The difficulties involved in defining holiness are vast. There is so much to holiness and it is so foreign to us that the task seems almost impossible…in the Bible the word holy is used in more than one way. There is a sense in which the Bible uses holy in a way that is very closely related to God’s goodness. 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 when we hear the word holy…But the idea of purity or of moral perfection is at best the secondary meaning of the term in the Bible. When the seraphim sang their song, they were saying far more than that God was “purity, purity, purity.”
The primary meaning of holy is “separate.” It comes from an ancient word that meant, “to cut,” or “to separate.” To translate this basic meaning into comtemporary language would be to use the phrase “a cut apart.” Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase “a cut above something.” When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is a “cut above the rest.”
The word transcendence means literally “to climb across.” It is defined as “exceeding unusual limits.” To transcend it to rise above something, to go above and beyond a certain limit. When we speak of the transcendence of God we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond. It tries to get at His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else.
When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way. The same basic meaning is used when the word holy is applied to earthly things….The things that are holy are things that are set apart, separated from the rest. They have been consecrated, separated from the commonplace, unto the Lord and His service….
Only God can sanctify something else. Only God can put the touch on something that changes it from the commonplace to something special, different, and apart….
Where does purity come in?…When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. Purity is not excluded from the idea of holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that…It is a transcendent purity.
When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of the holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is Holy Spirit.
~excerpt from The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul
Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until that day when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. ~1 Thessalonians 5:23