Monday, January 2, 2017


2 January 2017

For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45; NRSV)

Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16; NRSV)

Good evening, welcome. A week or so ago, one of my friends posted a reference to the atonement and holiness on Facebook. The post had to do with holiness and the atonement being more or less fundamental doctrines for Christians; in it he mentioned holiness as being set apart for God. My friend’s post got me thinking about what it means to be holy from a ‘big picture’ point of view-the entire Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation-seen within the framework of creation/fall/redemption/restoration theology and defined with the already-present-but-not-yet view of the Kingdom of God. Now that I have put it all together-more or less-I thought, being the beginning of a New Year promising change (or upheaval, depending on your point of view) this might be a good time to post my thoughts. So, here goes.

In order to properly understand holiness (or any Biblical theology, for that matter), the Bible must be seen as one unified whole, as opposed to a collection of separate books. The story has a Protagonist (hero)-God; an antagonist (villain)-Satan; and a bunch of agonists (other characters)-us. It has a plot, which goes something like this. God (or The Godhead, if you prefer) decides to make humankind to bear His image (Genesis 1:26-27). First, though, He made a perfect environment for His image-bearers, over which God made them stewards-caretakers. This, obviously, would be creation. At some point Satan comes along and persuades God’s creations to bear his (Satan’s) image instead. As a result God’s once good and perfect creation is cursed (this would be the fall). All this happens in the first three chapters of Genesis. God, however, does not give up on His creations; instead He promises them a redeemer-one who would “buy them back” from their new owner (Satan). Keep this thought in mind; we will be coming back to it. The next five chapters of Genesis describe the effects of the fall, culminating with the Great Flood. Chapter nine begins the story of God’s plan to buy His creatures back (more or less; some may argue the story starts with Abraham in Chapter 12. Either works, in my opinion). This would be redemption. The rest of the Bible describes our hero’s (God) redemptive plan, culminating in our ultimate restoration.

Fast forward now to Exodus. At this point God has raised up a people and called them out of Egypt-where they had been held captive-forms them into a nation-Israel-and gives them a specific and very important mission-to be His presence among the nations to whom He is sending them. Keep in mind, these were pagan nations, evil nations, whose idea of worshipping their gods sometimes included human sacrifice (if I give you my son, will you please let me live). Israel’s God did not need to be bribed or placated in order to be worshipped. He did, however, require holiness from His people.
How were the Israelites to know and understand holiness? Well, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments-and a whole bunch of other laws and statutes and ordinances covering their relationship with Him and with each other. He also made provision for their sin by instituting a sacrificial system (animal, not human, although still very bloody) which included observing a national Day of Atonement every year. On this day, one goat was sacrificed to atone for the nation’s sin; another was sent away into the wilderness after the priest has laid his hands on it, transferring Israel’s sin to the goat. Sin was atoned for and removed from Israel’s presence by a couple innocent goats (redemption, again).

God made a very specific promise to His Israelites-if they would observe all the laws He gave them-thereby demonstrating His presence, showing the nations what He was like (or who He really was), they would be blessed beyond belief. Their families would be fruitful and multiply (the original charge given to Adam and Eve). Their crops would be fruitful and multiply. They would be blessed coming and going. The blessings would be huge. The nations would see all this and say “whoa, that is one awesome God indeed. He needs to be our God; we need to worship Him”. On the other hand, if they did not obey God’s commands and follow His laws and ordinances, God promised curses. No fruit. Cursed coming and cursed going. If they wanted to behave like the other nations and forget God, they would get the other nations. Up to their eyeballs. The Israelites agreed to God’s terms and it became a binding contract. All this is recorded in Exodus through Deuteronomy.
Unfortunately, the Israelites did not live up to their end of the bargain. They-as a nation-failed to honor the holiness code God had given them; failed to be God’s presence. God sent prophet after prophet to remind them of the ancient covenant; to act as His prosecuting attorneys bringing charges against His wayward people; to explain what they were experiencing and to remind them why. For the most part God’s prophets were ignored; finally God fell silent.

Fast-forward to the birth of Jesus, the Christ-God’s Redeemer. Remember the ancient promise to Eve? Here He is. God’s final redemptive act. Jesus fulfills every mission given to the Israelites. He explains and fulfills the Law (you have heard it said…but I tell you). He demonstrates what God is really like. He doesn’t just demonstrate God’s presence, He is God’s presence. Being God’s presence He ushers in God’s Kingdom. He teaches His listeners (especially His twelve disciples-another thought to keep in mind) how God intends His children to live. Finally, on the cross, He provides atonement for our sins. They are removed completely. Redemption is accomplished. God has purchased back His creation “What I did not steal must I now restore?” (Psalms 69:4, NRSV). Restoration can begin.

Which brings us, finally, to 21st century holiness. As the Body of Christ, the Church-the New Israel-is today tasked with the same mission as the Old Israel-to demonstrate God’s presence by being God’s presence. Not just in the United States but in the entire world. Remember the great commission-“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20; NRSV; italics mine). Redemption-the Atonement-is finished. Holiness, however, making disciples (remember them?) is a daily task, a continuing process.

Holiness is the process of considering ourselves dead to sin but alive to God (Romans 6:11), of putting off the old self and putting on the new (Colossians 3:9-10), of being made new (Ephesians 2:22-24). Peter, who should know, puts it this way “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8; NRSV). Note the wording here. Increasing. Ineffective. Unfruitful. Make every effort. Jesus Himself gives us a very clear picture of what holiness looks like in His Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of the Gospels, for that matter).

But how do we do all this, you might ask? Well, let me tell you. We do it by putting ourselves in a place where God’s transforming power-His grace, administered by the Holy Spirit-can renew us from the inside out. We need new hearts and God is just the person for the job-this is restoration and it is a daily process. Every day, as long as we are on this earth. We do not achieve holiness by our own effort-obeying all God’s laws, as if we could. I am making a case here for the Spiritual Disciplines-activities we (and millions of saints before us) can do which get us to the place where God can transform us. Things like prayer, study, meditation, confession, fasting, worship, solitude, service, submission, simplicity. I am not talking about obeying a set of laws here-or forcing them on anyone else-however, as our hearts change, as the image of God is restored in us, we may very well find that we desire to know God’s laws because keeping them makes God very happy. And demonstrates His presence.

So, yes, holiness is being set apart for God. It is also becoming like God, bearing His image. It is God putting His character in us so we can show it to the world and it does not come automatically. We have work to do if we expect to demonstrate Jesus-to be Jesus-to whomever we meet. So, here’s the assignment for a new year. Let this be the year of the Spiritual Disciplines. Do some research. Pick up a book or two, or three. No need to reinvent the wheel. We have as our ultimate teacher and example Jesus Himself. The Holy Spirit will, as Jesus says, explain everything. At least, everything we need to know.

Finally, let me leave you with this. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question “What is the chief end of man?” The answer-Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Jesus told His disciples He brought Glory to the Father by completing the work The Father gave Him to do. We glorify God in the same way. The disciplines will enable us both to do our work and to enjoy God (after all, He created us for a relationship with Him). Besides, if we don’t learn to enjoy Him now, how will we ever enjoy Him for eternity?

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you throughout the coming year. JRG