What Holiness Means for Christians

20th November 2003

1. Introduction
2. Holiness is Absence of Sin
3. Holiness is Wholeness
4. Holiness is Being Set Apart for God
5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Make every effort to [...] be holy; without holiness no one will see the LORD.

— Hebrews 12:14

Whether we like it or not, there is no avoiding the fact that we are called to be holy. It's not just an Old Testament concept that's swept away in the New Testament - the Old Testament exhortation to holiness (Leviticus 11:44) is repeated and even amplified in Peter's letter.

The problem is that, on the whole, we don't like it. The idea of holiness seems intimidating or fearful to us. We feel it as a duty rather than a privilege. Too often, if we're honest with ourselves, our emotional gut-reaction is that we want to sin, but we're prepared to do God a favour and withhold that pleasure from ourselves.

And yet the bible talks as though it expects us to be holy as a matter of course. In fact, it says that we are holy - it says that's our identity, and it seems to take it for granted that it's also how we'll behave:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.

— 1 Peter 2:9

Holiness here is presented as a positive thing - something to be excited about, on a par with being a chosen people. This idea of holiness is a million miles from the drudgery we often associate with the word.

It seems that our ideas about holiness are confused, and don't at all match what the bible means by the word. What does it mean? In fact there are at least three facets to the word, and we're going to look at all three of them, starting with the least appealing.

2. Holiness is Absence of Sin

What leaps to mind most often when we talk about holiness is its purely negative aspect: the absence of sin. We're going to look at this first not because it's at the heart of what holiness is about (it's not) but because it looms largest in our perception.

Here's how John sees the situation:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

— 1 John 3:9, Cf. 1 John 5:19

The point here is that when we become Christians, something fundamental changes within us (``If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation'' - 2 Corinthians 2:17). God changes our inner selves so that sin is no longer natural or inevitable for us as it was before we were Christians. In other words, we're not supposed to just grit our teeth and bravely resist the temptation to sin. Something in us is supposed to revolt at the very idea.

Paul spells it out in more detail:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

— Romans 6:1-2, 6-7

What happens is that as we mature as Christians, we find that we hate sin because we are of God and he hates sin. This doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen.

We need a revolution in our thinking about this, because we live in a society that actively glorifies sin and relentlessly portrays it as something to be desired. Every kind of product from chocolate to cars is marketed under the tag that its somehow ``sinful'' and that we should for that reason want to own it (which is nonsense in more ways than I can comfortably enumerate).

We tend to think of trying to be holy as a dry, gritty matter of sin-avoidance, much as dieting is an unpleasant process of food-avoidance. But this is a terribly flawed analogy: the fact of the matter is that our bodies actually need food, even though the amount we need may be less than what we want. But we do not need sin! None at all! So while dieting is unpleasant, because we're denying our bodies something they have reason to want, holiness should not be unpleasant for the same reason: all we are denying ourselves is what we are not made for, don't benefit from and don't need!

3. Holiness is Wholeness

Holiness is also wholeness. It is healthy in the sense that it reflects our identity. Fundamentally, we are holy because God has made us so. Paul describes us as ``slaves to righteousness'' (Romans 6:18) So when we sin, we are not behaving like whole people - instead, we contradict ourselves and deny our own identity.

Peter shows that we have a family likeness with our father:

Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ``Be holy, because I am holy.''

— 1 Peter 1:15-16

This is much more positive that the mere absence of sin we discussed in the previous section. We must interpret Peter's words not just as meaning that, as God is sinless so much we be, but also that, as God is actively good, so must we be. That's why the Anglican liturgy includes the following in its confession:

We have done the things we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.

— Book of Common Prayer, page 63

In other words, our holiness (and health) is compromised just as much when we fail to do what's good as when we do what's wrong. To put it yet another way, our holiness consists of actively doing right, not just avoiding sin.

That's why Jesus's idea of what our lives should be like is so pro-active:

You are the light of the world.
Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

— Matthew 5:14, 16

Here, the ``light of the world'' is not merely struggling to avoid being extinguished, but illuminating what's around it. In other words, what it means for us to be holy is not just resisting being pulled down by the world, but pulling the world up with us as we reflect the love of God.

4. Holiness is Being Set Apart for God

These wonderful words are from J. C. Ryle's 1879 book Holiness, and they're as true now as they were 124 years ago.

He that thirsts and wants relief must come to Christ Himself. He must not be content with coming to His church and His ordinances, or to the assemblies of His people for prayer and praise. He must not stop short even at His holy table, or rest satisfied with privately opening his heart to His ordained ministers. Oh, no! He that is content with only drinking these waters ``shall thirst again'' (John 4:13). He must go higher, further, much further than this. He must have personal dealings with Christ Himself: all else in religion is worthless without Him. The King's palace, the attendant servants, the richly furnished house, the very banquet itself - all are nothing unless we speak with the King. His hand alone can take the burden off our backs and make us feel free. The hand of man may take the stone from the grave and show the dead; but none but Jesus can say to the dead, ``Come forth and live'' (John 11:41-43). We must deal directly with Christ.

— J. C. Ryle, Holiness chapter 17: Thirst Relieved

The Hebrew word most often translated as ``holy'' in the bible has the literal meaning of ``set apart, separate''. In the final analysis, our holiness or otherwise is about who we belong to, what we're made for, what kind of creatures we are. We are called to be holy in the sense of being set apart from the world we happen to inhabit for these fleeting seventy or eighty years; set apart to belong instead to the God who made us and who chose us even before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

We sing a lot of worship songs that express sentiments like ``No-one but you, Lord, can satisfy the longing in my heart'', ``I long to know you, only you can satisfy'' and ``This is the air I breathe: your holy presence living in me''. It's easy for us to disregard this stuff, because we know that the writers of these songs have written them in a culture where that's the kind of thing that worship songs say. Who know how true those words were for the people who wrote the songs?

But look at what David wrote two and a half thousand years earlier, without that backdrop. These words are from his heart:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

— Psalm 84:1-2, 10

David wasn't writing in a Graham-Kendrick/Vineyard-Songs/Stuart-Townend tradition, but straight from the heart. ``Only you can satisfy'' was what he'd found to be true for himself. And the fact is, whether we feel the truth of it not, it's also true for us.

C. S. Lewis says that the way God works in us and changes us now is making us fit for heaven, preparing us to enjoy what heaven is like. That change is the growth in holiness that Paul describes as our ``ever-increasing glory'' (NIV), or as our being ``changed [...] from glory to glory'' (KJV).

5. Conclusion

All of these aspects of holiness - absence of sin, spiritual wholeness and being set apart for God - are parts of a whole. Holiness as the bible describes it is not a dull, grey requirement that we somehow have to grind our way towards, but a glorious, desirable state of liberation, joy and fulfillment. It's what God intends for us, not as a punishment or even as a pruning or a refining, but as a blessing. Let's strive for holiness, not out of fear of punishment if we fail, but out of hunger and thirst for the God who loves us and who we love.

If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/holiness2.html

Feedback to <mike@miketaylor.org.uk> is welcome!