What Does It Mean to Be Holy?

be holy meaning

Have you ever wondered what it means to be holy? 

Verses like 1 Peter 1:16 clearly say we believers are to be holy: “Because it is written, ‘You shall be holy because I am holy.’”

But what does it mean to be holy? Does it mean we’re pious, perfect, or sinless, or that we dress, talk, and behave a certain way? Does performing a religious ritual make us holy? Does it mean we withdraw from society to go live in a monastery?

The New Testament has a lot to say about believers being holy. But in this post, we’ll discuss this topic in a simple way by focusing on Ephesians 1:4 and the corresponding notes in the New Testament Recovery Version.

Why did God choose us?

Ephesians 1:4 says something we may find quite unexpected. It says God chose us before we were even born for a particular purpose:

“Even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and without blemish before Him in love.”

We probably think God chose us to be saved from judgment. We surely were delivered from eternal judgment when we believed in Christ as our Savior and Redeemer, and we thank God for that. 

But this verse doesn’t say anything along those lines. God’s choosing of us was before the foundation of the world, even before sin entered the picture. So why did God choose us? This verse tells us that God chose us before the foundation of the world “to be holy and without blemish before Him in love.”

We were chosen by God to be holy, so it’s important to understand what that means.

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What it means to be holy

The New Testament Recovery Version has a very helpful note on the word holy. Let’s read the first part: 

“Holy means not only sanctified, separated unto God, but also different, distinct, from everything that is common. Only God is different, distinct, from all things. Hence, He is holy; holiness is His nature. He chose us that we should be holy.”

To be holy means we’re sanctified, that is, separated unto God. It also means we’re different and distinct from everything common. 

But only God is distinct and different from everything and everyone else. Only God is holy; holiness is His very nature.

Everything has a particular inherent quality, which is its nature. For instance, the nature of a car is mostly metal. What is God’s nature? God’s nature, His being, is holy. His holy nature makes Him unique, different, and distinct from everything else in this universe. 

And God chose us to be like Him, to be holy as He is holy. This tells us that to be holy is not something related to outward behavior, but to inward nature.

Understanding the meaning of holy helps us realize that adopting outward behaviors—such as dressing, acting, or talking in a certain way—or isolating ourselves from society doesn’t make us holy. We can do these things and still not be holy.

In fact, people can behave in an outwardly pious way without actually being saved. Regardless of how they behave, they certainly aren’t holy, since they haven’t been born again with the life and nature of God.

How can we be holy?

When we look at ourselves, we may wonder how we could ever be sanctified and separated unto God from everything common. How could we be holy as God is holy?  

We have to admit that in certain areas of our life, we’re worldly through and through. And in other matters, we’re altogether not distinct or different from what’s common. We’re not separated unto God.

But when we were born again, we received the life of God in our spirit. At that time, the process of God’s full salvation of our whole being began, which includes God making us holy.

Let’s read the rest of the note on holy in Ephesians 1:4 to find out how God does this:

He makes us holy by imparting Himself, the Holy One, into our being, that our whole being may be permeated and saturated with His holy nature. For us, God’s chosen ones, to be holy is to partake of God’s divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and to have our whole being permeated with God Himself. This is different from mere sinless perfection or sinless purity. This makes our being holy in God’s nature and character, just like God Himself.”

We become holy not by reforming ourselves, but by God imparting Himself, the unique holy One, into us. From the time we’re saved, God wants to impart Himself into us more and more until we’re permeated and saturated with His holy nature. 

This isn’t something instantaneous; it takes time. Little by little, God is making us holy. This permeating process that makes us holy continues throughout our whole Christian life.

But to be fully saturated with God’s holy nature doesn’t happen automatically or against our will. God needs our daily cooperation. We need to allow Him to impart more of His holy nature into our being. By this saturating, we will be holy, and spontaneously, the way we live will be affected. 

So how can we cooperate with God to be made holy? We’ll discuss just three ways here.

1. By going along with Christ who lives in us

First Corinthians 1:30 says that Christ became sanctification to us from God. In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the word sanctify is the verb form of the word holy. When we believed in Christ, He came into us to be our life. Christ brought the holy nature of God into us to sanctify us—that is, to make us holy.

This explains our experience after we’re saved. We spontaneously feel different about things we used to do before we received the Lord. We no longer want to engage in sinful activities, and we feel uncomfortable if we do. 

This uncomfortable feeling doesn’t come from any kind of outward regulation. It comes from the Lord Jesus who lives in us. From within us, the Lord lets us know His feeling about the worldly, sinful, or unclean things and activities in our life that don’t correspond with His holy nature.

When we sense that feeling from the Lord, we shouldn’t ignore it. Continuing in such things even after we know the Lord doesn’t approve will prevent us from being made holy. But if we separate ourselves from those things or activities, we allow Him to saturate us more with His holy nature.

Let’s go on to see the second way we can cooperate with the Lord to be made holy.

2. By reading the Word of God

In John 17, the Lord Jesus prayed to the Father. Verse 17 says:

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” 

God’s Word is truth. The Word as truth shines on us and sanctifies us. By its shining, we realize what agrees with God’s holy nature and what doesn’t. When we come to the Bible with an open heart, the Word enlightens us and teaches us to be holy.

For instance, let’s say in your Bible reading you come to 1 John 2:15 and 16, which say:

“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him; because all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”

As you read, these words shine on you and enlighten you concerning the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life. In this light, you sense how God feels about your love for a particular aspect of the world. The light of the Word may even shine on how you spend your time. As a result of this shining, you might pray, “Lord, I agree with Your Word. Separate me from the world. Save me from loving the world. Save me from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life.”

Many of us know by experience the difference in our Christian life when we’re reading God’s Word regularly versus only rarely or sporadically. 

What sanctifies us isn’t a Bible sitting on our shelf, but the words recorded in the Bible shining on our hearts as we read them. The more we read the Word with prayer and an open heart, the more we’re sanctified.

To cooperate with the Lord to be made holy, we need to daily read the Word of God and not resist or argue with the shining we receive from His Word. Instead, we should agree with it and allow the Word to sanctify us.

Now we come to the third way we can cooperate with the Lord to be made holy.

3. By cleansing ourselves from defilement

We’ve seen that God wants us to be holy. In 2 Corinthians 7:1, the apostle Paul said:

Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”

Here, Paul strongly exhorts us to “perfect holiness in the fear of God.” We should all have a healthy fear of God, meaning a fear of offending the God who chose us and saved us. This healthy fear encourages us to cooperate with the Lord to cleanse ourselves from defilement.

How do we do this? To cleanse ourselves from all defilement requires us to take certain actions: we don’t go places that are unclean in the eyes of God; we stop participating in vile, sinful activities; and we get rid of anything we possess that offends God’s holy nature. Engaging in defiling activities and possessing unclean and sinful things prevent us from being made holy. Cleansing ourselves from all defilement is something God wants us to do so He can continue to impart Himself into us, sanctifying us.

The atmosphere of being made holy

It may seem hard to cooperate with the Lord in the ways we’ve discussed. We may look at our condition or our weakness and be discouraged. 

But we should remember that the Lord lives in us. He’s near us and available to be our life and everything we need. We can do all things in Him who empowers us, including cooperating with Him to be separated unto God and saturated with Him to be made holy. We simply need to turn to Him and contact Him in our spirit.

And it’s also encouraging to remember that Ephesians 1:4 ends with the phrase in love.

Let’s read note 7 in the Recovery Version on this phrase:

“Love here refers to the love with which God loves His chosen ones and His chosen ones love Him. It is in this love, in such a love, that God’s chosen ones become holy and without blemish before Him. First, God loved us; then this divine love inspires us to love Him in return. In such a condition and atmosphere of love, we are saturated with God to be holy and without blemish, just as He is.”

God loves us, and His love inspires us to love Him in return. Our being made holy by God takes place in this atmosphere of love. Every day we can freshly experience His love for us, and we can express our love for Him in return. 

When we’re in such an atmosphere of love, cooperating with His shining isn’t a dry duty to us. As we say, “Lord Jesus, I love You,” our resistance to Him will crumble. We can’t help but lovingly cooperate with Him and let Him impart Himself into us more.

 
In this post, we’ve only scratched the surface of what it is to be holy. Reading Ephesians 1:4 with all the accompanying notes in the New Testament Recovery Version will help you see even more about this topic. If you live in the US, you can order a free copy of the New Testament Recovery Version here.