Holiness, without which no one will see God, has become either a despised term or, worse, a forgotten one.
We most easily associate holiness with a list of prohibitions, and we are well enough versed in scripture to know that “do’s and don’ts” don’t make the Kingdom. It was strict prohibitions in regards to the normal enjoyment of foods and sex (in marriage) that Paul reminded Timothy had infiltrated the church and were a sign of the teaching of demons. We don’t want a return to those days.
But has our freedom become our snare? Is holiness ever best defined as the things we forbid ourselves and others? Could we have fallen into the trap of, in trying to reach the world, it covertly reaching us? Yes, no, and yes.
Paul answered a rhetorical question in Romans 5 where anyone following the logical consistency of his argument would conclude that we are “to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul came to the conclusion that with the law essentially forcing an increase in sin, God, in grace, abounded all the more in righteousness – to us.
So then, his opponents conjected, the more we sin, the more God’s grace is made manifest. That is where logic takes you, and I suspect that is the unstated conclusion in any theology that overemphasizes grace and underappreciates sin (not that we are wanting to appreciate sin – you know what I mean).
Paul is adamant that our freedom is never an excuse for sin, and that freedom is always to be modified by the exercise of love.
In regards to being an excuse to sin, Paul reminds us that we are dead to sin by being in union with Jesus’s death and resurrection by baptism – how therefore can we continue in sin, when dead to it?
In regards to freedom and love, we are to moderate our freedom (and remember this often related to the practice or not of various aspects of the law in regards to holy days, food, Sabbaths, and the exercise of conscience) by our love for others. The truly free believer has no need to exercise their freedom if it offends a weaker brother or sister – and they do, like grace, abound. Love demands something better than an insistencece on freedoms.
Holiness is better defined as:
- a life lived to the glory and majesty of God,
- a life that exhibits the nature and reflection of God in Jesus Christ,
- a life glorious and enviable,
- a bright life of moral integrity and beauty,
- a life where restraint is more to be admired than excess,
- a life more defined by what we can do than by what we can’t.
In holiness there are some things we don’t practise, some behaviours we are to avoid, but these are not what it is to define holiness.
God’s holiness includes his separation from sin, but that isn’t its place of origin. Holiness is part of that divine essence that makes God so “other” to us that it is only by revelation that we know anything about God in the first place. Firstly, God is a lofty mystery and inconceivable majesty. It is this that separates us from God – this is his holiness. To be a part of this, in and through Christ, is surely much more than a list of what we don’t do.
There is a porous membrane between God’s church and the world. However, it is only meant to allow the church to reach and evangelise the world, not the world to reach and evangelise the church.
We have become so familiar with the world that we have all but forgotten the nature of the ‘called out ones’ and the desire of God to form and inhabit a people that are actually separate from the world and all that defines it – power (militaristic and oppressive), division, unrighteousness, moral corruption, the rule of principalities and powers (demonic and human), etc.
Christians, especially in the West, are often barely recognisable from the world around them – in thinking and in living. We have umbilical cords attaching us to the life of the world, from which we feed.
These are not simple matters, but they do simply matter.
Appealing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul reminds them that God’s church is a temple, a place of his Spirit’s dwelling. This has implications and promises attached to it.
It was God’s presence that made Israel different from all the other nations, leading Moses to ask of God, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” It meant everything to them, it should mean the same to us – God’s Holy Spirit with, around, defining, comforting and changing us.
Before expanding on the temple metaphor, Paul asks a series of self-evident questions about unequal yoking, partnership and fellowship. His point is that believers and unbelievers, righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, temple and idols, have no common ground; they are unequally yoked if linked. He then states that to be the temple requires separation of the believer from partnership of and fellowship with the world. The two don’t mix – oil and water. And yet you’d think we have made a way for them to mix because separation and difference are difficult to differentiate.
But God’s promise is that he would be a father, and we would be his sons and daughters if we come out from, and not otherwise. Because of this Paul appeals to them to be free of “every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” This is not easily done, but it is worth doing.
Every age requires the church to, in some ways, redefine holiness, as it becomes quickly anachronistic.
Whilst there are many things we can do and enjoy with biblical impunity/freedom there are some things we are wise to not involve ourselves in.
I have no intention of writing a list and falling into the prescriptive trap, but we should all be alert to what makes us worldly(un)wise.