When we think of a “holy” person, several images often come to mind. We may think of a man wearing a robe, looking dreamingly into space and saying wise and wonderful things that we don’t understand. Or we may think of the exceptionally morally perfect person who never does anything wrong (or has any fun) with a shiny halo atop their head. We may even bring to mind those really irritating “holier-than-thou” folks and wish they would just go away. In all these cases, I think the concept of holiness is misunderstood. It relies on an idea of holiness that is nothing more than doing everything right and never screwing up. It seems to me that if we leave it there, we will be forever frustrated and discouraged. But God would never tell us to “Be holy, because I am holy” as Peter relates in his letter (1 Peter 1:16) if it wasn’t possible.
I had a significant shift in my understanding of holiness when I read this definition in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology:
“God’s holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor.”
So if holiness means being separated from sin and being devoted to God’s honor or glory, then this is something I can grasp. I can understand separation and what that means practically in my life. I can even grasp devotion and how I could pursue that. But I still have the problem of willpower. I can desire to be separated from sin, but sin still seems to attach itself to me. It’s hard to shake and I am left defeated and decidedly “un-holy.”
Here is where the real breakthrough came:
And what God wants is for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time… For by that one offering he perfected forever all those whom he is making holy (Hebrews 10:10,14)
Wait! Holiness comes through the sacrifice of Christ? He is making us holy? I don’t have to earn it or summon all the strength myself? True. I began to see the relational aspect of holiness. It starts with understanding the extent and life transforming power of Christ’s sacrifice. It means that I can actually pray to be made holy, because I know I am praying in God’s will. It means I can have a conversation with Him about being separated from sin. I can learn from Him what devotion to His glory means in my life. It means I have a real advocate – a mentor – who wants to teach me and form in me holiness. It means that because Christ is alive, holiness is possible.
In the words of a great old hymn, holiness is possible as I “turn my eyes upon Jesus” and “look full in his marvelous face,” because as I do “the things of this world grow strangely dim.”
I cannot tell you how encouraging that is. It lifts the burden of self-effort and instead pulls me toward Him. And the stumbles along the way do not become crushing defeats but opportunities to hear from Him more about separation and devotion. So, yes, I am holy and am becoming holy. I recognize that it is a journey but it can be a joyful journey because I know the destination and am sure to get there. It’s a promise we can count on.