Talking about Holiness
Robert Murray McCheyne was a 19th-century pastor noted for his personal holiness. In his devotional meditations, which are fragrant with the love of Christ, he reflects that he would glorify God most and serve others best “by attaining the most entire likeness to Christ…that is possible for a redeemed sinner to attain to in this world.” Thus, he was known to pray: “Dear Lord—make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can possibly be.”
It’s hard to imagine many Christians praying that prayer today.
The language of holiness has largely been dropped from Christian vocabulary in many places. Consider your own experience. When did you last pray to be holy? When did you last talk with another about the pursuit of holiness or of your longing to be holy even as God is holy? Do you feel called to holiness? Have you ever ached to be a holy man or holy woman of God? Or, in contrast, do you ever feel an odd discomfort with the word “holy”; like it intones a little too religious or alien or strange for our times?
We do not feel the same reticence about other words. It’s hip to talk about justice. It’s warmly sentimental to talk about love. It’s nice to talk about kindness. It’s noble to talk about service. It’s commonplace to talk about unity. But there is great hesitation to talk about holiness. Even though the word “holy” appears around 665 times in the 1042 pages of my Bible—it is the forgotten word.
The term holiness affects us differently because it is different. It is possible to do justice, show love, be kind, respect others, render service, and unite in a common cause without being holy. A person can be categorically and manifestly unholy while doing any of those things. To be clear: you cannot be holy without doing these things, but you can do these things without being holy.
Holiness is fundamentally different than these in that it is Godward. It is between God and me. It is what you and I are to pursue and become because it reflects who God is and what he has called us to become. True holiness (as opposed to pretending holiness with its endless array of external masks) is a blessed state of calling, becoming, and being. It involves one’s actual status and growing character, commitment, and heart—as these relate to God.
Born out of a supernaturally called and humbly consecrated heart, and inspired by a reverent and loving fear of God, true holiness includes a conscientious renunciation of sin and a sincere practice of God-like character and piety, all in devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 6:16-7:1; 2 Cor. 11:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:35).
God is holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). So, when we talk about holiness, we are talking about an essential and exalted attribute of God, which he, in turn, commands that we imitate (1 Peter 1:14-16; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8). Holiness is the end for which we are chosen (Eph. 1:4). It is one reason why God has visited us in the Person of his Son (Luke 1:68; Luke 1:74-75). It is faith’s validation, without which we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). It is what obedient children of God pursue (1 Peter 1:14-16). It is our only appropriate worship-response to the “mercies of God” in Christ (Rom. 12:1). And it is the new self which God produces in us in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:20-24).
Forgotten or Forsaken?
Yet, while holiness is all this, it is not expressed in contemporary “Christian” thought, word, or deed nearly enough. All too often, it is not merely that holiness is forgotten; it is forsaken. Minimally, we may safely say that holiness—if not forsaken—is nowhere near the center of people’s understanding of the Christian life.
An almost 15-year-old nationwide Barna Group survey indicates that:
- Most “Christian” adults “remain confused, if not daunted, by the concept of holiness…
and do not adopt [holiness] as a focal point of their faith development.”
- Large numbers have no idea what ‘holiness’ means, and only one out of every three (35%) believe that God expects people to become holy.”
- Only 46% of “born again” people believe that God has called them to holiness.
- “The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians” (Barna: Faith and Christianity, February 20, 2006, emphases added).
If this crisis existed 15 years ago, how much more reason for concern is there today? And if a person who is not holy cannot see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), what will be the tragic outcome of it all?
So What Is Holiness?
The New Testament word roots in the idea of separation or set-apart-ness and is both a calling and a commitment. As to our heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1), we are separated from the world to be consecrated for divine worship and service (2 Tim. 1:9; 2 Tim. 2:21-22; Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Col.3:12; 1 Pet. 2:3-5). Each of us is a holy vessel (2 Tim. 2:21-22); and we all, together, are a holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9), a holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5), a holy temple (Eph. 2:21), and a holy brother and sisterhood (Heb. 2:1). Through the election of the Father, the redemption of the Son, and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, we have been consecrated by God and for God (1 Pet. 1:1-2, 14-16).
In our holy commitment, we are to live out our consecration through an ongoing intentional resolve to put specific sins to death, as we make progress in obeying God’s Word and conforming to his character (Gal. 5:16-24; Rom. 6:1-14; 13:11-14; Eph. 4:17-24, Titus 2:11-14; etc.). This commitment will produce a life marked by less sin and more obedience; less moral pollution and more purity; less self and more Christ; less flesh and more Spirit; less worldliness and more of the world to come; less indulgence and more self-denial; less profanity and more praise; less distraction and more devotion, less love of sin and more love of the Father.
As Holy as Possible, This Side of Heaven
This is a process that continues, deepens, progresses, and abounds over time. While it will not be completed until we enjoy our first transforming glimpse of the Savior’s face (1 John 3:1-3), it will shine out from us brighter and brighter until the full Day appears (Pro. 4:18). Through a heart cultivated by prayer, the Word, fellowship, preaching, sacrament, the fear of God, the power and wonder of the gospel, a lifelong study of the Law (and character) of God, and many transforming sightings of the glory of Christ—all combined with intentional warfare with specific sins—we will increase in holiness until the Day when we will sin no more.
So, let us add our “Amen” to Mr. McCheyne’s saintly prayer: “Dear Lord—make us as holy as pardoned sinners this side of heaven can possibly be”—and then pray and pursue the same until Perfection comes.
Tim married Gayline in 1978 and has six grown children and over a dozen grandchildren. A pastor for 38+ years, he currently serves Risen Hope Church, a multi-ethnic congregation in Drexel Hill/Upper Darby, PA. He is the author of the recent Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing book, Respect the Image: Reflecting Human Worth in How We Listen and Talk. He also has written 30/30 Hindsight: 30 Reflections on a 30-Year Headache and Worship Worthy: Alliterative Adoration. To learn more about Tim please his website.