates what “holiness” means in the Bible. It means devoted, and almost always in the Bible it means devoted entirely to God. (I’ve been tempted to use a hammer on a golf course, but not for redemptive purposes.)