The Simplicity of Holiness 

By Dan Kraemer, based on the book by Matthew T. Wilson1



The concept of holiness appears more than one thousand times throughout the Bible. But what exactly does it mean? What is your definition of “holy”? Have you ever tried to concretely define it? Or is it a little vague, or defined by other words that you’re not really sure what they mean, like consecrated and sanctification? Let me give you one theologian’s answer that typifies what I mean. 

Quote, “To be holy is to be consecrated to God, or, to become sacred . . . the concept of holiness as righteousness . . . relates to the righteousness of God’s holy character wherein righteousness is one of the major expressions of God’s moral holiness.” Unquote.

So, you got it now? Well, I didn’t and that’s probably because the statement is little more than circular reasoning. His answer is, Holy means to be consecrated and consecrated means to be sacred and sacred means to be holy. So, what else do you need to know? But the problem is this, the words consecrated, sanctified and holy, all come from the same Hebrew root word. They are all defined as making holy. So it really explains nothing. 

To be fair, he says the word relates to “righteousness” but that is thrown in here not as a definition but only as somehow related. It somehow “expresses” God’s holiness but it is not holiness. Pray tell then, what is holiness? 

The English word holy is derived from an older English word that came from the German word, heilag, which basically means Wholeness. Well, that is an interesting start. At least I can understand “wholeness”. But how does wholeness help define holy? Does holy have something to do “wholeness”? Is there an ancient reason why, “wholly” with a W, and “holy”, with an H, sound the same? Do they have a related meaning? Being that we understand the word wholeness, might it be that, “completeness” is part of that meaning? And is it possible that, Righteousness, Purity and Set Apart, are actually throwing us off course, and have little or nothing to do with its meaning?

The Hebrew forms of “holy” found in the Bible are many. I looked up the Hebrew word in Wikipedia and found a list of 13 different forms of the word. The main three are, kadesh, kadash, and, kadosh. They are the noun, the verb, and the adjective forms but there are also male and female, proper noun, and other forms of it.

When used as a noun we translate, the holy, or, the holiness, or, the sanctuary.

The verb form translates, to Make holy, or in a single word we say, to “sanctify”, or, to “consecrate”.

The adjective form translates, “holy”.

So we could use holy as verb, noun, and adjective in one sentence and say, 

The priest makes holy the bread in place of holiness and it becomes our holy communion.

But instead we say

The priest consecrates the bread in the sanctuary and it becomes our sanctified communion.

Or we can mix the words again and say,

The priest sanctifies the bread in the holy of holies and it becomes our consecrated communion. 

The point is they are all different forms of the same word. So the meaning of the English words, holy, holiness, sanctify, sanctification, sanctuary, consecrate, and even saint, are all derived from the same Hebrew root word. As they are, in effect, the same word, it is redundant to use any of these words to help explain the others. 

The situation is similar in the New Testament. In Greek, the root word is hagios. It, and its derivatives, are translated into the same English words as just described for the Hebrew Kadesh.

But, if we can figure out the meaning of the root word, the rest should be easy.

That is often done by using etymology, which means finding the ancient original meaning of the word. But the problem is, no one is sure what that is. One theory is that in ancient Mesopotamia, it was connected to a word meaning, “to cut”. And this is used to support the idea that it means, to separate, or, set apart, - that which is holy from that which is common. 

The other method by which to understand a word, and which is more reliable, is by its context. As the word is used hundreds of times, its meaning should become obvious IF we can forget our traditions and open our minds to new possibilities. Not that I am going to suggest anything drastic but it may be substantial enough.

Getting started, the first question might be, what’s wrong with our current mainstream definition? What’s wrong with “set apart” along with the thought that this separateness involves purity, sinlessness and righteousness? Doesn’t this concept work perfectly well? Well, let’s see.

It turns out there have been a lot of books written on the subject of holiness but when the authors try to define it for us, and they come up with a lot more than just “set apart”. Jerry Bridges, the author of The Pursuit of Holiness, says,

To be holy is to be morally blameless. It is to be separated from sin and therefore, consecrated to God. End quote.

Dictionaries often list the multiple meanings for a word when there is more than one simple meaning, and holy is no exception. Strong’s concordance and Webster’s both list, “set apart” as its primary meaning and then go on to list several other meanings.

R.C. Sproul in a well-known modern classic book on the subject titled, The Holiness of God, agrees. Let me summarize a lengthy quote from him. He writes, “the difficulties involved in defining holiness are vast. There is so much to holiness . . . the word holy is used in more than one way . . . it has been customary to define holy as “purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect and immaculate in every detail . . . purity is the first word most of us think of . . . but the primary meaning is separate . . . it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us.” End quote. 

Other theological dictionaries describe it similarly as, both understandable and elusive, set apart from everything else . . . God in a class by Himself . . . good and pure and right . . . God’s transcendence, His divine essence, His supreme otherness . . . His separation from sin, His moral purity and perfection.

In a bit of an additional and darker variance, others believe there must be a sense of dread and fear associated with God’s holiness to more accurately understand it. And no doubt, many Christians can relate to this concept when they were taught about God in their youth. Martin Luther and Saint Augustine influenced and promoted this idea. But let us continue.

So far we have only considered holy as it relates to God. We can all agree God is separate, perfect, pure, sinless and righteous, and His judgments are to be feared, but holy is also used to describe many different things, including objects and people. How can holy, defined as we just did, ever be applied to us? And yet, in both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible often uses it in referring to His followers. And even God commands us, Be holy, for I am holy, at Lev. 11: 44-45 and which Peter quotes at 1Peter 1:16:

So now, with all this confusion, what are we to think? Were we commanded to try to attain the unattainable? Has God left us in the dark? Were the prophets and Apostles confused as well? Did they not understand exactly what God meant? Or, does it mean something that really is attainable? And is its meaning simpler than we think?

Going back to the first couple centuries of the Church, I think Clement of Alexandria was getting closer to the truth when he wrote that holiness is the service of God. But then, if holy is the service of God, how then is God holy?

And so, this is why theologians struggle in their attempts at a definition and end up with, separateness, purity, righteousness, fear and service. They admit the difficulty with a simple definition because they know any one of these ideas will not always fit the varied contexts. How can God command us to be perfect like He is perfect? Or to be separate from the world like He is separate? Or pure, or righteous, or free from all immorality and corruption? With definitions like that, how can we feel anything but hopeless when we read, “Be holy for I am holy”? If there is any axiom we all know to be true, it is that no one is perfect! So, by these definitions, no one can be holy. So, is God really asking something from us that He knows we are unable to attain? Or, is our definition wrong? As with several other words, such as eternal, hell, soul and spirit; that we have studied in depth over the years, this one also merits our full attention.

The question becomes, what definition of holy make sense in every case? And so, first of all, what does it mean in the Old Testament? 

Let’s start with four simple inanimate objects that are called holy; garments, places, days and incense. We will see that “set apart” does not work too badly but the idea of sinlessness or righteousness doesn’t make any sense at all.

Exo 28:2 You will make holy garments for Aaron, your brother, for glory and for beauty;"

Exo 26:33 The curtain will separate for you between the holy place and the holy of holies;" 

Exo 31:14 Hence you will keep the sabbath, for it is holy to you. 

Exo 30:37 Yet the incense which you shall make by (this) recipe you shall not make for yourselves. Holy shall it be to you for Yahweh.

Or, in other words, HOLY SMOKE!

Have you ever used that expression? It’s a funny thing for me now that I have studied this, because I have used that expression all my life. I got it from my father, but when I was young I never had any idea where it came from, or why smoke should be holy. Then when I started studying the Bible I figured it must be in regards to the smoke that arose from a burning sacrifice because we often find the expression, “and it shall be a sweet savour, (or aroma), onto the Lord” in the Old Testament. But in studying it now even more closely, I find that although the sacrifice is called holy, the smoke from it is not.

But now I finally have my answer. Here I find, that it is the unique incense that is called holy and therefore it follows that the smoke from the incense would also be holy. Now, having solved my childhood mystery after 60 years, I will return to the subject at hand,

OK, so there we have four examples where we can see that defining holy with any sense of morality or sinlessness is absent from the verses. They are all amoral objects, places, time periods or smells. Therefore this idea of perfect righteousness, purity and sinlessness cannot be used here. And if this sort of definition cannot be used here, why should we be able to force it onto other holy things, like people, or even God? Not that God isn’t perfect but only that the word holy is not the word we should use to define sinless. Let’s take a look at some holy people and you will see what I mean.

Did you know that the Bible describes prostitutes as holy? I am going to be reading from the Concordant Literal Version of the Old Testament. This again, is one of those cases where the CLV is especially good because of its consistency in translation.

You may remember the story of Judah and his three sons. The oldest married a woman named Tamar but the God killed him as he was evil. Then, as per the custom, Tamar is married to the second son but God also kills him. Again, as per the custom, Tamar should be married off to the third son but Judah, fearing the worst, is very hesitant to oblige her. So after many years of waiting, Tamar tricks Judah into getting herself pregnant by him by veiling herself and pretending to be a prostitute. They agree to sex for the price of a kid goat to be delivered to her later. And so we read a little later when Judah’s servant is taking the goat and looking for that prostitute. Let’s first read it in the King James. 

Gen 38:21 KJV Then he asked the men of that place, saying, Where is the harlot,H6948 that was openly by the way side? And they said, There was no harlotH6948 in this place. 

Gen 38:22  And he returned to Judah, and said, I cannot find her; and also the men of the place said, that there was no harlotH6948 in this place.  

The word we are interested in is harlot. It is Strong’s #H6948, and although the word harlot does get across the intent of the original author, it does not accurately translate the Hebrew word being used here. Other versions use the term “prostitute” which is no better. But other versions are a little more accurate by using the two-word term, “temple prostitute” or, as in Young’s Literal version, it uses “separated one”.

The Concordant version also uses a two-word term but instead of “temple prostitute” it uses a very interesting phrase that, as I suggested, you might find extremely unusual and even shocking. It uses the word “hallowed”, to describe her, or, in other words, she is called a holy harlot. Let’s read it. 

Gen 38:21 CLV And asking is he the mortals of her place, saying, "Where is the hallowed harlot, she at the springs, on the way? And saying are they, "No hallowed harlot came to be in this place.

Gen 38:22 And returning is he to Judah and saying, "I did not find her. And, moreover, the mortals of the place say, `No hallowed harlot came to be in this place.

So how do we explain this? Simple, the Hebrew word used here is one of those various Hebrew word forms for holy. That is why some translations use the word, “temple” here instead of “holy”. Here again, we have strong and in context evidence, that the word, kadosh, does NOT indicate a sense of moral purity, righteousness, or divinity. It would also be hard to make the case that kadosh here means, “set apart from the world” in any good moral character sense either.

Why did the writer of Genesis, write that this supposed prostitute (even though Tamar was not one) was “holy”? We’ll find out but it is no wonder all of the other translations substitute the word, temple, or, don’t use the word “holy” in these verses. It’s because it would ruin everyone’s idea that holy means purity, perfect righteousness and sinlessness.  

Well, let’s get into some more verses where this same word is used in its female and masculine forms. 

Deu 23:17KJV  There shall be no whoreH6948 of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomiteH6945 of the sons of Israel. 

Instead of whore, other versions use the term, “cult-prostitute” for both the daughters and sons of Israel.

Either way, the same Hebrew word is being used here as in Genesis 38 but the word for holy is either ignored altogether or “cult” is substituted. Not that it matters but for some unknown reason, this time the King James uses the word “whore” instead of “harlot”. And to my dismay, even the Concordant version this time is inconsistent as they use the term, “cult prostitute” instead of hallowed harlot as they did in Genesis. Young’s Literal changes gears as well, changing from “separated one” to “whore” for the woman and “whoremonger” for the men. 

OK, so now let me get to the crux of this whole mystery and the best single word to understand “holy”.

The word for Whore here is Strong’s H6948. It is the Feminine form of the word, but “whore” taken in isolation, is again somewhat misleading. Strong states that the actual basic definition is simply, a female devotee (as in, one who is devoted).

It is the same story for the word translated, Sodomite. The basic definition is “devotee”. It has nothing, necessarily, to do with sex. Permit me to use air quotes to indicate how Strong knows this but he muddies the definition when he adds much to the definition but placed in brackets. He says it means: 

a (quasi) sacred person, that is, (technically) a (male) devotee (by prostitution) to licentious idolatry: end of quote.

So although his long definition gives you the idea that its meaning has to do with both prostitutes and sodomites, its true basic meaning has nothing, necessarily, to with these. When you take out all the brackets in his definition, it only has to do with one who is a devotee, meaning a devoted person. Now admittedly, from the context, one can tell they are devoted to this “licentious” idolatry, and so it is translated as, harlot, whore and prostitute, but that is not its primary root meaning.  

I am guessing that, in this kind of context, this was an understood Hebrew idiom, but regardless, the simple basic meaning is still, “devotee”. Perhaps this is a little bit similar to our idiom “hooker”. There are several theories why we use the term hooker but the simplest is that a prostitute bates herself on a corner and then hooks her prey. So although the basic meaning of hook has got nothing to do with prostitution, we all know, in context, “hooker” regards licentious sexual behavior.

Now back to the main root of both these words.  It is Strong’s # H6942, kodash. This is the main word translated as, holy. It is found 171 times in the Old Testament. Strong, in his attempt to boil its meaning down to one word, comes up with, to beclean”, but it is never translated as “clean”. Almost 90% of the time it is translated as a form of “sanctify”, or, “consecrate”, or “holy”. But getting closer to my new explanation here, even the King James translates it as “dedicated” 9 times, and this is where we finally get away from the mysterious religious language and closer to a word we regularly use and easily understand. We can also easily see the connection between dedicate and devotee. A devotee is dedicated to something. They wholly, spelled with a W, give something their devotion. And that, it seems to me, is where the word Holy with an H has its roots. W, Wholly, and, H, Holy, both have to do with completely, with dedicated, and with devoted.

And so, although further explaining may need to be done to fully defend this position, let me skip to my conclusion right now. If you want to simply, correctly and consistently understand the various forms of the Hebrew “kodesh”, the Greek “hagios” and the English, holy, hallow, consecrate, sanctify, and dedicate, just do this. Every time you read the word 

Holy,                                                                                       substitute: Devoted

Sacred,                                                                                   substitute: Devoted

To Sanctify, or, to Consecrate, or, to make Holy,            substitute: To Devote

And finally,

Holiness, or, Sanctification,                                                substitute: Devotion

And you will find that the verses in question will be better understood. 

You may all be familiar with the expression, “He’s a holy terror” perhaps regarding a little boy screaming and running uncontrolled around your house wreaking havoc. Did you ever question the phrase? Did you think he was a righteous sinless saint, or a brat seemingly devoted to terrorizing your peace? 

Now, if we have refuted the idea of holy meaning pure, sinless and righteous, we now have to deal with the idea of separateness being correct or not. The point I want to make here is not that set apart is completely wrong, but that it is misleading, as it is not the essence of the word. The important concept is not that something IS set apart but WHY something is set apart. If we primarily think of something as set apart, we might think of it as removed, but removed is not the focus, being DEVOTED is the focus. Things that are devoted will likely stand out, and be treated with special care because they are used for an extraordinary purpose, that is why they are holy. Being set apart may be one of the results of being holy but just setting it apart does not make it holy. It has to be devoted.

Nevertheless, it is true that being set apart is an important Biblical concept but it is not to be confused with being holy. Let’s look at some verses where the two concepts overlap. Then we can compare and see how they differ.

Num 6:2 KJV Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separateH6381 themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite,H5139 to separateH5144 themselves unto the LORD:  

In this one verse where we really do have three different words that Strong all defines as having to do with setting apart. Again, the CLV does a better job than the King James. Without getting into a lot of the nitty-gritty, the first separate means, to distinguish. The CLV uses the word, “extraordinary” there. The second separate means, to hold aloof and to abstain. The CLV uses the word, “sequester”. And the third one, Nazarite, is a transliteration but also means to separate and as Strong states, it has to do with an unpruned vine. (This, as another aside, is another whole story that helps explain why Jesus was a shoot of Jesse and called a Nazarene but yet was distinguished from being a Nazarite.)  

Now continuing a few verses down,

Verse 5 CLV All the days of his Nazarite vow no razor shall pass over his head; until the days are fulfilled in which he is sequestering himself to Yahweh he shall come to be holy, letting the locks of the hair of his head grow great.

Verse 8 All the days of his sequestration he is holy to Yahweh.

Notice that the Nazirite is called to be separate and is said to be holy all the days of the vow. That begs the question: if the Nazirite was only holy all the days of his vow, then what was he before and after the vow, unholy? Meaning, sinful? I don’t think so. Once again then, holy, as used here, cannot mean morally blameless or sinless and neither is the word holy used to describe his separateness. Those other three words are used to describe that. Do we need a fourth? 

Now continuing at the end of verse 11,

. . . Then he will hallow his head on that day. 

If hallow means to separate, is God commanding the Nazarite to separate his head from his body? Of course not, and this is a perfect example of why these theologians struggle to define what holy means. But now we can understand that the Nazarite dedicates his head in an outward physical manner. As it was explained, he does not shave his beard nor cut his hair all the days of his vow, until the time of his special dedication, or devotion, is fulfilled.

When ancient Israel first moved into the Holy Land and conquered Jericho, they were ordered to slaughter every man, woman, child and animal. This ensured they would be separate from every pagan influence. Yes, the Israelites were called to be holy but is this slaughter what God means by making holy? No.

The problem with, Set Apart is that it is too vague. Presumably, we are to be set apart from the world, but how exactly? Are we to literally live in a set apart colony or country? Like the Amish do today? Perhaps living nearby but as separate as possible? Is this to prevent us from being tempted and infected by the world? Or, are we to live within the world and to be a light for it?  Do we separate ourselves from everyone who doesn’t behave as we behave? I hope you can see the problems that are developing. Where do we draw the line between setting ourselves apart from this world, and yet living in it and influencing it?

Setting ourselves apart can suggest that holiness is static, passive and divisive, whereas Biblical holiness is just the opposite. It is dynamic, active and binding. How is one commanded to go out to the ends of the world if one is supposed to separate oneself from the world?

The biggest problem with Set Apart as the definition is that it does not always fit, and that is why theologians have created multiple unrelated definitions for the word, but that automatically creates inconsistencies, difficulties and outright contradictions.

But being devoted causes no problems. Being devoted does not necessarily mean being separate.  

God has called us to holiness, to devotion to him, as a husband seeking a devoted bride. And like a husband seeking a bride, God is not looking for a perfect person to enter into a covenant with. God is looking for a devoted and loving person, even with flaws. God is seeking for himself a man or woman after His own heart. That was King David, warts and all. What made David special? He was devoted with all his heart. 

That doesn’t mean one can flagrantly be practicing sin and claim to be devoted to God, but the Bible gives examples of devoted people who do commit sin. It is not that they desired to sin, or thought that they had a license to sin, but, as Paul said,

Rom 7:19  For I do not do the good that I desire; but the evil which I do not will, that I do 

And this is important to understand and counter intuitive. We have always thought that holiness comes after obedience to God, but instead, holiness precedes it. Doesn’t that only make sense? A servant’s forceful obedience to his master does not lead to his devotion of him, but if a new servant is devoted to a good and generous master, it will lead to more and more willing obedience on behalf of the servant.

We should not expect that every Christian we know will live a life of perfect obedience and that one day we will all get to the top of the ladder where we will finally be declared “holy”. No. The kind of holy I am talking about is not being holier than thou. We will never be perfect but we can strive to be devoted. Husbands and wives do not expect their spouses to be perfect, but they should strive to be devoted to each other. And being devoted means striving to give oneself completely or wholly to the other. To be loving and faithful to all the promises they gave to each other at their marriage. A couple does not start off with a perfect relationship nor does it continue to be perfect through out their marriage. But a new couple can declare their devotion to each other knowing that neither of them is perfect. They know there will be problems along the way, but they resolve to remain committed and dedicated to each other and to work all things out over time.

Did you ever wonder why we use the term holy matrimony? I could not find the phrase in the Bible but nevertheless I think it perfectly fits our new understanding.

No marriage is perfect or sinless or separated from the world. Marriage is just the opposite. It makes much more sense to think of marriage as a union of the two instead of a separation from their families and even other men and women. Certainly, they leave their families and are monogamous to each other, but the emphasis is on their union and devotion. Teaching your children about Devoted Matrimony will probably make a lot more sense to them than Holy Matrimony. They can relate to devoted but might not have any idea what holy means.

I said a lot more needs to be said to fully justify this definition. If I had time I would get into what it means when, God speaks of His holy name, Why He will prove Himself holy among Israel and in the sight of the nations, Why He swears by His own holiness, Why His way, and, His law, is holy, and Why God is the holy One of Israel.

It would also be beneficial to understand the opposite of holy. What is unholy? And to understand what common or profane means and the difference between these terms and the terms clean and unclean, and the two classes of clean and unclean, - the physical and the spiritual, and how something becomes defiled and how someone or something is cleansed or atoned for by water or by blood, but let me finish with this.

Being devoted to God is something you can start now. You don’t need to become pure, sinless, and righteous first in order to be holy. No, what this means is your holiness starts with your devotion. It’s that simple. And there is even more good news, God has promised to give His Devoted Spirit to you to help you as you move through this life, to teach you what being devoted is all about, to strengthen you and to discipline you. That is what the Holy Spirit really is.

Or, did you think of God’s Holy Spirit as some kind of separated Spirit? Or do you think of it as his perfect sinless spirit? Maybe so, but isn’t it more personal to us to think of God as sending us his Devoted Spirit? This is not an impersonal separated perfect spirit, but one that has been sent to us by such a loving Saviour that He went our of His way to devote Himself to us and send His Devoted Spirit to be with us at all times so that we can always feel His devotion. Do we fully realize what this means? It really is astounding. This means He has completely and wholly dedicated Himself to us. And He wants the same from us. Not perfection but devotion. Clement was on track when he wrote that holiness was to be in service to God because to be of service is to be devoted. It works both ways.

The Bible calls us saints, and saints means holy ones. The apostles never addressed the Believers as saints-in-progress, but only as saints. There is no life long process to becoming a saint. You either are a saint or you are not. You are either devoted or are not. Were the Apostles calling the Believers, perfect? Or, telling them to separate themselves from all other imperfect people? No, they were simply calling the Believers dedicated. We can’t grow in perfection and we can’t separate ourselves from the world but we can grow in devotion.

Our Father’s and our Saviour’s holiness is not demonstrated by thunder, lightning and earthquakes sent from on top a mountain. Despite Luther and Augustine, it is not something to fear. It is just the opposite. It is something to embrace. His holiness, His devotion, is something to cherish. It should be one of the most important and wonderful aspects of God’s love, for each and everyone, of us. Amen.


1. Yeshua’s Harvest Publishing, 2016; P.O.Box 702 Woodland Hills, California 91365