The Nicene Creed not only confesses belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit but “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Early Christians declared dogma about the divine being and the nature and purpose of the church. In their minds, both God and the people of God had essential characteristics that needed to be affirmed.
The Creed employs four marks to modify the church: the body of Christ is “one,” which points to its unity, “catholic” meaning universal, “apostolic” implying it is historically and theologically rooted, but the word I will focus on here is “holy.” In some ways, it might be the most neglected mark. For when we look around at the church in the world we see weakness, unholiness, and even wickedness.
But the councils rightly based this truth on the Scriptures. Two New Testament texts specifically speak of the church as being holy (Eph. 5:27; Col. 1:22), but numerous other indicators point to this being a central doctrine. It is the Holy Spirit who fills the new community in Acts and a Holy City that comes down from heaven in Revelation 21:2. Paul begins most of his letters speaking to God’s holy people or saints (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2), indicating this is their central identity. Peter identifies those to whom he is writing as those who have been sanctified (hagiasmos) by the Spirit (1 Pet. 1:2). The early Christians were onto something when they put holy as one of the adjectives defining the church.
While we can be tempted to think of Christ’s church first in terms of its weakness, the New Testament and the early creeds argue holiness is more central to the people of God, both in terms of status and purpose. Hans Küng rightly states the following:
Holiness and sinfulness are two sides of the one church, but they are not equal sides. The holiness of the church is light, revealing its true nature, the sinfulness of the church is a shadow, darkening its true nature. Sin does not arise from the nature of the church, but breaks into it; it is a dark paradox which does not belong to the church’s nature but must be reckoned as part of its “un-nature.” Holiness and sinfulness are two sides of the one church, but they are not equal sides. The holiness of the church is light, revealing its true nature, the sinfulness of the church is a shadow, darkening its true nature. Click To Tweet
In this article, I will explore what it means that the church is holy, where this holiness is sourced, examine more specifically how the church got this way, and look to the purpose.
Defining the Holy Church
The typical definition of holy (hagios in Greek and qadosh in Hebrew) is sacred, unique: a place, person, or thing set apart by God’s presence. Others have pointed out it can also mean consecration, devotion, or belonging, which should not be opposed to separateness or otherness. It is a cultic term in which synonyms include blameless, without stain, or blemish; while antonyms include unholy, unclean, and can be distinguished from what is common (Lev. 10:10).
The New Testament takes this cultic term and applies it to the church – the people of God gathered around and in Christ. They are now sacred, set apart, consecrated, and devoted to God. They are chosen, sanctified, the new temple and tabernacle where God dwells.
Roman Catholics have understood the holiness of the church in terms of institutional liturgical and ceremonial holiness. On this understanding, the church possesses the salvific use of the sacraments to convey divine grace. But the Reformers looked not to the supernatural character of the institution, but to the spiritual renewal of its members both individually and corporately. The latter receives the emphasis of the Scriptures, but the holiness of the church as an institution is meant to radiate into the world as they are salt and light.
In summary, to call the church holy is to declare that the body of believers, both individually and corporately, is totally devoted and set apart by and for God. However, this holiness is not sourced in themselves.
The Source of Holiness
“The holiness of the church does not stem from its members and their moral and religious behavior,” the source of their holiness comes from the Triune God. They are holy because they belong to the separate One who is defined as holy. In Isaiah 6:3, the prophet sees the Lord high and lifted up where the seraphim declare he is, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” At the song at the sea, Israel sings, “Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders.” In Leviticus 19:2, Yahweh says to Israel, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Jesus, the Son, is also called holy, but less frequently. During Jesus’s ministry, an impure spirit cries out to Jesus before he is cast out saying, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and “the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34). The disciples confess in the Gospel of John that they have come to believe and know that Jesus is the “Holy One of God” (John 6:69). In one of Peter’s sermons in Acts, he declares that the religious leaders have disowned “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14).
The third person of the Trinity is also regularly appended with the title holy, which occurs most frequently in Acts, but is found elsewhere. In Psalm 51:11, David asks the Lord to not take his Holy Spirit from him. Isaiah 63:10 speaks of the people grieving the Holy Spirit and in the next verse Isaiah says the Holy Spirit was with Israel in the days of Moses. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is most fond of this title.
The point of this survey is to demonstrate that holiness is sourced in the Triune God. Everything that is holy is holy because God is in her midst. In the Old Testament, God makes the seventh day holy (Gen. 2:3), he tells Moses the place he is standing is holy ground (Ex. 3:5), the sabbath and tabernacle are holy (Ex. 16:23; 20:8; 26:33), and the nation of Israel is holy (Ex. 19:6; 22:21). These are all holy because they are chosen, set apart, or totally devoted to God. The temple and tabernacle were holy because God’s presence was there.
The New Testament, therefore, picks up this label because the Triune God has marked out these people as his own – they are his new temple. The church is only holy because they are the body, connected to the head who is Christ. The church also has the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the church.
It is God who distinguishes the church, sets it apart, marks it out for his own and makes it holy…This is why we do not simply believe in the holy Church but believe in God who makes the Church holy.
The Creeds rightly begin by confessing truths about the Triune God and then move to dogma concerning the church. The church is set apart by and for God – they have been brought into an exclusive and dedicated relationship with God. They are his, and he is theirs.
Holiness by Death
The church is marked out by God himself, but the question still remains as to how specifically they became holy. Both Ephesians 5:27 and Colossians 1:22 state that the church’s holiness comes in relation to the death of Christ. Christ’s death and holiness orbit around each other.
While this might come as no surprise to Christians who have read these words many times, it is good to pause and think again about the relationship between death and holiness. In both Pauline texts, holiness is further defined as purity and beauty. Colossians says holiness means to be “without blemish and free from accusation” (Col. 1:22), while Ephesians says it means to be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).
Two different interconnecting metaphors are used here. Ephesians employs the analogy of laundry showing that holiness means to be clean, while Colossians has sacrificial animals in mind with “without blemish” (Num. 6:14). Both ideas get to the same point, but in one the emphasis is on the image of a bridal bath pointing to cleansing and in the other is a pure and blameless animal.
Purity, cleanliness, and wholeness, therefore, come by the death of this sacrificial lamb. In the Old Testament, it is by the death of an animal that the people are made holy, but only temporarily. Christ entered once for all into the holy place, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb 9:12). For if the blood of animals cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ purify our conscience from dead works (Heb 9:14).
Death becomes the source of holiness because of the reality of substitution and union. The Scriptures repeatedly say that Christ died for us, on our behalf (Isa. 53:5–6; Rom. 3:21–26; 4:25; Gal. 3:10–13; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18). He became our substitute that we might become clean and now that we are united with him, or in Christ, we obtain his righteousness. Without Christ’s death, God’s people are not truly holy.
Holy to be Holy
Holiness is a status the church possesses, sourced in the Triune God, but the focus of both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 1 is that Christ presents his church as holy on the last day. Both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 1 affirm that the purpose of Christ’s death is to present a holy church. Ephesians 5 says the goal of Christ’s death is “that he might sanctify her (v. 26), present her to himself in splendor (v. 27a), and that she might be holy and blameless (v. 27c).” Colossians 1 claims Christ has reconciled us through Christ’s body to present us as holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. In both texts, these are purpose clauses.
The background to the Ephesian imagery is Ezekiel 16:1–4 where God cares for, washes, marries and adorns his people Israel with glory. The purpose of Christ’s death was to make his people clean and beautiful. He found them dirty and bloody, but he made them consecrated in the sight of God the Father. Christ died for the church so that he might present her as beautiful in God’s sight – without spot, wrinkle, or any other blemish. The purpose of Christ’s death was to make his people clean and beautiful. He found them dirty and bloody, but he made them consecrated in the sight of God the Father. Click To Tweet
Colossians employs similar imagery adding that God’s people will not be above reproach or free from accusation. The people of God are presented as clean, spotless, and blameless because they have been colored with Christ’s blood. His blood doesn’t make them unclean but washes them white as snow because it is pure blood that is an acceptable sacrifice to God.
She who has a holy status will also become holy on the last day and be presented before God the Father as a corporate body as a bride who is clean and an animal who is blameless. Christ’s death therefore had and will have a cleansing effect on the church and when she stands before God the Father Christ will say, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13).
One holy catholic apostolic church
The Scriptures and early Christians confess that the church is holy, meaning they are set apart for God and God dwells with them. This holiness is not sourced in the members, but in their union with the Triune God. Colossians 1 and Ephesians 5 claim that one of the purposes of Christ’s death was to present us on the last day as holy before the Father. The church is both holy now because of Christ’s death, but she will also be presented on the last day as holy to the Father. She will be acceptable and clean in God’s sight because of the sacrificial death of Christ. This is what Christians confess when they claim that the church is “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
 Genesis 2:3 declares that when God rested on the seventh day and allowed his image bearers to conduct their rule, that this was now a holy day.
 Hans Küng, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1967), 423.
 See Gentry and Case who argue for qadosh meaning “totally devoted” as opposed to “separated” or “set apart.” Peter J. Gentry, “The Meaning of ‘Holy’ in the Old Testament,” BibSac 170 (2013): 400–417; Andrew Case, “Towards a Better Understanding of God’s Holiness: Challenging the Status Quo,” The Bible Translator 68.3 (2017): 269–83.
 Küng, The Church, 417.
 Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 84.
 Küng, The Church, 419.