A lot of people think that the essence of holiness is practicing spiritual disciplines (praying, reading Scripture, etc.) or following certain rules that will keep them from being “worldly” (i.e., don’t drink, don’t dance, etc.). A lot of people think holiness is about working hard to be good so God will love and forgive you.
I thought this was a great quote on the essence of holiness:
You will cleanse no sin from your life that you have not first recognized as being pardoned through the cross. This is because holiness always starts in the heart. The essence of holiness is not new behavior, activity, or disciplines. Holiness is new affections, new desires, and new motives that then lead to new behavior. If you don’t see your sin as completely pardoned, then your affections, desires, and motives will be wrong. You will aim to prove yourself. Your focus will be the consequences of your sin rather than hating the sin itself and desiring God in its place.
Heart. Motives. Desires. This is where real holiness begins: seeing that we are pardoned through the cross and being transformed by the gospel of God’s love in Christ by the Spirit.
(The quote is from Tim Chester, You Can Change, p. 28.)