The What and Why of Holiness
By Davy Ellison
One Christmas morning I lifted a present that confused me—it was small, but heavy, hard and cold. I deduced it was metal and thought it might have been a pocket tool. When I unwrapped it I quickly realised it was a book stamper. However, I could not figure out how to put it together. I spent ages trying to connect only two pieces. All of this drama was due to the lack of instructions. If there had simply been a piece of paper explaining what it was, with a diagram of how to put it together, it would have been a lot simpler.
When it comes to living the Christian life, God has not made the same mistake. Rather, we have been granted all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). God has not left us to figure out the Christian life alone—he has given us instructions. God has granted us his word, which reveals who he is, what he has done and who we are to be in light of it all. As we noted last time, the reason for our redemption is our holiness. Kevin DeYoung explains, “You can’t make sense of the Bible without understanding that God is a holy God and that this holy God is intent on making a holy people to live with him forever in a holy heaven” (p. 31). As a consequence, he goes on to argue, “So whatever the Bible teaches, we should believe. And whatever it commands—by precept, example, story, or song—we should do” (p. 52).
What is Holiness?
As we seek to explore what holiness actually is it might be helpful to very briefly identify some things that it is not. DeYoung highlights five (p. 33–38), but here are the two that struck me:
- True holiness does not equate with mere rule keeping, it does not consist of simply doing the “dos” and avoiding the “don’ts”.
- True holiness is not a generic spirituality. True holiness is not the same as “being spiritual”. True holiness is not a state of mind or religious vocabulary.
The blogger Tim Challies shares a fascinating story about how the Bank of Canada, in their battle against counterfeit currency, actually make their experts spend their time studying legal tender. By studying the real thing you learn to identify the fake thing. So, perhaps the best way to figure out what true holiness looks like is to explore, learn and study what true holiness is. Again, DeYoung mentions five but two are particularly noteworthy:
- True holiness is the renewal of God’s image. Genesis teaches us that humanity has been made in the image of God, but with Adam and Eve’s first sin the image was marred. It was not completely removed, but rather distorted. It is only God who is truly holy—“This is why it’s so critical that Christians know the character and work of the one they worship. If you want to know what holiness looks like, look at God” (p. 39). In Colossians 1:15 we are told that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. In Romans 8:29, Paul explains that Christians are being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. As DeYoung summarises, “The whole goal of our salvation is that we should be conformed to the image of God’s Son” (p. 47). Since Jesus is the image of God, our being conformed to his image is not just a growth in holiness but a renewal of God’s image.
- True holiness is obedience. This is something of a dirty word in some Christian circles—obedience is to be distained, for we live in freedom by grace! But DeYoung offers an appropriate warning at this point: “We can talk all day long about our love for God, but if we do not keep his commandments we are liars and the truth is not in us” (p. 45).
Holiness is not a list of “dos” and “don’ts”, or copying others, or even being known as super-spiritual. True holiness is having the image of God renewed in us as we are conformed into the image of Jesus. True holiness is having a clean conscience concerning our behaviour, thoughts and attitudes. Holiness is obedience to God’s Word.
Pause for Reflection
Where do you think the church (in years gone by and today) have gone wrong in explaining what holiness is?
Why Bother with Holiness?
I think DeYoung has hit the nail on the head when he suggests that “One of the reasons why I think Christians get tired of hearing about the law is because they never hear why they should obey the law” (p. 56). We must then tackle the question of “why?”
Surely one of the main motivations for holiness should be the fact that God sees everything! At the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher concludes that all mankind can do is fear God and keep his commands, for God will eventually bring every deed into judgement (Eccl. 12:13–14). This truth is reiterated in Hebrews 4:13: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Nothing is hidden from God’s sight. God sees all that is done—surely that should motivate us to live in a way that honours and glorifies him.
Another motivation should be our love for Jesus Christ. Jesus is unashamed in calling his disciples to keep his commandments for love of him. In John 14:15, Jesus says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We will do all manner of things for those people whom we love, Jesus rightly asks for the same kind of devotion.
Another motivation is also found in John’s Gospel: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10–11). Fullness of joy—do you want a life full of joy? Do you want to live life the way it was supposed to be lived? Are you keen to do all you can to experience the joy you desire? Then, says Jesus, live a holy life.
DeYoung concludes: “God doesn’t command obedience ‘just cuz’. He gives us dozens of specific reasons to be holy. God can prescribe many different medicines for motivation . . . You could probably find a hundred biblical reasons to be holy” (p. 60–61).
Pause for Reflection
Is it better to offer positive or negative motivations to holiness? Why, or why not?
What motivations would you offer for the following sins: greedy with money, gossip, pride?