Holy, Holy or Wholly Holy

As I was reorganizing my bookshelves recently, once again I came across a little paperback book published by a Methodist publishing house several decades ago:  “Twentieth Century Mystics.”  It was about the lives of a half dozen ordinary men whose devotion to God was evident in particular ways- prayer, service, passion in evangelism, perseverance, etc.  That little book and Evelyn Underhill’s book “Mysticism” revolutionized my thinking about holiness 20+ years ago.

Holiness appears to be of extreme importance to God, as it is mentioned 611 times in Scripture.

Joel Scandrett, PhD (Drew University) in a Christianity Today article in 2012 offered this observation:

“The biblical idea of holiness includes private morality but so much more—the very life of God in us. Holiness is not just for advanced Christians but stands at the beginning and center of God’s call on all of our lives: “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16).

To be sure, biblical terms translated “holy” or “holiness” (qadosh, hagios) carry a strong secondary connotation of moral purity. But moral purity is not, first and foremost, what Scripture is talking about. Instead, the most basic meaning of the word is to be “set apart” or “dedicated” to God—to belong to God. “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” says Yahweh (Lev. 26:12; Heb. 8:10). Thus, prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.”

Too often, our notions of holiness are lifted from the Old Testament without understanding them in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Those who have responded in faith to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ have been united with Christ. To be a Christian means far more than merely to believe in God—as if the Christian faith were reducible to a system of beliefs. Rather, it means to be united with Jesus in and through the Holy Spirit.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Elsewhere, Paul tells us that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) and that we have been “seated with [God] in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Passages like these convey the mysterious, yet utterly real fact that, by virtue of our union with Jesus, we participate in the life of God: He dwells in us, and we dwell in him. As such, we can say that in Christ, God’s holiness is our holiness. In Christ, we are already holy. Any and all subsequent notions of what it means to be holy must be predicated on this truth.

As long as our notions of holiness are limited to doing certain things and not doing other things, we can go through our entire lives obeying the rules (or at least maintaining the appearance of doing so) without dealing with far more fundamental questions: Whose are we? To whom do we give our first love and loyalty?

At bottom, God’s call to be holy is a radical, all-encompassing claim on our lives, our loves, and our very identities. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ requires nothing less than death to our fallen, egocentric selves in order that we might live in and for him. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it,” says Jesus, “but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:35-36). To be holy means that all we are and all we have belongs to God, not ourselves, and that every aspect of our lives is to be shaped and directed toward God.”


This week the topic of “holiness” has come up in multiple venues…a women’s Bible study, a coed teaching environment, twice at Titus 2…..and not because I was introducing the topic. But because God provided an opportunity for us to talk about it.  What has become clear is that God wants us to talk about what constitutes holiness.  Are there measures or degrees of holiness?

Some languages have limited use of comparative and superlative spellings of words, but use a modifier, like an adverb to express more or most.  Another tool that is biblical but also seems to cross linquistic boundaries is the use of epizeuxis.

As noted in Wikipedia:

“In rhetoric, an epizeuxis is the repetition of a word or phrase in immediate succession, typically within the same sentence, for vehemence or emphasis.”

As one commentator on repetition in the Scripture notes, “Repetition has been a key tool used by writers and thinkers for thousands of years…….Repetition has always been an important element in literature. Therefore, looking for examples of repetition is a key tool for studying God’s Word.”  (O’Neal, Sam, The Importance of Repetition in the Bible, https://www.thoughtco.com/the-importance-of-repetition-in-the-bible-363290 )

When we express degrees or measures of some condition in English we have several ways to do that.  In some cases we  use different words.  Or we may use suffixes or an adverb modifier to express degree.  And repetition is sometimes used as an emphatic proclamation:  “Never, never, never give up! “  – Winston Churchill.

There are numerous examples of epzeuxis in Scripture-  some are small scale, i.e. single words.  Others are large scale, i.e. repetition of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.   Always, there is importance associated with repetition.   “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, Our God” means that God is the holiest of all beings.  There is none as holy as he.

Today in reading from Hebrews the Titus 2 ladies and I noted this verse: Hebrews 2:10-11

“In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.  Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Jesus, by the atoning work of his death is the one who makes us holy in the eyes of God.  And all who believe and call on his name are made holy by that confession.  So, all who believe in Jesus Christ  are holy!  Period.  We are clothed in the imputed righteousness of Christ!

If believers in Christ are “holy” and The Lord God is “holy, holy, holy”….. is there an intermediate degree that constitutes “holy, holy” or “more holy” or “more righteous”…..  a step beyond the believer’s imputed holy righteousness and the Lord’s fullness of “holy, holy, holy” righteousness?  Is there a comparative sense of “holy, holy” that fits somewhere between the two?

Perhaps so.  In examining places in Scripture in which Jesus uses repetition, it is often the use of “Verily, verily” or “truly, truly” at the beginning of a proclamation.  GotQuestions.org offers some interesting thoughts on this repetition by Jesus (referenced from Chuck Swindoll’s book, Jesus:  The Greatest Life):

“At various times in the gospels, Jesus introduces a statement using phrases such as “Verily, I say” or “Truly, I say this to you.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus frequently uses the phrase “Truly, truly” (ESV) or “Verily, verily” (KJV) or “Very truly” (NIV). These expressions all use the Greek word amēn, taken directly from the Hebrew word āˈmēn. This word has different implications depending on how and where it is used. Jesus’ application of the term is noticeably different from prior uses.

In modern use, the word amen is typically used at the end of a prayer. It may also be spoken to show agreement with some statement or idea. This is slightly different from, but closely related to, the original use of the term as seen in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word āˈmēn literally means “so be it.” The term is an expression of complete and total agreement. In passages such as 1 Chronicles 16:36 or Deuteronomy 27:15–26, this is how the term is used. Placing the word amen at the end of a statement is a way of accepting, agreeing, or endorsing what came before.

Jesus, however, was fond of saying, “Amen,” before making a statement or giving a message. When used in this way, the word amen has slightly different implications. Leading off with amen not only implies that what follows is true but also that the person making the statement has firsthand knowledge and authority about it. Saying, “Verily, verily,” before making a statement is a strong claim to truth, presented from an almost audacious attitude. Speaking on worldly or secular matters, saying, “Verily, verily,” would imply that what follows is that person’s own original idea.

So, when Jesus leads off with the words verily, verily in verses such as Matthew 18:3, Mark 3:28, Luke 23:43, and John 8:51, He is not merely saying, “Believe me, this is true.” He is actually saying, “I know this is true firsthand.” Many of these comments are on heavenly, spiritual, or godly issues and Jesus’ use of verily, verily is part of His consistent claim of knowledge and authority of the divine. Jesus is not merely aware of these truths: He is the One who originated them!

The disciples and others listening to Jesus’ words would have understood His use of these phrases in exactly that way. So, when we read Jesus’ words and see statements beginning with “verily,” “truly,” or some variation, we should recall the deeper meaning. Those claims are not only Jesus’ opinion on the truth. Those are ideas about which He has intimate, personal, firsthand knowledge.”

Robert Lindsey in Jewish Perspective  ( https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/11268/ ) observes that use of this double emphatic statement of truth is unique to Jesus.  It is not observed elsewhere or used by others.

“The expression appears twenty-six times in Matt., eleven times in Mark and six times in Luke (Luke 4:24; 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43 [ἀμὴν σοι λέγω, amēn soi legō]). In John we always find the amen doubled in this expression, that is, “Amen, amen, I say to you” (20 times).

So let’s extrapolate Jesus’ prefix proclamation of “truth, truth” as it is emphasized through repetition and think about holiness further and the way in which we are called not to holiness once, but twice.

One may understand “holy”  (holiness or righteousness) as a condition that we possess through very straight forward orthodoxy (right thought), having made a profession of faith, accepting the free atoning work of Christ and represents us having received God’s imputed righteousness to us and being “set apart” for God.   Think of it as positional holiness.  It exists because of the position we now have “in Christ” by virtue of belief.  It seems reasonable, then, that the deeper work of imparted righteousness  reflects one’s intentional and devout cooperation with the Holy Spirit at work from within one’s heart, whereby the transformation begins to be evidenced in fruit of the Spirit and changed conduct, or orthopraxy (right conduct), which Jerry Bridges and others have called “practical holiness.”    It is a further degree of holiness, that includes a desire for moral purity and depth of relationship with God that might be described as “holy, holy” or perhaps “wholly holy”.   Imputed righteousness is an instantaneous act of justification before God through Christ Jesus.  The expectation of our growth as Christians is that the immediate justification and imputed righteousness, or holiness, will be followed by the second work of imparted righteous holiness or the process of sanctification.   That deeper work of holy endeavor that arises under the authority and through one’s cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit is not just something that one might believe about  a person, but it is something more profound which is observable first-hand, personally witnessed and attested to about an individual.

1 Peter 1:15-16 “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”  There is an implication of two kinds of holiness here….the kind that comes from being called out as holy and the kind that arises from also being holy in all one’s conduct!

God is holy and he commands us to be holy.  Though none of us perfectly holy, we are perfectly forgiven and made the very righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21) through faith,  but here Peter talks about our conduct and that it should be holy, too.  Holiness is not only a possibility for the Christian; holiness is a requirement. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The difference between God and us is that He is inherently holy while we, on the other hand, only become holy in relationship to Christ and we only increase in practical holiness as we mature spiritually.

Jerry Bridges in The Pursuit o Holiness observes:  “…The pursuit of holiness does not end when we come to Christ. In fact, it just begins! There is a positional holiness that we inherit at regeneration and a practical holiness which we must actively pursue. God expects us to cultivate a lifestyle of holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16) and commands us to “cleanse ourselves of all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1 NASB). Bringing holiness to “perfection” means that we should be increasing in spiritual fruitfulness every day. We are to consider ourselves “dead to sin” (Romans 6:11), refusing to revert back to our former lifestyles. In this way we “cleanse [ourselves] from what is dishonorable,” becoming vessels for “honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master . . . for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Holiness is the mark of every true Christian (1 John 3:9-10).”

Psalm 24:3-4 “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.”  Clean hands indicate an outward condition of being been made clean externally….. our sin having been washed away through confession and forgiveness that results in imputed righteousness. Pure heart indicates an inward condition of having been made spotless even to the depths of our thoughts and motivations by the ongoing work of imparted righteousness.

The first draws us to the Father through Christ, makes us “holy”, and provides for us eternity in heaven.  The second provides the means of living an abundant life in Christ in this life, reflecting the life and character of Christ in a way that is visible to others, and knowing the joy of a reward that awaits us in heaven that we might offer even that to Christ.

As I have pondered “holiness” this week, it seems that there is “holy” and then there is “holy, holy”,  a more wholly “holy” to which we are invited and to which we are to aspire!