Holiness is Aweful!

(UPDATED: Oct 28, 2009, originally published Jul 4, 2008)

There is a tremendous disparity in our understanding of the doctrine of holiness and/or sanctification.

The definition of those terms is a matter of debate among many teachers and preachers. It is also one of the primary differences between some major denominations.

Many people today believe that no one can be holy except God Himself. I have heard people “quote” the Bible as saying that. However, the Scripture they think they are quoting is not found in any Bible that I have ever read. The nearest that I have found to such a statement is Luke 18:19 where Jesus asked, “‘Why do you call me good?’ …. ‘No-one is good— except God alone.‘” But this speaks of “good” — not “holy.” And even the statement of “good” is not to be taken literally – Jesus taught that true disciples would be “GOOD and faithful servant[s]” (Mat 25:21).

Asbury College

Still others understand holiness as the elimination of all sin in our lives. When I first joined the Church of God (in 1968) that was the prevailing belief about holiness. We were taught that “Christians do not commit sin.” The problem with that concept was that each of us (without voicing it) realized that we were failing in that area. The reality is that we DO fail God – even to the point of sin. But even frail, failing humans like us can still be holy.

Semantics is the study of the meanings of words. Our understanding of holiness is made difficult because of a confusion of definitions.

I found six different Greek words that the editors of the King James Version (KVJ) translated into the English word “holy.” (note 1) Each of these words reflects a variation in the concept of holiness. To the person who reads only the KJV, all of those concepts are lumped together in the single word “holy” (or some variation of the word). The issue is made more confusing since the translators also used various other words (sanctify, hallow, saints, etc) to translate one or more of the six Greek words. The result is that when one searches a concordance for the word “holy” (or “holiness”), we are presented with over 280 references with that appear to have conflicting meanings!

So, what *IS* holiness? Can a common man (or woman) achieve such a sacred level? Although many might disagree, holiness is apparently a requirement that every Christian must meet. Look at what Peter taught…

1 Peter 1:15,16, But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

This verse has troubled me (and many others) over the years. If I must be as pure and holy as God Himself, then I am doomed! But that is NOT what the verse is requiring of us.

If that is not the meaning, then WHAT DOES THE VERSE MEAN? Since I do not read Greek or Hebrew, I use the Strong’s numbering system as my “translator.” If you are not familiar with this system, you are missing much in your study of the Bible. (note 1)

No one will see the Lord unless they are holy. That is a paraphrase of Hebrews 12:14, “…be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” The Greek word used here is hagiasmos (Strong’s #38). That particular Greek word is used 10 times in the KJV texts. Five times the KJV editors translated the word as “holiness” (Ro 6:19,20; 1Th 4:7; 1Tim 2:15 & Heb 12:14). In the other five cases, they translated it as “sanctification” (1Co 1:30; 1Th 4:3,4; 2Th 2:13 and 1Pe 1:2). Here are those verses as translated in the New International Version (NIV)…

Ro 6:19,20 I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. (20) When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.

1Th 4:7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

1Ti 2:15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

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

1Co 1:30 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.

1Th 4:3,4 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; (4) that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable,

2Th 2:13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

1Pe 1:2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

This word hagiasmos refers to consecration or sanctification. Both of these words describe the act of dedicating one’s self to God & His work. This act is not the exclusive domain of those in full-time ministry as a vocation. It simply means that we separate ourselves from the world and to Christ. In this act, we “pledge” to marry Christ and therefore we will keep ourselves “pure” until the wedding. Hagiasmos includes the act of making such a pledge and, our continuing commitment to remain pure for Him.

From the ten verses using hagiasmos, I isolated three important issues for all Christians:

  1. We are called to live a holy life
  2. Holiness is enabled by the Holy Spirit
  3. Holiness is a part of the process leading to eternal life

1. We are called to live a holy life. This is clearly stated in 1Thes 4:7. It is not an option – it is a calling and a command. The Bible says that we are to “learn to control [our] own body in a way that is holy and honorable” (1Thes 4:4).

2. Holiness is enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is understood from Scriptures such as 2Th 2:13 and 1Pe 1:2, both describing “the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” This tells us that we cannot become (or remain) holy as a result of our own actions. Such work must be enabled by the Holy Spirit.

3. Holiness is part of the process leading to eternal life. This is understood from the previous two concepts and is stated in 1Tim 2:15 (“if they continue in… holiness”) & Heb 12:14 (“without holiness no-one will see the Lord”). The process leading to eternal life is defined in Ro 6:19,20. First, we must accept Christ and be set free from the slavery of sin. Second, we are to offer ourselves as slaves to righteousness. Third, we are to live a life of holiness. The final result is eternal life with Christ.

But this still does not tell us the real meaning of the word holiness. If we look at the etymology (study of the history of a word), we may see more. The Greek word hagiasmos (Strong’s #38) is derived from hagiazo (Strong’s #37) which is derived from hagios (Strong’s #40). So, let’s begin by looking at the word hagios.

The word hagios is defined as “a characteristic of God; or one separated to God; or one worthy of veneration.” As such, it is applied to persons separated to God’s service. It refers (in the moral sense) to the sharing of God’s purity and to the pure, clean sacrifices and offerings presented to God. Hagios was derived from the Greek word hagos which is not used in the Bible. However, in secular literature of Biblical times, the word hagos refered to “an awful thing.”

The most significant definition of holiness is that it is a characteristic of God. When someone in the Bible came in contact with God they always experienced the awesomeness of His presence. The definition of the word “awesome” is that someone (or something) that is so impressive or overwhelming as to inspire awe, admiration or wonder. Something or someone that is “awesome” will simply take one’s breath away.

This is the characteristic of God that caused Moses, Elijah and John the Revelator to take off their shoes, hide in a rock or fall on their face before the Almighty! The word used in early English was “awful” – which meant FULL of awe. That is the root meaning of hagos & the Biblical hagios (#40), “an awful thing.” It describes someone (or something) that is awe inspiring.

How can I inspire awe in others?

1 Peter 3:15,16 But in your hearts set apart [“sanctify” in the KJV – hagiazo, #37] Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. [Emphasis mine]

In the KJV, Peter says that we should “sanctify Christ.” Some believe that sanctification is the elimination of sin. However, we cannot eliminate sin from Christ, who never sinned. But we can “set apart” Christ in our hearts (NIV). We can set him in a very special place, recognizing His awesomeness. And, by doing so, we can acquire the same holiness in our own lives (cf. 1Co 1:30, He has become our holiness). When such holiness is active in our lives, it will inspire awe in others and they will ASK, “How can you have such hope… ?” (See the context at 1Pe 3:14-17.)

True Biblical holiness is not defined by wearing a particular “uniform.” Those who demand that Christians dress a certain way have missed the point. Harlots may never cut their hair and may wear dresses down to their ankles. Ungodly men may wear a nice suit and tie. But what defines holiness is something in the heart. It is recognized even by people of the world! Holiness is the awesomeness of God shining through in our life!!

Note 1: (The Strong’s system presents the original Greek or Hebrew word that was translated into the text of the KJV Bible — plus the definition of the word.) In the case of our present study, The Greek words assigned Strong’s numbers 37-42 are all translated in the KJV Bible either as “holy” or “holiness.” A simple distinction between them: Hagiazo (37) generally means to make holy, consecrate or sanctify; hagiasmos (38) generally relates to the act of sanctification; hagion (39) points to a sanctuary or holy place or someone (or thing) that is worthy of veneration; hagios (40) is the most basic, root word in this series. It refers to the characteristic of God or to those separated to God; hagiotes (41) is only used once in the KJV (Heb 12:10) and it speaks of the resulting state of our holiness; hagiosune (42) is the last word that I found and it also speaks to the resultant holiness or moral purity.

Note 2: I recommend that everyone download the Online Bible (OLB) program at http://www.onlinebible.net/. (NOTE: Disregard the “online” part of the name. Use of this program does not require that one be connected to the internet.) The program is written for Windows but it can be used on a Mac or Linux computer using other utilities. The OLB is entirely free. Most importantly, the program has an extensive dictionary function using the Strong’s Numbers. If regular use of a computer is not convenient, then I recommend that you purchase a printed copy of “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance.” The book is generally priced around $30 but it is my firm conviction that “Strong’s” should be the second book a Christian should own (the Bible should be first).

Since this is a very controversial subject, I would sincerely like to hear your comments about this study. Let me know whether you agree or disagree. Leave a comment on the “Prophecy With Salt” site.

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About Ray

Ray Waldo is a retired pastor with a passion for sharing knowledge, understanding and (if possible), wisdom with everyone he meets. Prior to his retirement, Ray served as a local pastor and teacher to five different churches in two states. He also served as a short-term missionary, teacher, and crusade speaker to groups in Mexico, Kenya, Uganda & the Democratic Republic of Congo (while Congo was still in conflict). Ray is also a widely recognized teacher, writer and public speaker. He was the top-billed speaker to groups of over 10,000 people when he visited Africa. He is currently writing two books (online) that he expects to be published within the next two years.

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