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From the perspective of the New Testament, to be a Christian is to be a “holy one,” and to be a “holy one” - in the sight of God - is to be a “Christian.” This helps define what it means to be a Christian. Consequently, holiness is not a throwaway concept for Christians - it is centrally related to what Christians are. Without “holy ones” there is no Church of Jesus Christ. “Holiness” is, therefore, one of the central themes of Holy Scripture.
Yet, in our time, few want to associate themselves with the concept of “holiness;” which is often linked with wild-eyed radicalism, deliberate ignorance, argumentative individualism, stubborn pride; and most of all - above everything else, it would seem - it is associated with the past.
Not only do those outside the “holiness movement” refuse to associate themselves with the term in our time, even those denominations that have proudly characterized themselves as “holiness churches” in the past express confusion today about what the term “holiness” actually means. “Holiness,” it would seem, is a “bogeyman” that no one wants to face; a bogeyman only wanted by those who wish to be called “dangerous” themselves. And more than a few have said that the “holiness movement” is dead.
Let us admit, from the out start, that some in the holiness movement in the past - and some in the holiness movement today - have portrayed holiness as something bizarre and ugly. With the picture of holiness some present, it is small wonder that many don’t want anything to do with holiness itself.
This situation must change, however, if the Church of Jesus Christ is to fulfill its God-given mission in this world. Christians cannot, as we have noted, do away with “holiness” without denying their own identity. So, it is important for the Church of Jesus Christ to rediscover the holiness taught in Holy Scripture. It is past time for the “Holiness Bogeyman” to go; at least from any who are truly concerned about serving the Lord Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, many today seem to subscribe to a “democratic Christianity” in which what Scripture “says” is what the majority imagines that it says; a decision arrived at by imposing contemporary thought upon ancient text. The way to understand Scripture correctly is to strive to understand what Scripture meant to the original audience - not necessarily what they understood it to say - but what they should have understood it to say based upon what they knew at the time.
This becomes centrally important in the study of the Biblical teaching of “holiness.” This is because what the Scripture means by the words it uses to describe “holiness” is often not the same as when those same terms are used in modern language. For example, the term translated “perfection” in Scripture has a different meaning from the word “perfection” as commonly used in contemporary English.
Many of the problems encountered in the Christian community today stem from imposing contemporary definitions upon the words of Scripture. This is not new. In the early centuries of Christianity, the popular understanding that “material things are evil but spiritual things are holy” led to the rise of asceticism in the Christian community. People thought that to be holy meant to deprive themselves of proper food, drink, shelter, clothing, and marriage- a concept in complete contradiction to the plain teachings of both Testaments - but one that became widespread because people imposed the popular concepts of their time upon the teachings of Scripture.
If you look at many of the major controversies concerning holiness in the past two centuries, and especially in the late nineteenth century to our own time, you will find that a great deal of it relates to terminology. Poor holiness teaching has often come from handling the teachings of Scripture in a very loose and imprecise manner; leading people to the wrong conclusions about what it means to be “holy.”
It is also important to understand that in the original languages of Scripture, just as in language today, the same word may be used to mean or emphasize different things. The same word may have different meanings, or different shades of meaning, in different contexts. For instance, if I say, “drop me a line,” this phrase can mean different things depending upon whether I am speaking to someone I exchange correspondence with (I am looking for a letter), a sailor (I want to have a rope dropped to me), or an electrician (I want to have an electrical cable dropped to me). It is no different in Scripture.
An accurate understanding of holiness must follow a serious effort to understand the teachings of Scripture on this subject. And if we are diligent in our study, we will find that there is no page of Scripture that does not touch upon a true understanding of holiness in some manner. The challenge is to understand that teaching correctly. The benefit is to be able to live out the life and mission God has for His people in this age and in the age to come.
Thus, the founders of Methodism found it helpful to speak of their holiness teaching as “Scriptural holiness.” The term conveys their devotion to teach and follow Scripture’s teaching on holiness as the only holiness that is true, the only holiness worth pursuing, the only holiness that is guaranteed by the Lord to His people.
This pursuit must include the humility that seeks to understand what God is saying through Scripture rather than the arrogance of telling God what He should be saying to us. It must also be a pursuit of faith, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
The immediate context of Peter’s quote leads us to another important insight; that holiness in Christians is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is seen before 1 Peter 1:16 in verses 1-12 and after in verses 17-25. In 17-19, Peter ties holiness to the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross; telling us that when we think of God’s charge to His people to be holy that we, as Christians, should remember, “that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver and gold . . . but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” Similarly, we read in Hebrews 13:12, that Jesus, “that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.” In 1 Peter 1:3, Peter ties holiness to the resurrection of Jesus (cf. Romans 5:8-10).
There is still another insight in the context of Peter’s words here - which is that holiness comes to human beings through the work of the Holy Spirit. In verse 1:2, Peter refers to “the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.” In fact, this verse ties holiness to the Trinity; for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all referred to in 1 Peter 1:2. In his letter to Titus, Paul wrote, “when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
This brief consideration of the teachings of Scripture regarding holiness yields a number of important points in which a Scriptural understanding of holiness must be grounded: The nature of God; God’s will for man; the blood shed at Calvary; the power of God on behalf of His people in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which is resident in the living Christ; and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
All of these will become foundational in our thinking if we will bow before the cross of Christ to remember the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood on our behalf; and as we remember the empty cross and the empty grave. Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper as it was intended to be celebrated, we remember the holiness of God and the holy goal of His redemptive work; holiness in mankind.
While one aspect of this is very solemn, this is also a celebration of all that God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ brings to us: forgiveness, freedom from sin, fellowship with God, and the potential to be all that God plans for us to be.
The joy that comes from God’s saving grace stems from the fact that the holiness of the Lord is not ugly; but beautiful, attractive, and life giving (cf. John 10:10). This is reflected in Paul’s statement that the kingdom of God is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
This joy is also the reason that the Lord’s Supper is often referred to as the Eucharist - which comes from the Greek eucharistia. Richard Muller wrote of eucharistia, “eucharist, thankfulness, or a giving of thanks; hence the Eucharist, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16).”1 Moulton’s Greek lexicon describes eucharistia as “conversation marked by the gentle cheerfulness of a grateful heart . . .” in contrast to “unseemly mirth” referred to in Ephesians 5:4.2 Richard Trench wrote that, “. . . in Holy Communion the Church embodies her highest act of thanksgiving for the highest benefits which she has received of God. Regarded as one manner of prayer, it expresses that which ought never to be absent from any of our devotions.”3
Although this is the Lord’s work in our lives, Christians are also responsible for this growth. Paul told the Philippians that it was precisely because God was working out His will in them that they should, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12, 13). This is consistent with other Scripture that, while not denying that holiness is God’s work, insists that we must participate in that work.
The author of Hebrews referred to Christian teachings that go beyond the elementary teachings of the faith as “solid food.” He wrote, “solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). These words teach us that as we live for the Lord, we learn how to live in a righteous manner through experience. Another way to look at this is that as we make decisions and live out those decisions in our lives, our understanding of holiness, and ability to live in a manner that is consistent with the holiness of God, becomes refined.
In Romans 6:19, 22, Paul explained that as Christians actively submit themselves to the Lord by serving Him with their human bodies, they reap the fruit of holiness as a result. Paul makes clear in Romans 6:18 that Christians have already been made holy by the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. It is these who are to submit to the Lord in the service of righteousness, a service that results in an eternal life of holiness. These words are consistent with Paul’s well-known teaching in Galatians 6:7-9 that we “reap what we sow.”
When we look at these in the context of Galatians 5:13-6:10, the context helps us to understand that righteousness and holiness are an inseparable part of the eternal life that comes from fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. What is “eternal life” except the life of God in the innermost being of human beings (cf. Romans 14:17, 1 Timothy 1:5)? And righteousness, holiness, and joy all flow from this life of God in the human soul.
Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 are also in the context of Christians living out the righteousness that that stems from the life of Christ within them (cf. Galatians 2:20, 21). Paul asks the Corinthians to recognize that their new status in Jesus Christ means that there must be a separation between them and the ways of the world. Paul quotes the Old Testament to make the point that because God is present with them, they are a unique people in Christ, with unique promises from God that He would be their God and a Father to them.4 On the basis of these words from the Lord, Paul wrote, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
John helps to make this concept accessible to our understanding when he describes the Christian life of righteousness as “walking in the same manner as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6 in the context of 1 John 1:5-2:6). Many people are seeking to live by slogan, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). While this is commendable, it would be more accurate Scripturally to ask, “What would Jesus have us do?;” because as “God become flesh,” things that Jesus did on the earth - healing all sicknesses, controlling the forces of nature, forgiving all sins, speaking with impeccable wisdom and righteousness, commanding obedience to His words with absolute authority, accepting worship - are all privileges of God alone (cf. Isaiah 42:8, 48:11, James 5:10-16).
This is not to say that it is wrong to follow the example of Jesus in ways that we, as His disciples, can appropriately do so. In fact, we must. First of all, as Peter points out in his first letter, we are enjoined to holiness on the basis of God’s own holiness, for God commanded “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, Leviticus 11:44, 45, 19:2, 20:7). This teaches, as we have discussed earlier, that our understanding of holiness must come from God’s own character. Secondly, because Jesus shows us the character of God in ways that we, as human beings, can best understand, we must learn from Him how to “walk in holiness” (John 1:19, Hebrews 12:1-10). Therefore, while we should make a distinction between those things Jesus did that only God can do, and those ways that Jesus acted that we, as His disciples, can imitate; it is nevertheless true - as John wrote in his first epistle - that as we walk after the example of Jesus - in a manner appropriate for His disciples - we manifest the righteousness that results in holiness - and reap a greater and greater flowering of the life of Christ in us, making us more Christ-like.
When John wrote that being a true Christian means “walking in the same manner as Jesus” he was saying that we must live in a manner that is Christ-like in our daily lives. This is not radicalism, although it is “radically different” from the values of the world at large. It is practical, real-world, and forward looking in that it looks ahead to the life and values of the Kingdom of God - the Kingdom that will be established at the bodily return of Jesus Christ.
A life of holiness is not a life without struggle - without or within. Everything in the letters of the New Testament leads us to expect that the Christian life, while a life that can be lived victoriously in Jesus Christ, is a life that can be expected to involve struggle against “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” No one can be holier than Jesus; yet Jesus’ struggle in the Garden at Gethsemane was so severe that there was blood in His sweat (Luke 22:44).
A life of holiness is not, therefore, a denial of our humanity. Human beings are part of the creation that God called “good” in Genesis 1, 2. Christians living a life of holiness still have human desires and emotions. These are often shaped by our bodies and temperaments. Some preachers have acted as if these human feelings and emotions can be cleansed away in this age - but such a view is neither Biblical nor realistic. In the latter part of the 20th century, a number of scholars in the holiness tradition recognized this fact, and sought to assure Christians that their human feelings and emotions, even phobias and human failings, are not inconsistent with holiness in this age.5 This is consistent with the views of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.6
Even before the time of Wesley, however, orthodox Christianity rejected the denial of legitimate human desires; and thus asceticism.7 The goal of Christian living is not to stop being human, but to be all that human beings were created to be by their Creator. There is no greater testimony to this Truth than the incarnation of Jesus Christ - that Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, took human flesh and lived a life that was fully acceptable to God (John 8:29; Hebrews 2:2:14, 15, 4:14, 15; 1 Peter 1:18, 19).
Recognizing that we still have human weaknesses and limitations indicates that Christians must still pay attention to all of the factors that affect other human beings in this age. Christians, for example, have the privilege of seeking healing directly from God for any illness they might have. This is not contrary, however, to seeking medical help. Christians should seek counsel and treatment from competent, medical professionals for exactly same medical conditions that non-Christians seek such assistance. If God chooses to heal supernaturally, so much the better. However, when God chooses to work through medical professionals, what they are typically doing is helping the body to heal itself - a capability God created in human beings. And in every case, medical professionals are dependent up on God for their knowledge and capabilities. Therefore, without denying that gratitude is appropriate for all that dedicated, medical professionals do, gratitude and glory belong to the Lord for all healing.
Christians can remember that Luke, who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts, a close traveling companion of the Apostle Paul, was a physician. Both John Wesley and Francis Asbury were interested in recommending known remedies for illnesses.
This does not remove the responsibility to measure treatments by the highest standards of Christian morality and ethics. There are generally options available in all cultures that are legal, but inconsistent with Christian teachings and principals. For example, it is wrong to use therapeutic abortion as a form of birth control, whether it is legal or not.
Another area Christians are no different from other human beings is in the area of personal relationships. Maintaining good personal relationships requires the determination to maintain good relationships. This requires mutual respect and good communication. Often, some form of covenant or mutually agreed to “contract” is helpful in defining relationships, such as in the work environment. However, even if a Christian has the best of intentions, the other party - whether a relative, employer, or even marriage partner - may not share the same commitment. Even when both are committed and try to maintain open communications, there may be differences in judgment stemming from partial human knowledge or reasoning. Even then, people often misunderstand one another. Christians have no less responsibility than anyone else to strive to maintain good relationships with others. The author of Hebrews exhorted us to, “Pursue peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14). Likewise, Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 14:18).
There is much we can learn from Scripture about human relationships. But we can also learn from other studies concerning good work and business practices, maintaining good marriage relationships, raising children, political leadership, and so forth; as long as we are careful not to adopt practices that violate the teachings or principles presented in Scripture. So, Christian holiness does not remove the responsibility of doing the things that all human beings must do to live in this world.
In this regard, holiness never blurs the distinction between humanity and God. God has a glory that is uniquely His (Isaiah 42:8). Absolute perfection is an attribute of God alone. Only God can do supernatural works at will. Only Jesus is both fully human and fully Divine.
At the other end of the spectrum, some seem to maintain that the best indication of holiness is behavior that would otherwise be considered simple-minded or insane. The Scriptures teach otherwise, calling upon us to serve God with clear-heads and sound-minds (Matthew 22:36-40; 1 Peter 1:13; cf. Luke 8:35, 36).
The prophet Ezekiel foretold that a great river would flow from the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem. Creatures of every kind touched by this river would thrive. Fruit-bearing trees would line the sides of the river. Revelation 22:1, 2 shows the fulfillment of this prophecy in the new heaven and new earth to be established at Jesus’ bodily return. But the language is also similar to that of Psalm 1, where the man who refuses to be pulled into a life of skepticism and sin is nourished by God’s Word; and, as a result of his devotion, has a life that is sustained by the Spirit of God.
Jesus offered to give “living water” to a Samaritan woman he met at a well. Later, Jesus proclaimed that He would give this living water to whoever would come to Him; and, further, that this living water would flow from the innermost being of all who believed in Him. John makes clear that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, and that this promise would have special significance for His Church at Pentecost (John 7:37-39, cf. John 15:4-11).
Accordingly, Paul taught, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (Galatians 5:22, 23, cf. Galatians 1:20, Colossians 1:27). Surely this is not the character of a fiend or an ogre; but of Jesus Christ. -SMD
We will continue this discussion in the next Mid-Watch Report: “Living-out the Fullness of the Promise.”
1 Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1985), 106.
2 The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, ed. Harold K. Moulton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 177.
3 Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 191.
4 A number of Old Testament passages contribute, directly or indirectly, to the argument Paul makes in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, including Exodus 25:8, 29:45, Leviticus 19:19, 26:11-13, Deuteronomy 22:10, 2 Samuel 7:8, 14, Isaiah 43:6, 52:11, Ezekiel 20:34, 37:26, 27.
5 In an article entitled, “Some Recent Trends in Wesleyan-Arminian Thought” for the The Wesleyan Theological Journal, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 1971), Richard S. Taylor names Delbert R. Rose, L. T. Corlett, Leo Cox, Roy S. Nicholson, Everett Cattrell, and W. Curry Mavis as those who promoted recognition that in the Christian living a life of holiness, “there may remain subconscious complexes and phobias, prejudices, and physical and mental infirmities which will still prompt less than ideal reactions at times in the rough and tumble of everyday life.” Taylor goes on to say that full deliverance from these, “may indeed have to wait until at death we are delivered from this body, with its infirm brain, nerves, and circulatory system.”
6 Wesley wrote that Methodists, “believe, that there is no such perfection in this life, as implies an entire deliverance, either from ignorance, or mistake, in things not essential to salvation, or from manifold temptations, or from numberless infirmities, wherewith the corruptible body more or less presses down the soul. We cannot find any ground in Scripture to suppose, that any inhabitant of a house of clay is wholly exempt either from bodily infirmities, or from ignorance of many things; or to imagine any is incapable of mistake, or falling into divers temptations.” John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1971; reprinted from the complete original text as authorized by the Wesleyan Conference Office in London, England in 1872), 36.
7 Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:1-10, Romans 14:1-15:4, Colossians 2:16-23 preclude Christian asceticism as a way to holiness. Nevertheless, Paul and Peter do demand that we discipline ourselves for our welfare and the welfare of others, as seen in Galatians 5:13; Romans 14:13, 21; 1 Corinthians 8:9, 9:27, 10:24; and 1 Peter 2:16; which means that we should deny ourselves things that might seem harmless in a neutral environment; but, in a world marred by sin, are likely to be destructive to others.
The American Night Watch Mid-Watch Report is an occasional publication of The American Night Watch Christian ministry in support of Scriptural Christianity and Scriptural holiness.
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This page was last updated June 28, 2003.