Seeing With Scripture: What Is Holiness?

Holiness is ultimately sharing in God’s life and letting his life flow through us. But in order to get to this majestic divine invitation in Christ, God prepared his people gradually along the way. And it’s a pattern that is often repeated in our lives — a need to separate from sin and turn towards God. In what follows, we’ll trace this pattern, leading to Christ and its unfathomable meaning for our lives today.

Old Testament

While ancient Israel was given the calling to be “light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:649:6), much of the Old Testament story depicts holiness as separation from the nations — separation from all that is unclean. Leviticus 18:3 captures this sentiment: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” Indeed, much of the story in the early going is not just about getting Israel out of Egypt, but getting Egypt out of Israel — that is out of Israel’s heart.

One can already detect this at some level in the meaning of sacrifice for Israel. Initially, Moses’ request to pharaoh is for the Israelites to go on a three-day journey into the wilderness in order to sacrifice (see Exodus 3:18). A clue shows up in Exodus 8:25-26 where pharaoh suggests that they should simply sacrifice within the land of Egypt; but Moses insists that this would not be possible: “It would not be right to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God offerings abominable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us?”

The implication (and one seen by ancient Christian and Jewish sources) is that the sacrifice called for is a subversion of Egyptian religion. Many animals in ancient Egypt represented various deities. Thus, in order to eradicate idolatry from Israel’s heart, God calls Israel to ritually renounce the polytheistic idols she has become accustomed to these past few hundred years. The need for this becomes all the more apparent after the golden calf, which likely represents a return to an Egyptian cult (Exodus 32:1-6). And the plagues themselves seem to have this same overarching thrust — Exodus 12:12 describes them as “judgments against the gods of Egypt.”

It is interesting to note that the sacrificial legislation of ancient Israel picks up enormously after the golden calf; that is, while the Tabernacle is mentioned before the golden calf (Exodus 25-31), all the Levitical legislation is not enacted until after the golden calf; in fact, the Levites appear to become the priestly tribe precisely because of the events surrounding the golden calf (see Exodus 32:29). In other words, there seems to be a reason for the intense thrust of holiness as separation — as God’s fatherly response to Israel’s weakness. Ideally, Israel would be light to the nations; but in her weakness, Israel is evangelized by the nations — not the other way around. Accordingly, in God’s providence, Israel needs to be quarantined — a rehab program, as it were.

This divinely-ordained holiness as separation was never meant to be permanent, but was rather a temporary and remedial measure, in order to prepare Israel for her ultimate calling.

New Testament

This trajectory of holiness as separation sets the stage for the New Testament. In fact, the name “Pharisee” likely has the etymological meaning of “separated ones.” Contrary to common opinion, the Pharisees weren’t proto-Pelagians (the later fifth-century Christian heresy that denied original sin, proposing that we can earn our way to heaven by good works). The Pharisees were legalistic, but not in the sense we’re often used to thinking of: they didn’t envision themselves climbing a ladder to heaven, meriting salvation merely by works of righteousness. Rather, they were legalistic in steadfastly maintaining their identity as the covenant people of God. Especially in the wake of the Maccabean revolt (167-164 BC), by the first century, many Jews had a significant fear of assimilation — that they would be simply absorbed into the wider dominant and pagan culture around them.

In this context, the Pharisees band together and put a premium on covenant identity markers — things that preserved and maintained their Jewishness, such as food laws, Sabbath laws, and circumcision. This is why there is such a fuss when Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors: his inclusiveness runs directly afoul of the Pharisaic ideal of holiness as separation.

New Testament holiness reaches to the heart. While the Old Testament does emphasize internal transformation, this is a distinguishing mark of the New Covenant.

The mistake made by the Pharisees here (one which is much easier to see in hindsight) is that this holiness as separation was ordained for a time, but was never meant to be permanent. In fact, already with the calling of Abraham, it’s clear that God’s plan is to establish a universal, world-wide (i.e., “catholic”) family of God (Genesis 12:2-3). The inherent tension, then, is that Jesus is bringing about the fullness of this Abrahamic promise, while the Pharisees are still riding the Levitical wave of holiness as separation. It is worth noting that Paul sees this universal promise to Abraham as nothing short of the “Gospel preached beforehand” (Galatians 3:8).

This is on full display when Jesus touches the unclean — and rather than becoming unclean himself, his power transforms and cleanses the unclean, as with the leper (Matthew 8:2-3). Similarly with the woman who had the discharge of blood for twelve years: she touches Jesus and “power” goes forth from him (Luke 8:46) and she is thereby healed (the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees this episode as an image of the Sacraments — whereby Jesus “touches” us in the present). Likewise, the parable of the Good Samaritan brings this same universalistic message to the fore (Luke 10:25-37).

New Testament holiness further reaches to the heart. While the Old Testament does emphasize (especially the Wisdom literature and the Prophets) internal transformation, this is a distinguishing mark of the New Covenant. This is most clearly seen in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Similarly: “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment’. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Divine Sonship in Christ

For St. Paul, being “in Christ” is no mere metaphor or pious platitude. To be in Christ is to be incorporated into the Savior’s life, and this begins in baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

For Paul, Christ’s life is reproduced in and through each disciple: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

In other words, when Paul says, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), this is no mere metaphor, but the reality of divine life received in baptism. The majesty of what this means is manifest in 1 John 3:1:  “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God, and so we are.”

As the eminent nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben put it, “Because we are not mere adoptive children, because we are members of the natural Son, we truly enter into a personal relationship in which the Son of God stands to his Father.” For Scheeben — in Christ — God the Father looks down upon us and loves us as he loves his Only-Begotten Son. This statement should give us pause, for it is truly breathtaking. But it captures the power and reality of divine grace — not merely as God’s favor, but God’s very life dwelling within us. This is the part of salvation that we often forget: salvation is not just forgiveness of sins; it is being incorporated into Christ — and through Christ into the very heart of the Trinity, thereby sharing in the eternal filial relation the Son has to the Father (see CCC 460).

How can we better appreciate, acknowledge, and live out this sublime vocation we have to become children of God? For starters, in our prayer, do we truly approach God as Father, or do we think of him more as Master? If we approach him as Father, we will be more inclined to bring everything that we are — our strengths and our weaknesses — to the Lord; if we approach him as Master, we’ll be inclined to sheepishly only put forth our “good” side, seeking to perfect ourselves first before we approach the throne of grace. And the latter is exactly what the devil wants.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.