October 23, 2021 - Holiness

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Today we’re going to talk about holiness. What exactly does it mean to be holy? We often think of some kind of sinless perfection, to be a religious super-hero like Mother Teresa or someone who has reached the Hall of Fame we call “sainthood.” We think of someone who scrupulously obeys a long list of do’s and don’ts. I think of my relatives in the South in one of the holiness churches, where they had church camps where men could not swim at the same time as the women, and where arms had to be completely covered by sleeves. We remember that old line, “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls who do.” We bristle when someone believes they are “holier than thou”: they don’t want to hang around us, and we don’t want to hang around them either. Who wants to be holy, if that’s what the word means?

The word “holy” in both Hebrew and Greek doesn’t come with any of that baggage. It means simply “to be set apart” for a special purpose or for someone’s exclusive possession. It gives the idea of being separated from the rest of the pack, to be different.

Being different can be either good or bad, depending on how we look at it, and depending on the norm in question (“different from what?”). Being deviant or criminal (depending on the standard being used) is a bad way of being different from the crowd. But if you think of the world as a crooked place where you can’t trust anybody and people are selfish, malicious jerks, then being different is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it can be attractive to a world that’s looking for a healthier way to live.

Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot is about a character who wasn’t selfish or hateful or envious or spiteful or greedy or lying or sexually immoral, a guy who was so different that he gave some people the creeps. For some of us, however, such a character would be a refreshing alternative to the rest of the world around us. Where can you find such a person?

God calls us to be different. Peter quotes the Law of Moses, where God declares, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16) God is different, and God wants us to be like God in this regard. That’s why Peter urges his readers to be holy, to be different from the surrounding culture. Later in this same letter, Peter urges his readers to stop doing what the Gentiles like to do. Peter mentions lawless sexuality and getting bombed with alcohol, but in other parts of his letter Peter also mentions hatefulness, envy, lying, and hypocrisy, which are also not healthy for the soul. God wants followers of Jesus to be different from a messed-up world.

The world is looking for people who are different. They’re looking for people who are selfless, not selfish; who are selfless, not because they are powerless to do otherwise, but because they don’t have egos that are craving to be satisfied. Where can we find people who give or help without any expectation for reward or appreciation, and who keep on giving when others quit? If you give to help a poor person and get treated ungratefully, then you’ll find out whether you were really expecting a reward. Selflessness is part of what it means to be holy, to be different.

The world is looking for people who don’t worship money or material goods. They’re looking for people who put people before profits. They’re looking for people who will take the job that pays less but will do more good. They’re looking for people who aren’t always measuring everything by “What’s in it for me?” Proverbs 28:21 says, “For a piece of bread, a person will do wrong.” The world is looking for people who won’t sell out their morals or their ethics with the excuse, “I can’t afford to do the right thing.” That would be really different.

The world is looking for people who truly listen, who truly care. Someone I know tells me that she uses the two-sentence rule to see if people will truly listen. She is amazed to see how few people will listen for more than two sentences without changing the subject, taking control of the conversation, shutting it down, or walking away. If you can listen longer than that, and if you can truly listen, you will be truly different.

I was reading about a person who left the gay lifestyle when he became a Christian. He was being trashed by gays for doing so. This fellow said he was able to listen to his critics tell about the pain in their lives. He was able to listen long enough that the gays who were trashing him changed their minds and decided he was OK after all. No amount of debate could have changed their hearts – just the way this guy was able to listen. That’s being different.

Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has had a ministry to HIV patients in Greenwich Village. Keller’s church is well-known for its stand on Biblical morality. But AIDS patients wanted volunteers from Redeemer PC. They said, “Your people don’t treat us like charity cases. They treat us like they really care. We want you back.” That’s what it means to be different, to be holy.

The world is looking for people who are not hateful or malicious or always angry or resentful, people who don’t need to play petty games to build themselves up by tearing others down. They are looking for people whose lives are not falling apart, people who are emotionally healthy. And when they find such people, they’ll want to know, “Where can I get what you have?” Now, none of us is perfect. We all have our rough edges. We are all recovering sinners. We all still have ways where our woundedness shows itself in how we talk about or treat others. But being different needs to become the goal of our spiritual life. That’s the mark of maturity. That’s what we can call holiness.

Believe it or not, the world is looking for people who live the Bible’s sexual ethic: sex exclusively between a husband and a wife. The world is looking for the modern equivalent of the whooping crane: couples who wait until marriage, and then enjoy each other as long as they both shall live. They want to see evidence that it can be done, and that the results are happier that way. No need to criticize those who fail or make mistakes in this area. They’ve got enough pain, enough baggage; I don’t need to add to it. That’s my point. God wants us to avoid heartache; God wants the very best for our love life. That’s one way where being holy, being different, pays huge emotional rewards.

It's like my wife’s joke they tell in Oregon: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The answer is: “to prove to the possum that it can be done!” God wants the world to see that the Biblical sexual ethic can be done.

More than ever before, the world is looking for people who can be trusted. They want people who don’t blow off promises or commitments, people who do what they say they will do. They want people who won’t pretend to be friends and then stab them in the back. Much as the world rewards posers and pretenders by falling for their sweet-talk, the world wants people who are genuine, people who will say what they mean and mean what they say, people who won’t bend, fold, or mutilate the truth, even if it costs them not to do so. People who refuse to lie are a huge part of what it means to be holy, to be different.

The world is also looking for people who believe what they claim to believe. Back in the 1700’s, the famous skeptic David Hume (famous for his case against miracles) was seen running to hear George Whitefield, the Billy Graham of that day. Someone asked him, “Why do you want to hear him? You don’t believe what he believes.” And Hume replied, “Of course I don’t. But he does!” Likewise, modern atheist Christopher Hitchens, after a debate with a Christian named Larry Taunton, was asked by his opponent why Hitchens didn’t rip him up like he’s done with other opponents. Hitchens answered, “Because you believe it.”

Penn Jillette from Penn & Teller (who is an atheist) says he doesn’t respect people who don’t proselytize. He wants to know how you can believe in heaven and a hell and not tell someone because you’re afraid of being socially awkward; you must hate them! Another atheist says, “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

The world doesn’t want people who believe just because others want them to, or because it’s the easy thing to do. The world is looking for people who don’t back down, who don’t pursue faith as a nice fairy tale that is never to be taken seriously, people who passionately believe, and who live like they believe it. That’s part of what it means to be different.

A church whose people have their act together could be powerfully attractive to a world that is looking for a better life. There’s a whole lot of people who don’t go to church because they don’t see any reason to. They don’t see how our lives are any different than theirs. How much change has Christ made in our lives? Has Christ given us peace and joy? Has he given us reason to live that we didn’t have before? Has he made us less jerky people – less selfish, less hateful, more caring, more loving, more sacrificial, more emotionally healthy and mature? Has he replaced our confusion with confidence on the issues that truly matter in life? Has he broken the chains on us that enslave so many people’s lives?

Show me a place where God is changing people’s lives, and you’ll see people breaking down the door to get into that church. You’ll see communities that refuse to zone those churches out of business, because the community can’t do without them. People are looking for a church that is different, and what they’re looking for (I would say) is a church that is holy, whether they would call it that or not.

Today I have hopefully cast for you a new vision of what it means to be holy. It means being set apart, being different in a positive sense. In a messed up world that is sick of its own dysfunctionality (whether they realize it or not), people who are different offer a better way to live. They offer tremendous benefits to those who live around them.

Paul reminds the Philippians that they shine as lights in the midst of a crooked, perverse world. He urges the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” In the same way, Peter tells his readers not to be conformed to the passions of their former ignorance, but to be holy in all their lifestyle, to be different, like God.

Being truly different from a dysfunctional world is the way to live. There are only 2 difficulties I need to answer here. One problem is that living this way doesn’t come naturally; in fact, it’s impossible to do so consistently! The other problem is that some might mistakenly think I’m telling you that this is what we have to do to earn our way to heaven.

Let me try to answer these 2 difficulties together. First, let me make it clear: it is impossible to earn our way to God by living a holy life. None of us good enough! None of us can save ourselves by our own goodness. That’s why we need a Savior! Jesus paid a debt we could never pay. He alone can take away our sins and put us right with God, and all we can do is receive what he has done for us as an act of faith. That’s the only way we can have everlasting life and peace with God.

In fact, what’s so amazing is what Paul tells us in Colossians 1:22. He says that what Christ has done was enough to make us “holy” and pure and faultless in God’s presence. That’s exciting! Christ has already made us “holy,” as far as God is concerned. Now, our goal is to become in our behavior (as far as possible in this life) what God says we already are in our standing with God.

Second, it’s only when we have first been saved or made holy in God’s sight that we can ever become different people than we were before. Only when Christ comes into our lives can we become new people. It’s an inside job. Inside of relying on our own human will power, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to become new and different people. It’s a lifetime process, but over time, as we seek to follow Christ and ask him for the power to do what we cannot do ourselves, we will see ourselves becoming more like Christ.

If you think about it the right way, being holy – being set apart – being different from a dysfunctional world – is the most attractive, appealing way to live.

Before we finish looking at this subject, let’s take a look at the question of sinless perfection. Is such perfection achievable in this life? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, is often believed to be the chief promoter of this idea. But in his booklet A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley says he never uses the phrase “sinless perfection.”

The reason why is because Wesley defines sin narrowly. He says that “sin properly so called” is “a voluntary transgression of a known law,” as opposed to involuntary violations of God’s law, whether known or unknown. Wesley thinks it’s “improper” to call unintentional misdeeds sin. He prefers to call them mistakes. But Wesley agrees that both kinds of transgressions must be washed away by the atoning blood of Christ. Both are equally serious.

Wesley also says there is no perfection in this life with no involuntary transgressions – he thinks that these act are produced by ignorance and mistakes that can’t be inseparated from our mortal existence. He says, “I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions.” “Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please; I do not.” So the real issue is whether we define involuntary acts due to weakness or ignorance as being sins, or if we just call them mistakes. There is room for disagreement on this question, without this being an issue of heresy or who has the one right answer taught by God’s true Church.

Both Wesley and those who disagree with Wesley agree that both sins and what he calls mistakes require the blood of Christ to wash them away. And both parties agree that to live without doing involuntary acts that come from weakness or ignorance, whether we call them sins or “mistakes,” is impossible in this life. Wesley’s point is that he thinks that God’s love can fill our hearts so completely that we stop voluntarily or knowingly breaking God’s laws in this life. That’s what Wesley means by “sinless perfection,” and he prefers not to use the term, because it creates needless confusion.

Wesley’s tradition defines sin narrowly. The Reformed tradition defines sin broadly. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as “any want of conformity to, or transgression of, the law of God.” Sin is not just what we do deliberately; it’s also what we fail to do that we know we ought to have done. Sin is not just what we do or don’t do, it’s who we are. We are all sinners who need a Savior. Even the good we think we do is tainted with sin and self-interest. And James 2:10 says all it takes is 1 sin to make us lawbreakers in the eyes of God. That’s why sinlessness is impossible. That’s why only Christ can make us holy in the sight of God.

Sin is in our DNA. That’s what leads us all to disagree fundamentally with Pelagius, the British monk from 400 AD who claimed that Adam gave us all nothing more than a bad example. Pelagius believed that without that bad example all around us, it would be possible for us to live without sinning. Pelagius does not understand that sin is an addiction. Like the baby that is born addicted to crack, we are born with a pull toward sin that is deeply rooted in who we are. That’s not how God designed us, but we are born twisted in our nature, because of Adam and Eve’s choice to grab for the power to become gods themselves. We talked about this in our August 14 program on Adam and Eve. Check out August 14 in our Radio Archives!

Today, we’ve been talking about holiness. Next time, we plan to talk about the Evil One, also known as the Devil or Satan, also known as Belial. What’s the story on that name Belial? And how did that name (which started out as an ordinary Hebrew noun) come to be used eventually for the Evil One? Join us as we take a look at Belial as a name, and at the character who personifies all that this name means. We’ll do that next time on Biblical Words and World!