All too often, it is not merely that holiness is forgotten; it is forsaken. Minimally, we may safely say that holiness—if not forsaken—is nowhere near the center of people’s understanding of the Christian life.
Talking about Holiness
Robert Murray McCheyne was a 19th-century pastor noted for his personal holiness. In his devotional meditations, which are fragrant with the love of Christ, he reflects that he would glorify God most and serve others best “by attaining the most entire likeness to Christ…that is possible for a redeemed sinner to attain to in this world.” Thus, he was known to pray: “Dear Lord—make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can possibly be.”
It’s hard to imagine many Christians praying that prayer today.
The language of holiness has largely been dropped from Christian vocabulary in many places. Consider your own experience. When did you last pray to be holy? When did you last talk with another about the pursuit of holiness or of your longing to be holy even as God is holy? Do you feel called to holiness? Have you ever ached to be a holy man or holy woman of God? Or, in contrast, do you ever feel an odd discomfort with the word “holy”; like it intones a little too religious or alien or strange for our times?
We do not feel the same reticence about other words. It’s hip to talk about justice. It’s warmly sentimental to talk about love. It’s nice to talk about kindness. It’s noble to talk about service. It’s commonplace to talk about unity. But there is great hesitation to talk about holiness. Even though the word “holy” appears around 665 times in the 1042 pages of my Bible—it is the forgotten word.
The term holiness affects us differently because it is different. It is possible to do justice, show love, be kind, respect others, render service, and unite in a common cause without being holy. A person can be categorically and manifestly unholy while doing any of those things. To be clear: you cannot be holy without doing these things, but you can do these things without being holy.
Holiness is fundamentally different than these in that it is Godward. It is between God and me. It is what you and I are to pursue and become because it reflects who God is and what he has called us to become. True holiness (as opposed to pretending holiness with its endless array of external masks) is a blessed state of calling, becoming, and being. It involves one’s actual status and growing character, commitment, and heart—as these relate to God.
Born out of a supernaturally called and humbly consecrated heart, and inspired by a reverent and loving fear of God, true holiness includes a conscientious renunciation of sin and a sincere practice of God-like character and piety, all in devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 6:16-7:1; 2 Cor. 11:2-3; 1 Cor. 7:35).
God is holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). So, when we talk about holiness, we are talking about an essential and exalted attribute of God, which he, in turn, commands that we imitate (1 Peter 1:14-16; Lev. 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; 21:8). Holiness is the end for which we are chosen (Eph. 1:4). It is one reason why God has visited us in the Person of his Son (Luke 1:68; Luke 1:74-75). It is faith’s validation, without which we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). It is what obedient children of God pursue (1 Peter 1:14-16). It is our only appropriate worship-response to the “mercies of God” in Christ (Rom. 12:1). And it is the new self which God produces in us in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:20-24).