Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word

Years ago on a discussion board with a group of Christian authors, I posited the idea that maybe Christians could push the envelop (and therefore become “edgy” 🙄 ) by writing about things like holiness. You would have thought I’d said a dirty word based on the reactions I got.

Just recently another author used the term “holiness” to depict the segment, or “camp,” of Christians whose driving principle is the law. Clearly, as the comments to the post bore out, “holiness” was equated with legalism.

These separate incidents make me wonder what we who name the name of Christ mean when we use the word “holy.” We say that God is holy. Do we think He’s a fuddy-duddy legalist? If His holiness means something else, then why would we think the aspiration to be holy which a Christian should have is somehow a tell-tale sign that contradicts honesty (the opposing “camp” this writer delineated) and the desire to engage the fallen world?

Did not our Holy God take the initiative and engage His lost creation? And if we are to be like Him in holiness as Scripture instructs, won’t we also engage the world? True holiness, then, is not finding a sterile environment to wait out life.

Scripture gives some interesting, and perhaps less clear than we’d like, instruction on the subject. Take James 1:27 for example:

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. [emphasis added]

Engage the needy, this verse would seem to say, and keep your own life free from sin.

Here are several other verses and the questions I asked those years ago when I was first grappling with the issues of what a Christian writer can or should include in her stories:

Ephesians 5:11, 12: “And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.” [How does a writer expose the deeds without speaking of the things done in secret?]

Romans 16:19b “But I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil.” [How does a writer show evil (in order) to be faithful to what is true and remain innocent in what is evil?]

I Corinthians 14:20 “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature.” [How can my writing reflect maturity and still have a babe-like reflection of evil?]

Would that we Christians, writers or readers, not scoff at holiness or cheapen it by identifying legalists as those engaged in holiness. Would that we not disdain God’s command to be holy because of the negative press the word has received.

Holiness is God’s attribute that identifies Him as sinless and morally excellent. He is the gold standard, and we, made in His image, then fallen, are being remade like His Son. In other words, we have the mold of holiness before us shaped like Jesus, and we are being fashioned to be like Him. It is a high calling, a desirable and worth purpose because our holiness reflects on God, not us, and gives Him glory.

Words have meaning, and it’s high time we Christians start using the ones God set out in His word the way He used them. Otherwise, we end up doing just what the prophets said would take place — people start calling good (or holiness), evil and evil, good.

– – –

For a continuation of this discussion, see “Holiness Means What Again?

Published in: on May 30, 2011 at 7:30 pm  Comments (28)  
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  1. It’s a concern. We have these knee-jerk reactions. We see legalism and we knee-jerk into lawlessness. We see lawlessness and we knee-jerk into legalism.

    Holiness is neither lawless not legalistic, of course.

    Thanks for the reminder.


  2. Yes! Good post!


  3. Great post!
    I am in the process of writing a post on a similar topic. I too read the same post about holiness and it put a burr in my saddle so to speak. I feel some may have forgotten that that is the greatest attribute of God is that He is Holy. “Holiness is purity, moral perfection, the absence of sin.” R. A. Torrey.
    Read Chapter 6 of Isaiah. We too as believer’s are called to live a holy life, “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”
    1 Thessalonian 4:7.
    The problem is same problem since the beginning of time, people are rebellious and not humble. Because to me the level of one’s humility determines their teachableness.
    Thank you.


  4. Those who automatically equate “holiness” with “legalism” are themselves being legalistic.

    They’re legalistic against supposed “legalism.”

    This no better than Christians who believe that one can’t enjoy sex as God intended it without also automatically being a fornicator, or enjoy storytelling that honors Him without also automatically falling into deception.


  5. I think the potential problem arises when we define holiness in terms of certain cultural norms, expectations, or preferences. Which is why holiness for many well-meaning Christians, boils down to a series of thou-shalt-nots that involve things like make-up, jewelry, tattoos, alcohol, R-rated movies, cigarettes, etc. etc. I’m sure you’d agree that some forms of holiness have very little to do with real godliness. At least I’m guessing that’s what your mystery author was getting at.


  6. Sally, I agree. One kind of behavior can trigger and “equal and opposite reaction” so we end up with extremes. It’s time we stopped playing along, I think. The Bible is an incredibly balanced book with any number of admonitions that ought to keep us from swaying so wildly from side to side.

    Morgan and Annette, thanks for you feedback. I agree that the root problem is the same. Great reminder that the humble spirit makes us teachable.

    Stephen, thanks for your input, too. Yes, there are any number of ways that we can misconstrue what God has said, what He has given for us to enjoy, what He has set down as a standard for us to follow. We’re pretty good at deciding to do it our way! 😦



  7. Soooooooooo great! That’s why I avoid Christian fiction. So often it brings folks to the Tree of knowledge of good and evil and to the god of this world who enables us to accuse the brother. After folks read Christian fiction, they are ready for the law…and thus ready for hell. Christianity is so rarely found in christian fiction…with all those pure women and noble men running around. What a great article! -C


  8. Mike, you said I’m sure you’d agree that some forms of holiness have very little to do with real godliness.

    Actually, I don’t agree at all. Legalism is not holy, nor is it godly. People who do set down thou shalt’s are either trying to be good enough to earn something from God, or they are trying to play God and tell everyone else what to do. Neither of those things has anything whatsoever to do with holiness. It’s all about self.

    To me it really is offensive to take a word God uses about Himself to delineate His moral purity and apply it to people who are perverting the very concept of righteousness.

    I’m not saying people can’t, or shouldn’t, have personal standards for those things you mentioned. Good on them. I don’t see too many Amish people going to jail. 😉 But Christ-like? Those externals don’t make someone Christ-like.

    And that’s what’s at stake when we talk about holiness. After all, it is our lack of holiness that separated us from God, that required Christ’s shed blood to make reconciliation possible. It is not a small thing!



  9. ok, so lets throw out another word, and that is Sanctification…that could be considered the road to Holiness. Simply put, doesn’t “Holy” mean SEPARATE or DIFFERENT? Not legalities but love…something we have trouble grasping on to…AGAPE.


  10. Regarding holiness:

    Those who automatically equate “holiness” with “legalism” are themselves being legalistic.

    And that’s where it all starts from, the whole “holiness=legalism”, because the originator of this “holiness” movement was Pelagius, a heretic, and then his theological descendants such as Charles Finney (heretic) and the Keswick Movement (heretical). No one is arguing against holiness, just holiness as a goal.


  11. And that’s where it all starts from, the whole “holiness=legalism”, because the originator of this “holiness” movement was Pelagius, a heretic,

    Heretical, yes, because he treated man as simply “neutral” who needed a leg-up from Christ. Fail.

    Of course, this isn’t real “holiness” anyway. As Becky has pointed out, it’s a perversion of the term. We might as well say that those who don’t take seriously a Christian’s good fruit of fighting against greed or racism are living with “too much grace.” That’s not “grace” at all.

    and then his theological descendants such as Charles Finney (heretic) and the Keswick Movement (heretical).

    For clarity: Finney believed, like Pelagius, that mankind simply needed to repent and Behave Better. He not only upheld Biblical rules, but made up his own (a common malady to us all, apart from Christ). Demonstrating this heresy, Finney changed the topic and idea of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to “Sinners Bound to Change their own Hearts.” How disgusting.

    Keswick theology: an upgrade to two-tier, caste-system Christianity. You see, it turns out there are Christians, sure, but maybe kinda-worldly ones, and then there are really special uber-Christians who are more Committed™. Which one will you be?

    No one is arguing against holiness, just holiness as a goal.

    StuartB: I think this is a vital point. We are talking here about two different (oft overlapping) mutations of Biblical “holiness.”

    The first co-opts “holiness” and substitute an imposter: the guidelines Mike Duran mentioned, which are not only foreign to Scripture but utterly flaunt its prohibition on making up rules that Scripture never gives us.

    The second takes actual striving for holiness, commanded in Scripture, and makes it a means to its own end. This is false. Growing in holiness is a means to getting more of Christ, the far-greater good. (That’s partly why the Spirit doesn’t give active, fully realized holiness now (contrary to some Christians’ well-intended but anti-Biblical beliefs that He does). What would you do if you were suddenly and actively perfect now? Happy with the gift, you’d run off and forget the Giver, wouldn’t you? I’m sure I would. Thank God He’s more loving than that, and instead keeps us seeking Himself.)

    Still, I believe that opposing either mutation of “holiness,” apart from substituting the Gospel, will lead to just more legalism, and worse, it’s legalism that doesn’t look like it, because it opposes “legalism.” That misses the point — all it does is make people freak out, legalistically, about whether they are being or coming across as Legalistic! The Gospel begins to put to death any such self-focus.

    Finally, it still doesn’t seem to help to refer to imposter “holiness” as holiness. Why let the Bad Guys co-opt a perfectly good (ha ha!) term?


  12. Most people don’t really know what legalism is. They think it is equated with rules. But God gave Israel a lot of rules. Why? St. Paul says it is to be a mirror to show us our unholiness, so we’ll repent and come to Him for real holiness, that is, His likeness in us.

    Having rules doesn’t constitute holiness. Rules show us where we fall short of holiness. But legalism is when the rules themselves, where it is keeping the Sabbath or dancing, becomes a goal in itself rather than the grace of God that gives us real holiness, that is, His character and life in us. Holiness is a relationship, not a set of dos and don’ts. But that doesn’t mean the rules aren’t needed or necessary. They are not legalistic if used as intended.

    So I would modify the statement to say that following a set of rules is not the goal, but holiness, God-likeness, most certainly is. But you don’t get that by following a set of rules, you get it by being “little Christs.”


  13. I think people tend to forget the primary meaning of the word “holy.” It is translated from the Greek word hagios, which means “set apart for sacred use.” It’s the same word that saint and sanctification are drawn from. All these terms derive from the idea of being set apart. While the word “holy” can be used in the context of being morally clean, its primary focus is in separating things unto God. In our case, we are separated onto God by the blood of Christ. But objects can be holy as well. In Ex. 40:10-11, the altar in the Hebrew temple was called holy. Does that mean the altar was morally perfect?

    So in that sense, all Christians are indeed holy. The problem arising from the Pelagius/Finney school of thought is that they teach that you need other kinds of holiness in order for God to accept you-namely the holiness provided by keeping the moral law perfectly. But then they will define holiness by whatever rules and standards they came up with. I even read in one Finney sermon that Christians should not “pollute his closet” with Shakespeare!

    If holiness has got a bad rap, it’s because it’s been misused for so long by people to create salvific canons that say: “do these things and you shall live.” Now, I certainly don’t think we should shy away from morality and imitating God’s character either. But we should focus on those things because they are the right things to do, not because I’m going to Hell if I don’t do certain things or I don’t abstain from this or that.


  14. The problem with so many of these exchanges about legalism and freedom is they too often make man the center of the discussion. Having been around for a while and deeply involved in more than one flavor of spiritual expression I have learned one undeniable tendency of our fallen nature.

    Pride is a the root of all sin! Legalists often adhere to certain standards because they are genuinely aiming for holiness. But give legalism time and pride will taint human efforts to “live right.” Before long they are wagging their finger at the libertines and declaring they can’t possibly know Christ.

    Conversely, those who throw off the cloak of legalism also generally begin that journey with good intent. They have discovered grace and see the weakness of living by a list of human standards rather than walking in the Spirit. But give them time and pride seeps its way into what they are so sure is the better way. Soon they are hurling snarky remarks about the hypocrites barricaded in their evangelical fortresses. They have become judgmental of the judgmental.

    And so the two sides end up in the same place: focused on self rather than God. We would do well to all read Colossians slowly and carefully. Paul warned the faithful believers of that little church to be on the alert for the subtle inroads of Greek gnosticism and Jewish legalism. Both are deadly to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.


  15. Somehow we all seem to be in the camp that God is indeed holy. I am in this camp because God says so in His word a thousand times. From there our journey together takes on its multicolored, multidimensional character because we do perceive of God’s holiness as through a glass dimly. We continue to struggle and sadly continue to be much divided about much the Bible teaches. Not long ago we killed in the name of Purity those who thought they had a special IN with the Spirit, quaking at that.
    Today there are more factions than ever. The divisions, convictions run deep and the only one who is winning seems to be who would not want for grace to win the day.
    The only one in resonance with a holiness that God can wear without getting Himself in trouble is the whore who ended up at His feet, washing them with her tears. I honestly can not imagine myself adding to God’s glory by my feeble attempts at being perfect without smelling like burned rubber. However, I can imagine being a whore at His feet experiencing perfect love.
    In their quest for holiness the Puritans partook in Turkish delight, while the whore drank of healing waters.


  16. Words mean things, yes, and unfortunately they don’t all mean the same thing to everyone. Countries, regions, and subcultures all define terms differently, which is part of why discussion attempts easily devolve into arguments.

    Words can also be redefined slightly to make a point, or to refer to a position.

    Take awesome. Is it an expression that something deserves awe, or is it an expression that something’s entertaining/intriguing/amusing on this mortal plain? My brother often calls things “awesome”, in the latter sense—I retort that only God’s awesome, in the former sense. Both usages are (unfortunately) legitimate. We have the selfsame upbringing and are close in age. And even we define the same term differently enough to cause micro-arguments.

    Context always matters in any discussion.

    Legalists think they’re being holy. Therefore, referring to them as the “holiness” camp takes their perspective into account. I’m not saying that’s a good idea—I’m remembering Jesus’ words about a whitewashed wall, here—but it’s what’s done, sometimes.


  17. @Matt “Puritans partook in Turkish delight, while the whore drank of healing waters”

    There are always extremists of every group, who are used to stereotype the entire group. The Puritans are no exception.

    My own church—which traces its theological heritage through the Puritans—doesn’t have a problem with alcohol, dancing, smoking, or gambling, as long as there’s no addiction involved. Some individual members take issue, but that isn’t the church as a whole.

    So kindly mind your assumptions.


  18. P.S. We can theologically defend why we don’t take issue with those things, too, for the record. I mentioned them to point out that Puritans aren’t necessarily the uptight stooges they’re caricatured as.


  19. Hi Carradee,
    Thank you for your reply!
    You are missing the point entirely though, for which I apologize.

    I did not mean to advocate at all what your church is or is not addicted to. But for the sake of clarifying your point, what is that theology that you seem to be appreciative of having arrived and is representative in your church of the Puritans? Your understanding of it would be helpful for our discussion.

    Thanks again.


  20. Hi Carradee,
    In answer to your 2nd: In no way am I inclined to caricature the Puritans to be uptight stooges. The horrors they inflicted upon the Quakers in the name of Jesus are way to serious to be taken lightly.


  21. Interesting discussion, in part, I’m sure because of Mike Duran’s link to this article on Facebook.

    It seems we are in agreement that God is holy, and we are not. I’d even venture to say that most agree a list of do’s and don’t’s does not qualify as holiness.

    Carradee pointed out that context matters, and I agree. The context for the word holy, as I see it, should be the Bible. We Christians should not allow this term to be co-opted to mean something evil because it is the word God uses about Himself and His work.

    People claiming the name of Christ, yet adhering to a legalistic standard, should not receive from the body of Christ tacit approval by our use of a word that means “morally pure” for what they are doing.

    I agree with Rick that legalism is not the existence of rules. If any of you stick around and read “Holiness Means What Again?” you’ll see in part what I think holiness actually is. What I haven’t said yet, and hope to today, is that there must be an obedience component to our lives. Jesus said so when He said, If you love Me, you’ll keep My commandments.

    But that’s a far cry from legalism. And legalism is a far cry from holiness. We need to say it long and loud, not abdicate the position of holiness to the legalists.



  22. I think it is a great post, Becky. Convicting even. Well said!


  23. […] June 2, 2011 at 12:22 pm Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word « A Christian Worldview of Fiction […]


  24. […] posts in this series: “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” “Holiness Means […]


  25. […] order, the previous posts in this series are “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” “Holiness Means What Again?” “Inside Out – The Way […]


  26. […] my inaccurate characterization of “holiness,” specifically linking it with legalism. Her posts Holiness Is Not a Dirty Word spun off into a four-part series on holiness at Becky’s website. Becky’s concerns about my use […]


  27. Matt: “What is that theology that you seem to be appreciative of having arrived and is representative in your church of the Puritans?”

    Reformed theology and thoughts on God’s Providence. The Puritans aren’t the only ones in there, but we do pull some from them.

    Matt: “In no way am I inclined to caricature the Puritans to be uptight stooges. The horrors they inflicted upon the Quakers in the name of Jesus are way to serious to be taken lightly.”

    Ah. See, I misunderstood your shorthand as a reference to the uptight stereotype. My apologies.

    But every group has its horror stories.

    Rebecca:Carradee pointed out that context matters, and I agree. The context for the word holy, as I see it, should be the Bible. We Christians should not allow this term to be co-opted to mean something evil because it is the word God uses about Himself and His work.

    Paul co-opted legal terms (“justification”, for example) and gave them theological meanings. He even quoted some secular sources in his letters. (For example, “Cretans are all liars” thing.)

    Adjusting a term’s meaning to make a point doesn’t negate the original meaning. If that other use gains prominence, it becomes harder to use the word in the original sense (take “good”, now often used as “acceptable”, when it originally indicated perfection—thus why Jesus said only God is good). I therefore don’t think it’s necessarily wise to adjust meanings in discussion, but that doesn’t make it an illegitimate practice.


  28. Legalism is not the following of a set of rules in order to be more Christ like but it is to follow a set of rules in order to be saved or made righteous. Legalism refers to any doctrine which states salvation comes strictly from adherence to the law. It can be thought of as a works-based religion. A person is no legalist who says ” if you are saved you should not go against the moral law ” rather a legalist would be someone who says ” you must keep the moral law inorder to become saved “. The one is simply walking worthy of God ( Col 1:10, 1Th 2:12 ) and the other is trying to earn God.


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