Is it possible to have sound doctrine, a good devotional life, and yet still be unholy? Yes, easily. You just need to forget something basic about holiness.

God is the ultimate model of holiness: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2). But what does it mean to be holy?

Many scholars agree that holiness refers to being distinct, set apart, unique. God is holy because he is distinct, set apart, unique from any other being that exists. In what particular ways is God set apart and unique? The Bible identifies at least three.

1. The Lord is holy in his power.

Often, God’s holiness is spoken of in the context of some miracle that makes clear he’s unique in his power. After God miraculously defeated Pharaoh and his army, Moses and the Israelites broke out in song: “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). When warning of miraculous and powerful judgments to come against the rebellious people of Sidon, God states, “They will know that I am the LORD, when I inflict punishment on her and show myself holy within her” (Ezek. 28:22).

Even Isaiah’s famous vision in the temple makes this point. Just before the prophet hears the angels cry out that God is “holy, holy, holy,” we read: “I saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). Note the royal robe was the natural symbol of kingly power and authority. To say the train of the Lord’s royal robe “filled the temple” is to say it was huge—football fields of material. And the reason it was so huge is because his power and authority are so great. There is no king like him.

When the Lord commands us to be holy as he is holy, then, it isn’t this aspect of his holiness he has in mind. We cannot be all-powerful. But there are two other aspects of his holiness that he does expect us to embody.

2. The Lord is holy in his purity.

When most of us think of God’s purity, we think of his moral purity: no evil exists in him. As Habakkuk declares, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab. 1:13).

The Lord’s moral purity is the model for his people—and is to show up in practical ways. Leviticus 19 illustrates this point beautifully. The chapter begins with God saying, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (19:2). It then goes on to identify many concrete ways this holiness works itself out: not harvesting all your field, so the poor have something to gather (19:9–10); not perverting justice (19:15); not slandering others (19:16); showing honor to the elderly (19:32); and not mistreating the foreigner (19:33). By following these commands, God’s people would establish a society of justice and goodness since they would be embodying his upright character in practical ways.

3. The Lord is holy in his love.

At the center of Leviticus 19 is the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). A moment’s thought will show that carrying out the chapter’s commands results in acts of love:

  • You give to the poor instead of maximizing personal profit.
  • You refuse to pervert justice, but fight for what is right and true.
  • You speak truthfully of others instead of indulging in the temptation to slander them.
  • You show respect and honor to fellow image-bearers as they slow and weaken with age.
  • You put yourself in the shoes of foreigners and treat them with the same care as your own people.

Imitating God’s holiness means being lavish with your love.

Big Head, Small Heart

But this is the aspect of holiness we often forget. And when we do, it becomes easy to know all sorts of doctrine and yet fail to show practical love to those around us.

To put it as a question: Do those who know us best think of us as people who embody love? Is “loving” one of the main words they might use to describe us? Do they think of us as patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, not dishonoring others, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not keeping a record of wrongs, not delighting in evil but rejoicing with the truth, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering—as 1 Corinthians 13 commands? Do these things typify our lives?

If the answer is no, there is only one conclusion: We are not holy. We might know our doctrine, pray regularly, read Scripture daily, fast weekly, follow all sorts of biblical commands, and yet, if we are not lavish in love, we are not holy—because we are not like God. He is holy—utterly distinct—in his love. His people must be the same.

Hope for Unholy People

How do we change? Not by running from God in shame and trying harder. It happens as we come to him with our lack of love and bask in his, because his love transforms. Paul understood this well:

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. (Eph. 4:32–5:1)

Paul roots the command to embody God’s love in the free gift of God’s Son. When we open our hearts to the Father’s love for us in Christ, we become filled with that holy love—and it can’t help but spill out to those around us. As John says so simply, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

So, if we lack holy love, let us pray for help as Paul did:

O Lord, out of your glorious riches, strengthen me with power through your Spirit in my inner being, so that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith. Grant me power, together with all your saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that I may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God! (Eph. 3:16–19)

That’s a prayer the Lord loves to answer.