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A characteristic unique to God's nature which becomes the goal for human moral character. The idea of “holy” is important for an understanding of God, of worship, and of the people of God in the Bible. Holy has four distinct meanings. First is “to be set apart.” This applies to places where God is present, like the Temple and the tabernacle, and to things and persons related to those holy places or to God Himself. Next, it means to be “perfect, transcendent, or spiritually pure, evoking adoration and reverence.” This applies primarily to God, but secondarily to saints or godly people. Next, it means something or someone who evokes “veneration or awe, being frightening beyond belief.” This is clearly the application to God and is the primary meaning of “holy.” It is continued in the last definition, “filled with superhuman and potential fatal power.” This speaks of God, but also of places or things or persons which have been set apart by God's presence. A saint is a holy person. To be sanctified is to be made holy.

In the Old Testament “holy” is important in the parts related to priests and worship such as the Book of Leviticus, especially Jeremiah 16:1 . It is found in the prophets: Isaiah's title for God, “the Holy One of Israel,” and the adoration of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:1 . The word is also found repeatedly in the Psalms.

God is holy. Fire is the symbol of holy power. Jealousy, wrath, remoteness, cleanliness, glory, and majesty are related to it. He is unsearchable, incomprehensible, incomparable, great, wonderful, and exalted. His name is Holy.

Holiness is in tension with relational personhood. Holiness tends toward separation and uniqueness. Personhood determines relations and close communion. Holiness inspires awe and fear. Personhood inspires love and the wish to be near. Both are in the Bible as necessary ways to think of and experience God. Both are necessary if one is to avoid shallow, one-sided thinking about God. Neither holiness nor personhood alone can do justice to the biblical portrayal of God. Both in their mutual tension help capture a more adequate doctrine and experience of God.

The Holy

Cannot be comprehended rationally.

Sensed and protected against. Avoided in contact and sight.

Sins must be expiated and purged.

Beyond time—yet claims sacred times.

Beyond space—yet claims sacred space.

Life-threatening—yet strangely necessary to life.

Repels—yet fascinates and draws.

Always awesome, mysterious, unnerving.

Here one worships and submits.

Portrayed in the sacrificial system, in tabernacle, Temple, priesthood, and in the cross.

The Personal

Understood in terms of relationships.

One can receive, respond, accept, and love.

Sins can be forgiven with fellowship restored.

Redemption shows will, action, goal.



Judge—sinner, rebel.

Savior—needy suppliant.


Here one believes, loves, serves.

Portrayed in the incarnation and in the gift of the Holy Spirit, in Israel as the people of God, and in the church. The biblical view combines these. Leviticus 17-25 presents all laws to be kept so that persons may be holy as God is holy. Holiness in God is seen as moral perfection in Psalm 89:35 . Holiness in believing Christians was attained through the cross and is to be preserved in clean and moral living. Holiness comes to imply the fullness and completeness of God and godliness in all its facets and meanings.

Thus “holy” defines the godness of God. It also defines places where God is present. For the holy God to be present among His people special holy places were set apart where God and people could safely come together. The tabernacle and Temple filled this purpose. Special restrictions on access were established for the safety of the worshipers. Rules of sacrifice and cleanliness helped them prepare for this contact. A special place, the holy of holies, was completely cut off from common access. Only the high priest could enter there, and then only once a year after special preparation.

Holy also applied to persons who were to meet God. The priests had to undergo special rites that sanctified and purified them for service in the Temple. God wanted all His people to share His presence. They had to be instructed in the character and actions what would accomplish that. The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-25 ) commands the people to obey God's laws in all parts of life in order to be “holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ). Here holiness is seen to include a moral character as well as cultic purity. Sin and disobedience works the opposite and has to be cleansed or atoned by sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7; Leviticus 16:1 ).

An understanding of holiness is needed for New Testament study to appreciate the cross and the results of God's work through the cross. The Gospels make clear that Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31-35 ). The crucifixion is portrayed as Christ shedding His blood and giving His body for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:19-20 ). Faith in Christ is portrayed as acceptance of His full atonement for sin (1 John 2:2; 1 John 3:5; Revelation 5:9 ).

The Holy Spirit is the agent of holiness for the church and its leaders (Acts 1:8; Acts 2:4; Acts 5:32; Acts 13:2-4 ). He keeps the church pure (Acts 5:1-11 ). He promotes holiness in its members (1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:7 ).

Christians are called to holy living (1 Corinthians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 3:17 ). They are saints who lead godly, righteous lives. Being sanctified, or made holy, is a work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of Christ's atonement that calls for obedient submission from those who have been saved. Christians are holy because of their calling in Christ, because of His atonement for their sins, and because of the continual ministrations of the Holy Spirit. They are holy inasmuch as they receive and submit to these saving and sanctifying agents.

John D. W. Watts

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Holy'. Holman Bible Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​h/holy.html. 1991.