The Definition of Holiness & How to Live It Today
What is the definition of holiness? Holiness is the divine dimension that exists in every single thing ever created. Using the language of Colossians 1:16-17, holiness describes everything’s divine origin (“through God”), everything’s divine purpose (“for God”), everything’s divine place in the universe (“before God”), and everything’s divine construction (“holds together in God”). How can we live holy lives in a world in which we are encouraged to see God and his standards as impediments to our flourishing?
The following is an excerpt from David Young’s forthcoming book Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World. This book is the theme book for the 2023 National Gathering in Indianapolis and will be given to all attendees.
If we are to stand firm in following Jesus in the face of temptation and opposition, we must stand with a different ethic from the world: the ethic of holiness. Holiness will be the strength that allows Christians to say “yes” to real life, and “no” to the paganism that increasingly plagues the world and opposes us.
The Holiness of God or the Hedonism of Progressivism
Progressives understand that Christian holiness is a threat to their hedonism, and they are right. There can be no truce between ethics grounded in the holiness of God and ethics grounded in carnal pleasure.
We Christians have a holy view of the day: Christ must permeate every area of our lives to be our Lord, both in private and in public. Progressivism’s pleasure is indicted by our holiness, and so progressivism intolerantly demands that we veil our faith in public.
“Progressivism’s pleasure is indicted by our holiness, and so progressivism intolerantly demands that we veil our faith in public.”
For example, Christians understand that every human bears the holy image of God, including the unborn. Progressives have a utilitarian view of life—human life has value only insofar as it produces pleasure. The Christian insistence on protecting the unborn gets in the way of the hedonist pleasures of progressives, so we must be forced to underwrite abortion.
Christians have a holy view of sex. God created sex to join one man and one woman in a committed, monogamous marriage in order to produce safe and productive families where each child has the unique gifts a father and a mother can offer. Progressives view sex as only designed for pleasure, so uncommitted sex is celebrated, children are often abandoned, and Christians are scolded and bullied for not supporting unholy sexual sin.
So, what is holiness, and why does it matter? Only when we explore what holiness actually means can can we choose to live holy lives in all we do.
Rightly Define Holiness
The early twentieth-century philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto famously defined holiness in terms of one’s experience of “the numinous”—that which is completely different from the ordinary—like Moses’ encounter with the other-worldly burning bush, which led him to take off his shoes. What Otto was suggesting is that right here, in the middle of what appears to be the ordinary world, lies the extraordinary—the connection of the physical with the spiritual. Sometimes that extraordinary breaks through the ordinary and presents itself, as Otto says, as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“a fearful and fascinating mystery”).
Definition of Holiness: “Rudolf Otto famously defined holiness in terms of one’s experience of ‘the numinous’—that which is completely different from the ordinary.”
If we were to borrow a phrase from Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians, we could say that holiness describes the truth regarding creation’s relationship to Christ. “All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). This claim gives us a definition of holiness: Holiness is the divine dimension that exists in every single thing ever created. Holiness describes everything’s divine origin (“through him”), everything’s divine purpose (“for him”), everything’s divine place in the universe (“before him”), and everything’s divine construction (“holds together in him”).
Let me quickly say that this is not to argue that everything is divine, for in a sense, only God is divine (depending on how we define that term). Only God is eternal, uncreated, unchanging, and not “made” of anything. Literally nothing else in the universe possesses these divine qualities. Nothing else is like God. Instead, literally everything else in the universe is created, temporal, malleable, and capable of not existing. God is “one of a kind,” and neither depends on the creation nor can in any way be reduced to the creation or anything within it. Only God is divine. Nothing else is.
Definition of Holiness: “Holiness is the divine dimension that exists in every single thing ever created.”
But, having said that, it is the case that everything in the universe (except for evil—which is not really a “thing” so much as it is the corruption of a “thing”) has a divine origin and a divine purpose. And it is this quality of “divine origin” and “divine purpose” that can be called “holiness.”
Examples of Holiness
Consider a few examples:
- Holiness recognizes that food was created by God, and was given to use to strengthen our bodies so we could do God’s will.
- Holiness recognizes that art was bequeathed us by God, for the purpose of worshiping God in truth and beauty.
- Holiness recognizes that government was created by God, and was instituted to promote good behavior and punish the bad.
- Holiness recognizes the image of God in our spouses, who were given us as provisions to help us and them become more like Jesus.
- Holiness recognizes that even such ordinary things as furniture, cars, houses, and the like were crafted by humans out of raw materials that were created by God and given to us so that we could rule God’s creation with goodness.
Definition of Holiness: “It is this quality of ‘divine origin’ and ‘divine purpose’ that can be called ‘holiness.'”
Everything has a holy dimension. Everything comes from God, and everything is to be used for God. Christians know this, so we order everything so as to recognize and honor its holiness. This means that holiness is, at the end of the day, an ethical system that rightly orders our interactions with all of creation. Holiness is an ethical system that recognizes what God has done in every single piece of creation and uses those pieces to honor and worship him.
Holiness is ordering life in such a way as to honor God in everything, every circumstance, and every space in the universe. It teaches us to prioritize our experiences so that everything’s God-given origins are turned towards their God-given purposes. Holiness is the Christian mandate for life. It is the basis for the Christian system. It is our way of life. The apostle Peter puts it this way:
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 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’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).
Definition of Holiness: “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.’”
Ordering Our Lives in Holiness
As an ethical system, holiness prioritizes life in the same way as God prioritizes life. This is not complicated, but in an unholy and profane world, it can be hard to perceive—much less to implement. Let’s outline what holiness demands, in the order that it demands it, so we can order our lives in holiness and stand firm in a world whose ethical system is ordered around self, pride, and, ultimately, pleasure.
Holiness teaches us
- To love God first, and to love him for his sake alone (and not for what we “get” out of it, although loving God satisfies our heart’s deepest need).
- To love others with the love of God second, also for God’s sake (and not for what we “get” out of them, although loving others for the sake of God brings joy).
- To love ourselves as image bearers of God third, but only for sake of God (and never for our own sake, although loving ourselves for God’s sake creates peace).
- To refuse to love any object or thing, but only to use our stuff for the sake of the love of God (although using our stuff for the sake of God creates contentment).
Definition of Holiness: “Holiness teaches us to love God first…to love others with the love of God…to love ourselves as image bearers…to refuse to love any object or thing.”
Since progressivism is fueled by the king of the profane, the devil himself, progressivism simply cannot tolerate holiness. In the same way that demons recoil in horror and rage at the mention of the name of Jesus, progressivism recoils at the holiness of Christians. It is, after all, a spiritual war in which we find ourselves.
 Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014).
From David Young’s forthcoming Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World (RENEW.org, 2023). To receive a free copy, attend the 2023 National Gathering in Indianapolis on April 25-26.