How is it possible to have sound doctrine, a good devotional life, and yet still be unholy? Very easily. You just need to forget something very basic about holiness.
What is Holiness?
God is the ultimate model of holiness: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). But what does it mean to be holy?
Many scholars agree that holiness refers to being distinct, set apart, unique. God is holy because he is distinct, set apart, unique from any other being that exists. But can we be more specific? In what particular ways is God set apart and unique? The Bible identifies at least three.
The Lord: Holy in His Power
Often, God’s holiness is spoken of in the context of some miracle that makes clear he is utterly unique in terms of his power. After God miraculously defeated Pharaoh and his army, Moses and the Israelites break out in song: “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exod. 15:11). When warning of miraculous and powerful judgments to come against the rebellious people of Sidon, the Lord states, “They will know that I am the Lord, when I inflict punishment on her and show myself holy within her” (Ezek. 28:22).
Even the well-known vision that Isaiah has of the Lord in the temple makes this point. Just before Isaiah hears the angels cry out that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy,” we read these words: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). Note that the royal robe was the natural symbol of the king’s power and authority. To say that the train of the Lord’s royal robe “filled the temple” is to say it was huge—football fields of material! And the reason it was so huge is because his power and authority are so great. There is no king like this one. He is utterly unique in terms of his power.
When the Lord commands us to be holy as he is holy, this is not the aspect of his holiness he has in mind. We cannot be all-powerful. But there are two other aspects of his holiness the Bible speaks of, and these are the very things he calls us to embody.
The Lord: Holy in His Purity
When most of us think of the Lord’s purity, we normally think in terms of his moral purity: he is good through and through, and no evil exists in him. Habakkuk summarizes well: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab. 1:13a).
The Lord’s moral purity becomes the model for his people—and is to show up in very practical ways. Leviticus 19 illustrates this beautifully. The chapter begins with the Lord saying, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (19:2). It then goes on to identify many practical ways that this holiness works itself out: not harvesting all of your field so the poor have something to gather (19:9–10); not perverting justice (19:15); not slandering others (19:16); showing respect and honor to the elderly (19:32); not mistreating the foreigner (19:33). By following these commands, the Lord’s people would be able to establish a society of justice and goodness because they would be embodying his upright and good character in their lives. And they would be doing so in very practical ways.
This leads to the third aspect of God’s holiness.
The Lord: Holy in His Love
At the center of Leviticus 19 is the well-known command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). This is no surprise. A moment’s thought will show that carrying out the commands of Leviticus 19 results in acts of love. When you give to the poor instead of maximizing personal profit, it is an act of love. When you refuse to pervert justice but fight for what is right and true, it is an act of love. When you speak truthfully of others instead of indulging in the temptation to slander them with your words, it is an act of love. When you show respect and honor to fellow image-bearers as they slow and weaken with age, it is an act of love. When you put yourself in the shoes of foreigners and treat them with the same care you would your own people, it is an act of love.
The point must not be missed: imitating God’s holiness means being lavish in love. The call to be holy is a call to love. Practically. Deeply. Like God does.
But this is the aspect of holiness we often forget. And when we do, it becomes very easy to know all sorts of doctrine, do lots of Bible reading and prayer, follow all sorts of biblical commands, and yet fail to show practical, deep love to those around us.
To put it as a question: Do those who know us best think of us as people who embody love? Is “loving” one of the main words they would use to describe us? To use the biblical definition of love found in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, do they think of us as patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, not dishonoring others, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs, not delighting in evil but rejoicing with the truth, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering? Do these things typify our lives?
If the answer is no, there is only one conclusion to draw: We are not holy. We might know our doctrine, pray regularly, read the Bible daily, fast every week, follow all sorts of biblical commands, and yet, if we are not lavish in love, we are not holy—because we are not like God. He is holy—utterly distinct—in terms of his love. His people must be the same.
Hope for Unholy People
So how does this happen? Not from running away from God in shame and just trying harder. It happens as we come to him with our lack of love and bask in his, because his love is transformative. Paul understood this well: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph. 5:32–5:2a). Paul roots the command to embody God’s love in the love of God so freely given us in Christ, because when we open our hearts to God’s love for us in Christ, our hearts are filled with that holy love—and it cannot help but express itself to those around us. As John says so simply, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
So, if we lack holy love, let our prayer for help be modelled on that which Paul prayed for a group of Christians in Ephesians 3:16–19: “O Lord, out of your glorious riches, strengthen me with power through your Spirit in my inner being, so that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith. Grant me power, together with all your saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that I may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God!”
That’s a prayer the Lord loves to answer.