Is there a holiness deficit in the life of the church today? Are Christian relationships more easily befouled, sins more readily excused, wrongs more casually overlooked, ministries more superficially carried out because the holiness of God fails to indwell the community? In short, is the holiness God expects of his people in partial eclipse?
Holiness is not merely one among many of God’s attributes. It is the exceptional word chosen by him to inform his ancient people — and us — of his inmost character and being: “I am holy.”
That is why the holiness code (Leviticus 18–27) summons God’s people to relationships drastically different from those of the pagan peoples among whom Israel lived: “Be holy” God says, “because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).
In a fundamental sense, whatever is dedicated to God is regarded as holy. The tabernacle was holy, as were the vessels used in worship, the priestly garments and the priests themselves. They were not inherently different from their class, but they were dedicated to the service and worship of God – thus holy.
But that’s not the whole of it. In the holiness code the “set apart” people of God were to demonstrate holiness in their personal and community life — “Do not lie.” “Do not deceive one another.” “Do not hate your brother in your heart;” “…love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:11, 17,18).
This call to holiness of heart and life echoes in the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the church in Rome: “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy (fully revealed in the cross of Christ) to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Among believers today, holiness is too easily regarded as an option. Such believers would be sure to say it’s necessary to have one’s sins forgiven. But the quest for holiness – that’s optional. It’s like saying, it may be necessary to buy a car but it’s optional whether to add a global positioning device.
But holiness is not an option. At the very outset, to be truly forgiven means also in some elemental way to partake in God’s holiness. The immature church in Corinth had its carnal flaws, but it was regarded from the start as, “ sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy,” (1 Corinthians 1:2). That is, it was not only given a “set-apart” status in Christ but that status was expected to become a quality of life.
Isaiah’s vision of God given in the temple was for him in one sense a glorious moment (Isaiah 6:1-8). He saw the Lord enthroned. As the seraphs flew about he heard them calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty; / the whole earth is full of his glory.” The doorposts shook. The temple was filled with smoke.
But, it was at the same time a searingly painful moment. He cried out, “Woe to me!” going on to acknowledge, “ I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty.”
One cannot experience the holiness of God without at the same time experiencing a convicting sense of the incongruity of the sinful heart. Such painful moments precede the inner cleanup, enabled by God’s Holy Spirit.
Charles Wesley wrote a stanza of a hymn that could serve to lead us all in praying for a renewal of God’s holiness in our thoughts, relationships, workplaces, and churches:
He wills that I should holy be.
That holiness I long to feel;
That full divine conformity
To all my Master’s righteous will.