Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14 (NET)
It is time to renew a conversation about holiness. The reactions will vary from “what is holiness?” to “isn’t holiness about not wearing makeup and jewelry, were not going to the theater?” It is a subject fraught with opinions, informed or otherwise. And yet, the Bible emphasizes its importance as critical and essential.
If we take Hebrews 12:14 seriously, ignoring holiness would put us in a precarious position. True holiness is often mistaken for the artifacts that accompany it. Holiness has never been about fashion, what we do, or with whom we associate. The waters have been muddied intentionally by our adversary. Power awaits those who find holiness.
What Holiness Isn’t
We must begin our discussion about holiness by dispelling some myths and misconceptions. For those of us who are older, we may have a stereotypical image of holiness. Some of us came from situations where we believed that holiness consisted of external qualities. People who were holy dressed in a particular way, modest and unassuming. They did not engage in worldly entertainment. They were rule followers. Or so it appeared.
Following rules never made anyone holy. Trying to be holy by following rules only leads to hypocrisy and legalism. A hotel manager once remarked that the bar was almost empty while a Christian gathering met at his hotel. Still, room service, alcohol orders, and pay-per-view movie charges skyrocketed.
Could it be that these are some of the reasons why the church does not take holiness seriously? When we misunderstand “cause and effect,” we will only be frustrated in any attempt to live a holy life. When we try to imitate someone who is living a holy life, or worse yet, imitating someone who is imitating someone, we are doomed to fail.
If we try to “act holy” by following someone else’s pattern, we will likely end up frustrated in agreement with the apostle Paul: Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Romans 7:24 (NLT).
So Then, What Is Holiness?
Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. Ephesians 4:24 (NLT)
To define holiness, let us begin with a definition from a theological perspective:
Holiness refers primarily to the quality of God, denoting his transcendent apartness from the rest of creation, his uniqueness, and his total purity. When the term is applied to people, things, or places that have been touched by the presence of God or dedicated to God, it connotes the idea of being set apart for God and thus belonging to the realm of the divine, which is morally and ceremonially pure.
Our efforts to define the holiness of God will always fall short. And yet we have the directive to be like him: But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:15–16 (NLT)
“Secondhand holiness” will never be enough. Although we may learn and benefit from the example of others, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that we can imitate the holiness of others. There is an expression “fake it till you make it.” It may have some validity in developing self-confidence, but it will never produce genuine holiness. Only God can make us holy.
In His Presence
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Luke 3:16 (NIV)
The pathway to holiness is profoundly simple to understand and yet terrifyingly difficult. We can only be holy when we are in the presence of God. The fire of God is the cleansing agent that will make us holy. Fire transforms us. Moses had to wear a veil over his face after being in God’s presence on the mountain because he had an experience in the fire of God.
Isaiah, in a vision, was brought into the presence of the Lord, where he realized his unholiness. Isaiah was made pure with a burning coal from the altar. It is inescapable. The only way to be made holy is to encounter the fire. Job understood that testing by fire produces the correct result: But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. Job 23:10 (NIV)
The Lord is looking for those that he can refine and purify. This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’” Zechariah 13:9 (NIV)
We cannot achieve holiness on our own. We can follow the rules (sometimes), but only God can make us holy. He makes us holy by means that are not always pleasant. When the Scripture says, “be holy,” it means that we must submit to the fire. It is the only way.
Many people misunderstand holiness. It is not following rules or conforming to a pattern. True holiness can only be achieved in the presence of God. As for the characteristics associated with holiness, they are only shadows, not the real thing. As usual, a song expresses it well:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
We have not attempted an exhaustive treatment or explanation of holiness, but we want to begin the discussion. We serve a holy God who is worthy of holy people.
 Hon-Lee Kwok, “Holiness,” in Lexham Theological Wordbook, ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).