Towards a “Definition” of Holiness

(1) Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,
(2) “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them:
‘You shall be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.
(3) ‘ Each of you shall revere his mother and his father, and each of you shall keep my Sabbaths. I am Yahweh your God.
(4) ‘Do not turn to worthless things [Heb. ʾelilim], neither make for yourselves gods of molten metal. I am Yahweh your God.’

Leviticus 19:1-4

A Brief History of the Pentecostal Theme of “Holiness”

Holiness is a very important theological theme for Pentecostals of all kinds. Historically, a big part of the reason for this is that Pentecostalism, socially and theologically, is kind of a natural evolution of the 19th century American Holiness Movement, which is itself a movement within the larger Wesleyan or Methodist tradition. The central idea of the Holiness Movement was that Christians are to expect a second work of grace after conversion whereby the individual Christian is liberated from his or her sinful tendencies. This was what they meant by the word “sanctification”: a moment in time when the Christian stopped being sinful. The word “sanctification” literally means “the process or act of being made sanctified” or “holy.” So, according to Holiness theology, the normative Christian experience was intended to have two inflection points or distinctive moments in time: conversion or justification, when past sins were forgiven, and sanctification, when the sinful nature was entirely overcome.

Perhaps you can see how this is predictive of the Classical Pentecostal idea that the normative Christian experience involves repentance, which is formalized in water baptism, followed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit, a part of whose function is to free the believer from the compulsive power of sin. The main difference is that Pentecostals expanded the second work of grace to encompass more than just sanctification and also gave the second work of grace a socially recognizable sign: speaking in tongues. It also freed the second work of grace from the unreasonable and unbiblical expectations that the one who experienced it would never sin again nor feel the urge to sin. Pentecostal theology expects that the receiving of the Holy Spirit will empower the believer against the compulsive power of sin, but experience and the broader biblical context instructs us that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit comes in many different shapes, both instantaneous and gradual. Nevertheless, Pentecostals adopted from their Holiness forebears an emphasis on the sanctifying effect of the second work of grace as well as a theological vocabulary strongly punctuated by the concept of holiness.

The Misunderstanding of “Holiness”

But what does “holiness” mean? What does it mean to be “holy”? What does it mean for God to be “holy”? Despite the centrality of the concept of holiness to Pentecostalism, both in its historical roots as well as in its continuing preaching and theology, I find that the word is poorly understood. Frequently, the word “holiness” functions as a kind of synonym for the word “ethics”. Now, in Christian theology “ethics” refers to the branch of theology that deals with the practical ramifications of our faith statements in everyday life and in society. So, what I am saying is that it seems to me that often “holiness”, when it is used as a Pentecostal buzzword, could be replaced with “good works” or “not sinning” without changing the meaning of whatever the context might be.

Now, while I would agree that, according to the Bible, “doing good works” and “not sinning” are organically connected to “being holy”, I do not feel that they are fully synonymous with “being holy”. Rather, to be holy is a bigger concept that includes doing good works and not sinning, but it is not limited to those things. The biblical concept of holiness also includes within it something that defines what is good and what is a sin. See, the problem with simplistically equating holiness with good works is that, on the one hand, we run the risk of reducing the Christian calling to mere moralism, when what it means to be a Christian is so much bigger than just having good morals. Christianity is a mission and a calling that creates an environment wherein good morals have some meaning beyond themselves. On the other hand, when we limit holiness to being nothing other than good works, we are still left with the question of what are good works? What works are good? Do we just do any good works to be holy? What do we do when we are faced with two different standards of what “good” means? So, essentially, what I am saying is that when we limit the concept of “holiness” merely to “doing good” or “not doing evil” without really exploring what it means when God says in Leviticus 19:2, “Be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy”, we either turn it into a theological justification for legalism or we empty it entirely of meaning because we define what is good or evil by our own human standards. Holiness is not merely doing good. Holiness is the context that defines what is good and infuses our doing good with divine significance.

The Importance and Undefinability of Biblical Holiness

The way people reduce “holiness” to mere moralism has bothered me for a long time. Several years ago, I suggested to my dad that the word was corrupted by its inept and, at times, entirely wrongheaded usage among Holiness Pentecostals, that Pentecostals may not be able to speak or hear the word “holiness” without bringing along bad theological baggage. I also suggested that maybe we should try to do without the word in our teaching of biblical theology and ethics. Not that we should do without the concept of holiness altogether, but that we could use other words to talk about the concept. Well, I have since come to the conclusion that this is not only impossible, it is also undesirable. This would, inevitably, constitute a kind of retreat, admitting that the enemy has succeeded in seizing linguistic territory from the Church and corrupting it. But I feel that today more than ever what the Church – not just Pentecostals, but the Church in general – needs to hear is a prophetic summons back to true holiness: not to the moralistic reduction of the word, but to biblical holiness in all of its grandeur and mystery. Part of the reason the Church needs to hear anew the call to holiness is because the world needs to hear this call, as well. Because holiness, properly and biblically understood, encapsulates all that makes the Church radically distinct from the world. Holiness is what distinguishes Christ from antichrist. The Church and the world both need to see that there is a difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, that there is a difference, in the words of Leviticus 10:10, “between holy and profane, between clean and unclean.” Why? Again, following the reasoning of Leviticus 10:11, so that we may teach not just the sons of Israel but the whole world the statutes that God has imparted to us. Not just so that we may be qualified to teach. This is not just about qualification. But in Leviticus 10, God has given Aaron and his descendants particular rules to live by so that in living by them they would silently teach the Israelites, by example, what holiness means, because all Israelites were called to be holy in relation to the world, not just the Aaronic priests. Similarly, when we live as a holy people, our very lives instruct the world about God’s goodness and holiness. When we are holy, we implicitly proclaim to the world that there is a difference between God and the world. The world cannot claim to possess God in its willful rebellion against his character.

Now, I am still a long way from “defining” holiness. I may never actually arrive at a satisfactory definition for holiness, meaning a sentence that communicates in abbreviated form everything there is to say about holiness and what it means for us. In fact, I would argue that the Bible itself does not really give us a succinct, all-encompassing definition for holiness. Holiness entails the imitation of God’s character (“you shall be holy, for I am holy”), as well as a sense of separation from the rest of the world for a special purpose (as in Exodus 19:6, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”), but even so we are still not quite at what I would call a definition for holiness. In fact, if holiness is to be understood as God’s character (or if God’s character is holiness), then we should expect that just as God is, in his own essential reality, unfathomable in his transcendence, true holiness will also be something that resists reduction or easy definition. We are only going to be able to understand holiness through example and comparison. What is holiness? Well, it is like this. Or it is like this. The Kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings is similarly transcendent and undefinable. Instead of defining the Kingdom of God in some scientific or mathematical way, Jesus uses comparisons in the form of parables. “To what shall I liken the Kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed.” Or “The Kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into three measures of flour.” Just like the parables show us what Kingdom of God is in bite sized, comprehensible pictures, and just like we come to see what the similarly undefinable concept of wisdom is by seeing it at work in the individual proverbs of the book of Proverbs, we come to understand holiness through the statutes of the Torah, most especially those that we find in Leviticus chapters 17-27, which scholars call the Holiness Code, due to the high concentration in these chapters of statements talking about holiness and instructing the Israelites to be holy.

But rather than starting at chapter 17, what I want to do is look closely at the beginning of Leviticus 19, whose purpose it seems to me is to give the entire Israelite congregation practical examples of what it means to be holy in everyday life in ancient Israel. God begins the chapter by telling Israel, “Be holy”, and then the rest of the chapter is like God saying, “Holiness for you guys looks like this.”

Explanation of Leviticus 19:1-4

The Speech Introduction (vv. 1-2)

The chapter begins with a new speech introduction – “Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying” – which is part of what tells us that a new unit of some sort has begun here. God tells Moses to speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel. Now, this is in contrast with the beginning of chapter 17, which says, “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the Israelite people”. When you read chapter 17, you see that what God commands there pertains especially to the priests and secondarily to the Israelite people as a whole. However, here in chapter 19 there is no mention of Aaron and his sons, meaning that these are rules that God wants every individual Israelite to observe. And the first thing God says is “You shall be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” In other words, this introduction to chapter 19 communicates that it is everyone’s responsibility to be holy to God, not just the priests’. Every individual Israelite is expected to live up to a particular standard of holiness. Why? Well, it all goes back, again, to Exodus 19:6 and God’s intention for Israel to be a kingdom of priests. Israel had a priesthood of their own specifically in order to teach Israel what it meant for them as a nation to be priests to the world. Just like the sons of Aaron mediated the instructions of God to the Israelites, God’s intention was that the Israelites would mediate those instructions to the world. Just like the sons of Aaron showed the Israelites that there was a difference between clean and unclean, the Israelites were intended as a whole to show the world that there was a difference between clean and unclean. As heirs of Israel’s calling, this verse applies just as much to you and me as it did to the ancient Israelites. So what holiness means is tied up in our calling to be a kingdom of priests and our mission to mediate God’s good instruction to the world, or in Paul’s words from Romans 1:5, “to bring about the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of his name”, meaning so that God’s name would be glorified in all the earth.

Be holy, for I am holy (v. 2)

God does not just tell the Israelites to be holy. He says, “Be holy, for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” In whatever way we are to be holy, it is in imitation of God’s more fundamental holiness. Our holiness is derivative and imitative. God’s holiness, on the other hand, is inherent and essential. God is holy. I feel this command, “Be holy, for I am holy”, is also concerned with establishing the essential spiritual environment necessary for real communion with God. God is saying, “If I am going to be your God and you are going to be my people, then you need to be holy. If I am going to dwell among you, if you want me to be with you, you must be holy.” Okay. So what do we have to do to be holy?

Revere your mother and father (v. 3a)

The first thing he says is, “Each of you shall revere his mother and his father.” Right away, we are not talking about ritual bathing, we are not talking about sacrifices, we are not talking about what you eat and what you do not eat, though these things are important in their own way elsewhere in the Torah. We are also not talking about how many times a day you need to pray, or routine fasting, or things like that. The very first thing God talks about in this chapter is revering (literally, fearing) your mother and father. “Mother” actually does occur before “father” in the Hebrew, whatever that might signify, but I tend to see it as one among many indications that the Torah is not nearly so anti-woman as some people might make it out to be. “Mother” is not an afterthought. The mother is also not subtly concealed from view by using a single word to talk about both parents, such as Hebrew ʾaboto, literally “his fathers” but which could be translated “his parents”. No, both parents are mentioned with a separate word, and the mother comes first, here. To be holy is to respect what both of your parents have to contribute to your life. A son needs a mother as well as a father. A daughter needs a father as well as a mother. The sexism of our culture, expressed in both directions, is deeply unholy, offensive to God, and destructive to society.

Revering one’s parents is more of an attitude than a single action. It is a complex posture that expresses many different virtues: love, loyalty, respect for authority, wisdom, patience (especially for younger addressees of this command, because it is speaking to all Israelites, young and old), honesty, and duty (especially for older addressees who would need to care for their elderly parents). These virtues all taken together are the foundation of a stable society. A society that lacks these things or that is characterized by their opposites will inevitably crumble and cause a lot of suffering as it crumbles. Holiness entails these virtues, which the world tends to lack, or at least cannot hold onto for extended periods of time.

Keep my Sabbaths (v. 3b)

The second part of verse three says, “and each of you shall keep my Sabbaths. I am Yahweh your God.” Keeping the Sabbath is not just about observing an arbitrary holy day. It is about saying no to the rat race. It is about saying no to humanity’s mad dash to accumulate stuff. It is about saying no to the privileging of material wealth over family. It is about realizing that we are finite creatures that cannot control the universe simply by being busy, and it is about trusting God to provide for our needs. To say yes to the Sabbath is to say no to greed and to fear and to all those perverse urges of our hearts that drive us continually here and there in search of immortality and thereby gradually eat away at the fabric of society. Because greed and fear will not only drive you insane, they will make you angry and caustic. A society driven by greed and fear will have an economy that rages for a time before it inevitably spins out of control and tears itself apart. Holiness says no to greed and fear by resting without guilt and by trusting in God to provide for your needs without regard for what you “deserve”, whatever that might mean. Perhaps the most powerful means we have of saying no to the insane greed of our society is by observing Sabbaths. Now, some people feel strongly that it needs to be Saturday. From the beginning, Christians as a whole have tended to observe the Sabbath on Sunday in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. But Paul would urge us not to be dogmatic on the subject of which day to observe. Jesus, too, would remind us that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. One way or another, I do think that one of the best ways we can be meaningfully holy in relation to our society is by taking a day every week just to rest.

Now, verse three is interesting, because fearing one’s parents and keeping God’s Sabbath are presented as kind of a two part command. They are not in separate verses. In fact, in the Hebrew they form a compound sentence. This would suggest that fearing one’s parents and keeping God’s Sabbath are somehow related ideas. Other than the fact that these two commands occur right next to each other in the fourth and fifth of the ten commandments, it is not entirely clear at first what one has to do with the other. However, as we have unpacked the larger implications of both of these commandments and what they have to do with holiness, a common thread has emerged. Both fearing one’s parents and keeping God’s Sabbaths are stabilizing forces in society. A society that does both of these things will not tear itself apart in pursuit of wealth and security. People will remain regarded as more important than material possessions and wealth. So there is a promise kind of implied within these commands to be holy in specific ways: if you will be holy and will build your society on holiness, such a society will endure.

Do turn to or make idols (v. 4)

Verse 4 says, “Do not turn to worthless things, neither make for yourselves gods of molten metal. I am Yahweh your God.” The word translated “worthless things” is Hebrew ʾelilim, which sounds like ʾelim or ʾelohim, which are both words that mean “gods”. However, this is actually a pun, because ʾelil means “worthless”, and it appears to be a derogatory term for idols. The Israelites are instructed not to “turn to” these worthless things. This probably means do not seek the help of worthless idols. Do not pray to them. Do not ask for your provision or protection from them. Holiness means relying on Yahweh our God alone for our protection and provision. The description of idols as “gods of molten metal” is also interesting. The idols are not described as “images” of the gods they represents, but as the gods themselves, and they are described in terms of the material from which they are made. In other words, I think ʾelohey massekhah, literally “gods of molten metal”, is also a kind of derogatory term that focuses on the idols’ material composition from melted metal and mocks the gods that are represented by these idols.

If we probe verse four a little deeper, I think we see that it is not simply saying, “There are other gods out there, but don’t worship them.” I think, by mocking idolatry itself and by strictly identifying the foreign deities with their idols rather than allowing them to have some kind of existence beyond the idol, this verse actually assumes pure monotheism, meaning the belief in the existence of only one God, rather than merely exclusive devotion to one god among many gods in existence. What does this tell us about holiness? Well, first, it says that holiness means exclusive devotion to Yahweh God, and exclusive trust in Yahweh alone to be Israel’s source of protection and provision. Holiness also means not joining in with a kind of religious activity whose normality and goodness was essentially unquestioned in all the ancient world except in Israel: the making and worshiping of idols. Finally, digging deeper we see that holiness means recognizing that there is only one God, the creator of heaven and earth, and that all the earth belongs to him.

The Morality of Holiness versus the World’s Standards of Goodness

So we have seen that holiness means a lot of different but related things, and we are only four verses into Leviticus 19. I want to take a step back, though, real quick, and look at the three commands in verses three and four as a sequence. In all three commands, but especially in the last two, the standard of holiness communicated entails assuming an attitude that contrasts pretty sharply with what the world considers normal and even what the world considers good. In other words, being holy, according to Leviticus 19, means doing good, but that this good that we do may not be widely recognized as good and may even be seen as bad or evil. And this is why I have a problem with too close or simplistic an identification of holiness with moral uprightness. Okay, yes, to be holy is to be morally upright, but how is that moral uprightness defined? Is it what humans recognize as morally upright? Maybe, but maybe not.

Different ideas about what is good

To better explain what I am getting at, let me read the first few verses of Leviticus 18, the chapter right before the one we are studying today. In verses three and four, God says to Israel, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God.” (ESV). You see, the Israelites were not the only country in the world to have laws. Not by a longshot. Human societies back then developed legal systems and traditions, just as they do now. And laws are the codification of at least someone’s idea of what is good and upright. In other words, there are different ideas of what good is or what morally upright means. We can see this today. There are many people today who for some reason think that it is a morally upright thing to do to kill unborn babies at their parents’ request. For them, it is about the ethical principles of women’s rights and of sexual autonomy. So in Leviticus 18:3-4, God tells the Israelites that there are other ideas about what is good and just in the world, but you are not to live by those standards. You are to live by my standards. Holiness, then, means not simply doing what is morally upright, but it means submitting oneself to God’s definition of what is morally upright and then doing it. The implication is that while the two definitions of what is right may coincide at times, sometimes what God says is right will conflict with what the world says is right.

Sometimes they coincide (fear your parents)

I think these first three commands in Leviticus 19 illustrate that point perfectly. Revering one’s parents would have been more or less universally regarded as good in the ancient world. No one was going around saying, “Do not fear your parents.” Now, not everyone was doing this, but in principle, everyone probably agreed that revering one’s parents was a good thing to do, even the Canaanites and the Egyptians. Where the world recognizes something as good that God says is good, holiness affirms the goodness of the good action but points to God as the source of its goodness.

Sometimes they are askew (keep my Sabbaths)

On the other hand, keeping the Sabbath was something that Israelites would have uniquely considered morally upright. The Canaanites and the Egyptians may not have considered it evil, but they may have thought it strange. Perhaps their attitude towards the Sabbath might have been something like, “That sounds nice, if maybe a little lazy. But whatever. If you want to give up a day of work, then go for it.” So while the sensibilities of the Israelites and of the cultures around them might not have been in direct opposition on the Sabbath, they most certainly were not in line. Holiness has different standards of what is and is not important. To be holy is to consider important what God considers important and not to adopt the world’s ideas about what is normal or important.

Sometimes they come directly into conflict (no idolatry)

Finally, with regard to idolatry, the sensibilities of the Israelites would have been diametrically opposed to those of the world around them. You see, idolatry was not just something optional in the ancient world. It was the way that the gods were worshiped (worshiping the gods without idols made no sense to the typical ancient Near Easterner), and because of this idolatry was not only widely considered not immoral but positively morally upright. This is because it was the way that humans served the gods and kept them from cursing the community. If you did not worship the gods via their idols, you were bringing guilt on the community and putting the whole community at risk. This is part of the reason why the early Christians were persecuted. They refused to participate in the local and imperial cults, so they were branded atheists and unpatriotic because they were risking the well being of the community and of the empire for a silly religion that no civilized nation recognized as legitimate. But holiness recognizes that, at times, what we accept as good, because God has defined it as good, will run perfectly counter to what the world recognizes as good. And when this happens, holiness stands in faithful solidarity with God’s statutes and rules and in opposition to humanity’s rebellious self-worshiping idolatry.

It is especially when our holy calling brings us directly into opposition with the world around us that we are fulfilling our priestly mission to show the world that there is a difference between clean and unclean and between pure and impure. And this opposition is, in my mind, particularly the reason why we should understand holiness not in the simplistic terms of mere moral uprightness but in the biblical terms of our calling to be priests and prophets to the world. If we understand holiness merely as moral uprightness, then we may be tempted to adopt the sensibilities of some aspect of the world around us. However, the moment we do that, we become by definition unholy.


  1. Gary Gibbs says:

    Dear Sir. Have you ever thought that God is merely saying that we shall be holy because He makes us holy just by living with us. Then,because of that loving act we will try to imitate Him and try to obey His commands or instructions. That is the traditional view of Judaism,as I understand it. Our behaviour then should flow from that.
    Because of His grace, and because He knows we will mostly fail,yet He declares us Holy.
    I have struggled with Christian teaching on this subject for many years as it all comes down to behaviour,and because we find it impossible to always be good just turns us into hypocrites.
    He does declare us to be a holy nation of kings and priests. Therefore that is what we are. The rest is as you say
    just behaviour
    I am not disagreeing with your excellent exegesis.

    1. BSEadmin says:

      I’m with you, and that is really a big part of what this article is all about. I cannot fully dismiss the idea that being holy involves some kind of effort on our part (our understanding of holiness, if we want a biblical one absolutely must begin in the latter chapters of Leviticus). However, I am in agreement with you (1) that our becoming holy is only possible through the organic inward work of the Holy Spirit and that, therefore, we should rest in Christ and let him do his work, and (2) that quite a lot that is wrong and downright anti-biblical has been said ignorantly in the name of “holiness” (most especially including standards of living that have no specific basis in a biblical text, whatsoever). I want to assume that these people are well meaning, but the damage they do demands an answer. I just don’t think that the best answer is to abandon intentionality entirely in regards to holiness, since that would involve ignoring our most important biblical texts. But our efforts should be towards loving one another, treating one another with fairness, and determinedly keeping Christ at the center of our lives as our only Lord. If we will do those things by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will fulfill Leviticus’ imperative to be holy.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s