Is Holiness Optional?

The God who freely forgives sins is also the God who in turn calls us to be holy. God instructed Moses: Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: Be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.

In the 19th chapter of Leviticus where this is found, many specific requirements of holy conduct are listed. Not every one of them remained an issue after Messiah came, but the command to be holy as God is holy did. We see this in the New Testament where Saint Peter, quoting from Leviticus, exhorted the church: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: be holy for I am holy (1 Peter 1:16).

At the very outset of Leviticus 19 God declares his holiness: I am holy. Then, 15 times we have his repeated declaration: I am the Lord. The two declarations belong together: I am the Lord and I am holy.

The word, holiness, means “to set apart.” That God is holy reflects his “otherness.” He is not merely an enlarged or improved version of mankind. He is utterly pure, perfectly just, righteous, loving, and in this passage his holiness is the quintessential attribute of his being.

In Christian experience, therefore, seeking and demonstrating the holiness of God is not optional, it is fundamental: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Consider four features of his holiness in Leviticus 19 that the whole assembly was expected to display as his chosen people — features that are relevant today.

The passage begins with this command: Each of you must respect his mother and father (Leviticus 19:3). That is, the holy nation was to be characterized by wholesome family life. While later in the chapter God’s people are commanded to love their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) children loving their parents is not the first issue in family life; it is children of all ages giving parents their due respect or honor.

Second, holiness is reflected in a strong sense of compassion for those with special vulnerabilities: Gleanings for the poor were to be left when God’s holy people reaped their land (Leviticus 19:9,10). Wages were to be paid promptly so a worker’s family would not suffer deprivation (Leviticus 19:13). Special care was to be shown for the deaf and the blind (Leviticus 19:14).

Third, God’s holiness was to prompt a keen morality in his worshipers; there was to be no stealing, lying, deceiving or the taking of false oaths (Leviticus 19: 11,12). Likewise, meticulously honest measurements were to be used when doing business (Leviticus 19: 35,36). God’s holiness quickens the conscience, and holiness and moral integrity belong together.

Fourth, God’s holiness forbade the heathen practice of seeking guidance through divination or spiritism or sorcery (Leviticus 19: 26, 31). These were superstitious practices used by heathen neighbors to manipulate or communicate with their gods. To be holy meant to be separated from superstitions, trusting only the faithfulness of the one true God.

In summary, the Old Testament issues much more than a promise of the forgiveness of sins, as amazing as that is. It issues to all believers a clarion call to be holy as God is holy.

Holiness, as all other blessings from God, is a gift of God’s grace in response to faith. But the yearning God places in us for his holiness is manifested by the honesty of our seeking — by our searching of the Scriptures, our faithfulness to the church where the Bible is taken seriously, and particularly our confession of heart sin and impurity as the Holy Spirit makes them known to us.

Our part, without merit, is the setting ourselves apart — consecrating ourselves. Then follows the promised results to those whose faith is in Jesus: since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1).

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