God Doesn’t Have Boundaries: Holier Than Thou & Why Purity Is Not Holiness – Part 2

Cringing at the Bible

Do you ever cringe when you hear 1 Peter 1:15-16 read aloud?

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.”

Word Cringe On KeyboardI did, or at least I used to. Growing up, my only reference for what Peter was writing about was the concept of not sinning, of maintaining my purity, etc. Typically, I was driven to only think about this in the context of sexual ethics and the pure maintenance of my thought life. This approach to being holy was exhausting. Previously, almost all of my direct energy was spent on maintaining my “holy status” to the point of mental and emotional exhaustion at times.

Then I began to question my conventional approach. Did being holy really mean moral purity? Are we to be holy in the same way God is? Is that even possible? How can we achieve being like him when we are taught we can’t be like him? What is Peter asking us to do given that it is impossible to achieve, even before we begin. On the one side, we are taught how totally other God is to us and how great He is while we are nothing and can do nothing, but then Peter wants me to be holy like God is holy, to exhibit effort in mimicking the Creator of the Universe and to achieve holiness by doing so! WHAT!

I realized after awhile that I had accepted the wrong notion of holiness and candidly, I had been taught wrong notions of holiness by very smart and seasoned Christians. I don’t cringe anymore, and if your experience is anything like mine, you don’t have to either.

So why don’t I cringe anymore?

Why God’s Holiness is Not Human Holiness

In Leviticus 11:44-45, 20:7, the nation of Israel is directed by Yahweh to be holy BECAUSE he is holy. They were to, in their own CAPACITY, be holy, pursue holiness and grow in holiness. In the New Testament Peter picks up this command and quotes it directly in 1 Peter 1:16 (probs from the Septuagint). He reworks the command a bit before he quotes the OT reference in 1 Peter 1:15 – “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”, i.e. not in the things you cannot do. So what are some things that humans can’t do?

1. We cannot be like God in his incommunicable attributes (omnipotence, omniscience, perfection, etc.)

2. We cannot be God in any capacity. We are simply His creation.

3. Though we share communicable attributes with God like love, kindness and mercy, we practice these attributes in ways that are both similar and dissimilar from God, i.e. we cannot love with the exact same love that God loves with. Though our capacity for love is similar and adequate it is not the same. (refer to critical realism for this approach).

4. And a zinger for the last one – we are unable to stop sinning in this era of human existence. We cannot be sinless.

(Communicable attributes are shared between humans and God, while humanity cannot share in God’s noncommunicable attributes)

What Being Holy Does Not Mean

So being holy as God is holy, cannot mean that 1) we are to be sinless and it cannot mean that 2) we are to live out his communicable attributes in the exact same way that he does. Though we can mimic some of them in a similar way, we are unable to mimic them in the same way. Peter’s command isn’t for us to be holy in the same way as God is holy, but rather to be holy in ways that are only appropriate to human beings. As Peter writes, we are to be holy BECAUSE God is holy, not in the SAME WAY that God is holy.

So what does it mean to be holy for human beings? Most people who read a verse like Peter’s will go to the verse immediately before to get a more clear example. There he gives a direct opportunity to define what it means. Verse 14 says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.” Morality, ethics, maintaining one’s separation from worldly ways, etc.  All these and more can become one and the same with holiness because they give us the most straight forward way to be set apart from the world.

tattoed-stainedglassOther times, we attach our notions of Victorian moral purity to holiness and seek to remain unblemished in all aspects of life. Purity and Perfection are probably two of the most common, but distorted, notions we attach to holiness. Our thinking is that the more impure and imperfect actions we commit or thoughts we think, the farther we remove ourselves from holiness. I can distinctly remember the story told of how just one small blemish on a large piece of pristine white fabric can ruin the entire fabric. Humans have a conventional penchant that leans into a longing for the “pure”, the “perfect”, the untouched, the unsullied and we seek to project these notions as extensions of our own worth and value as human beings. These and other approaches are all problematic for defining holiness. Why?

Setting Up The Set Apart

Typically, to be holy is to be “set apart”. This is a correct and fine definition but in its plainest reading, it struggles to honor the range or complexity of how the term is applied biblically. Whatever our current notion of holiness is, it’s probably not sufficient given the biblical witness. In fact, the first “thing” to be called holy isn’t God, as we would expect, but rather time.

Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. – Genesis 2:3

From there many things are labeled as holy. God, temple implements, sacred space, people, food, animal organs, ideas, etc. So with that, we can make some safe theological assumptions.

1. If something is labeled as holy, it isn’t holy in the same way as everything else that is holy.

2. Some things that are holy, are episodically holy, i.e. only holy for a time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that when something is no longer holy, it is no longer valuable or good.

3. Holiness is not a static concept. It can grow. Things can increase in their holiness over a period of time meaning that there is a gradualism and a spectrum to holiness. Some holy things can be holier than other holy things, e.g. The Holy of Holies.

4. Holiness can be externally attributed to humans with no action on their part or it can be reflexively chosen and applied by humans to themselves.

In the West, we tend toward a dualistic or binary approach to categories of right and wrong, moral and immoral, pure or impure, etc. But in the Old Testament, dualism wasn’t nearly as rampant in the Hebrew psyche. Leviticus 10:10 states,

“…so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean…”

David Peterson explains that the world of the Hebrews could be split up between the holy and the common, or in other terms, the sacred and the profane:

…neither the world of the sacred nor the world of the common is uniform. There are the holiest of holy things, for example, the Holy of Holies in the temple and certain sacrifices, and this in contrast to things that exemplify lesser levels of holiness. And there are profane, or simply common things as exemplified by much in human life.” [1]

But in reflecting on Leviticus 10:10, he warns that we cannot equate holiness with purity,

In ancient Israel, ideas of the sacred and the profane (or common) are related to another binary code: the pure and the impure or, to use the language of Lev. 10:10, the clean and the unclean. Interestingly, purity and holiness are not identical; the same may be said for the profane and the impure. For example, it is possible for something to be pure and profane…The binary category – holy and common – makes it sound as if the holy is absolute…In many cases the holy does not involve the “ethical“. [2]

Holiness & Purity: Related Not Equated

Qadosh Ring

“Qadosh” in Hebrew means “holiness”, not purity

This leads some to conclude that the Hebrews had three categories they operated in, the sacred, the common and the clean/unclean. The dynamic for how these three aspects were to relate was determined by the reference point of what it meant to be holy. The sacred was to be “separated” from the common and “protected” from the unclean. Again, holiness is not equated with purity and the common is not equated with the unclean. This is not to say that purity is not related to holiness, but rather to correct the conventional notion that purity is equated with holiness.  If we don’t get that right, our conception of what holiness is will be radically skewed. As Peter writes, because we are called by God to a great and noble task on his behalf, we are to be holy, which means we have the ability to be holy. So again, to put us onto the right track in understanding and pursuing holiness, Holiness cannot be and should not be equated with purity! It deserves much more.


Now that we’ve deconstructed holiness and provided a context for going forward with Part 1 and Part 2, Part 3 will end this series with a helpful proposal for how to understand human holiness, how to be holy and why our holiness needs to be different than the holiness of God.


[1] Peterson, David “Holy” in The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible, Ed. Donald Gowan, (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2003), 208.

[2] Peterson, “Holy”, 203.

Be Sociable, Share!