We are studying Exodus 19-40 as a church this autumn, and one of the key texts is the LORD’s words in 19:4-6
If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The theme of holiness – God’s and ours – is central not just to Exodus but also to Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It’s also a missing theme in the evangelical church in the West (hence DeYoung’s title). That’s why we decided to enrich our vision of “holiness” through this “Book of the Term”. As Kevin DeYoung claims in Chapter 2, holiness in God’s people is both the purpose and the necessary condition of our salvation. We are not saved by our holiness; but we are not saved without it either.
So what is holiness?
Holiness is not the same as niceness (appearing godly but with no love for Christ inside). Nor is it wistfulness (living like Christians in the past). Nor is it mindfulness (a version of our culture’s fad for being ‘spiritual but not religious’). (For even more angles on what holiness is not, see DeYoung, pages 33-38). Holiness has a shape given to it by God.
According to Exodus (and also, for instance, Isaiah) God is Holy. In the New Testament too, God’s Holy presence is expressed through his Holy Spirit especially as he indwells Jesus, the “holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Hebrew word translated in English”holy” means “set apart”. It means not so much “separate” from the world as “different from” the world and from impure humanity. God is good and we are worldly. God is pure and we are sinful.
We are called to be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is when we turn our hearts, minds and actions towards God instead of towards the world or ourselves, directed by the Holy Spirit in us. As DeYoung says, that doesn’t mean we are to be miserable kill-joys who spurn anything pleasant. If anything it means the opposite: we delight in God’s goodness and all good things he has made, living distinctive lives of Christ-centred worship, selfless love, joyful self-restraint, consistent truthfulness and authentic kindness – holy lives. Holiness is being truly human, and truly happy.
So why does holiness matter?
It has become alarmingly characteristic of Christians in our culture to talk and act as if how we live does not matter to God or to others. “We are saved by grace not works”, we say, forgetting that we are not saved without good works! We are concerned to protect the truth that Jesus died for our sins to bring us to God, but forget that he also died to purify us and make us “holy” as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). We talk a lot in our generation about “grace”, but have become nervous to talk about “duty”. So holiness matters, and DeYoung spells out why in his chapter “The Reason for Redemption” and in an impressive list of Bible verses which motivate Christ’s people to holiness, in Chapter 4.
Here are four key ways in which holiness matters…
Because it’s why God saves us. That is not to say that being holy is what saves us – grace alone does that in Christ! But Paul says that God “chose us in Christ…that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:3-4) and “saved us and called us to a holy calling not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:8-9). He is reflecting the message of Exodus we saw earlier: God led his people to freedom in order to make us “a royal priesthood and holy nation” belonging to Him. Holiness is good news (gospel) as much as is forgiveness. It is what DeYoung calls “our glorious calling”.
Because it’s what God commands of us. As evangelical Christians we know that the Law of the Old Testament leads us to grace in Christ. But Biblically, grace equally leads us to the Law. Jesus says “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. In Exodus, God rescues his people from slavery and THEN gives them the Law. Anglican prayers reflect this double truth of grace AND Law, for instance in the Communion Service where it is our “duty and joy ” to give God thanks and praise (in word and action) “at all times and in all places”. Holiness is a joyful duty and command.
Because it’s how God assures us. Holiness as the sign and fruit of a genuinely converted heart and life is a necessary part of our salvation. With all our ongoing faults, followers of Christ are aware of the upward drag of the Holy Spirit renewing our thoughts and actions. “you were taught…to put off your old self which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:21-24)
Because it’s where God speaks to others through us. Holiness makes our witness credible. Those we pray for and speak to about Christ will not be impressed if they see nothing in us which is distinctively directed towards God (holy). Holiness strengthens our witness, but worldliness undermines it. “Let your light so shine before men and women that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Book of the Term Discussion
As you read our Book of the Term and reflect on the nature and necessity of holiness, questions will pop into your head, if you are anything like me! Isn’t holiness an old-fashioned idea? Am I a Christian if I am not always very holy? Make a note of them, and bring them to our open book discussion on Sunday 27th November after our 6pm service!
Next time, we will continue this conversation with DeYoung’s book, chapters 5-8. We will discover a great truth: that by faith we are holy already. We may still be sinners, but our lives please God, right now and today!
The Hole in our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung (2012, Crossway), is available from Christ Church resources desks at just £7 (RRP £10.99)
Holiness, J.C. Ryle (Evangelical Press reprint) available at https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/holiness
A Passion for Holiness, J.I. Packer (1992, Crossway) available at https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/a_passion_for_holiness_18675.html