What is the meaning of the word holy from a Christian viewpoint?

I observed that the term is used for

  • the gods, especially the Holy God (Father) and Holy Ghost;
  • persons, such as the holy apostles, Holy St. Florian, etc.;
  • buildings like churches;
  • organisations (the holy church);
  • relics and fetishes, such as the Holy Coat of Trier;
  • cities, such as the holy city (this title is used for both Rome and Jerusalem).

Since holiness is nothing which can be identified with a scientific instrument, what is it? Is it just an attribute, awarded by a higher priest, which you then believe in? But what is it? Do you have to believe, that it can, for example, have healing effects? Does it just mean that you have to treat something with extra respect?

This is what I found in an encyclopedia:

Heilig, von Heil, also soviel wie in seiner Vollkommenheit nicht nur noch unverletzt, sondern auch unverletzlich, unantastbar, dann soviel wie schlechthin gut, sittlich vollkommen, makellos. Seine Wurzeln hat dieser Begriff teils im römischen Kultus, wo er das dem gemeinen Gebrauch Entzogene, höhern Zwecken Gewidmete (sacer, sanctus), teils im Alttestamentlichen, wo der Ausdruck (kadosch), von Gott ausgesagt, dessen Unterschiedenheit von allem Irdischen, seine Unvergleichlichkeit und Erhabenheit, von Irdischem ausgesagt, dessen Zugehörigkeit zu Gott, Gottgeweihtheit bedeutet. Vgl. Baudissin, Studien zur Religionsgeschichte, Bd. 2 (Leipz. 1878); Issel, Der Begriff der Heiligkeit im Neuen Testament (Leiden 1887).

Meyers Großes Konversationslexikon.

For those of you who don’t speak German, I’ll try a translation:

Holy, from ‘intact, complete’, not only undamaged, but invulnerable, untouchable, but also completely good, ethical and morally perfect. The roots of the term reach to the Roman cult, where it means “taken away from common usage”, used for higher purpose (sacer, sanctus), partly in the Old Testament, where the term (kadosch), spoken of God, means his difference from anything terrestrial, his uncomparabliness and loftiness, and means “belonging to God” or antlared (? maybe not. -else: holiness, which is tautological. - remark by me, u.u.). Vgl. Baudissin, Studien zur Religionsgeschichte, Bd. 2 (Leipz. 1878); Issel, Der Begriff der Heiligkeit im Neuen Testament (Leiden 1887).

Maybe we can agree that a building can’t be morally good. Nor can bones, or cities, or weekdays.

Isn’t it fetishism to pray to dead objects made by men, to bones without spirit and clothes?

Or is holiness something like bacteria, which spread from God to a Saint, from the Saint to his clothes, from the clothes to a prayer? Is there evidence in the new Testament that touching such things is helpful, is something you should do?

  • 3
    It would help this question a lot if you referred to, say, a dictionary definition and detailed what you found unclear.
    – Shog9
    Commented Sep 9, 2011 at 17:03
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/84837/1696.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 19:28
  • Agree with @Shog9 above. This doesn't come across as a great question.
    – user13992
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 22:05
  • @user unknown: I can explain re your last 3 parag.'s- Holinesss attached to objects has something to do with the Holy Spirit and Presence of God. ie Elisha's bones, they hurriedly buried someone on top of the prophet's bones, which still carried a residual 'annointing', and the newly dead person sprang to life after lying on top of Elisha. This anointing might be compared to the "train of God that filled up the temple." in my words, similar to a kind of cloud, or mist of the Holy Spirit.
    – Hello
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 2:14
  • @user unknown: He is Spirit but He becomes tangible too, because people feel His Presence at times, in tangible and semi tangible ways, although He is spirit. Bones, clothing, other objects which come in contact with that which is Holy may become saturated with His Presence in a semi tangible form.ie. the cloths that were sent out from the Body of Paul contained the anointing of the Holy Spirit the shadow of Peter touching the sick sprang them into health,...their proximity to the anointing of God moving past them as Peter passed them, even just his shadow healed them.
    – Hello
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 2:17

4 Answers 4


The progression in your list is actually somewhat (although not exactly) representative of the decreasing level of weight carried by the word.

Let's start with this: Only God is holy.

Holy means to be set apart, entirely-other. Untouched by any imperfection. Unmarred by any fault. God is the only one that matches these criteria. And boy is he Holy. The angels in heaven cry out in eternal accord that he is thrice holy. Holy. Holy. Holy.

After that things go down hill fast. Absolutely nothing else exists or ever will exist apart from God that is holy in the way that he is.

And yet there is one crazy exception: Those who through faith in Christ are adopted to be joint heirs with Christ and inherit his very holiness. Over and over through the Old and New testaments we see God calling his chosen people to "be holy, as I am holy." This is an absurd thing to ask of a degenerate created being -- except that he also makes us this way by covering us with his own holiness. At the cost of the life of His own holy son God provided a way to make un-holy people holy.

Some more interesting powerful uses of the word holy involve things like the temple (both the tent tabernacle and the permanent temple) where the sanctuary was holy because it was dedicated to a certain use, but the inner chamber was the _holy of holies because that is where Gods very presence would dwell.

Moving on down the line, the word has some common usages that only involve being set apart or dedicated for a certain use. Church buildings are only holy not in that they are physically sacred but that they are reserved for certain uses ... they are dedicated to the work of God through his body the church.

Cities such as Jerusalem can be considered holy in the sense that they play a special role or enjoy a unique identity or history.

  • I accept this as a competent and right answer, while it doesn't satisfy me, but that's my fault, in not preparing my question well enough. I updated it with some definition from a dictionary, which is very close to what you wrote, and emphasized my problem with the practical usage of the term. Commented Sep 10, 2011 at 0:29
  • Your updated question is rather different from what I thought I was answering. I might try to update this to address that more specifically.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 10, 2011 at 5:24

I would affirm and add that "holy" is also important for understanding the vocation of God's people, not simply individual moral virtue. To be holy, as mentioned, means "to be set apart." God's purpose for Israel was to be set apart for upholding God's covenant - to ultimately be the agents of peace and healing for the rest of the world (Is. 49:6 - a type that is reworked in Mat. 5:14-16). This vocation, this calling to be the covenant-keepers that would allow God's justice to be administered, was of course impossible for Israel to keep (Rom. 3 attests to how the law itself testified to Israel's inability to keep it - a product of being 'in Adam'). Thus the necessity for a messiah, a christ, was needed to allow God's plan for whole-creation salvation to happen.

Upon Jesus' death and resurrection, he was vindicated as the true messiah, the one who had been obedient to the calling of Israel, thus enabling the covenant to be fulfilled and, indeed, to be the ultimate light-bearer to the world. The Christian, too, takes up this vocation, now transferred to all those who are "in Christ," meaning they are a part of God's family, the new "God's chosen people."

It remains the Christian's calling to be holy, even as God is holy (Mat. 5:48), not in order to be "better than" anyone else, but in order to be agents of God's grace and reconciliation as his rule and reign become more pervasive in the creation he is restoring. This has nothing to do with a superior attitude, as evidenced by the colloquialism "holier-than-thou"; rather it refers to something God is doing, God's intended use for a people he has called to bring about healing through.

An interesting use of this word is found in Paul's writings to the various churches - almost all of which he refers to as "saints" (the Greek word is 'hagios' - the same word used for "Holy Spirit" as well as "all the saints at Philippi). In contrast to the "holier-than-thou" religious types, these whom the New Testament writers referred to were sometimes (but not always) in serious theological and ethical error (the Corinthians and Galatians especially) and in need of stern correction.

Holiness, then, refers not to their actions, or even their attitudes, but to the unique calling God has placed on them to be the body of Christ, hands of healing pressed against the wounds of a bleeding world.

  • So when you talk about holier-than-thou, you're saying, the word is linguistically comparable? Is there a an example in the bible, where holier is used? I only knew the term as either holy or not. Not in terms of more or less. That is some surprise. Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 20:55
  • 2
    @user - "holier-than-thou" is a common term for someone who thinks they are better than someone else (think Pharisees in the Bible).
    – wax eagle
    Commented Sep 4, 2011 at 21:02
  • But you don't have a citation, do you? What I found in a dictionary (see updated question), it is an absolute, which can't be raised. More perfect than perfect is not possible. So holier should either be ironical or slang. Commented Sep 10, 2011 at 0:25
  • @userunknown. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. And don't expect language to follow perfectly logical rules. Holier than thou is an age-attested English idiom, and perfectly grammatical. As with all idioms, it doesn't mean exactly what it literally appears to mean from a simple reading of the words.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 21, 2011 at 16:55
  • 1
    @userunknown "Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, Do not come near me, For I am holier than you!' These are smoke in My nostrils, A fire that burns all the day." (Isaiah 65:5)
    – Steve
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 14:03

Holiness, as it relates to God, is the ultimate "set apart":

  • He is set apart from our flesh, since He is spirit, and thus is not motivated by the desires of the flesh that afflict us.
  • He is not of nationalistic spirit, since He was not born in any country, and is not beholden to any nation's laws or customs.

  • He is outside of creation and of time, so He is not bound by any of their laws.

Christians are called to be holy, to be "set apart" to God. So holiness in the case of persons is to be uncontrolled by their flesh, nationality, and other things that they may be controlled by the Spirit of God. You can see this in Philippians 3:4-6 as Paul lists the things he formerly valued that were of religion and nationality. The following verses show the contrast, that rather than knowing those things, he preferred to know Christ and His life. So holiness, or set apart, to Paul meant to literally set himself apart from the things he served that he may be unencumbered in his service to God alone. Without the literal setting apart, he would invite ongoing distractions into his work.


The Christian meaning is not different than the meaning in normal language use.

Simply it means Set apart for God hence:

1 Peter 2:9-10 (RSVCE)
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.

Food for thought:
Under a ban

Joshua 6:17 (RSVCE)
17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers that we sent.

This last paragraph is purely a recent thinking of mine. People - what chutzpah - judge God by human standards and accuse God of wiping out peoples. My thinking is that those under the ban are also 'holy' in the sense that for the eventual salvation of all mankind, their lives were required to preserve the purity of religion. God will take care of them so long as they haven't other sins they are responsible for ...

1 Samuel 2:7 (RSVCE) 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

The human being who brings others to sheol, cannot raise them up from it.


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