When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”
Scripture says that we have an intuitive sense of God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature (Rom. 1:20). The word we often use to generally describe this nature is holiness. Its effect is not always pleasant, even for the deeply spiritual. Moses once said that he trembled in God’s presence (Heb. 12:21; cf. Ex. 3:6; Dt. 9:19; Acts 7:32). Holiness is the attribute that most sharply distinguishes God from man. In Leviticus 19:2, the Lord urges, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” But it is an invitation that implies distance. The fact that we need to be told to be holy suggests that we are not holy. Or at least, it suggests that we are not holy in the same sense that God is holy. Where the holiness of God is concerned, it is both a chasm and a bridge.
Philosophers and theologians have written volumes that trace the idea of the holy through history and culture. But for the average person, the notion is vague. Most people would have difficulty if they were asked to give a concrete definition of what is meant by holy. If someone pressed them for an example, they would probably point to someone they consider to be “religious.” Religious practices like church attendance and prayer shape the popular vision of holiness. The holy are people who do religious things.
Because we associate holiness with God, we assume it must be good. But we also feel ambivalent about the idea. Holiness makes us self-conscious. Like someone who comes to a formal dinner in a sweatshirt or shorts, holiness makes us feel out of place. When we say that someone is “holier than thou,” we mean it as a criticism. To call someone a holy roller is not a compliment.
This idea of separation lies at the heart of the Old Testament idea of holiness, represented by the Hebrew word qodesh. But that doesn’t mean the Bible’s idea of holiness is fundamentally negative or even necessarily unpleasant. Where God is concerned, holiness points to God’s uniqueness. He is without peers. This uniqueness is a fundamental attribute of God. God stands apart from all of creation because He is its maker. This is the way the apostle Paul described God to the philosophers on Mars Hill: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:24–25).
The Beauty of Holiness
But, there is more to God’s holiness than separateness. The Lord’s holiness includes beauty as well as superiority. In Psalm 27:4, David declares: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” David expresses a desire to dwell in God’s house. This was more than a wish to return to Jerusalem and worship there. It expressed a longing for restored fellowship with God. We can hear in David’s request an antiphonal response to God’s often expressed desire in Scripture to dwell among His people (Ex. 25:8; 29:45; Zech. 2:10). This desire is both most fully expressed and most fully realized in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospels, Jesus is called the Holy One of God on two occasions. The first time was by a demon (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The second was by Peter when many of the disciples were grumbling about the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching. It is a reflection of the seriousness of our problem with holiness that the demons recognized who Jesus was before His own disciples did. The demons and Peter were both right. Jesus is the Holy One of God. For this reason, Jesus is as daunting as He is beautiful.
But how did Jesus display the beauty of holiness? Isaiah’s description of Him predicted that He would have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Yet John would later write that he had seen Christ’s glory, “the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Jesus’ View of Holiness
Like many people today, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought of holiness primarily as a matter of what you do. This external approach focused on the law’s commandments, which they had divided into 365 negative commands and 613 positive commandments. In their desire to enforce these commandments, they added their own rules, intending to build a wall of protection around the law’s standard. But the result was that they placed more emphasis on observing the rules laid down by their tradition than the law itself. They believed that by staying outside the fence of their traditions, the law would be preserved as well. Jesus not only challenged this approach, but He did so in a radically different way from the scribes and rabbis. Instead of appealing to tradition, Jesus challenged their teaching based on His own authority (Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:5).
But it would be wrong to conclude from this that Jesus’ approach to holiness was reductionist. Jesus did not simplify the idea of holiness. Even when He said that all the law and the prophets hang on two commandments, Jesus was not applying His own version of Ockham’s razor to the 978 commandments of the law (Matt. 22:40). He was not lowering the bar or trying to make holiness more manageable. If anything, the opposite was the case. Unless it comes to us as a gift, holiness, as Jesus defines it is an impossibility. Viewed from Christ’s perspective, the religious leaders were the reductionists. For them, holiness was chiefly a matter of doing the right things. If they could identify the right practices and perform them, they believed they could achieve a state of holiness. For Jesus, holiness was a matter of being. To practice holiness, we must first be made holy.
There is no question that Jesus practiced holiness. But He is not portrayed in the Gospels primarily as a teacher of methods. Jesus did not replace the old system of methods with new methods of His own. Jesus came so that He might become our holiness. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 explains, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus was made like us so that we could be made like Him. He is more than a model of holiness for us. Jesus is our holiness. We, in turn, are holy because of Him.
Holiness, then, is the beginning point, the habitual practice, and the end result of the Christian’s experience. Holiness is the beginning because Jesus Christ has become “our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). There is no ground for boasting or claiming holiness as a personal accomplishment. Holiness is also a practice. Indeed, it is a practice not only in the sense of repeated behavior but of development. We are learning to be holy. But holiness is also our destiny because our destiny is to be like Jesus. 1 John 3:2 observes that we are now the children of God, “and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
There is no fundamental contradiction in saying that holiness is a work of grace and that it also requires effort (Heb. 12:14). Each is the necessary complement of the other. But there is a critical order between the two. The gift always comes first. That is because before holiness is a practice, it is a person. It is always true that before we can take Christ as a model, we must receive Him as a gift.