In the New Testament Scriptures, the ceremonial holiness prominent in the Old Testament Pentateuch withdraws to the background. The Jews in Jesus’ time sought a ceremonial holiness by works (Mark 7:1–5). The New Testament stresses ethical holiness rather than the formal or ritualistic dimension of holiness (Mark 7:6–12). With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the early church understood that holiness in the Christian life was a profound internal reality that should govern not only an individual’s thoughts and attitudes but also external behavior.
The NT Greek equivalent of the common Hebrew word for holiness (agios; hagios) signifies an inner condition of liberty from moral guilt and a relative harmony with the moral perfection of God. The word “godlikeness” or “godliness” captures the sense of the primary Greek word for holiness. In other words, holiness is an internal and external separation from the profane and also a dedication to the service of the Lord.
The New Testament writers assumed people knew the OT attribute of holiness. Therefore, holiness, as ascribed to God, is found in relatively few apostolic texts. Jesus affirmed the ethical nature of God when he commanded his disciples to pray that the Father’s name might be esteemed for what it is: “Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9, kjv).
In the book of Revelation the Father’s moral perfection is emphasized with the threefold ascription of holiness borrowed from Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8, rsv; cf. Isaiah 6:3). Luke, however, contemplated God’s holiness in terms of the dominant OT concept of his transcendence and majesty (Luke 1:49).
The holiness of Jesus Christ is clearly set forth in the NT. Luke (Luke 1:35; 4:34), Peter (Acts 3:14; 4:27–30), the writer of Hebrews (Hebrews 7:26), and John (Revelation 3:7) ascribe holiness to both the Father and the Son.
Since the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father, discloses his holy character, and is the instrument of God the Father’s holy purposes in the world, he also is absolutely holy (Matthew 1:18; 3:16; 28:19; Luke 1:15; 4:14). The common title “Holy Spirit” underscores the ethical perfection of the third person of the Godhead (John 3:5–8; 14:16–17, 26).
Holiness also characterizes Christ’s church. The apostle Paul taught that Christ loved the church and died for it “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26, rsv). Peter addressed the church as a holy people in language borrowed from the OT. Separated from the unbelieving nations and consecrated to the Lord, the church is “a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9; cf. Ex 19:6).
However, the NT most often discusses holiness in relation to individual Christians. Believers in Christ are frequently identified as “saints,” literally meaning “holy ones.” This is because through faith God justifies sinners, pronouncing them “holy” or “saints” in his sight (Romans 1:7; I Corinthians 1:1-2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1-2; Hebrews 13:24; I Peter 1:1-2).
As one commentator explains, “A justified sinner is by no means morally perfect, but God does declare believers to be guiltless. Thus, although Christians at Corinth, for example, were plagued with numerous sins, Paul could address his erring friends as those who were “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2, rsv). Despite their problems, the Corinthian believers were “holy ones” in Christ.”
The NT places great importance upon the issue of practical holiness in the Christian’s daily life and living. The God who freely declares a person righteous, by grace alone, through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone also commands that the believer progress in holiness of life. In God’s plan, a growth in holiness should accompany believing. God graciously provides the spiritual resources to enable Christians to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-12).
Dr. Michael Horton writes, “In general terms, holiness underscores the Creator-creature distinction. God is majestic, glorious, beyond reproach. In a certain sense, holiness characterizes all of God’s attributes. Yet, holiness typically refers in Scripture to God’s ethical purity, which is especially evident against the backdrop of human sinfulness. However, because of God’s mercy, God’s holiness not only highlights his difference from us; it also includes his movement toward us, binding us to him in covenant love. In this way, God makes us holy. Nevertheless, only in Christ can God’s holiness be for us a source of delight rather than of fear of judgment. Therefore, God’s holiness is a marker not only of God’s distinction from the creation, but also God’s driving passion to make the whole earth his holy dwelling. Although God alone is essentially holy, he does not keep holiness to himself but spreads his fragrance throughout creation. God is holy in his essence; people, places, and things are made holy by God’s energies.”
May this survey of the New Testament regarding holiness rekindle your personal desire to be holy as God is holy. It is what God has called believers to be.
Soli deo Gloria!