Most Christians don’t question the fact that God is holy, but many Christians may doubt that they themselves can be holy. This raises several related questions, including the following, which we will address:
- What does it mean for a person to be holy?
- Can a person be filled with the Holy Spirit but not be holy?
- Why should we want to be holy?
- Is being holy a realistic goal?
- How can we become holy?
What Does It Mean for a Person to Be Holy?
Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary gives the following explanation of the term “holy”:
Holy – moral and ethical wholeness or perfection; freedom from moral evil. Holiness may also be rendered ‘sanctification’ or ‘godliness.’ The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ denotes that which is ‘sanctified’ or ‘set apart’ for divine service. . . . [T]he main use is to describe God’s righteous nature or the ethical righteousness demanded of His followers (Is. 1:10-14; Matt. 12:7).
Also, with regard to holiness, Jerry Bridges asserts on page 22 of his book entitled The Pursuit of Holiness,
Many Christians have what we might call a “cultural holiness.” They adapt to the character and behavior pattern of Christians around them. As the Christian culture around them is more or less holy, so these Christians are more or less holy. But God has not called us to be like those around us. He has called us to be like Himself. Holiness is nothing less than conformity to the character of God.
Colossians 3:12-14 mentions characteristics of being holy. In this scripture passage, Paul says,
[A]s the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless noted otherwise.]
The following statements by Bridges in his previously-mentioned book indicate that holiness is a lifestyle:
Holiness is not a series of do’s and don’ts, but conformity to the character of God and obedience to the will of God. [Page 69]
Above all else, we must learn how to bring our wills into submission and obedience to the will of God, on a practical, daily, hour-by-hour basis. [Page 124]
Though we often think of holiness in a more narrow sense of separation from impurity and moral evil, in its broader sense holiness is obedience to the will of God in whatever God directs. [Page 138]
Rick Warren, on page 171 of his book entitled The Purpose Driven Life, says, “You were created to become like Christ.”
In this regard, Bridges states on page 46 of his aforementioned book, “[One] reason we need to consider the holiness of Christ is because His life is meant to be an example of holiness for us. Peter told us that Christ left an example for us to follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21).”
Therefore, Christians who are generally like Jesus Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds are holy, since Christ is God incarnate and God is holy.
Can a Person Be Filled with the Holy Spirit but Not Be Holy?
Before addressing this question, it is important to note that, although every Christian becomes indwelled by the Holy Spirit when they trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior, it is very evident that many Christians are seldom, if ever, filled with the Holy Spirit. [For a discussion of the distinctions between being indwelled by the Holy Spirit and being filled by the Holy Spirit, click on “Filling versus Indwelling by the Holy Spirit.”]
As for the question of whether a person can be filled with the Holy Spirit but not be holy, the Bible indicates that the answer is “yes.” Two biblical examples are Samson and King Saul.
There are several biblical accounts of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Samson. One is found in Judges 14:19, which states, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him [Samson] mightily. . . .” Another account, found in Judges 15:14b, likewise says, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him [Samson]. . . .” The use of the term mightily suggests that, at those specific times, Samson was filled with the Holy Spirit. However, despite apparently being filled by the Holy Spirit on those occasions, the manner in which Samson generally conducted his life gave little, if any, evidence of holiness.
There are also at least a couple of scriptures which indicate that the Holy Spirit came upon King Saul. 1 Samuel 10:10b says, “[T]hen the Spirit of God came upon him [Saul], and he prophesied among them.” Similarly, 1 Samuel 11:6a states, “Then the Spirit of God came upon Saul. . . .” Note that the first scripture says that Saul prophesied. Prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that is often associated with a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit. [For a discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, click on “Gifts of the Holy Spirit.”]
However, unlike the scriptures in Judges with regard to Samson, neither of the scriptures in 1 Samuel states that the Spirit came upon Saul mightily, so it can be argued that Saul may not have been filled with the Holy Spirit on either of the two cited occasions. What we do know for certain is that Saul’s life lacked evidence of holiness, especially after the early years of his reign.
Why Should We Want to Be Holy?
If every person who has genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior is assured of eternal salvation (as indicated by 1 John 5:11-13), why should they pursue a holy life?
Although there may be other reasons for pursuing a holy life, we will limit our discussion to the following three scriptural reasons:
- The Bible instructs us to be holy.
- If we truly love God, we should want to please Him.
- There will be rewards for being holy.
The Bible Instructs Us to Be Holy
In his book entitled Wisdom for Each Day, the internationally known evangelist Billy Graham declares on page 207, “All believers are called to be holy in mind, body, and spirit (1 Peter 1:15).” And, on pages 78-79 of his book entitled The Journey, Graham says,“Do you want to know what God’s will is for you? It is for you to become more and more like Christ. This is spiritual maturity and if you make this your goal, it will change your life.” Furthermore, Graham asserts on page 269 of his book entitled Answers to Life’s Problems, “If you belong to Jesus Christ, you are called to live a life of purity and holiness. God wants your mind to be shaped by Him so that your thoughts and goals reflect Christ.”
Likewise, Bridges declares on page 22 of his previously-cited book, “God has called every Christian to a holy life. There are no exceptions to this call.” Then, on page 36 of the same book, he says that God requires “that we be serious about holiness” and “that we earnestly pursue holiness as a way of life.” And, on page 43, Bridges adds, “Holiness has to do with more than mere acts. Our motives must be holy, that is, arising from a desire to do something simply because it is the will of God.”
Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible instruct God’s people to be holy. Although the Old Testament scriptures may be relevant to Christians as well as to people who are Hebrews, we will focus on the New Testament scriptures.
Romans 12:1: I [the Apostle Paul] beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
Ephesians 1:3-4: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love.
1 Thessalonians 4:7: For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. (This verse in the NIV Bible seems to be somewhat easier to understand. The NIV says, “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”)
Hebrews 12:14a: Pursue peace with all men, and holiness. . . .
1 Peter 1:15-16: [A]s He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”
It is important to understand that biblical instructions, including those in the scriptures we have just cited, should not be regarded as merely suggestions. The contents of the Bible were inspired by God and, therefore, we must not ignore the Bible’s instructions to be holy in our everyday behavior. [For a discussion of reasons to believe that the Bible was inspired by God, click on “Is the Bible Reliable?”]
If We Truly Love God, We Should Want to Please Him
The primary reason why we should love God is because Jesus Christ – God incarnate – states in Matthew 22:37-38, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.” In other words, the highest priority of every person should be to love God.
Christians, especially, have reason to love God: Because of His great love for humanity, God took the form of the man we know as Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life, and then willingly died a sacrificial death to atone for the sins of each person who trusts in Him as their Savior. As a result, each person who genuinely trusts in Christ will enjoy eternal salvation, rather than having to suffer the consequences that would otherwise result as punishment for their sins. [For a discussion of how to be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
If we sincerely love someone, we have a desire to please that person. Jesus Christ says in John 14:15, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” Christ’s commandments are communicated through His teachings that are recorded in the Bible. And when we are keeping Christ’s commandments, we are leading a holy life, which is certainly pleasing to God.
Each Christian’s new nature should result in a love for God that ultimately leads to a genuine desire to be holy. In this regard, Philip Yancey states on page 229 of his book entitled Reaching for the Invisible God,
Reading the New Testament, I am struck by how consistently the authors appeal to my new identity as a motive for good behavior. As a temple of the living God, what business have I rooting around in what I know God disapproves of? . . . Goodness, or “holiness,” is not some egregious new routine that I must lace around myself. . . . It is the outworking of an inner transformation, the gradual but sure response of a person in whom God lives.
There Will Be Rewards for Being Holy
The desire to receive eternal rewards should not be the primary motivation for a person to be holy, since this is inherently a selfish motive. Nevertheless, the Bible seems to indicate that, if we are holy, we can expect to receive a reward. For example, Luke 6:35 mentions a reward for people who manifest several traits that are characteristic of a person who is being holy. This scripture declares, “[L]ove your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Highest. . . .”
Furthermore, people who are holy may receive a temporal reward, in addition to an eternal reward. On page 154 of his aforementioned book, Bridges asserts, “Only those who walk in holiness experience true joy.” Bridges goes on to cite John 15:10-11, in which Jesus Christ says, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” Bridges then concludes that Christ linked “obedience and joy in a cause and effect manner; that is, joy results from obedience.” And since a person who is holy is obedient to God, joy is a temporal reward of being holy.
Is Being Holy a Realistic Goal?
Matthew Kelly declares on page 169 of his book entitled Rediscover Jesus,
[O]ne lie is having a diabolical impact on the lives of modern Christians. It is the biggest lie in the history of Christianity. It is worth noting that this lie is not one that non-Christians tell. It is a lie we tell ourselves as Christians.
This is the lie: Holiness is not possible.
And, Bridges says on page 50 of his previously-mentioned book,
Many Christians have a basic desire to live a holy life, but have come to believe they simply cannot do it. They have struggled for years with particular sins or deficiencies of character. While not living in gross sin, they have more or less given up ever attaining a life of holiness and have settled down to a life of moral mediocrity with which neither they nor God are (sic) pleased. The promise of Romans 6:6-7 seems impossibly beyond them. The strong commands of Scripture to live a consistently holy life only frustrate them.
Subsequently, on pages 51-52 of the same book, Bridges states,
[A]fter a while, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we discover we are still experiencing defeat at the hands of our sinful natures. The victory seemingly promised us still eludes us.
In the Bible we read, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12). The first thing we should notice in this passage is that the pursuit of holiness – this not allowing sin to reign in our mortal bodies – is something we have to do. . . . The experience of holiness is not a gift we receive like justification, but something which we are clearly exhorted to work at.
In other words, after a person becomes a Christian, they should not expect to automatically become holy in the way they conduct themselves. Living a holy life requires persistent personal commitment to seeking to live according to God’s will day after day and year after year.
However, Revelation 15:4a is a scripture that may cause many Christians to further question if being holy is a realistic goal. This scripture states, “Who shall not fear You, O Lord, and glorify Your name? For You alone are holy.”
If only God is holy, how can any human be holy? To answer this question, we need to go beyond the explanation of the term holy that was provided by Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary in our discussion of what it means to be holy.
According to Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word hosios that is translated as holy with regard to God in Revelation 15:4, has a different meaning than the Greek word hagios that is translated as holy in the previously-cited scriptures regarding humans being holy. Strong states that hosios pertains to divine character, whereas hagios pertains to humans and “fundamentally signifies . . . separated from sin and therefore consecrated to God. . . .” In other words, although we as humans can be holy, the magnitude of our holiness is less than the magnitude of God’s holiness.
How Can We Become Holy?
Henry and Tom Blackaby, in their book entitled The Man God Uses, explain how the process of sanctification leads to holiness. On page 76 they state,
Sanctification is the process by which we are made holy. This begins at conversion when we are justified through Christ and lasts throughout our lives as the Holy Spirit continues his work. Sanctification is accomplished primarily through God’s Word. As we encounter God in his Word, he reveals to us things about ourselves, about himself, and about others. We then are obligated to act on those revelations, or we live in disobedience. As we obey the revelations of God, we continue in the process of our sanctification.
In his previously-cited book, Bridges mentions the following factors that are necessary with regard to becoming holy:
Only one who has a strong desire to be holy will ever persevere in the painfully slow and difficult task of pursuing holiness. [Page 74]
[W]e are dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to attain any degree of holiness. [Page 76]
It is the will that chooses to yield to temptation, or to say no. Our wills, then, ultimately determine our moral destiny, whether we will be holy or unholy in our character and conduct. [Page 124]
In other words, the two key factors in becoming holy are having the will to be holy and allowing the Holy Spirit to give us the ability to do what is necessary to be holy.
But, how can we be holy all of the time? The answer is that we cannot be holy all of the time. Only God is always holy. No mortal person is capable of always being holy. However, the fact that we are not able to be holy all the time does not provide us with a valid excuse to not strive to become more consistently holy. Every time we do something that keeps us from being holy, we can confess our sin to God, claim His forgiveness according to 1 John 1:9, and recommit ourselves to living a holy life.
On page 157 of his aforementioned book, Bridges declares, “Surely [God] has not commanded us to be holy without providing the means to be holy. The privilege of being holy is yours, and the decision and responsibility to be holy is yours.”
Just as it is crucial for children to mature physically and mentally so they can fulfill their full potential, it is supremely important for us as Christians to attain spiritual maturity so that we can reach our full potential in accordance with God’s desire for us. Being holy is a goal for which all Christians should aspire. If we earnestly desire to live according to God’s will and allow the Holy Spirit to be in control of our life, we will increasingly manifest the attributes of holiness. And, that will surely be very pleasing to God.