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Holiness Isn’t What You Thought It Was

Seasoned Saints

Have you ever met older adults that embodied kindness, grace, and joy in such an inspiring way that you hope to emulate them? You hope to have half the Christ-likeness they seem to have by the time you are their age. What about the alternative? Have you ever met older adults that were so embittered, selfish, and impatient that you made a commitment to yourself that you would not act that way when you get to be their age?

My mom works as a nurse in a long-term care and rehab facility. She has shared stories of meeting both types of people. The sad reality is that she often meets older adults who claim to be believers, but resemble the latter description more than the first. They are impatient with the nurses, grumpy towards the aids, and difficult to please. They have never tasted the evils of alcohol, engaged in a game of playing cards, had sex with anyone other than their spouse, smoked tobacco, or uttered a naughty word. On the surface, their lives are set apart from the world—they are “holy.” Yet, the fundamental call to love God and love others is somehow neglected.

You Ain’t Holy If You’re Mean

I recently listened to a preacher who shared this quote from Hugh Halter:

“While my parents were growing up, they were part of a holiness tradition that had a heightened focus on ‘not sinning’ and, in fact, not getting within 10 miles of the smell of sin. No dice on movies, no dice at all for that matter. No art, bowling, alcohol, tobacco use of any kind, no dancing, no playing cards, no drums in church, no saying ‘Darn’ because that’s a derivative of dang, and dang is a Latin ancestor or third cousin to damn. Same with shoot, shucks, crap, geez, and cripes. I’m not sure where they found some loopholes, but my uncle could say, ‘Dad gum,’ and all my parents and relatives played the card game Rook. I think they told me once that the Raven on the top of the Rook box is a Greek expression of the dove or Holy Spirit bird. I bought it at the time, but not any more. After all these years, I finally found out that Rook was okay because it has no face cards. You know, no king other than God, no queen, as she’s a seductress, and that poor suicidal Jack was too emotionally unstable to look at.

This may be a humorous story that you can identify with, but if you decide to really be incarnational, you will have to deal with some very serious tensions. Most of them center around the question, ‘What is holiness?’”[1]

I didn’t quite have this experience growing up, but I was familiar enough with other Christians who did that this quote resonated with me.

God’s holiness is a big deal. Sin is a big deal too. A lot of people have reduced sin to merely those actions that have moral implications. Sin is more than just those things we do. Sin is the cancer that manifests as the evil plaguing our world. Sin is brokenness. Sin is darkness. Sin is all that dehumanizes, oppresses, enslaves, and harms God’s good creation. Sins are those actions we commit, but it is also that disease resident in our own souls. In Christ, sin has been dealt with. Our actions have been paid for and covered. Our hearts have been granted access to the remedy. Therefore, God calls us to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).

Christians who sincerely love God and sincerely want to follow Christ take this command seriously. It is not something we believe we do in our own power. We believe that the life of Christ is exchanged for our life. The beautiful exchange of the gospel is not just that my sins get exchanged for Christ’s righteousness, but that my life is exchanged for his life. Paul puts it like this: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live I live by faith in Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In other words, Christians who believe in holiness believe that we can actually reflect the love and compassion and grace of Jesus Christ in this life. Do we do it perfectly? No. But we keep in step with the Spirit and lean into God’s grace and forgiveness when we falter.

Somewhere down the line of the holiness tradition, holiness became about those things we did not do. Holiness became about avoiding sin by shear willpower. That was never the intention, but humans are great at drifting away from their original motives. All too often I have seen people in the church reduce holiness to avoiding the dirty dozen (whatever those sins are…). I have met people who thought they were “holy” because they didn’t drink, smoke, or cuss. Yet, they were selfish, they gossiped, and they didn’t love the world Jesus came to save.

How Did this Happen?

Holy means “set apart.” Growing up, I heard some people teach about the importance of being set apart from the world. We are to be holy, not worldly. What often happens in Christian communities that seek to be “set apart” from the world has been affectionately called “holy huddles.” A “Holy Huddle” mentality seeks to separate from evil, sinful people so that none of the worldly muck stains our heavenly garments. A “Holy Huddle” mentality likes to gather with other “holy believers” and hunker down until the great evacuation known as the “rapture.” You know, when God takes us from this sin-stained world and sweeps us off to an other-worldly existence.

The Problem

There are a number of problems with this “Holy Huddle” mindset. I want to address three of them:

  1. God loves the world. If the famous Tim Tebow verse (John 3:16) was not clear enough, the entire trajectory of the Bible points out God’s love for the world. From the Covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 to the second coming, God’s redemptive plan has always been about the world. Israel was to be a light to the gentiles; a blessing for all peoples. Jesus came to save the world. The Church exists to be ministers of reconciliation. God loves the world and if the love of God is not progressively transforming our hearts to also love the world, then we’ve missed the point of holiness.

  2. Holiness is about being set apart for a holy purpose. In the Old Testament there were things that were common and things that were sacred. The things that were common were not necessarily unclean or sinful. They were just not set apart for holy purposes. Something was holy because it was set apart for the purposes of God. Holiness, being set apart, is not about us being isolated so that we are not dirtied up by sin. Rather, it is about being set apart for a purpose. If we are in Christ, then we have been set apart for the purposes of God. Our lives are not our own. We have a new purpose and that purpose is to participate with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. We are to be salt and light. Salt only preserves or flavors meat it is applied to. Light only shines in the darkness. We are ambassadors for Christ; that is, we are resident representatives of the Kingdom of God. We cannot complete our purpose by retreating to our holy huddles. Just because someone is a moral and upstanding citizen that affirms a few key doctrines, that does not mean the heart, love, and life of Christ is being perfected in him. You can be a seemingly “good” Christian and still pursue your own purposes.

  3. “Worldliness” and “the world” are different. God created the world and he said it was good. The scope of Christ’s redeeming work is larger than rescuing the individual souls of humans. God intends to restore the entire cosmos to its original goodness. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. That is the picture in Revelation. The whole created order is waiting in anticipation for the fullness of God’s redemption to be revealed. Further, Jesus took on flesh and, in so doing, he redeemed humanity. Not just the spiritual, mythical souls of humanity. The whole of what it means to be human has been redeemed in Christ. Our future hope is not a disembodied existence, but the redemption of our bodies (Paul talks about this a lot). It is okay to love elements of God’s good creation. Our love should not be in competition with our devotion to Christ, but it is okay to appreciate the beauty of creation, the sound of music, the delight of food, the intimacy of sex (within the bounds of marriage), the creativity of human ingenuity. Worldliness is about the way of the world. The way the world says you need to look out for number one, do whatever it takes to get on top, lie if it benefits you, seize power through violence, exact revenge, accrue money and possessions for selfish purposes, pursue pleasure at all costs—these things are the pattern of the world. Jesus calls us to a different way—the way of the cross. The way of grace, forgiveness, generosity, love, selflessness, humility, faithfulness. You can avoid the “dirty dozen” and still be “worldly” because you still think you’ve been blessed to enjoy it only for yourself. You can never have tasted a drop of alcohol and still be “worldly” because you think getting revenge is just and fair. The distinction between “holy” living and “worldly” living is not isolation, but incarnation. Just as Christ entered into our world and modeled the way of the Kingdom, so we too are to live in the world according to a different

John Wesley is quoted as saying, “Holy solitaries’ is no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.” If Christ is formed in you, then you will begin to more and more love the world as he did. Remember, he was willing to die an unjust, humiliating, and horrifically painful death to express his love. You can’t be holy by simply not sinning, and you can’t be holy by not loving the world Jesus came to save.

[1] Halter, Hugh, The Tangible Kingdom. (p. 135)


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