A Call To Holiness

In a previous post I hinted at the subject of this one, where I would discuss separation and its relation to holiness. This is also closely related to the Doctrine of Biblical Separation.

I’d like to start with what separation is and in what ways we as believers are called to be separate, as well as from what and whom we are called to separate from.

Then, by God’s grace, my aim will be to appeal persuasively to you, dear reader, as to how it is impossible aspire to holiness without separation.

Separation is defined by the Dictionary of Bible Themes by Martin Manser as ‘a setting apart’. Separation is at the heart of the biblical idea of holiness. God is separate from his creation and has set apart his people from the world. Sin causes alienation between God and humanity, making necessary the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. The end of the age will bring the final separation between the righteous and the wicked.

God is separate from His creation (Isaiah 40:22; Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:11; Romans 1:25)

God’s people are to be separate (Deuteronomy 7:6; Exodus 19:5-6; Deuteronomy 14:2; Psalms 135:4; 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Titus 2:14)

From what are God’s people to be separate from?

God’s people are to be separate from the world (Leviticus 20:26; Numbers 23:9; Numbers 9:2; Numbers 10:28; John 15:18-19; John 17:16; Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11).

God’s people are to be separate from sin (2 Corinthians 6:17; Isaiah 52:11; Leviticus 15:31; Ezra 6:21; 1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Corinthians 15:34; 2 Corinthians 7:1).

God’s people are to avoid evil association (1 Corinthians 15:33; Proverbs 13:20). Israel was forbidden to associate and intermarry with Canaanite peoples. (Deuteronomy 7:2-3; Joshua 23:7; Ezra 4:3; Ezra 10:11; Psalms 119:115; 2 Corinthians 6:14)

God’s people are to excommunicate others as needed in accordance with God’s Word. Israelites that refused to follow God’s commands were to be cut off from God’s people. (Leviticus 18:29; Numbers 15:30; Numbers 19:20)

God’s people are to separate from unrepentant believers in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.

God’s people are to separate from false teachers in accordance with Romans 16:17.

God’s people are to separate from willfully sinful believers in accordance with 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.

Similarly, God’s people are to separate from willfully disobedient believers in accordance with 2 Thessalonians 3:6.

God’s people are even called to separate from divisive (that is, unbiblically divisive) people in accordance with Titus 3:9-11.

God’s people today as part of Christ’s Church are called to be separate for service to God, much as the Nazirites were in Numbers 6:2-3, the Levites were in Numbers 16:9, Aaron and his descendants were in 1 Chronicles 23:13, the prophets were in 1 Chronicles 25:1, Jeremiah were in Jeremiah 1:5, and even Paul was in Romans 1:1 and Galatians 1:15.

Is this really the first time we’re hearing about separation? Not if, by God’s grace, we’ve been paying attention. Even before sin entered the world, separation existed since the beginning in Genesis 1:1. Other verses demonstrating God’s holiness or separation from creation include Isaiah 29:15, Isaiah 40:22, Isaiah 45:11 and Romans 1:25.

Below you will find a screenshot of the distribution of words throughout the Old Testament and New Testament regarding separation.

While 80 instances in the Hebrew and 12 instances in the Greek is a modest count by my estimation, perhaps we’ve been asking partial questions of God’s Word and of the wisdom therein. What about holiness?

459 instances in Hebrew and 192 instances in Greek. That’s more like it!

Now much can be said about holiness.

Despite its liberal leaning (as I would say of any text that uses terms like the ‘Ancient Near East’), even Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible concedes little more than what we already can discern from the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘qodesh‘. I have highlighted some excerpts of the passage I’ve quoted below for your convenience.

The root idea of holiness is that of “separation” or “withdrawal.” It is a divine quality, part of the intrinsic nature of God, but absent from a fallen world, perhaps best described as “alienness” in a religious or divine sense. The basic theological problem is that this holy God desires to have fellowship with sinful humans living in a fallen world. Since God cannot become less holy in order to fellowship with humans, they must become more holy (“sanctified”); once gained, holiness may be lessened or contaminated by contact with various proscribed substances (“uncleanness”) and by feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that God has forbidden (“sinfulness”).
God used the general notion of holiness common in the ancient Near East to reveal himself and his will to Israel. This may be categorized in three levels of varying intensity. First was dedication to a deity for his/her use. This did not necessarily imply use by the god, but only that the person or object was available, just as for other “secular” uses. A higher level of holiness was attributed to a person or object the god actually used, so that something of the divine presence remained with an object after its use (e.g., Poseidon’s trident, Thor’s hammer, as well as the deity’s human servants). The highest level was ascribed to images or idols of the gods, regarded as ideal receptacles for that specific god’s presence.

Yahweh revealed holiness to be his chief attribute (Exod. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8) and wanted his followers likewise to be holy. The command to “be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45; cf. 1 Pet. 1:15–16) was for all Israelites, not just the priests. The people of Israel were to be separate from the world, a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6; cf. 1 Pet. 2:9). They were to limit their contact with uncleanness and adhere to the commandments of the Mosaic covenant. The Law provided for sacrifices to atone for their sins (Lev. 5:5ff.) and cleansing rituals to remove any uncleanness (e.g., Lev. 14). Holiness was to extend to the tithe, the firstborn and anything else voluntarily dedicated to God (Lev. 27:14–32).

The anointing of priests, prophets, and kings marks them as not just dedicated to God, but chosen by him for his service. Their codes of behavior, especially for priests, were stricter than for the average person (Exod. 28:1–31:11) and the consequences for their disobedience more severe (Lev. 5:5ff.; 1 Sam. 1; 1 Chr. 21).

Various objects, places, and times associated with the worship of Yahweh were considered holy. Special days of religious celebration (Lev. 23) and cultic objects (1 Kgs. 8:4; Ezra 5:14–15; 8:28), especially regarding the ark of the covenant (Lev. 16:2; 2 Sam. 6:7), were all holy. Degrees of holiness are evident in the layout of the Jerusalem temple. Most sacred was the holy of holies, the inner room in which Yahweh resided; the holy place, the court of priests, and the court of Israelites were also holy, but of decreasing intensity as one moved away from God’s presence. While reverence was shown to objects associated with Yahweh in the past (e.g., the bronze serpent of the wilderness [Num. 21:9; cf. 2 Kgs. 18:4], Gideon’s ephod [Judg. 8:27], and perhaps even the gold calves [Exod. 32; cf. 1 Kgs. 12:28; 2 Kgs. 17:16]), worship of them became a snare to Israel and was condemned. Contrary to the ancient Near Eastern concept of holiness, Yahweh forbade his worshippers to construct any idols, including images of him (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:15–19; 27:15).

The prophets condemned the actions of the people, even as the independence of Israel and Judah neared an end, but promised that God would yet cleanse the land and its inhabitants (Isa. 4; Zech. 13:1). These prophecies blurred the distinction between holiness and cleanliness (Jer. 33:8; Ezek. 36:25, 33) and set the tone for those who would follow.

The Jewish sects of NT times each worked toward holiness in their own fashion, convinced that this would keep God from exiling Israel again or even persuade him to restore Israel’s independence. The Sadducees thought it critical that the temple sacrifices be maintained. The Pharisees tried to replicate the holiness required of the priests and the temple in their own homes and lives. The Zealots argued that God would aid the Jews in cleansing the land from the (gentile) Romans if only the people would have the faith to act. The Qumran Essenes founded a community on the shores of the Dead Sea so they might celebrate feasts and rituals by a calendar different from that of the Jerusalem priests, and also practiced ritual washings to remove personal uncleanness.

John the Baptist preached that Jews should repent of their sins and be baptized, a practice previously reserved for gentile converts, and prophesied that the Messiah would soon bring a much greater cleansing (Mark 1:4–8 par.). The success of John’s ministry is a good measure of the widespread desire for holiness among 1st-century Jews.

The NT concept of holiness is founded on that of the OT. God is still seen as being holy and requiring that those who serve him share that quality (1 Pet. 1:15–16). Gentiles as well as Jews could become part of God’s people under the new covenant (Rom. 2:28–29; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Those who accepted the invitation were called “saints” (Gk. hágios; Acts 9:13; 1 Cor. 1:2; Jude 3; Rev. 5:8). The Mosaic distinction between “clean” and “holy” gave way to concern for proper conduct (1 Pet. 1:15), attitude, and thought (Matt. 5–6; 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 3).

Jesus’ own personal holiness was demonstrated by his conception (Luke 1:35), his public affirmation from the Father (Matt. 3:17), his deeds (Luke 5:20–24), and his resurrection (Rom. 1:3–4). The NT represents Jesus as holy and a source of holiness/cleanness. He can make his followers holy (Heb. 13:12; 1 Pet. 1:2; cf. esp. Matt. 8:1–3), something only Yahweh had done (Ps. 51:7 [MT 3]; Ezek. 20:12). After Jesus’ death, his followers taught that God granted forgiveness of sins (“holiness”) to anyone who would have faith in him (Acts 2:22–39; Rom. 3:21–26; 1 John 1:7).

The NT also expands the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit convicts the world (John 16:7–11) and sanctifies those who believe in Jesus (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:2). In this respect, it is like an everflowing spring of living water, always capable of cleansing others. The Spirit itself can never be made unclean (John 4:13–14; 7:38–39).

Source: Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 598-599, Timothy P. Jenney

Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible echoes many of the same distinctions. I’ve again emphasized some excerpts in bold for your convenience:



Chief attribute of God and a quality to be developed in his people. “Holiness” and the adjective “holy” occur more than 900 times in the Bible.

The primary OT word for holiness means “to cut” or “to separate.”

Fundamentally, holiness is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and consecration to what is pure.

In the OT, holiness as applied to God signifies his transcendence over the creation and the moral perfection of his character. God is holy in that he is utterly distinct from his creation and exercises sovereign majesty and power over it. His holiness is especially prominent in the Psalms (47:8) and the prophets (Ez 39:7), where “holiness” emerges as a synonym for Israel’s God. Thus Scripture ascribes to God the titles “Holy” (Is 57:15), “Holy One” (Jb 6:10; Is 43:15), and “Holy One of Israel” (Ps 89:18; Is 60:14; Jer 50:29).

In the OT God’s holiness denotes that the Lord is separate from all that is evil and defiled (cf. Jb 34:10). His holy character is the standard of absolute moral perfection (Is 5:16). God’s holiness—his transcendent majesty and the purity of his character—are skillfully balanced in Psalm 99. Verses 1 through 3 portray God’s distance from the finite and earthbound, whereas verses 4 and 5 emphasize his separation from sin and evil.

In the OT God demanded holiness in the lives of his people. Through Moses, God said to the congregation of Israel, “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lv 19:2). The holiness enjoined by the OT was twofold: (1) external, or ceremonial; and (2) internal, or moral and spiritual. OT ceremonial holiness, prescribed in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT), included ritual consecration to God’s service. Thus priests and Levites were sanctified by a complex process of ritual consecration (Ex 29), as were the Hebrew Nazirites, which means “separated ones” (Nm 6:1–21). Prophets like Elisha (2 Kgs 4:9) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:5) were also sanctified for a special prophetic ministry in Israel.

But the OT also draws attention to the inner, moral, and spiritual aspects of holiness.

Men and women, created in the image of God, are called to cultivate the holiness of God’s own character in their lives (Lv 19:2; Nm 15:40). Psalm 15, for example, deals with God’s ethical requirements. To the question, “Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?” the Lord responds. “He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart” (v 1, 2). In a similar vein, Isaiah represents God’s ransomed community as “the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord” (Is 62:12).

In the NT the ceremonial holiness prominent in the Pentateuch recedes to the background. Whereas much of Judaism in Jesus’ time sought a ceremonial holiness by works (Mk 7:1–13), the NT stresses the ethical rather than the formal dimension of holiness. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the early church perceived that holiness of life was a profound internal reality that should govern an individual’s thoughts and attitudes in relation to persons and objects in the external world.

The NT Greek equivalent of the common Hebrew word for holiness signifies an inner state of freedom from moral fault 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. Another Greek word approximates the dominant OT concept of holiness as external separation from the profane and dedication to the service of the Lord.
Because the NT writers assumed the OT portrait of deity, holiness is ascribed to God in relatively few apostolic texts. Jesus affirmed the ethical nature of God when he enjoined his disciples to pray that the Father’s name might be esteemed for what it is: “Hallowed be thy name” (Mt 6:9). In the Book of Revelation the Father’s moral perfection is extolled with the threefold ascription of holiness borrowed from Isaiah: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8; cf. Is 6:13). Luke, however, contemplated God’s holiness in terms of the dominant OT concept of his transcendence and majesty (1:49).

Similarly the holiness of Jesus Christ is asserted in the NT. Luke (1:35; 4:34), Peter (Acts 3:14; 4:27, 30), the writer of Hebrews (7:26), and John (Rv 3:7) ascribe holiness to both the Father and the Son.

Since the Spirit comes from God, discloses his holy character, and is the instrument of God’s holy purposes in the world, he also is absolutely holy (Mt 1:18; 3:16; 28:19; Lk 1:15; 4:14). The common title, “Holy Spirit,” underscores the ethical perfection of the third person of the Godhead (Jn 3:5–8; 14:16, 17, 26).

In the NT 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” (Eph 5:26). The Greek forms of the verbs “sanctify” and “cleanse” suggest that Paul had in mind the “once for all” (1 Pt 3:18) imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the church on the basis of his death and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 6:11). 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 Pt 2:9; cf. Ex 19:6).

But the NT more often discusses holiness in relation to individual Christians. Believers in Christ are frequently designated as “saints,” literally meaning “holy ones,” since through faith God justifies sinners, pronouncing them “holy” in his sight. A justified sinner is by no means morally perfect, but God does declare believers to be guiltless before the bar of his justice. 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 Cor 1:2). Despite their problems the Corinthian believers were “holy ones” in Christ.

The NT, however, places great stress upon the reality of practical holiness in the Christian’s daily experience. The God who freely declares a person righteous through faith in Christ commands that the believer progress in holiness of life. In God’s plan, a growth in holiness should accompany believing.

Paul urged Christians at Rome to “yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). The Book of Hebrews urges believers to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). A goal of the Christian life, therefore, is conformity to the moral image of God. In this sense Paul enjoins believers at Ephesus to “put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). God graciously provides the spiritual resources to enable Christians to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).

Bibliography. O.R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness; S. Neill, Christian Holiness; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; J.C. Ryle, Holiness; S. Taylor, Holy Living; A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy.

Source: Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible by Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, pp. 984-985

In conclusion, we can see then that some degree of separation existed from the beginning, that God has been separate and holy from eternity past, that God’s people have been called to separation and holiness since God’s people were a people at all, and that this is true of God’s people today.

Are we not a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), who are called to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:13-16)? Are our bodies not a temple of the Holy Ghost in us (1 Corinthians 6:19)?

Then let those who love the Lord obey His commandments (John 14:15) unto holiness and, necessarily, separation.

As an additional resource for you in your walk regarding the Doctrine of Biblical Separation, I would commend to you an article authored by Dr. Peter Masters of the Metropolitan Tabernacle. It can be found here.

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