Holiness is Aweful (sic) – Can WE be Holy?

Holiness is Aweful

Holiness is Aweful

Updated Sep 5, 2018

(BTW, I know that “aweful” is incorrectly spelled, but it has a meaning… read on.)

There is a tremendous disparity in 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).

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 (KJV) 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 associate the word holy to their translation of these words, but 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! In that same search, we also FAIL to see the references that were translated into a word other than “holy”.

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. It MAY even be a requirement for being “caught away” / raptured at the coming of Christ. (Read this article.) Now, 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? To better understand a verse, we must properly define the associated terms and how they are used in the Word of God. We will try to answer with Scripture and summarize the results at the end of this article.

Here are some concepts to consider:

A. 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, see Note 1). 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) – with the “holiness” word highlighted in bold print…

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 [God the Father] 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 that help define the concept:

  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 1Th 4:7 “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. It is not an option – it is a calling and a command. A previous Scripture (1Th 4:4) says that we are to “learn to control [our] own body in a way that is holy and honorable.”

2. Holiness is enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is understood from Scriptures such as 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.” and 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.” Both verses describe “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 6:18-22.

18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness [f]for holiness.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. 

The “holiness process is thus: First, we must accept Christ and be set free from the slavery of sin. Second, we are to offer ourselves as slaves of 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.”

B. 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.

Since originally writing this, I found an article on Isaiah 6:1-8 by Fr. Robert Barron. You can read the entire article on Sean Hannity’s Forum here. It is descriptive of the awesomeness of God…

Isaiah tells us that “at the sound of the singing of the angels, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.” An experience of God always changes us; it never fails to shake the foundations on which we stand and rattle the walls that we trust will protect us. The true God, when he breaks into our lives, drives us out of our complacency, reconfigures us, knocks us to the ground. He is — to borrow just a few biblical images — a whirlwind, an earthquake, a conquering army, a thief in the night.

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.

SUMMARY: If we are to actually “Be holy, because [God] is holy” (1Pe 16), then it is because we inspire others by our faith in God and His providence. It will be displayed in how we respond to difficulties. It is It is recognized even by people who are not Christians! Holiness is the awesomeness of God shining through in our life (in our words and actions)!!

Note 1: (Since I do not read Greek or Hebrew, I use the Strong’s numbering system as my “translator.” 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. See Note 2 for resources.) 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: Strongs numbers are found in “Strong’s Exhaustive Commentary”. 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 the book is in the Public Domain, it is now available It is now available online at BibleHub.com/strongs.htm. Other resources include the Online Bible (OLB) program at http://www.onlinebible.net/. The program is written for Windows but it can be used on a Mac or Linux computer using other utilities. (There are also apps for Android and iOS.) The program has an extensive dictionary function using the Strong’s Numbers.

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 below…


  • I appreciate your study on Holiness. My personal view of holiness has gone through several renovations in the last few years. As I study scripture I see and understand God as more holy than I could ever imagine which has made my “standard” of holiness higher. At the same time, I have come to understand the power of the cross in a greater way coming to understand it is Him who makes me holy.

    Maybe it's time for another renovation?

  • I have also gone through a number of iterations in my thinking (about almost everything). Every time I think I have something “in my pocket,” I find that my pocket had a hole in it {grin}.

    I do not want anyone to blindly follow my thinking about any doctrine. What I want to do is develop a burning desire in my readers to discover more of what God wants them to know. I use controversial subjects to “jar” readers off of their (sometimes unfounded and biased) “beliefs” and force them to determine what God said. If these studies spark an interest in further study, then they have accomplished their purpose.

    The only way that I know whether that has happened is when people tell me, either in these comments or in person. I am glad that this study has gotten you to thinking more openly. I would really like to share some things with you when you have time. Give me a call – I am in the book.

  • Relevant thoughts on the meaning of the word “holiness” at http://nuallan.livejournal.com/49222.html.

  • I think this has been a subject of concern over the centuries.
    We have seen Christians made to feel guilty that they are not able to meet the, in my view, unreasonable demands of leaders themselves far from holy/perfect.
    My understanding is that when God looks at us, He sees us in two ways. He sees us firstly as perfect in Christ, having imputed to us the righteousness of Christ. Then our always realistic God, sees us as people who are striving to be more like Jesus. Paul had this tension as we read so much of his assurance of salvation, and the security in Christ which gave him such joy and freedom. (Godly freedom being a term and concept which seems to allude so many of todays controlling leaders).
    It is an understanding of God's compassion and patience with us that enable us to “press on toward the mark….”
    Within the understanding of holiness, is the truth of us being 'set apart' for Him. This truth liberates us from the heavy hand of God, to be able to bask in His love.
    IT takes TIME for people to release their hurts and pain to God, and to experience the loving, accepting, patient Father God.
    We must stop putting burdens on the backs of our people. Wouldn't it be great to cry “Freedom” over our people, rather than telling them how bad they are? It might make for messy church, but who cares. A very good friend of mine is more miserable now than when I first met him as a non Christian. I wonder if it could have anything to do with his pastor lambasting his congregation time after time? He is a gentle visionary who will do anything for anyone.
    We are made holy in Christ, but must continually lay our lives down to our loving God.
    If you think I have made any wrong statements here lets hear from you.

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