“Holiness, holiness, is what I long for… Holiness, is what I need… Holiness, holiness, is what you want from me…”
Do we really want holiness? Do we yearn to be holy? If we’re honest, I don’t think we do. Perhaps a monk walled up in a monastery somewhere might actually yearn for holiness (God bless him.), however, we don’t typically yearn for holiness. Holy is a word we use a lot in Christian circles, but what does holy actually mean? Also, why should we long to be holy?
That’s what we’ll be discussing in this post. I’ve been reading Kevin DeYoung’s book recently The Hole in Our Holiness. I’ve long enjoyed reading DeYoung’s blog DeYoung, the Restless, and Reformed, but in preparation for a sermon on the call of the church to be holy I thought I’d check out his book. Something he mentioned which I’ve found to be true is that mentioning holiness today, even among Christians, will likely merit looks from others akin to people looking at you as if you have a bit of cream cheese on your nose. Holiness is not something we talk about often, yet, holy and variants are mentioned numerous times in the Bible. If we desire to be biblical Christians, with our authority rooted in Scripture and not our own ideas or opinions of Christianity, then it is important that we not neglect the church’s call to be holy.
The word holy means to be set apart or consecrated (set apart for a divine purpose). It implies separation on some level. In a Christian world that is increasingly conscious of legalism and it’s dangers, holiness has gotten a bad rep. In Leviticus 19, a book with a central theme of holiness, God instructs Moses to tell God’s people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord God am Holy.” Then, there are lots and lots and also lots of rules about being clean, not unclean, and being pure both before God and before the eyes of the surrounding nations. Israel was called to be set apart for God. Peter picks up on this in his first letter in 1:13-21, but in addition to a reference back to Leviticus, he seems to imply that part of being holy is being like Christ. The apostle Paul in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 alludes to holiness as putting off the old self and putting on the new self in Christ. Therefore, the New Testament seems to promote the idea that holiness has to do with redeeming the image of God in man as perfected in Christ, and humanity’s putting on Christ as spiritual clothing individually and corporately as the church seems to show a larger theme of God’s doing which is tied closely to redemption – the redemption of the image of God in man.
In Genesis 1 and 2, we learn that humanity has been created, but also created with a purpose. That purpose is to be created in the image of God and serve as God’s royal representatives in creation evidenced in obeying God, caring for creation, naming animals, and living in community (God, man, woman // parallels the Trinitarian relationship of God, much has been written on this, see Jonathan Edwards for more). The image of God has been subject of much debate of the years, but I heard a very practical and common sense explanation which I find very convincing. I learned this during my time at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and it was in a class by Dr. Kaminski. The first 5 books of the Bible are called the Pentateuch or the Torah/Law. The New Testament refers to them as the Law of Moses. That is because it is believed that the first 5 books of the Bible with the exception of the death of Moses come from Moses. The world was already created when Moses was writing and had many, many gods. Gods of stone, metal, and various objects. Something all of these gods had in common was that they could not move, could not speak, could not hear, and could not see. They were statues, nothing more. No life in them, and thus, people were able to control their deities the way they saw fit. This is still the case even today. Indeed, the image of god in many cultures is an object created by man that cannot speak, see, hear, or move.
However, there is a notable difference between the biblical image of God and other images in the world. That difference is God created the image, the image is a living thing, the image can see, speak, hear, and move. False images cannot do any of these things and thus represent false gods who can’t do any of these things. However, humanity, created in the image of God, is a living representation of God who truly sees, hears, speaks, and moves. God is real and living, unlike all other gods in all the world and history, and humanity is living proof that the God of the Bible is the One, true God. I’ve found this explanation for the image of God to be the most convincing explanation. That humanity is the image of God is one thing, but what does the image do? According to Genesis 1-2, it reflects the sovereign rule and authority of God over all things while doing God’s will in creation. In Genesis 3, sin interferes with that purpose, although it doesn’t interfere with the fact that all humanity is made in the image of God. Therefore, when humanity sins, they are not simply doing something bad themselves, they are falsely representing God and in their disobedience to God not living according to their intended purpose.
People try to work their way back to that purpose on their own throughout Scripture, but it doesn’t work. Their sin has so separated them from God that they have become the opposite of holy, the opposite of God. Humanity’s inability to redeem itself is evident in the entirety of the Old Testament. Something more is needed, something greater is needed. We don’t simply need better behavior, we need new hearts. That’s precisely what prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel prophesy about in the coming of the Messiah and the next movement in God’s history of redemption. Then, God sent Jesus, His Son, the preexistent Word of God who has taken on human flesh in order to reveal God to humanity and to reconcile a people far from God, to bring sinners near to God by way of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His perfect life would fulfill the requirement of the Law which humanity could not perfectly obey as well as showing us how humanity is meant to live. His death would atone for the sins of those who would believe in the name of Jesus and give us forgiveness and eternal life. His resurrection marks God’s victory over sin and death. He defeated it Himself in the past, but it will be finally defeated in the future. The life of Jesus in believers by the Holy Spirit puts sin to death and gives us no fear of death because we know that our life is eternal and although our physical bodies decay and pass away, we will be raised to life as surely as Jesus was raised and then be given new bodies without blemish when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15).
Now, we view holiness in this world as a burden because it goes against our natural inclinations to be sinful and to not abstain from earthly pleasures. However, in Christ we have been given the power by His Spirit to live by the Spirit in the world and not according to the flesh. Putting of the old desires and behaviors of our former lives apart from Christ is not a burden, but a privilege as we understand our purpose is redeemed in Christ and we live not to image ourselves in the world, but to image God. It is not holiness that saves us from sin, only Christ can do that. However, it is holiness that is expected of all those who have truly been called out of the world by faith in Jesus. If you have truly been saved by grace in Jesus, then you are called to be holy as God is Holy. We are called to imitate Jesus Christ, to clothe ourselves with Him, to find our identity no longer in ourselves but in Him. He is the perfect image of God, and we are called to mirror and reflect that image to the world, to the nations.
We might view holiness as a list of do nots or can nots, but the reality is that it should not be a burden but a joy for those who are redeemed. It is not a burden, but a life of worship. It’s also not done to save us and to gain acceptance, for while ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ God accepts us as we are, and has already paid the penalty for our sins so that we can be reconciled to Him. Our lives are to be lived in thankfulness for what God has done, not what we can do. We are to be humble, not prideful in our pursuit of holiness always mindful that we are of the dust and it is God who has shown grace to us and thus we are to show grace to all. What does not characterize God we are not to be characterized by, and what God delights in we are to delight in. That is the essence of our calling to be holy. We should long to be holy because we should long to be like our Heavenly Father. Not in an “I want to be God and supplant the throne sort of way” which was emulated in Genesis 3, but as a child desires to be like their father we ought to seek to be like our Father in Heaven. The essence of holiness lies in practically living the beginning of the prayer that Jesus provided, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” not ‘my will be done.’ Amen.
For more works on holiness, read Jerry Bridges’ The Pursuit of Holiness, Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in Our Holiness, A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy, and R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God.