One of the toughest biblical topics we run up against in the church is the idea of holiness. We hear the term applied liberally. Israel is called the “Holy Land.” The pope is called “Your Holiness.” We sing about standing on “holy ground.” So we get the idea that holiness has something to do with God, but it seems lofty, mystical, and often unattainable. Then comes the hard part: the Scriptures tell us to be holy.
How on earth are we supposed to do that? I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very holy when I wake up each morning. Perhaps after reading the Bible, worshipping at church, or doing something especially spiritual, I might feel a glimmer of something I might be tempted to call holiness. But here’s a huge truth that often escapes us: holiness is not the result of our own actions.
The core meaning of the word “holy” is "different." The connotation is that of something “set apart” for a specific purpose. God’s temple in Jerusalem was holy because it was different from the pagan temples of their time. Israel was a holy nation because God set them apart from all other people. Under the old covenant, God told the Israelites, “Thus you are to be holy to Me… I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). He made them holy because He set them apart for His purpose.
I want to point out two things about this covenant. First, God made them holy, even when they were far from perfect. Second, He gave them guidelines on how to live differently from the rest of the godless people after making them holy. They failed on every level – their conduct, their faith, their mission – yet He still fulfilled His promise to them and gave them the Messiah.
Jesus Christ brought a new covenant. It was a great mystery to Paul, who had been a student of the old covenant, because this new covenant was one without borders or ethnic distinction. He opened his letter to the Romans, very much a non-Jewish people, by identifying himself as “an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” and declared his purpose to “bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name's sake” (Romans 1:1, 5). Here was a Jew, set apart by God under the old era, taking this idea of holiness to all who would believe in Christ in a new era. Once again, it was God who made this new group of people holy.
You cannot make yourself holy. You will fail. No doubt, you already have failed. But take heart, because your holiness does not rely on your works; it was made complete in the work of Jesus Christ. When you believe in Him, you are made holy. That’s why Peter told the believers scattered around Asia Minor, “you are a chosen race…a holy nation….” This was a bold statement to a largely non-Jewish audience. He was talking to a new, spiritual class. A group that “once were not a people,” but because of Christ were now “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9-10).
If you want to be holy, believe in Jesus Christ. The “obedience of faith” is all it takes to enter into this holy citizenry. It is Jesus Christ, according to Paul, who “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9, emphasis added).
Now as important as it is to understand that our works do not make us holy, it is equally important to realize that the holiness that comes through Jesus Christ enables us to live in a way that sets us apart from the world. Jesus constantly outlined many of these differences. Love your enemies. Freely give. Wash one another’s feet. Go the second mile. Paul elucidated even more. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. Honor your spouse. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
There is a definite call to morality and purity, yet these are not the things that make you holy. Only Christ does that. These are the things that the Holy Spirit empowers you to do. This “different” behavior is impossible under your own ability, but readily attainable because you have been made holy.
The message of the New Testament is not “live like this to be made holy,” but rather “because you have been made holy, live like this.” So rejoice in the fact that you are different. You have been set apart for His divine purpose. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you now have the power to live like it.